This story is by Alejandra Cue and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“I’ve come to deliver a letter. It’s… for Betty,” Andre said.
Erik’s blood boiled at those words. Only he called Elisabeth, his wife, Betty. He’d adored her name from the first time it crossed his lips, lips that embraced her every night under the intimacy of woven cotton and darkness. He loathed that this bald and bearded man had said it. He hated that this adventurer, who barely hid the stench of travel under his sweat-stained studded armor and muddy boots, bowed his head to avoid Erik’s eyes with a shaky voice.
He feels guilty. Good, Erik thought.
When he married Elisabeth and moved to her hometown, Erik knew he wasn’t her first love. It didn’t bother him if his friend the merchant, or the blacksmith he drank with at night, or even the tavernkeeper who poured their drinks had shared more than smiles with Elisabeth once. But this adventurer was different. That look of his came not from one who innocently reminisced about adolescent nights, and Erik hated it.
Four days had passed since then, four mornings he suffered the adventurer and his knocking. Fortunately, his hesitation allowed Erik to interrupt him before he uttered Betty’s name again. Unfortunately, Erik failed to get that man’s name out of his children’s mouths.
Since his arrival, Andre had occupied himself with odd jobs in town, as licensed adventurers do, and Leon and Bea couldn’t stop singing his praises. Like all the town’s curious children, they followed Andre around as he completed his quests, be it fixing fences, babysitting goats, or chasing chickens. They even brought back a white feather souvenir for dad, and two more for mom and grandma Triss, who were still out of town. Leon and Bea recounted the day’s adventures from dinner to bedtime, and Erik just s nodded and smiled.
There was a limit to how much he could endure, however.
That night, after entrusting the neighbors with his children, Erik washed down his worries with beer and conversation. The music, the food, his friends, and the melody of laughter brought joy to his heart. But Andre’s booming glee soured his drink. Not even in his haven was he spared from this man.
Erik headed out the door before he could hear another story of skeletons and legendary swords, but stopped when someone asked: “You’ve had many a woman?”
Andre shook his head, smiling with droopy eyes. “Just one. The love of my life, Betty…”
Erik sprinted out in a blind rage. He was not violent, and he hated what this man stirred in him. He wanted to grab him and scream to his face, punch it, even.
Go away. Leave our family alone!
But he couldn’t do it. Instead, Erik rushed home, grabbed his mother-in-law’s ink and parchment, the white feather, and began writing. After an hour under the dim lantern, he examined the document, sighing. If his plan worked, tomorrow he’d be rid of that adventurer once and for all.
“I have a quest for you,” Erik presented the document with his best smile. It was especially difficult because Andre regarded his baggy eyes with genuine concern.
The adventurer read the quest carefully, his demeanor all business. After confirming the reward, he nodded and set off to complete his task.
Fool. Erik grinned. His mood was the merriest it had been in the past week as he occupied himself with his carpentry. That day’s pieces had turned out exquisite. He was eager to show Betty when she returned.
Before he realized, his growling stomach announced midday. Erik put away his tools and called, “Bea, Leon, we’re going to town.”
But no one answered.
“Leon! Bea!” He shouted.
Erik cursed himself. He recalled his children had come in and out of the house while he was working, and in his merriment he’d dismissed them as they’d told him where they were going. He scanned the room for clues, anything to jog his memory… until he saw the inked feather on his desk.
Erik immediately grabbed his axe and bolted to the forest, panic stabbing his heart.
The bountiful river was not far from town, and yet everyone avoided it because the current was too strong, too dangerous to fish salmon, except for bears. Enough careless citizens had been swept and found near-dead downriver; people knew better than to try their luck. The adventurer didn’t.
Erik’s intention wasn’t to kill the man, just to send him away and hopefully keep him from coming back. But if his children fell into the water…
He stopped before the grim thought consumed him. The riverbank was nearly in sight.
As he slowed his pace, Erik listened to the rushing current, soothing and terrifying.
