A downright solicitous southwesterly wind carried Lee Scoresby away from Novy Odense. The hot air balloon waltzed through a cloudless sky, occasionally picking up speed and throwing in a jig or reel as an air current rose up to meet it. Always an attentive partner, Lee stepped lively despite his recent injuries, hopping between the wind gauge and the gas valve as needed. A handful of thoughts lay behind him, moored in the company of Miss Lund, for whom he had nothing but good wishes in her present engagement. The rest of him faced north, soaring on into the Arctic landscape a quarter-mile above the ice-green sea and any earthly ties.
Maintaining this kind of altitude kept Lee on his toes. It wasn’t every day a man found himself travelling in the company of a talking polar bear, and while the balloon didn’t seem to care one way or another about Iorek Byrnison’s powers of speech, it had strong opinions on a passenger that weighed just shy of half a ton. The honoured guest was still lying down in the gondola, not having raised his head one inch since their departure. He appeared to be sleeping now, his eyes shut and one paw the size of a dinner plate curled over his nose.
“This is a turn of events,” Lee murmured to Hester, and to his embarrassment he saw Iorek’s ears prick up.
“If you say so, Lee,” Hester replied placidly.
He stood by the assertion. Iorek Byrnison was a sight to behold, and Lee was finding it hard to quit beholding. Every minute or two, his gaze would ease off the promising looking archipelago ahead, and he would consider anew the small mountain of gleaming white fur and sturdy muscle beside him. The bear was the queerest creature he had ever met, that was plain enough. Yet queerer still was the fact that he provoked in Lee an inarguable feeling of kinship, which had so far in his travels proven to be as rare a commodity abroad as it had been in Texas.
Hester’s knowing gaze made him tug on the brim of his hat. That had been one hell of a fight back there, and he couldn't think of anyone he would have rather had at his side for it. Iorek was a genuine behemoth, but only a fool would mistake him for a brute. The sprung-trap snap of his jaws and the force behind one of his wallops were impressive enough, but Lee was still flabbergasted by the delicate way he had broken down that door through some humdinger of engineering know-how. For every man that Iorek had taken down by strength of size, he had held twice as many at bay by nerve of eye alone.
It was...well, it was something, all right.
Iorek’s ears twitched again at Hester’s soft hum of agreement.
Lee eventually set them down on something smaller than an island but bigger than a rock, where they bumped along to a slow and clumsy stop on the tundra. There was still some snow on the ground, laid out in ribbons from a glacier that sat cradled in the islet’s bay, but springtime had beaten them here all the same. It wasn’t something Lee could feel just yet, not with the cold biting at him when he shut off the gas. He could smell it, though. After weeks of wading through the palpable stink of oil and salted fish, there was no mistaking the scent of something green on the air—something hopeful and stubborn.
His shoulder gave him a little trouble as he climbed out of the gondola, but there was no sign of fresh blood seeping through his shirt and he only barely broke a sweat. He gritted his teeth and went about the business of making safe the aircraft. A bear proved to be a fine anchor, keeping the gondola dug in and steady even when that southwesterly wind came courting the deflating balloon again.
Once Lee had finished tying everything down, Iorek finally stood up and peered over the rail with obvious suspicion. When he seemed fully convinced that they were on terra firma again, he sprung out with a powerful leap. He shook himself and stretched, then gazed around at the snow-dappled oasis.
“Your contraption is secure?” Iorek asked, glancing back at the balloon.
“Hasn’t blown away on me yet,” Lee replied, which was God’s honest truth, if you figured on how quick he had been to catch up to it that time outside Mount Royal and the fact that it had really more floated away in Roanoke.
Iorek nodded, seeming to take him at his word. “Rest, then.”
“I’m just fine—” Lee began, but Hester interrupted him..
“Listen to the bear, Lee.”
Lee looked from Iorek’s dark eyes to Hester’s. The expression in the former was unreadable, but Hester’s suggested that he had found enough action for one day.
“Looks like I’m outnumbered,” he said.
He bundled himself in his coat and sat propped up against the gondola on the side sheltered from the wind. He was not an argumentative man by nature, but it seemed to him that a bear might not fully appreciate how much work a human being had to undertake to make camp. The exchange rate between wilderness and town likely balanced a mouth full of white fangs and twenty black claws with the dollars and cents that bought a room for the night and a hot meal. Lee himself had neither the endowments of a predator nor any money to his name, and while there was enough reindeer jerky in his pack to keep body and soul together, it might need a little spit and glue to help depending on how long he took to find civilization again.
Hester settled in his lap, watchful on his behalf as the events of the day caught up with him.
He was careful not to lean on his injured shoulder, and he found himself growing more comfortable once the ground warmed underneath him. His vision started to drift, blurring together the snow and the sedges. It was a pretty spot in the tough, lean way that a place could be pretty up here, but as his mother used to say, the dose made the poison. It wouldn’t do to stay still too long.
Down on the shore, the sea lapped up gently against the rocks, trying to lull him to sleep with its mesmerizing ripples. He would just shut his eyes for a minute, he thought. Just one minute, maybe five—
Lee slept and dreamed of a field of dry prairie grass. Bleached white by the sun, it whispered as it waved in a breeze he could not feel. Somewhere behind him, his boyhood home drifted on the inland sea. The heat whined, bearing down with such single-minded oppression that he could barely hear his mother calling his name.
“Lee, wake up.”
He opened his eyes to find Hester standing with her front paws on his chest. Then he looked down and found his tin cup sitting next to him, filled to the brim with water. It looked like crow was on the menu—speaking metaphorically, not that Lee was so proud as to be fussy either way. Iorek obviously knew more about making camp than Lee had given him credit for and had somehow divined besides that he would wake up with a powerful thirst.
“Much obliged,” Lee called out to the bear, who was already ambling down to the shore.
Iorek turned and nodded as a graciously as any homesteader in parched country giving a guest first go at the pump and then continued on his way.
