Seven Years Later
"Stop fidgeting, Artagan. You'll distract the stone worker." Beathan chastised his older brother, with all the practice and well honed patience of a pro.
The eldest cracked a grin over the heads of Blair and Bran. "And stand to the side, we're not wee lads anymore, Artagan. The stone worker can't see under your nose."
"In other words, you're still wee lads, Beathan." Artagan said as he moved to the side. The whole thing was still like a dream. He couldn't believe King Comhan would allow him to be in the royal portrait with his brothers, even if he was sure his brothers wouldn't tolerate things any other way.
Standing side by side with them, as equals, was all he'd ever wanted.
Behind the stone worker, stood King Comhan. He was elderly and frail now. His beard was long and gray, unlike the fiery red his three sons, or the night black of his eldest. Even the clothes he wore were more subdued, as though faded with age. Perhaps his heart had softened towards Artagan, or perhaps he had realized that he had erred in his treatment of his eldest son and heir.
They were nice thoughts, but Artagan pushed them to the side. It was wiser not to look for the best in the man who had beat him and spat upon him until he had grown too tall and too strong for such treatment to be considered wise.
Hours past, and the brothers ached to drop their weapons and stretch. Finally, the stone worker called it, "It's done."
"Alright!," Blair exclaimed. "Let's have us a look see."
They piled behind the stone worker, just as they had when they were children, and Artagan was forced to smother a smile as he walked over to see what all the fuss was about.
The portrait was- well, intimidating was probably the best word for it. Blair thought it made him look like an angry giant, and Artagan had to agree. His portrait self looked about five seconds off from chopping the heads of his three brothers. He felt himself grimace in spite of himself.
"Him?" Bea responded. "Why should you be concerned about Artagan's portrait when we look like the same person etched into stone three times? Honestly, anyone who sees this will think I have the same ugly mug as you two."
After uttering matching cries of outrage, Blair and Bran teamed up to pull his beard and ruffle his hair. Artagan had no desire to join the fray, but the three ganged up on him, leaving him no choice but to show them the true master of Pull-the-Beard.
A sickly cough quickly sobered the lot. "I'm glad you four are having fun, but I have a few announcements to make." The king gestured towards the freshly cut stone. "This stone is a gift for you, Artagan. Let it issue in a period of merriment and health in your new halls."
A new castle had been built for Artagan as a coming of age present from his father. King Comhan had ordered it built near the boundaries of the woods, and Artagan still remembered wondering if he hoped the woods would spirit him away. But now the king had even had a family portrait made for him, so he likely couldn't have done it with ill intentions. Although, a small part of Artagan had hoped the portrait would be finding its home in the main castle. That may have been too much to ask for. Even with all this good fortune, he was still the castle's shame after all.
"Lastly, my boys, as you know, I have grown old. This kingdom needs young blood if it is to thrive, and it is for that reason that I split it between the four of you. I have faith that you will rule it well, my sons." King Comhan turned his green eyes on Artagan. "Any objections?"
All his life, Artagan had dreamt of becoming king. As far as he was concerned, the king's declaration meant nothing. If he had meant to hurt him or spur him to rage, the king would be sorely disappointed.
"None, my king. To rule beside my brothers is an honor and a privilege I have only dreamt about, until now." Artagan thought he saw a flash of anger dart across the king's features, but it was too quick to be sure.
That night, Artagan carried the stone by horseback to his castle by the forest, and place it in a spot of honor. From now on, if anyone wished to eat or drink in his castle, they would have to see the image of their king standing side by side with his noble brothers.
Seven suns passed before Artagan was called back to the main castle. Apparently, his father wished to see him in the dining hall. Before he left, he made sure his twin axes were tightly secured to his back, his ring was present and secure on his finger, and his favorite horse, Osgar, was fed and watered. It wouldn't do him any good to lose his favorite horse on the ride, now would it?
