Men call things “beast” when they want to call something cruel and violent. Men are the ones who invented cages.
I remember Gregor caught eating my nut-puffs in the King’s cellar he was meant to be guarding. All covered in honey and crumbs he was, and there was cream stuck to that mustache of his. Normally, I would have scared the piss out him before calling his commander in, but that day, I made the handsome new guard with the freckles clean all my pans shirtless. He never stole again, but he kept coming around to play wash-boy on his leave days.
Then there’s Gregor in his fur, back before I felt like letting on I knew what he was. Young Brand – newly king and I’d known him since I’d worn my hair down – took me aside and told me, “He’s a skinchanger. He may seem charming and sweet, but when he wears the bear, he can rip the head off a troll fast as blinking. He may not be safe with children.” Near as I ever came to striking my liege, that. In the moonlight, I followed in my brother’s boat as he made for the White Fjord where the salmon were running, then watched my sweetheart twist and grow into the biggest damn bear I’d ever seen. He let half the fish go, making sure he only nabbed the smaller ones. He didn’t eat them live or let them suffer a moment’s pain. There’s your ruddy great beast, Brand, picking grass out of his mustache before waxing it up again.
He held his babies so gently, though they were big enough for him to heft in the palms of his massive hands. He was holding little Fritz that way when he died, and wouldn’t let him go for hours after, hoping against hope that the Beorning blood would work a wonder. Then, those hands held me while I got the crying out in private. Neither of us were much for letting other folk see us hurting.
When Dafydd first woke up furry and nearly ate his baby sister, Gregor was off shipboard again. They needed him so often now to go out and scare the pants off this or that pirate. I knew my son’s battle-rage was from my blood, but Gregor would blame the bear, because everyone around him but me blamed the bear. I made damn sure Dafydd learned to check himself, no matter what his nose was telling him, and by the time his father got home, we only had to worry about the King finding out. “Don’t let him join up,” I said. Gregor was afraid what would happen if he didn’t, and the King found out. Then, Dafydd learned how cages work from his Da, and the two of them let their man-side lock the beast away. The beast and man both suffered.
Another year, and Dafydd was dead, the last to drop from the summer’s fever. He was on leave when his brothers got it, then his little sister. My three sons died youngest to oldest, leaving the world as if time had turned its tide. There were three funeral boats to burn before their father could get back from some Rhun-side mission. I remember how his face fell when he caught the smell of our house from the docks, and how he didn’t crack into tears until he called for his little princess, and she didn’t look up. That was the second time I nearly struck my liege, when I had to beg for his precious pet bear to be closer to home for a time. It was Gregor who stayed steady in those grey-lit days while I went from dark to darker, impatient with my only living child, then despairing as I birthed my last. Poor little cub, Broddi was, going to his sister first before crying to me. That’s when Wynne learned to be like her Da. She’s that way because her Ma wasn’t anyone to want to be. Not for a while. Not for a long while.
Gregor carried the weight of worlds until his muzzle went grey. The duty and oaths of his youth were unbreakable chains, and the bars pressed close. Again and again he took life with tooth and claw or blades, always under orders, and sometimes unsure if what he did was really best. It was I who reminded him of duty and service. I kept doing it right up until they brought back Cynewynne on her shield, barely breathing, skewered through because some pissant idiot had hoped to scare her into turning into a bear. “Looks like she isn’t a skinchanger after all,” someone said before they saw me. “Here’s your bear,” I said, and kicked them off my dock. Gregor was so heartsick he could barely talk, even when Broddi told us he’d never go to war. No, not even to avenge his sister. Not if we paid him. Not if the King demanded it. Not if we kicked him from the house.
When I got back from the Greenwood, Gregor didn’t ask. He knew, and knew he couldn’t know that I’d arranged matters with his wood-elf friend on the River Running. He sagged in relief when Broddi got away, then pretended some mighty convincing rage. Our Wynne, still green-faced and clinging to life out of pure cussedness, had to argue but good to go after him. We knew the harder we made it for her, the farther she’d let herself be herded. We weren’t to know where. We only knew our children were out of the cage. “When it’s better here, we’ll call them back,” I said. Gregor looked only at his supper.
The last I saw of Gregor was a plume of sudden flame, bright against the water between our frantic rowing and the mayhem of burning Esgaroth. Only later did I hear that he had evacuated the flagship, then lit a fuse while the captain turned the sinking drakkar to ram the Easterling line. The two of them let a town full of women and children slip behind the Dalish lines to safety, and they’re now names in a saga. They gave me Gregor’s banner, and sung about what a fearsome menace he was.
The cage was open. There wasn’t time for tears or thought about my home at the bottom of the lake, or the empty place at my side. The elves knew where to send me, and the road full of danger brought back the old lessons from a time when my Da had made sure I, too, could wield the halberd made from the axe of Broddi Bloodsworn, my ancestor, my blood. I’m no shieldmaiden like my daughter, but I didn’t suffer for folk willing to travel with me either. I didn’t have to earn my way West on my back. There’s that mercy. The second mercy, that I still had children left to mother.
But they’ve got on fine without me. They don’t need a damn thing I’ve got, that’s how well Gregor raised them. Gregor and I. I, and my bear. My gentle giant who wondered, in the night, if pirates too had kin. My youth’s love. My…
There’s a horse-rancher who comes around now. He’s got kind eyes, and he makes me forget, a little. And remember, a little. Gregor wouldn’t want me to pine, and I don’t want me to pine. But it’s not fair to him, with his calm life and his fine herd and years without a woman. He’s here for sweet pastry, and not for a lass clinging to civilization by her bootstraps. He thinks I’m a well-padded widow woman with two grown children, thoroughly domesticated to bit and bridle. I don’t know if I can be gentle enough with him. He’s so gentle, this man who soothes innocent young fillies into accepting the rope.
I don’t know whether to bite his head off or let him rope me. Perhaps for the best I’ll lose him in a week, when he rides off into the sunset.
((Cynewynne and Broddi’s mom Frithvail would like to dedicate this one to Evorric’s player!))