Where is the red one? Where did it fall?
The little blue bird named Turtle flew over the same valley she had searched dozens of times over the past few moons. Something caught her eye and she alighted on a low branch of a beech. She had seen red. It was curious. She cocked her head to the left and the right. There was red dripping from the bushes below, smeared into the dirt. She might have thought it was blood if there hadn’t been so much of it that no creature could have shed that much. Save perhaps a giant. The thought made her ruffle her iridescent blue feathers. She heard voices in the woods. The voices of men. Of hunters. Turtle launched off the branch and swooped away.
It must have shattered or broken, falling from such a height, she thought. It must be gone. Her eyes were sharp, but even so, she had set herself an impossible task. She sought the tiniest of quarries in terrain covered with trees, rivers, lakes, and stone. For the flying Turtle sought a red bean.
Once, there were five magic beans. A boy named Hubert was swindled into accepting them as payment for some vegetables he was trying to sell at market. He and his mother had thought the beans were useless until Hubert ate one and grew into a giant. His mother had to throw him out of her house, for she was poor and could not have supported the needs of a skinny boy much less a giant. On his wanderings, he encountered a young girl who called herself Turtle and who became his friend. She named him Cob, for he was tall as a cornstalk. Cob helped Turtle to defend her village from raiders. Turtle in turn tried to help Cob solve the mystery of the beans, for he longed to return to his former self. He longed to no longer be a giant. Each bean was a different color, and they discovered that each had different qualities. By a mishap, the golden bean was eaten by a goose in Turtle’s keeping. The goose turned golden and thereafter lay only eggs of solid gold.
Turtle was sent away with the giant by her mother, who hoped that the girl would be safer with her powerful new friend than she would be in the rich and coveted village of her birth. Her mother was right for the most part, but Turtle did suffer being kidnapped and imprisoned by a warlock who had learned of the beans and sought to use her to find and steal them. He almost succeeded, but for Turtle’s quick wits. She managed to feed the silver bean to a friend she made in the dungeon, a beautiful harper, who at once turned silver and became the music that she had once played. The harper enchanted the warlock, and she and Turtle escaped. Turtle ate the blue bean herself in a desperate moment, not knowing what would become of her. She transformed into a magnificent blue bird, who unlike her friends, could return to her native form by choice, a result perhaps of her stalling tactic. As she devised an escape plan, she had convinced the warlock to cook the bean for a night or so before consuming it.
With green, gold, silver, and blue eaten, only one bean remained. The red magic bean. In her battle with the warlock, Turtle had found herself falling through the sky from a high cliff. She ate the blue bean and was saved by it, but she dropped the red.
The giant Cob and the harper Renny had failed to convince Turtle to give up her quest for the red bean. Cob remained a giant and Renny was silver from skin to hair to harp. But Turtle could shed her feathers as she would shed a cloak and return to her form as a little girl. Because of this, she felt some guilt, and wanted to find the red bean in the hopes that it held the key to changing her friends back. Renny wanted nothing but to remain silver, for she claimed her playing was sweeter and her body stronger as she was. But Cob lamented his giant form. He was gentle and jovial. But being a giant made him mighty and kept him from the company of his fellows. Giants were to be feared and fought, not befriended.
Neither Cob nor Renny could show themselves in Viamonte, the town below the mountain where they all lived, or in any place where other people abided. Turtle was the common one in that strange company. She was their connection to the world without. That was her second reason for seeking the bean. It was a great responsibility to be what she considered her friends’ spy in the greater world. But it was also a great burden. Sometimes, Turtle wished that she could be the one who stayed up in the mountain, reading books or playing the harp or eating a meat pie and watching the clouds drift by. She always felt something was missing when she was with folk other than her friends. She thought of it as the bond of the beans.
