The Curse of the Bear

“Please, Spot,” Sigge begged. She held the leather harness out to the ornery goat, who stomped and screamed and snorted in response. He lowered his shaggy head, his horns looking all the more cruel for his refusal. The harness belonged to the small goat cart Sigge’s adopted mother Hedvig had always kept for her trips into town, and she needed to go to town one last time.

“Keep your filthy hands off me! You probably killed her yourself!” Spot reared back, and Sigge dove to dodge the blow.

“Spot!” she cried. Tears tore her voice to shreds, but she refused to shed any of them. She rose to her feet, wiping mud and muck from her own golden fur. “You know I would never hurt her. Never.”

 “I know no such thing,” Spot replied.

 Sigge was beginning to wish Hedvig had taken Ryker’s offer to castrate the cantankerous imp when she had delivered his daughter’s third son. I would have killed you long before I ever laid a finger on her, Sigge thought.

Bargaining would have to work, because Sigge had found Hedvig dead that morning, and Sigge needed to get her to the grove. “This one last time. Not for me, Spot, but for her. She deserves to be burned properly, and she deserves to have her ashes spread in the grove. I need – Hedvig needs your help.”

Sigge herself had only been to the grove once, though she hadn’t passed the stone gate. It was called The Grove of Amund, and it was beautiful. It was a hillock, wreathed by hazel and birch, oak and spruce, pine and rowan, but crowned by a great yew tree. The great Amund planted his staff there beyond which he would let no frost ogre step, and never one did. After his death, his staff could not be moved and grew into that great yew. Those who worshiped Amund like Hedvig had their ashes spread upon the hill.

“After that, I’ll take off the harness,” Sigge promised, “and you’ll be free to go as you want. This one last thing, Spot, and you will never see or hear from me again.” She stopped herself from swearing to it. Spot would never take her word for anything.

“The instant we get there, you cut me loose from that harness, and I go on my merry way?”

Sigge nodded, feeling the relief sag her shoulders. “The very instant. You don’t even have to wait to see that I actually burn her on the pyre.”

“Oh, no, Abomination,” Spot said, hopping closer. He poked a sharp cloven hoof into her gut. He meant it to be vicious, but Sigge barely felt it through her thick fur. “I will be making sure you do not disgrace dear Hedvig’s memory. She was a good woman, and she deserved better than you.”

The sky had darkened by the time Sigge had gotten close to town where the grove grew, though few would venture out into the woods at night. Maybe they would see the pyre from the walls, but she doubted any would come to see what had set the fire, not until morning. There were too many stories of man-eating monsters and dread demons to stir even the stoutest heart. There were more than a few missing people to go along with those tales. Sigge, to her relief, could finish this in peace.

Or so she thought.

A stone glanced off her shoulder as she came to the ancient archway that marked the entrance to the grove.

“Ow!” Sigge shouted. “Who threw that? I’m only here to burn my dead.” It hadn’t hurt, but she often found if she played weak that people were not as frightened of her golden fur, great height, massive paws, and heavy claws. She looked nearly like a bear with a human face, and most were frightened when first they saw Sigge.

“Your kind are not welcome here,” a voice from the gloom shook through the trees. It was a moist voice, soft and old like midnight shadows or soil in springtime.

Sigge hadn’t heard voices like that before. She glanced at Spot, who chewed his cud unhelpfully. “My kind? You mean mortals?”

“No, like you!” another voice said. This was light and subtle, like a soft breeze or a death rattle. “Cursed!” It was coming from high above her.

“I know I’m cursed,” Sigge said quickly. “But, I – there’s no one else to burn her. She was very old and very kind, and she kept to the old ways more faithfully than anyone else. She deserves to be burnt here.”

“Be gone!” the first voice boomed, the earth beneath Sigge’s feet rumbling in time. “You shall not set foot in this sacred place!” This voice was against the collapsed wall, close to the ground.

“Defiler!” the second voice wailed. It had moved much closer, bending toward her. The air sizzled as it spoke. “You shall not sully this place any longer!”

Spot’s ears twitched frantically to catch the voices as they moved. “I told you you couldn’t come here,” he warned, stamping a foot.

“You never did!” Sigge cried in reply. “Please, great gods, I am your loyal servant! She was your loyal servant! I won’t defile anything!”

The world stopped shaking, the wind stopped blowing, and, silence reigned. For a moment, Sigge believed that she had imagined the whole thing. But, Spot stood beside her trembling, the only thing keeping him from bolting was the harness on his back.

