Every morning, David woke to the sound of waves breaking against the docks in front of his home in Weymouth. His family line in Dorset could be traced back 15 generations to Cnut the Great, Viking King of England. His father and grandfather and great-grandfather all made their living on the sea. David was expected to continue the legacy. There was only one problem, he didn’t want to be a sea-captain. David wanted to sing. Every day he wrote songs and played his fiddle.
On his tenth birthday, his father told him he was old enough to go with him on his next river voyage. They would trade for silver on the Elbe River through Prussia and Bohemia. On a clear morning, a few weeks later, they set out. David was not happy aboard the ship. He was second to his father’s cabin boy and spent long hours cleaning and working in the galley. His hands became calloused and there was no time to play his fiddle. Each night David fell into bed knackered.
Three weeks into the journey, David’s father invited him to join the party going on shore to hunt. David was thrilled to be on land again. His father forged a path through the dense wood which lined the shore with his wolf blade. David trailed behind distracted by birds and forest creatures. On a bush just off the path, David spied luscious looking purple berries. He squatted beside the lowest branches and gathered handfuls, shoving them into his mouth. The juice of the berries was sweet and delicious.
A low growl interrupted his munch. David froze, his stained hand went for the small blade at his belt. Two hairy paws pulled the branches apart and exposed the face of an enormous bear. It shook its head side to side and snarled.
David fell backward. He tried to cry out, but only a raspy shriek escaped his throat. The bear slowly stood and towered over him. David fumbled for the knife, but it fell from his sweaty hands to the dirt at his side. The bear roared and lunged toward him.
David rolled onto his stomach and braced himself for the attack. But it didn’t come. A wild bellow exploded from behind him. He turned as his father leaped over him with sword extended. The bear’s claw flew up and met the metal of the blade with a clash. The blade went down and into the side of the bear. A moment later the bear was dead. His father dropped the sword and ran to David.
He pulled him up and clasped him close until David stopped trembling. Then he held David at arm’s length, still squeezing his shoulders firmly.
“What were you thinking? Why didn’t you stay with us? It’s dangerous!”
There was a tremor in his father’s voice despite the firm reproof. David feebly raised his arm and pointed in the direction of the berries. To his surprise, two bear cubs sat under the bush scraping fruit off the branches with their small sharp claws. Just as his father went for his sword, David stayed his hand. His father retrieved the sword, wiped the blade and returned it to its hilt.
David watched the cubs stand on their back legs reaching for the berries higher up on the bush, but they were too short. They stumbled, unable to harvest and keep their balance. Both David and his father laughed at the sight.
“That must’ve been their mother,” David said. “What will happen to them?”
“They’ll survive,” his father said.
“Can I keep them?”
On his hands and knees, David inched toward the two cubs. They watched him, sniffed the ground and then the air, as though trying to figure out what he was with their noses. David hummed as he crept closer. The tune diverted the animals. Still crooning, he reached above the cubs and gathered a handful of berries. Then he held them out to them in his open palm.
His father took a rope from his belt and slowly walked up behind the cubs. He slipped a loop of the rope over each of the bear cub’s neck while David fed them berries. David continued to entice the animals, singing and feeding them, while his father led them back toward the ship.
The crew built a shelter for the bears at the stern of the ship, but David was responsible for their care. He gave them scraps to eat from his hand. At night after work, David sang and played his fiddle for them. Within a couple of weeks, the cubs allowed David to hold them and stroke their fur. The days went by quickly and wonderfully for David.
Everyone noticed a change in him. He did his chores quickly and without complaint. He sang in the galley. David even began to call his father Captain.
When they reached Bohemia, the Captain went into town with a couple of his crew. David stayed behind and cared for the bears. That night, the crew returned to the ship without their Captain. The silver trade had gone amiss. The ruling family of the village demanded a river tariff and would not let the Captain go free until they received it.
They had no money to pay the tax. David and the crew discussed how they might save the Captain, but came up with no solution. Later that night, David went to feed his bear cubs. It was then the answer came to him.
Early the next morning, David tied lead ropes on the bears and took them in the direction of the castle. From the bridge, David waved to the gatekeepers to open the doors. As he walked up the cobblestone path, people leaned out of their windows to see the parading bear cubs.
Word went ahead of David and by the time he reached the family entrance, the door was standing ajar and Master Rosenberg was waiting for him. David faced the imposing figure and bowed low. The bear cubs circled David’s legs trying to get his attention.
“Sir,” David said, “I don’t have any money. Would you consider an entertainment in exchange for my Captain’s freedom?”
The tall man placed his hands on his hips and narrowed his eyes. “An entertainment?” he asked.
David continued more boldly, “My bears and I can perform for you and your family.”
A moment’s pause made David fear a refusal. But the man grinned and his hands fell to his sides. He escorted David and the bears to a large open courtyard overlooking the snake-like river and village below. Then, Master Rosenberg disappeared into the building.
Soon family members, children, and even some servants circled David and his bears. Master Rosenberg nodded for him to begin.
David sang many songs and his bears rolled, jumped, and did several tricks. The people laughed and cheered. Encouraged, David gave an encore. At the end of the performance, he let the audience pet the bears and give them treats.
A servant brought the Captain out and untied his wrists. Master Rosenberg shook hands with him and they discussed an exchange for silver. David could not hear the details, he was busy with the cubs.
As they made their way back to the ship, the Captain placed an arm on David’s shoulder and thanked him. David was proud of his bears and pleased to receive praise. The Captain’s arm remained on David’s shoulder and his face grew serious.
“In exchange for silver,” he said, “Rosenberg wants the bear cubs.”
David could tell by the Captain’s tone, the decision was already made – negotiation was not an option. They stood in silence, the bears frolicking at their feet. A wave of emotion rose in David, but he fought the urge to cry.
“Yes, Captain,” David said, “I understand.”
Once aboard, all the arrangements for the transfer of the bears and the silver were made. David brought the bears to the castle himself and left instructions for their care.
The crew loaded the silver in the cargo hold and prepared the ship for the return voyage. David did his share of the work without a song. The Captain asked for a tune on the fiddle after supper, but David gave an excuse not to play.
On the morning of their departure, David worked in the galley. As he washed dishes the bears filled his thoughts. Absently, he began to sing the tune he first hummed to them in the forest. From the galley, David heard his father give orders to draw in the lines and anchor. He shut his eyes and choked back a sob. Something brushed against his arm. There on the sideboard was one of his bear cubs licking the remains off an unwashed plate.
One of the crew sidled up to David. “The Captain bought back one of yer cubbies for yuh.”
David wiped his hands on his shirt and reached for his cub.
A cheer rose from the doorway, where the Captain and crew watched the happy reunion.
“Hooray, for David and his performing bears! Hooray for the savior of the Captain!”
His father added, “Hooray for David the Viking Bear Trainer!”