Lee drank deep. The water must have run off from the glacier and proved to be the coldest and most delicious he had ever tasted. One gulp chased away what felt like the first ornery heat of fever in his mouth, and a second one drowned it dead. The rest of the cup he savoured, sipping and swishing as he watched Iorek wade into the shallows. He had spent six months travelling through New Denmark and New France, but sometimes looking at the sea still made him feel like a wide-eyed greenhorn.
How could a creature that big dive so gracefully, Lee wondered as Iorek disappeared under the waves. He set down the cup, his eyelids already weighing on him, and watched for a while as a flash of a broad and gleaming back appeared now and then among the white-capped waves.
The next time Lee awoke, crow was served with a side of fish.
He sat up blearily at the sound of something heavy hitting the ground and winced as his shoulder took offence at the excitement. He rubbed his eyes and looked around. The sun was sitting much lower now, and the sky and sea had turned cotton candy pink. Iorek stood beside him with a little red on his muzzle, and an enormous streak of silver lay in the grass between them.
When Lee was a boy, a fish dinner had meant money was even tighter than usual. It was muddy-tasting catfish dredged in cornmeal and fried in his mother’s skillet, or little shiners caught on a line and cooked whole over a clumsy boyhood campfire. It was making-do food, and there wasn’t a bite of it he wouldn’t have traded for roast chicken or even coot. The fish that Iorek had pulled out of the sea wasn’t anything like those mean little fillets. It was fifty pounds at least and was still twitching despite having lost its head.
“That’s some hospitality, Iorek Byrnison,” Lee said as he took the knife from his belt. “Thank you.”
He cut the fish open, finding the flesh inside as red as raw beef and streaked through with ripples of fat. His stomach growled as he cleaned the catch, flicking the guts off the tip of his knife and sending them into a patch of snow. With what seemed to be the equivalent of a shrug, Iorek leaned over and ate them. Lee carved himself off a generous filet and gave the rest back to his host.
Maybe it was being shot that made a man so inclined, but he indulged himself that evening. He not only cooked his fillet on his camp stove, but he unwrapped and sacrificed part of his stash of seasoned wood to build a real fire. His stomach thanked him for the former and his shoulder thanked him for the latter by failing to lock up like he thought it might. Hester sidled over to Iorek and watched with interest as the bear ate his share of the fish raw and whole. She was in a talkative mood, peppering him with questions. How long could he hold his breath underwater, and what did it look like at the bottom of the sea, and did he eat any vegetables? Iorek answered all of these briefly but patiently in his low rumble of a voice that gave the fire competition for warmth.
Lee, for his part, sat quietly with his rifle balanced across his knee, keeping an eye on the darkening sky and sea in case anyone had been foolish enough to follow them. Every now and then, in between chewing his supper and being kind to Hester, Iorek would turn his head Lee’s way and they would exchange a brief look. Lee thought that maybe the bear approved of his vigilance, and as the night wore on in shared silence, he furthermore thought that the approval of a fellow like Iorek Byrnison was surely a thing worth having.
The good weather held, and they ended up lying low on that islet for five days, waiting for Lee’s shoulder to decide whether it was going to infect or not. It was looking like not, with more bloodmoss applied and no unnatural heat or foul odour setting in. Lee napped for long hours in the gondola of the balloon with his hat tipped over his eyes, weighed down with the kind of sleep that came with healing. When he was awake, he tended to his balloon, briskly walked the circuit of the islet to remind every part that wasn’t his shoulder that they weren’t being babied, and applied himself to making a map of this little part of the world.
“Are you from Novy Odense originally?” Lee asked Iorek one evening, squinting in the glow of a naphtha lamp and sketching out the big island in question.
"Been travelling long in these parts, then?"
"Four years.” Iorek was stretched out nearby, his eyes half-closed but turned toward the shallows of the sea where some seals had been swimming before sundown.
Four years ago, Lee had been nineteen and, from the lofty viewpoint of twenty-three, still mostly a know-nothing kid. He wondered how old Iorek was, and if bears reckoned their ages in the same way as men.
"You heading anywhere in particular?"
No answer was forthcoming, and Lee immediately knew he'd blundered into the brier patch and was sorry for it. He carried on, taking the thorns for himself:
"Now me, you couldn't have paid me enough to stay back home in Texas. My mother passed on, and the man she married was a no-good son of a bitch."
Iorek was silent for a moment before rumbling a sound that might have been conciliatory. Hester looked at Lee and then hopped over to Iorek, plunking herself down by his side. Lee’s pencil went jittering across the paper when he felt them touch.
It wasn’t the first time. This had been happening with puzzling regularity since their flight from Novy Odense. Hester would hunker down with Iorek and talk to him just like she would a daemon. That was strange enough on its own, but sometimes she would rise up on her hind legs to better be heard and her nose would brush Iorek’s ear, or her little paws would settle against the bear’s shoulder as he lay down to listen. When the contact took Lee unawares, it felt like hitting a patch of ice: a panicky, pinwheeling sensation of the world sliding out from under him.
Knowing it was coming was a different matter. He braced himself and continued to watch from the corner of his eye as Hester and Iorek bowed their heads together in a private conversation that fluttered inside his mind and just outside his hearing. Whiskers brushed against fur, making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Now it felt more like the prickle of coming indoors from the bitter cold: that half-painful but wholly satisfying sensation of thawing out.
He liked it. Damned if he knew what to make of it, but he liked it.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked Hester the next morning as he set out for one of his perambulations.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hester said, loping along beside him.
“I mean that business of going around touching Iorek all the time. You know damn well he’s not a daemon.”
“He’s a bear,” Hester pointed out.
“That’s not the same.”
“And why not?”
Lee halted in his tracks and scratched his head. He looked out at the sea for a while and then had to concede the point.
“I think,” Hester continued, “that he has his person on the inside. Maybe he swallowed him.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Lee said, but he had to admit it was as likely an explanation as any.
He started walking again, kicking a stone ahead of him and imagining what sort of man would have a daemon like Iorek. He imagined a great big fellow, built tall and broad, with what a storybook would call a noble brow. He would have flashing dark eyes and a voice like if a mountain could speak, and he would be good with his hands. Lee felt his face warm, and his foot missed the stone on its next swing. He glanced down to find Hester looking up at him knowingly.