Then, just as suddenly, by her ear, “You already have, by merely being–”

Sigge shrieked and flailed at the noise. She struck something, her palm making a slapping noise as it connected with flesh, followed by a soft thud of weight hitting grass.

“Hey! Now, that’s just rude!” the first voice shouted.

“You’re not supposed to hit!” the second voice chimed in.

Sigge pulled her hands to her chest, looking back and forth from the two beings now visible to her. One lay prostrate on the ground, the other came bounding from the shadow to stand over it. Both sounded so much more juvenile now. Not scary, not powerful, just young and headstrong. They looked it, too, if one could look past the shocking appearance of demons. The two were small, the size of children, with dark fur and glowing yellow eyes. They had claws on their hands and feet and long tails. One was holding its cheek where Sigge had struck it, the other stood facing Sigge with its hands on its hips sticking out its startlingly pink tongue.

“You’re just children,” Sigge exclaimed.

“We are not!”

“We’re the guardians of this place!”

“You can’t come here!”

Hedvig had told Sigge of these creatures. Like many demons and monsters, they moved into sacred places, but these didn’t desecrate them. They protected the abandoned ones from graverobbers or even other demons. They were tricksters, of some kind, and used all sorts of pranks to keep people away. It made Sigge sad to know they had come to the grove, for it meant that it had been abandoned by the town. They were abandoning the old ways.

“You’re just children,” Sigge whispered again, almost too surprised to believe it herself.

“We are not!” shouted the one who sat on the ground. It pouted, its lower lip trembling as tears glistened in its eyes. Sigge felt guilty; she could forget how strong she was.

Sigge scratched the fur at her collarbone, uncertain of how to proceed. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” she said. Her voice sounded as squeezed and desperate as she felt. She winced at the sound of it.

“You shouldn’t just go flinging your arms about,” the one on the ground said. “You’re really big.”

“I know, I’m sorry. Listen–”

Spot kicked the cart hard enough to make it bounce and stomped the ground. “Get it on with, Fuzzy. Let me go before these two dimwits kill you.”

“I’m coming, I’m coming, give me a moment.” Spot was impatient, and Sigge had to move quickly to avoid his horns and his teeth. When she was done, he walked calmly into the grove and promptly shat on the grass. The two demons didn’t seem to notice.

Sigge shook the feeling of disgust away. “I am sorry I hurt you,” she began again. “I didn’t mean to. I thought you were much bigger than you are, and I was frightened. Please, I didn’t mean any harm.”

“Mean to or not, you did.” The one she’d hit still pouted as it climbed to its feet, but the pink bloom on its cheek had already faded away.

Sigge tried to smile. “I am sorry,” she said. “My name is Sigge. What’s yours?”

The two looked surprised, and then suspicious. They glanced at each other, perhaps sharing a language of glances to which Sigge wasn’t privy. “You want to know our names?” the one who hadn’t been hit asked.

This time, Sigge smiled genuinely. “Of course! I want something to call you – not your true names, but something to call you,” Sigge said quickly, remembering how protective all manner of spirits were about their names. Hedvig had told her that one could control creatures with their true names. Spot, who had been named Koenig, insisted on being called Spot instead so that Hedvig and Sigge couldn’t control him. “Just something I can call you while we talk.”

The two exchanged glances again, as if they had never heard of such a thing. They whispered together again, waving arms and pointing fingers mostly at Sigge. Curiosity got the better of them, though, and the one who had been hit said tentatively, “I’m Boo.”

“You can call me Hush,” the other said quickly. “Those aren’t our real names, mind you. Just what you can call us.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Boo and Hush,” Sigge said, curtsying as best she could. She was a gangly, awkward thing. Big, with long arms and strong legs, and never acquainted with anything like courtly manners, but she tried.

Boo’s cheeks colored, and Hush’s eyes widened, and the corners of its mouth turned down. “And you, Sigge,” Boo said finally.

They stood in silence. Boo rubbed its fingers together, trying to find a comfortable way to hold its hands. Hush scuffed the ground in uncomfortable circles. Sigge smoothed the fur at belly and then her arms, trying to think of something to say. It was clear that Boo and Hush wouldn’t break the silence. They watched at her, perhaps curious, perhaps appalled.

“This all started out badly,” Sigge said finally. “I didn’t mean to… show up unannounced. I hadn’t realized this sacred place had been reclaimed. The woman whose body lies there in that cart is Hedvig. She kept faithfully to Amund. She needs this grove so that she may have a proper funeral. That’s all I ask. It’s not for me; it’s for her.”