Her friends were sheltered, living above the world in the mountain hideaway that Cob built, where the air was thin and the clouds formed below them and only goats and birds visited them. They didn’t know what Turtle knew from her listening in on town gossip. She had heard rumors about a fearsome giant who killed a hundred men and women during a raid on a village. The rumor was a corrupted account of the attack on her own village. Some even had the giant on the wrong side. The rumors and stories had reached Viamonte. The townsfolk had their own rumors about a strange company living above the ring of clouds that wreathed their mountain. They had held to the tenet of “live and let live.” But Turtle wondered how far that would last if they feared a blood-thirsty giant, who feasted on the limbs of the men he killed, lived above their heads. She wondered how far they would tolerate Cob and the magic harper who could hypnotize with her music and the girl who could change into a bird. She feared that even the golden goose and the red rooster she rescued from the warlock would be in danger. Many would covet the goose. And many would seek to kill the rooster, for he too was no ordinary bird, but Renny’s lover, turned to a rooster by the same warlock who captured the harper. Misfits they were and none of them harmless. But they were benign.
When Turtle returned home, she was greeted as she typically was, by a smile from Cob and a question from Renny.
“What news from the world?” the harper asked.
Turtle had stopped in the town below for some porridge at one of the inns. She had heard no news, only more rumors. There was a giant that came rampaging into a village, killed some men, and ate their hearts before running off into the forest. Each distortion of the story of Cob’s deeds at her village turned the giant more and more vicious. He was becoming a man-hating, man-eating monster.
Turtle sighed and folded her cloak of feathers. She did not want to meet Cob’s expectant gaze with such stories. “No news,” she said. She would tell him later once she figured a plan for how to change the rumors. She had thought of starting her own, about the giant’s heroism. She would start them in her own village. She could fly there in a few days. She had already done a few times so to see her family and let them know she was getting on well in the company of decent friends.
“What about you?” Turtle asked, glancing at the open book on Cob’s desk. It was growing dark and he had lit a thick candle beside the book. She saw it was one of the new ones she had brought up.
The books were Cob’s way to help discover the secret of the beans. Turtle still kept her ears open around town in case the bean-seller returned. But no one like the man Cob described ever came to that town or the surrounding towns.
“Perhaps,” Cob said. “It’s just a legend, but I read an account of a minstrel who was traveling along the road—much as I was that day I met my misfortune. He encounters a man at a crossroads who offers to teach him how to play the harp.” Here the giant turned to Renny and bowed his head to her. “The minstrel laughs merrily and tells the man that he already knows how to play the harp. He thinks the man is a beggar and hands him some coin. When the man refuses the coin, the minstrel, thinking he offended the man’s pride, offers him a piece of bread and some cheese. When the man refuses the food, the minstrel gives the man his harp. He was prosperous enough to buy a new harp. He started on his way, but the man begged leave to play him a tune. He tightens and loosens the strings of the harp and begins to play the most wondrous music the minstrel had ever heard. He hands the harp back to the minstrel and—”
“—the minstrel thereafter plays more beautifully than ever he played before,” Renny said. “More beautifully than anyone in all the kingdom. I’ve heard this tale, of course.”
Turtle bent over the open book. “What does it have to do with your hunt for the bean-trader?”
“The account in this book includes a detail I have not heard before. The man at the crossroads hands something else to the minstrel besides his own harp.” Cob smiled and his giant blue eyes twinkled. “A red bean.”
“Does it indeed?” Renny said, and she joined Turtle in bending over the book. “All the accounts I’ve heard say the mysterious man was some kind of demon. That the minstrel’s playing was no gift but a service provided at a cost. The cost of the minstrel’s soul, to be collected upon his death.”
“That seems a poor deal,” Turtle said. “Why not just learn to play the harp better?” She looked up at Renny and grinned. But the harper looked troubled.
Turtle could guess what her friend was thinking. More than once they all had discussed (or rather argued) about whether or not the magic beans were cursed. Though Cob wanted to return to his old self, he understood that being a giant brought many advantages. He was strong and his body was resilient to much damage. His sight was sharper. His hearing too. And he claimed that even his mind was sharper than it had been. Renny likewise felt stronger than she had been before. She had been a beautiful woman and was now radiant as a silver lady. Her song was lovelier, her harping so ethereal and enchanting that it soothed the soul. And she discovered one day when Turtle fell and cut her knee, that her harping could heal some wounds of the flesh as well. Turtle had the gift of flight. She had the gift of transformation. No ill seemed to have come from the beans. Only gain. They even gained from the golden goose. She had already lain enough eggs to sustain the company of friends and their descendants for three generations.
But every coin had two sides. They had seen the gain of eating the beans. They had yet to see the trouble, the loss.
