This story is by Morticia Autumn Crone and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Deep in the woods lived a little man despised by those who feared what they could not understand. One autumn day desperate wails reached the ears of the gnome. Wise to the ways of humans, he stayed hidden, creeping along a branch high above the keening far below. A barbaric contraption clamped a young man’s leg from ankle to knee. His face was a rictus of anguish and his blood poured freely from between the metal teeth.
Floating on a feather the little man landed neatly facing the crying youth.
“Kind sir,” the young man gasped, “please can you help me?”
The little man rubbed his chin. He tapped his foot and the curled saffron tips of his linen shoes bounced a little dance. His lips pursed this way and that in internal dispute. “I can. I do not know if I will.”
“Is it coin you want,” the boy spat, his face reddening in sudden heat.
“It is change I want,” said the little man, crunching leaves as he paced.
The boy babbled, promising riches and silks and other human delights.
The gnome waved off such fancies, and mind made up, he snapped his fingers. The jaws sprang apart and the youth gingerly lifted his leg from the trap.
Eyes beseeching, he asked the gnome, “Could you use your magic to heal me?”
“That would be a second service to you and none to me or the woods I protect.”
“I have nothing to offer now but vows. Will you accept a solemn pledge towards later kindnesses?”
“On two conditions: place no such traps again and do better by all living creatures henceforth.”
The youth readily agreed, for he knew as well as the gnome that it was his own trap in which he had been caught.
The little man gathered leaves from the ground soaked in the boy’s blood, earth that had drunk from his body. He incanted while he crushed the autumnal detritus, rubbing the bloody dirt between his palms, and placing them over the boy’s heart. The youth stared, transfixed as his leg began to mend. The bones regrew, the blood replenished and the skin repaired itself.
The boy left, happy and content. For many years he made good on his promise, but in time he grew into a strong and powerful merchant desirous of a bear rug to gift to his new wife. Having long forgotten why he no longer laid traps in the woods, he ventured deep into the darkest depths where the bears roam wild and free.
And he laid traps.
Metal jaws crushed wild creatures, snapping bones and bodies in two, but no bear went near. Enraged at this concerted evasion, his violent threats serving no good, he called out to the gnome he’d met in his youth—the little man who had helped him.
The gnome came.
“Help me to capture a bear so I can make a rug out of it for my beautiful bride, and I will reward you with gold.”
“I am a Guardian of the Wilds, and I don’t need gold,” the gnome said.
“Then I will reward you with gems,” the merchant said.
“I don’t need gems,” the little man said.
“Our first child then,” the wily merchant coaxed. Didn’t everyone wish for a child to fill their days?
The little man paused. One great sacrifice, he conceded, could save many lives. And had he not made many sacrifices as Guardian of the Woods? He could raise the child to protect the creatures of the woods and despise humans and their fickle ways.
No sooner had the agreement been struck but a gruntled bear lumbered by, and blinded by the wild magic, ambled unknowingly into the trap. “Kill him quickly,” the little man commanded, for he did not want any animal to suffer, sacrificial or not.
But the merchant was sly and knew what protecting the woodland creatures meant to the gnome and what it cost him to have struck this bargain. He owed him, but he wanted to escape payment. “I have no tools with which to dispatch the beast. I must make the long journey home.” He hid his smile while the little man worried. “I will return in three days.”
The bear groaned in agony and though an ache blossomed in the gnome’s heart, he hid his eyes and snapped his fingers, draining the life from the beautiful bear.
The vulpine merchant smiled greedily. “I have nothing to butcher him with. By my return the hide will rot and it will be useless to me. I will have to begin again.”
The gnome whimpered. This would make his third transgression against the beast realm. First the bargain, then the murder, now the butchering.
He pricked the air with an intricate sequence of magical signs, slitting the bear from belly to chest, revealing not a he-bear but a she-bear when two cubs tumbled from her womb halting at the little man’s feet. His wail was so deep and loud, his keening so painful and aching that it masked the merchant’s great belly laugh as he disemboweled the bear, heedless of the murky scent of offal. Tossing her bloody pelt over his shoulder he disappeared, his booming laugh echoing through the trees.
Many years passed and the dishonorable wretch forgot all about the little man, just as he had in his youth. Until one day he needed him a third time. His wife had borne him many sons and she was labouring with what might be her last child. She would not survive without help. The little man was called. The little man came.
But he was changed. Older. Meaner maybe. “Where is the child you owe me,” he growled. His icy breath chilled the room and it emptied quickly, leaving only the merchant and his ailing wife.
“You may have the child she bears if only you can save her,” the weary merchant pleaded, for he loved his wife dearly. She begged him not to give their child away. The gnome listened and watched and seeing the wife was good, unaware of the deceit embedded deeply in her man, his heart was softened.
“I will save your wife,” he said, “and I will save your child.” The couple’s relief was great and both wept in joy, and the woman in pain.
“Hurry,” the merchant urged.
The little man did what he did best. The spirits of life in the air danced. The wife was saved, the babe born. It was a beautiful and healthy girl and the couple were happy.
“How can we repay you,” the goodwife graciously asked.
“Simple,” he answered. “When your marriage was young your husband begged my help. He promised me payment which I deferred. Until now.”
The woman looked from the gnome to her husband, not understanding. But her husband understood.
“That day,” the little man continued, “I conspired to kill a mother, like yourself, and I raised her two cubs. Now they are grown and handsome. One female, one male.”
The hairs on the merchant’s neck rose.
“I will not yet take my child promised me,” the gnome said, “but in payment for saving you, I will take your husband, and he will in turn make a child for me.”
“But I need a husband,” the woman said. “Please don’t leave me without my husband,” she pleaded.
“I will not leave you without a husband,” the little man agreed. He snapped his fingers and a swirling portal appeared in the room, and the wind it made was fearsome. Out of the portal stepped a male bear as tall as a man, and half again. The portal did not close. “This will be your husband, goodwife,” said the gnome, “and I promise you, he will be a better and truer husband than your man ever was.”
“But what about me,” the merchant asked.
“You promised kindnesses. Step through the portal with me to meet your new wife. Together you and she will make me a child, and I will raise it as my own.”
“She agrees?” the merchant asked, fearing once again he fared better for his bargaining.
“She has agreed,” the little man said.
“My poor wife,” he sighed. But this way, they all survived.
The merchant kissed her teary cheek and stepped through the portal followed by the little man. When he arrived at the other side he saw a bear. A female bear.
“Meet your new wife,” said the little man proudly, and perhaps just a little wickedly.
Resolved to acquiesce, the merchant introduced himself with a brave smile.
The she-bear accepted his greeting and they made merry. The merchant believed he had, yet again, escaped atonement. He adjusted to his new life, sure in his happy conclusion.
And in time, the man made a child with the bear, the bear ate the man, and the gnome and the she-bear raised her bear-child to be a Guardian of the Wilds.