“What do you two talk about anyhow?” he asked.
“What sort of things?”
“If you want to know, you ought to stop being shy and talk to him yourself.”
Lee had never been shy a day in his life, and he told her so.
“Yes, you are. If you weren’t, then you would know he’s been travelling the north looking for sky iron.”
“Sky iron? Now what in the world is that?”
Hester hesitated the way she sometimes did when she didn’t know everything there was to know about something. Then she carried on the way she did when she at least knew more than Lee. “It lives inside shooting stars.”
“Is that what he made that helmet of his out of? I couldn’t place the metal.”
“That’s right,” Hester said. “There’s nothing else like it on earth.”
“And I expect he means to make more armour,” Lee said, thinking on how the townsfolk had called them armoured bears in Novy Odense.
“That’s right, a whole set.”
“What do you reckon he’ll do when he’s done?” Lee asked, wondering if bears went to war.
“He’ll go back to the land of his father.”
“And then what?”
“You’ll have to ask him,” Hester said, and for the rest of their walk she would not be budged on whether Iorek was meant to join a great army, or fight his father, or win a she-bear and sire a bunch of little Ioreksons. Lee privately thought that Hester didn’t know the answer, but he really should have known better.
Hester and Iorek had been talking about more than just the nature of sky iron, but Lee didn’t discover this until the morning they packed up to leave. There was no sign of pursuit, and the bullet hole in his shoulder had closed up to a pink welt that was only tender when he poked at it. When Lee voiced the fact that he needed to move on and find another town with a supply of gas, Iorek only grunted in acquiescence and ambled over to the moored balloon with lingering suspicion for the aircraft.
A little reluctant himself, but agreeing that there was no time like the present, Lee started the production of getting the balloon ready to fly. “Where do you want me to drop you?”
Iorek lowered his great head and looked at Hester. They weren’t touching, but Lee felt something pass between them all the same. He looked at Hester, who blinked up at him with too much innocence.
“Hester and I have a contract," Iorek said solemnly.
"I see," Lee replied. Then, after what he hoped was just long enough a pause to keep from looking foolish, he added, “If you could give me a moment to confer with my associate?”
Lee set off with Hester down to the shore. He halted by the water’s edge, out of earshot by his reckoning, before putting his hands on his hips and looking down at his daemon in downright bewilderment.
"And just where are we getting the money to hire an armored bear? Do you have pockets I don’t know about?"
“We worked out a trade,” Hester said, sounding pleased with herself. “He’ll show us around these parts, and we’ll take him up in the air to see where any of that sky iron of his has landed. That’ll give him an edge over the other bears, you see, and we get ourselves a guide.”
It was a good idea. Lee suddenly wished he’d thought of it.
"You're sweet on him," he accused her.
"And you're smitten," she shot back.
His head told him to argue, but his gut wasn't so sure—which he supposed was the point. He gave the matter real consideration and then conceded, "He's a fine-looking bear."
“Forming an association with Iorek is the only sensible thing you’ve done this year, Lee.”
Lee was tempted to correct that outright falsehood, but instead he headed back to the balloon.
“I’d count myself lucky for your company, Iorek Byrnison,” he said.
Iorek inclined his head. “I may be grateful for your rifle, Lee Scoresby.”
“You’d better not have to be,” Hester said. “We’re staying out of trouble!”
“Of course we are.” Lee unstaked the ropes and climbed in to get the burner lit. “I’ve never been in trouble a day in my life.”
He thought that low growl might have been a chuckle. This time when they took off, Iorek was still crouched uncertainly on the bottom of the gondola, but he kept his eyes open. Hester sat by his side for a time and then, with a look back at Lee, hopped over and draped herself right over Iorek’s paw. Lee had to close his eyes for a second to stop feeling like he was going to topple out of the balloon and fall upwards into the sky. He steadied himself and went back to working the gas valve.
How much Iorek had been told about the ways of human beings, Lee couldn’t say. From the way the good folks of Novy Odense had talked, he couldn’t imagine that bears went around holding close and personal parley with daemons every day. He said nothing, but he thought maybe Iorek knew how unthinkable this ought to be, with the careful way he beheld Hester’s little form.
Lee had been the recipient of some notable glances in his time, probably more than he deserved, but never had he seen anyone look at Hester that way. He tugged down his hat and blamed the colour in his cheeks on the cool spring wind.
Who knew what kind of trouble Hester expected a man and a bear to get into, but he would later point out that he made it through to the summer without a single mark against his name or more than six shots fired in emergency.
Travelling together suited him and Iorek just fine. They kept company for long stretches, sometimes parting ways for a week depending on whether Iorek wanted to be in town or whether Lee was earning himself some honest—or at least mostly honest—money transporting passengers or cargo in between islands and over the sorts of places where roads hadn’t got to yet. When they did separate, it was always with a rendezvous point in mind, and when Lee had finished some transport jobs and was tired of businessmen and other loudmouthed creatures for the foreseeable future, he leaped at Iorek’s invitation to head east to the steppes in search of sky iron and good hunting.
It didn’t hurt that Lee had thought it best to leave the town of Lozny in a hurry. He had courted a sweetheart while he was staying there, or more accurately, she had courted him. She was a widow of thirty whose hair was as red as the fall leaves in New France. She ran the restaurant across the street from the rooming house where Lee had been staying, and she moved as gracefully as a doe but couldn’t hold onto a handkerchief to save her life. Lee had returned three of the lacy little things she had dropped next to his table before eventually following her upstairs to advise about pockets.
She was a generous woman, and they had enjoyed each other’s company greatly. Lee had brought her back a few trinkets and even some spices from his runs to the bigger town of Krivoya, but he had never been able to talk her into going up in the balloon with him. It was too bad because there was no sight like the silver coin of the sun setting over the river at midnight.
Not that the view from inside her room was lacking. Lee had made love with her in a feather bed piled with quilts, with the curtains drawn and the lamplight turning her hair to fire. Hester had curled up under the bed with the widow’s little fox daemon, and Lee had caught the occasional bit of their friendly conversation in between his own pounding heart and the widow’s sweet sighs.
