Story for the Day: The Black Bear - Part 1

Eadmhaird Cinmarragh is Westren's premiere hunter. He has been champion of the famous Westren hunts for the last thirty years, and while he has claimed many prizes in his career, there is one prize that he will remember above all others:

The Black Bear

                Perched on a bough of the dawn redwood, mantling low over his prey, with his reed pipe in one hand and his dart in the other, Eadmhaird watched the hart graze on a patch of three-cornered leek and ramsons as he prepared his shot. It seemed insensible of his presence, though his shadow hung in unmoving delitessence beside it, only his fingers suffering to move slightly as he pushed his dart through the reed and held the end of it to his lips. He inhaled quietly through his nose and pressed his mouth to the reed, ready to exhale, when the hart, startled by something close by, suddenly lifted and turned its head, its ears oscillating every which way in search of the origin of the sound. The sussuration and snap of a few branches was heard, Eadmhaird waited, the hart skipped to the side and sniffed, there was a pause, and before the hunter could secure his footing and realign his shot, a large black bear appeared, emerging out of a copse of conifers, approaching the hart with a davering gait and a low aspect. It stopped below the hunter, raised its muzzle and flicked its ears, as though trying to warn the hart of something. It gave a bellowing wrawl, made a nod with its heavy head, and looked as though it was telling the hart to move. Move the hart did: it bounded away in a flurry of leaves, leaping over the redwood’s roots and fleeing toward the eastern part of the forest, and the bear, after watching it go, hastened on, hurrying toward the stream in the clearing ahead with all the alacrity and eagerness that a fresh salmon could promise, and both animals were gone. The hart vanished under the influence of the obscuring vegetation, the prey that he had been so long in tracking was lost, and Eadmhaird swore to himself.
                Bhi Mharac,” he sighed, discontented and distressed, “two days I’ve been after that hart, and I would have had it if that bear had not intruded.”
                He leapt down from the bough and exchanged the dart in his reed for one in his pocket, changing it for a larger and less lethal dart, meant for debilitating those animals that would otherwise alert his prey and ruin his chance at a fine prize. In half a second, the reed was loaded, and in another Eadmhaird was chasing after the bear, was following its tracks toward the clearing, was marking where it had spoiled a few snowdrops and trod on the wild onion garlanding the forest line. He moved in a blurring violent motion, instantly gaining on his prey, and he broke through through the dense line of trees, rushing into the clearing in a blaze of speed, whereupon he spied the prints of the bear at his feet, moving northward toward the small stream in the near distance. His eye remained on the tracks while his feet followed, but his ear focused on the sounds: the tender tinkling of fresh water running rataplan against small stones, the repeated cadence of the waterfall, the rote of rapids moving away from their source, the purl and pobble of salmon leaping in and out of the water as they swam desperately upstream-- an audial surveillance, accompanied by the churrtering of birds and the chirrup of tree crickets in the woods beyond. The barm pooled over the smooth stones and caressed the edge of the stream, the small tributaries reaching westward toward their beginnings, the ground began to soften and dampen, growing mailable under the hunter’s feet, and when Eadmhaird reached the end of the tracks, he stopped, raised the prepared reed in his hand to his lips and inhaled, but where he had expected to discover the black bear standing in the stream before him, he found only a strange and familiar shape. The reflection from the stream, the brilliancy of the sun caroming off the water reigning numinous and blinding him momentarily, soon wore away, and where he hoped to find an ursine figure standing before him, he saw only Dirrald, the young man just entering into the agonies of adolescence, his stature immense and awkward, his cinerous locks cropped and matted, his shoulders stooping, his long limbs reaching down to his sides, his feet planted firmly in the water as it poured over his ankles, in his hands a grand salmon, its eyes lifeless, its body unmoving. At first, the hunter thought it had dreamt Dirrald there, for he had known Dirrald to be at the orphanage in Westren City, and he assumed the boy knew little of hunting or of the woods and mountains, and yet, when the anguish of first confusion was over with him and his eyes adjusted to the light after being so long in the shade, he