Going out into the world with his weapons and the fur of the bear he had slain thrown over his shoulders, he truly looked like the prince and king he'd always imagined his father would approve of. This was the person he wanted to be. Strong, powerful, and loved.
"King Comhan, for what reason did you wish to speak with me?" Artagan called out as he entered the dining hall.
The wizened king ceased his pacing and gazed upon his son, as though seeing him for the first time. "Ah, Artagan" The young king's heart swelled upon hearing his name from his father's own lips. "So glad you could make it. You see, there is something very important I need you to do before I can fully place the kingdom in the capable hands of your brothers."
"Name it, my king. There is nothing I wouldn't do for my brothers."
The king chuckled. "Well then, my son, could you please die?"
The Earth seemed to spin under Artagan's feet, and he thought he was going to fall. Surely those words had not been said. This wasn't real. This was a nightmare, a recurring one, and all he had to do was wake up.
"No." That sounded like his voice, but how could he be talking when his mouth felt like it was full of cotton?
"No?" The king snarled, his face suddenly distorted by rage. "Do you honestly think I can let your brothers have their rightful place as kings as long as you draw breath?"
"With all due respect, I don't care, my king. My brothers are precious to me, but I have already given my childhood to this kingdom, and I refuse to give my life as well. You should not be asking this of me."
"If only that maid hadn't stopped your mother from strangling you. If she had simply allowed her to kill you, I wouldn't now be forced to rectify her mistake!" Spit flew as the old man pulled an ax out from under the nearest table.
All this was too much for Artagan to handle. For a while, he'd thought his father had forgiven him for not dying back then, but that had all been a lie. The king had merely hoped to trick him into taking his own life. His father had never loved him.
Enraged, the eldest son drew his two axes, and shouted, "Come at me, then!" It all came back to him. All the times he'd been denied food, spat upon, cursed, beaten, and humiliated. And worst of all, that one time he'd been forced to harm a woman who had only shown him kindness, it came back and it made his axes light as feathers in his arms. One man? One wizened old man in the twilight of his life? He could take on ten.
Mere seconds from a killing blow, Artagan's rage subsided enough for him to realize he was about to murder the father of his three brothers, and they'd never forgive him if he did. Artagan's arms fell heavily to his sides, leaving the old king unharmed.
Everything should have been done then, but the king's already drawn face grew paler than ash. He clutched at his heart as the strength left his body, leaving him a collapsed and gasping shell of a once great king.
The clamor of voices stirred Artagan from his shock. He turned to see his three brothers rush into dining hall. What were they even doing there? How had they gotten to the room so fast?
Then it dawned on him. The king, bitter and hateful man that was , had set him up. All that talk about dying was just a ruse to make him draw his weapons in time for his brothers to see him "attacking" the king.
"H'he attacked me" Comhan wheezed. "He wants the kingdom for himself." After speaking the words that would damn them all, the king closed his eyes and died.
Blair, who had been kneeling by the king's side, asked him if this were true. Axes still drawn, how could he possibly deny the truth of the king's words? There was already distrust brewing in the eyes of his brothers, even Bea, and he knew that no matter what he said, things would never be the same. He was the villain in this story. That was his part, but he refused to lie down and die like a dog.
He turned from his brothers, ignoring the hurt in their eyes, and said, "Give me three days. Bring your armies if you must, I'll be waiting for you at my castle."
Broken in more ways than he had even known a man could be, the pieces of his heart seemed to rearrange themselves and harden as he rode past his castle and into the woods, where the legendary witch resided.
It was chilly in the woods, and when Osgar reared, casting him off into the center of the stone slab circle, he wondered what had possessed him into riding without a shirt on. Or without a warm container of mead. It's amazing what a man can think of when he's tired, cold, and hungry.
A dancing blue light caught his attention. It was a willow wisp. Legends said they lured men from their paths with their enthralling light, but as he had no path to follow, he reasoned following a willow wisp could only make things better. Although at this point, being attacked by a bear might have been an improvement on his day.