Sometimes they wondered if the beans had shortened their lives, if the beans would one day drive them mad, if they would never age and remain as they were for all eternity. And so they continued their quest for the bean-trader. For the answers to their unsettling questions.
The next day, after a long flight in a fruitless search for a bean and a bean-trader, Turtle settled just outside a town many leagues from her home. Lonewood it was called, for the vast forest that sat between them and a great lake. She was tired and hungry and found welcome at the town center, where a great many people were gathered around two men and a woman, dressed in hunters’ garb. They were in the middle of a tall tale, it seemed. Turtle bought a bowl of soup and some biscuits from a street seller and settled down to hear the tale. The air was growing chillier, but she had a cloak of feathers under her cloak of cloth and was quite warm.
“…and that’s when Elise there found it, a wee bit of creamy satin, just like the kerchief the girl wore around her neck. Her folks say it was the fanciest gift her lover had given her. She always wore it every day. There were stains of red upon it. We feared the worse but we kept on.”
Turtle leaned toward a young woman who sat beside her and asked her what part of the tale she had missed. It seemed the tale before her might be true after all. For the past moon, hunters and travelers had reported seeing something stalking through the woods, something that sounded too large to be any native animal. Two days past, two lovers had disappeared from the town. At first, folks thought they had run away together. But it made no sense that they should do so. None objected to the couple. They had no reason to flee. Since that time, some thought the unlucky two must have been carried off, dragged into Lonewood Forest by this new beast. The Dread, they were calling it, after what the townsfolk now felt about their woods. Turtle returned her attention to the storytellers. The woman spoke now.
“We were wise to decide not to split our attentions and our paths. After all this time of seeing its shadow and hearing its groans, we have seen the Dread.” There was a gasp among the crowd. “And it was a giant.”
Turtle frowned. Was this the new corruption of Cob’s tale?
“A giant creature. A beast the likes of which we had never seen. It gave a cry that sounded like the hiss of an angry ghost. Sharp claws and sharp jaws it had. And a sharp temper. It dripped with blood all over. An unimaginable measure of blood.”
Turtle gulped down her bread and sat rapt, remembering what she had seen two days prior in the forest just outside that town.
“And for something so large, it moved fast as a blink ” She pointed to her left arm, which hung from a sling about her neck. She pointed to the men, one of whom was missing an eye, the other unable to stand from having two broken legs. “It did not fear fire, for we waved our torches at it and I even threw my torch on its back. It did not fear our weapons, for they seemed to flinch off the creature’s stone-hard flesh. It gave a terrible cry of rage. And a most awful stench filled the air. Its eyes glowed red like a burning coal, like the eyes of a demon.”
Turtle felt a sudden chill. Its eyes glowed red like burning coal…
The town was far from the cliff where she had fallen, where the red bean had fallen. But it was the closest town to the place. Turtle did not wait for the rest of the story. She flew back home. She had news for her friends.
“There are many wondrous and terrible things in this world, little Turtle,” Renny said. “And all have come about without the intervention of a magic bean. This may be one of them.”
“There is a huge lake below the cliff where I almost fell. What if the red bean dropped into the lake and some fish or something in the lake found it and accidentally swallowed it, like how the goose swallowed the golden bean.”
Cob crossed his arms. “But this Dread creature sounds like a monster. Why should the red bean have created a monster when all the other beans have not?”
“The other beans could indeed have created monsters if they were consumed by the wrong people or creatures,” Renny said. “If a cruel man or woman had eaten the green bean, there might indeed be a vicious giant ravaging the land, instead of a gentle one who spends his days reading books atop a mountain. And if the warlock who captured Turtle and me had eaten the blue bean, he might have gained the power of transforming and likely into something far less noble than a bird.”
“Then what manner of beast must have eaten the bean to become so monstrous?” Cob said.
Turtle took a breath and felt herself shaking with fear and excitement. “I can find out. I can fly over the forest and look for it.”
“I forbid it!” Cob said. “Three hunters nearly lost their lives facing this vicious beast.”
Renny put a hand on Turtle’s shoulder. “I should go in your stead. Maybe my harp can soothe this creature.”
Turtle shook her head. “It’s more dangerous for you to come. I can at least fly away. The creature won’t be able to hurt me if I just fly away.”
