Night, May, 1636
A Road near Vesserhausen
She woke up. This was not strange, because Greta slept a lot when she was not dancing. She was in her wooden den, and it was moving. This was also not strange—when her den was moving, it meant she could rest, and would not have to dance for a while. But she could not smell Him, and that was strange. She could not smell Him anywhere, only the faint traces left behind. He was always with her when they were moving, making man-noises at her through the bars when she stirred. Greta was unhappy, and she sniffed deeply at the air. There were men around her den, but she did not know any of their smells. That was not always strange, men would come and look at her in the den when she was not dancing, but He would always be there, too, and there would be other men around whose smells she recognized.
These men were strangers. They smelled of blood and dogs and death. Greta did not mind dogs. Sometimes, He would have her stand very still, and dogs would jump up to stand on her back. The men watching would make lots of noise, and she would get a fish to eat. The horses pulling her den did not smell like the horses she knew, either. Where was He? Shuffling onto all fours, she grunted her distress at the nearest strange man as he stumbled along over the dark ground without a light. Men knew that when she was upset, they could find Him and he would calm her down. But this man jumped instead, making man-noises and waving a long stick at her. He did not go away to find Him, and when she huffed at him again, louder, he put his stick through the bars and poked her in the side of the neck. That was something man cubs would try to do sometimes, before He made loud noises at them and scared them away. But He was not here, this was not a cub, and Greta was afraid.
She backed away to the opposite wall of her den, colliding with the bars on that side and causing the den to rock on its wheels. The horses stopped when their burden shifted, and other men started making noises. She smelled burning, and hot lights appeared in the hands of other men, coming closer to her den. Another man with a long stick poked her, from the other side, and made angry noises. She retreated from him, but the first man still had his stick. Now Greta was getting angry. He was nowhere to be smelled or seen, while these strange men poked at her with sticks. Rushing again to the other side of her den, but now she pushed at it with her shoulder, growling and snapping at the man with the stick on that side. He made scared noises and fell backwards, but this time the den shifted too far with Greta’s weight.
Something snapped, broke, and her whole den fell onto its side while horses and men screamed. She fell heavily on her side, and the roof of the den cracked. A hard push, and she was outside her broken den through the hole, in a field of grass in the dark while men made noises and ran in all directions—some at her and some away. The ones who ran away from her marked territory on the ground, which Greta did not understand. She did not understand what was happening. She just wanted Him, and to stop being poked with sticks, and to go back to sleep, and maybe to have a fish. Thunders cracked around her, and she heard stinging bugs. Men were all around her, with their sticks and hot lights, but suddenly Greta spotted a gap in the circle of men, an empty dark spot into the fields, and she charged for safety. A stinging bug bit her ear, and she ran faster, away from the angry men who smelled of dogs. She would find Him, and he would make her safe again. He had to.
Early Morning, May, 1636
He opened his left eye and watched the ceiling. Silently, he counted to thirty, then opened the right eye and closed his left. He counted to thirty again, opened both eyes, and swung his feet to get out of bed. Both of his eyes worked, as they had every morning since he had first started checking. But it was a Rule that he had to be sure, because a day couldn’t start properly until he had both eyes open. Peter had a lot of Rules. Some were easy to follow, like checking his eyes every morning when he got out of bed. Others were harder, but he needed them all. The world was a hard place for him sometimes. He wasn’t dumb, but he was . . . different . . . than anyone else. Things happened that didn’t make sense to Peter, and people did or said things that confused him. Father belting him for saying things that made people mad hadn’t worked. Being bathed in holy water at the big church in Suhl hadn’t worked either. Instead, Peter had started making his Rules. He didn’t need to understand why if a Rule told him that he was or wasn’t supposed to do something.
He got dressed, quickly, and fixed himself breakfast while carefully unfolding the prize he had found at the tavern last week. The paper was cheap, and the ink faded, but the pictures were still visible and he could read the words. There would be a traveling show coming through the area soon, stopping in Suhl and staying there for three whole days. Dancers would be there, and strange wonders, and trained animals. Peter liked animals, because they were easy to understand. People did a lot of things that only made sense to them, but you always knew what an animal wanted and how to treat it. He barely needed any Rules at all to interact with them. Perhaps he could get Father to ride with him to see the show tomorrow. Father would want to see if the show needed any specialty work done, or new wheels cut; tinkers could do small repairs, but a master wheelwright was better if you had one, and Father made the best wheels for a week in any direction. He’d also want to see the dancers. Particularly the women dancers, if they had any, but Peter couldn’t say that.