As he followed the Will O' the Wisps down whatever path they chose to lead him on, he couldn't help but notice the disconcerting sounds of soft whispers. It was as though they were speaking in tones too low to be understood, but not too low to be heard. What purpose, other than being disturbing, could they have in speaking as they did?
A small door built into a hill made its appearance as the fog cleared. There was quite a ruckus coming from it, but the second his knuckle made contact with the door the clinging and clanging was replaced but the not-too-foreign sound of brooms and other wooden objects hitting the ground.
"Who is it?" An elderly voice called out.
Not in the mood for games, he replied, "I'm here to make a wish, witch." The door opened, and he found himself face to… empty air with a very short woman. Her hair had long since lost its youthful luster, but her beady eyes seemed to be bouncing with possibly insane energy. There was a stuffed raven on her head.
"No, not a witch." She said. "I'm just a wood carver. Plain and simple. Come on, see for yourself." She stepped aside and he entered her little hut without delay. There seemed to be truth in her words. For as far as he looked, he only saw gardening tools and carved bears. Way too many carved bears.
"The Will O' the Wisps led me here, woman. I seek the strength of ten men, but for curiosities' sake, can't you carve anything else?"
She looked offended. "Carve anything else? Why would I?"
He sighed and put his palm on his forehead. "Listen, that doesn't matter. Can you grant my wish?" As he watched, a broom picked itself up and began to sweep the floor.
"I told you, deary, not a witch." She insisted, and sent a quick glare at the broom.
"Yeah, somehow I'm not convinced."
The bird on her head squawked, "Give it up already. He's not leaving." In his surprise, Artagan unsheathed the two axes again.
Eyes wide, he exclaimed, "The bird can talk!"
Seemingly fed up with the charade, the witch directed a pitchfork at his head.
"Now see here, sonny" She began. "I don't grant wishes anymore. Too many unsatisfied customers."
He laughed. "Oh come on, it's not like you turn them all into bears or something, right?"
She sent the crow a 'look' Artagan didn't catch, but laughed. "Ha ha! Of course not, that would be crazy." The bird rolled his eyes and the pitchfork floating by her head tilted slightly.
"Right, so I'll tell you what. I have this ring I have no use for" Artagan brandished the family crest for her, and the greed with which she coveted it told him he'd already won, "and I'll give it to you, I'll buy that piece of wooden furniture" He pointed at a mahogany cheese board, "if you grant my wish." The pitchfork almost seemed to like the deal more than she did, because it turned threateningly towards her. Or maybe it was just confused.
She gritted her teeth a bit before grabbing his ring, and then she happily began to make good on their deal. Or so it seemed. For some reason, she suddenly felt the need to leisurely walk outside. He followed, not entirely sure what else to do. With a snap of her fingers, the door closed, and when they entered the hut again, the interior had changed into something much more fitting of a witch. A black cauldron, not unlike what the maids served soup from in the dining hall, had appeared in the center of the room, burning over a blazing fire. Its already green and smoking contents darkened the contours of the witches' face as she peered into it. Since she looked positively gleeful as she threw some ingredients into the cauldron, it was difficult to imagine how reluctant she had seemed only seconds before.
The contents exploded before his eyes in colors of sickly purple and glowing blue.
While he was distracted, she plucked a hair from his beard, and he hit his head on the ceiling. "Ow!"
"Oh, don't be a baby." Upon the addition of his black hair, the liquid turned a molten red. In his heart of hearts, he prayed he wouldn't have to drink it.
After sprinkling something dry into the cauldron, the witch placed a blacksmith's mask on her head, and the birds. He didn't get a mask, so he took his beard and used it to cover his eyes. From behind the beard he still caught sight of what must have been a very bright flash. Now, the cauldron looked like it held the contents of a bubbling bog.
With a pair of iron pliers, the witch carefully pulled out… a cornucopia?
"Is this a trick?" He demanded.
