(42 years before the Great Plague)
“Come quickly, Timothy, or else we shall be far too late!” yelled Gareth.
“I am coming, I am coming!” came Timothy’s reply.
He checked his bag once more that it had been fastened securely, and then skipped over to join the other two boys who were impatiently waiting for him.
“Finally! I was afraid the sun would set ere you joined us!” said Joseph playfully.
“Psh! As is your wont, you speak of impossible things, Joseph!” came Timothy’s snappy reply, as Gareth snorted in amusement.
“Enough bickering, friends! We must make the most of the sunlit hours this day!” he said as he swept away from the school building, Joseph and Timothy following behind him.
Gareth was the tallest of the three, and only just second in terms of bulk. His slightly freckled face was almost constantly screwed up into an expression that suggested that, should you take your eyes off of him for just a moment, just a few seconds, he would have set a cat on fire or nailed spikes into a cart wheel or some other such mischief in those precious few seconds. Joseph’s long, thin face was at odds with his pudgier body, as though his body fat was been given excessive attention by the pull of gravity; sometimes, other boys their age made the mistake of comparing him to a barrel-sized ball with a rolling pin stuck on top. Joseph was quick-tempered, and even quicker when it came to showing those boys why said comparison was a mistake to make in his vicinity.
Timothy, the thinnest of the bunch but by no means scrawny, rounded out their trouble-prone trio, even if he wasn’t the roundest of the lot. If Gareth was the leader, and Joseph the well-covered muscle, then Timothy was the brains, the idea maker. They could probably use a few more members in their party, but they wouldn’t think so if you asked them. In fact, they might just get offended enough to pick a fight with you.
“How big is it, really?” asked Joseph as they scurried down the well-trodden road, “Surely you jest when you say it is twice the size of a full-grown man!”
“Ha!” laughed Gareth, a hearty laugh that the boys their age thought was deep, but anyone past their teens would know was only pretending to be, “I understand your disbelief, which makes this sojourn of ours all the more sweeter!”
Gareth’s father, a wealthy trader, had a somewhat peculiar hobby of capturing and rearing wild animals in the enormous garden that surrounded their home. The house that Gareth lived in would have been an impressive sight in the city centre, a brawny, well-dressed establishment squished among the other runts, but it somehow appeared much like a runty little hut itself when compared to the expanse of green and greener it was plum in the middle of. And such a garden had plenty of space for the exotic fauna-inclined whims of Gareth’s father.
Timothy and Joseph loved the garden to bits; it was the ideal stage for their various plays and games, a wilderness within their reach. It was the kind of adventure-rich landscape that other children would have to solely use their imaginations to conjure up. The various caged animals were unwillingly thrust into the role of bloodthirsty and flesh-hungry monsters, peering curiously from inside their cages as the boys danced around them, taunts flying with gusto.
“Is it as deadly and monstrous as the books say?” asked Timothy excitedly, skipping over a big stone that had somehow found itself on a dirt path it wasn’t supposed to be on.
“I did not spend enough time with it to find out,” said Gareth, and Joseph drew his breath at the reply, “but that shall be one of the purposes of this day! I do know that it feeds on meat the most, for my father saw to a delivery of a whole cartful ere I left for school this day!”
Timothy whistled – at least, he tried to. He was too self-conscious to admit to himself that what had come out of his lips instead was some wheedling ghost of a puff of air.
The way to Gareth’s home compound was long, given how it was located on the outskirts of the city of Baskemont, nestled among the great farmlands that fed the city with their produce. The path took them from the noisy centre of Baskemont, people milling about and exchanging words that had little meaning for the three boys, through the roads that snaked in-between the poorest district in the city and the third-poorest one. If the boys had been older and more world-weary, they would have looked at the contrast in the buildings on either side of the road and reflected on whichever aspects of life were relevant to said contrast. But they were too young for all that adult nonsense, and instead simply made sure to always stick to the relatively richer side of the road.
The houses along the side of the road soon began to thin, the gardens and yards that contained them growing fatter and more fertile as the road pattered away into the more agricultural part of the city’s outskirts. Even though Timothy loved walking among the fields here, especially when the magical gardens at Gareth’s house was the destination, he wouldn’t want to live here. It was too rural to his liking – he needed to be surrounded by far more brick and stone walls before he felt secure. Plus, there was something about the buzz of the city, even at night, which gave him comfort. It was like he was closer to the beating heart of Baskemont, closer to its soul.
