The Bear by R. A. Salvatore




  The Highwayman

  The Ancient

  The Dame

  The Bear





  Table of Contents

  Part One: Despair

  One: Coward, You!

  Two: The Inevitable Spiral

  Three: Promises and Puzzles

  Four: Stark

  Five: Visions of Graveyards

  Six: Dealing at Heaven’s Door

  Seven: The Conscience Pangs of Pragmatism

  Eight: The Heart of the Matter

  Part Two: The Three Roads of Jameston Sequin

  Nine: The Moment of Courage

  Ten: The First Road

  Eleven: The Restless Dame

  Twelve: The Second Road

  Thirteen: A Glimmer

  Fourteen: United Against the Other

  Fifteen: The Third Road

  Part Three: The Forward Crawl of Humanity

  Sixteen: Body, Mind, and Soul

  Seventeen: The Angry Young Laird

  Eighteen: Daring the Consequences

  Nineteen: King’s Favor

  Twenty: The Art of Compromise

  Twenty-One: Scout and Speed

  Twenty-Two: King Yeslnik’s Long, Hot Summer

  Twenty-Three: Full Circle

  Twenty-Four: Loyalties

  Twenty-Five: De Guilbe’s Epiphany

  Twenty-Six: Convergence

  Twenty-Seven: Blenden Coe

  Twenty-Eight: The Swirling Tides of Battle

  Twenty-Nine: The Royal Procession


  This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.


  Copyright © 2010 by R. A. Salvatore

  All rights reserved.

  Maps by Joseph Mirabello

  Chapter opening illustrations by Shelly Wan

  A Tor Book

  Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC

  175 Fifth Avenue

  New York, NY 10010

  Tor® is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

  ISBN 978-0-7653-1791-9

  First Edition: August 2010

  Printed in the United States of America

  0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  Everything I write is for Diane.

  Everything I write is for my family.

  I have to give an extra shout-out in this one, though, to Tom Doherty and Mary Kirchoff. Thank you both for helping facilitate this return to my beloved Corona. It’s been a wonderful journey.

  But mostly, this one’s for you, Julian. I found out about you as I hit the home stretch in writing The Bear. After so many years and so many books, sometimes it’s hard to look ahead and remember that there’s plenty of road yet to travel. You reminded me of exactly that, and turned my eyes to the road ahead, with great anticipation.

  Pops loves you.



  I’m not an old man. I’m barely a man! But I feel old and worn and as if the rest of my life will be no more than a long and empty wait to die. For I have failed; I cannot escape that truth.

  The irony of that reality does not elude me. I have spent most of my life simply trying to find physical control, trying not to drool on those with whom I speak, or trying not to trip during the most basic activity of walking.

  From the depths I ascended, beyond my expectations or highest hopes, to what I considered perfect physical and mental control. Even beyond that I incorporated gemstone magic as if it were a mere extension of my will and want. From the valley to the mountaintop I journeyed, and the point of my life was the climb.

  The climb. The meaningless, self-delusional ascent to nothingness. . . . What is it worth to Jameston, dead because he walked beside me? What is it worth to the memory of my mother, Sen Wi, her prized sword taken from me by a Hou-lei warrior woman whose very philosophy is anathema to that which my mother and father held dear? What is it worth, truly, to Garibond Womak, the man who raised me as a son but was mutilated and died because of his defense of me?

  What is it worth? What is any of it worth? I want to believe in something bigger than myself, in some higher, noble purpose. I want to believe that the words inscribed in the Book of Jhest, the words my father so carefully penned to relay the guiding philosophy of the Behr mystics, are more than a selfish mental exercise.

  I want to believe that Jameston Sequin was right in leaving the woods to walk a path of greater consequence beside me.

  But I cannot.

  For a brief moment, I dared to hope. Under the brilliance of the extraordinary Dame Gwydre, I allowed myself to believe in something bigger and to hope for a better world. My steps south were light, my steps to the east even lighter, since I believed I was moving toward a more worthwhile destiny.

  Now I know the truth, and my folly, and that the nature of man is not divine but selfish. As water seeks its level so, too, will the unscrupulous—those unbounded by morality or empathy, by their very lack of personal shackles—rise to dominate their more community-minded brethren. Worse, I live with the certainty now that any gain is merely a temporary illusion. Even in Vanguard, where Gwydre rules well, she will be replaced. Perhaps the line of honor and decency will hold through another generation, perhaps two, but in the end evil will prevail. The first time the line of good Gwydre is succeeded by a man of evil intent—or even a man without empathy—that last flicker of the light of decency will be snuffed to darkness. And once the darkness takes hold, it does not let go. Delaval begets Yeslnik, Laird of Pryd, begets Laird Prydae begets Laird Bannagran. The descent is evident in the first instance, and in the subsequent incarnations the moral line is level at best and will inevitably slide.