“Unless it can fly too,” Cob said. He was growing pale.
“If the red bean made this monster,” Turtle said, “then it is our doing and our responsibility to stop it before it kills someone. It may have already.”
Turtle raised her wings and glided on the current of air that raced past her. She glanced down and saw a trail, a path made of broken branches and flattened bushes. She followed the trail, knowing she had the creature. As she glided, she recited in her mind the instructions she had given herself. Spot the creature. Follow and observe it. Determine if the creature was made by the red bean. Report back to her mountain company. Devise a plan to stop the creature if made by the red bean. Devise a way to let the authorities of the town know what she had observed if it was not made by the red bean.
Turtle caught movement below and she started to descend. She saw it, the creature, the Dread, shambling through the forest. When she realized what it was, she gave a start.
It was a turtle. A giant turtle, three times as large at least as a man. A snapping turtle. And it was covered in red, in blood. Snapping turtles hissed. And this one likely hissed loudly. It was no wonder that the people of Lonewood Town and the surrounding towns and villages believed that a demon haunted the forest.
Turtle regained herself and flew down to have a closer look. The lower she flew, the larger the snapping turtle became. Turtle grew anxious as she watched it tear through the forest at such a pace that her quick and agile bird form had a difficult time keeping up. Turtle pumped her wings and flew a bit ahead of the creature. Suddenly the snapping turtle stopped and gave a cry that sounded like a croak and a roar at once.
Turtle found herself falling. She gasped and braced herself. She tumbled to the ground and when she stopped rolling, she sat up and took stock of herself. She had been close to the ground when she fell. She was unhurt other than some small bruises and scratches. She saw her cloak of feathers at hand, pulled it toward her, and tied it about herself. She frowned down at the cloak. It was almost as if she had been knocked out of it, and knocked out of her birdly body.
Before she could rise, the snapping turtle came rushing toward her. Turtle called out, hoping she could keep it at bay until she rose and transformed and flew away.
“Be easy,” Turtle said, shuffling slowly backward. “Easy.” She felt it. The bond of the beans.
The creature had eyes like burning coal and it did not seem to like that Turtle was looking at them. She noted that and lowered her gaze.
The snapping turtle hissed and it startled Turtle into looking at it. It charged her and as she scrambled backwards, it stretched its terrible long neck and snapped.
Turtle screamed. Blood began to gush. The creature had bitten her left foot clean off.
She pushed her up against a tree. She didn’t feel pain. She kept her eye on the snapping turtle as and she transformed into a bird. Her bird form was also missing its left foot and she struggled to regain her balance as she darted to and fro. The snapping turtle, the thing the townsfolk called the Dread, kept attacking. It moved so fast, too fast. But Turtle in her bird form, Turtle was faster.
The Dread hissed. Turtle indeed felt dread grip her heart. She felt her feathers and her bird skin slipping off. Hopping from branch to higher branch, Turtle rose up a tree just to get away from the Dread, all the while panicked that she would turn back into a girl and fall to her death, or worse. But she made it to the crown of the ash. She jumped off and flew and flew. The farther she got from the Dread, the more secure she felt, and the more chance she had to realize that the stump above her missing foot was in terrible pain.
When Turtle next woke, she hardly remembered how she came tumbling into the mountain house, falling out of her cloak, and frightening her friends. Cob and Renny saw her wound at once. Cob went to get bandages, water, and ointment. Renny pulled her little silver harp from her chest, her heart, and she sang until the stump on Turtle’s left leg stopped bleeding.
Turtle now felt only a tight throbbing and no more. She knew her friends were responsible for patching her wound and dampening her pain. She looked down at her missing foot, remembered how she might have lost more, paid more for her foolish pride and recklessness, than just a foot, and she began to weep.
She wept until she again slept.
Turtle heard muffled sounds of voices. The words grew clearer as she woke.
“Fie on the monster that did this!” a booming voice said. “I will kill it, harper. I will kill this foe.”
It was Cob. Gentle and humble Cob, speaking of killing. Turtle let her mind un-cloud from sleep and she remembered her encounter with the Dread.
“Something is wrong,” Turtle said. “Something must have been wrong with the red bean.”
Her friends heard her and rushed to her bedside. Renny sat on the bed. Cob stooped over it.
