The Last Bear
By David A Sutton.
(Edited by Helen Pocknell)
© David Anthony Sutton 2012
Hugo peered out from under his bed. The jungle spread out before him. From his position high on the red cliffs, he squinted down at a giant river, buried under a thick green canopy. One day, children all over Switzerland would listen to stories of his adventures. His fingers gripped his famous silver-plated musket. Today, he would bag himself the man-eating tiger of Fungchaw. The jungle below erupted with the sound of jabbering monkeys. Hugo snatched the mop handle off the floor, and began his descent.
He cut his way through the dense jungle, down the perilous giant steps, and through the forbidden caves. Plagued by heat and exhaustion, he finally entered the lair of his prey. The tiger was close. He could hear the patter of his paws on the hard jungle floor. A shadow twitched.
Hugo crept silently under a fallen mango tree, and took aim at a pile of rocks. He pulled back on his musket’s flint lock. ‘Hugo strikes again!’
A kitten slipped out from behind some wooden crates.
‘Burk! No. No.’ Hugo lowered the mop handle. ‘What are you doing? That’s not right. You’re not the tiger. You’re the elephant. Move. Get out of shot. You’re wrecking my hunt.’
‘Are we done? Can I go now?’ A voice asked from behind a nearby table leg. ‘Is the childishness over? I have important things to be getting on with.’
Hugo turned to face Hipatia: a golden clockwork mouse his father had built for him two years ago for his eighth birthday.
‘What’re you doing over there? You’re in the wrong place too. I shoot you over there. Not there.’
‘So? I fancied a change. It’s called improvisation.’
‘And you’re talking. Tigers don’t talk. They growl. They’re fierce.’
‘Grrrrrrr rrrr. Ok. How was that? Fierce enough for you? Are we done here?’
‘Was that a growl?’
‘I thought I pulled it off rather nicely. Just the right amount of rrrrrrr. I almost terrified myself… Almost.’
‘Move over there. And stop talking… Now, where’d my powder flask go?’
‘Do you want me over there? Or there? Be specific… What about here? Is here good for you? Can we get a move on? I haven’t got all evening. Where do you want to shoot me?’
‘You’re still talking. Tigers don’t ask where you want to shoot them. They don’t talk’.
‘Neither do rodents. But wait… I hear something…’ replied Hipatia. ‘Oh yes, that’s me. So, I guess some of them do. Not that you ever listen to a word I say. I’m supposed to be teaching you clockwork mechanics, philosophy and mathematics. And, instead, you have me pretending to be a tiger.’ Hipatia rolled her glass eyeballs. ‘A tiger so dim-witted that he waits every night in the same place to be shot by a mop handle. Shouldn’t I be extinct by now, or at least spotlessly clean?’
Hugo frowned. ‘Quiet. Stop moving. I’m trying to shoot you.’
‘This is so demeaning. Everyone knows cats are inferior to rodents. It’s simple biology.’
‘Look. Kitty’s coughed up a pepper pot. I rest my case.’ Hipatia added, smugly.
‘Ah hah! My powder flask.’ Hugo paused and then aimed his mop, but before he could pull the musket’s trigger the store’s doorbell clanged.
Hugo dipped back under the table when he heard his mother’s feet dance across the ceiling above his head. He watched her skip down the stairs, and into the store. The bell rang again. This time she answered it.
Hugo would never forget the expression on his mother’s face as the stranger handed over a letter and a small silver object. He dropped the mop handle and ran to his mother’s side, as she collapsed onto her knees in terrifying silence. She stared at him, her eyes red and cold. Her lips moved, but no words escaped. Then, she opened her palm and lowered her husband’s broken watch into her son’s shaking grasp.
Several years later…
For centuries, the town of Boonwart had been the hunting capital of Switzerland. It was said that if a wild animal died within a thousand miles of the town’s limits it met its maker at the hands of a device stamped: ‘Made in Boonwart’. But the boast, like the town itself, and its victims, had long ago faded into legend. When Switzerland’s last big game took its final breath so did the town of Boonwart.
Although carriages regularly passed through Boonwart’s deserted streets on the way to the Southern town of Thundescarten, in over a decade none had ever stopped. None, until now.
Unlike every other passenger who had sat on his seat before him, Hugo Berne wasn’t just passing through Boonwart. He had other plans.
In the seven long years which had passed since the store bell rang, his life had been dragged down a strange and sorrowful path. Fleeing all reminders of the past, his mother had taken him across the sea to her family in England. There, surrounded by strangers babbling in a foreign tongue, Hugo watched her shrink from the world until there was nothing left of the woman he knew. Hugo’s life had been torn away from him; now he planned to return the favour.
The carriage to Thundescarten shook violently, as it rocked over a pothole. Disturbed from his slumber, Hugo’s cat, Burk, eyeballed the other travellers. From his vantage point, between Hugo’s boots, he glared at a terrier perched on the knees of the gentleman sat opposite. The dog barked. Burk hissed.
‘Is that… thing bothering my special little princess? The filthy flee pit.’ The gentleman stroked the terrier’s head, preening a small tuft of white hair. ‘Coach-Class is not what it used to be. They let any old vagrant travel inside the cabins these days.’ He sneered.
‘Indeed.’ Hugo largely ignored the jibe, surprising himself. It had been a long journey, and the fat, silk pincushion sat opposite wasn’t worth the inconvenience. Besides, Burk could handle himself.
Burk dually lifted his tail and weed on the gentleman’s polished leather shoes.
‘Get off. Look at my beautiful shoes.’ the gentleman screeched in horror, almost losing his wig.
The coach shook to a halt.
‘Boonwart,’ the driver shouted.
Straightening his powdered wig, the gentleman’s expression froze at the name of the unexpected stop. He snatched his terrier tight against his ample stomach, choking off its air supply. Hugo opened the cabin door, grabbed his shoulder bag, and stepped out into the rain. Burk squinted at the suddenly gasping terrier, as he followed Hugo out of the cabin.
‘Good riddance.’ The gentleman slammed the door shut, locking it. He took a pinch of snuff from a box, before offering some to his dog. ‘Vile rodents’.
‘You’re mistaken. My fellow companions are in no way related to the order of Rodentia,’ a female voice remarked.
The gentleman stared out of the cabin window, his pupils flicking in all directions. Unable to spot the voice’s owner, he finally gave up and stamped on the floor. ‘Driver!’
Hugo let the rain wash over his face, cleansing the road from his eyes, before he ducked under the overhanging roof of a windowless bait store. Boonwart was nothing like the image he’d created in his mind. While he stared through the grey sheets of water at the bones of the past, he began to doubt the logic of his plan.
On the opposite side of the track which was once the main street, a splinter of sunlight slipped from broken roof tile to broken roof tile, before touching the edge of Boonwart’s crumbling clock tower. As the midday sun crept over the rusted bear-shaped weathervane at its summit, Hugo spotted what he’d left England to find. A mile or so beyond the clock tower, tucked within the dark folds of an endless forest, stood the grey silhouette of a castle.
Burk staggered under the roof and sat in a puddle all of his own. Hipatia scrambled out of Hugo’s coat pocket and onto his shoulder. Burk spotted a rat drinking from a puddle a few feet away. He shook the water from his tail and sank into a hunting posture.
Hipatia’s ears twitched. Her mechanical irises focused on the growing movement in the shadows just beyond Burk’s prey. ‘I don’t believe it. I‘m seeing things. Surely, it can’t be true. Kitty has finally caught a rat.’ she whispered. ‘Well? What are you waiting for Kitty?’
Burk flashed Hipatia a cold stare. His chin slid across the ground, as he slunk to within inches of his oblivious victim. The rat casually looked up from the puddle and spat out a mouthful of rainwater. From her ringside perch on Hugo’s shoulder, Hipatia watched a mass of shapes form up in the shadows behind the rat. Seemingly ignorant of his predicament, Burk hissed at the rude rodent. The rat didn’t hiss back, but his many pals, who suddenly appeared behind him, did.
‘Oh. It turns out I was wrong. It wasn’t true… Tough luck. Oh, do look out Kitty,’ said Hipatia.
Just as Burk was about to have a one to one conversation with his diet, Hugo gripped hold of the cat’s neck and yanked him out of danger. ‘Stop messing. This is no time for games.’
‘Spoil sport.’ Hipatia frowned. ‘I like games. They’re educational.’
The descriptions of Grundel Castle in the childhood stories Hugo remembered were of a fairytale wonder: stained glass windows and gleaming white spires, proudly topped with heraldic flags. But the years hadn’t been kind to one of the greatest, and most expensive, family seats in Switzerland. The derelict shell of Grundel Castle, with its roofless spires and broken windows, now looked out, not over lawns and marble water features, but rather over the ever encroaching border of Karac Forest.
The closer Hugo got to Grundel Castle the more it felt like a mausoleum.
A small rusted bell hung on the wall beside the castle’s front gates. Beneath the thin bell rope sat a sign, bolted to crumbling stone. Hugo read its warning: ‘By command of Duke Verthold. All uninvited trespassers will be shot, stuffed and mounted, and not necessarily in that order. ’
‘He’s a hospitable fellow, this Duke.’ Hipatia peered out of Hugo’s jacket pocket. ‘For the record, I still think this whole idea is madness. Not that you ever listen to me. Why start now?’
Hugo pulled on the bell rope. The bell let out a tiny clink then fell off the wall. Undeterred, Hugo squeezed through a gap in the gate. Burk sneaked in after him, casting a scowl at every shadow he passed.
Beyond the castle’s gates lay a large courtyard, empty but for a lone horseless carriage.
‘It’s got potential,’ said Hipatia. ‘Just needs a female’s touch and a few hundred barrels of gunpowder’.
Hugo walked out across the uneven cobbles, sidestepping overgrown weeds. ‘Looks like no one’s lived here in ages… I’m too late.’ Something cold and hard tapped him on the back of his head. He spun around to face the business end of a pitchfork.
‘Who are you? What business do you have here?’ A soft feminine voice blew down the length of the fork handle. ‘Speak… Are you dumb?’
