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Bearskin and Gold

Chapter Text

Once upon a time there were Three Bears who lived together in a house of their own, in a wood…
One day, after they had made the porridge for their breakfast, and poured it into their porridge-pots,
they walked out into the wood while the porridge was cooling…
And while they were walking, a little Girl named Goldilocks came to the house.
~ Joseph Jacobs, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”

I came to the cottage unwitting and seeking no more than shelter.

The day began like any other. Katniss made for the heart of the woods with her bow, knife, and game satchel and I went to the lakeshore with Mother’s largest rush-basket, but no sooner was I muddied to the knees from stirring up two days’ portion of my sister’s namesake from the lake bottom when a bitter wind struck, and a frigid rain hard at its heels. My harvest was scarcely begun and I wished not to make the trek home till I had finished, especially while my resilient sister remained in the woods. Katniss would hunt and gather in the cruelest of weather to bring food to our table, and while she never expected the same stamina of me, I knew she would worry if she returned to the lake to find me gone.

I meant only to seek a broad tree beneath which I might shelter till the worst of the storm had passed, but when I turned my steps toward the woods  I saw before me a cottage that had surely not stood there an hour before, let alone a day or two previous. This wild place became market and garden for my family in the days of my huntress grandmother Ashpet and I myself gathered daily from it in my turn, harvesting from both lake and woodland shadows since I stood no taller than my father’s knee, and never before had I seen a human dwelling in these parts, nor heard of any such.

I peered through the blinding rain at what could only be the wishful construct of a shivering body coupled with a desperate imagination and squeezed my eyes shut again and again to clear them of such impossible fancies, but the cottage seemed only to grow more solid and radiant and welcoming with each blink. From its round windows streamed rich yellow light and from its chimneys pale smoke, and this was enticement enough for me. A mere quarter-hour beside one of those fires would be sufficient to warm my toes and lift the damp from my cloak, I thought, and perhaps the cottager’s sympathy would extend to a fortifying mug of wild onion broth with a little acorn bun or even a draught of hot berry-wine before they sent me on my way.

None came in answer to my knock, and as the rain beat against my back in barbed pellets of ice I forsook propriety and reached hopefully for the latch. To my surprise, it lifted without effort. The door gave at once beneath my touch, almost as though I were expected, and opened inward to reveal a very heaven of domesticity; all broad oak timbers and rounded stone, warm and bright as gold, where the very air tasted of honey and woodsmoke and freshly baked bread.

I crossed the threshold without hesitation and drew the door fast behind me.

Straight ahead was a hearth as wide as a man is tall, with a log fire roaring merrily within, and set around it were three broad chairs, deeply cushioned, with gaily patterned rugs beneath. In the next room stood a sturdy trestle table with three chairs set about and beeswax candles lit for the absent diners, and just beyond I glimpsed a kitchen.

I had eaten breakfast some hours before and I made for the kitchen with a swiftness that would have mortified me in other circumstances – though, to my credit, I called out as I went, supposing that the cottager or his wife might have stepped outside for a moment, perhaps to collect more logs for the fire, and wishing not to startle them when they returned. But the kitchen was as empty of folk as the two front rooms and, moreover, its counter held baked wonders of the sort I had seen only in the village, on those rare and precious festival days when Katniss and I took our wares to the market for trading and we gazed for hours on end at the mouthwatering creations in the baker’s window.

At one end of the counter sat a round little cake, dense and dark and glazed with tiny sugar figures of rabbits and deer and doves, so fine they might have been painted in frost upon a windowpane. Alongside this was a loaf of bread studded with nuts and dried fruits – proper merchant’s bread it was; yeasty and golden-crusted and still warm from the oven – and finally a pie, deep as a stewpot, with neat slits in its crust which sent up heady steam-clouds of roast chicken and apples, of spices and butter and a rich savory gravy.

I tried the bread first, supposing such a transgression might be most easily forgiven, and while the luxurious white crumb was piping hot and bursting with bits of honeyed almonds and dried plums which teased my tongue with their succulent sweetness, I knew at once that this would not sate the shivering hunger that had overtaken me in the storm. I turned next to the little cake, imagining one slim stolen sliver might be excusable, especially if I neither indulged in nor damaged the finely iced woodland creatures, and though the moist flavors of treacle and ginger and costly orange peel – a confection I knew only from fairy tales and the tiny, heavenly Lady Day cake that Katniss and I shared last year as an early birthday treat – burst upon my tongue like a jubilant cry, this too could not satisfy the stubborn howl in my belly.

I turned at last to the deep-crusted pie, meaning only to chip off a mite of crust and content myself without breaking the crisp golden seal over the pie’s surface, but the stolen morsel melted on my tongue like butter upon a hot skillet, so tender it was, and rich as merchant shortbread – and alas, a drop of gravy had come along with the crust-morsel, and I tasted roast chicken and potatoes and hot spiced apples within and was done for.

I set to the pie with a cook-spoon and had devoured quite half of it before I knew what I was about.

My appetite shamed me, but I was certain the cottager should forgive the theft, for he was clearly a man of some fortune, to furnish so large a residence in so comfortable a fashion, and surely he would understand that cruel weather might drive even the most well-brought-up belly to desperation. Now comfortably full, I took myself back to the frontmost room and went to sit by the fire, to dry my cloak and warm my lake-chilled toes. The rain had soaked my braid through and I unplaited its length as I settled into the largest fireside chair, but wet hair wants combing and fingers will simply not serve for such a task.

Leaving my wet cloak and boots and the rush-basket of katniss roots spread round the hearth to dry, I found my way to a bedroom at the rear of the cottage; a room quite enormous to my eyes, for it held a fireplace nearly as large as the one before which I had just warmed myself and three narrow beds lined opposite, each heaped high with feather pillows and deep quilted coverlets. On the right side of each bed stood a little night-stand holding a cup, candle, and comb, and betwixt the teeth of each comb I found curling fair hairs. The first were the color of honeycomb, the second tawny as a deerskin, and the third the white-gold of apple flesh, the likes of which could surely only be found on the head of an angel.

I used the angel’s comb to smooth the tangles from my wet hair and swiftly found myself overcome by the urge to sleep, though it was scarcely past luncheon-time. Well, I reasoned, in for a penny, in for a pound. Wind and sleet still lashed the roof in angry gusts, and the cottager had not yet returned. Like as not, he would wait out the storm wherever he was and return home once it had cleared, and surely he would not begrudge a similar soul’s desire to remain where she was likewise sheltered. I would set everything to rights when I woke, I resolved, and be well on my way home before the cottager returned.

I turned back the covers of the angel’s bed – for surely, I thought, he would be more forgiving of such a trespass than his fellows – and sank into its feathery depths with an eager moan. The downy coverlets enveloped my form like warm summer clouds and all about me hung the odors of musk and yeast-bread and spices; an unmistakable welcome, I supposed in drowsy contentment, just as the merry fires upon each hearth, as the latch and the door giving beneath my hand. This cottage had seemed to manifest in answer to my need; perhaps it had been created for that very purpose, for its every comfort was tailored to my desires.