Turtle sat up and rubbed her eyes. “The Dread. The Red Dread, I know what it is. It’s the red bean. It was eaten. A snapping turtle ate it. A turtle.”
“A turtle?” Renny frowned in confusion. “Are you sure?”
Turtle closed her eyes and saw a beak dripping with blood. She opened her eyes again. “Yes, I’m sure. It ate the bean. It’s big, maybe too big for even Cob to lift.” She looked at Renny. “Big enough for both of us to ride on its shell, if it had been a friendly turtle.”
“That warlock,” Renny said. “He must have done something to the bean.”
“Perhaps, but it’s not the turtle’s fault if it ate a bad bean,” Turtle said.
“It’s true that poor creature did not ask to be so transformed. But it has done great harm. It has taken life and limb from others and we must stop it” Renny sighed out a breath. “We must kill it if need be.”
“Assuming we can kill it,” Cob said, his voice quiet but hard. “By all accounts, snapping turtles are fearsome on land, and this one is the king of all snapping turtles.”
“The demon king,” Turtle said.
“The fiercer the beast, the better my music can soothe it,” Renny said, producing her little silver harp from her heart.
“Maybe there’s a reason,” Turtle said. “Maybe she’s a mother. Maybe there are eggs or hatchlings about.”
“Does anyone know how to tell if the turtle is a mother or a…father?” Renny raised her brows.
“No matter,” Cob said. “We stop it.”
Turtle shuddered and did not know why. It was warm in the room. It was safe.
“We will go,” Renny said, rising. “Cob and I. He’ll protect me. And I’ll protect him.” She must have seen Turtle’s shuddering.
“You’re always going out into the world for us,” Cob said, his tone softened. “Now it’s our turn to go out. And yours to stay here and try to find out more about the beans.”
“Wait,” Turtle said. “You don’t know the whole of what happened.” She told them of her encounter with the Red Dread of the Lonewood Forest. Of how she was knocked out of her feathers. “What if the Dread’s cry reverses your changes too? What if it turns you back to a boy? You’ll be helpless.”
All were silent for a few moments. Then Cob answered. “First, I was hardly a boy when I ate that bean. Second, Renny and I are different from you. You can reverse your transformation. We cannot reverse our changes. And if we can’t, then it’s likely the Dread can’t.”
“You can’t be sure of that.”
“It may not have been the Dread’s cry that knocked you out of your bird skin,” Renny suggested. “It may have been the shock of seeing the creature.”
“Keep your ‘likely’s’ and your ‘mays,’” Turtle said. “I’ll take your ‘let’s forget all about this.’” She glared down at her missing foot.
“Cob can craft you a new foot, out of the goose’s gold,” Renny said.
Turtle frowned. “I don’t like gold.” She looked up at her friends and quietly spoke. “I’d rather have a silver one.”
“Silver then. We can exchange silver for gold. Enchanted silver in fact.”
Turtle sighed. “I…should come. I made a mistake. I was overconfident. I don’t want to face it again, but I must. Because the Dread was created by the red bean. I’m certain of it.” She caught the looks of her friends’ speechless faces. There was doubt and worry in their expressions. She had never told them about the bond of the beans. “I can’t explain it in words,” she said. “But don’t you feel something about each other and me? Some…kinship is not the right word. Some…harmony.”
Renny and Cob exchanged a look of confusion.
“It’s likely you don’t notice because you don’t go down to the town, where you’re surrounded by people who don’t have harmony with you.”
“Then we are all set on this path,” Renny said. “If nothing else, the creature has a debt to pay you.”
“What if there is a demon?” Turtle said. “We’re not prepared for a demon.”
Renny narrowed her eyes. “We may not know enough about the beans, but we know that they seem to enhance our essential natures. I am still a harper, only more so. Cob was a farmer, but instead of growing things, he himself grew. The goose was your property, a part of your family’s riches, and now she is the source of even more riches. It is likely the red bean has done the same to this beast. It is still a turtle. And you know about turtles. So what do you know about this one that we can use against it?”
Turtle dropped her gaze and thought. “Cob is right. Snapping turtles are nasty on land. I know a few people who’ve been bitten or slashed by their sharp feet. People who don’t know better try to catch them and find out just how long the turtle’s necks are. So long they can reach around to their back legs. That demon stench the townsfolk were talking about, I know what that is too. It’s musk that the turtle shoots out keep enemies away.”