Hugo eased away from the metal tips. ‘I… Urm. Yes. I mean no… We’re seeking the Duke. Duke Verthold.’
‘We’re…?’ The plainly dressed girl looked down at Burk. ‘Well, you’ve both had a wasted journey.’
‘Retired. He no longer receives visitors. Whatever the species.’
‘But… I must see him.’ Hugo stood his ground. ‘You don’t understand.’
‘You can walk out now, or you can hobble out later.’ Without a change of expression, the girl’s voice flipped. Gone was the polite gentility of an aristocrat, replaced by the rough snarling of a bar room brawler. She waved the pitch fork at the main gate. ‘And take that stinkin’ rat-catcher with you.’
Hidden in Hugo’s pocket, Hipatia snorted. ‘You’re joking. Him, catch a rat?’
‘Shut up,’ Hugo whispered.
‘You didn’t just tell me to shut up.’ The girl wrinkled her nose.
Hugo backed up. ‘No.’
The girl pulled the hood back from her pale face. ‘What is it with you hunters? You think, just because I’m a girl, I won’t put you on your arse. Is that it?’ She skillfully spun the pitch fork around in her hand. ‘Get out.’
‘Wait. Hold on. I’m not… I’m not a hunter. Really… I’ve waited a long time to meet the Duke. It’s all I’ve thought about for seven years. I’ve travelled for weeks to get here.’ Hugo leant away from the end of the pitchfork and pulled a letter out of his bag. ‘All I ask is for a minute. Listen to me for just one minute?’
‘And then you’re gone.’ The girl demanded.
Hugo nodded. ‘Agreed.’
‘You have five seconds?’ said the girl. ‘…Four.’
‘That wasn’t a second,’ said Hipatia.
The girl scanned the courtyard. ‘Did you say something?’
‘I said, everyone thinks the Duke killed the last bear in Switzerland.’ Hugo studied the paper in his grasp.
Hugo felt a metal tip reach his throat. ‘But, what if he didn’t? What if it’s a lie? What if they’ve come back?’
The girl leant forward. ‘Lie? That’s it. Time’s up.’
‘Now, that definitely wasn’t two seconds,’ said Hipatia.
‘Right. Who said that? Who else is here?’ The girl grew more agitated.
‘No one. Just me… And Burk, my cat.’ Hugo waved the letter in her face. ‘Look. See. I can prove it’s a lie.’
Soon after, Hugo found himself waiting outside a large door at the end of a long gallery. He tapped his foot against the dusty floorboards, as he tried to ignore the gaze of the stuffed animal heads that hung high on the walls all around him. It was as if the Duke had beheaded the whole of Vienna Zoo, and mounted its occupants in order of ferocity. There were wolves, reindeer, foxes, buffalo, zebras, lions, leopards and a Bengal tiger, with a very odd grin.
Hugo wondered what his ten year old self would have made of meeting his hero face to face. Before he could wallow in the past, the door at the end of the gallery slid open. The girl stepped out – her dirty trousers, shirt and waistcoat replaced by a long yellow gown. Her dark hair was tied back, revealing the slender face of a young woman, no older than twenty, no younger than sixteen. She was almost another person, only the scuffed toes of a pair of old boots, jutting out from under the folds of her gown, gave her away.
The girl gestured at Burk, who was attempting to get at a stuffed bird in a glass case. ‘That stays here.’ She then motioned Hugo towards the door. ‘Remember the deal. You get two minutes. I get the letter. Clear?’ She held out her hand. ‘And you leave when I say you leave.’
Hugo took the letter out of his shoulder bag and held it over the girl’s waiting palm. His gaze rested on her face, searching for a sign he could trust.
The girl coolly stared back and snatched the letter. ‘Oh, yes. Try to ignore the bears.’ She pushed Hugo through the doorway.
The worn soles of Hugo’s boots scraped to a halt, as he entered the dining hall. He squinted, twice. His eyes weren’t lying. He wasn’t imagining it. There really were stuffed brown bears seated at a long dining table, which stretched the full length of the room. Glass eyeballs peered lifelessly at him from under wigs and wide-brimmed straw hats and through an array of ill-fitted spectacles and monocles. One of the bears was even dressed in an evening gown, with a dead flower stuck behind its ear.
‘Who’s that? Who’s there? I demand you show yourself.’ A small, slender man, slouched in a giant throne at the head of the table, rapped the point of his sword’s scabbard against the floor. ‘No quick moves. I’m armed… I’m not afraid.’
Hugo gazed at the figure dressed in a purple silk jacket, with medals pinned to his chest. Was that the Duke? Hugo had expected a much bigger man. He looked nothing like the heroic hunter he had imagined as a child. This man hardly looked capable of killing a fly- though his stuffed guests said different.
‘It’s OK Grandpa. It’s me, Ursula.’ The girl led Hugo down the side of the table, until they stood within poking distance of the Duke. ‘I’ve brought the boy.’
‘Boy? What boy?’
‘The one I told you about. The one who said the bears are back. Remember.’
‘The one who called me a liar?’ The Duke poked his sword’s hilt into Hugo’s belly.
Ursula snapped a chilling look at Hugo. ‘That’s him.’
‘Why have you brought him here? He’s a dirty rotten liar,’ said the Duke. ‘Throw him in the dungeons… Do I have any dungeons?’
‘Why not? Are you sure?’
Hugo pulled his attention away from a bear in a bishop’s cassock. ‘I did not mean to offend your honour, sir. I need your help. I can prove they’ve come back.’
‘Honour. He said honour. What does he know of honour?’ The Duke wiped a large star-shaped medal with his lace cuff. ‘Has he ever tracked an African bull elephant across the Gobi Desert? Of course he hasn’t…’ The Duke took a swig from a wine glass, dribbling the contents down his top. ‘Honour. There’s none left. It’s all gone. Everything has gone… Who are you? Why is he here?’
‘It’s Ok Grandpa. He’s a hunter. He wanted to see you. Now he has, he’s leaving.’ Ursula grabbed at Hugo’s cuff.
Hugo yanked his arm free. ‘No wait. I’m not a hunter. I am… I was a toy maker’s apprentice.’
‘African elephants in the Gobi Desert? What utter tosh.’ Hipatia stuck the tip of her nose out of Hugo’s coat pocket. ‘African elephants do not migrate across the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is in Asia, not Africa.’
Hugo placed his hand over his pocket and coughed.
The Duke blinked and spat out a mouthful of wine. ‘Of course they do. I… Who said that?’
‘I think he’s told too many lies, Grandpa. He’s lost his mind. He speaks in strange tongues,’ said Ursula
‘A fool? Oh, I like fools. What tricks can he do?’ the Duke asked. ‘I saw a chap once swallow a whole crocodile, or was it the other way around?’
‘I’m not a fool. I can prove the bears have returned.’ Hugo raised his voice. ‘I’ve got a letter.’
‘Letter? What’s the fool talking about?’ The Duke lowered his wineglass onto the table.
Ursula screwed up the paper in her right hand, as she gently slid it behind her back. ‘I’ve no idea.’
‘Show him,’ shouted Hugo.
‘That’s enough,’ said Ursula. ‘This was a bad idea. I should never have let you in here. Can’t you see the Duke is ill?’
The Duke played with the end of his wiry moustache. ‘He is?’
Ursula scowled at Hugo, and pointed back at the door. ‘Out. Get out.’
Hugo shook his head. ‘Show him the letter.’ He caught the Duke’s gaze. ‘You didn’t kill the last bear in Switzerland. I have… She has proof… It killed my father.’
‘I… I didn’t kill the last bear? What is he saying Ursula?’ What does he mean, proof?’ The Duke puffed up his creaking chest. ‘I, Duke Verthold am the greatest hunter in the whole of Europe. The world. I killed on four continents, or was it five? Make it six. Anyway, I can outwit any animal alive. I’ve shot tigers in Timbuktu, and red pandas in Roodezand. And, I killed the last bear in Switzerland. Look. See. He’s the one with the pipe and slippers.’
‘That’s right Grandpa.’
‘I did it. I. Me. See? They’re all gone… They’re all gone.’ The Duke slumped back in his throne. ‘I can hear them, you know. They talk to me.’
‘I’ve had enough of this inaccurate guff.’ Hipatia scrambled onto Hugo’s shoulder, and reared onto her hind legs. ‘You want to hear talking animals? Well listen to me Dukey. We didn’t come all this way, travelling on a crowded, stinking ship and pokey carriages, sleeping in damp barns and freezing churches, just to hear the great Duke Verthold talk a load of… twaddle. There are no tigers in Timbuktu, or red panda in Roodezand. Now read the letter your granddaughter is hiding behind her back.’
The Duke squinted, his mouth wide open, at the golden clockwork mouse on Hugo’s shoulder. ‘It’s a little toy! Look, Ursula. A talking little toy.’
Ursula’s stare widened onto the talking golden mouse, now visible for all to see. Eventually, she shook her head and walked over to the door. ‘It’s just a magic trick. A clever magic trick.’
‘I’m not a toy, and I’m no magic trick. Though, I am clever,’ said Hipatia. ‘And you, Duke, are not the man who killed the last bear in Switzerland.’
Ursula’s voice wavered towards a growl. ‘Out!’
The Duke silently studied his motionless dinner guests, before looking back at his Granddaughter and her half-hidden hand. ‘Give me this letter.’
‘Grandpa,’ Ursula pleaded.
‘Show me.’ The Duke rapped his sword against the edge of the table.
Ursula scrunched the letter into a smaller ball, before very slowly handing it over. ‘Grandpa, don’t.’
The Duke gave the crumpled letter a sneer. For what seemed like an age, he just stared at the paper. Then, finally, he licked his fingertips, and peeled open the folded paper. He began to read. ‘Karac Forest… Bear…? A bear! Ursula, did you read this? The bears are back. Did you hear what I said? They’re really back.’ He leapt on the table and began to dance around, kicking the hats off some of the stuffed guests. ‘They’ve come back to me. It’s a miracle.’
