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The Huntress and the Honey-God: A Tale of Blind Love

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Raisa was a harvest goddess, one of several deities who carried the power of the season. She was, in fact, the artist of autumn, for it was her hand which ripened the crops and painted the many woods in glorious shades of red and gold, copper and bronze. Mortals revered her for these powers and adored her for her beauty: for her ruddy golden hair, creamy skin, and blue eyes flecked with hazel, like windborne chaff against a hot September sky.

Her husband was broad and brawny Janek, god of wheat and other grains, of millers and baking and bread. Though he was both kind and vastly handsome, theirs had been a practical match, orchestrated by the greater gods, and their union kept the mortal world thriving and fed.

Their firstborn was congenial Marko, god of scythes, sickles, and storehouses; a giant of a young man, possessing the rugged beauty of a whitened wheatfield. He did not glory in his rank but moved quietly among mortals at harvest-time, aiding in the cutting and binding of grain in a hundred fields, and was much beloved for it. Indeed, there were many Christian people who called him Saint Marko, and carried little talismans with his image as they prayed for a successful harvest.

Now Raisa’s second son was not her husband’s offspring, but the child of her twin brother Luka. In the manner of gods, her brother had been her first love; indeed, they had been entwined like lovers in their mother’s womb and had together struck dead the hapless midwife who had pulled them apart. As Raisa was the goddess of autumn’s bounty, of ripening fruit and vibrant leaves, Luka was the reverse: the god of autumn’s demise; of frost and bitter wind, of withering, shriveling, and silent, relentless decay.

He was identical to his sister in every exquisite feature, but where her beauty was warm and rich and vibrant, his was as cruel and cold as the grave. She could blush an apple with a touch; he could wither it just as easily. Their powers were intertwined, of course, for Luka could not bring about the end of summer but needed his sister to turn the world red and gold, and as the first frost caused her powers to wane, his became steadily stronger, till at last the first snow fell.

They had been lovers in their youth, well-matched and fiercely passionate in their love-making, but the greater gods had quickly put a stop to it by wedding her to Janek who, as a fellow god of harvest, was as a mate not only compatible but complementary. But once Marko was birthed and traveling the mortal realm with his father, learning the weight of a sickle and the welcome brush of wheat-heads against his stocky body, Raisa wasted no time in bringing her brother to her bed once more.

Harvest was erratic that year – indeed, summer seemed not to end – for, distracted as they were in their affair, Raisa neglected to ripen the crops and paint the forests, and her brother neglected to wither them in his turn. Winter arrived without warning, albeit at its proper time, and many mortals shivered in their homes and nearly died of hunger – and indeed would have, had not Janek and his small son made many ventures from their celestial storehouses, distributing their own supplies of grain.

That winter Raisa bore her brother’s child: a startlingly angry boy, albeit beautiful beyond words, with flesh like frost and red-gold hair; indeed, the very image of his twin parents. The greater gods observed this with some concern, for the forces of ripening and decay to combine in a child could surely be naught but catastrophic, but none dared speak of it to Janek, who was yet unaware of his wife’s affair, let alone that her newborn son was not of his seed.

She named the baby Luka – in tribute to her brother, she told Janek – and he became the god of autumn storms; of sleet and hail and the coldest of winds that lay not in winter’s domain. He was powerful, even as a child, but his might was short-lived. Winter would not yield her power to an angry boy, however beautiful he might be, and young Luka spent the vast majority of his year cursing and fuming for those few weeks when he might unleash his fury on travelers and fields.

Raisa continued to lie with her brother, and often, while her husband and elder son went tirelessly among mortals, attempting to salvage crops and increase storeholds. The greater gods frowned at this but conceded that there was a certain inevitability to the twins’ passion. They were two sides of a coin: opposing forces, yet the power of each relied upon the other. So long as their son was kept in relative impunity and autumn returned to its cycle, it mattered little – to the greater gods, that is – that she chose to share her husband’s bed with a lover.

Now, Janek was not greatly in love with his wife, but he admired and cared deeply for her, and it was only a matter of time before he returned home, dusty from the fields, to find Raisa abed, her red hair rippling like flames against her white skin as she arched and gasped over her twin. Her lush form was flung impatiently aside as husband fought brother, and many insults were hurled and blows dealt and wounds sustained on both sides, but in the end Janek triumphed and cast out his wife’s lover with a shout of fury.

No sooner was this done than he took Raisa to bed upon the tangled sheets her brother had but lately defiled, with his seed still wet upon her thighs. “Am I not a god?” Janek panted as he moved inside her, deep and forceful. “Am I not your husband? Am I not sufficient, that you open your womb to your own brother?” For he knew now what he had suspected of her second son, and hated her for it.

However, Janek was not a cruel god, nor wont to hold a grudge, even in the face of his wife’s cuckolding and betrayal, and in light of her brother’s banishment from her bed, Raisa was only too happy to be embraced by her husband once more. Janek was a strong and steady lover, and she let him seed her womb again and again, for there was a certain easy pleasure in it. When her belly swelled that winter, she rejoiced, for she was certain she carried another of her brother’s children, and perhaps it would be a daughter this time; a pretty maid to join her in painting the crops and the trees.

But when Raisa’s time came it was a son she birthed, and quite evidently of her husband’s seed. A sturdy little boy he was, with Janek’s golden curls and bright eyes – which was quite enough to earn her resentment, for he was neither a daughter nor Luka’s get – but worse than that: he had, as sometimes occurs in their children of gods, unwittingly taken at his birth one of his mother's powers. He would, of course, be a practical god, like his father and full brother, and to him was given the arts of food preservation: of root cellars and canning, salting and spicing and smoking and drying. But he was also Raisa’s son, and from her he had inherited an artist’s eye and hand – and had taken from her, whole and entire, the harvest of honey.