He finished his bread, ending the meal the way he had started it – that was an important Rule. Dinner would be a good time to ask Father about the show. Today, though, he had militia practice, which made it a good day. Peter liked militia drills, which came with Rules of their own. The only Rule he needed was to do whatever the captain said, when he said to, and only stand still otherwise. The captain liked him and called Peter his ‘rock’, since he never skipped practice and always followed orders. And it gave him something to do besides help Father cut wheels. He was a decent journeyman wheelwright, but he’d never be a master, because a master had to deal with customers and other masters. Peter would be a journeyman all his life—for Father, then for whoever Father found to take over his shop. With one last look at the traveling-show announcement, he folded the worn paper again and stuck it into his pocket. Not being late for drill was a Rule.
Mid-Morning, May, 1636
Outskirts of Vesserhausen
Greta was hungry. She was tired, and scared, and confused, but mostly she was hungry. She tried whining again, but it did not work this time either. He did not appear with food for her to eat. Her ear hurt, and nothing smelled right. The world was supposed to smell like men, but there were no men here. She had run from the angry men in the dark, and now there was light. He should have been here, bringing her food when she woke up in her den. She should have been in her den, comfortable and safe. Instead she was here, wandering lost through tall grass with smells she did not know. She moaned and sniffed, hoping that this time His scent would be drifting by. It wasn’t, but the wind had shifted, and she perked up at smells she knew. That was the smell of men, different than the angry men. She could detect meat as well and the sweet scent of fresh padding for her den. Greta was sure that these were the smells of home and turned to follow.
She walked, and walked, and walked. The scents grew stronger, and she stood to look ahead. The grass stopped, and a man-den was there. A wooden ring and a smaller den that had a smell of horses were next to it. The smells of men and hot meat came from the man-den, and she sped up. At the edge of the grass, she stopped and whined, hoping the men inside would hear her and bring out food. A dog came charging around the side of the den instead. This was not one of His dogs, who would sniff her and jump on her and sometimes fall asleep on her leg. It was an angry dog, growling and barking. It smelled of dirt and plants and men, but they were the wrong men. Something that smelled like meat squealed and fled in the other direction. She snapped a warning at the dog, and it stopped. But now a man was coming out, and he was also angry. He smelled of dirt and plants, too, and dung and fresh bedding. He yelled at Greta and waved a stick in his hand at her while the dog barked. Greta was confused, and she backed away. The man did not have any food for her. He kept yelling, and his stick thundered. A stinging bug flew past, and Greta turned to run. The sun was bright, and she was tired. More thunder rumbled from behind her, and this time a bug bit her on the hindquarter. It hurt, and she screamed as she fled. The dog did not chase her, standing near its man and barking as he yelled. She would hide in the trees and sleep. Perhaps there would be food.
Mid-Morning, May, 1636
He made it to town with plenty of time to spare, but even so Peter thought he must have been late at first. There were far more people bustling around the town square than usual at this hour, and the constable was stacking spears—big ones, with real steel points—against a wall instead of the usual blunt-ended poles they drilled with. There was powder being brought out for the muskets, as well, which made it a special practice day by itself. To one side, a boy with a face Peter knew but couldn’t name was talking excitedly to a group of other militia members. The boy’s horse gulped water from a barrel, while several of Holtzmann’s hunting hounds snuffled at its feet and each other.
‘All right, everyone, listen up!’ A sharp whistle accompanied the shout, turning Peter’s head along with everyone else’s to the captain.
‘It’s a special day we’ve got, you boys get a chance to prove you’ve actually been learning something all this time. Holtzmann’s boy here came in from their farm out near the forest, said a bear came along, tore up all their crops something fierce, and tried to eat the pig. Bears are no joke, my little chickens, especially ones hungry enough to go after farm animals. No regular drill today, I’ll be calling a special squad with me and Jeorg’s hounds here out to Holtzmann’s plot. That bear needs to be dealt with before it moves up to man-eating.’
The news of drill being cancelled shocked Peter at first, till he calmed himself with a few deep breaths. Militia drill wasn’t a Rule, but it was a routine he was used to, and losing that threw off his focus to where he almost missed his name being called by the captain.
‘Peter, grab a spear. You’ll anchor the right end of the line.’ Happy once more, despite the break in routine, he did as ordered and took the first spear in reach. Some of the other militiamen glared at him, the ones whose names didn’t get called, but he didn’t stop to try and work out why they’d be upset with him for taking that spear when it looked like all the others. Something itched inside his brain as he lined up behind the captain, but he could solve it later. Right now, he had orders to follow and a job to do.
Late Morning, May, 1636
The river water was cold and delicious as Greta lapped at it. And it had fish in it, but they were not normal fish that sat and waited to be eaten. These fish moved and jumped in the water, easily avoiding her clumsy attempts to grab one. A short nap beneath some trees had been welcome, but before long the stinging pain where she had been bitten woke her up again. Yet again, she was surrounded by smells she could not put names too. They were familiar, in some faint and vague fashion, but still alien. Strange things grew and scurried and flew all around, that were not men or horses or dogs. The only food she had found that did not run away from her was a bush with berries, dull-looking but sweet-smelling. The sweet smell reminded her of Him, so she ate them, but she was still so very hungry. Trying to scratch the itch on a tree made it hurt worse, and it was too far back to reach with her claws.