Of course, things had taken a turn when he learned that the widow wasn’t quite as widowed as he’d thought. Her husband came back early from his business in Muscovy, forcing Lee to make a gentlemanly escape through the window with nothing but Hester and the clothes on his back—which strictly speaking were bundled under his arm at the time—scaling down the side of the building and ducking into the boarding house. He stuck around long enough to make sure the miraculously un-widowed woman was sheepish, not scared. When he was satisfied that she had that husband of hers wrapped around her finger, he decided that discretion was the better part of valour and removed himself from that particular marital tangle.
Now he was out in the wilderness, far away from suspicious husbands and high on sunlight. They had only travelled a little north of Lozny as distances were reckoned up here, but the days had gotten longer with every mile. The sun hardly set at all at this latitude, and the pale light wound Lee up like strong coffee. He was thrumming as he lay on his belly under a milky sky, toes twitching in his boots as he sighted along his rifle. This country was as strange and beautiful in summer as it was in winter. The tall grass put him in mind of home, but he was hardly spitting distance from the sea. The heat was barely a whisper of warmth on the back of his neck as a breeze stirred the tough little purple blooms that had broken through the rocky soil.
It would have been perfect if it wasn’t for one thing, he thought as he shook his head at an insidious buzz. He had come north prepared for the wolves and the bears, and for the whales of a size that would strike a man dumb with awe, and even for the preposterous sight of a walrus. No one, however, had told him about the mosquitoes. He supposed they had wanted him to be surprised.
Toe to toe, the bugs weren’t any meaner than Texas mosquitoes, but what they lacked in individual distinction they made up for in numbers. You could spot them coming from miles away, traveling in big black clouds like starlings out for blood. There was nothing for it but to find shelter or make your own, and Iorek had very unhelpfully shared that he’d once seen a swarm choke a man to death.
One of the bloodsuckers made it under the bandanna that Lee had tied over the lower half of his face. It whined in his ear, shrill and bedeviling. Lee dispatched it with a smack before shouldering his rifle again and scanning the landscape. A smudge of brown barely distinguishable from the rest of the tough summer grass froze at his sudden movement. The hare didn’t know it, but it was safe from him. Lee didn’t have the heart to shoot a rabbit and hadn’t since Hester first settled. He likewise avoided the grouse, unsure of whether folks had been pulling his leg with those stories about witches. This left him with the reindeer grazing in the distance.
An old doe who should have known better had made the mistake of wandering away from the herd. Lee’s gaze flicked to the east to where Iorek was crouched downwind behind a shallow hill. He held his fire and had the pleasure of watching Iorek spring.
What happened next happened fast. Lee knew a bear had no chance of chasing down a reindeer over long distance, but if the doe ran like lightning, then Iorek was the thunder on her tail. A dozen powerful bounds closed the distance, and one last dirt-kicking leap brought the reindeer down. It was a beautiful sight and no mistake, all coiled power and economy of motion. The old girl surely didn’t even know she was hit before her neck was broke.
The rest of the herd had bolted with single minded panic, and Lee took aim at the last one to get with the program. He pulled the trigger twice. The straggler crumpled, falling over dead and left behind.
Once he was sure the stampede had picked a direction and wasn’t going to wheel back around and flatten him, Lee got up from his blind. He ambled over to his kill, waving off the flies. It was a buck, young by the looks of it, but it had at least a hundred pounds on the biggest white-tailed deer he had ever bagged. At this realization, brains caught up with habit. He had never field-dressed anything this big north of the tree line. He scanned the horizon on all sides for something to string up the reindeer from and discovered that he was the tallest thing for miles.
There was nothing for it but to haul the carcass to the stream where at least he would have a little slope and some running water. He looped his rope around the reindeer’s antlers and set to heaving. His back felt the effort, and the short distance between here and there seemed to unfold and double.
“You’re not helping,” he said through gritted teeth to Hester, who was hitching a ride on the beast’s side.
She hopped off and looked up at him with an expectant tilt of her head that said about as much as ten sardonic replies.
“All the difference in the world,” he declared, stifling a grunt.
At the waterside, he propped up the buck and stripped to the waist. A reindeer took more elbow grease than a deer, and Lee had to proceed carefully lest his knife slip. He unmanned the buck and slit it from vitals to jawbone, then tied off the bung and removed the windpipe. He was aware of Iorek joining him, dragging the doe like it weighed no more than a ragdoll. They sat together, companionable-like, Iorek’s muzzle and paws red as he ate and Lee bloodied to the elbows as he worked. Between them lay Hester, radiating contentment, the only one unbothered by the flies.
Lee sold the reindeer meat to a butcher in the nearby village in exchange for liquor and a few choice cuts, with more held aside to dry for him if he came back later in the week. He and Iorek drank well that night as they settled in their camp, Lee from his tin cup and Iorek from a bucket. He had bought a heap of some sort of evergreen boughs in the village, and as promised they drove off the mosquitoes when thrown on the fire.
He wasn’t sure if it was the green-tinged smoke or the Catawba Flip and Orange Sherbet sky that made him an easy drunk. That midnight sun seemed to make him punchy, and homesick in a backwards sort of way. He took another swallow from his cup, fighting the urge to tap his foot or let his knee bounce.
“You don’t get nights like this where I come from.”
Iorek didn’t raise his head from where he was lying, but glanced at him sideways with a “go on” sort of expression. Lee wondered when exactly he had learned to read the bear’s face so plainly.
“Cool nights, surely,” he continued. “Dry ones too. But not a sky like this short of the resurrection, and nothing that smells half so good.”
Iorek’s nostrils flared as he inhaled. Lee figured a nose like that could probably smell a lot more than the smoke and the thawed earth and those sweet little flowers.
“What do you hunt there?” Iorek asked.
Lee smiled. “White-tailed deer. They’re something like reindeer, but daintier. Game birds too. Wild hog sometimes, if you’re brave.” A thought occurred to him, and he looked at Iorek in astonishment. “Do you know hogs?”