Honey-taking was but one of Raisa’s many harvests, and it galled her to see it given without warning to this youngest, least-loved son, but even the greater gods cannot revoke an inborn ability, and Peeta – for so Janek had named him – would be ever afterward the god of honey, with a form sweet and golden and the occasional company of velvet honeybees.

Three years passed, in which Raisa grew ever more resentful of her sunny youngest child and, now and again, sought to do him harm in subtle and crafty ways, and Janek took to transforming the boy into a small golden bear-cub for his protection and tucking him away in a little cave or hollow tree with a bit of honeycomb to nibble from his chubby paws. And shortly thereafter, Janek took a lover for himself.

His first love, she had been: Alyssum, goddess of fertility and new life, whose power lay in leaf buds and catkins and the first blooms of spring. She was pale as a lily, with eyes as vibrant as the violets she tucked into her flaxen hair, and in their youth Janek had loved her, and made love to her, with all his heart, but one day while coaxing a forest into flower, she had tripped into a mortal huntsman’s snare, and when he arrived to free her, she had fallen at once in love with his dark beauty and exquisite voice, which could silence the birds in a thousand woods and make even the gods weep with its jeweled tones.

Alyssum had borne her husband a daughter – Katniss by name, a mortal girl with her mother’s fineness of feature and her father’s dusky coloring – and he had died, gored on a hunt, when the child was just three years old. Janek came to her first out of consolation and sympathy for the cruel loss of her husband, then a love gentle and patient, and at last passion and hunger, which Alyssum returned in full measure.

As their interludes grew longer and more frequent, Janek brought his beloved youngest son to play with Alyssum’s daughter while he made love to her mother beneath the heady afternoon sun; now in violets, now in clover, now in primroses, bobbing their bright yellow blooms in lazy echo of the lovers’ movements. Sometimes he left Peeta in his bear-cub form and tiny Katniss delighted to climb astride him like a pony and grab fistfuls of his curly golden fur as she rode him about the meadow, laughing with delight and kicking her bare feet against his sides. Other times he brought his son in his true form and they would play as all children do, carrying on in a language all their own and exchanging little presents, as simple and profound as a pretty rock, a perfect flower, or a fallen feather. And sometimes the children would even innocently imitate the actions of their parents’ love-making: the golden boy would lie atop the dark girl, both fully clothed, and cover her face with many wet, clumsy kisses while she squirmed and giggled beneath him, and at last they would give great loud sighs, as they were accustomed to hearing at the culmination of all that kissing, and tumble together in a tangle of limbs and hold each other as they slept.

Now the coupling of a harvest god and a spring goddess is no small thing, and as Janek and Alyssum’s bodies met and merged the mortal world knew a new season: a fifth season, golden and balmy as a second summer, betwixt the first frost of autumn and the first snow of winter. And in those warm and heady weeks, Alyssum lay beneath her lover like a feast for his tender savoring, and his seed took root in her womb, and his child grew within her.

Janek remained with his beloved through the winter, delighting as her belly grew round and full beneath his strong hands, and eagerly shared her bed every night, while his small son and her daughter nestled together in their own narrow cradle and traded shy kisses beneath the covers. Alyssum was heavily pregnant when at last she went abroad to sow the firstfruits of spring – the violet, the crocus, the snowdrop and willow-bud – and she had not gone far when she sank to her knees in a forest clearing, all bare earth and still half-blanketed in snow. And when she rose at last the ground was warm and grassy beneath her and all about her stood primroses, bright and golden as sundrops, and as the hair of the daughter she had birthed in that place.

Janek came to her at once, radiant with joyous tears, and together they named their child Primrose. The daughter of a harvest god and a spring goddess, she came forth as goddess of that season which had been borne of her parents’ love-making:  goddess of the second summer, of late harvests and unexpected things. She could pluck wheat heads from among thistles and coax a patch of cut stalks to produce new heads of grain; not enough for a full field or second harvest, of course, but sufficient to fill the belly of a hungry traveler, or a lean cow, or a lost child. Apple trees bent their highest branches so she might pluck their most elusive fruits, and brambles parted for her little white hands to collect every last plump berry.

The greater gods much approved of this child, for they had long desired the union of Janek and Alyssum and had not been much pleased when she left her immortal lover for a mortal huntsman, though they had allowed it in light of his gentleness and woodcraft and very fine voice, which had no equal among gods or mortals. In many ways Primrose was the goddess they had longed for: a sweet and gentle presence in autumn to counter the bitterness of Raisa’s twin and his fierce, angry son. She was much like her half-brothers in powers and disposition, and the greater gods nodded to one another over their goblets of hot honey-wine and contemplated the prospect of her eventual marriage. Her gifts dovetailed best with Marko’s, and the greater gods smiled at the thought of the merry, ruddy-cheeked reaper traversing the grain fields with a wife who brought the warm winds of summer in her wake and could stretch a lean harvest if needed.

A few years passed, and Primrose grew and thrived and began to draw the attention of mortals. A little maid of trailing yellow curls and cornflower eyes; to be in her presence was to stand in the glory of a perfect summer’s day: here a warm breeze, there a breath of wild roses, fresh with dew. A comely child, she was adored wherever she passed, and not simply for her beauty but also her gentle, generous powers.  She could gather more food from a seemingly dormant garden or field than might a small party of workers at the peak of harvest-time, and she let none pass by without a handful of late berries or a pocketful of grain. And some mortals began to carry a talisman with her image and look to little Primrose, rather than Raisa, as their harvest goddess.

