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Kingdom - Chapter 2 - Leap
The sons of the Old Bear wait out winter in the north with their mother. But Leap is restless and longs for home...
Welcome to Kingdom, an eco-fantasy written by Ollie Francis.
In a world where humans are long forgotten, the animals fight for control of the mighty Bloodwood trees. With the Old Bear dead, the Threehorn Stag rules in Highwood and an uneasy peace settles over the kingdom, disturbed only by rumours of an old power whose return threatens everything…
“...Come Headmarked, Shoulders, Hearts and Hinds
To stand before your King,
His sap-stained paw upon your fur,
Your life beneath his wing…”
from Farclaw’s Mark - A Song of the Dead
Winter was ending and the dank air of the cave had grown sweet with the scent of snowdrops. A deep musk rose from forest soil, warmed in the northern sun and rich with the smells of worm and beetle and louse. The smell urged Leap to leave the stench of fur and misting breath of the cave and explore the winding scentpaths of Northwood and then on to the raging rivers that tore the hillside like claws cutting flesh, dividing one territory from another, this bloodwood from its brothers. From there he would pass out beyond the forest borders to the undulating planes of the Greatlands and then, somehow, maybe, if the gods were willing, the young bear would find his way back to Highwood. Back to Breakfoot and Greynose and the games they would play together. Back to the comforting shade of the Bloodoak, its huge branches stretching out a half-morning’s walk in any direction. The pines of Northwood were spindle twigs in comparison - though they still scratched the clouds when they came in low and heavy with snow. In Highwood, the trees smelled of dry rot and leaf mulch in the spring. That was a good scent. That was how home was supposed to smell. Here in the north the trees were tart and sticky and their needles pricked his paws and dug into his fur. More than once they had caused an infection that his mother had to lick every day until it healed. The winter felt longer here, the days so much darker and greyer than they had been in Highwood; the nights so much longer. Quieter. And more hungry.
This was not his home.
It would never be his home.
Home was Highwood.
But home was two moons away.
He sighed and buried himself deep into the fur of his mother’s belly, back to her sour milk smell, to lose himself in the warmth of their bodies pressed close together.
When they first reached the cave, they had only been happy for the shelter it gave them. The northern cold has plagued their journey for the last half moon, the snow whipping against them from all directions, suffocating the yearling and blanketing the scentscape in frozen conformity. Huge chunks fell when the wind howled through the branches overhead, hitting him hard with their soft weight and smothering him in sudden snow drifts that he had to be dug out of. The cave, meagre as it was, was welcome relief. His mother was still swollen with his little brother and she slumped in a corner the moment they got inside, leaving Leap as the one to give the Blessing to the remains of their escort. He had raised his paw to each of their marks in turn, thinking how small it seemed in comparison with the huge red stain of his father’s print. Most of the troupe had left straight away, knowing that even a small host would attract too much attention if they lingered in one place for too long, even in conditions like these. The badger Greymane had stayed with them the longest, waiting until Snowborn’s eyes had opened before he too set out with the last remaining wolves. He then headed for the sunrise border with Blackwood where he would rally support among those who still wore the mark of the great bear of Highwood, promising to return with an army ready to retake the Kingdom. But none had returned. No badger, no wolf. The days grew shorter and the breeze brought them nothing but the blank scent of crystalline snow. The bears had been forgotten, left to freeze in a forsaken hole, buried deep in an unfaithful bloodwood on the other side of the world.
He sighed and was about to drift again on the scentscape beyond the cave when his little brother, awake now and full of energy, clambered over him, standing his face as he made his way up onto their mother’s side. Leap swiped away the offending foot, groaned his annoyance and pushed deeper into the warmth of his mother's soft underbelly. Above him, Snowborn pawed at her face, using his short claws to push her lips up and away to expose the long teeth beneath, giggling to himself as her dark lips slipped beneath his paws. A moment later she rumbled a low growl and rolled herself over, tipping her cub onto the floor and losing Leap’s warm spot to the chill morning air forever.
Snowborn used the momentum to tumble against the cave wall, squealing with delight, and then pounced straight back onto their mother’s face. Mother and cub rolled and swatted at each other playfully, the little bear lost against his mother’s bulk. Leap scratched at the ground where she had lay, mourning the lost warmth. His brother's squealing continued until the yearling could hold back no more. He hobbled over to her and pushed Snowborn roughly away so she could see him full in the face without impediment. Snowborn continued to yelp, thinking this was just another game, but Leap wanted his mother's attention. This would be difficult: the day was young and the first rays of dawn had not yet made their way far into the cave. Unless he was careful, she would not see his movements.
I want to go out, he signed.
He needn't have worried. The reply came quick as it always did. No, she signed. Tomorrow.
It was always tomorrow.
Just for a walk, he continued. No hunting.