Iorek rumbled a sound that meant no, but not a strong no. “Not the word. The animal, perhaps.”
Lee began sketching a shape with his hands and then found himself stymied by how to describe a pig.
Hester chimed in. “They’ve got cloven hooves like deer, but they’re fat and round and ugly as sin.”
The bear tilted his head thoughtfully.
“Do your impression, Lee,” Hester prompted.
Lee laughed and let loose with a snort and squeal that rang out into the pale night and probably scared off every animal for miles around.
Iorek blinked and seemed to give this all due consideration before nodding. “I saw those creatures once in Muscovy. They were not wild.”
“Some are tame,” Lee agreed. “My grandparents raised them in the fat years.”
He closed his eyes against the silver sun and remembered his grandmother and her little flycatcher calling to the pigs, the flash of his grandfather’s butchering knife as his hound dog dozed in the shed, his mother in the kitchen pounding pork chops as her katydid peeped out of the fold of her apron.
“You were not a farmer,” Iorek said with certainty. “I have met farmers.”
Lee shook his head. “I wasn’t made for it, even if we’d had any land by the time I came of age. The only fields I’ve ever worked had oil in them. When that got stale, I laid track for the railroad for a while, and then worked a ranch.” He mooed for good measure, an impression he felt was even better than his pig and which made Hester snicker.
“Our kind are raised by their mothers,” Iorek said. “I lived with mine until I could hunt on my own. Then I left.”
“What about your father?” Lee asked.
“He holds Svalbard.”
“That’s up north, isn’t it?”
“It is an ancient holding,” Iorek said, followed by a string of guttural speech that Lee didn’t understand.
“Begging your pardon, Iorek, but I didn’t get a word of that except for ‘Svalbard’ and ‘Panserbjørn.’”
Iorek repeated the chant of strange words, which didn’t make any more sense on a second listen. “It is the epic of my family. The story of how our line came from the ice and took Svalbard for our own.”
“Huh.” Lee didn’t know a word of the tongue, but he liked the way it sounded. “I’d hear more if you were inclined to tell it.”
Truth be told, he expected the answer to be no. Iorek was a private sort of fellow. But either the drink or the sun had loosened his tongue too, and the words—a poem, or maybe a song—rumbled forth from the deep expanse of Iorek’s chest. They came to Lee’s ears without meaning but somehow conjured the image of ice and stone all the same. He listened to it all, rapt, from the steady drone of the beginning to the hushed whisper of the repeating middle, to a great triumphant bellow as it peaked.
He slapped his knee and grinned at the end of it. “That was a fine story, Mr. Byrnison.”
Iorek chuffed, sounding flattered. There was that “go on” look again, but this time the dancing flames of the fire were reflected in Iorek’s black eyes. Lee stared for a moment, struck dumb with admiration.
He didn’t know any epics himself, only the handful of bible verses that had been knocked into his head hard enough to stick. The songs of his forefathers were all about courting frogs and girls named Clementine, and while he could think of a few that might have sounded all right with a backing chorus of crickets under a starry night sky, he was half certain they would be stifled dead under that eerie field of orange and yellow and violet. Then he remembered a poem, the only one he had ever committed to memory, and he grinned at the realization that it had traveled all this way with him for a reason.
He cleared his throat dramatically before beginning his recitation:
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”
He was a fool for trying to keep up with a bear. He was damned drunk, that was what he was. He could tell because Hester was springing around, kicking up her heels and flopping over onto her back in front of Iorek. Still he recited the poem through to its end, and Iorek listened good-naturedly, occasionally making that sound that was almost a chuckle.
Upon finishing, Lee knocked back the rest of his drink. He shivered as Iorek leaned forward and sniffed Hester’s belly. Then he shivered even harder when Iorek’s head swung around and a warm nose suddenly pressed to the side of his neck.
“I can’t be that ripe,” Lee protested. “I dunked myself after cleaning that reindeer, and I’ve still got the goosebumps to prove it.”
“You smell good,” Iorek said.
Lee laughed and sniffed him back. He could smell liquor and blood and the outdoors, something unplaceable but unmistakably wild. Iorek’s fur tickled his nose, and he couldn’t resist stroking it. He patted the smooth, sharp-tipped guard hairs, and then his fingers slipped down to the soft warmth underneath. His stomach tightened with the same sense of strangeness and sinful excitement it had the first time he’d got his hand up a skirt and the first time he’d unbuckled another boy's belt.
Iorek sniffed him again, except this time it was more like a nuzzle. Prickly whiskers and hot breath. Lee’s heart went pitter-patter, and he looked down at Hester, who was back on her feet and leaning forward intently. His eyes met hers as they came to an agreement.
He wouldn’t have said it unless he was drunk. Thank God for mash liquor. “We’ve got some ways for keeping warm in Texas. Reckon you do here too?”
Iorek was silent for a moment, just breathing against him. “Not with men.”
Piloting the balloon was teaching Lee how to read the air. Iorek hadn’t drawn back, and Hester had frozen between them, downright quivering. He waited, getting a feel for which way the wind was blowing.
“Not with fellas,” Lee sought to clarify, “or not with men?”
Iorek’s voice dropped so low that Lee felt the rumble of the words against his neck as much as he heard them. “Sometimes with other males, out of season. Never with men.”
“Although there are stories.”
And with that, Lee set down his tin cup and pressed his suit.
It was a hell of a thing, trying to cozy up to a bear. For a few awkward minutes, he was increasingly sure this wasn't going to work. Iorek seemed like he wouldn't roll over for love or money, and Lee wasn't keen on getting crushed to death. Hester had tucked in close beside him, and having her here watching made him oddly bashful, like when was thirteen and just discovering the company of his own right hand. He was on the cusp of changing his mind and suggesting they call it a night when Hester piped up:
"How do porcupines make love, Lee?"
This knocked a laugh from him and loosened the nervous knot in his stomach. "Carefully!"