Now Raisa had been surpassing tolerant of her husband’s affair, for every night he spent in Alyssum’s arms was a night she might lie with her brother – though the greater gods had swiftly seen to the deadening of his seed, that she would not conceive another child by him – and in fact it vexed her little enough that Janek had sired a child upon his first love. She had Luka’s stormy, beautiful namesake already, and there was a certain symmetry in them both having a child outside their marriage, by the ones they loved truly, most and longest.

But Raisa was passionately jealous of Primrose’s powers and beauty, and when she saw mortals contemplating worship of her husband’s child in her stead, her rage knew no bounds. She overripened crops till they burst and spoiled in their fields, then her brother brutally subdued the earth to dormancy in a hard, killing frost while his son cast hailstones and lightning at his side. When this was done, mortals crept from their houses to weep in the fields, where moldy grain and rotten fruit littered the pitted soil, and Raisa veiled her bright hair beneath a cloak the color of dead leaves and set off with grim satisfaction to find Alyssum and her daughters.

Of course, Janek had been with his lover and her children all this while, and Peeta besides, and he was not unaware of his wife’s rampage, nor of her reasons for it. Alyssum and Primrose were immortal and beloved of the greater gods, and as such there was little Raisa could do to harm them directly – but Katniss was another matter. The daughter of Alyssum’s late husband, the child was mortal and could be grievously wounded, even killed, by the full power of a goddess of Raisa’s ilk, and the harvest queen would most assuredly strike wherever she found weakness, and glory in the pain it would cause Primrose and her mother. And though Katniss was no kin to Janek, she was Alyssum’s firstborn and he loved her as he loved his own daughter.

There was naught to do for the moment but hide the little family, though before this could be done Janek turned Peeta into his bear-shape and sent him into the woods, under the pretense of securing a fine honeycomb for their supper. Janek knew that for Alyssum and her daughters to be hidden safely, none could know their location but himself, and even he dared not go to them till Raisa ceased her search or, at the very least, the violence of her rage subsided. At eight mortal years of age Peeta still accompanied his father on every visit to Alyssum’s home, and though he would happily play with his little half-sister for a time, his devotion was to Katniss, and it was as unwavering as it was obvious. It was equally apparent that Raisa would discover, and all too quickly, if Peeta knew where the girls were hidden, and rather than wring the truth from her misliked youngest son she would simply wait for him to go to his playfellow and follow him there, and add his pain to that which she would cause there.

So while Peeta bounded happily into the woods, all curly golden fur and stout legs, intent on the perfect honeycomb to present for his sweetheart’s repast, Janek gathered Alyssum and her daughters, as well as a few small provisions, and led them to a secluded valley, walled off from the world – and more importantly, from Raisa’s sight – by a ring of silver mountains, their jagged snowy peaks reaching up into the clouds. Little Katniss berated the harvest god for the better part of the journey, and fiercely, for she saw the deception at once and despaired at the thought of being parted from her sweet playfellow, but Janek pleaded with her for the boy’s sake. Raisa thoroughly despised her youngest child and would not hesitate to abuse him in her pursuit of Primrose and Katniss; this much was obvious, but she would swiftly divine that he was ignorant of these matters, and while Janek’s thwarting would not please her, she could hardly mistreat her son to reveal information he did not possess.

The valley, while empty of persons, was verdant in nature, and Alyssum’s arrival made it even more so, with wildflowers and wholesome herbs sprouting in her very footprints as she entered that place. A lake there was, small but plentiful with fish and nourishing weeds and flanked on one side by a little grove of trees, and Janek procured a small flock of spotted goats, placid and soft-eared, with udders low and plump with milk to supply the family’s table. The valley housed a shepherd’s cottage, a solid stone shelter, long-disused, and in such a place Alyssum and her children might live safely and well, for as long as might be necessary. Alyssum’s powers peaked when Raisa’s were at their lowest ebb; thus she could leave the valley to sow spring upon the earth, as always she had done before, and until Primrose’s safety was assured, the world would manage quite well without her second summer.

Janek met Peeta, golden muzzle closed delicately about a perfect honeycomb as he galloped merrily back toward his sweetheart’s former residence, and conveyed, in gentle words, how Katniss and her family had been hidden from all for their safety, from Peeta no less than his mother. The boy cast off his bear form and shouted his dismay, both hands closed about the dripping comb, and his bees came to comfort him with their downy bodies and feathery wings. “Why would you do such a thing?” cried the heartbroken honey-god to his father. “Why would you hide my sweetheart from me? I could protect her better than her mother, and keep her in a finer fashion than this exile you have wrought.”

Of course, Peeta’s anger was at the separation, not at his father, and Janek knew it well. “It will not be forever,” he soothed the boy, “and she grieves your absence just as much as you grieve hers. She will leave that hiding place soon enough, and I doubt not you shall one day have her to wife. Take this parting as opportunity to prepare for that day,” he urged. “Channel your love into a craft, something you might present one day as bride-price.”

Janek said this supposing to distract the boy from his broken heart, perhaps to occupy his hands for a few days with some project or other while he came to terms with the separation from his playfellow, but he had severely underestimated the young honey-god’s devotion. “That I shall!” Peeta declared, and departed in a furious rush of black and gold and small humming wings.