The witch turned to him, "Are you saying you don't want it?"
He backpedaled. "No, of course I want it. It's just- If I eat that, will it really change my fate?"
She cackled. "Yep. No doubt about that. Just eat a few bites of this cornucopia, and you'll be at least as strong as ten men. Maybe stronger!"
Feeling reassured, Artagan allowed her to usher him out of the house. "Yes, yes" She said. "Good day. Goodbye. Oh! And there's one thing I have to tell you… No. Nevermind, it seems I've forgotten it. Toodles." She hobbled back into her strange hut, muttering to her self, while Artagan decided he no longer felt the least bit reassured. But he was in a hurry. He needed to find Osgar, and he needed to be back at his castle before the dawn of the next day. There wasn't anytime to waste badgering an old woman for details. He looked down at his hands and saw a mahogany cheese board in them.
When had he- But she- And he-
Argh. This just wasn't his day at all.
He found Osgar about twenty paces away from the hut, and made it home with his new cheese board in good time.
The cornucopia still felt warm. He strode through his cold stone halls until he found the hall he had planned to make his dining hall. There, he set down the cheese board, and placed the cornucopia on the table.
So there it was. The means to change his fate, the strength of ten men, and all he had to do to obtain it was take a couple bites from a cornucopia… Bea was never going to forgive him, was he?
The thought was unwanted, and it had no place in his head. Not anymore. Unsheathing his axes, Artagan took long strides until he reached the portrait he'd gotten as a supposed gift only a week ago. One strike was all it took to separate himself from his three brothers, and breaking a bond would be just as easy.
He consumed three bites of the cornucopia. This despite the first convincing him it was awful, the second tasting like rotten meat, and third almost making lose everything he'd swallowed.
Heavy with fatigue and loss, he marched himself to his room, and went to sleep.
He didn't feel any different the next morning. That didn't change the fact that he'd been changed in a bear!
He hadn't figured it out immediately, but when he stood up and found himself looking down at a bear's body from fifteen feet in the air… he was convinced.
"I knew it!" He tried to yell. "You don't grant wishes. You just turn people into bears!" All that came out of his mouth was an angry roar that shook the walls. The whole reason he'd gone to the witch in the first place was so he wouldn't die like a cornered animal, but fighting like a warrior. He demanded a refund for his wish, and possibly his cheeseboard.
Osgar refused to be ridden by a bear. That was fine since Artagan had realized at around the time Osgar had tried to brain him he didn't to ride a horse. He was a bear. He could just run on all fours and probably get there faster than a horse.
Running on all fours was pretty exhilarating. The forest air seemed sweeter in his new form, and much less frightening now that he was right around the top of the food chain. Finding the witches' hut wasn't difficult this time, since he remembered it from before. Only problem? No witch.
The hut was completely bare of everything excepting one smoking cauldron and a few potions. "Ya scaffy witch" he growled. "Ya gave me a gammy spell." An incorporeal visage of the witch coalesced from the cauldron's vapors.
"Hi" She said with insufferable cheer. "I've gone to the Wicker Man Festival in Stornoway. Lovely place by the way. If you're the strapping young lad who asked for the bear potion-"
"I didn't ask for the bear potion, ya barmy ol'-"
"No interruptions!" The hologram snapped. "Now, where was I? Oh, yes. If you're the strapping young lad who asked for the bear potion, please throw the pink potion into the cauldron."
He growled at his lack of opposable thumbs before snapping the potion in his jaws, and dropping it into the cauldron.
The hologram took on an intimidating air, "On the dawning of the second day, your fate will be permanent. Unless you decipher the meaning of these words: Fate be changed; look inside. Mend the bond torn by pride." This obviously wasn't a message tailored to his needs. He tried all the other potions but it just seemed to break the magic message spell. And it exploded in his face.
Dejected, and hungry, he began to race back to his castle. In the forest, a streak of tawny fur caught his eyes, and his consciousness seemed to fade.