Boo rubbed its hands over its ears sheepishly, looking away, and Hush opened its mouth and closed it several times before finding its voice. “It’s not… We would be happy to allow her funerary rites…  She’s allowed to come into the grove. The problem is you.”

“You see,” Boo added quickly, “you’re cursed. I mean, I’m sure it’s not your fault, the curse and all. And it’s nothing personal, it’s just that… well, look at yourself! You’re an abomination.”

“Told you,” Spot said from where he lay in the lush grass. He chewed it occasionally, entirely too pleased with himself.

“If there were anyone else – children, grandchildren, a kindly neighbor–-anyone else who could bring her in here, we’d-–it’d be fine. We wouldn’t interfere-”

“We’d hide away so no one could see us and be frightened away!”

“But, we just can’t let you in.”

“You could… I mean, if you burnt her body elsewhere, maybe you could sort of… toss her ashes over the wall?”

Sigge bowed her head. Failed. At the last, she had failed Hedvig. She couldn’t seek out any of the other villagers. They’d chase her away before she could even ask. If they found out Hedvig was dead, they’d think she killed her. Cursed. Forever. Failed. Failed. Failed.

No.

“There has to be a way,” Sigge said, whether out of determination or desperation she couldn’t be sure. “There has to be a way to lift the curse. There has to be a way to let me in.”

Hush and Boo exchanged glances again. Hush nodded, but Boo shook its head frantically.

“Well, there may be…” Hush began.

“No!” Boo said quickly. “Not that! That’s impossible!”

“Do you know Dagne’s Spring?”

Sigge shook her head slowly.

Hush grinned, sharp teeth glistening in the fading light. It sat itself cross-legged, floating a hand’s breadth off the ground, hands at its knees, chest puffed out.

“When the great and noble Von was cursed by the wicked Ulfric so that he brought winter wherever he stepped, Kelda drew her own daughter, Dagne, from the earth and married her to Von. Where she emerged is called Dagne’s Spring. And Dagne, she’s also known as Curse-Breaker. Dagne broke the curse of the Eternal Winter in this land. She brought back spring and warmth and happiness as a marriage gift to Von.”

Sigge’s breath caught in her throat. Blood pooled to her ears as her heart seemed to stop. For a moment, Sigge thought she was dying. No, no, no. Don’t let it be true. Let this be a lie. I can’t take the hope of it.

“Dagne’s Spring,” Hush went on, “is not far from here. Bubbles up from the ground in a cave. It’s got all sorts of magical powers. It can cure people – and lift curses, I’m sure. You could bathe in it.”

“Is that all?” Sigge asked. It’s too good to be true, she told herself. Oh, please let it be true.

Boo pushed Hush aside, giving its sibling a harsh glare. “There’s a problem. It’s been polluted, so it doesn’t have any power left to it. It’s impossible. You might as well give up now.”

“It’s not impossible. Just very, very unlikely. The desecration can be undone.”

“How?” Sigge asked. The chance to lift the curse. The chance to be normal. The chance to walk among people without hisses and boos and rock thrown. She had never known such a thing.

“There’s a monster,” Boo began, its tone quiet and formidable.

“The villagers have been dumping their trash in the cave for years,” Hush interrupted. “That’s what started the whole thing. It polluted the spring, and to monsters, well, there’s no place better than a desecrated spring. So, before any kind of our kind could go in and protect it–”

“A monster moved in. Big, huge, hairy, long teeth and sharp claws–”

“It hasn’t got teeth or claws. It’s got mandibles and pincers.”

“And relentless. Ruthless. Incorrigible.”

“That is not the word you’re looking for.”

“What do you know?”

The two dissolved into bickering, but Sigge didn’t hear them. Just as quickly as she had been given hope, it had been ripped away, and she felt all the more hollow for it. Failed, cursed and failed. Worst of all, she had failed Hedvig, but even as she thought of it, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for herself. A giant monster, a polluted spring, and no chance to lift the curse.

“Sigge, you can do it!” one of the demon children called as she began to walk away. Sigge turned back. Hush had pinned Boo and was reaching out to Sigge. “You can do it. You can overcome the monster and clean up that cave, and if you do, you won’t be cursed anymore. In fact–”

“Don’t do it, Hush, that’s not fair!”

Hush pointed a long, clawed finger at Sigge. “You must do it. It is your quest to defeat that monster and reclaim the spring for yourself and your ancestors and your children to come.” Hush looked pleased with itself, smiling smugly at Sigge, though she did not understand the significance.