“So even without a bean to help it, this turtle would have been quite the formidable foe.”
“On land,” Turtle said, looking up at her friends. “But in the water, they’re different. They leave you alone and swim away if you come upon them in the water. If only we could bring this Dread into the water, maybe into the lake in the forest, it might be easier to deal with it.”
Renny frowned. “Wouldn’t that make it harder to deal with? On land we can throw nets about it, or lure it into a cage.”
“We’re not trying to trap it,” Cob said darkly. “I just need to give it one blow from my hammer.” He looked Turtle in the eyes. “It will be merciful. And it will be done with.”
“Then I say again what if there is a demon involved?” Turtle said. “What if it’s not as easy as enchanting the turtle to stand still while you bash it in the brains?” Turtle felt a strange stirring in her stomach. She both pitied and feared the Dread. Part of her wanted it cured. And part of her wanted it dead.
“I will read in my books how to vanquish demons,” Cob said. “It will take time for us to travel to this Lonewood. Some of us don’t have wings. We won’t seek after this beast unprepared.”
Turtle did not fly. She rode in the caravan with her friends. The closed wagon concealed Renny and the red rooster, who insisted on coming along to protect his lady love. Cob said the rooster’s claws and his small size might come in handy when battling the Dread. And even Turtle agreed, for she remembered she was much more adept at escaping the creature in her bird form. Turtle would drive the wagon through towns and well-traveled roads. Renny would drive at night or on emptier roads. Cob would keep to the forests as much as he could and travel at night when even a giant might remain unseen.
Cob was true to his word in learning about demons. He learned sigils and spells that common folk could use to protect themselves. Turtle hobbled into nearby towns and bought the proper charms and stones for each of them to wear. Thanks to Renny’s healing songs and her ministrations, Turtle’s foot healed quickly, as quickly as only magic could heal it. But if there was a magic for growing another foot, neither Turtle nor her friends knew it. Cob continued to promise that he would craft her a golden foot from the goose’s egg when their task was done and they had returned home. But Turtle accepted the humbling prospect of hobbling along on the crutch he had hastily crafted for her. Hasty the work may have been, but beautiful too. He carved the crutch from an elm and carved a turtle shell pattern along its length. She knew she was fortunate to still have her wings. She wore her cloak of feathers beneath her cloak of cloth. Dread was indeed what she felt at the thought of facing the creature again. She had to test her courage and her calm in the face of a terror that had already claimed both.
Their horses were no champions, but Cob tended them well, and they loved him and pulled for him, farther and longer than they would have for any other master. The wagon reached the edge of the Lonewood Forest one morning where Cob was already waiting. By midday, traveling on foot, they were in the forest’s midst. Turtle and the rooster rode on Cob’s shoulders. Renny kept pace with the giant.
After they lunched, Turtle transformed into a bird. Her missing foot made her clumsy. She had not practiced much flying since losing it. She was to fly to the town first and learn what news she could of the Dread. Part of her hoped that the stories would have faded, or that there would be tales of some hunters having killed it. Another part of her hoped the turtle would just have vanished. Found some place away from all folk, where it could hunt food and live in peace until the end of its days.
Instead she found the town worse off than she had last found it. There were no people gathered in the square to hear tall tales. There was weeping and waving of fists. There were parties of hunters going into the forest each day to hunt the Dread. There were old wives warning the hunters away, chiding them for using natural weapons against an unnatural enemy. When last Turtle had visited the village, the talk was of some beast stalking the woods. A hungry and fearsome animal. There had been fear. Now there was desperation. A dozen people had been killed by the demon that stalked their woods. Livestock had been taken. And there was blood. Always tales of so much blood. The creature was not feeding or killing to defend itself. It acted out of malice. It hunted them. And now they were hunting it.
Turtle returned to her friends and reported all she had seen and heard.
“Then we have to proceed with care,” Cob said. Like most old forests, Lonewood was tall and thick and hid even Cob from sight. But if they encountered hunters coming after the Dread, those hunters would not believe that the giant was there to help them. They were already wound tight with fear and dread and rage. And Cob was not so resilient that he could withstand any attack.