Chapter Text

The honey-god and his faithful bees traversed the land, seeking a place as like that in which Katniss had been born as might be imagined, and at last settled upon a wood of pine and oak and maple, with a lake hard by. Here, Peeta resolved, he would bring his bride someday, and keep her as he had told his father, but there was much to be done before such could take place. Together with his bees – and now and again, his amused brothers – the young honey-god built a cottage of smooth brown stones with panes of crystallized honey, mullioned as in a mansion, to serve as windows, which turned the weakest rays of sun into a shimmering shower of gold. He whiled away months shaping tall candles of creamy beeswax, embedded with bits of evergreen and aromatic herbs, and furnished the larder – half as large as the cottage itself, for he was the god of food preservation – with a rainbow of honeys, harvested from the sweetest and most fragrant of blooms. He even gleaned the downy pile of his bees to shape, one precious inch at a time, a velvet coverlet to warm his bride in the dark winter months.

As god of food preservation as well as honey-taking, there were plenteous other duties to press upon Peeta’s time and hands, and each autumn he walked among mortals and patiently advised them in their collection of honey, seeking to prevent harm to both hive and harvester, and guided their grateful hands in the arts of canning and smoking and drying while amassing a secret feast in the larder of the honey-cottage for his bride. His father, king of grains and all that can be made from them, was much occupied with his own labors in that season, but now and again Peeta would catch a perfumed breath of lily or violet amid the dusty sweat of harvest and knew that his father had but recently quitted his beloved’s arms.

“Why should you see her when I cannot?” he demanded of his father, the third autumn after Katniss’s departure, when but half of his cottage windows were honey-paned and his bridal coverlet no more than a crooked handsbreadth of woven bumble-down.

“Your love is well so long as she remains hidden,” Janek placated softly, “and each day she grows more beautiful. Your mother’s powers are at their height in this season, and her rage smolders still. Wait until spring,” he urged, “when your mother is weakest and Alyssum reigns as queen.”

But every spring Peeta pled to be taken to his sweetheart and every spring his father gently refused, for Raisa’s hatred of Alyssum’s daughters was like a seething coal, ever threatening to flare into a devastating wildfire, and even in her weakest hour, like a wounded serpent, she was capable of great harm. She despised Primrose most of all, the little golden goddess who had vanished when she was scarcely more than a toddling babe and for whom people left pretty offerings in wild places, hoping to entice her to return, but she knew the family’s sole weakness was Katniss, the last vestige of Alyssum’s beloved mortal husband, and the feeblest by fault of her mortal form. Raisa mused at her family’s table of the many cruel deaths a mortal maiden could suffer, and Janek gazed at his furious youngest son and gently shook his head.

Ten years had passed from the day when Peeta bounded into the woods on golden paws and fetched a perfect honeycomb for his playfellow – a perfect honeycomb that held pride of place in his expansive larder, even now – when he observed his father slipping away from the threshing floor, a lover’s knot of wheat stalks in one hand. It had never before occurred to the honey-god to seek his sweetheart of his own accord, for he revered his good father and was obedient to his commands, but despite Janek’s insistence that Peeta wait patiently for a reunion with his playfellow, he had never directly stated that his son could not look for her – merely that she was hidden away from all but Janek, who had settled the family in their place of refuge – nor, more to the point, that Peeta could not follow him on one of his clandestine visits. Always the grain-god stole away when none might see, least of all his youngest son, but on this occasion there was a hesitance in Janek’s manner of departure, almost as though he felt Peeta’s gaze and wordlessly bid him follow.

The honey-god wasted no time in doing so. His satchel held only a small brick of honeycomb, three tart green apples and a loaf of bread of his own shaping, burnt about the crusts when his mind drifted overlong to thoughts of his mortal playfellow. It was no great offering for the one he adored, but there was no time to collect a finer present. Peeta had grown into a stocky youth, broad-shouldered and strong but hardly swift, and his father was moving ahead quickly now, eager for the sanctuary of his lover’s arms. Four-and-twenty bees came in answer to the honey-god’s hushed call and clustered about his feet, wings humming feverishly in echo of their master’s urgency, and lent him speed sufficient to catch up to his father but not overtake him.

They traveled a lesser distance than Peeta expected, to a cluster of jagged, seeming impenetrable mountains, their slopes silver as steel in the brilliant afternoon sun. Had Katniss been exiled to such a forbidding place? he wondered. Had his good father relegated the goddess of spring and her daughters all these years to a cold shelter of lifeless stone?

Janek traversed the foot of one mountain with the practiced ease of countless such journeys and disappeared into a heretofore unseen cleft, scarcely wide enough to accommodate his brawn, and Peeta followed quickly, his faithful bees still at his heels. The cleft was a tunnel, a dark and narrow space with a glimmer of green at its end, and he pressed through the dank shadows to find a verdant valley, bright with blossoms even at this very peak of autumn. The grass beneath his feet was lush as velvet and spangled with violets, and all about were the contented bleats of fat speckled goats. At one end of the valley stood a snug stone cottage, not unlike that which Peeta had prepared for his bride, and through its doorway rushed the goddess of spring, no less beautiful than when last Peeta had seen her, all trailing flaxen locks and blossoms at her brow. She caught Janek to her in a kiss of ardent welcome, already tugging at his chaff-dusted garments, and Peeta hurried away along the valley’s stone perimeter, desperate to neither witness the lovers at their passion nor be glimpsed by them in such a moment.