“Oooh,” Boo moaned. “Now you’ve gone and done it. It wasn’t my fault, Sigge, remember that. It wasn’t my fault.”

Spot laughed, hopping toward Sigge. “Serves you right, Abomination. And I hope it kills you, too.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course, you don’t, you fool!”

“You have to do it now,” Hush said, a smirk playing on its lips. “You can’t not go and defeat the monster. It’s your quest. You have to. That’s the rule.”

A sinking feeling settled on Sigge, even as Hush celebrated. She wondered if she had been saddled with another curse.

~~~

Sigge rubbed a new bruise on her side. She had expected the shouting, the cursing, the spitting; the villagers had done that and worse before. She would have expected rocks thrown at her, too. What she hadn’t expected was a pig-nosed boy with a pitchfork trying to skewer her through the ribs. That was new. They were getting younger and more vicious.

Still, she had hoped that morning for help with the monster not out of loyalty to her, but for the villagers’ own sakes. This was their spring, and this monster was polluting it. They hadn’t been willing to help; they hadn’t even been willing to listen. Instead, they shouted and jeered and spat, and one man with a boil on his neck had shouted, “Go yourself. At least we’ll be rid of one monster!” That was when the boy had tried to stab her. That was when Sigge had run.

Now, the cave opened in the earth before her, a hole with little warning other than the few boulders that formed its upper lip. It was a giant maw large enough to swallow a grown man, and it yawned into the depths as if it was waiting for its next victim to stumble by. Vines hung from the rocks above, dripping like spittle into the ominous gloaming below. Sigge had never been so frightened of one of Kelda’s springs.

While Hedvig had been partial to Amund, Sigge was fond of the mysterious Kelda. There weren’t many stories of her, but Sigge knew of her springs. Kelda was a frost ogre and looked at the worlds of gods and mortals with disgust and loathing. She froze all the water she found, drawing it into the earth so it would not be polluted by mortal touch, and she walked the world, killing any who would try to steal it back.

One day, she came across a hobbled boy and his old goat. Fearing that she would eat the goat, the boy stood up against Kelda. “This goat has given my family milk and kids every year since I was born. She has served us well, and I won’t have harm come to such a noble creature,” the boy declared.

Kelda was so moved that she drew the waters back up from the earth. She healed the boys hobble from her spring and told him to tell the rest of the mortal world that her springs would heal the sick and wounded, as disease and deformation were punishments from the gods that she would gladly foil. The boy grew into the hero Von.

Sigge peered over the lip of the cave. She could just see the brittle morning light glinting off the water’s surface. But for the wind blowing ripples, she saw no movement. She hefted a tree branch large enough to be a club and steeled herself to leap into the spring. Her chest constricted, her mouth went, and her stomach roiled. Sigge took a deep breath and glanced up into the clouds.  “Gods, I know you don’t favor abominations, but please watch over me as I try to kill a monster with a stick.”

Into the darkness she plunged.

She splashed into icy water that reached mid-thigh. Slick mud lined the bottom, oozing between her toes but offering no footholds. From what little she could see of the rest of the cave, it just got deeper from there.

Reflected light danced off the walls and ceiling of the cave but did little to illuminate it. A prickling in her fur told Sigge that there was something watching in the gloom, even if she couldn’t hear any breathing or feel any movement in the water. Sigge swallowed back a sudden wave of nausea.

Carefully, she felt the floor of the cave. It sloped down toward the darkness. Lose my footing, and I’ll be done. Sigge was certain, even as strong as she was, that it was stronger. If it dragged her down, there would be no hope at all. Great gods, what have I gotten myself into? She could feel her blood seeping from her limbs as any hope of survival withered. Why did I do this? Why did I agree to this?

Sigge tightened her grip on the makeshift club as she remembered. For Hedvig, the only person who has ever been kind to me.

Still, Sigge had no intention of calling out to the monster who watched her, which left her no course of action but to shiver in the icy water and hope the monster died of boredom. Once more, Sigge begged for the mercy of the gods in her doomed misadventure.

“Sister,” came the answer, but the smoothness of the voice, the rasping of a blade being drawn from its scabbard, was certainly not that of one of her gods, “why have you come to my den?”

The voice echoed all around her, petrifying her in her spot.

“Sister, have you come to drown your prey in my spring? Will you–” a scoff “–lure men from their wives to devour them here? Or will you snatch for children that play nearby?”

Sigge shook her head, trying to clear the voice out, but it stayed, rushing down her spine and freezing her blood. She prayed again, begging any god, her own or one entirely unknown to her, to save her.

“Answer me, sister.” Sigge heard movement in the water, the gentle lapping of a snake gliding over a river. “I did not invite you here, but if you will agree to bring your victims to me first, perhaps we can come to an agreement.”

Sigge couldn’t find her voice. Her throat and mouth were dry, and she could hear herself shaking violently.

“Answer me, sister.” It was a whisper now, and it spoke in the language of the dead.

I’m not your sister.

“I’m not your sister,” Sigge heard herself say.

“What is that? Not my sister? Accursed and vile, but not my sister?” The laugh that followed was a winter gale.

Sigge gritted her teeth. This damned thing thought she was damned as well. A sudden rush of heat burst from the center of her chest and boiled up into her head. Sigge decided that if she was going to die, she was at least going to make sure this thing knew she was no monster.

“I am no sister of yours, monster,” Sigge growled. The ferocity surprised even her, and hearing it echo back to her made her feel braver.

The creature emerged into the light and the feeling immediately disappeared. It was monstrous. The creature towered over her, swaying gently like a snake preparing to strike, but it was armored in scales like a beetle. Its mouth was great pincers, and Sigge couldn’t see eyes, but they bore into her all the same. It looked like flowing ice, reflecting light and gloom from its body.

“If not a sister, then a victim.” It lunged, its huge body moving with a speed Sigge could barely see.