Adrift in such foolishly pleasant maunderings, I buried my face in a pillow fat with goose down and cooed and sighed myself to sleep almost at once, with many greedy swishes of my bare feet against the bedclothes.

I woke, seemingly only a languid quarter-hour later, to a great commotion at the cottage door – the cottager, I imagined, or perhaps his good wife, returning laden after the storm – and I slipped quickly from the bed, thinking to greet and aid them as I explained my presence. Beyond the windows was a clear and rosy dusk and I cursed myself for my idleness, which would require apology here and copious measures of the same when I found my sister, who would no doubt be chilled to the bone and out of her mind with worry from seeking me these past hours.

I began silent work on both responses as I went, for I am somewhat gifted with words and can appease my sister, even in her crossest state, with surprising little effort, thanks to her indulgent affection toward me, and I was hopeful that the returning cottager would be comparably receptive and easily mollified. But no sooner had I reached the threshold of the dining room than I spied the new arrivals and clapped both hands over my mouth in silent horror.

Standing about the hearth, grunting and whuffling and nodding to one another, were three great bears, their coats and forepaws crusted with ice. The first and smallest of them had fur as white and thick as fresh snow, like the bears which populate the wild northern tales, and the second, somewhat taller and rangier of build, had fur the tawny russet-brown of an owlet’s feathers. And the third – the largest of their company; twice my size and clearly corded with muscle beneath his heavy coat – bore fur which might have been spun from all the gold in Creation: from dandelion petals and buttercups and the primroses for which I was named, from sunbeams and honeycomb and the warbler’s yellow breast. His broad head dipped over my forsaken cloak and boots and basket where they lay at the fireside, and his great shoulders quivered as he prodded each in turn with his blunt snout.

Oh foolish Prim!  I thought. You have lain yourself down in a bears’ den and will shortly be dined upon where you dared to dine uninvited. For I knew, of a certain, I would be an easy mouthful for any one of these beasts.

In what would surely be my last moments, I silently offered up my fiercest prayers and contemplated whether I should attempt to hide myself in another room and delay my death long enough for a thorough confession or if it might be better to go boldly, albeit trembling, to my fate, as a virgin martyr. And then the three bears gave a collective shudder and each shrugged his mighty shoulders in turn, and their bearskins dropped like cloaks to the floor.

Chapter Text

Beneath those furs, I saw in wonder, were young men, each as fair in form and feature as an angel and naked as Adam in the Garden. Their heads were crowned with blond curls: one the color of honeycomb, the second tawny as a deerskin, and the third the white-gold of apple flesh, and their bodies by firelight were magnificent to behold. From brows to broad shoulders to narrow loins and powerful limbs to either side, I was sure I had never seen anything so beautiful in all the world as these three young men, and the loveliest of them all was he who had been the golden-furred bear: the youth with white-gold curls, whose comb I had used to smooth the tangles from my wet hair, in whose bed I had slept away the afternoon, and in whose chair, I saw now, I had taken my ease before the fire. The largest of the three even without his fur, I inferred this youth to be the eldest of the company as well, for his round, handsome face was obscured from cheekbones to chin by a beard of dusty golden curls, whereas the tawny-haired youth bore a chinful of nut-brown whiskers as short and sparse as a kitten’s and the honey-curled youth had no hair upon his chin at all.

I gazed and gazed at the golden bear-youth – in truth, a man full-grown; towering and thick with muscle – from the fat apple-flesh curls tumbling about his nape to the coarse darker curls that made a nest between his legs for that heavy pink limb by which children are sired, and though heat roared in my cheeks as I looked on his form, I felt no shame in the act, only admiration and something deeper which wrought a strange flutter in my heart and belly. I wondered, madly, whether this brawny, beautiful man might also have baked the wondrous pie in which I had so shamelessly indulged before my slumber.

At last he bent to retrieve his bearskin and bound it over one broad shoulder, robing himself like a barbarian lord, and his fellows followed suit with their own skins. “Brothers,” he said when they had done, and his voice, warm and deep as his bed, stirred me like no sound had ever done before, though my late father’s songs – and my sister’s, in her turn – could silence every bird in the woods. “It appears,” said my golden bear-man, “that we have had a visitor.”

“Indeed,” answered the honey-curled youth, he who had been the white bear: a stocky boy of medium height and the youngest of the three, I inferred. “A maid, by all appearances,” he said, kneeling to take up the hem of my much-patched cloak in one careful hand, and his voice was as soft and sweet as the mossy carpet of violets that spreads itself every spring beneath the willow catkins like a footman clearing a path through the woods for his queen. “A maid who, I think, came wet and cold to this place,” he said, “and who, I trust, found warmth and shelter within.”

“And sustenance,” said the golden bear-man, scooping up a palmful of katniss tubers from my basket to show his brothers. “This maid was harvesting her supper from the lake’s edge on the very cusp of winter,” he told them. “I pray that she stayed long enough, and ventured far enough, to savor a portion of our food.”

“Like as not, she is here still,” remarked the tawny youth, whom I liked least of the three. He was leaner than his brothers, his form sinewy where theirs had the square, solid bulk of muscle, and strikingly beautiful, with a proud, princely countenance and dark brows and lashes framing fine elfin eyes, but there was a sureness in his manner that I could not quite appreciate, especially compared with the gentle hesitance of his brothers.

“On such a day, who would leave behind her cloak and boots – indeed, the very meal for which she labored?” the tawny youth continued, glancing about him for further signs of their intruder’s presence, and I silently scurried back to the kitchen.

I should have hidden then and there, should have crawled inside a cupboard to wait until the bear-youths retired for the night or, better still, slipped out the back door and made for home like all the demons in hell were in pursuit, but I was too curious about these handsome brothers who had, but a matter of moments ago, been bears, vast and fearsome and furred, and more than that, I was captivated – nay, transfixed – by the golden bear-man. I had surely never laid eyes on him before that breathless, impossible moment when his bearskin fell away before the fire, and now I could scarcely bring myself to look away from his radiant form. I felt as though he might cease to be if I quit his presence, and the mere suggestion of such a fate twisted my very soul in the most acute sort of agony.

As I lingered against the kitchen counter, tangibly aching for another stolen glimpse of my bear-man, the tawny youth continued in a merry tone: “It seems she liked you best of us, Marko, for her boots rest hard by your chair and only its cushion has been sat upon.”

“That signifies little enough,” my bear-man demurred, and there was a strange force in his denial. “My chair is largest and nearest the fire; nothing more.”

Marko,” I whispered to the cupboards, tracing the remaining crust of the magnificent pie with one tender fingertip, and savored his name in my mouth like the rarest and most delectable of sweets.

