Desperate Measures and a Bear's Test of Trust
The Bear could see all the men, and the two dogs that had not been eaten, but beyond was a curtain of snow. The Bear's legs were raw from the leg irons, and the iron muzzle dug into his face with every move. He was starving along with his captors. They had been feeding him such small scraps as could be accommodated by the muzzle, but even that had stopped a week ago. He would not be killed by this blizzard. But if all the men died, the Bear would slowly starve to death in chains and muzzle.
"It is madness to attempt to cross the Alps before Easter!" another man angrily accused. "You're the one who should have been chained and muzzled. You've led us to our deaths."
It was true, the Bear saw. They would last perhaps a few more days; Bear, too many beyond them to contemplate. Bears took a long time dying.
"Kill a dog," Prior William ordered. "And don't short the Bear his share."
"You're taking food out of our mouths to feed your plaything?" the first man asked. "Even if by some miracle we get to Rome, oh what a fine spectacle he shall make, scarred with cruel apparatus and half-starved. Prior William bringing a bear in chains to Rome is nothing like Abbot Corbinian's miracle."
Hearing Father Corbinian's name was as good as a meal. Perhaps these men were not as evil in their distress as they had been in conquest. Father Corbinian. What would he want Bear to do?
Presently, he began pawing the snow. When he was finished he stood looking at Prior William.
When the men stopped arguing, the Bear made the best noise he could make to get their attention. He looked from Prior William to the marks he had made with his paw.
"I'll be -- do you see what I see?" one of the men asked.
"Looks like a bear has dug around in some snow," said another.
Prior William stared at it, and held up a hand for silence. "Get your spears ready. Remove the muzzle." While the rest of the men threatened the Bear with spears, one of them took a hammer and knocked out the two pins that held it closed. The Bear opened his mouth, painfully, and cleared his throat. Still, he said nothing. He looked at Prior William and shook the chains on his forelegs.
"Tell me what you want," Prior William demanded. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
The Bear looked him straight in the eyes and jangled his chains again. Then he curled up in the snow as if he were prepared to rest there for a very long time, all the while staring at Prior William.
"Damn you," Prior William spat. "Remove the chains."
"Prior," began one of the men, "need I remind you that this is a bear we have chained at our feet? He may not be in very good shape, but spears or no, who is to say what will happen if we remove his chains?"
"He'll save our lives, you idiot," Prior William answered. "Look," he commanded, pointing at the snow disturbed by the Bear's paw.
The man took his hat off despite the cold and scratched his head. "I see what you're saying. Could be. Then again..."
"We don't have any alternative," Prior William said bitterly. "So chains. And pack."
Returned to his natural state, the Bear thought that while the men might not have any alternative, he had several. He could no doubt kill most of them right now, and the rest would scatter to cold, lonely deaths. He could fill his stomach and head to a lower elevation where he might find shelter and even a pony. That was his Bearish instinct. He would especially take pleasure in Prior William's gruesome death. And, he would be in possession of Father Corbinian's black words.
Or, now that he was free, he could leave them to their fate, and save himself.
Ah, but against his animal instincts, stood everything Father Corbinian had ever taught him. When he always told the Bear to "be more man and less bear," he was not talking about these kind of men. He was talking about a man like Father Corbinian.
"Bear will search for shelter," he finally said in a voice raspy with disuse. "Then he will search for game. Do not move. Bear will be back."
"You're staking our lives on the word of a talking bear?" one of the men asked incredulously. He barked a short laugh. "What's to keep him from just running off? It is certain he owes us nothing."
"I am staking our lives on a loyal pupil of Father Corbinian," Prior William stated calmly. "I do not believe this rational creature would soil the memory of his master."
"Bear has one master," he growled. And with that he turned and was quickly swallowed by white mystery. He was not certain just who that would turn out to be.
"I still don't see it," said the man who had not seen anything significant before.
"Look." Prior William bent over the Bear's design and traced it with a finger above it. "It's an ichthys. An early Christian symbol. To you, a simple fish. But to a bear, lads, it is food, whether fish or flesh matters not to us. I suspect Abbot Corbinian's Bear was not unaware of its significance to Christians, so, a pledge, if you will. We've bartered the beast's temporary freedom for dinner."
"If he brings me dinner, it won't be me chaining him up again," said the man.
"Nor me," said another.
Prior William assumed a thoughtful mien. "Perhaps. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Let us pray for the success and trustworthiness of Corbinian's Bear."