G’veldi carefully guided her girth between the heavy tables in Belisandra’s quiet main room. Over seven months pregnant, every step she took felt like a thousand. Her feet ached terribly despite the expensive soft slippers her husband, Nicholas, had bought her, and her back felt her newly gained weight with a dull fire. Carrying a comfortable chair, the young woman made her way towards the large fireplace in the back of the room.
There were no regular patrons in the tavern this day, what with the storm raging since before dawn. Even now, though it was only barely past the first night bell, the sky outside was as dark as midnight and the heavy snow, still falling with a fierce vigor, threatened to collapse many roofs and damage the docks. It had only been a bell and a half ago that the snow had let up enough for people to begin cleaning up. Most of the local men and women hale enough to help were busy knocking snow off of roofs or shoveling it from doorways and the docks. G’veldi, wishing to help out as best she could despite her physical limitations, had eagerly volunteered to watch some of the neighborhood children.
In a rough circle around the fireplace in the rear of the tavern, the twelve children lay huddled in blankets. Many of them had sniffles and coughs, and G’veldi knew that cold-wrought sickness in children, apart from making them miserable, could be very deadly if they were not kept warm and dry. So, with as much tenderness as she could muster, she had gotten each of them a blanket from the storage room and had given them each a cup of mulled wine and hot porridge to eat while she tidied up the tavern. Now, as she sat down gingerly and tossed another log on the fire, she prepared to watch over them until the townsfolk returned from their labors.
G’veldi had always considered herself a kind and caring woman, and she knew that many a patron had loved her from afar as much for her tenderness as for her beauty. But still the prospect of being a mother frightened her a little. Nicholas had often told her that she got all the practice she needed the way she mothered some of the patrons who drank too far in excess, but she knew that actual children were another matter entirely. Now, as she watched the children around her, she felt that fear rise up again. She couldn’t make them feel any better than she already had, and so she really didn’t know what else to do from here. They lay chatting with each other, but their discomfort was obvious by their hacking coughs and constant sniffs.
One of the children, Caitlin, was regarding G’veldi from her blankets. The daughter of G’veldi’s friends, Katherine and Sven, Caitlin had just had her third birthday and was bursting with curiosity about everything. She was fascinated with G’veldi’s pregnancy and was constantly staring at her large belly. For herself, G’veldi didn’t mind the interest, but she wasn’t always sure how to answer the young girl. She smiled at her now and waited for the slew of questions that would inevitably follow.
“Aunty ‘Veldi,” Caitlin said with a cough. “How’d the baby get in your belly?”
While the question didn’t completely take G’veldi by surprise, she worried over the answer. She didn’t think it was wrong to be honest with children about where babies came from, but she also didn’t think it was appropriate for her to explain the details to her friend’s daughter. So instead, she simply answered, “Why, it was magic, honey.”
Caitlin’s little face screwed up in an angry pout. “Magic,” she said, indignantly. “Magic doesn’t happen to ordinary people. It happens to kings and wizards.”
G’veldi frowned at the little girl. Three years old and she already knew when someone was trying to avoid answering the question. G’veldi’s mind raced as she thought of what to tell the child. “Well,” she said, opting to change the subject, “obviously you’ve never heard of Baern.”
Caitlin’s frown vanished and her eyes sparkled with curiosity. Many of the other children turned in their blankets to watch also. “No,” Caitlin responded. “What’s Baern?”
“Baern,” G’veldi smiled now as the idea for a story took shape in her mind, “was a young boy who thought that magic never happened to ordinary people, just like you do. But that was before he was given a magic ball.” Now she had all of the children’s rapt attention. Shifting slightly in her chair to find the most comfortable spot, she spoke in a voice both deep and rich, like the voices she had heard bards use when telling their stories, “Listen, then, children. I’m going to tell you the tale of Baern and the Magic Ball …”
Baern was a quite ordinary boy. He lived a quite ordinary life in a quite ordinary small town far far away. In the summer, he and his friends would race through the dirt streets. They would shout and call, leap and run, always looking for fun. They might find it playing tag in the alleys or watching the farmers lead oxen and horses in the fields. Or they would catch crickets in the gullies or watch for hawks on the wing over the nearby forest. Every day was different, but never did Baern or any of his friends see anything magic. Baern knew about it, but felt that only wizards and kings ever saw magic in their lives.