Late Morning, May, 1636
Outskirts of Vesserhausen
The rest of the squad was gathered around the captain and Holtzmann as they talked. Meanwhile, Peter wandered off to pet the farm dog, who was happy to come out and sniff at him. The pig came over to investigate him as well, but quickly grew bored and left when it was obvious that Peter had nothing interesting to eat in his pockets. Jeorg’s hounds were straining at their leashes with anticipation, but Peter knew better than to try and pet them. Even if it hadn’t been Jeorg leading the pack himself, all the hounds were worked up from an old patch of bearskin rug they’d been given to sniff before. The trampled path of half-grown crops made it easy to see where the bear had come from, and where it had retreated to, but it still told the dogs what scent to track. It was a Rule of sorts for them, the way he saw it. Distracting them would make that Rule harder to follow, and he couldn’t do that to them.
Eventually, the huddle around the farmhouse broke up, and the captain whistled everyone into a group behind the hounds. Peter hurried to join them—then stopped, hesitating as he bent over to pluck something colorful out of the dirt. It was scrap of cloth, like a torn ribbon, and bright pink. Mother liked pretty things, so he stuffed it into a pocket for later and took his place with the militia squad. Judging by the hounds, the bear’s scent was still strong and rich. They’d be done before dinner or even earlier. Still, his head just kept itching on the inside, and now it was stronger. A thought he couldn’t pin down and form properly, the sort of thought that had given him fits before he began writing his Rules.
A sound caught her ears, one she did recognize at last. It was the sound of dogs howling, chasing something. She couldn’t smell them, but she could tell the direction of the sound. Dogs were faster than she was and could catch things that ran away from her. Perhaps they were friendly dogs like His dogs. If they were friendly dogs, they might have friendly men with them, who would give her food. And they were close, which was good.
The bear was not far into the forest at all. It had found a stream deep enough to drink out of, but luckily had not thought to cross to the other side. Picking up its trail again would have taken a very long time, but this bear didn’t seem to even realize it was being followed. Nor did it act afraid of them, like a wild bear should. The dogs bristled, torn between their hunting instinct and their fear at getting too close, but the bear didn’t seem to be scared of them either. It just looked at them. Maybe it really had gotten desperate enough that it thought men were food.
She stared at the men, who stared back. They had sticks like the angry men, but did not act angry. They smelled like men should smell—sweat and soured fruit and fear. Not men like Him, but like the men who watched when she danced or came to look at her in her den. The dogs barked and growled, but stayed away from her while the men made noises and waved their sticks around. It was almost normal, but at the same time so different and wrong. There was only one thing she could think of.
The captain shouted, and musketeers loaded their guns as the spearmen formed a wall between the gunners and the bear. Their first salvo might not kill the beast, and a wall of sharp points would keep it back until they could reload. In response, the bear reared up, balancing on its hind legs with the river behind and waving its paws at them. Peter held his spear tight, willing himself for the noise of the volley and the charge of the angered bear in front of them. But the thought in his head was painful, buzzing so loudly he could barely see the bear standing in front of them. A bear with scraps of pink ribbon tied into its fur.
All at once, the thought stopped buzzing as everything fell into place. The captain was ordering the muskets to take aim, and Peter did something unthinkable. He broke a Rule, dropping his spear as he fumbled frantically for his pocket. The sudden motion drew everyone’s attention, man and bear, as he pulled out the neatly folded flier. It opened so quickly that it tore, as he shoved it towards the captain stammering. Above, the ornate title—BARENTSEN’S TRAVELING SHOW OF MARVELS. Below, a neatly typed list of towns and dates. Between, a ring of human faces surrounded dogs jumping through hoops, framing the silhouette of a bear on its hind legs with ribbons tied in its fur.
‘Sir! Sir! It’s a bear. It’s a bear like the show. It’s the bear in the show! It’s a good bear! It’s a dancing bear! Don’t kill the bear, Sir!’
Peter talking was almost as shocking as his breaking ranks. The captain listened, though, calling a hold and taking the poster to examine more closely. He studied it for a long time, then broke into a smile.
‘Anyone brought their lunch with them? Our rock’s saved us the cost of ammo and found a way for us to get paid for this little nature walk as well. Sure as Jesus there’s going to be a reward for finding this beast with its hide on.’
She was still tired. Still hungry and sore and so very upset at everything that had happened to her. She wanted to smell Him, and see Him, and eat a fish that He gave her before falling asleep. But she had finally found friendly men. She had danced for them, and one had given her meat. It wasn’t Him, but for now it would do.