“Think you so?” wondered the honey-curled youth in his soft voice, and the words danced a little, as though in play. “Let us to the kitchen, brothers, and see whether our visitor made a meal of any portion of our baking.”

At these tidings I drew back my hand, cheeks aflame once more, and moved hurriedly into the next room to slip beneath the golden bear-man’s bed – Marko’s bed – where I might hear all, for good or for ill, and yet not be seen. I listened as the youths made their way to the kitchen, amid no few chuckles from the two younger brothers, and I knew at once when they had arrived for the youngest cried in delight, “Oho! What is this, my fine fellows? Half of Marko’s pie gone and only the merest slivers – a courtesy! – taken from my cake and Luka’s bread!”

In the musty shadows beneath my sweetheart’s bed, I buried my hot face in my hands and groaned, mortified both by my transgression and its clear betrayal of my affections when they had been no more than a vague, tiny spark kindling in my breast. I had been stirred beyond measure at first sight of Marko’s face and form, but it was now clear that I had loved him from the moment that first stolen morsel of crust melted upon my tongue.

“That signifies little enough,” Marko said again, even sterner this time, and his adamant disavowal made my heart ache. “My pie was a proper meal, Peeta, full of meat and potatoes and apples, and the very thing to fortify a shivering body on such a cold and wretched day. Our guest was simply hungrier than your pretty cake might satisfy, little brother, and nothing more.”

“We shall see,” remarked the tawny brother – Luka – with no little relish. “For we have yet to lay eyes on our visitor, and the likeliest place remains to be considered. She warmed herself by the fire, this maid,” he reminded them, “then ate heartily of Marko’s pie. Like as not, she will have sought for sleep, and I’ll wager anything you wish that we’ll find her in Marko’s bed.”

At this I drew in my skirts and twisted my loose hair over one shoulder in a frantic rush to hide myself completely within the shadows of Marko’s bed. However slight my form might be, one wayward lock of pale hair or a fold of homespun glimpsed from above would be more than sufficient to give me away.

“You speak nonsense, brother,” Marko replied with all the authority of a king. “Let us finish what remains of our meal and hear no more of this maid, who clearly came to this place for no other purpose than shelter from the storm. She warmed herself at our hearth and ate what was needed to sustain her and then, quite certainly, took her leave again.”

“But without her cloak and boots,” wondered sweet-voiced Peeta, “and snow beginning to fall? Unless she be a fairy maid, our visitor is here still, and like as not, we will find her asleep in one of our beds. She may have caught a chill in the storm,” he said gravely, and with no little concern, “and slept the day away in fever-dreams, in which case it is our Christian duty to seek her at once and tend to her in every way that we can.”

“Yours is, as always, the voice of wisdom, little one,” Marko replied, and his voice broke strangely at these words, as though with pain. “Let us proceed to the bedchamber and tend to this maid, if still she remains there.”

“No fever will you find beneath those coverlets,” jested Luka as they approached, clearly untroubled by his brothers’ concerns. “Lest it be a fever of affection for you, brother mine, and the only chill from which our guest will be suffering is the absence of your strong arms about her.”

Breath clamped hard in my chest, I heard them arrive, for though their feet made little sound on the stone floors, Luka gave a crow of triumph at the threshold – beholding the bedclothes, I knew, which I had thrown back in my haste to meet the returning cottagers and neglected to draw up again. “Confirmed!” he cried. “Fairy maid though she may be, our visitor’s heart belongs to Marko, whole and entire. First his chair, then his pie, and here at last his bed!”

He came near then, for I watched his feet approach the bedside – slender and finely boned as a maiden’s, they were, and encircled by his trailing drape of tawny bearskin – and trembled, certain he would bend down and discover me at the very scene of my shame, but instead he continued onward to the head of the bed and gave a merry whoop at what he found there. “And what is this?” he exclaimed with evident delight. “She used his comb as well, for here are a maiden’s hairs, long and fine and pale as flour, caught betwixt the teeth and entwined with his own hairs like lovers upon their bridal bed. And of the bed itself –”

“Say no more!” Marko commanded, and there was something like distress in his voice. “She will have tidied her hair after being soaked in the storm, and any comb might serve for such a task. That she chose mine signifies little enough, and that she chose my bed in which to rest afterward matters less still. Our beds are all but identical –”

“But yours,” ventured Peeta gently, “is yours, brother mine.” His feet, larger and ruddier than Luka’s, came to the bedside then, trailed by his drape of snow-white bearskin, which looked softer than swansdown and made my fingers itch for one stolen stroke. “We sleep naked in these beds,” he explained, “and our scents, pleasant or otherwise, saturate the coverlets. If a weary maid chose your bed, Marko, she may well have been desperate for slumber and indifferent to where it was provided, so long as she had covers above to warm her and a pillow beneath her head, but when faced by three equally comfortable prospects, she would not have chosen this one, let alone remained there for the duration of her slumber, unless she was truly and utterly content.”

Truly and utterly content, I thought, was a poor summation of that very Heaven of bliss I had found and savored in Marko’s bed. I blushed like a blaze to think of his naked form betwixt the coverlets where I had burrowed so deeply but I felt no shame, only a fierce longing – almost a hunger – to return to that place and bury my face not in pillows but in the powerful back of this bearded bear-man who baked pies and smelled of musk and yeast-bread and spices.

“Comfort is not love,” Marko said hoarsely. “Nor too is contentment.”

“Brother,” Luka said, and all the merriment was gone from his voice now, supplanted by a soft sort of somberness. “Do you not see? Our curses have just begun, but the end of yours may already lie within your grasp.”

A curse was, of course, the only half-logical reason why three handsome youths would wear the forms of bears, but still I shivered at its mention. Our mother has a little magic and means to teach me in my turn, but she has always steered us far from curses.

“Mother would not have made it so easy,” Marko replied with no little sorrow, and now he was at the bedside too, albeit on the opposite side as his brothers, and his feet were as long as my palms laid end-to-end; broad and beautiful and so breathlessly near that I had to close my eyes and resist with all my might so I would not reach beneath the drape of heavy golden fur and caress those strong contours or, worse yet, cover them with ardent kisses.

“Mother does not know you,” Luka told him plainly. “She likes Peeta least of us, it is true, but you she has never given more than a moment’s consideration. Indeed, it would likely vex her little enough if your curse should be broken straightaway, but she does not expect it to happen because she cannot imagine a maiden falling in love with you, let alone while you wear a bear’s form.”

“I can scarcely imagine it myself,” Marko answered, and his grief was so resonant in those few words that I pressed both palms against the underside of the mattress and willed my love to him, that he might know there was hope for his curse, and for his heart.

“Greta was not worthy of you,” Luka said quietly, and my heart flamed with fury at the thought of this other maid – a cruel, thoughtless, willful vixen, to be sure – who would dare to decline the offer of Marko’s hand.