To his delight, even Iorek had a snort for that, and this time when he put his shoulder to the great bulk and pushed, Iorek rolled over onto his side. The midnight sun had probably seen just as many queer sights as the aurora, but he doubted it had seen much queerer than a man, a bear, and a hare unnaturally trying to do what came natural. Lee was acutely aware of Hester pressing herself to Iorek’s other side, causing a tingle to run up and down his spine. The rest was a sweet muddle: fumbling with his buttons, the strange pleasure of fur, his heels digging in, his hips pushing up, the crackle of the fire, and no shortage of laughter.
After, they there lay together, all three of them, and Lee stared up at that crazy sky until his vision was painted in a coat of rosy gold and dark violet. Iorek seemed to be on the edge of sleep, his sides expanding like bellows with his slow breathing. He was making a sound that Lee had at first taken to be snoring, but damned if it wasn't a purr. The vibration of it tickled him, and so did the faint shivery feeling of Hester curling up against Iorek’s belly.
Maybe it was a funny one, like Mr. Service's Yukon tales, but it felt like poetry all the same.
“Son of a—”
The edge of the storm clipped the balloon, and Lee’s next words were lost to the shrieking wind. He held on and braced himself as the gondola spun. The next round of cussing was directed at his own fool self. He should have set down ten minutes ago as soon those clouds had gotten that devilish look to them, but there was a great big crater just a few miles off that Iorek had set his sights on and Lee just couldn’t say no. Or, more damning, he couldn’t keep from saying “Watch this” at the chance to show off some neat-handed sailing.
Autumn had been play-fighting for two months, chasing after them and nipping at their heels. It wasn’t playing anymore. It charged out of the north, seizing the balloon in cold teeth and shaking it for all it was worth. The balloon rocked and rattled, hurled backwards as the wind howled again. They nearly hit an icy cliff as Lee battled to get more altitude and rise above the storm.
“Hold on!” he yelled to Iorek.
It was no good. Another blast of wind sent the balloon reeling. Everything in the gondola skidded to one side. The bundle of firewood hit Lee in the shin, and several cans of food went rolling across the floor as a crate tumbled over. Lee dived to save his rifle from colliding with the skillet and out of the corner of his eye saw the leather bag containing Iorek’s armour jolt loose from the chunk of solid sky iron weighing it down. It bounced off the cascading roll of firewood and went flying. Lee shouted a warning, but his voice was lost to the awful sound of the balloon scraping against the cliff.
Not that it mattered. Iorek’s head had already shot up in alarm as if he could feel the helmet getting away from him as surely as Lee could feel Hester scrambling for purchase. The gondola tipped again as Iorek sprang upright and lunged. His teeth snapped at the air, coming within a hair’s breadth of the bag, but then another blast of wind hit them and over it went.
“God damn it!” Lee cried, coming up an extra hand short as he tried to tuck Hester into his coat, stow his rifle, and man the gas valve while employing some fancy footwork to avoid the rolling cargo.
Hester squirmed free of his grasp, jumping back down and throwing herself at Iorek’s back leg as the bear gazed over the size of the gondola. Only her obvious panic alerted Lee to what Iorek meant to do.
“Leave it!” he hollered. “We’ll come back!”
But Iorek was already coiled for the jump. The balloon lurched with the force of the back-kick, and before Lee could do a dang thing to stop it, Iorek had plunged over the side. The sudden loss of five hundred and some pounds sent the balloon shooting straight up in the air.
Lee fell back, bashing his head on the burner, and bounced forward like a rag doll. He barely managed to catch himself on the rail, watching helplessly as Iorek landed hard on the ice below and went skidding on, sliding straight toward a crevasse and going half over. Lee dived back for the gas and the balloon plummeted, coming within twenty feet of the cliff. He had two seconds to make a decision: crank it back up to pull out of a crash landing or bail and jump.
Hester made the decision for the both of them. She looked up at him and then scrambled up the side of the gondola. Lee felt that awful pull of their connection stretching, and then with a fervent cuss he was diving out after her.
He and Hester hit the hard-packed snow a few yards from Iorek. The breath was knocked out of him, and he dizzily saw the wind catch the balloon again. The gondola sailed away from him across the ice. A coil of rope slithered with it. Lee looked down in alarm and tried to roll clear, but it was too late. The tangle of rope tightened like a noose around his ankle and jerked him back, towing him after the wayward balloon.
Iorek surged forward with a roar, unable to pull himself entirely out of the crevasse but grabbing the dangling rope in his mouth and halting the balloon’s escape.
Everything slammed to a stop, save for the wind cutting at Lee’s face. He and Iorek stared at each other in their precarious state. The balloon slowly deflated.
“You got a grip there, Iorek?” Lee asked carefully.
Iorek nodded and then, muscles straining, slowly dragged himself up.
The balloon had sunk far enough into the snow that it no longer pulled at the gondola, which sat tipped on its side. Once he was safely on level ground, Iorek looked back, paws stomping the snow in distress. Lee untangled himself and cautiously joined him, gazing into the gap in the glacier. He could just make out the bag of Iorek’s armour caught on a ledge maybe ten feet down. Out of the wind, it looked to be holding where it was. At least so long as nobody breathed too hard.
“I reckon I can reach it, if you hold my ankles.”
Hester waited at the edge of the ice, watching anxiously. Lee crawled forward on his belly, feeling Iorek’s teeth pressing reassuringly into his leg. He eased himself over the side, his eyes fixed on the bag instead of on the mile-long drop below it. His fingers skimmed the leather. He strained, reaching, and then snagged it, at which point Iorek carefully backed up.
"Dumb rabbit,” Lee cried in relief when all three of them were safe. “What do you think you were doing, jumping out like that?”
Hester looked up sternly at him from her place in his arms. "I had to, and you know it. And I'm a hare, damn it!"
There was nothing to do but take shelter until the storm blew itself out. Iorek found a cave in the ice and dragged the balloon up against the mouth of it to block out the wind. Lee, his head still smarting and his back likely turning purple from the ungentle landing, managed to wiggle into the gondola. He retrieved his blankets, his rifle and gun oil, and a bottle of mash liquor that had been cracked in the whole to-do and bore drinking before it went to waste. The shelter of the cave was a mercy, as was the heat that Iorek gave off as they sat listening to the wind throw a tantrum.