At the heart of the flock, cooing to a heavy-bellied doe, was a little maiden: Peeta’s half-sister, though so wondrously changed in ten years’ time that he scarcely recognized her. Primrose, so lovely as a child, now stood at the very cusp of womanhood, with a mane of riotous pale curls spilling from her kerchief and small, becoming curves that her rough, plain raiment could not obscure. His mother would hate her all the more, Peeta realized with a sinking heart, for exile had only given the little goddess a safe haven in which to blossom. Were Primrose to walk among mortals now, even in her humble goatherdess garb, with the pregnant doe for good measure, the gentle maid would be worshipped as the very queen of autumn, with offerings of grain and gold pressed into her little white hands.

Much downcast by this realization, Peeta continued his surveillance of the valley but there was no one else in sight, neither a black-haired maiden nor any other. Primrose settled capably among her flock to deliver the doe of twin kids, and from the cottage soft cries of pleasure ascended, broke sharply, and slowly ascended again, but of Katniss there was no sign, and at length the heartsore and weary honey-god crept to the grove of trees that ringed the valley’s own little lake on one side and tucked himself into the crook of a low-hanging bough. Perhaps Katniss – a mortal and more fragile than her kin – was hidden elsewhere, he thought, and when Janek’s lovemaking was finished, he would lead Peeta to her. There was naught to do but wait, and the day, despite its air of fragrant spring, had the drowsiness of sultry autumn, and so Peeta pillowed his head on his satchel while his bees made nests in his curls, and together they slumbered to await Janek’s departure.

But when Peeta awoke it was not to his father’s movements but a jolt of mingled delight and alarm. His sweetheart was near; his heart had felt the presence of hers and roused him with an eager lurch, but something was amiss. “You say you saw nothing and the goats were not distressed,” declared a maiden’s voice, crisp and cool as starlight, from hard by his hiding place. “And yet the grass is crushed by heavy feet. I left to slay the wolf ere he might steal another of our kids; surely his mate has not come in my absence to wreak greater harm.”

Peeta peered through the gilded leaves in the direction of the voice and caught his breath at the loveliest vision his eyes had ever beheld. There was Katniss, his beloved playfellow, but altered so stunningly in their separation that he blushed with shame at the thought of daring to court her.

The maid was small and slight with proud little breasts and a river of sleek black hair, bound snugly in one long braid that lay along her spine like a cord of fine silk. Like her sister she was dressed as a goatherdess but her skirts were kilted about her thighs like a field worker’s, baring lean dusky legs made brown by the cold mountain sun, and her feet were wrapped in sturdy boots of goatskin, tufted about the knees with cuffs of speckled hide. Sprawled at those feet was the carcass of a large gray wolf, and in one slender hand was the means of its execution: a single arrow, which she fitted to her bowstring with precision before turning directly toward the grove, and the place where Peeta was hidden.

His heart raced with both elation and fear, for the wide gray eyes that had closed tightly with laughter at his tickles and teasing were now silver and keen as a falcon’s. This beauty was not a goatherdess but a huntress – nay, a wild mountain lioness – all sinews and grace, stealing toward the grove with her bow drawn, and he had never loved her more than when he gazed through golden leaves and awaited her arrow in his throat. It did not occur to him that he was immortal and she could not kill him, nor that such an act should be unwelcome.

“You there!” shouted his sweetheart – a hawk’s piercing cry – and she loosed the arrow: a warning shot, too wide to do more than startle its mark, but Peeta tumbled from his perch and fell to the ground, crushing several of his bees and terrifying those he did not kill. In the span of a single heartbeat his curly head was consumed with the sweet fire of four-and-twenty stingers and his vision filled with golden flames, as though he lay and languished at the very heart of the sun. An exquisite pain it was, bright and golden and burning; sharply blissful and excruciating all at once.

Such was honey-fever, that which took any who suffered the prolonged sting of the honey-god’s most cherished bees, and it could steal the sight and still the heart of any mortal who suffered it in extremity.

“You there,” breathed the silver-eyed huntress, but her voice was gentler now, even concerned, and Peeta felt a rush of movement and cool, callused hands on his burning face. She was crouched before him with the sun at her back, and all about her slim dusky form flamed an aureole of blinding white-gold. “You are hurt!” she gasped, her fingertips brushing the dead bees from his curls and feeling the honey-welts on his scalp, and Peeta thought he glimpsed a diamond winking on one dusky cheek. “So many,” she whispered. “Please, do not die.

“Prim, fetch my namesake!” she cried. “As many as you can carry, quickly!”

The fever wholly overtook Peeta then, but he felt his tunic loosened, his head pillowed, and a soothing wet coolness against each of the honey-welts in turn. “These are katniss roots,” his beloved crooned, as a lullaby, and Peeta realized that his head lay in her lap. “For these my father named me. They are like unto potatoes but their flesh is swifter at easing the burn from a sting. You have so many,” she confessed with a hitch in her beautiful voice – like moonlight it was, cool and silver and full of healing. “And on your head – they should have killed you but they did not. Who are you, golden youth?” she wondered softly, but it was a musing only, not a query. “What brought you to this place, where only wolves have trespassed before? You are no wolf, of that I am certain, but what then must you be?”

After a little she guided a cup to his lips; buttery goat’s milk, sweet and frothy to his dry mouth, followed by a piece of the honeycomb from his satchel, and Peeta moaned in his fever to take honey from her fingers once more. They had fed each another fistfuls of honeycomb when they were children, sticky-fingered with trails of sweet gold reaching to their elbows and laughing with delight, and he dreamt now of sharing the comb in another fashion: as man and wife, lying together in their bridal bed; of softer laughter as they lapped up heady golden stickiness from each other’s limbs.