Standing at the gates to Gareth’s compound was Neville, a guard whose better years had passed him a while ago. His armour was polished well, but it couldn’t completely conceal the less polished form inside it. He scratched his strangely hairy ear vigorously before waving at the boys.
“Ah, Master Gareth my lad! And young Masters Joseph and Timothy beside you, as always! How has the day treated you yet?”
“Not terribly, Neville,” said Gareth, smiling; he generally didn’t mind Neville too much. “Joseph and Timothy are eager to visit our new arrival!”
“Now now! What tales have you been telling your friends, Master Gareth?” said Neville with a grin as he opened the side gate behind him, “But yes, you lads will not be disappointed, believe you me!”
“Good day, Neville!” blurted Timothy and Joseph before they darted through the gate and into the carefully maintained wilds of the garden.
Gareth led them past an assortment of animals, including a camel from the sweltering Rubah’ra desert far off to the east and a couple of snow wolves from some forests in the frigid Nordlands past the northernmost shores of Faeritalum; the camel had the disinterested expression and settled posture of a person who’d watched too much TV but was too lazy to consider looking at anything else, and the wolves paced restlessly up and down their own cage.
And finally, the three of them stood outside the reason for their presence here this day; the cage with the bear. And as the great furry beast yawned at them, their own jaws hung in awe.
The bear’s coat was a little shabby from its long journey to this cage, and its eyelids were having a hard time staying away from each other, but the bear was still an impressive sight. Its massive forelimbs and its somehow more massive hind legs looked as thick as tree trunks. Its hulking mass of a body resembled a gently quivering boulder that a great thick blanket of brown fur had decided to settle on. Its currently sleepy face bore an undercurrent of suppressed rage; while Gareth was in home territory and was therefore less hesitant to approach the cage, the other two felt that a couple of feet worth of distance between them and the cage was still not enough distance.
“It is… enormous!” stammered Joseph, experiencing the rare sensation of feeling thin.
“Look at those claws! Those great big claws!” said Timothy in awe, the finger he was pointing too shaky to stay on target.
“His name is Barnaby,” said Gareth, touching the bars of the cage to the immense jealousy and respect of his friends, “and Papa says he is gentle most of the time, so long as he is not provoked. But when he is angry, no man can survive his rage!... so says Papa.”
He then quickly jumped back as Barnaby lazily lifted one of his great claws, as if to shoo the little thing away from its cage. Joseph stifled a giggle.
“Hush, you!” said Gareth heatedly, “It may have been annoyed at my presence just then!”
“From what land did your father fetch him, Gareth?” asked Timothy, inching as close to the cage as his frantic heart would allow.
“From Terra Magellar,” said Gareth proudly, as the bear now began to scratch its great glistening nose, “He just returned from a trading voyage there! Papa said that the lands there are filled with wonders beyond the strangest of dreams!”
“Terra Magellar? Is that not where the Indians are?” asked Joseph.
“So you do pay attention in the Peoples of the World class!” teased Timothy.
Joseph snorted. Barnaby snorted almost immediately after, an echo that somehow rumbled louder than the original. The three boys jerked away from the cage once again.
“Those lessons put me to sleep faster than bedtime stories! No, my Papa and Mama told me all I need to know about the Indians in Terra Magellar and their primitive ways.”
“Have not all our Papas and Mamas done the same?” said Gareth, eyeing a stick on the ground nearby and contemplating how impressive it would look if he poked Barnaby with it and managed to get away unscathed.
“Indeed,” said Timothy, following Gareth’s gaze, “Papa says that the sooner those savages accept our ways and worship our God instead of their false ones, the better it will – you cannot be serious, Gareth!”
“Why?” asked Joseph, who had missed out on the presence of the stick completely, “what foolishness does Gareth wish to accomplish now?”
“The cage is stronger than you give it credit for, Timothy,” said Gareth, trying to display bravado but not quite nailing it.
“And the bear is probably stronger than you give it credit for, Gareth!” said Timothy, “You are mad to even consider it!”