“Of all the damn fool things,” he started to mutter when he saw Iorek opening the bag with his armour in it, and then the expression he saw on the bear’s face in the grey light made him ashamed.
He uncorked the bottle of liquor and took a swig. “It means that much to you, does it?”
Lee had left home with a rifle, a knife, a silver picture frame, and a ring. All had been sold in hard times or gambled away at the faro table. He couldn’t be angry with Iorek, who carried his armour with the same kind of care that Lee carried Hester.
“Yes,” Iorek said simply.
“Is it all right?” Lee asked, reaching out toward the newly forged gauntlet before stopping himself. It had never occurred to him to touch the armour before, and with the comparison to Hester so fresh in his mind, he suddenly worried it might not be welcome.
Iorek said nothing, but nudged the pieces toward him. Lee took off his glove and set his hand on the helmet. It didn’t seem to have taken a dent.
“So you won’t have to start again?” he asked.
“There is no starting again. If a piece is lost, it is lost forever.”
Lee blinked. “What? Why?”
“It is...a changing thing.”
Lee couldn’t make heads or tails of that. He squinted again at the two pieces of armour, which looked exactly like they had every other time he’d seen them. As always, it was Hester who caught on first.
“Like a daemon settling?” she asked.
Iorek seemed to consider this, his eyes glinting as he peered at Hester. “How old was he when you ceased changing?”
“Thirteen,” Hester said.
Iorek looked at Lee. “Were you a man then?”
Lee was aware of Hester looking at him too, ready to call him out if he took liberties with the truth. “No. Not yet. Not all the way.”
“When did you become a man?”
“Well, I reckon it didn’t happen all at once. It came in pieces—” Lee shut his mouth. “Oh. I see.”
Iorek hummed. “What was your first piece?”
Lee sat back and took another drink. He considered the question seriously, and despite the cramped quarters of the cave, Iorek gave him room to do so. “When I was twelve, I guess. That’s when I left school and started working.”
His father had taken off for long periods of time, and those were the better days. Lee had started off catching chickens and picking tobacco down at the Rothums’ farm. Along with what his mother made taking in laundry and mending, that money kept food on the table. He could still remember walking home with his pay, clutching the coins so tightly that he almost cut open his palm, and staring longingly at the general store as he passed. He had given in just once and parted with a whole nickel in exchange for a root beer. He'd rolled the chilled bottle on the back of his neck like he'd seen grown-up men do with real beer on a hot day, and then he’d sat down out front on the wooden sidewalk, resting his aching legs as he drank that bottle down to the last drops.
It had likely tasted just fine, but what stuck with him was the sour dryness in his mouth when he'd brought the rest of the money home. His mother had never asked why the pay was light, and that had made him so sorry that he sneaked off afterwards and hid under the porch to weep. It was the last time he wept for a very long time.
“And the next?” Iorek asked.
Lee had never thought of it this way before, but he found the answer came easily. “The first time I stood up to my father. The first time it worked, at least.”
“You fought him,” Iorek said.
Lee felt a little swell of pride that it wasn’t a question. “The summer that Hester settled.”
“You weren’t ready.” This wasn’t a question either.
Lee shook his head, remembering hitting the floor and taking a boot to the ribs. The memory was a jumble, more feeling than sense: righteous anger, burning shame, and the sharp panic of Hester furiously boxing as that mean old rusty blackbird swooped at her.
“And the next time?”
Once again he was proud of Iorek’s assumption that there had been a next time, even if he wasn’t proud of the story. “I ran him off for a while. But he always came crawling back on his belly, and my mother was lonely enough to open the door for him.”
Hester hunkered down next to him, still angry after all these years. He could feel her shaking, and he put a hand on her back to still her trembling.
“She got sick when I was seventeen. She held on two years before she died. He took off for most of it, working in the Kansas territory, but he wasn’t sending any money back. He turned up for the funeral. That was the last time I saw him.”
That was also the last time his father had put hands on him, and the last time he’d had to hit him back, just one sock to the jaw that laid the sorry bastard out. He had never told anyone that before, but after a couple more swallows of drink, he told Iorek.
“Then I packed up,” he continued, squinting off through the chink in the cave entrance, through which he could see the sky turning the same color as a three-day-old bruise. “Hit the road.”
Iorek nodded. “That was not your country.”
“Maybe not,” Lee said, his eyes tracking the sideways flurries of snow. “You scared the hell out of me there, Iorek.”
The way he saw it, maybe he didn’t have all his own armour yet either. But that seemed all right to him as he leaned closer to Iorek’s side and shared heat until the storm passed.
If Lee’s time in the north had taught him anything, it was that numbers didn’t mean a damn thing. Minus forty might be the same in Fahrenheit and centigrade, but it could feel like a different creature entirely depending on which way the wind was blowing, or how far inland or skyward a man found himself. He was developing his own scale of the cold, and it had nothing to do with numbers. The kind of deathly still, ice-crystal cold that made your nostrils try to stick together when you breathed might have been too low for some thermometers to measure, but it was a walk in the park if you layered up well enough and kept your feet dry. Somewhere below that was the kind of cold that would make the soles of your boots crack if you weren’t careful, and somewhere above was the kind that could make your lungs threaten to give notice if you breathed it through anything but a muffler.
This was that last kind of cold, and the way Lee knew that the good folks of Kingsland were his kind of people was that no one repeated what the news sheet said about it being the coldest winter on record. They all just agreed that at least the wind wasn’t blowing.
“Scoresby, isn’t it?”
Lee tensed but didn’t stop unloading the balloon. You couldn’t stop moving in cold like this, not unless you planned to lie down and die. He nodded, half-surprised that anyone could recognize him given that he was bundled up from neck to nose and ear to crown, and then supposed the balloon gave it away.