“We have sharper ears than they have,” Renny said to the giant. “Whenever we hear any hunters coming, we can hide.”
And so they did.
It was growing dim in the forest and the company discussed starting anew the next day when they heard the sounds of hunters. They prepared to hide again, but this time, the sounds were of screams and cries of distress.
They moved quickly toward the sounds and approaching carefully so as not to be seen, they saw in a clearing, a dozen men fighting against the Great Red Dread. Two were already dead, their bodies cracked and broken and dripping with blood from slashes and cuts and tears. From Cob’s shoulder, Turtle saw her enemy again. Cold fear squeezed her heart. She struggled to calm herself. She could not. There was no calm to be had. She transformed into a bird and flew into the clearing hoping to distract the Dread. She flew past the snapping jaws and looked at the Dread’s eyes. There was understanding there, attention and sense. There was something else, even more shocking.
Turtle fluttered up and onto the branch of the nearest ash as she heard the sound of singing and music. There was a bright glow in the dark clearing as of moonlight on earth. Renny was playing her harp. She was trying to enchant the creature.
Turtle watched the Dread’s eyes. The hatred flickered. The creature turned away from men and toward the harper. Turtle looked into the forest. Cob was ready but hidden from the men who were still fighting the Dread with arrows, stones, and spears. They saw Renny and did not seem to know what to make of her. A few raised their hands against her, but were halted by others.
As Renny sang and played, the rooster put himself between her and the Dread. The advancing Dread. The rooster flew at the Dread’s face, clawing at its eyes. The Dread knocked the rooster away and hissed in pain or anger. The trees in the clearing formed a rough circle. Turtle landed on the ground, a girl again. She landed near her bag and pulled out a pot of ink and a brush. She began to paint a sigil that Cob had taught her on a tree. Holding brush and pot in her mouth, she flew from tree to tree and painted.
As Turtle worked and Renny played, Cob joined the melee. He saw what Turtle was doing and tried to keep the creature within the clearing and the circle. A few of the men fled at the sight of another giant, a man this time. But most stood their ground to face this new menace. Cob roared and brought his hammer down on the Dread. But the creature moved its head aside, and as it did, it slashed Cob with its clawed feet.
Renny’s singing and playing seemed to have no effect on the beast. But it affected Turtle and the men too it seemed, for they looked calmer and steadier. And so Turtle felt too.
Turtle glanced back into the clearing as she landed near the last tree. The rooster flew at the Dread again, trying to confuse it so that Cob could strike.
Turtle finished drawing the last sigil and called out to Cob. The Dread turned its head toward her. It was bigger, so much bigger than the last time she saw it. Too big for Cob to lift. She saw its eyes again, hatred and something else. Pain. The Dread was dripping with blood. The blood of its prey. The blood of its self. It leaked from the Dread’s shell and from its mouth, and its eyes. Turtle could not move. She tried. She could not focus enough to transform. It was glaring at her. It would come for her. Suddenly it moved. Cob had tried to strike again and missed. Turtle took a gasping breath and only then realized that she had not been breathing. She closed her eyes and transformed. She flew up again. The sigils were painted. Renny called for everyone to leave the circle and whether enchanted by her singing or compelled by her command, the men complied and backed away. Cob backed away. The Red Dread followed. It moved toward the edge of the clearing…and past it. Turtle gave a cry. She had failed. She had drawn the sigils wrong. Or else there was no demon to contain. The Dread snapped and slashed at Cob. It was faster than him, and he was struck and bleeding. But he baited the creature to keep it away from everyone else. Hurt as he was, he was the only one who could survive facing it. The rest of them were fools to even try.
Cob raised his hammer again. And Turtle knew it was right to destroy the hateful creature. But she knew it was wrong that her gentle friend should be the one to do it. He almost succeeded. The blow glanced off the Dread’s neck. The creature roared in pain and rage. And Turtle flew through fear and doubt and despair straight into the Red Dread’s mouth.