Joseph finally caught on.
“You want to poke the bear!” he said, with an odd hint of awe in his voice, “I would gladly pay you money if you actually had the courage to make good on your promise, Gareth!”
“And what exactly do you mean by that, Joseph?” said Gareth a little too haughtily for his own good, “I have courage enough to spare!”
“Then surely big old Barnaby over there should not give you cause for fear!” taunted Joseph.
“Do not encourage him, Joseph you fruitcake!” said Timothy, “That bear’s claws are almost twice as big as your face!”
“It is not my face that will be the target of those claws,” smirked Joseph.
“Nor will it be mine,” said Gareth as he walked over to the stick, “You have seen me do this with plenty of the other animals in the garden. Barnaby will be no different.”
“It will be your funeral that we visit next,” cautioned Timothy as Gareth picked up the stick.
“Oh, stop spraying us with your gloomy notions, Timothy!” jeered Joseph.
As sticks went, this one wasn’t particularly impressive. More dead than alive, it would have splintered if thrown at a wall with a moderate amount of force. It was long though, which boosted Gareth’s confidence just that little bit more.
As he neared the cage with the stick gripped firmly in his hand, a new voice called out to him.
“No! It danger to hit Shaach! Shaach be angry to Master!”
It was a strangely…earthy voice, thought Timothy, the kind of voice a plant might adopt if it learned how to speak. He turned around to find a boy who was probably around their age staring back at them.
The boy was… all wrong. He was still clearly human, but his skin was a weird muddy colour, his nose was the wrong shape, his eyes were too dark – Timothy wasn’t sure he could stop listing all the different ways in which the boy was too different.
“What is that, Gareth?” asked Timothy in a mild level of shock.
“I would like to know this as well,” said Joseph, eyeing the stranger coldly.
“Another trophy from Papa’s voyage,” said Gareth off-handedly; the strange boy was not going to receive the more flowery introduction that the caged animals normally did, “he is apparently an Indian boy. Or perhaps a girl; I cannot say with certainty with that hair. He has been tasked with taking care of the gardens. You!” This last bark was directed at the Indian, “What are you doing here? Have you no other work to keep you busy?”
“I work in Dá’kehs, as Big Master say do,” said the boy, adopting the unsteady stance of someone who is pretty sure that they’ve just landed into hot water of the getting-mugged-in-a-dark-alley variety, but not sure enough to know how to run away from it, “no hit Shaach, Master. Ple-please!”
“I am very sure that Papa gave you all the instructions and rules of our home,” said Gareth coldly, now walking towards the boy, “and chief among them must have been to never question his orders, yes? Did my Papa yet tell you that you must not do anything against our wishes?”
He didn’t realise that he was waving the stick very threateningly at the Indian boy. The Indian boy did though, and reacted by shying away worriedly.
“Big Master say to obey all his wantings, yes. Big Master say to look after big Dá’kehs and to look a-after Master and Big Mistress also – “
“That is right, you must obey all his orders,” said Gareth menacingly, “and as his favoured son, you must obey my wishes as well! Understand?”
“That’s right, Gareth, show this earthworm his place in the order of things!” jeered Joseph from Gareth’s side.
“Yes, I obey, but Master, please – “
“And especially, that means I tell you what to do. You do not tell me what to do! Understand? Tell me you understand this!” said Gareth, whacking the ground with the stick and nearly breaking it in the process.
The dull thwack from the stick caused the boy to shudder. But several different fears were competing for control of his motor functions, and the end result was a very twitchy little wreck that wobbled around the same spot like a faulty top.
“I – yes, Master, I under-understand,” said the boy helplessly.
“Good! Now leave me and my friends me to our entertainment, and go back to your work!” commanded Gareth with the kindness of a lion snarling at a wounded deer.
Joseph and Timothy laughed cruelly as the boy struggled to do just that though, torn by a desire to not get into trouble and a desire to not let a terrible accident run its course.
“Leave him, Gareth, he appears harmless,” said Timothy, patting Gareth on the shoulder, “if not physically capable of actually doing anything useful.”
“I am taken by surprise that your father entrusts the well-being of this magnificent garden to a runt like that!” snarked Joseph, still eyeing the Indian boy coldly.