The Duke ran around the room, like a child on a sugar rush. ‘Get my gun. Get my mount. Get my men. Get me a drink. The hunt is on.’ Finally, he pulled his foot out of a bear’s jaw and looked down at Hugo ‘…One last hunt.’ He grew still once more. His pupils darted from side to side. Then again, they centered on Hugo. ‘If I do this… If I undertake this hunt for you, I will require payment.’
‘Anything. What little I have is yours,’ Hugo replied. ‘What is it you want?’
The Duke straightened a clown’s hat on a bear’s head, his once dull eyes burning with ambition. ‘All in good time.’
One week later, a trio of riders escorted a carriage deep into the dark heart of Karac Forest. Perched on the back of his ageing stallion, Duke Verthold led the hunting party from the front. Just behind him, rode his old tracking partner Sterg, a stump of a man on an even shorter horse. Trailing a few strides further back from him was a local newspaper reporter from the Thundescarten Courant. At the rear, Ursula, once again dressed in men’s clothes, heaved at the reins of a carriage, as it rolled over its two hundredth rock.
Inside the carriage, Hugo gazed through the cabin’s window. Outside, the forest’s lifeless branches cast shadows onto the dead undergrowth. And it was dead. Hugo hadn’t seen or heard a living thing since leaving the castle. It wasn’t difficult to understand why. The answer lay all around, beside every root, under every canopy. Every spare inch of space was covered by an army of traps, their waiting jaws welded stiff by time. Karac Forest had become just as much a forest of metal as it was of wood. Boonwart had done its worst.
Hipatia crawled out of Hugo’s waistcoat pocket and stared along the seat, towards a sleeping Burk. The tip of a field mouse’s tail still dangled from Burk’s jaw. It had been wedged there all day.
‘They say cats always land on their paws, don’t they. I wonder if that’s really true?’ Hipatia glared at the limp remains of the stowaway rodent. ‘… I know. We should test the theory. A small scientific experiment… Unconscious subject. Check… Hygienic laboratory… Close enough … Three feet should be ample.’
Hipatia’s words dragged Hugo’s attention away from the passing heaps of tangled traps, as he turned and spotted a flash of gold dart behind Burk.
‘Now, for the trajectory,’ Hipatia whispered.
‘What?’ Hugo managed to shake his head free of the forest, just in time to see Hipatia push a still sleeping Burk off the end of the seat.
There was a thud.
‘Ah. Maybe I should have woken the subject first?’ Hipatia peered over the edge. ‘Does that void the results, do you think?’
Burk groaned, as he slowly came to.
‘What did I say about experimenting on Burk?’ Hugo looked back out of the window.
‘Not to do it while he’s asleep… But he’s awake. See,’ Hipatia said. ‘Besides, technically speaking, he started it.’
The rhythmic creak of the iron rimmed wheels beneath Hugo began to slow. At that precise moment something cold shot up his sleeve.
‘Pardon, coming through.’ Hipatia scrambled under Hugo’s shirt and across his chest.
‘Stop that,’ Hugo wriggled along the seat. ‘Come out of there. What are you doing?’ His answer came in the form of a very angry cat.
Burk leapt onto Hugo’s leg and then scrambled after Hipatia.
‘Get off me.’ Hugo jolted upright, knocking the small wooden crate off the seat beside him.
The crate struck the floor with a crack, dislodging its lid, exposing its contents: an earthenware jar with a pewter top.
Burk clawed his way back across Hugo’s shoulders and glared down at the golden mouse.
‘That is enough.’ Hugo grabbed Burk by the scruff of his neck, yanking the cat’s claws free of his coat.
‘You tell him,’ said Hipatia. ‘It’s about time someone put Kitty in his place.’
Hugo held Burk at arm’s length. ‘That goes for rodents as well.’
‘You always take his side.’ Hipatia frowned. ‘Look at him. The brute is ten times my size. It’s not fair. I’m the victim here.’
Once Burk’s limbs stopped swinging, Hugo dropped him on top of the gun case which rested on the seat opposite. The Duke’s case, with its rows of tiny bear skull badges, and what lay inside it, had seeped into Hugo’s dreams the previous night. In the worst of these nightmares they were no longer hunting the bear, it was hunting them. The giant beast had Hugo cornered all alone in the carriage with only the Duke’s rifle for protection. But when Hugo broke open the gun case, to get at the weapon inside it, he found only a mop handle. The carriage rocked to a halt.
Just as Hugo finished putting the wooden crate back, Ursula swung open the cabin door. ‘From here on out, we go on foot. Try to keep up. In Karac Forest, you get lost, you stay lost.’
‘Get up here, you old nag. Don’t you snort at me… I should have sold your bag of bones for glue when I had the chance.’ Sterg slapped his horse’s bony shoulder blade. ‘Look at you. You’ve got rotten guts and sewer breath… I don’t know which end smells worse. And to top it all, you eat more than you carry… Now I think about it, you remind me of my Aunt Maud. You’ve even got the same toothless grin.’
A few feet in front of Sterg, Hugo scrambled off his knees for the fifth time. His heel had slipped against a fallen branch – snapping it in two.
‘Could you possibly make any more noise?’ Ursula glanced back at him. ‘I think there might be a small area of the forest that hasn’t heard you coming… For a magician, you make a lousy hunter.’
A choice insult reached Hugo’s lips, but for some reason went no further. He snorted instead.
Ursula sniffed, checked her hands, and then looked at Hugo. She turned away and clambered over a bank of tangled roots. ‘I should never have let you near Grandpa.’
‘He looks happy enough to me,’ said Hugo.
Without looking back, Ursula pushed on. ‘He does, does he? Well, I pray one day you are just as happy.’
Neither of them noticed Burk licking yellow liquid off the side of a rock on the trail between them.
At the head of the group, Duke Verthold battled forth under an onslaught of questions from an excitable reporter.
‘Hold up there your Highness. Duke. Sir? If the tracks have long gone, how, exactly, do you expect to chase down this murderous beast?’ Bog’s long reporter’s nose twitched. ‘Are you quite sure you know what you’re doing? It’s been a few years since you’ve done this sort of thing… What about hounds? I’m no hunting expert, but shouldn’t we have hounds? To sniff out the quarry? And all that kind of stuff… Duke? Sir?’
Bog lowered the jar, which Ursula had given him to carry, beside a small lantern hanging from his belt – the only lantern the Duke had permitted to be lit. He tried to wedge open the jar’s pewter lid, but a wax seal prevented him. ‘OK… Right. Well then… Perhaps, while I have your undivided attention for a moment, you could tell my readers what goes through the complex mind of a killer. The deep thoughts. The secret fears. You know. When the blood is up. The games a foot. The chase is on. The – .’
‘Complex mind? What? What are you dribbling on about? They’re bears. Wild beasts. All they think about is food,’ The Duke snapped. ‘… What are you doing on my hunt anyway? I don’t remember hiring any civilians… Complex mind. Bears. Ha.’
‘I’m a reporter sir. I… I work for the Thundescarten Courant, remember. I interviewed you before we set off.’ Bog tried again to twist open the jar’s lid. ‘… I wasn’t talking about bears. No. I meant the complex mind of a hunter. Like your fine self… Are you sure we don’t need a pack of hounds? Big ones. You know. For protection.’
The Duke rested the barrel of his musket casually against his shoulder. ‘We don’t need hounds.’
‘What was that?’ Bog tilted his head like a startled rabbit. He studied the thick wall of darkness that surrounded the trail.
Oblivious to the tone in Bog’s voice, the Duke repeated himself. ‘Are you deaf sir? I said, we don’t need hounds.’
Bog hunched his shoulders and refocused. ‘Why?’ He finally broke the jar’s wax seal and pried open the pewter lid.
Duke Verthold scanned the way ahead. ‘Because I mean to use bait.’
‘Bait?’ Bog sniffed under the lid. He recoiled at the smell.
‘Yes. Honey and fish oil,’ said the Duke. ‘Bears love the stuff. It drives them crazy. They can smell it from twenty miles away. It’s perfect.’
Bog smothered the bait back under the lid. His nose twitched. He pulled his fingers away from the bottom of the jar and sniffed at the thick yellow liquid that caked his nails. With a stunned expression, he lifted the bottom of the jar beside his lamp. He glared at an open crack. ‘Ur… You say they… they can smell this from twenty miles away?’
‘Further, on a clear night like this,’ replied the Duke.
Bog covered the fracture with his cupped hand and stared down at the stained bottom of his breeches. He scrubbed the sides of his boots against a rock, leaving a smear. ‘Just out of interest, is that weapon loaded?’
‘There’s no need,’ The Duke tightened his grasp on the butt of his musket. ‘Not until I locate a fine trap sight. There is a science to this, you know. It’s not just mere point and shoot. Duke Verthold is no amateur, Sir. I will not have any misfires scaring off my prey.’
Bog stared into the dark forest. ‘Scaring off the prey sounds like a good idea to me.’
Several steps back, Hugo hauled his bruised knees over a large root. Crouched just ahead of him, Burk looked up from a trail of honey-coated fish oil.
‘What have you got there boy?’ Hugo sniffed.
Somewhere nearby a twig snapped. Hugo felt his heart push against his ribs, as a deep snort shred through the trees.
‘Impossible… No. It can’t be. Something’s gone wrong… I’ve made a mistake? I never make mistakes.’ The Duke swung his musket down into position, before cursing his own stupidity. He fumbled a handful of musket balls, dropping all but one.
A second snort penetrated the darkness, this time much, much, closer. Sterg’s horse reared backwards, its bared teeth foaming with fear. Burk arched his back and hissed.
‘No one move.’ The Duke tipped his powder flask to the musket’s barrel. ‘Whatever you do, don’t run.’
A nearby branch shattered under unseen weight. Hugo grabbed Burk off the ground.
Bog feverously brushed the sides of his boots against a tuft of grass. ‘My readers and I would love to know what’s wrong with running away?’
‘For the same reason climbing is a bad idea. Bears do it better.’ The Duke dropped his only musket ball over the end of barrel, but it missed and slipped out of sight. He knelt in the dirt, scrabbling for the merest glint of metal.
‘Ok. So, no running and no climbing.’ Bog jumped, as the earth shook under him. ‘Any other advice?’