One day, as the troop of running lads passed through the streets of the town, Baern noticed an old woman walking alone amidst the mid-day traffic. She was carrying a heavy satchel over one shoulder and a stout walking stick, which she used gingerly with every step. With her beak-like nose, bent posture and heavy threadbare cowl, she looked like a hoary old bird.
Baern paused in the street and watched the lady with a strange fascination, letting his friends race ahead without him. There was nothing very remarkable about her, but for some reason she captivated him, and when she paused to put down her satchel and wipe the sweat from her forehead, he came over to her. “Would you like some help carrying that?” he asked.
Now, Baern was not known to be so bold, especially around strangers, so his face immediately went red as she regarded him with a kindly gaze. “Oh, you are such a dear,” she said, “but it’s a long way. I’m going to board a caravan across town.” Her voice was crisp and soft like dried wheat falling. Up close, Baern could see that she had eyes like brown berries, almost perfectly round in her wrinkled face.
“I don’t mind, honest,” he said. He could not figure out why he had offered to help this woman, but when she agreed he took up the heavy bag and trotted along beside her, glad to have a mission to take him away from his embarrassment. As they walked, the woman asked about the town and events of the past year. Baern answered eagerly, though he thought it strange that neither he nor the lady offered introductions. When at last they had reached the caravan, the old woman turned to him and smiled, taking back her bag.
“You have done me a kindness, lad. And in turn I will do you a kindness.” She opened her bag carefully and hunched over it, as if to conceal its contents from any wandering eyes. From its depths, she drew out a leather ball, stuffed to the point of stiffness, but with enough yield to make it the perfect kick-ball. She looked at it for a moment, then handed it to Baern. “This is no ordinary ball,” she said.
Baern looked it over and saw that it was indeed very well crafted, not something an apprentice leather tanner would have carelessly sewn together just to give the local children something to occupy their time. No, this leather was rich and dark, and recently oiled to give it a soft texture. The thread woven through it was a pale white, and looked like nothing so much as a string of bright silver winding itself through the contrasting darkness.
Baern thanked the woman and turned to go, but she put a hand out to restrain him. “This is no ordinary ball,” she repeated, and her hand on his shoulder suddenly felt like a great weight. “It is magic. I’m giving it to you as a kindness but also as a responsibility.” As she looked down her sharp nose at the boy, her deep brown eyes seemed to bore into him. “Take great care never to lose this ball.”
Flinching in sudden fright, Baern pulled away. The old woman let him go, but stood still, watching him as he retreated hesitantly. Slowly, and with great care, she bent and picked up her satchel and staff. Coming upright once again, she gazed calmly at Baern and said, in a soft voice so that only he could hear in the crowded street, “Take care, Baern.” And with that, she turned and marched across the street.
Baern watched the bent old figure disappear into one of the wagons, then he frowned down at the ball. “Crazy,” he murmured aloud. Everyone knew magic didn’t happen to ordinary people, least of all young boys and old women. Still … As Baern stared at the toy in his hands, the leather surface seemed to swirl in the sunlight, like a thick broth being stirred.
Intrigued with the illusion, the boy tried staring harder at the ball when he felt a hand grip his shoulder. He jumped and yelled, then turned to see the laughter of his friends all around him. Collin, the boy who had startled him, spoke through his giggles, “Where have you been, Baern? Aslin Hemdrel just kissed Gaely in the town square in front of everyone! We were all there and saw it!” Suddenly, he noticed the ball in Baern’s hands. “Hey, where’d you get that?”
The other boys crowded around to get a better look, and Baern explained to them briefly, “I helped an old lady with her bag and she gave me this.” He handed it to Collin.