Soon he heard familiar voices.
He sighed in relief.
But another knot clenched Erik’s stomach, for he saw the trio hugging next to a bucketful of salmon and a longsword seemingly made of stone.
It was a warm embrace, tears in everyone’s cheeks. When Andre pulled back, Leon and Bea smiled with eyes spelling… joy… and pity? And the adventurer, he regarded them with sadness and… love? As if they were his own?
Erik felt sick. First his wife, now his children. This time, he’d walk up to him and tell him off. He would speak his mind and banish the man forever. He would’ve… if his voice ever came out. If only his legs would move. If only he wasn’t a cow—
WARGH! The booming roar shattered the moment.
Erik was paralyzed, powerless, while the battle-scarred bear charged his family from across the river.
Andre shouted, “Run!” He pushed the children away and grabbed his longsword, facing the beast just as it slashed with its great paw. His armor resisted the blow, and he was pushed back. He countered with a slash to its face, but the bear turned, wounding its torso instead.
It lunged to bite Andre. He successfully dodged it, only to receive another gash on his chest. Andre grunted and bled as the metal under his armor came loose.
Damn it! Erik finally moved.
“Dad?” Bea cried.
“Go! Run to town!” Erik ordered as he whipped past them.
Leon nodded, gripped his sister’s hand, and fled without looking back.
“Hey!” Erik threw a rock at the beast, hitting it square in the face.
Both the bear and Andre turned their heads. His expression bore surprise and dread.
“What are you doing?” Andre’s voice almost choked.
“Protecting my family,” Erik said.
Andre gave him a pained smile that cost him a claw to his arm.
“Argh!” Erik charged the beast, his axe held firm. He aimed at its bloody paw and struck.
His small victory was cut short as the bear pushed him back butt-first to the ground.
Erik sweat deadly fear as the beast stood and descended on him, his entrails to be squished under its weight.
Crushing sounds echoed around Erik, of earth and stone that rose as stalagmites to shield him. The bear pierced its claws against the spikes and roared in agony.
Erik turned his head where he saw the barrage commence. Andre stood with his longsword’s tip on the ground. The brownish aura around him quickly dissipated.
Andre panted heavily, eyeing the beast.
Sure enough, it glared back and commenced its next attack.
Erik hoped Andre would conjure more magic, that he had one last trick up his sleeve.
The men crossed sights, and Erik despairingly realized that Andre had already used it to save his life.
Andre gifted him the same smile he’d given Leon and Bea before the bear swiped his sword to the river. His body tumbled bloody onto dirt and pebbles.
Erik felt himself screaming, crying, rushing as the deafened river to deny this monster another victory. Raw emotion and pure heroic instinct guided his arms as he drove the axe onto the beast’s eye.
The bear bellowed and staggered backwards, granting Erik another opening to drop the axe. And they both fell, beast and weapon.
Part of him felt numb, incredulous that he’d accomplished such a feat.
But the nightmare wasn’t over.
He sped to Andre’s side, horrified at the raw crimson mess that was his chest. Erik worked fast to remove the damaged armor, then he cleaned Andre with fresh water, turned his own shirt to dressings, and covered the wounds.
“Hey…” Andre muttered.
“It’s alright. Help is coming,” Erik whimpered. “You can’t die…”
He met Andre’s gaze.
“I’m sorry,” they said in unison.
“Why?” Erik bawled. “Why…? I’m the—”
“I’m sorry, son,” he held his hand.
For the first time, Erik looked at Andre. The wrinkles on his cheeks and brow, the same caramel eyes as Elisabeth. And Betty— No, Triss, Beatrice, his mother-in-law, she…
Erik wept on Andre’s shoulder, sobbing countless apologies, begging for Andre’s recovery.
“It’s all right, son,” Erik’s father-in-law embraced him for the first time. “As long as we’re here to protect our family, we’ll be alright. We’ll all be happy. Together.”