‘If the beast attacks, try to act dead,’ the Duke said.
‘Then what?’ Bog carefully lowered the jar onto the ground.
‘If it’s hungry, you won’t need to act for long.’ The Duke looked up at Bog, but Bog was long gone, as was their only source of light.
Blinded by suffocating darkness, Hugo spun in all directions, overcome with panic. He felt claws dig into his forearm, as Burk leapt to freedom.
Hugo lunged after him. ‘Come back.’
‘Sterg, lights,’ the Duke yelled. ‘I need light.’
Hugo waited for the bear to strike. He ground down on his jaw and tried to imagine how his father had stood up to such a fate. ‘I am not afraid of you,’ he whispered. ‘Do you hear? I’m not afraid.’
Hipatia peered over Hugo’s waistcoat pocket. ‘The bear has gone,’ she whispered.
Hugo listened to the terrifying silence. ‘Gone where?’
‘Hurry, Sterg.’ The Duke flayed his hands and elbows through the mud. ‘My prize… it is getting away. Hurry man. Hurry!’
Sterg lit three small lanterns and handed them out.
‘Grandpa, are you alright?’ Ursula crouched beside the Duke. Her fingers ran over a metal point in the dirt. She said nothing.
‘My bear. My lovely bear… I can still bag him.’ The Duke lowered his forehead to meet the ground. ‘There’s still time.’
Ursula placed a hand on the Duke’s hunched shoulders. ‘It is too late Grandpa. Let it go.’
Sterg studied the empty jar, the end of a honey trail and the sticky footprints of a new one. ‘It’s following the bait.’
Hugo pointed his lamp at the trees behind him. A crack echoed through the black veil of entwined trees.
‘Burk?’ Hugo pushed back a branch and darted towards the sound.
‘Stop! Don’t be a fool.’ Ursula shouted.
With only the comfort of his small lantern, Hugo rushed deeper into the forest. ‘Burk,’ he whispered loudly.
‘I knew this was madness. I told you. But did you listen? Did you pay any attention -’ Hipatia’s golden eyelids rolled skywards. ‘Wait… I think I see him. There. Over there. Straight ahead.’
Hugo followed Hipatia’s directions until the arc of his lantern’s glow rolled over a tail. He stepped closer, and then stopped.
Hipatia stared at metal teeth clamped around the base of the balding tail. ‘Poor old Kitty.’
Hugo leant over the trap and peered down at its victim.
‘You know, I will actually miss the old stinker,’ said Hipatia. ‘He really wasn’t all that bad… For a feline.’
Hugo lowered his lantern over the small heap of fur and bones inside the rusted jaws, and smiled. ‘It’s not him.’
‘What? What do you mean it is not him?’ Hipatia re-examined the remains of an unfortunate weasel. ‘Why, that low down, lucky, flee infested, pea-brained, hair bag. How many lives can one Kitty have?’
‘What was that?’ Hugo’s hand shook, sending a shiver through the lantern’s beam.
A faint voice seeped through the carpet of dead pine needles. ‘Get away.’
‘Bog… Is that you?’ Hugo raised his lantern, unable to tell where the voice had come from.
‘Help. Leave me alone.’ Bog’s tone trembled with fear.
This time, Hugo caught the direction of Bog’s words.
Hugo almost repeated Bog’s mistake. His foot broke through the patch of ground, as if it were a thin sheet of ice. He fell forwards. It was only thanks to a hooked branch that he didn’t follow his boot into the void that had opened up beneath him. Yanking his foot out of the hole, he stumbled back onto firmer ground. He unhooked his coat from the branch, and gave it a thankful pat.
‘I have read about these,’ said Hipatia. ‘It has the classic shape of a bear pit.’
With his lantern held far out in front of him, Hugo edged around the pit’s circular mud roof until he spotted a large hole. He leant over. ‘Bog? Are you down there?’
‘Get it off me.’ Bog answered with a quivering, murmured, scream. ‘It’s eating me alive.’
Hugo snatched a sharp stick off the ground and knelt beside the hole. Aiming the only weapon he had into the dark pit, he lowered his lantern towards Bog’s yelps. The bear pit was shallow. On one side a wall had collapsed, creating a bank of earth which had broken Bog’s fall.
Bog’s pale face flinched up into the light. ‘Shoot it!’
Hugo gripped the sharp stick, until his knuckles faded white. He swung his lantern above Bog’s chest, across his stomach, down his legs, and finally over his boots.
‘Shoot!’ Bog screamed.
The tension drained from Hugo’s face, when he looked down at the small shape attacking Bog’s right boot. ‘It’s not the bear.’
‘It’s… not?’ Obviously shaken by his ordeal, Bog glanced down at his feet.
Caught in the lamp light, Burk ignored Bog’s angry stare, and instead chose to finish licking globs of honey off the reporter’s boot.
‘Burk. Stop that.’ Hugo gestured with the stick. ‘Leave him be.’
‘Licking a reporter’s boots,’ Hipatia whispered. ‘Kitty has no shame.’ Her eyelids rolled wide, as she focused on the dark outline of a fat tree trunk in the distance.
The tree moved.
‘I know I am no trained botanist, though I have memorised the relevant classification systems required, but?’ Hipatia blinked.
‘What are you wittering about?’ Dropping his stick, Hugo helped a seemingly baffled Bog out of the bear pit.
‘Well, according to my extensive research in the field of horticulture…’ Hipatia motioned to the forest behind them. ‘Trees don’t move.’
Without looking up, Hugo bent back down and dragged Burk up the muddy bank. ‘It’s just the wind.’
‘They do not walk either.’ Hipatia pulled an expression of knowing impatience.
Hugo stood up and turned around. ‘What? Of course trees don’t -’ He noticed a root beneath the silhouette of a nearby tree slink to one side. He raised his lamp higher and squinted.
It was no root. It was no tree.
‘The… The mouse… It talks?’ Bog pointed a questioning finger at Hugo’s waist coat pocket.
‘Quiet,’ Hugo whispered as he tracked the bear’s movement. ‘It’ll hear you.’
Before Bog could ask what it was that might hear them, they all heard a low snort. The silhouette was suddenly only a few feet away. Hugo shuddered when a warm breath drifted over his skin, awakening the tiny hairs on his neck.
‘Don’t move,’ said Hipatia. ‘It’s after the bait.’
Hugo looked back at Bog. Bog looked down at Burk. Burk looked at the reporter’s boots. Slowly, it dawned on Hugo that their escape was blocked by the bear pit behind them – trapped by a trap. A nearby tree looked solid enough, but Hugo remembered what the Duke had said about climbing: the bear was better at it.
As the dark mass grew, the rage Hugo had forced down for seven long years began to boil, dispelling any idea of fleeing. Calling on the memories of better times, he willed himself to face the beast that roamed his nightmares. He grabbed the sharp stick back out of the mud and jabbed it towards the bear.
‘Threatening it?’ Hipatia slapped her forehead, and sighed. ‘That’ll help. Why didn’t I think of that?’
In response to Hugo’s actions, the bear swung its bulk from side to side. It leapt forward to within striking distance, and slammed the ground hard again and again. Hugo’s hand shook, but stayed firm. Burk slinked back into the bear pit.
‘Wait. Let’s think this through,’ Hipatia whispered. ‘Consider all the alternatives. Plot our next move. Think tactically. But most of all, let’s not do anything stupid.’
Hugo took a step towards the bear.
Hipatia scrambled up onto Hugo’s shoulder. ‘Perhaps I did not make myself clear enough.’ She raised her head beside Hugo’s ear. ‘That is a fifteen hundred pound furball of muscle and claws that could squash a melon like a groundnut. And you have a head shaped like a melon.’
The bear slammed the ground again. Bog yelped and retreated up the nearby tree. Hugo suddenly felt the empty air behind him. He was all alone. Only the image of his father’s fate kept his knees from crumbling under him. Then, to his surprise, something strange happened. The bear lowered its head and began to back away from him. Was that fear in its eyes? No. Nightmares don’t feel fear. Hugo felt an urge to lunge at it, but his wrist didn’t move. The bear paused and sniffed at a glob of honey. ‘What are you doing?’ Hugo screamed silently to himself. Remember what happened. Remember. But his grasp on the stick began to loosen.
Another light then winked into view behind the bear’s shoulders. Hugo saw it blink, as it passed behind a tree. It was getting closer. The bear ear’s twitched.
‘It’s the Duke,’ Bog whispered down from the tree. ‘Help! We’re over here,’ he yelled.
The bear jerked its head up towards Bog, before lowering its gaze back onto Hugo. A glint of lamp light washed over its eyes. In that split second, Hugo thought he glimpsed something in the beast’s stare, though he didn’t understand what.
A shot rang out.
Two weeks after the bear fell still under the Duke’s fire, Hugo awoke to the sound of rapped knuckles on a stable door. Since the victorious hunting party’s return to Grundel Castle, time had rolled over Hugo largely unnoticed. Though his nightmares had waned, his sleep had been anything but settled by the memory of his foe’s limp body being loaded onto the roof of the carriage and covered with a Persian carpet.
‘Get up. Move.’ Ursula trod on Hugo’s hand. ‘Grandpa’s arranged some new quarters for you.’
Hipatia scurried out of the straw. ‘Finally. At last. This is no place for a civilized rodent. I’m no field mouse you know.’
With Hipatia snug in his waist-coat pocket, and Burk in toe, Hugo followed Ursula over the courtyard and out of the castle. They walked down a dirt path that led to the large round hut just inside the shadow of the castle’s walls.
Ursula brushed a stalk of straw off her coat and knocked on the hut’s windowless door. ‘He is waiting inside.’ She studied Hugo’s expression. ‘…Something the matter? You don’t look happy?’ A little sneer rippled across her lips. She raised an eyebrow. ‘Is life as a great heroic hunter not living up to the dream?’ Before Hugo could construct an answer, she opened the door and walked away.