perceived that it was Dirrald standing before him and evidently proud of his recent catch—but how was he there, how did he know to navigate the woods, how did he know of this stream, and how had he made such a tremendous catch? Were all questions that rushed on him at once. He was bemused for sometime at finding the boy thus standing before him, but even more unsettling was trying to determine where the bear had gone. If it was not here, then where could it be? A moment passed, and Eadmhaird succumbed to grim uncertainty as he caught Dirrald remarking him with a something like blithesome expectation. That the boy should not have been surprised at Eadmhaird’s sudden entrance, that Dirrald’s countenance betrayed no amazement or even pleasure at seeing the hunter distressed him. The expression in Dirrald’s amber eyes, inquiring and expectant, conveyed a something like sanguine superiority, but why should the boy appear to such advantage? Why should he make audacity and archness his friend? He was never used to appear so bold before, rendering the boy’s easy and disinterested air disconcerting.  
Eadmhaird had not time enough to consider all this when his breathlessness from his having darted out of the woods at last caught up with him, and he leaned forward, to take a few deep breaths and consider how he could have lost his prey when it was only a two-second’s pace in front of him. He stood in complete astonishment, confounded at his losing the bear and finding Dirrald in its place, the latter regarding him with a sagacious smile.
                “Dirrald,” Eadmhaird panted, searching his perlieu for any signs of the bear.      
“Eadmhaird,” Dirrald returned.
The hunter exhaled and recovered himself, but his confusion only increased when, upon making a thorough inspection of the stream and the clearing, he discovered nothing to recommend the bear’s having escaped the area; there were only the tracks behind him, which came from the forest and stopped at the steam, and Dirrald, standing in front of him with cool composure. Eadmhaird canted his head and glared suspiciously at the boy. “You don’t seem at all surprised to see me,” he observed.
Dirrald’s smile diminished and his calm complacence relented. “Ah figure yer alwaes ‘round the mountain’s edge, huntin’ after somethin’.”
            Eadmhaird fleered and made a civil smile, but Dirrald’s apparent indifference was disquieting. He was always overjoyed to see the hunter, to inspect his pelts and inquire whether he had caught anything good as of late, and Dirrald’s mild air and unconcern seemed out of place. It gave him the notion that Dirrald was endeavouring to hide something, but what that something was, Eadmhaird could not decipher. The hart was already gone, and the bear he certainly could not hide; it had no where to go other than the stream, the forest, or the waterfall, and there was nothing to distinguish the bear’s having been anywhere near the stream at all other than the tracks Eadmhaird had followed, but if the bear was not here, where could it be? It could not have crossed a clearing so vast with a two second lead, and the only other place it could have gone was into the mountains, but there was no path at this height, no trail anywhere in the vicinity that would have brought giving it passage into the mountains—impossible! And yet there was an intimation, an impression, a suspicion Eadmhaird gathered from Dirrald’s subrisive looks that he could not but acknowledge. The bear could not have absconded without assistance, and yet what assistance could the boy render when there was no means of escape by way of land or water? Was the bear hidden? Had it turned into the brush without his knowing? Had Dirrald made the tracks with his bare feet to mislead and redirect him while the bear was really elsewhere? were all questions which plagued his mind. Never had he hitherto lost a prey so lumbering and conspicuous, and Eadmhaird was angry with himself. He scoffed and surveyed, shook his head and contracted his brow—how could something so noticeable be so easily mislaid? It was unfathomable that a hunter of his consequence and experience should misplace a bear—unconscionable!—and yet, the bear was no where, not near the mountain, not near the stream, nor near the forest. There was no bracken for it to scamper toward, no shade for it to cower under, no trees for it to hide behind, and with the stream barely three feet at its centre, it was impossible that the bear could submerge itself with the object of waiting until its pursuer was gone. No bear, even with a sizable intelligence, could scheme that far, and Eadmhaird, quite at a loss, glared about him in senseless stupefaction, until the smiles wreathing Dirrald’s lips made him again aware of that premonition that his practiced impulse would teach him to discuss with himself.