“Papa hopes he will learn to be more capable of such an undertaking in due time,” said Gareth, now turning back to the bear, “for Indians are said to be talented at matters of agriculture. I have no real issue with him though, so long as he does not give me cause for one!” With this last comment, he too stole a cold glance at the boy, still wobbling around the same spot.
Barnaby had, with all the commotion, decided to temporarily pause his nap and was now glancing curiously at the three boys. Having lumbered up onto his massive limbs, his fur-topped boulder of a frame looked even more impressive, bordering on absolutely terrifying.
“By the grace of our God, he has somehow become even more magnificent!” exclaimed Timothy.
Gareth gleamed as his two friends looked on with more than double the awe they had the last time around. He eyed the left claw of the bear, since it was closest to the side of the cage they were facing. Gripping his stick harder, he began to walk towards the cage…
…and then his stick apparently began to have second thoughts. It was tugging itself away from his hand with a feeble sort of determination.
Somewhat taken aback, Gareth whipped his face around to find the Indian boy trying, with an admirable level of desperation, to grab the stick from Gareth. He flung out his hand in an adamant rage, and the boy was flung onto the grass.
“WHAT DID I TELL YOU!” yelled Gareth at the boy, who was trying to scramble to his feet, “Do not disobey me!”
The Indian boy, almost whimpering, was about to stand back up again when the first strike from the stick lashed across his scrawny body. With a startled yell, he fell back down onto the grass again.
“In our house,” snapped Gareth, his words punctuated by swings of the stick, “When you.” Thwack. “Disobey orders.” Snap. “You must.” Twang. “Be punished!” Thwack.
Joseph and Timothy were at first content to stand aside; it looked like Gareth had this one well in hand, his strong strokes having long ago broken the feeble branch into a shadow of its former self. But as he began to move closer to the Indian boy in order to compensate for the gradually reducing length of the stick, the boy began to swing back at him with what must have been some self-preservation instinct kicking in.
One of his kicks caught Gareth on the jaw, and for a moment, a very short moment stuffed to the brim with tension, Gareth was taken aback. But then he growled, “You did not just do that, you Indian piece of filth!” and began to attack the boy more savagely.
Joseph and Timothy glanced at one another, and then joined in the assault. They weren’t about to let their friend have all the fun.
A small part of Timothy’s mind wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do. After all, the Indian boy hadn’t done anything to him personally, had he? And now here was Timothy kicking and punching away the last few hints of rebellion the boy had left in him. This small part of Timothy’s mind then tentatively raised his hand so that the other parts of Timothy’s mind at this particular meeting all stopped their extremely vigorous conversation so that they could hear what he had to say.
But when the small part of Timothy’s mind began to explain his issue, he was immediately shot down by the head of the table, the biggest and most primal part of Timothy’s mind in that committee, who explained in very clear and not very eloquent terms that the Indian boy was beneath such considerations and deserved every strike to that wrongly coloured body he was getting. The other parts of Timothy’s mind at the meeting all then proceeded to shush the small part of Timothy’s mind into silence before picking up the excited conversation they had been a part of before.
Barnaby the bear looked on with a very conservative kind of curiosity as the three boys continued to beat on that other boy. He thought that their extremely skinny limbs couldn’t possibly hurt that much. But then he considered that the boy who was on the receiving end of all the blows was also extremely skinny. All these skinny little things fighting each other, like agitated mantises. He thought back to the cubs in his sloth back home – home must be so far away from this strange place! – and how they sometimes tried to pick a fight with him. And they were not much smaller than these boys, but their blows were puny! So puny!
The bear realized that the three fairer boys had stopped beating the other boy, and were now beginning to walk away. He looked at the fourth boy, trembling weakly on the ground. He sniffed, and he thought he could smell blood. Hmm, blood. But no, the frail little thing on the ground there was not his kind of food. Besides, he had already been heartily fed some meat by a bunch of bigger men before this, and that meat had been satisfying, although a little strange compared to his usual fare.
He looked at the boy, who continued to tremble and moan on the grass. This was boring, he thought, and then rolled himself up into a foetal position before beginning to nap. The smell of blood was a little disruptive at first, but he quickly adapted to it. It was such a weak smell anyway.