The honey-god had never understood the body’s hunger for coupling, nor experienced it in truth. In his eighteen years he had loved only Katniss and loved her in a child’s fashion, but now as he lay in her lap, his burning head pillowed betwixt the soft heat of her belly and those strong brown thighs, something kindled in his heart and mind and loins that was like unto a honey-fever of its own. He loved Katniss as he had always loved her and wished above all things that she might be his wife, but now he began to comprehend the wonders such a thing would entail. He knew but little of coupling, of the sounds and gestures and positions to which his father and her mother so eagerly abandoned themselves, and had always thought it a strange, crude, even grotesque sort of act, but lying now so near his sweetheart’s womb, he wondered how exquisite it might be to fill that place, to lie naked with the maiden he loved and fit their bodies together in that peculiar bouncing fashion that led to whimpers and moans and babes. He had thought often of children, of how fine it would be for his laughing black-haired sweetheart to cradle his child in her arms and kiss its crown of honey-curls, but this was the first he had truly considered the matter of begetting them. Would it be a blissful and wondrous thing, as the honey-fever suggested, or crude and repulsive as the mating of beasts?

He recalled then, with a blush to further scald his burning face, their childish imitation of their parents’ lovemaking; his clumsy wet kisses met by giggles and squirming squeals from his playfellow, and longed to attempt the act again, in another place and another fashion. He wondered if there was laughter to be found in lovemaking and dearly hoped there would be; that however exquisite it felt to lie as a husband with the wild huntress that now cradled him, there might also be joy, surprise, even merriment in the act. He gazed, honey-dazed, at the firm little mouth above him, drawn tight in a worried scowl, and imagined those lips parting in breathless laughter as he lay above her and gobbled up her delight with greedy kisses.

“This boy is gravely ill,” said Janek, his deep voice breaking into the wondrous honey-dream, and Peeta felt his father’s strong hand at his brow. “Fiercely taken with honey-fever. I shall bear him home and tend him safely.”

“Surely he is too ill to move!” Katniss protested, laying a cool hand along Peeta’s burning cheek. “He would be better tended here.”

“Who is he, Father?” Primrose wondered, her form a slender cloud of white and gold as she knelt beside her sister. “Should we not tend him ourselves?”

“He is a votary, one of my most faithful,” the harvest god replied without hesitation. “He must have followed me here from the threshing floor, thinking to aid me in some fashion, but if his absence is noted by his mother, the secret of this place will be compromised,” he explained, and he made to lift Peeta from the nest of Katniss’s lap.

“I shall care for him myself,” Janek assured the huntress, his voice rising urgently, when she did not at once release his son from the cradle of her hands. “But we must leave at once.”

“Let him go, Katniss,” said Alyssum’s lyrical voice; like the night-song of many birds, it was, and she crouched beside her daughters in a radiant blur of flaxen hair and leaf-green skirts, with a breath of apple blossoms in its wake. “He knows the boy’s kin and will deliver him safely hence,” she assured her daughter, “and tend him as well as any healer.”

She gently aided Janek in lifting Peeta into his strong arms, but ere the god could depart the valley with his son, Alyssum leant in to press a kiss to her lover’s cheek. “This one is more beloved than you realize,” she whispered, the words clear to Peeta even in his honey-daze. “Tend him well and bring him swiftly back.”

Janek had scarce carried Peeta through the cleft-tunnel when the feverish honey-god demanded, “Why did you lie to them?” For he had been lucid enough to understand his father’s deception and that it had been a desperate thing, but he could not begin to comprehend the need for it. “First you hid her from me and now you hide me from her,” he lamented, his sweet voice slurred. “What harm could there be in our reunion?”

“Katniss loves you,” his father whispered, quiet words made sharp with concern, “as she has from the moment I first brought you together; a bear cub and a fatherless babe. Her fury was greater than your own when you were parted ten years past, and in another moment she would have known you for her beloved playfellow and fallen on your neck in kisses and joyous tears.”

“Then why did you part us?” the boy cried and the honey-fever was in his heart now, wringing and burning that tender organ with fiery grief. “Are you so very cruel, Father, that you would separate two long-distanced lovers on the cusp of blessed reunion?”

Janek paused in his flight and shifted his fevered son in his arms, cradling his burning face against one brawny shoulder. “Your mother will know you have seen her,” he explained gently. “That much lights your countenance even more than the honey-fever, and your love for Alyssum’s daughter has never been a secret of any kind. But if Raisa learns that this love is mutual – that Katniss loves you as passionately as you adore her – she will not hesitate to hurt you both. Katniss is her family’s weakness, and your own. I will not see you become hers.”

He bore Peeta to the honey-cottage, that place the boy had crafted so carefully for his bride, and put him to bed beneath the coverlet of bumble-down. “Sweat out the honey-fever, my son,” the harvest god soothed. “You will see your beloved again, and sooner than you think, but leave it to me to arrange.”

Janek left Peeta in the care of many industrious bees, who grieved their master’s injuries far more than the loss of their fellows, and ministered to his wounds with tiny poultices of lavender blossoms, lake-mud, and their own good honey-wax, rich with healing properties for god and mortal alike. The young god drowsed beneath the bumble-down as the sweet venom slowly dissolved into his golden blood and dreamt and dreamt of Katniss, the radiant huntress who slayed a wolf and spoke in song. His mind filled with silver eyes and cool fingers, a black silk-braid and strong brown thighs. She loved him, this stunning incarnation of the merry child he had adored for nearly the whole of his life, and soon they would be wed. They would share bread and wine by the fire as they pledged themselves to each other, then they would retire to this very bed and touch and kiss and laugh as they feasted upon the precious honeycomb he had stored up for her these ten lonely years. They would knit their bodies together by firelight, so tightly that they would forget where lover ended and beloved began, and speak in soft blissful cries and gasps as they moved as one beneath the velvet bumble-down, and in a moon or two Katniss’s belly would grow round and heavy as a speckled doe’s and her little breasts grow plump and full with milk to nourish the coming babe.