“It’s not Greta he loves,” Peeta said, quieter still, and at these words my heart split, top to bottom, like an eggshell between practiced hands. My love, however fierce and true, was worthless to my sweetheart; a pouchful of river stones where he needed a purse of gold. Marko loved some other maid; one lovelier and, no doubt, wealthier than I, and surely it was she who must break his curse and free him from his bear form forever, not an herbwife’s half-wild daughter with tangled milkweed hair and muddy bare feet.

“’Tis as well Mother considers us so little, Marko,” Peeta went on. “For if she knew we loved the daughters of Father’s former sweetheart, we – and like as not, those maidens as well – would face a much crueler fate than a winter in bearskins.”

“The little maid?” Luka said in sudden surprise, and one or the other of his brothers must have confirmed this strange remark with a wordless sign, for he went on with clear, albeit exasperated affection: “You’re madmen, the pair of you! Peeta must present himself as a bear to a huntress: a scowling slip of a maiden who’d scarcely even looked at him as a boy, and hope she hears his proposition – which is, as you know, well beyond madness – before making a winter’s worth of meals out of him and a fine new coat besides, and you…” He made a small bearlike sound, halfway betwixt a grumble and a chuckle. “She’s barely courting age,” he said at last. “Nearly ten years your junior and hardly minded to become a baker’s wife, and like her mother, she’s surely half a fairy and half a witch with her packets of simples and that little goat-familiar.”

“I think the goat is ordinary enough,” Peeta put in, and I could hear the smile at the edges of his sweet voice. “And mark my words, Luka: you will – nay, must – love a maid yourself before this is over, and like as not your heart will be won by a girl like our mother, fiercer even than my sweetheart and far stronger of arm.”

“I doubt that very much indeed,” Luka countered dryly, but I fancied his brother had the right of it. This fine princely youth with his elfin eyes and teasing manner was well suited to a sharp-tongued, fearsome bride, and I wished him one with all my heart.

In truth my heart, quite broken, was in dire need of distraction, for each word spoken of Marko’s sweetheart had fallen upon the wound like a measure of salt and there been rubbed vigorously till I could scarcely breathe for the pain. He loved a girl as like me as could be imagined – an herbwife’s daughter, only just courting age, who traded in simples and took her little goat to market and had a scowling huntress sister besides – and yet not me. There was no hope for me, nor for my love for him.

I should never have entered this cottage, nor tarried so long within.

“We shall see soon enough,” Marko said with an air of finality. “Tomorrow we embark on our journeys, and it is likely that we will not be reunited, let alone in our human forms, till all three of our curses are broken. Let us enjoy this final repast as brothers and retire as soon can be managed, for each of us will face great trials upon the morrow.”

The others concurred in this and they returned at once to the kitchen to make a meal of what I had left behind. When I was certain they had gone, I crept out from beneath Marko’s bed and mopped my damp face with one corner of the coverlets, which smelled so powerfully of musk and yeast-bread and spices that I gave a hiccupping little sob. My golden bear-man, my broken heart sang like a mourning dove. My sweetheart, my love; cursed by your own mother to a bear’s fate, and the maiden you love –the girl who must save you – cares nothing for you.

Love me, I pled silently, hugging his pillow tightly to my chest. I am young but wise; learned in herb-lore by my mother and woods-craft by my father. I will find a way to break your curse, and you need not marry me for it.

Unless, of course, you wish to.

I wish you to.

I love you.

I thought of what Luka had said about Marko’s sweetheart not wanting to be a baker’s wife and wondered how I had not realized it sooner: these youths, fair as angels though they might be, were neither knights nor princes but baker’s sons. Only a baker’s son could make a pie as deep as a stewpot with a crust that melted upon the tongue, and only a baker’s son’s bedclothes would smell of bread.

I wanted, more than life itself, to be a baker’s bride.

I sat on the floor beside the bed with Marko’s pillow in my arms and my face pressed to the edge of his mattress, breathing in his scent and committing it to memory as the brothers dined and laughed – around the trestle table, I imagined, by the light of stout beeswax candles. I could have left then with no fear of discovery and indeed should have, but now that I knew of the curse I wished to stay with my love till he set forth to seek its undoing. He did not want me, neither as sweetheart nor as companion, but he needn’t for my purpose to be served. I would remain here regardless until morning, hidden and silent and resolute, and perhaps I might even find some way to ease his slumber.

At last the brothers collected their dishes with a cheerful clatter and returned to the kitchen to tidy up, and I slipped beneath Marko’s bed once more, where I had resolved to pass the night. The room was quite warm, even in the shadows beneath the bed, but I knew I would not sleep well without a cover and pillow of some sort, and so I wriggled out of my dress and petticoat, that the former might serve as blanket and the latter, rolled into a bundle, might cushion my head. I wore only my little shift now and was bare from my thighs downward, but it mattered naught, for none would see me like this, let alone the three golden bear-youths.

I lay and listened as they returned, somewhat subdued in manner, no doubt because of what they would face, or expected to face, upon the morrow. They knelt about the hearth as one and prayed for many things: for protection and strength and patience; for forgiveness of sins and blessing upon their loved ones, even their mother who had cursed them to live as bears; for faith in adversity and finally, curiously, for a rich harvest from a field carefully tended. Then each of them retired to his own bed.

One of the brothers – Luka, I imagined, somewhat spitefully – sank into snores at once and soon all around me were the slow, deep, even breaths of slumber, but I could not join in them, for my heart and mind were too full. I lay directly beneath Marko: great golden bear, baker’s son, and my own unwitting sweetheart, who would seek his fate upon the morrow with an unrequited heart. I pressed both palms against the underside of the mattress once more, seeking his warmth and offering my own in turn, but it was not enough: a shallow, feeble comfort, when I had two good arms which might offer a full measure of succor while my sweetheart slumbered unawares.

I crept out of the shadows and crouched beside the bed, peering about the room. Three brothers lay in three narrow beds, all quite asleep, and the bulwark of Marko’s broad back and shoulders was turned toward me. It was, I imagined, as much a welcome as the latch and the door, as the pie and the comb and the bedclothes that smelled of musk and yeast-bread and spices.

I reached for the coverlets and felt the dense silk of fur: Marko’s golden bearskin, spread over his bed like a blanket, and so plush and deep that my fingers sank to the second knuckle in its thick pile. My sweetheart, as fair in form and feature as an angel, was naked as Adam in the Garden once more.

I raised the coverlets with breathless care and slipped beneath them.

Chapter Text

The bed was small, so narrow that my belly brushed Marko’s backside as soon as my hip came to rest upon the mattress, but I was not there in search of space. I eased an arm around the warm column of his waist – broad as a cask it was, and hard with muscle – and splayed my hand over his ribs, counting his breaths.