“Hey, this is great,” Collin said, inspecting the toy. “Let’s take it to North Field!” There was a general *whoop* of agreement among the others as Collin turned and ran through the streets. He tossed the ball back to Baern with a call, “Come on, Baern! And don’t stop to help any doddlers this time!” Baern followed enthusiastically as they scampered like playful rats to the abandoned field just outside of town.
Baern screamed a primitive battle cry as he charged across the field and gave a tremendous kick, sending the ball careening at the rock pile the other team had declared as their goal. It shot true and even scattered a few rocks with the force of its impact, emitting a loud smack. The surrounding boys either groaned or cheered and began filing back to their respective sides for another match.
They had played throughout the afternoon without tiring. The game had no clear rules, and as often as not both teams would end up crowded together in a mob fighting to kick at the ball. Still, for all that brute strength counted in such a game, small Baern scored more goals than anyone else did. Even Collin, who stood a good hand’s span taller than any other boy in the town, had gleaned a grudging respect for the smaller boy’s skill.
Baern’s team had just reached their goal, a rotted old tree stump, and turned to wait for the other team to start kicking the ball across the field, when they heard a gruff voice from the road below. “Come away, boys!” the man’s voice shouted. The boys turned to see a row of men and women standing on the edge of the road. They were field hands and travelers who had paused in their trek to the town to watch the game. The man who had shouted spoke up again, “Come away now! It’s gotten late and your mums will be worrying.” His calls were echoed by the other travelers who beckoned and began to resume their tired march home.
Baern hadn’t noticed how late it had gotten. The sun hung in the western sky barely a breath above the horizon, and for the first time he noticed that the field was bathed in the orange glow of dusk. With slow reluctance, the boys paused in their game. Then, one by one they turned to trudge along with the farmers and traders back towards the town.
Collin, however, kicked the ball aggressively at his retreating teammates, apparently not yet ready to give up the field. He shouted at them to play just one more match, but they had all lost interest in favor of their grumbling bellies and in fear of the lambasting their mums would give them if they were out after dark. Frustrated, he gave a tremendous kick at one of the goals, but the ball sped awry. Collin and Baern watched with dismay as it arched through the air and disappeared into the brush of a nearby wooded dell.
Baern cried out in anger but Collin grunted as if he had meant to do just that. He looked for one instant at the spot where the ball had vanished, then turned on heels and marched back towards town. “C’mon, Baern,” he shouted over his shoulder. “We’ll find it tomorrow.”
But Baern did not immediately follow. He continued to stare into the dell as the shadows slowly lengthened on the trees. He did not want to go in search, for many a tale had been told on chill nights of the perils that awaited boys who wandered into those woods after dark. Still, through his head again and again he heard the mysterious lady’s words: “Take great care never to lose this ball.” And abruptly he was running, not towards the town, but away from it into the brush and through it into the woods.
Once in the depth amongst the boles, the darkness seemed to triple as well did the silence. Gone was the constant wind that swept the field, and the sounds of insects and birds. Here there was a strange sort of peace. The air was still and the forest seemed to have an anxious sort of presence, as if it were holding its breath. Disturbed, he paused a moment before pressing on.
He had gone but a few steps when an explosive *screech* made his heart freeze. He turned slowly, his eyes wide with fright, to see a large owl perched on a dead branch that jutted high above the ground. The bird looked directly at him and emitted another grating call. Baern blinked and took a deep breath, trying to calm his racing heart. As he exhaled, his eyes fell upon the ball! It rested directly under the bird in a little nook formed by two roots. With a cautious glance up at the creature, the young boy began advancing slowly so as not to disturb it.
Baern kept his eyes on the owl, and to his surprise, the owl kept its eyes on him! The two watched each other warily as the boy slowly approached. He was not excessively afraid of the large bird, but saw no reason to frighten it away with any fast movements. The owl watched him with a serenity that seemed almost haughty, until he was nearly underneath it. Then it apparently lost interest in him and turned its gaze elsewhere. Baern relaxed, but as he reached down to grab the ball he heard the screech above him again. Still stooped over, he looked up just in time to see the owl spread its wings and launch itself from its bough with a little bounce. The heavy branch gave a tremendous crack then fell straight from the tree and smacked Baern smartly on the forehead. The lad went down under the tangle of branches and lay staring at the winged form of the owl sailing swiftly between trees and away through the forest.