It was sunset when the fever broke – for honey-fever may take a god like any mortal but it will not hold him long, and the honey-god less than any other – and Peeta rose at once, clear-headed and his every limb humming with urgency. He knew where he would find his mother at this hour and went directly to the sacred apple grove, where Raisa held court in autumn.

Chapter Text

The harvest queen was alone, seated on a heavy throne of carved oak and robed in garnet and gold, and at the very height of her powers, and she raised one russet brow at the arrival of her least-loved son, who approached her with neither conciliation nor preamble.

“Mother, I have found Alyssum’s daughter,” he declared. “Katniss, the child of her mortal husband; she that was my playfellow when we were children. I ask you to end this feud with her kin, for I love her with all my heart and wish above all things that we might be wed.”

Raisa tipped her crowned head to one side, considering both her son’s proposition and his display of courage while swiftly calculating every possibility and how it might serve her. At eighteen the honey-god was in possession of his full powers and could defy his mother if he chose, but loving a mortal maid – the child of the spring queen and half-sister to Primrose of the second summer – let alone taking her to wife would render him as vulnerable as his human bride.

She rose from her throne and strode forward to lay her fingers, cold and smooth as apple-skin, against his brow, smiling a little as he started at the touch. “You are touched with honey-fever,” she observed. “What you suggest is a venom-raving; a fool’s fever-dream.”

“Saints and sages have borne proverbs and prophesies through honey-fever,” he reminded her shrewdly, “and I am the very god of it, as you were once but are no longer. The fever took me but briefly, and my mind has never been clearer. I have seen Katniss and I love her as I have always done, and I entreat you to lay down your ire at her kin, that we may be wed.”

Raisa’s smile flickered but did not fade. “So you have found her at last,” she mused, “Alyssum’s mortal brat. Did you speak to the girl? Does she know you for yourself, and desire you in turn?”

“She does not,” Janek answered for his son, striding boldly into the grove to flank the honey-god. “She has seen neither Peeta nor any mortal youth these ten years, and upon discovering him so near her home she shot an arrow in his direction, causing him to fall and suffer the stings of four-and-twenty bees, a condition which rendered him quite unable to address her.”

At this Raisa laughed merrily, a sound like rainfall on crisp crimson leaves. “So your mortal sweetheart has become a huntress,” she said. “A fierce little marten, small and sweet to the eye but razor-toothed and vicious at the kill, and you wish her to warm your bed?”

Peeta opened his mouth in furious retort but Janek silenced him with a strong hand at his wrist. “She is a little wild,” the harvest king conceded, “but Peeta is gentle and patient, as well you know.”

“How well I do know it,” Raisa replied with a mirthless chuckle, her gold-flecked eyes glinting. “I know of your love-labor, Peeta: of the hidden honey-cottage with its honey-pane windows and the precious honeycomb, hoarded like a treasure at the heart of your larder. I know of the coverlet of bumble-down,” she whispered, her mouth curving with cruel amusement. “Woven pinch by precious pinch these ten lonely years, and what you dream will transpire beneath it. Do you suppose your wild mountain lioness will gladly lie naked in that bed and present herself as nanny-goat for your clumsy rutting?”

“This mocking is needless and beneath you,” Janek thundered before his flame-cheeked son could reply. “Your son has made a request of you. Grant or deny it as you will, but Peeta will have his bride, and soon, and if you raise a hand against him or his mortal beloved or any of her kin, you will have me to reckon with. Our overlords were not greatly pleased when you betrayed me with your brother,” he reminded her darkly, “and should you think to pit Luka against me a second time, more than his seed will be destroyed in consequence.”

Raisa’s eyes darkened at these words but she rallied quickly, raising her brows in a counterfeit of innocence. “And why should I deny him?” she wondered. “Peeta desires a wild mortal bride; for my part that means amusement in abundance. I will grant your request,” she told her son plainly. “I will lay down my ire at Alyssum and her daughters so that you may wed the mortal one, but I shall name the terms of this marriage.” Her smile returned then, a sly and mischievous thing, if not quite cruel. “We must, after all, ensure that a mortal huntsman’s offspring is worthy of my son,” she said.

Peeta bristled at this, knowing his mother intended ill, but Janek held his wrist firmly and bid Raisa, “Speak these terms, and quickly, and we shall determine whether or not to accept them.”

“You, husband,” she began in barbed tones, “shall convey an offer of truce to Alyssum and her daughters. I know well where you pass the hottest part of the afternoon; how you bury your rod in the cornsilk between the spring widow’s thighs and spill your seed in her again and again while your field workers sleep away the sun’s heat in ignorance. It will be no hardship for you to return there,” she remarked wryly, “and you may even couple with her again if you like – indeed, as many times as you wish – so long as you deliver your mistress and her daughters to this place tomorrow at midday.”

“They will never come,” Peeta said, flushing at his mother’s coarse candor. “Not to your very throne, and you at the height of your powers.”

“On the contrary,” Raisa countered. “For my offer of truce comes with safe passage to the meeting place, and no harm will befall them beneath the sacred apples. I will swear it with blood-oath if you wish.”