Mine, I wished with all my might, though I dared not speak it aloud, and hugged him tightly, nestling the whole of my small body, from brow to toes, against his vast, brawny form. Mine to claim and free from enchantment, to love and wed and bear children for.

“I hoped beyond hope that you had hidden yourself away,” murmured a deep voice in the darkness, resonating against my breasts where they pressed Marko’s broad back, and a big hand enveloped mine over his ribs, tugging me closer still. “That you remained in this place,” said my sweetheart, softly, “though we saw you not.”

I gasped against his back at this wholly unexpected address and tasted the warm musk of his skin. “Whatever do you mean?” I whispered, supposing him to be caught up in some sort of lovely dream in which his indifferent sweetheart had come to him by night, for it was certainly not me of whom he spoke such tender words, nor my hand he meant to clasp so snugly against him.

“The fairy maid who ate my pie, bold as brass,” he said, and there was something like laughter in his voice, though I felt the blood rising in his skin where it touched my own and his body trembled within my embrace. “The maiden who sat in my chair as she dried herself before our fire, who used my comb on her pale tresses and warmed my bed through the storm. My herbwife’s daughter,” he whispered, and he raised my hand to his mouth, pressing a moist lingering kiss upon the palm then resting his cheek in its curve, filling my little hand with the strong contour of his jaw and the soft, springy bristle of his beard.

“I am one such,” I replied, my broken heart wrenching with grief at what I must confess in the midst of such wondrous, stolen bliss, “but I am not the maid you love, though I wish above all things that I could be.” And unable to bear it a moment longer, I nuzzled the curls at his nape – sweet and soft as a new gosling’s down, they were – till I found the warm skin beneath and, with a sob, pressed a fierce, clumsy kiss thereupon.

At this he gave a low, ragged moan and reached beneath him for my other hand, to tug it around the underside of his waist and enclose himself in the circle of my arms. My hands were like wren’s eggs; tiny and delicate within his tender grasp, and he raised them both to his mouth with the utmost gentleness to be covered, again and again and again, with small, lingering kisses.

“I know exactly who you are,” he whispered against my fingers, a heady brush of warm lips and soft curling whiskers, “and I want nothing more in all the world than for you to sit in my fireside chair and eat my pies and share my comb and warm my bed for the rest of our days.”

“I want that as well, more than you could ever imagine,” I answered with a whimper and did not add how badly I wished for him to do all of those things beside me, nor how much I wished to be naked in that bed as he moved above me in the radiant darkness of firelight, kissing and caressing me as he filled my belly with curly-haired babes. “But you are mistaken,” I told him as firmly as my lips, aquiver with grief, could manage, “for I am not the maiden you love.”

“Are you not?” he wondered softly. “For I have not laid eyes on you since you entered this cottage, and yet I know your countenance better than the faces of my own brothers.

"Your hair is like silvered cream, paler even than my own and luminous as milkweed floss,” he began, and his voice was quietly ardent – nay, reverent – in the utterance of these words. “It curls a little, even whilst in a braid – which I pray it is not now,” he added with a little hitch in his breath. “For you will have combed it out before your slumber, and all this evening I have envisioned your unbound hair spilling across my pillows like moonlight. Your skin is as smooth and white as your little goat cheeses, even at the height of summer, for your fierce sister does not let you out of sight – or, one imagines, out of doors,” he chuckled, “without the broad-brimmed rush-hat she weaves for you every year, which you throw jubilantly upon the village bonfire in your turn, every year at Michaelmas.”

I caught my breath against his spine at these words, inadvertently tasting his skin once more, and furiously squelched the desire to scale the planes of his back with parted lips, drinking up the musk of his body like a greedy tippler. What he had described – the rush-hat, the goat cheeses, my frost-pale hair and the curl so well-concealed within my braid – was far too much already; more than anyone but Katniss could possibly know about me – but he had not yet finished.

"Your eyes are hyacinth-blue,” he went on, “just like your mother’s, and your brows and eyelashes are dark like hers as well; startlingly so at first glance. You look much like your mother because of your coloring,” he murmured, “and many remark upon it, but for those with eyes to see, it is your sister who wears your mother’s features while you carry the fey beauty of your dark father.”

“You knew my father?” I rasped, the only words I could manage in response to this litany of adoration.

“I remember him,” Marko said simply, “as well I should, for he married my father’s beloved Alyssum.”

And with that, the world gave a gentle shift and everything in it fell neatly into place. “I know you too,” I whispered in wonder.

When my father was alive, we journeyed to the village once a month to exchange our woodland harvest – most often herbs and furs and firewood, though at the height of autumn there was often extra fruit or nuts to sell as well – for cloth, tools, and handcrafts that we could not make ourselves as well as a small sweet or two, and we made a proper holiday of the occasion, even if we only managed a few meager trades and spent the whole of the time gazing with empty pockets and wistful eyes at the merchants’ colorful displays. After Father’s death Mother reduced those trips to quarter days only, lost in her grief as she was, and more often than not Katniss and I went alone to trade our wares from Lady’s little goat-cart. But on every visit without fail, we made certain to stop by the bakery: a snug stone cottage that smelled of heavenly yeast-bread and spices, run by a brawny, gentle man who bought every last cheese in my basket, even if there were far more remaining than the two I always wrapped in mint leaves and set aside for him, and took the last of Katniss’s game besides, even if it was only a plump squirrel or two, and always gave us an excessively generous portion of bread and little sweet buns to take home in trade.

Whenever Mother accompanied us the baker gave her a particular sort of longing smile and the kindest of greetings, though she had nothing to sell or trade, and every time she flushed crimson beneath his gaze and turned away, scowling like Katniss at her fiercest. I had always imagined she misliked the attention, for she had not remarried after Father’s death and had told us time and again that she had no wish to, though she was the rival of any beauty in the village, even hollowed by grief as she was after Father’s death. An apothecary’s only child, she had left the village at eighteen to marry a common woodsman, and her devotion to him was so complete that I had never even considered whether she might have loved another before him.

As I lay in that narrow bed, pressed to Marko like the other half of his soul, it was clear as day that my mother had been the gentle baker’s sweetheart in her youth, but this was scarcely the half of my epiphany. For that baker had had sons: three strapping, handsome boys with sweaty mops of curling fair hair, whose faces were perpetually flushed from the heat of the ovens as they bore about heavy pans full of loaves and sweet buns and little cakes in response to cross shouts from their mother, a slender woman with ruddy golden hair and deft white fingers.

A woman who, it was whispered at least once every festival day, might in fact be a true witch. The wicked kind, with incantations to evil forces and bits of dead things in secret jars – and curses.

A witch who might, with ease and nary a qualm of conscience, turn her three strong sons into bears.

The eldest of which sons I now held in my arms.