His eyes focused on the bloody carcass of a deer hanging from his great maw, and he gave a frightened yelp. There was no memory of him catching a deer. How did he manage to catch and eat a deer without realizing it? Could he be turning into a bear in mind as well as body?
Next time he saw that witch; he was going to eat her.
Mend the bond torn by pride…
Mend the bond torn by pride…
That was reconciling, wasn't it? So all he had to do was go back to the castle, wait for his brothers to show up with their armies, and then apologize for trying to – but not really – kill their father. Even if could somehow get that out to them before they chopped off his head, he still couldn't because he was currently stuck in the form of a bear. And bears can't speak!
He'd dropped the deer a while back, but his mouth still tasted like copper. No matter how much water he drank from the river, the taste never seemed to leave his mouth.
It rained sometime in the time it took for him to lope home, and now his wood floors were wet and his castle smelt like wet bear. These were actually the least of his concerns but they were still annoying. Despite his concern for his wooden floors, he shook himself upon entering the dining hall, spraying water and fur everywhere.
Upon realizing that he had involuntarily dirtied his whole hall less than five seconds from entering it, he heaved a great sigh, and sunk to the ground. His brothers were never going to recognize him in this state. They might even think he ate himself. Considering they also thought he had attacked and indirectly caused the death of the king, maybe they would congratulate him for eating himself. Possibly by mounting his head in a place of honor….
Mend the bond torn by pride...
Out of the corner of his eye, Artagan could see the stone he had slashed, his body now separate from his brothers, and he finally understood. A bear couldn't mend a stone. He'd first have to apologize to his brothers, and then get them to mend the stone, but he couldn't apologize to his brothers, because he was a bear.
There was no way for him to win. There hadn't been a way for him to win since the day he was born.
His claws raked across the stone faces of his family as despair finally took him. Because there was nothing he could do for his brothers now but lay down and die.
Nothing had changed the next morning. Artagan was still a bear. The witch was still gone. The bond was still unmended, and the armies of his brothers were likely coming to kill him in a few hours.
Lumbering up to his feet, Artagan took the cornucopia between his jaws, and chucked it out a window. Better a squirrel turned into a bear than a soldier.
Next, he padded up and down his halls, and slammed his head against a wall. None of this helped to alleviate the fact that his last day on Earth was a mind numbingly boring one.
With one hour to go, he freed his horse, hunted another deer, and tore up his room. Why? Because he could tear up his room. It reminded him of the pillow fights he used to have with his siblings, back when they were still kids.
He also took every map and portrait of his ancestors he had ever obtained, and crushed them with enough force to crack a man's skull. It was cathartic. Especially when he got to pictures of King Comhan.
Finally, he went to sleep in the dining hall.
"Artagan, we know you're in there. We came like you told us to, but I convinced the others not to bring their men. This is a brother's dispute, and it will be settled among brothers." The voice sounded authoritative and calm, so it could only belong to Bea. Blair probably would have sounded angry. Bran, on the other hand, would have gone for stoic. That's just the way they were. Same voice, same looks, but completely different-
Artagan felt himself struggle to roar a warning, but this only made his brothers more eager to enter his door. The door wasn't even blocked. Why hadn't he blocked the door?
Three men with blazing red hair rushed into the room, weapons drawn. All of them carried the axes of their house, and all of them assumed the giant bear before them had eaten their eldest brother. Bea led the charge.
He chased the bear down as it tried to get away, but in the end, all he managed to take was an eye.
Artagan's desperate wish for the safety of his brothers went unheard. His wish for forgiveness would go ungranted for a while yet, but thanks to a fiery young lass, it wouldn't go ungranted forever.
Artagan woke once more, near the dawn of the second day. All around laid strewn and torn the bodies of his younger brothers. For a moment, he had forgotten how much he'd loved them. For a moment, he'd given into his rage and his frustration.
All the good trying to change his fate had done him was…
It just made him a demon bear.
It made him Mor'du.