Brother Gunther dropped to his knees. Looking at Prior William, who stood beside the Bear, he said, "Prior William. We stand taller on our knees." Prior William got to his knees also, so there was one monk on each side of the Bear's head. The Bear got on the ground and lowered his head in submission, but growled.
"I stand taller on my feet," Angest said. The rest of the men looked at each other and tried to make a brave show.
"What do you make of this, Angest?" asked the Bear.
"Cavalry are the eyes of an army," Angest answered. "Or a city, for that matter. They will play nature's oldest game: can you eat me, or can I eat you? You know that one, I bet, don't you Captain Bear?"
"Bear supposes he does," he answered, in the unusual position of facing something that could eat him. Horses. The Bear knew irony when he saw it. "Advice, Lieutenant?"
"Well, you are a talking Bear," Angest said with one of his mad grins. "There's that."
"I see a banner," the youngest of the other men said.
"It won't be long now," Angest said softly. "What does it look like, keen-eyed youngster?"
"White. With something black on it."
"That's interesting," observed Angest maddeningly.
By now they could all see the banner and the tips of spears, and clearly hear the pounding of hooves. And just that quickly, the army of horsemen, for that is how it seemed, were surrounding the odd party. The warriors bore colorful round shields of various designs, and wore scale armor. Their eyes were shaded by tall helmets with large nasals. Each bore a long spear and a sword on his hip. The horsemen moved in a restless circle as they tried to keep their mounts under control. Evidently, they did not enjoy the smell of a Bear. The Bear had a fleeting thought that he could probably rout the entire company with one roar, but something made him stay quiet.
The horsemen in front parted, and a old warrior dressed more richly than the others approached on a skittish horse. Next to him, another warrior carried the banner: a black crow on a white background, with wings outstretched. The leader's -- for that was what he had to be -- horse reared, and he turned and gave a command. Immediately, two men rode up and took his mount's headstall on either side, giving him an opportunity to dismount, if not in the most dignified manner.
Remaining several yards away from the Bear, he called out something the Bear recognized as the vulgate Latin, but he could not understand. He tried a different language, but the Bear could not understand that one, either. Patiently, he tried again.
"Are you Corbinian's Bear?" he asked in Frankish.
The Bear raised his head. "Bear is."
The man approached and removed his helmet. "I am Liutprand, King of Italy," he said casually, as if just imparting information that bore on the situation. He turned, and called, "Bring me my warhorse." The horse having been brought, King Liutprand drew his sword. "You may be a talking bear, but a bear, after all, is a bear." With a swift move, he cut the throat of his horse and patted its neck. It dropped to its knees, collapsed, and bled out, sending rivulets of blood down the road. "You must be hungry after your long journey. Please, take advantage of my hospitality. You will never have a dearer meal."
The Bear did not like to eat in front of people, but he did not know how to refuse. He said "thank you," and ate his fill out of politeness. Politeness and hunger. And it was a horse that he did not even have to chase down. When he was finally done, he knew his muzzle would be covered with blood, and he would not look very miraculous. "Thank you," he said again. "That was a very good -- Bear means, your horse... your generous sacrifice for a humble guest, was Benedictine in its hospitality."
"Water, and a cloth," Liutprand ordered. Then he himself washed the Bear's face, as a smile spread across his face. "Will you be my guest? You and your companions?"
Prior William stood up. "Your highness, permit me to introduce myself. I am Prior William, the abbot-elect of Corbinian's abbey, and I am in charge of this expedition. I accept your kind offer of hospitality."
Liutprand let an expressionless gaze fall upon Prior William, and held him with it for an uncomfortable length of time. "I apologize for not making myself more clear, Prior William. The invitation was directed toward the Bear. Anyone he wishes to accompany him is, of course, also welcome."
"Bear would be happy to be your guest, King Liutprand."
"Dismount!" Liutprand cried. He was oblivious to the chaos caused by the horses wanting to flee, once they no longer felt the weight of their riders. "On your knees!" The men obeyed without hesitation, although it was a wonder none fell victim to their rearing and plunging mounts. Liutprand made the sign of the cross as he knelt before the Bear, and his men dutifully copied him. Then Liutprand stood up and smiled at the Bear, and indicated that he should rise to his feet. "Mount up! Flanks!" he cried. "Behold your honor guard, Corbinian's Bear. Shall you and I walk together the rest of the way to the city?"
"That would be very nice. Oh, and thank you for the wash up. Bear doesn't really --"
"It was my privilege, dear Bear." He looked at the nervous horses that had formed up on either side of them. "Perhaps it were best if we walked alone. Captain, ride back to the city. Spread the news."
The Bear and Liutprand, King of Italy, walked on ahead, and the sound of the old warrior's laughter was often heard.
"Do you know this so-called King?" Prior William asked Angest.
"Aye," said Angest, and spat. "He's a true son of the Church. Not that it stops him from marching on Rome. Yet he's Rome's ally, and he's also allied to the Exarch at Ravenna: the Byzantines. The emperor away east likes to keep his thumb on the Pope and a toehold in Italy. Liutprand fought the Saracens with Charles the Hammer, or Martel in the Frankish tongue. He covets Ravenna, but the Pope is loyal to the emperor. I heard a rumor that Luitprand has just fought the Slavs. Luitprand's strategy is to be allied with everyone and at war with everyone. Lucky for the world, Lombards mainly like fighting each other."
"That makes no sense. Do you think we'll be safe?"
"Did you see what he did to his horse? We'll be safe until he has a reason for us not to be. Funny thing is, right now, he is genuinely enjoying our Bear's company. When we get into the city, I have some errands to run. God bless the lads, I don't know what to do with them. I guess I'll take them with me. Keep 'em away from the whores. Our Captain Bear wouldn't like that."
"Tell me," Prior William asked. "How do you know so much?"
"I'm the son of Aripert the Second, King of the Lombards, whom most had supposed to be the last of the Bavarian line. I am King of Italy and the Iron Crown belongs on this ugly head," Angest said matter-of-factly. Then he burst out laughing at the expression on Prior William's face.
"Does Liutprand know?"
"He will," answered Angest, and this time there was no laugh. "Liutprand is a magnificent king. The best there's ever been. But good don't make right. Chance has brought us together in Turin. And Lombard dukes are ever restive. But Prior, if he should somehow come to know before he should, it will not go well for you, no matter what happens to me."
At the outskirts of Turin, a a huge crowd was lining the way, cheering at the sight of their king and Corbinian's Bear. And the Bear's great paws fell on rose petals, strewn by laughing girls.