Chapter Text

Oh, I know you!” I whispered and blushed with all my might against Marko’s back, for I had known this baker’s son – and loved him wildly – for as long as I could remember, though I had understood almost from the very beginning that naught could come of my affection. He was the son of a relatively wealthy merchant, securely beyond the reach of my station and several years older than me to boot; of that latter I had always been particularly aware, though I had never cared two pins for the difference. As a child of eight I told Katniss quite seriously that I intended to marry that baker’s son, nearly a man grown already then – the one built like an old oak, I told her; the boy with cloud-curls – and she tweaked my nose and led me smartly away to the butcher's to trade a haunch of fine venison for two little hens.

“You had no beard before,” I stammered through my blushes and did not add that I had never before seen, nor thought I could imagine, that brawny, merry baker’s son naked, nor what a glorious – nay, angelic – figure his bare form might present.

That baker’s son had always shown me a degree of friendly attention that rivaled his gentle father’s, slipping me a small piece of shortbread or a bit of cake wrapped up in a handkerchief when he thought no one would see, even a hot savory cheese bun if we arrived at the bakery near a mealtime, but two summers ago, just after my thirteenth birthday, he began deliberately withdrawing to the kitchen during our trading visits. There was no slight intended so far as I could tell, for he always tipped his cap if our eyes met and gave me a smile, if somewhat less effusive than the ones we had shared on previous occasions, and his baked gifts only increased in size and value. This past Michaelmas our trip was cut short by impending rain – the irony of which was not lost on me as I lay in Marko’s bed, where I had first been driven by a cold, cruel rain – and Katniss scarcely had time to hand the baker his squirrels and cheese before wrapping our precious loaves in oilcloth and turning the goat-cart toward the woods, with a switch to Lady’s backside for added haste. We arrived home an eternity later, soaked to the skin, muddied to the knees, and thoroughly vexed at each other, to find a blackberry pie – the last sweet, sunbaked berries plucked before Satan cursed them at Michaelmas, or so the legends say – in our cart, painstakingly wrapped in its own sleeve of oilcloth and tender-crusted and crisp with caramelized sugar; even a little warm still at its center.

Such a gift was a treasure almost beyond imagining for poor wood-folk like ourselves, who have the wild wealth of berries to savor but neither the sugar nor the fine flour in which to enrobe them, and I had not even seen the baker’s eldest son that day. I thought of that, and of him, as I poured a little goat’s milk over my slice of pie that Michaelmas night and at last resolved to confront him on the matter at Christmas, when next Katniss and I went to the village. My sister, of course, meant to scold the baker’s son firmly against such acts of charity, let alone one so grand and generous, and pay him in full for the pie, but I had other, gentler things to say – albeit in an equally exasperated manner.

But of course, Christmas was yet a sennight hence, and there would be no eldest son lingering in the kitchen when I arrived at the bakery. Indeed, there would be no sons at all.

“You went away from me,” I said softly, and realized there was sorrow in my tone that I had not known I harbored. “Seeing you was what I liked best about coming to the bakery – indeed, to the village itself – but two summers ago you withdrew to the kitchen whenever I came near and would not speak to me unless all of your kin were otherwise occupied.”

“Oh Primrose,” he sighed, and my heart leapt like a startled hare. In all those years I had never dared to ask my sweetheart’s name nor offered up my own, but he had clearly discovered it of his own accord and carried it like a treasure, and its sound was very Heaven upon his lips. “I hid from you, dear heart, because I loved you with my very soul,” he said simply. “A doomed and hopeless love, I knew only too well, but I could neither conquer it nor conceal it in your presence any longer.

“It was Midsummer, and you newly turned thirteen,” he began quietly, interlacing our fingers against the mattress. “You were wearing a dress that had belonged to your mother in her youth – deepest rose-pink it was, like a petal of sunset, and perfectly suited to your budding figure – and she, by accident or design, had braided your hair that day in coils on either side of your head. Very skeins of moonlight,” he whispered, “with creamy rosebuds woven throughout.”

He cleared his throat; a hoarse, ragged sound that seemed to require several efforts, before continuing, “Such is the bridal style of my family. A bride’s hair is plaited in this fashion as part of our wedding ceremony,” he explained, “and more often than not she wears it thus ever after. Your mother would have known this well, having very nearly married my father in her youth, though I doubt that she intended any suggestion in dressing your hair in such a manner. In any case,” he said, “I looked on you that festival day, expecting the winsome child I had adored since her woodsman father first brought her to our door on a long-ago Christmastide, bundled all in rabbit skins, hoping to trade one of his beautiful carols for a crumb of shortbread for his new babe, and instead I saw the young woman I loved and wished above all things to make my wife.”

“You foolish, foolish boy,” I whispered and drew myself up to press a shy kiss to the curve of one strong shoulder, making him shudder beneath me. “I remember that day as well as you do,” I confessed, and was glad of the darkness to hide my blushes, “for I had hoped to catch your eye with my new dress and fine braids. My mother told me of bridal braids, though not for which family they bore meaning, and I hoped, by presenting myself in the semblance of a bride, perhaps I might lead you to see me as a young woman, and a child no longer.”

“You succeeded beyond your wildest dreams, my darling, darling girl,” he answered ardently and squeezed my fingers betwixt his with a little groan. “I realized that day that I had always loved you and now did so with hope and intention, but you were so very young – not yet courting age and fully nine years my junior – and lovely beyond measure. You were every inch a fairy’s child with your father’s wide, laughing mouth and your mother’s hyacinth eyes, your wood-gleanings and your packets of rare herbs, and deserved far better than a hulking baker’s son with clumsy offerings of sweet buns and pies. Indeed, you are no less than an angel,” he whispered, “woven by the Creator from milkweed floss and moonlight and the first shimmering frost of winter, and I am a man of clay; of sweat and yeast and muddy boots left at the back door.”

“Think you so?” I wondered softly, my voice trembling in the wake of my beloved’s impossible declaration. “I am but a wild thing, my love: a little white duck who dwells hard by the lake, with the smell of rushes and cattails in her feathers and a perpetual crust of mud about her toes. ‘Tis you who is the angel,” I whispered, “and indeed I supposed you to be thus when first I saw you at the fireside, freed of your golden bearskin.”

Before he could reply, I did what I had ached to do since entering his bed; indeed, since first I looked upon his form by firelight. Easing my fingers from their exquisite captivity betwixt his own, I brought one shy hand to his chest, and t’was so broad and warm and wondrous with its crisp down of fine curling hairs that I could not bear to still my fingers in any one place for more than a heartbeat or two. I scaled his breastbone eagerly and felt his breath quicken beneath my hand, and something quickened in me in response; a hot, breathless, tangible impatience flickering in the root of my belly and crying out for more – so much more – of his body beneath my hands. I circled my palm over one side of his chest, gasping and winning a gasp in turn when the base of my thumb grazed the nubbin of his nipple, and there lingered to trace the strange fleshy pebble with fascinated fingertips, evoking a low, bearlike moan from Marko’s throat.