Sigge leapt away, went underwater, and scrambled to her feet. She sputtered water as she tasted air. The club was right beside her. She reached for it. Something struck her across the back, and she was underwater again. She struggled but couldn’t find the surface. She lashed out. Her throat and chest burned for air.

Her hand scraped something. The cave wall. Sigge used it to stand. She retched and gasped for air. Water blinded her. Sigge dug at her eyes with the heel of her hand. She opened them to see the monster curling back up to strike again.

The club! The crystalline monster coiled as tightly as possible. Sigge ducked under the water, and the creature struck the wall of the cave an instant later. Sigge pushed off the wall, away. Her chest scraped the floor below and when she surfaced, she was belly deep in water. She was away from the light. The club! The club!

“Damned, stupid beast!” the monster shouted as it started to draw back again. It had been stunned. It was disoriented.

Where is the damned club?

“Abomination! I will send you back to the hell from which you sprang!” There, near its head.

If Sigge could reach it, she might have a chance. Sigge dove. Hurry, hurry, before it can strike.

Just as Sigge’s hand grasped the log, a coil wrapped around her chest and squeezed. “A mortal?” the monster cried with delight. “A cursed mortal! How wonderful to taste.”

Sigge squirmed, one arm was free. With all her might, she slammed the log down across the monster’s back. Sigge watched in horror as the log crumbled against the unblemished scales. The monster laughed.

“Struggle, please, struggle,” the monster said. “The sorrow when you die will be even more delicious. Nothing is more disappointing than resignation.”

The realization dawned on Sigge as the splinters washed from her hand. She had come here to die, and there would be no one to burn Hedvig. Nor herself.

“Poor little Abomination. I will remember you fondly.” The monster squeezed. Sigge cried out in pain. Her ribs strained; she could feel her organs pressing into each other.

“I can’t–” Sigge gasped for breath, but the creature squeezed tighter. Desperate, she tried to push the coil away. No way out. No way out. She dragged her claws over the scales.

“Linger, Abomination. Fight, you may yet–” The creature howled as Sigge’s claws caught a joint in the armor and pulled it away. It dropped her, writhing, spilling silver blood into the water. Sigge bumped the bottom, and before she could rise, another coil crashed into her.

She slammed her fist against the coil. It rose and came down again, impossibly fast in the water. Sigge felt her rib crack and screamed. Water gushed into her mouth and down her throat. Drowning, drowning, Sigge kicked wildly, hoping for purchase.

The coil pressed against her belly, pinning her to the floor of the cave, pressing her into the sucking mud. It pressed the air out of her, and in one burning, rushing gasp, water rushed in. All was in blackness. Desperate, Sigge dragged her claws across the scales. She felt her claw stick in another joint and pressed. Her claws plunged into emptiness below. Silver darkness clouded her eyes. She didn’t stop until the weight was lifted.

Sigge’s head broke the surface. She opened her mouth, but a wave slammed into her, throwing her back. She hit something hard, but this time when she gasped, she got air. She vomited water.

She was slammed back against the cave wall. She screamed, agonizing white-hot pain searing throughout her entire body.

“I have never met such a determined beast,” the monster hissed. Sigge felt its icy breath against her face, freezing water in her fur. “But I will never be defeated by a mortal, and though you are a hideous abomination, you are mortal.”

Sigge blinked, but she couldn’t open one eye as blood poured into it. She saw red. She hadn’t realized she was bleeding.

The monster’s face was inches from hers. Its pincers twitched, touching her face, yanking out golden strands of fur. Its breath was ragged, though not as ragged as hers. She may have been bleeding, but oily silver puddles pooled on the waters’ surface. The monster was bleeding more.

The monster pressed her harder and Sigge gasped in pain.

It could probably afford to lose more blood.

“You are an abomination, hated by gods and mortals and demons, and you have dared to come to my den to fight me? You should have died in your mother’s womb! But I will give you one final chance.” The created breathed ice in her face. Sigge opened her eyes. She could see the black slits gleaming beneath the pincers. They rippled like water, hypnotically.

“You need not go back to the mortals,” it whispered. “You may stay. Hunt the mortals. Bring them to me. And you may live.”

She was strong, her claws were sharp, she was determined, but the scales covering the monster’s body were unbreakable. However. She had gotten beneath them. And beneath the scales, there was nothing but shadow and ice and nothingness.

Sigge took a deep, ragged breath, ignoring the pain from her crushed ribs, then slashed the monster’s eyes.

The creature reared back, dropping Sigge into the water again. She only had to get under the scales. So she dug her feet into the mud, bared her claws, and caught at the monster’s scales as it dove, its long body gliding past.

Her claws caught, nearly ripping out at the root. She heard the creature scream, but she pressed her heels into the mud and hauled back. The creature writhed and shrieked, but Sigge held on. With all her strength, she pulled, her muscles straining, her joints creaked, but she held.

“I am no monster!” she cried and hauled back once more. There was a tearing sound, and the scale came lose in Sigge’s hands. Oily, silver blood poured over her hands, soaking into her fur, flooding the cavern around her.

The monster shrieked, its scream echoing through the cavern, piercing through the cloud of Sigge’s own confusion. The water around her boiled with the monster’s thrashing, pounding against her, driving her down. She half-crawled, half-swam until she was in the light again. The water stilled. Sigge wiped blood and water from the fur around her eyes.

The monster’s breath came ragged as its thrashing slowed. It twitched and stopped, merely floating on the water’s surface. The wounds Sigge had managed to inflict were widening as the scales crumbled away, “I never,” the monster gasped, “thought I would die at the hands of an,” it trembled, “abomination.”

Sigge watched it dissolve into the hollow of its body. “I’m not an abomination.”

The monster sighed one last time. Its body shattered like a mirror and melted away in the water of the spring. Sigge felt cold to her very core. She had had enough of the spring’s water for a lifetime, no matter how sacred.