She burned. And she drowned. It was dark and yet she could see. Inside the creature was gray dead fire and moaning and blood. There was a lake of blood in the turtle’s stomach. It bubbled and churned and she saw bones and she saw limbs. Hands and legs and heads, half-burned by acid. In the midst of all, she saw the impossible. She saw the red bean. It was floating on the surface among the remains of the dead and consumed. It was glowing with a strange pulsing glow. There were strings or vines growing about it, trapping it where it floated. Turtle’s wings grew heavy and wet. She fell into the poison lake in the Dread’s stomach. She had transformed again, slipped back into her girl form. She screamed as her flesh burned. She closed her eyes. She had to turn back into a bird. She knew now what she must do. She had to turn back into a bird and she had to get the red bean.
She wrapped her cloak of feathers about her. And she let her pain and fear fall away. When she raised her arms again, they were not her arms. They were her wings. She flapped toward the wall of the creature’s stomach and grabbed the wall with her beak and her claw and pulled herself out of the blood. The stomach began to move and the blood lake sloshed about. The creature was moving. Turtle struggled to dry her wings as best she could. She hadn’t the strength to climb higher. She couldn’t with only one foot. She launched herself above the sloshing bloody lake and flew up as high as she could. She spotted the bean and dove toward it. The lake sloshed and splashed around her, and threatened to bring her down again. Even as a bird, she could not resist falling in if she were overwhelmed by a wave of blood.
She flew down and tore at the fibers that held the bean in place with her beak and claw. She could not take the bean in her mouth. There was too much danger in mistakenly swallowing it. She grasped with her claw again and again. She failed and had to fly higher to avoid the churning lake. It was hot and stifling and she was growing weary. Turtle gave a cry and dove toward the bean. She grasped it with her claw and flew up, tearing and tearing. She yanked the red bean free and it glowed brightly. Bright enough to show her the two ways out. Even in the midst of such horror, the thought crossed Turtle’s mind that she did not want to go out through the creature’s bottom. But she couldn’t tell one opening from the other. She flew toward the closest one as the stomach chamber began to spin. She darted into the opening and into the tunnel. She saw light ahead. And a tongue.
The little blue bird flew out of the great turtle’s mouth. She flew up and up and looked down. A hammer landed where the great turtle’s head should have been. Cob would have struck home at last, but that the Dread was vanishing, shrinking, shrinking.
Turtle gave a cry and she saw the giant look up at the sky with a stunned expression on his face. Turtle circled once to see that Renny and her red rooster were still alive. They were both covered in red, but still standing, and looking up at her.
Turtle flew down, still grasping the red bean tightly in her one claw. She felt so weary all of a sudden. And her flesh burned with searing pain. And her missing foot throbbed unbearably. And her cloak of feathers fell off before she could land properly. She fell. She fell into a soft bed that was no bed but Cob’s hand.
“It ate you,” his voice said, full of newly relieved grief. “I saw it eat you.”
Once again, Turtle fell unconscious.
“It’s gone, little bird,” Renny said in answer to a question that Turtle had not remembered asking.
She opened her eyes fully and looked into the harper’s silver eyes. She had asked about the turtle, the snapping turtle. The Dread.
Renny nodded and smiled gently. “The poor creature transformed back to its natural self. We saw it was still bleeding. I sang and played for you. Cob gathered up the turtle and he set it down before me. It died soon after. But you began to heal. Your skin was torn and burned. Cob was beside himself. But you began to heal.”
“Am I terribly scarred?” Turtle asked looking down at her hands and arms. There were indeed scars. There had always been scars on Turtle, but not from her plunge into the Dread’s stomach.
When Turtle was well enough, Renny led her to a stone vault that Cob had built while she recovered. In it there was the gold and treasure that the goose’s gifts gave them. There was the red bean sealed in a glass case with no opening. It glowed, which was curious. None of the other beans had glowed. Renny pointed further into the vault and Turtle’s gaze followed until she saw the shell mounted on the wall. It was the shell of the Great Red Dread that had haunted Lonewood Forest.
The little bird named Turtle flapped her brilliant blue wings slowly. She glanced down at the roadways below, searching. Sunlight glinted off the false foot that the giant had crafted for her out of enchanted silver that transformed when she transformed.
Her search for the red bean was over. She now searched for the one who had sold those beans to her friend. Was it meant kindly? Or with malice? Or did the bean-trader simply want to observe what would happen? And if that were so, where was he? What did he think of the giant, the golden goose, the silver harper, and the little blue bird named Turtle?
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.