For Doyle Mills, a thoroughly likable fellow who is awesome enough to deserve two stories.
“I have never felt quite as stupid as I feel right now, with my left leg caught in a God damned bear trap, and a thoroughly untrapped bear on the loose.”
Hugh had hoped that the sound of his own voice would bolster his rapidly failing nerves, but it only served to make the deepening twilight more sinister. He hadn’t meant to be this deep in the Borderland Forest after the sun went down. The last person to be trapped in the Forest had walked out three weeks later blind and mad, missing an ear and three fingers. Three people before that hadn’t made it out at all. The bear had been sighted too close to the outlying homesteads for comfort, leaving Huge little choice of action.
He reached down, his lower leg screaming in agony and flipped the catch. The metal jaws opened and Huge fell back, face contorted. Every movement drove knives of fire deeper into his flesh and his heart thudded thick and hard in his ears. His gun lay just to the side and his pack was still on his back, twisting his body. Sitting up was an epic feat.
Blinking stars from his undulating vision, Hugh took shallow breaths as he tried to formulate a plan. A shuffling in the underbrush drew his fevered gaze and he began to inch away, using the tips of his fingers to pull himself along. A light moved through the trees towards him. As it came closer, it illuminated the face and hand carrying it, though the rest of the body remained submerged in blackness.
Then a small boy was kneeling beside Hugh, dark hair falling into his large, bright eyes. Around his wrist was a tangle of colored threads from which hung metal charms. They jangled softly as the boy reached down to peer at Hugh’s leg.
“We need to get that looked after,” the boy said.
He put his fingers to his lips and gave a melodic whistle. A huge figure stepped out from behind a tree, a man as large as a bear, shaggy hair falling past his shoulders. Eyes gleamed yellow in the lamplight.
“Shit,” Hugh said.
“He won’t hurt you. Even though you did try to trap him. He’s the forgiving type.”
The bear-man rumbled an agreement.
“Are you one of the Fae folk?” Hugh asked, not really wanting to know the answer.
The boy laughed. “No. I’m of the traveling folk.”
Gypsies. They could be even worse than the Fae. Especially when they showed up with were-creatures.
“What do you want from me?”
The boy laughed, a pleasant sound, like wind chimes. “Nothing at all. You need help and we were around.”
“What are you doing around?” Hugh tried not to make that sound as sinister as he found it in his present state.
“Trying to find a unicorn, but we found you instead,” the boy said. “Not the best trade-off, but the night is young.”
“I’m sorry if I offended you. I just want to get out of here,” Hugh said. “With no trouble…”
“It’s no trouble,” the boy said. “You’ll probably die without us around. Here, Brudsiera, you’re bigger than I am so you have to carry the poor man.”
The bear-man scooped Hugh up. Instead of being painful, it was incredibly comfortable and a warm musk made Hugh drowsy and relaxed, like being carried on a cloud of vanilla silk floating on a river of warm milk and honey.
“Let us know if you see the unicorn, okay?” the boy asked. “I wouldn’t want to miss it.”
The journey through the trees in the molasses light was bizarre and magical. It was a different place altogether after the sun went down. Hugh forgot to look for the unicorn. He was too enraptured with everything else. The fairy ring under the elm trees, hundreds of little people in blue and purple lights twirling like a fireworks display; the elven feast in the emerald clearing, a long table made of living wood, tiered platters of fruits and cakes and golden goblets of elven wine; a group of redbearded dwarfs and a group of blackbearded dwarfs conducting some kind of ceremony with twin hammers and a silver fire.
“Shh!” the boy halted, holding up a hand and drawing Hugh from his magical bedazzlement. “I saw something!”
“Where?” the bear grunted, sniffing the air.
“There,” the boy pointed to his left.
Three pairs of eyes probed the black. Something pale moved in the darkness, hiding in the night-clothed trees. Hugh held his breath as it moved closer, but only a snow-white doe stepped out from behind the leaves. She froze, her ear twitched, and then she bounded away into the night.
“I hoped it was the unicorn,” the boy said, speaking in hushed tones though the spell was already broken.
“It is good luck to lay eyes upon the white doe,” the bear said. “Even though it not be a unicorn.”
Hugh looked up at the fierce creature. “So I guess you won’t be eating it then.”
The gypsy boy laughed but the bear did not.
“I am not the one who had been frightening those who live outside the forest, little man,” the bear said with a growl in his voice. “You will need more than metal jaws and a gun to stop the thing that roams this forest in guises men fear most.”
“Oh don’t scare him, Brudsiera. The Guardians won’t let it loose. Besides, it much prefers the taste of Fae flesh to human flesh,” the boy said. “Let’s go. We’re almost there and the sun will return shortly.”
Hugh mulled on their words on the way out of the forest. He didn’t want to know what thing they were talking about; best to leave it for the Fae. The Fae kept their own and did not appreciate interference from mere mortals.
The trio stepped out of the forest as the horizon was turning grey. Right in front of them, the small house sat just far enough away to escape the embrace of the trees. The golden light of lanterns in the windows washed over the bear’s huge arms as he lay Hugh down on the front step. The boy placed Hugh’s pack and his gun beside him, then put a finger to his lips and winked before he and his ursine companion disappeared.
Hugh was left alone, his leg throbbing dully as he mustered the strength to bang on the door, so glad to be back in the realms of men, alive and in one piece, memories of the night in the Borderland forest fading like the night giving way to the dawn around him. A flash of pearly white in the trees was obscured by the first rays of the sun brushing the earth with the kiss of a fresh day.