Baern sat dazed for a long while. He kept blinking his eyes and the world seemed to come in and out of focus. He was aware of the last of the sunlight slipping away, though the sky still glowed with dusk. Around him he heard the return of forest sounds like little birds and insects. Slowly and painfully, he disentangled himself and pulled most of the branches off. He brought a hand to his forehead and winced in pain, but it came away dry. At least he wasn’t bleeding. With a groan he picked himself up and brushed off bits of bark and rotten wood from his clothing, then turned to find the ball.
But it was nowhere in sight. It had just been within his grasp mere moments ago, or had it been longer than that? Baern shook his head gingerly and looked about. In the darkness he could see nothing but vague outlines of his surroundings, but he felt certain he would be able to see the outline of the ball. Then a sudden light sprung up from behind him. He turned with a gasp, and there was the ball, glowing like the full moon a short distance away. Baern blinked and rubbed his eyes but there was no mistaking it: the ball lay amongst brush and dead leaves emitting a soft white light. So the ball was magic after all!
Slowly, the boy tested his balance. He was still a little dizzy from the conk on the head, but he found his legs supported him so he took a few steps towards the ball. At each step, however, it rolled a few feet back. Puzzled, Baern paused. The ball stopped too and nestled in a pile of leaves. When Baern started towards it again, it again began to roll away.
Abruptly the boy’s temper won out over his wonderment, and with a frustrated “Hey!” he began chasing after the ball. It rolled faster and faster through the forest with seemingly no clear destination in mind, only to avoid being caught. As Baern’s fury grew, he chased until his young legs could run no more. Winded, he knelt panting amongst the brush and brambles of a part of the forest that seemed darker and deeper than he had ever imagined. The ball stopped a short way from him, casting its cool glow on the trees.
Once he had caught his breath, Baern stood up and looked at the ball. “Maybe there’s a magic word to make you stop running away,” he said aloud. The ball did not answer, of course, but Baern kept his eye upon it as he chanted every magic word he had ever heard in fairy tale or bard’s song. “Blithin!” “Kaplan!” “Abranadan!” “Silliumpump!” At each word he spoke, he took a step nearer to the ball and the ball rolled a pace away from him. When he had run out of words he threw up his hands and said, “Oh stay still, will you!” And at his next step, the ball was still.
Puzzled, Baern stopped again and looked skeptically at the ball. “Stay still?” he asked cautiously and took another step forward. The ball remained at its spot, glowing quietly in the night. His confidence renewed, Baern strode calmly towards the ball and bent to pick it up.
Just as he was bending, he heard an explosive roar behind him! He turned so fast he fell flat on his back to stare up at a gigantic bear, its sleek mass highlighted by the glowing of the ball. It stood but a stone’s toss away and glared at him with all of the menace that such a beast could wield. The boy’s eyes opened wide as his mouth worked to find some sort of cry, but all that came out was a tiny whimper. As if that whimper were a cue, the bear started forward, coming to stand on its hind legs before the boy and releasing another ferocious roar that seemed to split the forest’s eerie silence asunder. Baern scrambled backwards like a crab, grasping behind him for anything he could use to put up some sort of defense. His hand closed evenly around the glowing ball, and with a panicked heave, he flung it at the bear’s snout.
The ball connected with a loud smack, but the bear was not slowed in the least. It slashed out viciously at Baern, clipping him on the forehead and bringing a bright sting of pain. He spun to the ground and hastily tried to get up and run, but he was dizzy and instead he rolled clumsily over onto his side and turned his head to stare, terror stricken, at the bear.
