Lily ran to Gretel and showed her a crimson leaf she found on the forest floor.
“It’s beautiful.” Gretel clutched a thick wad of yellow and orange leaves in her own fist. “Let’s show Bruin.”
The girls ran into the stone cottage that stood beside the brook. They hurried to the back room and opened its door. A small room with a low ceiling and a dirt floor served as the bear’s part of the house. It had a separate entrance from the girls’ cottage.
“Bruin! Wake up!” Lily pulled on the bear’s fur.
Bruin opened an eye. Even in winter, when she yearned for hibernation, the bear was patient with the girls. They became her wards the day she took them into the village and confronted the townspeople. That was four years ago. Hard to believe, but true.
“The leaves are changing,” Lily cried. “The townspeople will come to the altar at the edge of the forest soon. They’ll bring us gifts.”
Bruin opened her jaws wide and yawned. Since the lumbermen had begun planting trees for the ones they cut, the animals in the forest could fend for themselves, as could she. But human girls were another matter. They needed oil for lanterns and wax for candles, wool for clothing and leather for shoes.
The girls were clever and hard-working. They sewed their own dresses and coats, knitted socks and mittens, and cut wood for the fireplace. Rusty provided them with milk and cheese, a few chickens and ducks with eggs. Their needs were few, but they were happy to meet them. And the townspeople supplied the rest. That was part of the bargain.
On the night Franz Wilhelm stood before the huge brown bear, he declared, “We killed her cub. From this time forth, the girls shall be in her care. She’s claimed them.”
“That’s it? That’s all?” Frau Hilda sounded pleased with herself.
“The town shall build a home for them deep in the woods, far from our houses. And twice a year, at the spring solstice and fall solstice, we shall take supplies to an altar for them.”
“What for? If the bear wants them, she should raise them,” Frau Hilda said.
Frau Gerhard turned on her. “You stupid, selfish woman! You’re getting off far easier than you should. As far as I’m concerned, you and your husband should be responsible for twice as much as the rest of us. You took the girls into your care and betrayed them. Instead of defending them and being their champions, you turned against them.”
“Exactly!” Kurt Hoffman agreed.
The bear strode toward Frau Hilda and bobbed its giant head up and down.
“I won’t do it,” Frau Hilda said.
Before her words died on her lips, a funnel cloud spun across the courtyard and picked up the Schlegels’ wagon, smashing it against the tree their horse was tied to. The horse whinnied, but was unhurt.
“I don’t think you have a choice,” Franz Wilhelm said coldly.
“We’ll do it,” Herr Gustav cried. “Just don’t take my horse.”
The winds died down, and the bear lowered itself to the ground so that the girls could jump down.
“Stay in the town hall with us tonight,” Franz Wilhelm told them. “Tomorrow, every able-bodied man will follow the bear into the forest and build a stone cottage for the girls wherever the bear chooses.”
“And the Schlegels shall donate two feather beds for the girls and a month’s supply of food,” Josef Brecht proclaimed. He rubbed the knot on the back of his head and glared at Hans Ulbricht. “Hans will supply four warm blankets and enough wood to last through the winter.”
Frau Hilda opened her mouth to argue, thought better of it, and shut her lips tightly. So did Hans.
“Every other family will donate a week’s worth of supplies for the girls,” Franz Wilhelm said. “We’ll do the same twice a year from this time forth.”
“And what will we get in return?” Rudolf Kleist asked.
As his question ended, the clouds parted and stars gleamed overhead, but the bear turned to growl at him.
“I believe you’d better bring two weeks’ worth of supplies with you,” Franz told him. “Or your farm won’t prosper as it once did.”
Rudolf balled his hands into fists and jammed them into his pants pockets. “Is that your idea of the bear’s?” he asked.
The bear rose on its hand legs and stared down at him.
“You decide,” Franz told him.
Taking a step backward, Rudolf nodded.
The bear grunted and plopped back down on the ground. It lowered its head and closed its eyes.
“Look at it!” Rudolf grumbled. “It’s not even worried. It sure has a lot of nerve.”
“Why should it worry?” Josef Brecht motioned to shadows moving behind the buildings in the town square. “One move, and the wolves would spring to protect it.”
Rudolf’s eyes grew wide and his jaw fell open. “They’ve all come.” He looked up at the yellow eyes of wildcats perched on the roof tops.
“I’ve tried to explain to you that the bear is the guardian of the forest,” Franz said. “If you wage war against her, it’s a battle you’ll surely lose.”
And that cinched it. The next day, every man from the village followed the bear deep into the forest. They lifted and moved stones until they built a tight, snug cottage for the girls with a cave-like room attached at the back. They cut trees to make furniture and left mountains of supplies so that the girls could survive the winter.
And the girls had never been happier. Occasionally, Frau Gerhard, Josef Brecht, Franz Wilhelm, or Kurt Hoffman came to visit them, and they enjoyed seeing them. But the forest was their new home, the animals their friends. And these friends would never betray them.