No, she signed again with a simple swing of the paw. Leap groaned. It had been a long time since they had eaten and there was no tree within sight that bore a mark of the bloodwood on its trunk. He had hoped their mother’s instinct to provide for her young would overtake her caution about discovery. They needed meat, didn't they? His mother had been bringing them plenty of root but they couldn't risk hungerblight. They needed to hunt and a hunt would mean they could leave the cave.
That wasn't too much to ask, was it?
He prepared her a picture of such a hunt, the two of them stalking some prey together through the undergrowth, but before he could give it, Snowborn burst forward and made a running jump onto his mother, roaring wildly and tackling back her attention. The big bear whined in mock pain, falling backward as though the cub had inflicted some mortal wound upon her. Snowborn howled with pleasure at this accomplishment. He tensed and pounced but Leap, frustrated with the interruption, caught his brother mid-air and in one motion threw him down and pinned him roughly to the ground. There was a squeak of pain from the cub and suddenly Leap’s world was full of his mother’s teeth, her hot breath sending him scuttling backwards into the shadows. Once he was out of reach she turned to Snowborn and nosed the little bear while Leap slunk to the back of the cave.
He’s fine, the yearling signed from the darkness. His mother either didn’t see or was deliberately ignoring him, too concerned with his annoying little brother to pay her eldest son any attention. Leap watched as Snowborn flopped for a moment against the bare earth, limp and unmoving. A doubt rose up that he might have been too rough with his little brother. He looked to his mother, watched as she teased his brother into moving. Then the tricksy cub, seeing his mother’s guard down, sprang back to life, jumping from his feigned grave to bat her on the nose before falling back to prepare his next assault.
Leap brought himself into the light. He’s fine, he signed.
His mother pounced on the pup and pushed playfully against him with her paw, rolling him over and again until the cub was panting and snorting with happiness. She let him escape her grasp and he yelped with joy, bounding over to splash in the puddle of sunlight by the cave’s entrance.
He’s fine, signed Leap again. His mother groaned in gentle annoyance but Leap didn’t wait for her lecture to begin. I didn’t hurt him, he signed before she could lift a paw.
He sent his mother a picture of the pounce, making sure the image he had in his mind reframed the swipe as nothing more than a mere tap on the shoulder. Behind her, Snowborn wriggled madly on his back in the patch of sunlight, swiping away the dank dust clouds that rose up around him.
The strong can wound without realising, his mother signed, before adding: A king should learn this.
I don’t hurt you, he signed.
Sometimes you do.
Leap bristled. How could he hurt her? His mother still towered over him. His head barely reached her shoulder. She was invulnerable.
Snowborn started hooting from his patch of sunlight. Leap and his mother turned to see.
I want a song, signed the little bear. A song! A song! he signed, slapping the words out against his body, every movement accompanied by an excited chirp.
Leap responded with a trill of displeasure.
I don’t want a song. I want to go outside.
His mother’s movements became slow and clear: It’s not safe.
We’re days away from anywhere, signed Leap. No one will see us. Please.
His mother cocked her head to one side and he realised she shared his hunger.
Tomorrow, she signed at last.
Promise, signed Leap. You have to promise.
His mother touched her mark, holding her forepaw against the fading patch of stained fur. Leap squealed with excitement. Thank you, he signed. Thank you!
His mother cooed to calm the yearling. Careful, she signed, stepping out of his way as he bounded about her.
Sorry. Thank you. Sorry. Thank you, he signed, skipping between the signs so quickly that they became indistinguishable from each other.
Snowborn came padding up beside the feet of his mother. I want a song, he signed again, gently. She hummed, giving in.
The Song of Footsure the Greenmason, she suggested.
Leap grunted. Not a love song, he signed.
A battlesong, signed Snowborn. The Traitor of the River!
Their mother motioned against it. You’re both boisterous enough already, she signed.
I’ll be careful, signed Leap.
The Song of the Brightwood Flower, signed their mother. Leap groaned again and in response she sent him a quick, clear picture of him dancing Footsure The Greenmason completely on his own.
Fine, he signed. The Brightwood Flower.
Snowborn continued to insist that he wanted a battlesong but his older brother shoved him into silence.
You remember the steps? asked their mother.
Leap told her he could and she bowed, offering him the sign to join her. Snowborn settled himself down to watch from a corner of the cave, giving his mother and brother as much room as possible.
Ready? she signed and Leap took the pose of beginning. He closed his eyes and concentrated on joining his heartbeat to hers, waiting until they beat together, his mother’s slow and steady, his own counting double time and then, each moving in unison, they began to dance.
Welcome to Kingdom, an epic eco-fantasy by Ollie Francis.
Find archived chapters, short fictions and more at www.olliefrancis.co.uk.
Series one of Kingdom was originally released as a podcast in 2022, found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and wherever else you can listen.
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