“Fancy,” I breathed, “that a man’s body should contain such wonders,” but before I could proceed to the other side of his chest, he took hold of both of my wrists and closed his hands about them like tender shackles, bringing them to rest upon the mattress.

“Methinks Luka was right: you are as much witch as fairy,” he rasped, but there was no malice in his words, only a tight sort of humor coupled with raw longing. “I want your touch, little duck,” he groaned, “every bit of it. What you have given already and what more you mean to offer. I want it more than you can possibly imagine, but if you continue at this moment I fear to disgrace myself.”

I knew not what he meant by this, save that if I touched him further his delicious gasps and moans would continue and very likely increase, and so I curled one bare leg over his own – hard as oak timber, it was, and yet soft with fine hairs, and the feel of it against the tender skin of my thigh stole the breath from my lungs – and snugged my arms at his sides, clasping myself to him as soundly as I could. “Methinks I should like to see you thus disgraced,” I whispered boldly against his nape, and at once his brawny form turned in my arms, drawing me beneath him and pinning me securely with his weight.

He lay over me, a gilded shadow in the waning firelight; heavy as a fallen oak and broad and warm as a sheltering cave. My little hands were now at my shoulders, anchored gently by his grasp, but where our hips and legs should have pressed together, flush as I had been against his back a breath ago, something hard and smooth lay between us; like a rod, hot and damp at its tip, which prodded my bare thighs just below the hem of my shift.

Marko gave another moan, this one long and low and pained, and brought his face to mine. For one wild heartbeat I thought he meant to kiss me and leaned upward with a little cry, but instead he rubbed his brow and nose against my own in a nuzzling, beastlike caress and sighed over my lips; a warm, ragged puff of ginger and treacle and cream tea sweetened with clover honey which I drank in with an eager tongue and a blazing heart.

“Primrose,” he whispered. His mouth could not have been more than a hairsbreadth above my own, so near and sweet was the warmth of his breath, and I felt the downy bristle of his beard against my cheek as he said it again: “Primrose…”

The sound of my name was equal parts entreaty and lament, and in the near-darkness I turned my face the merest fraction and blindly sought his lips with mine. His breath caught sharply when our mouths met but he did not draw back from me, and we lingered thus for half a dozen heartbeats: mouths brushing each other, over and over again, as soft and hesitant as moth’s wings.

Never in my life had I felt anything so glorious as Marko’s lips against my own, and I eased my hands free of his grasp so I might cradle his face between them and keep him close. “I love you,” I whispered against his mouth, combing my fingertips through the crisp curls of his beard, and felt sure my heart should burst. “I have loved you, and wanted you for my own, for as long as I can remember.”

He gave a broken little laugh against my lips but did not pull away. “You were a child for much of that time,” he reminded me.

“But wise,” I reminded him in turn, and felt neither bold nor pretentious in the saying. “I have always known my own mind, and my heart, and both have longed for you since the day you took me from my father’s arms and sat me on the bakery sill to eat the sugared scraps of your first pie crust.”

He did draw back then, slipping free of my hands at his cheeks, and I caught the glimmer of his bright eyes by firelight. “You were the merest babe,” he whispered. “How could you recall such a thing?”

“I remember cinnamon and crisp dough melting on my tongue,” I answered softly and reached up through the darkness to trace the contour of one bearded cheek with fingers made certain by a lifetime of love. “And a stout red-faced boy,” I whispered, circling his sweet mouth with one fingertip. “A stout, merry boy with curls as pale as cloud, who smelled of yeast-bread and made me laugh with silly faces and tickling fingers. And ever after, t’was I who made certain we visited the bakery when we came to town,” I confessed, for the first time, to anyone save God in His Heaven. “For in that place – in you,” I amended firmly, “I had both found joy and lost my heart, long before I understood it, and I wished to return to and remain in your presence as often and as long as possible.”

Marko did not reply, not straightaway nor for countless moments after, and now I hated the darkness, for I could not see what lay in his eyes. Surely I had spoken too much and shown myself to be no more than a foolish child, full of fairytale fancies and longings far above my station.

“I love you,” he said at last, softly yet clear, and my heart soared through my breast upon fiery wings. Though Marko had spoken of his love for me twice already, and openly, this was the first he had declared it thus: plain as fact and every bit as irrefutable. “I have loved you with all my heart from the moment I first took you from your father’s arms,” he said. His voice, though quiet, was now resolute, and he leaned down to rest his brow upon my own once more. “And I want you for my own, above all things. For my sweetheart, my bride, and the mother of my babes.

“I want you, Primrose Everdeen,” he whispered across my lips, and the words seemed to both cause him pain and ease it. “I want to wed you on the village green; to plait your milkweed hair in bridal braids and thread it with ribbons and roses. I want to carry you over my father's threshold and pledge myself to you at his hearth.”

To none of this, of course, did I have objection, and I cupped his face in my hands, endeavoring to draw him down for a proper kiss, but he turned a little so that his lips met my cheek instead and there continued his litany in husky, tender words that I could feel in my very bones.

“Do not mistake my resistance for rejection, nor lack of desire,” he murmured against my cheekbone; a deep, resonant hum that kindled a strange ache between my thighs. “I want to kiss you more than I can bear, sweetling: to press your mouth with mine, again and again and again, and taste its secrets. I want to kiss every inch of your form, from your moonlight braids to your muddy toes, and feel your skin, every inch of it, pressed to mine. And when I can bear it no longer, I want to lay you in my own bed and –”

He broke off with a stifled cry and at once drew back from me, as far and as quickly as could be managed in this narrow bed, but ere he moved I felt a peculiar, insistent nudge from the rod that lay betwixt us and a drop of wet warmth spill from its tip upon my thigh. I could not begin to understand what was taking place – this hard, hot thing, swollen and damp against me, which moved of its own accord and caused him such agony – but an echoing pulsing, weighty heat at the hidden place between my legs was sufficient to imply what it might relate to, and my breath caught at the realization.

I knew well enough how younglings were begotten – leastways, among birds and beasts – and had once or twice glimpsed my parents at their lovemaking on a winter’s night: my mother’s slim legs bent on either side of my father’s hips, tenting the coverlets as he rocked against her, all gasps and whimpers and long shuddering moans. But for all the love and longing I carried for my baker’s son, I had never quite considered that we might someday partake in such an act. At once crude and primal and sacred beyond words it seemed, this business of coupling, with its breathless heat and dampness and hunger, and I marveled that body and soul could long so desperately for something neither had experienced before. Such a union, I thought dizzily, must be the purest objective of every human being: to meet and merge with their soul’s own mate, and beget babes by their love.

Marko’s fingers drifted hesitantly across my ribs and lower still, to where the shift covered my belly, and my breath caught once more, but with anticipation this time. There was something deeply forbidden in this touch, I was certain of that, and yet I ached for him to progress further still: to draw up my shift, not merely to my waist but over my head, and bare my body beneath him. For him to kiss every inch of my form and press every inch of his own against me.