  This is the sad nature of things: Unshackled and unbounded, evil men will surely rise. Hou-lei defeats Jhesta Tu because Hou-lei holds no honor. To Hou-lei, there is no fair fight, there is only victory or defeat, and the victors write the histories.

  And so did Affwin Wi intervene when Merwal Yahna could not defeat me, when I was proving to be the stronger. Am I now to hold my head high and claim a moral pedestal elevating me above her treachery? How so? She has my mother’s sword and the brooch of magical gemstones given me by Father Artolivan. My indignation seems a feeble weapon against the reality of her victory, and my indignation will not bring Jameston Sequin back to life!

  Even if we battle on, even if we somehow win . . . win? Alas, I do not even know how to define such a term! Yeslnik or Ethelbert? Will the fate of Honce sit with Yeslnik the Fool and his brutal armies or with Ethelbert and his paid assassins?

  There is no victory to be found there, at least not for the common folk of Honce. Whichever side wins this war, the cost has been far too high, and the outcome will offer little more than a temporary stay from the next bloodletting campaign. I do not want to believe it, but I cannot escape this conclusion.

  That is my folly, my false hope, the trap into which I walked because of the seduction of a woman, Dame Gwydre, who truly is different from the many lairds who rain their selfish whims like the lash of a nine-tail on the backs of the common folk. I see no hope for a better Honce.

  Jameston should have stayed in the forest, a place more civilized by far.

  What is left for me, then? Where might I turn? To Cadayle, obviously, and our unborn child, and there is nothing more. This is not my war, because there is no victory of any positive consequence. Even if I were to accept that any goodly gain must be a temporary thing becaus
e of the nature of man, what goodly possibility do I see before me? The fop . . . or the laird who hires assassins? Vain Yeslnik or Ethelbert, who gives his gold to those who murdered Jameston Sequin?

  Would that I could kill them both and be done with them, but even then I suspect that I know what would rise in their stead.

  I feel old and worn and tired of it all.



  Coward, You!

  Every now and then he glanced at the rising sun just to ensure he was going north, though most of the time he would discover that he was not. He meandered aimlessly, not sure of where he was or who he was or, worst of all, why he was.

  Bransen still wore his black silk pants, but he had taken off the distinctive shirt, replacing it with a simple shift he had found in an abandoned house. Gone, too, was his mask, the signature of the Highwayman. Soon after being chased out of Ethelbert dos Entel without his prized sword and gemstone brooch, Bransen had pulled the mask from his head and thrown it to the ground, thinking to be done with it, to be done with that persona forever. Almost immediately he angrily retrieved it. Fashioned from the one sleeve he had torn from the black silk shirt, that headband, like the rest of the outfit, had been the uniform of his Jhesta Tu mother, though he wasn’t exactly certain of what that might mean anymore, given the beating Affwin Wi and Merwal Yahna had inflicted upon him.

  However deep Bransen’s despair, however lost he might be, he would not dishonor the memory of his mother.

  He wandered throughout that first day after fleeing, finding water at a small stream. By late afternoon his stomach began to growl. He’d need a way to hunt, and so he started out, halfheartedly, to find implements—a stick he might fashion into a spear, perhaps. He got distracted rather quickly, though, as the smell of stew cooking wafted past on the breeze.

  Bransen had no interest in meeting anyone, but his stomach wouldn’t let him ignore the aroma that led him to lie on a knoll outside a small cluster of houses. In the center of the village burned a roaring cook fire with a large cauldron set atop it tended by a pair of old women. Bransen noted well the many inhabitants of the town milling about. Most were very old or very young; the only people near his age were women, many pregnant, probably from when the press-gangs came hunting. Like so many villages of Honce, this one radiated the unbearable pain of the protracted war.

  The ridiculous, horrid reality of a world gone insane stung the young man anew, but it was, after all, just another in a long string of profound disappointments. He surveyed the area, looking for a way to sneak in, preferring to remain unseen and unnoticed. He glanced to the western sky, estimating another hour of daylight. The villagers were gathering to enjoy their meal. More and more would likely come out of those small cabins, and Bransen wondered how much of the meal would be left for him to pilfer.

  He sighed and mocked his foolishness with a derisive snort, stood up, brushed himself off, and walked down into the village. Bransen was met by many curious stares. More than one person yelped in surprise more than one mother pulled her children aside. Bransen understood their fear; he and Jameston had come upon several towns that had been ravaged by rogue bands of soldiers. He held his open hands before him unthreateningly.

  “Far enough!” one old man said to him, brandishing a pitchfork Bransen’s way. “Ye got no business here, so turn yerself about and be gone!”

  “I am hungry and tired,” Bransen replied. “I hoped that I might share some of your food.”

  “So ye think we’ve enough to be handing out?” the old man asked.

  “I will work for it,” Bransen promised. “Repair a roof, repair a wall, or gather wood. Whatever you need, but I could surely use a meal, friend.”

