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Tales from The Bear and Lion
S. M. White
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Jar of Hearts
Old Man Dudden,
Old Man Dudden,
Lookin’ to fill his jar of hearts.
-- Children’s Song
Leaves crackled beneath running feet as terror forced the youth through a darkened autumn
wood. Moonlight shifted, and shadows played across the footpath as a chill wind nudged the
naked branches overhead. The familiar scent of crushed ferns and new sweat filled the air.
Wide blue eyes stared into the darkness, searching. Uncertain feet snapped twigs, and skittered
across the loose pebbles of unseen creek beds as the youth dashed madly forward, his hands
extended before him in a vain effort to detect unseen thrusts of the forest.
The commotion of his passing barely registered with him, the pounding of blood in his ears far
too thunderous. He crashed through patches of bramble and small stands of stunted saplings, but
felt very little over the thumping of his heart in his throat.
He was being followed, pursued by a dreaded legend that the village boys often mocked; one
he’d even scoffed at while dancing in a ring with his friends. Now the fairytale, that man forced
to drag his twisted right foot as he worked to fulfill an ancient and horrible debt, was out there,
trailing through the wisps of autumn fog. And he clutched to his side a large jar with a rotted
cork stopper, the contents of which had the fleeing boy stumbling in his effort to escape.
Cutting sharply to his left, hoping it would lead back toward the village, the boy felt his feet slide
out from under him as mud turned traction elusive. He toppled to the leafy forest floor, his arms
shooting out to break his fall. As he struck the earth, sorry thoughts filled his head, hopes
cultivated by the unlikely position in which he found himself. Someone in the village had to be
looking for him, had to have heard his clumsy gallivanting and would come rescue him. A
distant voice in his head chirped about the futility of such wishful thinking. He should never
have ventured out past the common field; never should have stepped slowly, feigning bravery,
into the North Wood. Especially not this night, when Old Man Dudden was said to travel the
land, filling his jar of hearts.
A shadow rose before the boy’s eyes, a wall that made the dark of night impossibly darker. The
sounds of movement, the slow and meticulous soughing of a cripple, drew him up to his knees.