In truth, precious little lay between us. Were he yet lying above me, the slightest movement of hand or hip would bring our most intimate parts into contact with one another – a thing for which I all at once knew a fierce and feverish longing.

As an herbwife’s daughter and midwife to my nanny-goat for some five years, I had long understood the simple how of bedding and begetting – the coming together that results in spilled seed and babes in a belly – but before this moment I had not in the least comprehended the why. Indeed, I had often supposed that the desire for a babe must temporarily supersede the unpleasantness of intercourse or perhaps blind a woman to it, else why would she – or a female of any species, for that matter – subject herself to being thrust into and grunted over by her mate?

But in this moment, in this bed, with Marko’s fingers skimming my belly, I could think of nothing but the wonderment that would be joining with him in such an intimate fashion. I had only the whispers of village wives and the testament of my own parents’ lovemaking by which to judge, but I knew beyond a doubt that coupling with this gentle young man – this man I loved with all my heart, and had loved from my earliest memories – would encompass far more pleasure than pain, and I longed for it with all my might: for the union, for the pleasure, and for his babes. Fat and merry they would be, I knew, even in the womb, and would round my belly like a mare’s. My husband – my baker, my angel, my golden bear – would delight in the sight, and in the feel of their lusty kicks beneath his strong hands.

“I want you, Primrose Everdeen,” he said hoarsely, tracing tiny circles betwixt my hipbones with trembling fingers, and I gazed up at him through the near-darkness and knew my eyes echoed the longing in his own. “I want to lie with you in our marriage bed, to rise above you in the darkness and sink between your legs, to –”

He broke off with a wrenching whimper, the likes of which I had only heard when Mother tended the most grievously injured of our woodcutter neighbors, and pulled sharply away from me, throwing off the coverlets and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. In my limited knowledge of coupling I had never heard of a man experiencing pain, let alone so fierce that he should cry out with it, and I wondered if this might be part of the curse the baker’s wife had laid upon her sons. I was certain Marko would leave me then; would go elsewhere in the cottage, perhaps to the fireside in the frontmost room, and tend to this strange wound, but instead he sat upon the edge of the mattress and wrapped his strong arms about his midsection as he shook like a man wont to die of cold.

I could not look on my love in pain, not while there was strength in my body to aid him. I sat up at once and inched cautiously nearer to brush my fingertips across his broad back in slow, soothing strokes, as might a mother to her ailing child. His body tensed at my touch but he did not pull away, and after a few moments of these gentle caresses his muscles softened a little beneath my fingertips and he released his caught breath in a long, shuddering sigh.

“You are hurt,” I whispered. “Tell me how to ease this pain.”

He shook his head firmly, making his luminous cloud-curls sway against his nape in the dim firelight. “There is naught to be done,” he insisted, and his voice was tight, as though he spoke without air in his lungs. “I am merely…unaccustomed to the urgency of desire.”

Of this I knew nothing, nor less could I guess at it. I knew that my own longing for him was at once like a flame and a weight and a pulsing hollow of need, but none of this, though uncomfortable to prolong, was quite pain, let alone of the degree he seemed to be suffering.

“It…hurts you to want me?” I ventured, and felt the veriest fool for my ignorance, but Marko gave a gentle, if quite uneven, chuckle and reached back a hand to clasp my own.

“In proximity, yes,” he said simply and squeezed my hand in a reassuring fashion. “The hearts and minds of men, especially the men of my family, are well-equipped for patience, for endurance and fortitude in the face of impossible obstacles, but our flesh, I fear, is weak as a kitten – and shamefully easy to arouse when our beloved is so near.”

At this I blushed hot as a stove and buried my face in his broad back, for I understood the matter now, or at least well enough to feel true mortification. The heavy pink limb that had hung limp between Marko’s legs when first I glimpsed his naked form was, of course, the hard rod that had nudged and prodded my thighs – seeking entrance there, I realized with a scalding flush about my face and throat – as he lay over me. That part of a male must be firm and erect for coupling to take place; this much was only logical, but I had never imagined that this change was brought about by desire, nor that the proximity of a man’s beloved would have such a powerful effect.

“I knew not it that it would be thus,” he went on quietly. “You alone have I loved and longed for, body and soul, with all my heart, and never had I imagined that the wanting could descend in so forceful a fashion.”

“Tell me what you want,” I whispered, neither out of boldness nor coquetry but simply to hear the words from my beloved’s own lips.

“I want to lie with you as a man with his wife,” he whispered back, raggedly, but without hesitation. “To kiss and caress every curve and hollow of your body and feel you about me as I fill you with my flesh and my seed and my children.”

His breath left him in a groan and he rocked back a little against me, enveloping my small hand wholly within his own in a fierce, longing squeeze. “I want you to have my babes,” he said with a broken little laugh, as of a man who knows he asks for the moon. “I want us to spend years in bed begetting them and enjoying every moment of it, and while they grow inside you I want to kiss and cradle your belly and make love to you all the more, so our babes might come into the world suffused with the love and bliss of our union.

“And when they are born I shall be with you every moment,” he went on, sadly now, as though certain he spoke in vain. “For they are like to be enormous, oafish babes, as Mother never ceases to say that I was, however lusty and merry in spirit, and their birthing will be difficult for your small body, but I will secure the most skillful of midwives for their delivery and will tend you as a queen, before and after. I will bathe our babes and change their linens and come in answer their every cry; indeed, I will do all but feed them – until, of course, they grow old enough to thrive on other nourishment besides their mother’s own milk,” he explained. “At which point it will be my honor to prepare all manner of soft little puddings and tiny pies to fill their bellies. Though I confess it will – nay, would – give me pleasure unbounded,” he concluded mournfully, “to see our child at your breast, his curly head lolling against your white skin as he suckles in sleepy contentment.”

Marko,” I whispered.

It was the first time I had spoken his name, save for that breathless echo in the kitchen, beyond his hearing, and he gave a sharp, quiet cry in response. “I want that too,” I told him, kissing the words into the warm skin of his back, where they would surely linger longer than any tenderness whispered into a beloved’s ear. “I want all of it,” I confessed, and now it was my voice which broke. “The kisses; the years spent abed coupling with you, over and over and over again; and our babes at my breast – all of it. I want it more than you can possibly imagine,” I whispered. “Indeed, almost more than I can bear.”

I expected my love to rejoice at these tidings, perhaps even to turn and take me in his arms, but instead he gave the most heartbreaking sob I had ever heard – worse even than my mother’s grief at my father’s death – and covered his face with his free hand. “Mother is more cunning than any of us realized,” he groaned, and his voice shook with utter grief. “For she has cursed me twice over: first trading my humanity for a bear’s form and now allowing me to come so near to the maid I love and the future I dreamed of with her, only to snatch it away again at the moment when it became not only possible but certain.”