  “Which army are ye running from?” asked an old woman whose long nose hooked so profoundly that it nearly touched her chin, which hooked upward from her lack of teeth. She looked him over. “Yer voice sounds like Yeslnik, but yer clothes’re more akin to Ethelbert. So which?”

  “I found these clothes, as my own were too worn,” Bransen explained, not wanting his distinctive pants to link him with Affwin Wi and her murderous band. Such a misconception might prove valuable to him in these parts, but still, the thought of anyone confusing him as a member of that Hou-lei troupe disgusted Bransen.

  “Yeslnik, then,” pronounced the old man. His snarl and the way he then gripped the pitchfork made Bransen know that he didn’t think it a good thing.

  “I serve no army.”

  “But ye did!” said the woman.

  Bransen shook his head. “No. Not Yeslnik or Laird Ethelbert. I have come from distant Vanguard.”

  “Never heard of it,” said the old man.

  “Far to the north across the Gulf of Corona where Dame Gwydre rules with great compassion and love.”

  “Never heard of it,” the old man said again. Those around him nodded their agreement.

  It occurred to Bransen then just how parochial this and most communities of Honce truly were and how worldly he had become in so short a time. He thought back to his humble beginnings in Pryd Town, in the days when he could barely stumble the distance across Chapel Pryd’s muddy courtyard. Never could he have imagined the road he had journeyed! The enormity of his travels only then began to become clear to him.

  “I am no part of this awful war,” he said.

  The old woman’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not for believing ye.”

  “And how’d ye get that tear on yer head, then?” asked the old man.

  Bransen lifted his hand to touch the wound in the middle of his forehead where Affwin Wi had ripped the magical brooch from his flesh. “I . . . I ran into a low branch,” he said.

  “I’m still not for believing ye!” the old woman said with a hiss. “Now, ye turn about and be gone from here, or me old fellow here’ll stick ye hard with four points o’ pain.”

  “Aye,” the old man said, prodding the pitchfork toward Bransen.

  Bransen didn’t flinch.

  “Go on!” the old man insisted, thrusting the fork closer.

  Unconsciously, the Highwayman reacted. As the pitchfork stabbed in, Bransen went forward and only slightly to the side, just enough so that the old man couldn’t shift the weapon’s angle to catch up to him. Once past the dangerous end of the pitchfork, the Highwayman moved with brutal efficiency, grabbing the shaft just below its head with his right hand, then knifing down his left hand with a swift and powerful chop. The handle shattered beneath that blow, leaving the old man with a short staff and Bransen holding the tined end of the pitchfork.

  Bransen stepped back out of reach before those around him had even registered the move.

  With a yelp of surprise, the old man took the stump of the staff and lifted it above his head like a club, stumble rushing at Bransen with something between terror and outrage.

  Bransen dropped the broken end of the pitchfork and brought his arms up above his head in a diagonal cross just as the old man chopped down at his head. The Highwayman caught the club easily in the crook of his blocking arms and, with a sudden uncrossing, tugged the piece of wood from the old man’s grasp. Bransen caught it immediately and sent it into a furious spin, twirling it in one hand, working it expertly behind his back and out the other side as he handed it off to his other hand. The old man fell back, throwing his arms up before his face and whining pitifully. No one else made a sound, transfixed by the dazzling maneuvers of this stranger.

  Up over his head went the broken handle, spinning furiously. The Highwayman brought it down before him and around his right hip, then back out from behind his left hip. Bransen fell into the rhythm of his display; he used the moment of physical concentration to temporarily block out the darkness that filled his mind. Around and around went the staff, then Bransen planted one end solidly on the ground before him. One hand went atop that planted staff. The Highwayman leaped into the air, inverting into a handstand that brought his kicking feet up level with the eyes of any would-be opponents. H
e landed gracefully in a spin and used that to launch the staff once more into a whirlwind all about him.

  Bransen’s eyes weren’t even open any longer, as he fell deeper into the trance of physical perfection, deeper into the martial teaching he had devoured in the Book of Jhest his father had penned. What started as a show for the villagers—a clear warning that Bransen hoped would prevent any rash actions leading to injury—had become something more profound and important to the troubled young man, a method of blocking out the ugly world.

  Bransen’s display went on for many heartbeats, spinning staff, leaping and twisting warrior, swift shifts and breaks in the momentum where Bransen transferred all of his energy into a sudden and brutal stab or swing.

  When it finally played out, Bransen came up straight, took a deep breath, and opened his eyes—to stare into two-score incredulous faces.

  “By the gods,” one woman mouthed.

  “Power,” a young boy whispered, only because he could find no louder voice than that.

  “Who are ye?” the old woman with the hooked nose asked after catching her breath.

  “No one who matters, and no one who cares,” Bransen answered, throwing the staff to the ground. “A hungry man begging food and willing to work for it. Nothing more.”

  “Begging?” a younger woman asked skeptically. She clutched a toddler tight in her arms. “Or threatening to take it if it’s not given?”

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