Bear in Chains
And not Father Corbinian. He did not like the smell of these men, so he crept out of his bed, and approached the mouth of his cave. He smelled dogs, and fire, as well. Soon he saw the twinkle of torches, coming from the direction of the abbey and heard the hounds begin to bay. St. Corbinian would not come so late, or with fire, let alone dogs. The Bear left his cave and found a place where he could watch undetected.
The men were neither few, nor many in number; the Bear could not say exactly. They had spears as well as dogs and fire. They also carried large bundles of wood on their backs. A man directed them to pile up the bundles of wood at the mouth of the Bear's cave. When they were done, the leader gestured toward the wood, and the men lit the pile with their torches.
"Bear," the leader called, "I know you can hear me. You can choke to death in your cave, or come out to parley. Your Father is dead. I am Prior William. I have been elected the new abbot, and bring Corbinian's final instructions for you. I speak with his authority. Hear me as you would him."
The dog's noses were confused by the smoke and Bear scent everywhere. These men were stupid. They were too few, their dogs were too small, and they had put themselves between a fire and a Bear. If he charged, he could make an end of most of them. No, that was Bear thinking, This man might really speak for Father Corbinian.
The Bear emerged silently from the dark and looked down at their leader from behind. "Still as stones, or Bear will kill you," he announced so everyone could hear him over the barking of the hounds. The one called Prior William whirled on him, terrified. "Bear can kill you before anyone can do anything. Then he will kill or scatter your men. Bear is not frightened of your puppies. You have no experience hunting Bears, Prior William. Whatever shall you do with the cruel muzzle and all the heavy chains you have brought? Perhaps you shall return the way you came wearing them yourself."
"If what the old man told me is true," Prior William said, somewhat recovering himself, "you will do me no harm. Besides, are you not curious as to what your Father Corbinian had to say about you?" He held out a sheaf of parchment pages, and offered the first one to the Bear.
"Bear cannot read Father's black words," the Bear said.
"Of course you cannot. Allow me to read, then. 'The Bear who speaks is a vile artifice of the Devil, and fit only for chains and sport.'"
The Bear's heart turned to ice. "I do not believe you."
"I'm afraid it's true, beast. Our dear, departed abbot may have harbored hopes for your immortal soul at one time, but in the end, he decided you were worse than a beast, worse than a freak, you were a creature of Hell. But --" the Prior paused, "perhaps you can prove him wrong by an act of obedience. I must go to Rome to be confirmed by the pope in my new position. If you will consent to carry my baggage, as you bore Corbinian's, perhaps our former abbot's harsh verdict may be reversed."
"Bear wants to see Father Corbinian's black words," the Bear said firmly. "He would not have written so many just to say Bear was evil."
"These pages?" Prior William said with a look of kind concern. To the Bear's horror, he fed the first page into the fire. "They are useless to you, illiterate beast. They are from a time when our dear misguided abbot held unrealistic hopes for you." The Prior held up the next sheet, then it followed the first into the fire.
"Stop!" the Bear roared as he took a step that brought him close enough to Prior William to give him the kiss of peace. An over-eager dog was absent-mindedly dispatched with one swipe of the Bear's paw. "Bear wants Father's black words. If you burn another sheet, you will see Hell's Bear in truth!"
One of the men tried to flee, but the Bear effortlessly intercepted him, and felled him with another blow from his paw. "Prior, you have killed us all!" the injured man groaned.
Caught between fire and Bear, too close to effectively use their weapons, the men shook with fear. Prior William pressed the pages to the Bear's chest. "If I give them to you, will you serve me as you served Corbinian? You will submit to chain and muzzle?"
"Yes," the Bear replied without hesitation.
"Good. Then get on all fours, like a good beast," commanded Prior William. The Bear complied. The Prior stroked the top of the Bear's head. "You are now William's Bear. Your ridiculous furniture is ablaze. Understand me: you are nothing more than a beast. And I own you."
The Bear suppressed an urge to attack, or at least to flee. This pathetic party would never catch him. But then he would never know Father Corbinian's black words about him. So he stood still for what he knew was to come.
Leg irons were fastened on each of the Bear's legs, and connected with short, heavy chains that would keep him from running. But the most humiliating thing of all was a cruel iron muzzle with a leather headstall cinched tightly under his throat until he could hardly breathe.
When the doleful task was finished, the men clubbed his face with the butts of their spears. They spat in his face and mocked him by asking him to say his prayers. The muzzle prevented the Bear from speaking, and he was only able to give forth a single strangled growl, then grew silent. They set their dogs upon him to tear into his flesh. He could not defend himself, and was cruelly torn, but his thick fur and loose skin prevented serious damage.
"No one will remember that old fool Corbinian, beast. However, you will be known to history as William's Bear. To Rome we will go, and you will be displayed, my friend. And when my business is done, you will carry my baggage back for me. If you behave, you may have Corbinian's scribblings. Perhaps you shall eat them," Prior William finished, to his men's laughter. "Or perhaps I shall burn them after all, to protect dear Corbinian's reputation."
The Bear again tried to speak, but could hardly make a noise beyond a pitiful rasp. What was he without speech? he suddenly thought. Prior William was right. He was a dumb beast at the mercy of wicked men who would kill him when he no longer served a purpose.
"Behold the famous talking Bear," Prior William said with a smile. "What, nothing to say to us? Where has your tameness gotten you, beast? Better for you had you been a bear, and not have pretended to be a man. Corbinian did you no favors."
But the Bear remembered. Bear was strong; Bear was fierce; and Bear was cunning. Prior William was prideful and stupid. An opportunity would come. But for now, the Bear would suffer for any chance that he might somehow know the meaning of Father Corbinian's black words.
But Rome was such a long way away. He thought of his cave, his bed, his stream. But most of all of he thought of Father Corbinian, and tears came to his eyes. Father Corbinian, pray for your poor Bear.