But the great beast was not looking back at him. Its snout was in the air, curious, as if distracted by something. Baern then noticed that the light was flickering and bouncing around. The bear looked for the source of the bouncing light when, without warning, the glowing ball launched out of somewhere unseen and bopped the bear on the head. Angry, it growled and slashed at the ball, but it flew away, out of sight. In another instant the ball appeared again, this time from a completely different part of the forest, and smacked the bear on the shoulder. It roared angrily and snapped its jaws, but the ball evaded it a second time.
Baern stared unbelievingly as the bear turned a complete circle looking for its unseen assailant. For a third time the ball flew from somewhere to hit the bear’s flank, and just as that ball was flying away again, another appeared and pummeled the bear’s snout. As Baern watched in astonishment, dozens of balls abruptly flew from the forest to beat on the bear heartily, driving it down and away from him. The bear cowered as low to the ground as it could and looked at the boy, and then through paws raised to protect its tender nose, it spoke! “Baern!” it cried desperately. It had the voice of his father, and as it spoke, Baern felt an explosion of pain in his head where the bear had hit him. His vision blurred until all he could see were the dancing lights, beating the bear mercilessly.
“Baern!” the voice called again, louder this time. And then there were other voices, those of people calling his name. One of the dancing lights grew brighter and closer and he felt a weight lifted off his chest, which he hadn’t noticed was there. He blinked dazedly through eyes too teared-up to focus. But even blurred, his vision recognized the form of his father, standing above him and waving a glowing lantern. Baern tried to shake his head to clear it but a fierce pain in his forehead made him wince and moan audibly.
“Easy there, lad,” Baern’s father said kindly, pulling branches off of the boy. “You’ve had a nasty bump on yer head. Seems this branch fell straight on you.”
“That he has,” came another voice, that of Collin’s father. “Seems it knocked him right out.” The young boy turned his head carefully to look at the branch his father had indicated. It was much larger than it had at first seemed. Images and fragments of what had happened spun in his head.
Suddenly Baern remembered the ball. “Is the ball still glowing?” he asked his dad, looking around but careful not to move his head too fast.
“Glowing ball?” His father looked both troubled and confused, then abruptly he smiled and said, “Ah! When I found you your eyes were on the moon, boy. There’s your glowing ball for you! You were dreaming you caught the moon, were you?”
Thoughts were beginning to take more shape in Baern’s head. He looked up at the moon and realized that it did indeed look exactly like the ball as he had chased it through the forest. He was relieved, but also disappointed. He had dreamed the whole thing after all.
Collin’s father was poking around where the boy had been. “But there is a ball here as well. Collin told me you’d gone into the woods after it and when your dad said you hadn’t returned for supper, we came looking for you.” He picked up the ball and handed it to Baern. The other lights were moving towards the three and Baern could make out the concerned and relieved faces of townspeople.
“Straight,” Baern’s father answered. “And lucky we did, too. Word’s been from the farmers that a great mountain bear has wandered down from the highlands and has been picking their cattle. Never wander off like that again, boy. I’d get ye another ball!” He was trying to sound stern, but his voice and expression betrayed how relieved he really was to have found his son. “Come on, now, Baern. To home we go.” And with that the three turned and walked towards the other searchers amidst the exclamations of relief that the boy had been found alive and safe.
Still, as the whole party moved towards the town, eager to be in their warm beds at this late bell, Baern could not shake the feeling that the dream had been more than just that. Turning his head slightly to see behind him, he saw, clear as could be, a great owl regarding him from a high off branch. And in the fading light as the lanterns were carried away, it seemed to wink one large eye at the boy before spreading its wings and flapping away into the darkness of the forest. Baern had never believed magic happened to ordinary people before that day, but from then on he believed that magic could happen to anyone, or that perhaps no one is really so ordinary as they believe.
When her voice fell silent, G’veldi noticed for the first time that all of the children around her were asleep. She had been so lost in her own telling of the story as she made it up, that she hadn’t noticed when her audience had ceased to listen. She smiled at the soft breathing all around her and sat back more comfortably in her chair. With one hand draped protectively over her belly, she thought to herself for the first time that maybe she’d make a good mother yet.