From the outside, the hut looked unremarkable, neglected, but solid, with a small barred window and a chimney jutting out of a slate roof. So when Hugo stepped through the doorway, he entered with a fixed idea of the interior: a plain dwelling, with basic furniture and maybe a small pen crammed with a few goats, or even a cow. This whimsical image was soon shattered. In the place of the basic furniture he had imagined, there were tool shelves, gun racks, a workbench, an anvil, bellows, a small forge and a forest of traps, large and small, hanging from a web of rafters. The only cattle in the hut had been skinned of their hide a long time ago and now hung from a hook near the door in the shape of a gunsmith’s apron.
‘Did you bring it?’ The Duke lovingly caressed a row of musket barrels. ‘The trick mouse of yours. Is it here? Show me. I want to see it.’
‘I’m no trick.’ Hipatia peered over Hugo’s waist pocket. ‘I am a life-size clockwork -’
‘You did.’ The Duke grinned. His fingers twitched. ‘Marvellous, absolutely marvellous.’ He waved his arm theatrically over the dusty equipment. ‘So, what do you think of my private armoury? No expense spared. You’ll find everything you need is here.’
Burk brushed up against Hugo’s leg.
‘Need… For what?’ Hugo noticed a box of musket balls on the edge of the workbench beside a tall object covered with a Persian carpet.
The Duke grabbed an old blunderbuss off its wall hanging. He placed one foot on the rung of a stool and struck a classic hunters’ pose. ‘Thanks to my great skill-’ The Duke pointed the blunderbuss down at Burk who froze.
‘I, Duke Verthold, now stand before you as the greatest hunter to have ever lived. My legend will stand for a thousand years. Two thousand years. For a very, very long time.’ He swung the tip of the blunderbuss skywards.
Burk visibly relaxed.
‘But, though I deserve all the fame and stories I will pay others to write about me, I am still left puzzled by one question?’ He snapped the blunderbuss back at Burk. ‘And, do you know what that question is?’
Hugo shook his head. Burk shuffled backwards, but the Duke’s aim remained.
‘The question is… Question is…? What was the question?’ The Duke dipped the blunderbuss to one side. ‘Oh, yes. What is the one thing the world’s greatest ever bear hunter needs?’
‘A gun?’ Hugo replied.
‘Gun! Paaahh. Are your blind? Look around. I have plenty of guns.’ The Duke spread his arms out. ‘The one thing I do not have is plenty of challenging targets.’
Hugo suddenly joined the Duke’s train of thought. ‘Bears?’
‘Correct.’ The Duke slumped against the stool. The energy appeared to slip out of him. ‘It is the curse of the great to run out of things to conquer.’ All of a sudden, a grin exploded back onto his face. ‘But all that is about to change.’ He leapt on top of the stool and aimed the blunderbuss once again at Burk, but Burk had disappeared. The Duke sneered and turned his sights on Hugo. ‘And you. You are going to help me.’
‘Where am I going to find a bear?’ Hugo asked.
‘Who mentioned finding one?’ The Duke jumped up and down, almost falling off the stool. ‘You are going to build me one.’ He steadied his aim. ‘That is the price for my services. You get a dead bear. I get a magic clockwork one. Just like your trick mouse. That is the deal. And then, I shall hunt the last bear in Switzerland again.’ He fired an imagery shot, with sound effects. ‘Again.’ He swung the blunderbuss around the hut and made another gunshot sound. ‘And again. And again. And again. Forever and ever.’
‘I can’t. I don’t know how. I was only an apprentice. I don’t remember,’ said Hugo.
‘You had better start remembering.’ The Duke gestured at Hugo’s waistcoat pocket. ‘If not, I can always hunt something else instead.’
Hugo sensed the weight of the trap-filled ceiling crushing down on him. ‘But… I don’t have anything to work from?’
The Duke regained his focus and leapt off the stool. He replaced the blunderbuss on the wall and turned to a covered object in front of Hugo, its towering silhouette outlined by the hut’s window. ‘As I said.’ He tapped his hand against a fold of draped carpet. ‘Everything you will need is here.’
Hugo stared at a dark stain on the carpet’s knotted silk.
‘You have three months and five days. And not a moment longer.’ The Duke walked out of the armoury and closed the door behind him.
The thick walls of Hugo’s new home echoed to the clunk of an unseen bolt being slid into place. Trapped in a hut full of traps, Hugo tried to fathom the road that had led him to where he now stood. His simple plan was no longer simple. He stared up at the covered bulk and gripped a corner of carpet. His ribcage tightened.
He pulled on the knotted silk. It slid easily to the floor, revealing the newly-stuffed body of a large brown bear. Hugo met its glass stare, unable to look away. His skin shivered, but not with fear, despite the bear’s remains having being forced into an unnerving pose, its claws ready to strike, its bared teeth polished into fangs.
Hugo rolled his fingers into fists and took a long breath. He felt no pride, just uncertainty. Would he keep to the deal? Would he, could he, build a bear for the Duke to hunt? Did he even have a choice?
That night, Hugo’s sleep was plagued by the stuffed bear’s presence. He dragged his blanket over his head and curled into a smaller ball. His tiny wooden bed, which sat on top of a chest beside the forge, lay only feet away from the bear’s metal stand, and Hugo felt every foot, as if it were but an inch.
At first, Hugo ignored the scratching noise at the door. He thought it was just Burk asking to be let out. ‘Burk, stop that.’ He covered his ears with his blanket and rolled over.
The scratching at the door grew louder. The hinges began to creak under the strain.
‘Burk?’ Hugo sat up and swung his bare feet out from under the cold covers.
‘That’s not Kitty.’ Hipatia appeared from behind the spine of a trap catalogue on a shelf above the Hugo’s bed.
‘What?’ Hugo slid off the bed and stood on the corner of a fur mat. The mat groaned, hissed and bit his toe. Hugo whipped his sore foot free and hopped to one side, as Burk slunk away.
Hipatia slid down the side of the forge’s chimney pipe. ‘It’s coming from outside.’
Once again, the door shivered and buckled under an unseen attack. Hugo pulled the covers tight around his waist. The scratching broke off. A faint noise took its place. The sound repeated itself, like someone working dirty bellows.
Instantly, Hugo’s thoughts were transported back to the forest. ‘It’s dead. I saw it die.’ Hugo mumbled to himself. He stared at the stuffed beast and its long claws.
A deep snort blew under the armoury door.
Minutes seeped into hours as the night grew old. Though the noise at the door had stopped, Hugo felt unable to turn his back on the stuffed bear. He lit a third candle on the floor beside his bed, the tiny flame acting as a barrier between the living and the dead.
Every night, for the next three months and four days, the candles kept up their vigil. When he finally managed to find sleep, Hugo’s dreams were always the same. His conscious and unconscious thoughts were united in fear. What was on the other side of the door? What was trying to get in? Then, on a clear moonlit night, he got his answer.
‘There has got to be another way out.’ Covered from nose to tail in thick soot, Hipatia fell out of the chimney stack above the forge and landed on a heap of warm coals. ‘A secret door? Or a spare key? A tunnel?’
‘There’s only one way we’re getting out of here.’ Hugo leant back on his stool and studied his creation: a large metal skeleton with piston muscles and spring-loaded claws. It wasn’t a patch on his father’s work; the mechanisms were simple, the tooling was rough, but still, with Hipatia’s help and the return of a few sprinkled memories, Hugo had achieved wonders. His father would have been proud.
Hipatia tiptoed off the smoking black coals and leapt onto the forge’s stone ledge. She looked over at the water barrel beside the door. A tiny brown shape slid around the container’s rim.
‘If there is a way in, there must be a way out,’ said Hipatia.
Hugo placed a gutted cuckoo clock back on the workbench. Holding the remnants of a candle underneath the clockwork bear’s chest cavity, he tried to squeeze the clock’s brass mechanism into place beneath a pair of lungs: reshaped bugle horns capped with bellows. ‘Still too big.’ Hugo paused and then took his father’s broken watch out of his pocket. The silver case sparkled under the glare of the forge. Hugo prized open its damaged lid. The bent hands on the small clock face still marked the same time – a time that hadn’t changed in seven years.
Perched on the rim of the barrel, inches beneath the outflow from a lead pipe, a small brown field mouse gnawed away at lump of hard cheese.
‘Good Morning, fellow rodent.’ Hipatia jumped off the end of an axe handle that rested against the side of the barrel, landing on the rim.
The mouse dropped his supper and gazed at the strange black and gold toy sat opposite.
‘I fully comprehend that you lack the required physiology to speak, but…’ Hipatia’s ears twitched. She sniffed and sighed. ‘As a local to this fine hovel, could you please advise me how you got in here? Any kind of primitive gesture will suffice.’ Motioning with her front paws, she attempted to draw a hole in the air.
The rodent’s expression iced over.
‘What’s the matter? Has the noisy cat sneaking up behind me got your tongue?’ Hipatia asked, noting a dark reflection in the water barrel.
In a flash, the mouse fled up the lead pipe. At the same moment, Hipatia calmly took a step to her left. With a look of bemusement, Burk flew past where Hipatia had been an instant before and belly flopped into the barrel of rainwater. He disappeared in a plume of spray. When the water settled, Hipatia observed a cat apparently coming to terms with the realisation that he couldn’t swim. Burk puffed, hissed and kicked, as he bobbed up and down in the barrel. Spitting out a stream of water, he flung his paws at the nearest plank of wood. His claws dug into dry land.
‘Note to self: Kitty can’t swim.’ Hipatia sauntered around the barrel’s rim and scurried up the pipe.
Meanwhile, Hugo tugged on a dangling chain. Woven panels of metal descended from the rafters and slotted over the toy bear’s skeleton. Hugo tapped the musket-proof hide; it would take a canon to pierce the bear’s armour. He stood back and stared at his greatest creation. If only his father could see him now. Would he even recognise his own son? Lowering the candle beside a small hole in the toy bear’s chest, he began to calculate the number of cogs needed to set its mechanical heart in motion.
A rusted clunk then caused Hugo to look up. The bolt on the outside of the door slid loose. Hugo instinctively threw the Persian carpet over his work. The door swung inwards, releasing a draft. Wiping his hands on a blackened rag, Hugo readied himself to face his unexpected guest. The Duke was early. A few seconds passed and the doorway remained empty. As he stared out into the forest, Hugo listened to the night; the air was hushed, as if breathless in anticipation. He edged towards the nearest gun rack. A blade of grass, just beyond the doorstep, swayed in the opposite direction to the rest. Hugo shifted backwards against the toy bear.