~~~

Sigge had hoped that defeating the monster would burn the fur away. It had been an arduous fight. She could taste blood with each breath, and every movement sent pain radiating from her ribs. She was victorious all the same.

But, defeating the monster did nothing.

Sigge had hoped that dragging the trash from the cave would shed the fur from her skin. Hour after hour, she dove into the darkness to find another piece of broken pottery or another discarded farm tool. Hour after hour, the sky grew dark while the water grew clearer. She worked until couldn’t feel her limbs.

But, cleaning the spring did nothing.

Sigge had hoped bathing in the spring would wash the fur away. She shivered to her bones, sitting in the shallows, swimming in the depths, pouring handful after handful of water over her head. She bathed herself until her skin wrinkled and her fur matted with ice.

But, bathing in the spring did nothing.

As she emerged from the cave, she found the sky had turned dark, and she had missed an entire day. Exhaustion filled her limbs as darkness filled her eyes, and Sigge couldn’t bring herself to move. She lay down and prayed that she would wake the following morning naked of fur.

But, morning brought nothing.

The dawn burned the sky crimson, waking Sigge from a dreamless sleep, bathing her in a cold, watery light that would never penetrate the thick fur still covering her body. With it, she gave up hope.

Sigge stretched aching muscles and rubbed aching limbs and found that her fur was still wet. She got to her feet, stomach rumbling, joints shaking, and skin pimpling, to make her way back so she could finally put all this business and Hedvig to rest.

“When this is done, I’m just going home. Spot can go wherever he damn well pleases, but if he comes back with me, I’ll roast him for dinner.”

Thinking of delicious, juicy roast goat made her mouth water and her stomach cramp, and she decided, out of desperation, to ask the townspeople for some kindness and some breakfast. Sigge took a deep breath. This will all be done soon. Then she could hide away from the world forever.