The fellow who was doing the asking had come out of the saloon with obvious reluctance, accompanied by three other burly men and their husky daemons in various shades of black and silver. All three were doing the stamp-and-jig of people trying to make sure their blood wasn’t going to freeze to slush. Upon joining him, they immediately began pitching in, helping him unload the cargo of canned goods and mealy apples he’d flown in from Mosquito Bay. Either they were the saloon keeper’s men sent out to help him, or they were the most genteel highwaymen Lee had ever had the pleasure of being held up by. Given that he had already been paid, he didn’t ask questions and counted himself lucky for the help.
The road leading into town from where he’d set down was dark and quiet. The sky was black above them despite it barely being half past four in the afternoon, and amongst the diamond dust stars, a little of that green fire of the aurora danced overhead. He and his fellow haulers were the only human beings stupid enough to be out of doors in this cold, but at the other end of the town’s only street, a few bears were gathered around the forge where Iorek was working a shift.
The men set up a human chain to pass the boxes into the saloon, where someone hollered for them to shut the damn door. The complaint went ignored, but the sudden snarl from off in the distance did not. Lee glanced up with idle interest. He could pick Iorek out immediately from among the assembled bears, even at a distance in the dark. One of the scrawnier bears had obviously said something not to Iorek’s liking and was furthermore sticking by whatever fool point it was. As Lee watched, Iorek reared up and delivered a smack that sent the other bear skidding across the snow. Jaws snapped and fangs were bared, and the other bears backed off as Iorek swung around to roar at them like thunder.
Lee chuckled, but the the saloon keeper’s men looked alarmed. Two stepped back behind the gondola, and the other went fumbling for his pistol with mitten-clumsy hands, his daemon’s hackles up.
“Don’t mind them,” Lee said. “That there’s just haggling.”
The first man who’d joined him narrowed his eyes, which were all that could be seen of him between his fur hat and his muffler. “How do you know that?”
Lee hauled out another crate of beets. “Me? Why, I’m a veteran of some of the best black bear markets in Texas.”
There was silence for a moment, followed by a puff of steam in the air as the man laughed. The mood eased some, although that pistol stayed out until the ruckus at the forge had concluded and the strange bears had wandered back off to their lodgings.
“Come on inside,” the pistol’s owner said as the last crate preceded them. “My balls are freezing off, and we’ve got a card game going.”
The fresh pay in Lee’s pocket let its weight be known, suggesting that since it had so recently been introduced to his person, it could easily be spared for the pot. Especially if the sacrifice was made in the name of procuring a whisky. He was poised to answer when, from the shelter of his coat, Hester pointedly cleared her throat. Lee looked up the street and then shook his head with a smile.
“Maybe some other time, fellas. Weather like this? I’m fixing to hibernate.”
Lee secured the balloon after the other fellows had gone back in. He wrapped up the burner to keep the frost off and then paused only to wipe the ice off his eyelashes before making his way to the forge. Iorek was still outside, closing up shop. The full-time blacksmith had given over everything but the morning shift to Iorek for as long as he was in town, glad enough in this weather to stay in bed and take his cut of the business that a panserbjørn smith brought in.
Iorek turned at his approach, looking wary until his nose twitched. “Lee, my friend.”
The day might have been cold, but Lee was warmed to the core to hear a thing like that.
“I’ve got supper,” he said. “Dessert too, if you like apples that remember the war.”
The forge finished the job of warming him as he stepped inside to a heat so thorough that he nearly swooned. He stripped off his hat and muffler and shed his coat as Iorek locked up. The thaw put a spring in his step, and when Iorek was done shutting everything down, Lee took a running start and barrelled into him.
Iorek swayed, wheeled around, and then obviously realized that Lee had watched his little tussle. He snorted and pushed back with no more than a quarter of his strength, which was still enough to land Lee on his ass. At the next shove, he obligingly flopped over, making a good show of wrestling as Hester hopped around in delight.
“Come on, you varmint,” Lee cried, climbing on top of him with the knowledge that playing at dominating Iorek would get his throat torn out if he was a bear.
As it was, he got away with head-butting him just hard enough to surely make Iorek’s nose sting. Iorek yawned a growl, and Lee grabbed his scruff and gave it a good scratching in apology. Iorek made a chuffing sound that turned into a slow purr.
Things got a little carried away from that point on, and Lee hoped to hell the smith upstairs was as deaf as he seemed. They ended up going at it just behind the forge fire, the floor cold and Iorek hot and Lee comfortably somewhere in between as he grabbed onto Iorek’s scruff again and used his own strength in a way that just wouldn’t be gentlemanly with any of the ladies or half the gentlemen of his acquaintance. It wasn’t like being with a person, no face to face, everything lining up right, simultaneous, fitting together like God intended. But Hester was here with him, foot thumping like crazy, and that alone made the pleasure more whole than anything else he'd ever tried.
He lay back afterwards, watching the dancing shadows the fire cast on the ceiling and feeling sore in all the good places. Iorek yawned for real this time and then nosed at Lee’s arm where it felt like a bruise was coming up. An apologetic flick of the tongue accompanied the nuzzle.
“I’m tougher than I look,” Lee said.
“Yes,” Iorek agreed thoughtfully and didn’t have the decency to even feign a flinch when Lee punched him on the haunch.
He dozed off for a time, maybe two hours judging by the sliver of light that came in between the shutters of the window. There was a certain quality you only got up here when the moon and the aurora were shining on the snow. He was a little thirsty, but Hester was doing a good job of pretending to be asleep, and he could understand her inclination. They were both wedged in between Iorek and the fire, toasted on both sides.
It was only a trick of that winterlight, but in the grey of the room, Hester’s fur almost looked white. He reached out and gently stroked her, and she opened her eyes.
“Go back to sleep, Lee,” she said softly. “It ain’t even dinner time yet.”
He picked her up and held her in his arms as he tucked in closer to Iorek. He heard the bear snuffle and then settle, his breathing slow and steady and his coat soft under Lee’s cheek. Maybe there were better ways to keep warm up here, but if there were, Lee hadn’t heard of them. He closed his eyes again, listening to the crackle of the fire and the great big lub of Iorek’s heartbeat, and slept a while longer.