‘If there is a way in…’ Hipatia leapt out of the grass on to the doorstep. ‘There must be a way out.’
‘Don’t do that.’ Hugo clutched at his stomach. ‘I thought you were…’
‘What?’ Hipatia walked around a puddle of rainwater just inside the doorway. ‘The bear’s ghost?’ She waved her front paws through the air. ‘Wooooohhhhh. I am the only ghost in the known world who can’t walk through a simple door.’
‘Funny.’ Hugo strode over to the door and studied what looked like claw marks in the wood. ‘Then what about these?’
‘Probably a stray dog, or cat.’ Hipatia spotted a trail of water leading away from the puddle. ‘There’re a lot of them about.’
Hugo ran his fingers down the wood.
Hipatia scrambled up a spiral desk leg and slipped beneath a well-thumbed book, entitled “Trap mechanics”.
‘What’re you doing?’ Hugo watched Hipatia launch the book off the edge of the desk.
‘I am not escaping empty pawed.’ Hipatia slid down the spiral leg. ‘I believe I’ve earned this.’ She ducked back under the fallen book and headed for the doorway.
‘Escape?’ said Hugo. ‘But, we’re almost finished. In a few more hours we’ll be free. And then we can forget we were ever here.’
Hipatia let the book slip to the floor. ‘I wouldn’t count your chickens.’
Hugo followed Hipatia away from the hut to a nearby tree, where she gestured up at a sheet of paper nailed to its bark. He began to read the poster’s unevenly printed text, ‘The First Annual Boonwart Clockwork Bear Hunt.’ He glanced over an illustration of a hunter standing proudly over the fallen body of a metal bear. ‘Sponsored by the world famous hunter, Duke Verthold. The legend who killed the last bear in Switzerland now offers you the opportunity to relive his heroic battle.’
‘Read the bottom.’ Hipatia’s head twitched towards the dark forest.
‘Entrance fee of three hundred Thaler per gun.’ Hugo flattened the bottom of the poster against the trunk. ‘All participating hunters will receive a free miniature clockwork bear. It is the gift that never stops dying.’
A short distance away, a string of carriages and riders began to stream out of the castle’s gates.
Hugo slipped into the shadows, as the Duke’s visitors headed back towards Boonwart, their loosened voices beckoning merrily to the coming hunt.
Hugo slammed the armoury door behind him. It was all going wrong. How much more would he have to pay?
Hipatia slid down the drain pipe and landed on the rim of the water barrel.
‘Grab your book, we’re leaving.’ Hugo pulled a scroll from under a hat on a shelf and unrolled it across the top of a crate. His fingertips ran across the inked designs. Then he rolled it back up and threw it on the coals in the centre of the forge.
The bear designs sizzled, cracked, blackened, smoked and caught fire. The corners curled and shrivelled into ash. Hugo stood back and watched the fire consume his work. If only it was that easy.
The scroll had all but burnt up when something in the shadows beneath the workbench tugged on the corner of the carpet draped over the clockwork bear.
‘Burk, I told you to leave that alone,’ Hugo said without looking.
The carpet fell still. The room went quiet, but not for long. While Hugo plotted their escape, a faint scratching noise crept under the armoury door. The claws dug deeper and grew louder.
Hugo looked over his shoulder. ‘Hipatia, did you lock the door?’
‘Did you?’ Hipatia scrambled back under the lead pipe, but before she could leap to safety the door creaked open.
Hugo snatched a pistol off the wall. His hand shook while he loaded and primed the weapon. A small shadow passed under the doorway. Hugo strained to focus on the intruder. His finger fumbled at the trigger, as he aimed along the pistol’s barrel.
Hipatia stared down at the visitor’s stumpy stride. ‘Interesting dilemma,’ she whispered to herself.
Hugo snapped the pistol’s flint locked into place.
‘Wait…’ Hipatia repeatedly tapped her paw against the wood, and then finally spoke. ‘I know I’m going to regret this… don’t shoot… It’s Kitty.’
Hugo relaxed his grip on the trigger. ‘If that’s Burk…’
Hipatia blinked, cleaning her glass lenses. ‘I knew it. That no good stinking sewer sniffer.’ She noticed a field mouse dangling by its tail from Burk’s jaws. ‘I take it back,’ she shouted. ‘Go ahead. You have my full permission to shoot.’
Hugo’s chest sank and his lungs grew heavy without breath. ‘…Then what was that?’ He pointed the trembling pistol at the dark hollow under the workbench.
Again, something in the shadows tugged on the stained carpet. This time, the movement was followed by a snort. Taking one hand off his pistol, Hugo reached for a pair of tongs on the edge of the workbench. He drove the metal tool deep into the forge and clamped its jaws around a glowing coal. The orange rock hissed and spat, as he threw it onto the floor beside the workbench. As shadows retreated under its glare, a new shape was thrown into the light.
Hugo locked both hands back on his pistol and attempted to steady his aim, but the feeble barrel shivered, becoming blurred. The creature, which had haunted him every night for the last three months, may not have been a ghoul, or a spirit, but it was, in all other ways, a phantom of the dead, a mirror of his deeds.
Lost in a flood of thoughts, Hugo’s fears gradually fell away, smothered by a pair of dark eyes – eyes both alien and yet familiar. Suddenly, it dawned on him that they hadn’t killed the last bear in Switzerland. Instead, they had taken its mother, creating an orphan. The bear cub brushed its nose lovingly against the blood stained carpet.
For several erratic heartbeats, Hugo’s trigger finger wavered. His plans for escape cooled along with the lump of coal on the floor. The bear cub hunkered back under a blanket of shadow. Eventually, Hugo let the pistol fall limply to his side. He had several hours before dawn, before he was expected to deliver his side of the bargain. A bargain struck in anger by blind men feeding off the past. And a bargain that had just become a lot more complicated. The bear cub’s future suddenly collided with his own. Running was no longer an option.
For the first time in decades, the infamous town of Boonwart swelled with life. Eager bodies swarmed around a hastily built stage just off the main street. Once again guns were being traded under the covered walkways. From the backs of carts, salesmen demonstrated their latest traps to thunderous applause. In the dank alleyways, vacated by the rats, showmen pushed exotic poisons for a Thular a bottle. The word had spread far and wide: ‘The bear hunt was back.’
‘Gentleman, your highnesses, fellow hunters, members of the press,’ Sterg shouted, as he stepped out from behind the curtained-off stage and addressed the crowd. ‘Duke Verthold welcomes you all to a new era of hunting.’
The crowd cheered and fired their weapons into the sky, filling the air with wisps of ghostly gun smoke.
‘Today we celebrate the first annual Boonwart Clockwork Bear Hunt by recreating the greatest ever moment in hunting history, a feat of sheer bravery in the face of great danger,’ Sterg announced. ‘It is the story of one man’s battle against the last of a mighty breed. Human against beast. Gunpowder and nerve against a mountain of muscle and claw. Only one will survive to tell the tale.’
A drum began to beat. An elk horn sounded.
‘Boonwart, I give you the death of the last bear in Switzerland.’ Sterg raised his hands into the air, before ducking back through the curtains.
Again, the air filled with cheers and gun smoke.
Once the applause had faded, the main curtains spread apart, revealing an empty imitation of a forest, its painted cut-out trees short and flat; its horizon unashamedly two-dimensional. Hidden from the crowd in the wings on the eastern side of the stage, Hugo tried to ignore the presence of the actor beside him. Shifting awkwardly in his bear costume, the actor attempted to scratch his backside with one hand, and chew on an apple with the other. He gave up with both, dropping the mauled fruit on to the floor. Hugo clenched his fingers into his sticky palms. Without looking, he felt Ursula’s frown reach across the fake forest from a gap in the curtains on the opposite side of the stage.
For his plan to work, everything had to go just as the Duke had ordered – lives depended on it.
The stage remained empty. The crowd began to whistle.
‘Behold, Karac Forest.’ With an ornate scroll in his grasp, Sterg strode past Ursula and retook his place on the stage. ‘A peaceful land, free at last from the blood-thirsty, man-eating beasts that once roamed its borders.’ Sterg raised his free hand above his brow and pretended to squint over at the wooden trees on the other side of the stage. ‘But wait, what the devil is this I see before me? No it can’t be.’
The actor dressed in the bear costume left Hugo’s side and stepped out into the daylight. The crowd booed. One overexcited hunter fired his musket. The actor turned to look at the large hole in the backdrop behind him. He shook his head and scrambled under the nearest section of curtain, only to be shoved back out again.
‘The bear has returned.’ Sterg shouted, to great applause. ‘Oh dear God, and here comes its first and last victim: a lowly toymaker.’
Sterg’s words winded Hugo, catching him off guard. But it wasn’t over. Hugo could barely watch, while a young man playing the role of his father stepped onto the other side of the stage and was immediately set upon by the actor in the bear costume.
Streams of red paper rolled out the toymaker’s belly, as he collapsed theatrically to the stage, shouting: ‘Avenge me, Duke Verthold!’
Answering the call, the Duke leapt onto the stage, brandishing a musket. The crowd whooped with joy.
‘And who is this who now stands alone against the mighty beast. But, of course, who else? It is the legendary hunter, Duke Verthold.’ Sterg bowed to the Duke.
The Duke raised the musket and took aim, as the bear sauntered towards him, waving his paws about in a mad dance.
‘Oh no. Who will survive this battle of the titans?’ shouted Sterg.
The Duke proudly pushed out his medal-encrusted chest and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. The bear stopped in front of the Duke and jiggled his paws around with a muffled roar. The Duke cocked the stage prop and tried again, but to no avail. The bear, spurred on by his part’s unexpected reprieve, began to taunt the Duke by dancing around the old man, wiggling his bum and stamping his feet. The crowd appeared bemused. A laugh cut the silence. Then, when the bear lent in close to mock the legend for a second time, the Duke struck him right on the nose with the butt of the musket, knocking the actor clean off his feet. The crowd roared with laughter. The Duke placed the heel of his boot on the belly of his prize and struck a gallant pose.