By the time Sigge had made it back to the village the sun had nearly dried out her fur. She looked every bit like she had battled a monster, and she felt an inkling of pride at it.

That feeling ended abruptly as a stone sailed past her head, rustling the fur at her temple. That was nearly a damn fine shot, Sigge thought. Damn cheeky, too, for what I’ve just done for these people.

She glared at the children who huddled behind a fallen stone wall, where a black-haired boy huddled behind the rest. He was the thrower. She spat, and they scattered. Their cries that they too would be cursed gave her a perverse sort of satisfaction.

As she moved toward the village green, Sigge could feel their eyes on her, burning through her golden fur. She could feel the tension of anxiety as mothers hid their children behind their skirts. Men ceased their idle chatter and clenched their jaws and their fists, as children pointed and gaped. Signs of warding were made. Her very presence – her very existence – was a threat to them; she could bring down the wrath of the gods. Sigge didn’t have to look into the eyes to see the same horror she had always seen.

More than all that, though, she could feel the ache in her muscles from the fight, the pain in her broken ribs, the chill from her damp fur, the bruise from the jab of a pitchfork in her side, and Sigge felt anger.

They didn’t fear her, she knew; they feared her curse. Well, if they can’t forgive me for the curse, they will fear me for it.

She stepped onto the cool grass of the village green, where the villagers punished their criminals, held their festivals, and fed their livestock. She turned to face the gathered crowd – some had rocks, some had clubs, some had pitchforks and hoes, all were ready to chase her out of town. Or kill her. Their gods, she thought, are bloodthirsty gods.

She cast a glance over the crowd, an imperious crook to her neck she hadn’t realized she had adopted. No real weapons among them. These villagers have no teeth. Sigge found herself musing. She opened and closed her fists, feeling the claws that she had been born with, comfortable and comforting against her palm. She had teeth as well.

She cleared her throat, surprised at herself for not feeling the panic she had felt so many times. Perhaps she was just too tired.

“Yesterday,” she began, taken aback by the booming sound of her voice. The villagers were startled; she could see blood draining from their faces. She could smell the sweat in their pores. “I came to you asking for help. The spring, Dagne’s Spring, had been defiled. A demon monster had taken residence, and the village had done nothing about it.

“Yesterday, I came to you asking for help killing the demon monster and saving the spring. Yesterday, you spat at me and ran me out of town.”

They watched her with wide eyes and gaping mouths. You’ll catch flies, she thought, but she saw they were listening intently – were they afraid? It confused her but delighted her as well.

“I killed the monster. I nearly died for my trouble, but the monster is dead now and the spring is restored.

“I don’t want anything from you. I don’t want you to accept me as your neighbor, I don’t want you to reward me, and I certainly don’t want you thinking of me as your hero. I didn’t do it for you. I did it so that I could give Hedvig a proper funeral. I only ask for two thing – that you give me something to eat. I have no strength left to finish the funeral rites. And then I ask that you leave me alone.”

It was a reasonable request. It wasn’t asking much. They could oblige her and wash their hands of her forever. It was what they had always wanted of her, after all, to be free of her. She had not expected that they didn’t want her to be the one to want it.

“Hedvig’s dead!”

“Murdered!”

“Monster!”

“Fiend!”

“No!” Sigge shouted, a growl shredding her voice. Fear clenched her heart, but anger burned it away just as quickly. “I would never hurt Hedvig!”

“How could you? She was kind to you!” wailed a woman with freckles across her chest and knotted gray hair. Sigge recognized her mangled hand. Hedvig had saved it from being cut off when her cow crushed it. Sigge had had to set the hand under Hedvig’s guidance since Hedvig’s own hands were riddled with arthritis. Ana – that was her name – had blamed Sigge when the hand never healed completely, even as Hedvig said it never would.

“And since she was the only person who had ever been kind to me, why would I ever hurt her, Ana?” she snapped, letting the emphasis hang in the air like a threat. Ana’s face turned as gray as her hair.

A sharp pain shot through her body, blossoming from her back, and Sigge lashed out. She caught the prong of a pitchfork. There at the handle was the boy who had jabbed her before with his pig-nose and his beady eyes. Sigge watched the glee drain away from his face as she held the pitchfork. He desperately pulled away, but she was stronger. Swine,” she growled.

She yanked the pitchfork out of his hands and sent him sprawling at her feet. Sigge spun the pitchfork, striking him across the fat of his backside with an audible thwack as he tried to stand. The boy sobbed in pain, but Sigge sneered at him. She hadn’t struck him with her full strength; the tears were more from fear than from pain, and Sigge was disgusted by it.

