Few creatures could find the path to this hidden realm, certainly no teddy bear, but Barnabus knew the route. It was a quick journey for him, being old enough to have found shortcuts through not just dreams but of places only rumoured to exist in legends. He loathed coming to this particular realm. Not all of these folk were as capricious as those who dwelt here or skirted the line to outright malevolence. It was a place to find answers, though, and the bear was unafraid of them. Contemptuous, but never concerned.
A steward ushered him into a grand courtroom, populated with being that only existed in folk tales. Some were delicate little waifs, achingly beautiful. Others were hulking monstrosities that plagued the fears of humans in centuries past. Whether benign or mischievous, humans called them the Good Folk in an effort to avoid insulting them. Barnabas saw a few familiar faces that he had fought in the past. Some shrunk away, while others uttered dark words.
He was presented to a woman whose beauty would have caused men to go to war for her attention, and many had in fact done so. These bloody courting sessions appeased her vanity until she tired of them and discarded one plaything for another. Names have power, and hers was a closely guarded secret. She always assumed an alias, never becoming attached to a particular one. She had existed for so long by being careful.
Before the steward could introduce him, Barnabus addressed her directly.
“Queen,” he said, in a flat voice. She bridled at his disrespect, her pale blue eyes narrowing.
“Oh, the bear returns, seeking my favor. It has been too long since you have graced us with your presence.” Her tone was mocking, verging on insult. Barnabus let it pass.
“You know things that I must hear. Shankill could not have grown so powerful without help,” he said, strolling forward to drop into the throne beside her, where he lounged in insouciant repose.
Several of the monstrous courtiers began to approach, but were waved away by their queen.
“Poor little teddy bear. Are your friends in some trouble,” she asked sweetly, again with a mocking tone. There were sniggers throughout the courtroom.
“Hmm,” he responded lightly “I continue to be confused with a teddy bear. Teddy was the first, you know, and he’s barely existed for over a hundred years. I will need to disabuse people of these rumors.”
The queen was puzzled by this, but went on.
“Then Shankill is not your concern.” Her voice had grown cold, losing interest in the banter. “You should speak with his emissary. He arrived a short time ago with a fascinating proposition. I wonder if you can exceed what I am being offered.” When she finished speaking, Ambrose walked into the center of the courtroom. His eyes were glazed, much like a doll’s, and there was a twitch around his muzzle.
“In exchange for my people’s assistance, he will create a space in the minds of humans for us to inhabit and return to our splendor. What do you offer, bear?” She looked into Barnabus’s violet eyes, searching for some hint of anger or despair. There was none, which caused her a moment’s shock.
Standing, Barnabus walked towards Ambrose, drawing the Rook and slammed the point of the sword into the marble floor. It cracked and shattered as he buried the wooden sword deep. Casually, he removed his jacket, hanging it on the hilt.
“I do love this jacket. It would be a shame to damage it.”
“You do not deserve her,” Ambrose snarled. I have been by her side all these years, being there for her, supporting her, while you ignore her and wound her with your behavior!” He was salivating, the tone of his voice turning shrill. “You cannot be as devoted to her as I can!”
Barking out a laugh, Barnabus looked at the bear with something approaching pity.
“She and I are bonded in ways I wish we weren’t, but she knows where my loyalty lies. You betrayed everything she stands for, though. She will never accept such a betrayal.”
The courtiers had begun to form a circle around the bears, but there was some confusion that Barnabus had abandoned his sword; rather, he faced Ambrose’s blade unarmed.
“I saved her life years ago, but she owes me nothing. She fought bravely, but Shankill had already plucked a great deal of stuffing from her. The coward and his like ambushed her, knowing that it would take a great many to take her down. She is rapidly becoming the best of us and will never be owned by you.” The felt around Barnabus’s fingers sloughed away, revealing his claws. The paws looked far too real to belong to a stuffed animal. His teeth lengthened, glistening in the light. His voice became a low rumble, vibrating the air.
“Have you never wondered why we are the only bears with violet eyes,” he growled. “It was a side effect of replacing her missing stuffing with my own. I stitched her together and delivered her to Hamish. I trusted him to look after her.” The bear seemed to swell in his clothes.
Ambrose dropped his sword and the courtiers melted back into the shadows, some fleeing the room.
“I will defend her,” he roared, “and I will end you!” The thing before him charged, and Ambrose wailed in terror.