Forgetting his cue, Sterg quickly unrolled the parchment and skipped down his lines. ‘And so… Duke Verthold defeated the last bear in Switzerland.’ He reached the bottom of the scroll. ‘But our tale does not end there. For you too now have a chance to follow in the footsteps of a legend.’ His stare rested on a large trapdoor at the front of the stage. ‘Boonwart, I give you your prey, an exact living, breathing, reproduction of the last bear in Switzerland. Let the hunt begin.’
Hugo gritted his teeth. There was no going back now.
The whole of Boonwart held its breath while a large rectangular crate rose up from a hole in the stage. Only Ursula looked away. She watched her grandfather’s reaction and then lowered her head and retreated out of sight.
Sterg waved his arms up and down. ‘Arise from the underworld, and be reborn.’
The wooden crate came to a halt, its base flush with the stage. All eyes fell on the Duke. The legend approached the cage of his old foe. With a dramatic flick of his hand, he unbolted a door on the side of the crate. As the door fell open, the Duke slid backwards, musket at the ready.
Sterg withdrew in fake fear. ‘Once again, two old enemies meet face to face on the field of battle.’ He shielded his eyes, in theatrical expectation.
But nothing happened.
The crowd fought to see inside the crate’s dark innards.
‘I order you to come forth beast.’ Sterg shouted.
‘Say please,’ a faint voice whispered from inside the crate.
The Duke’s expression sank. Open mouthed, he looked across at a gap in the curtains, but there was no one there – Hugo had vanished. The Duke turned to Sterg, who shrugged.
A silence fell over the stage.
‘Come out and face your fate. Do not keep my public waiting,’ The Duke shouted.
‘That is, please come out and face your fate,’ the voice from inside the crate whispered in reply.
Catching only half an argument, the crowd glanced at one another in bafflement.
The Duke’s face wrinkled into a frown. ‘What? What’s going on? This wasn’t in the script. I didn’t authorize this. Beast, you will obey me. Do you hear? Come out immediately, I say.’
‘Why?’ asked the faint voice.
The Duke choked down his fury. ‘What do you mean why? Because I am Duke Verthold, the greatest hunter to have ever lived, and you are my prey. That’s why.’
The confusion in the crowd grew.
The Duke stamped his foot. ‘Didn’t you hear what I just said? I am Duke Verthold. Now obey me prey. This instant… By the gods, you will do as I say.’
The Duke cursed, shook his musket, and jumped up and down.
Noting the crowd’s bemused reaction, Sterg whispered over to the crate. ‘Please.’
‘Pretty please,’ whispered the voice.
Sterg shielded his mouth. ‘Pretty please.’
Overhearing Sterg’s words, the hunters nearest the stage gripped their sides and fought back the laughter. A young reporter from the Thundescarten Courant, who had been promoted to replace Bog – when the old pro became convinced he could talk to animals – scribbled feverishly in his notebook.
‘Now the Dukey,’ the faint voice demanded.
The Duke’s cheeks turned molten red. ‘I will not.’
Laced with giggles, and cracks of laughter, news of the unexpected battle of wills spread to the limits of the crowd.
‘This is intolerable behaviour,’ The Duke snarled. He padded around the wooden floor, snapping the odd stare at the crate’s opening. ‘I will never bow before my own prey. Never… It’s not natural.’
A rotten potato flew over the crowd and skidded across the stage.
Sterg fell to his knees. ‘Please come out, pretty please.’
The horde of hunters burst into uncontrollable laughter.
‘Bah! I will not stand for such impudence.’ The Duke scowled at Sterg. ‘If I have to, I will drag the beast out with my own bare hands.’ He stormed towards crate, only to be stopped in his tracks by the faint voice.
‘Hold still, stop your wriggling,’ whispered the voice from inside the crate. ‘Just remember who’s in charge here. You are the brawn and I’m the brains. Got it?’
The Duke blinked. ‘How dare you! I will not be spoken to in that way.’
Somewhere inside the crate, metal cracked against metal. The crate shook. The Duke snapped the musket’s butt against his shoulder and took aim at the dark opening. Then, with a grin, he dropped his stage prop weapon and replaced it with a pistol from Sterg’s belt. The crowd fell quiet.
Suddenly, a small black mouse shot out of the crate and scampered between the Duke’s legs. The Duke barely flinched, his aim fixed, his pistol cocked. It appeared nothing would distract him from his target. Scraping to a halt, the mouse peered back at the crate, as an unusual shape began to emerge from its dark interior.
The Duke flexed his trigger finger. ‘Come to the Duke.’ He tracked his prey into the daylight.
His target skidded awkwardly out of the crate, before collapsing in a heap at the front of the stage. The crowd took in a breath as one, their eyebrows raised, their mouths open.
‘What… is… that?’ The Duke’s face drained of what little blood still remained.
Hundreds of wide eyes centred on the strange mass of metal parts, as it scrambled back to its feet.
It shook its body and hissed. A section of iron plate fell off.
The crowd slowly regained its voice. ‘It looks like a…?’ ‘What is that?’ ‘Is that a…?’
The Duke lost control of the muscles in his arm, and the pistol slumped to his side. ‘…A cat? Why’s a cat wearing armour? Where’s my bear? My beautiful bear.’
Burk gnawed at the frayed rope still tied around his back paw. Then, as if sensing the crowd’s anger, he cocked the paw and weed over the edge of the stage. The front row of hunters snarled and cursed.
A shudder grew in the Duke’s boots and worked its way up through his body, before reaching his mouth. ‘I know that cat.’ He swung his pistol towards Burk, but before he could fire he was struck in the chest by a mauled apple.
Buried amongst the faces in the crowd, a figure tugged on the brim of his tattered hat, concealing his eyes in shadow. ‘We’ve been tricked,’ he shouted. ‘I want my money back.’
A few hunters behind the figure joined in the chorus. Soon, the demand spread through the crowd, until nearly all of Boonwart spoke with one very angry voice. ‘We want our money back.’
The Duke dropped his pistol and scrubbed the apple juice off his medals. ‘Don’t you know who I am?’
‘Gentleman. Gentlemen. … There’s been a small delivery mishap… wrong box, easy mistake to make… Keep back. ’ Sterg ducked out of the way of a potato. ‘No refunds.’ He ran across the stage and hid behind the crate. ‘Read your contracts. Check the really small writing on the back.’
Cutting though the crowd, the leader of the apple-fuelled rebellion headed for the rear of the stage. Before he lost sight of the Duke, he whistled as loud as he could three times.
In the centre of the stage, the black mouse scuttled out from behind the Duke’s heels. ‘Squeak.’ It stood up on its hind legs. ‘Ah hum… Squeeeak. Squeeeeeeeeak. SQUEAK!’
Finally, Burk’s ears twitched and he spun around to face the rodent. The mouse waited until the metal clad cat was almost upon it and then it turned and darted towards the rear of the stage. Seemingly underestimating the width of his metal suit, Burk slammed between the Duke’s legs, bowling the old hunter off his feet.
Ursula scrambled onto the stage, as an armoured ball of fur shot passed her and disappeared under the backdrop. ‘Grandpa!’ Dodging a barrage of flying vegetables, she dragged the Duke back to his feet.
The Duke gazed around him. ‘This can’t be happening… They’ve forgotten who I am. How can they forget Duke Catvolled… I mean, Verthold?’
Keeping his head down, Sterg crawled under the backdrop and over the side of the stage. He rose to his feet and walked over to a saddle bag lying on the ground. ‘Thieving locals stole my horse. You can’t trust anyone in this town.’ He grabbed the bag out of the dirt and shook it; it rang to the sound of metal coins. A grin returned to his face, only to be banished by the thud, thud, of approaching footsteps.
An angry pack of hunters surrounded their prey.
‘Gentlemen.’ Sterg ducked the saddle bag behind his back. ‘If you’re looking for your money, I fear I have bad tidings. I’m afraid it’s gone, stolen… Wait. What are you doing? Calm yourselves… Let us discuss this like civilized human beings?’
The Duke’s ancestral home, or rather what was left of it, appeared untouched by the chaos that reigned in nearby Boonwart. The castle’s towers, hallways, and courtyard were as still as the grave. Nothing moved, not even a mouse – well that wasn’t entirely true.
In the courtyard, beside the Duke’s carriage, a ring of small bubbles appeared in a bucket of rain water. One by one the bubbles exhaled with a silent pop – until there was only one left. A black smudged golden nose then surfaced beneath it and pierced the bubble’s delicate skin.
‘I think I swallowed some ash.’ Hipatia scrambled up the side of the bucket and rested on the rim.
Close by, a stable door swung open and Hugo led Sterg’s horse out into the courtyard. He tugged on the horse’s new harness, which appeared inside out, or possibly back to front – there was no time to figure out which. Somehow, Hugo managed to back the horse against the front of the Duke’s carriage, but connecting the harness wasn’t going to be so easy. Slouched on the driver’s seat, Burk clawed playfully at the reins.
‘I know. I’m going as fast as I can,’ Hugo said in reply, holding a section of leather strap in one hand and a buckle in the other. All of a sudden, the rig and harness fell from his grasp. Had he left the gate open? He couldn’t remember. He heard a faint sound again. ‘Hipatia, hide.’ He ran for the stable door, but stopped short. Behind him, the carriage’s reins jiggled. Burk! Spinning around, Hugo tore off his hat and threw it towards the driver’s seat. His aim was good.
The hat landed perfectly, its brim swallowing Burk whole.
Ursula rode into the courtyard. With her free hand, she tugged on the reins of a second horse – the Duke’s steed trudging pathetically through the castle gates behind her.
As she headed towards the door at the far end of the courtyard, Ursula looked over her shoulder at the bear-costumed rider hunched over the Duke’s saddle. ‘Grandpa. I told you. You can take the disguise off now. We’re safe.’
Peering from behind the stable door, Hugo watched Ursula help the bear down from his horse and into the castle. Had that really been the Duke?