“Now listen!” Sigge roared, her voice spreading out over the crowd like thunder over the mountains. “I have done nothing to you, you ungrateful fools! I have never raised my voice, I have never raised my hand, and I have certainly never raised any curse against you! The only person who has ever suffered from this curse has been me, since the day I was born, because you – you monsters have treated me like some sort of – of abomination.

“This is the way I was born! The only curse I have ever suffered under is you! I have helped deliver your babies, and cure your sick, and heal your hurt, and all I have gotten in return are curses and bruises, and I am saying enough!

“I am a healer! I am a goodwitch! I am Hedvig’s heir! I slayed the demon monster of Dagne’s Spring with my bare hands, and I alone restored it to its former glory! I am Sigge the Golden! I am Sigge the Bear! And, if I must, I will make sure you understand exactly what that means.”

Sigge thrust the pitchfork to its handle into the ground. The crowd split before her as she stalked out, every man, woman, and child eager to get out of her way. Sigge snatched a meat pie set aside on a barrel and glared about her to see if anyone would challenge her. No one did.

When Sigge took her first bite on the way back up the mountain to the sacred grove, she could have sworn she had never tasted anything so sweet.

~~~

Sigge felt better than she had in the whole of her life. She felt free, unburdened, and, perhaps even in control. And she certainly was not going to allow those two little demons Boo and Hush to change that for her. They had been building a pyre, Sigge saw, or at least Boo had, for it was still piling twigs atop the oversized mound as she approached.

“You’re back!” Boo exclaimed as she strode up. “Did you do it? Did you defeat that monster?”

“No good,” Hush replied. “Look, still covered in fur.”

“Once an abomination, always an abomination,” Spot declared. Sigge wondered how long Boo and Hush were going to put up with him. Boo, irritably, snapped a pebble at his flank, hitting with an audible clap. Spot screamed and hopped away.

Not long, apparently.

“I did kill that monster. I cleaned that spring. I took more than one bath in that spring, too,” Sigge replied. “I nearly drowned in it.”

“Too bad,” Hush said, lounging in the abandoned goat cart. “It was a long shot. I mean, if anything could break a curse like that, it would be a dunking in that spring, but looks like you’re stuck with it.”

Boo looked like it was about to cry. “But… that monster’s gone. We won’t have to–”

Hush threw a pine cone at Boo, but Boo leapt onto a tree branch and hissed at Hush like a cat. Hush hissed back. “That’s none of her business.”

“It is so!”

“No, it is not!”

“What’s not my business?”

“We were supposed to chase that monster out of the spring,” Boo blurted out, only to be beaned by another pine cone.

We have the grove to guard. We were allowing Sigge to deal with the spring so that she could break her curse.” Hush turned back to Sigge, flashing a row of pointed teeth at her, but the way it bit its lip told Sigge it was nervous. “You know, gods are all about heroic deeds and that, so, I figured, that’s the most heroic deed we have at hand, why not try that?

“Too bad, gods are fickle and all. Looks like you’ll–”

“I don’t care,” Sigge said, crossing her arms across her chest. “I am going to finish giving Hedvig her rites, and then I am going to go home, and you, little one, are not going to stop me.”

Sigge stepped into the sacred grove and was pleased, relieved really, to find that lightning didn’t strike, fire didn’t leap from the ground, pits didn’t open. Nothing happened. She smiled to herself. I knew it.

“You can’t do that!” Hush started to object, but Sigge turned around in a flash, towering over the tiny demon.

“And who’s going to stop me?” she asked. “You? I killed your monster, and either you let me burn Hedvig’s body or your taking a dunking in that spring and see how well it treats a demon like you.

“I don’t care what anyone thinks, god, demon, or otherwise. I am blessed to be the way I am, and nothing and no one is going to stop me now.”

Hush stuck out its bottom lip, glaring up at Sigge. They were just children, she thought to herself. And just like children, they needed to be taught how to behave.

“Now, go gather some of those dried leaves so that I can light the pyre and be done with it.”

Hush hesitated, a defiant glare in its eyes, but Sigge returned it with a force that even the obstinate little demon couldn’t stand against it. Hush bowed its head and scuffed its feet as it took its time gathering leaves. Sigge smiled again.

I’m sorry it took so long, Sigge thought as it hefted Hedvig’s body onto the pyre Boo had built. Everything is taken care of now.

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