When he felt sure the pair were gone, Hugo ran back across the courtyard to the carriage and lashed the horse’s harness to the rig. He grabbed Hipatia from the bottom of the bucket and climbed onto the driver’s seat. The reins jiggled beside him. Burk’s tail whipped out from under the hat.
‘I agree.’ Hugo took the reins from his cat and raised them into the air, but before he could snap them down a spluttered word reached him from his jacket pocket.
‘Listen,’ said Hipatia.
Hugo’s hands froze mid action, held fast by an unexpected creak of metal. Swiftly, he leapt down from the driver’s seat and hid behind the cabin. At the far end of the courtyard, a small door swung open and someone stepped through. Crouched against the carriage’s wheels, Hugo could hear a pair of boots scrape over the cobbles. The footsteps seemed to be heading for the castle’s gates. Hugo felt his chest relax. He sucked in a breath. Perhaps, this still might work. But the rhythmic footsteps ended on an odd note – one step unfinished. Hugo willed the rhythm to pick up again.
Another sound then pierced what little hope remained. Metal locked against metal in a familiar snap. Hugo visualised the flintlock on the Duke’s musket cocked and ready to fire. The silence that followed clawed at his thoughts. What was happening? He couldn’t force his body to look. Hugo was a crouching target. He remembered the bear’s expression in the forest and caught an imagined glimpse of its life – and its end.
Finally, Hugo managed to force himself to turn and he looked under the carriage. The figure had vanished; the courtyard was empty. The back of his neck prickled with the thought of an unseen musket tracking his movement, toying with his life. Sterg’s horse grunted and yanked the carriage forward.
The half turn of the spoked wheels dislodged a thought in Hugo’s mind. ‘Burk?’ He dipped out from under the cabin, and looked up at the driver’s seat. The hat was still there, but its tail had gone.
‘Pssst.’ Hugo pursed his lips. Then, as he turned to gaze across the cabin roof, a shadow leapt off it and flew over his head. Hard leather soles slapped the cobbles behind him.
‘Lost something?’ A familiar voice asked.
As the question hung unanswered in the air, Hugo noticed a new reflection in the cabin window. The image rested a musket against its shoulder and raised a hand – something was dangling beneath it against the folds of a gown. The strung-up shape wriggled and groaned.
Hugo twisted around. ‘Let him go.’
Ursula twirled the frayed end of a length of string in her grasp and then glanced down at the cat hanging by a paw from the other end. ‘No. I don’t think so… I Think I’ll keep him. He’d look good stuffed, don’t you think?’
‘I said, let him go.’ Hugo watched Burk spin back and forth, like a clock’s pendulum. He stepped back against the cabin. ‘He never did you any harm.’
Ursula tightened her grip on her grandfather’s musket. ‘Oh… What’s this? You mean I’ve actually found an animal you care about?’ She feigned shock. ‘Or, are you just pulling another magic trick? Is it a cat, or is it a toy?’ She hauled Burk over to the bucket of rainwater. ‘How about a quick test?’
‘Hey.’ Hipatia climbed out of Hugo’s pocket and onto his shoulder. ‘Leave that hair-bag alone. No one drowns Kitty but me.’
Ursula studied Hipatia’s movements. ‘Clever. You can’t even see the strings.’ Slowly, she became aware of Hugo’s palm resting against the cabin door behind him. ‘Going somewhere are we?’ She let go of the frayed string and Burk dropped beside the water bucket, landing clumsily on all fours.
Gripping her grandfather’s musket in both hands, Urusula narrowed her eyes. ‘What are you hiding?’ She tilted her head and looked past Hugo at the cabin window – the blinds were drawn.
Hugo felt Burk skulk against the side of his foot. ‘Nothing.’
‘Is that so?’ Ursula aimed along the musket’s barrel. ‘Open that door.’
Hugo leant firmly against the cabin and stood his ground.
‘You think I won’t shoot?’ Ursula snapped. ‘I don’t get old men to do my dirty work for me.’
Hugo fanned his arms out either side of the cabin door and shook his head.
‘Get out of the way,’ snapped Ursula.
‘I’m not moving.’ Hugo clenched his eyelids shut. ‘You’re going to have to pull the trigger.’
‘If you say so.’
Hipatia tapped the end of her tail against Hugo’s neck. ‘Mathematically speaking, this course of action does have one intrinsic flaw.’
‘Sssh.’ Hugo swallowed a heavy gulp.
The courtyard remained silent. Another second past, but still nothing happened; no shot rang out. Hugo opened his eyes.
Ursula had vanished again.
‘Where’d she go?’ asked Hugo.
‘It’s elementary arithmetic,’ Hipatia said.
‘The number of doors on the cabin,’ replied Hipatia.
By the time Hugo had sprinted around the other side of the carriage it was too late. Ursula carefully closed the cabin door and looked back at him, her mouth open, as if caught between sentences.
Suddenly, the Duke strode out of the door at the far end of the courtyard, his head hidden behind a glass cabinet filled with stuffed tropical birds. Hugo squinted at the Duke’s bear costume and then darted against the side of the cabin.
‘Are we taking the carriage?’ The Duke shouted.
Ursula stared at Hugo.‘No Grandpa.’ She finally spoke. ‘We’ll need to travel light, less conspicuous. Sterg will take the carriage instead.’
‘Of course. Yes. Clever thinking,’ shouted the Duke. ‘A decoy… Perfect.’ He headed back through the doorway.
Ursula stepped beside Hugo. ‘You know, for a lousy hunter, you make a fine magician.’ A tiny smile flickered across her face, before she followed after her grandfather.
Ten days had passed since Hugo drove the Duke’s carriage free from the walls of Grundel Castle. The Duke’s carriage, or what remained of it after two days of being driven through thick forest, now rested at the edge of a clearing, its front end propped up against a boulder.
‘What if it doesn’t want to come out?’ Hipatia peered over the edge of the cabin’s roof. ‘Maybe it’s hungry? We could always send in Kitty for a friendly chat?’
Hugo shuffled around the large, coiled shell of interlocking iron plates that lay in the centre of the clearing. Rolling a bronze key in his palm, he glanced back to the cabin’s open door. He waited, but nothing happened.
He slotted the key into a tiny gap on the top of the iron shell, and gave it just half a turn. The timing had to be perfect. ‘Where is Burk?’
‘He’s probably keeping his tail down. You know, I actually believe it has finally dawned on the hairy flea-farm that rodents are a superior species. At last, his tiny brain understands the true order of things,’ said Hipatia.
‘Really?’ Hugo glanced at the black mass of feline hair moving behind Hipatia.
‘Of course. Kitty knows his place. Felines are inferior to Rodents. It’s elementary biology. You see, I know exactly what he is going to do before he does.’ Suddenly, Hipatia’s tail flicked straight, as Burk leapt towards her. In a brief click of her mechanical heart, she glanced up at the airborne feline, and blinked. ‘Impossible!’ She scrambled to get away and then ran out of roof. In a chaotic blur, she fell past the open door, landing head first in a clump of grass. As if to rub grit into her joints, Burk dropped perfectly on all fours beside her. Hipatia righted herself and shook her head.
The pair glared at one another, but neither moved.
For a few moments, the carriage remained still and lifeless. Then, its three remaining wheels shook and a shadow rose up from between the cabin’s seats, blocking out the light from the opposite window. The carriage groaned, as the bear cub leapt out into the daylight, landing in the clearing with a dense thud. It stared down at the cat and the clockwork mouse, and sniffed.
‘He’s all yours Kitty.’ Hipatia darted over to Hugo’s side.
Burk appeared to mull over the mouse’s odd noises, before he too made his choice and scrambled to safety.
Hugo tightened his grip on the key wedged in the top of the iron shell. He turned it clockwise an extra notch, and stood back. With a whirl of cogs, the mass of metal cracked and shook, and a new form began to emerge from the iron chrysalis. Metal muscles twisted into being. One after the other, hinged claws snapped free and dug into the earth. A wide flat head rose out of a thick multi-layered neck. Ears unfolded. Iron eyelids opened.
Seemingly confused by the odourless life, the cub backed off. Dipping his hand in his pocket, Hugo pulled out his father’s pocket watch. It was wrapped in a long thin strip of stained carpet. Hugo unravelled the fabric, leant over the clockwork bear, and tied it around the toy’s iron neck. Hugo slipped a few paces back and waited. Everything he had done now rested on what happened next. His heart sank, as the creatures appeared to ignore each other. It wasn’t going to work.
A light breeze washed over the clearing. The strip of carpet tied around the clockwork bear’s neck wriggled and flapped. The hairs on the cub’s face rippled. Its eyes widened. Then, in one fluid motion, the cub drew in a breath and rose on to its hind legs. The clockwork bear responded, its iron bulk rising gracefully off the ground. Two giants, one born of nature, one born of metal, finally acknowledged each other. The cub roared – a yelp which hinted of the great strength to come. The clockwork bear replied in kind – a booming metallic roar, which shook the nearby trees from root to tip, announcing a return. Mother and cub fell back to the ground and touched noses. Without looking back, they headed into the forest, metal to fur, shoulder to shoulder.
As a new family was restored to the forest, Hugo looked down at his father’s pocket watch. He flipped open its lid. The inside of the watch was empty. The broken dial and clock mechanism were gone. After a short hesitation, Hugo pressed the lid shut and stared out over the distant valley. A new path called to him. It had been there all along, waiting.
‘Not a bad first effort. The metal work is a bit rough. The design needed a bit more polish, and the cog timings were a little off. But, apart from that… Not too shabby.’ Hipatia appeared on Hugo’s shoulder. ‘I might make a decent apprentice out of you yet.’
‘Apprentice?’ said Hugo.
‘Well, OK. You’re right. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves… Maybe a junior apprentice. But, from now on, you’re going to have to start listening to me.’
Deep within Karac Forest, the restored mechanism of a toymaker’s watch kept perfect time, but instead of turning thin hands on a small ivory dial, its tiny cogs now powered the beat of a brass heart, a heart with one function – to protect the last bear in Switzerland.
… THE END …
© David Anthony Sutton 2012