“He does wish, as do I,” Janek replied for his son, his voice heated in response to his wife’s remarks but his countenance tempered and markedly patient. “But we will hear the rest before any oaths are sworn.”

“I shall treat with Alyssum and her offspring,” she went on equably. “Full peace I will offer – if Katniss will consent to wed, sight unseen, the groom I have chosen for her. Any maid would accept a god in marriage; we must see if Peeta’s beloved cares more for her family’s joy than her own and will sacrifice herself upon the marriage hearth to bring them peace.”

“That is little enough,” Peeta said, glancing up at his father in puzzlement. “She will not trust in your choice but I think she will accept it for the sake of her kin, and once we are wed I shall –”

“I have not finished,” Raisa cut in crisply. “If Katniss consents to the marriage she will be delivered directly to your honey-cottage where you will await her, made invisible to her sight. Upon her arrival you will greet her as her bridegroom and pledge yourself to her at the hearth, but you will say nothing of your name or nature. You shall not describe nor identify yourself in any way, not as you are wed nor afterward, when you lie with her.”

“Invisible?” Peeta echoed in disbelief, his throat dry as wheat chaff. “What maiden could surrender her body to an invisible, nameless bridegroom?”

“Once you are wed you may love and make love to her at your leisure,” Raisa went on as though her distressed son had not interrupted. “You may do with her whatever you please, but you must always remain hidden in her sight. You shall not tell her your name or nature nor speak of your previous acquaintance, least of all this most recent encounter. Her blindness to your countenance and powers and her subsequent behavior will prove her courage, her trust – and her patience.”

Trust?” the horrified honey-god cried. “However could she trust, let alone come to love, a shadow of a husband?”

“I never suggested that she should love you,” Raisa answered her son, pitiless to his grief. “You asked for a wife and I shall grant her to you. If twelve months pass – twelve months in which you neither leave the vicinity of the cottage nor welcome visitors of any sort – and your bride has not divined your name or nature by some means, nor found a way to look on you, you may become visible to her and speak freely of all things. If she fails – or if, perchance, you fail,” Raisa added with a twisted smile. “If you should show yourself to your bride, or confess your identity in some fashion, she will be forfeit to me. I will not renege against Alyssum and Primrose but your faithless bride will be mine, to deal with as I see fit.

“These are my terms,” she concluded, her eyes solely on Janek. “Are they acceptable to you, husband?”

The harvest king regarded her for one long moment, then he lifted the sickle from his belt and cut a shallow furrow in his palm, from which seeped immortal blood: like amber honey in hue, with a shimmer of burnished gold. “If Katniss accepts Peeta’s hand, no harm shall ever come to Alyssum or Primrose?” he clarified. “And if she does not see her husband in twelve months’ time, nor learn his name, no harm shall come to her either?”

“This is madness, Father!” Peeta protested, but Janek dismissed it with a stern shake of his head.

“There is a little more, I think,” the harvest king said. “I know you of old, wife. You said safe passage would be granted to the grove only.”

Raisa smiled thinly. “Every side must be honored in a suit for peace,” she reminded him. “I ask little enough of Alyssum and her kin: that her mortal daughter consent to wed my youngest son, though she will not know who or what he is till long after. A marriage arranged by the harvest queen would be a prize for any mortal and one no sensible maid would refuse, let alone when her family’s peace and safety hangs in the balance.”

“And if Katniss refuses this generous prize,” Janek finished for her wryly, “I imagine you will kill her.”

Raisa shrugged, a delicate shiver of the golden leaves that ringed her shoulders, but gave no denial. “It is I who have lost most by your affair, husband,” she said evenly, “and I who carry your beloved’s peace in my hands. It will not be refused without consequences.”

Janek held out his bleeding palm in reply. “Then swear to your terms,” he said, “and let us have peace.”

Raisa took an apple-knife from her belt and cut her palm in kind. “So be it,” she replied.

She pressed her palm to Janek’s – all that blood-oath requires; a brief mingling of the blood of both parties – but ere her husband might withdraw his hand she laced her fingers through his and took hold of his jerkin with her free hand, pulling him to her in a hard and fiery kiss. “It is I who have lost most,” she whispered against his mouth. “I will not cry peace without a sacrifice.”

Janek loosed his hand from hers with a brisk shake, for the wounds were already beginning to knit themselves closed, and stepped back to join his son. His countenance was stern and solemn, and if his breath came a little quicker than normal or his heart stumbled in its paces, none remarked upon it. “I shall bring Alyssum and her daughters to you at midday,” he told Raisa, then he took Peeta by the arm and led him silently from the sacred grove.

No sooner had they quitted the grove than the appalled honey-god turned his father sharply to face him, grasping a fistful of his jerkin where but a moment ago Raisa had held the harvest king and drawn him to her. “What have you done?” Peeta cried. “You have traded my beloved’s happiness – perhaps her very life – for the chance to bring peace between Mother and your lover! Do you desire so badly to lie openly with Alyssum?” he bellowed. “Or does your pride demand to see your pretty daughter among mortals again, reaping her second harvest and sowing discontent with Mother and her means?”

To Peeta’s astonishment, Janek took his furious face in both hands and pressed a lingering kiss to his brow. “My precious boy,” he soothed. “I know why you rage and cannot fault you for it. Had you not gone directly to your mother this day, I might have found another way to provide what you seek, but what’s done is done and, I think, far better than it might have been managed.

“Your mother does not know Katniss,” Janek explained softly. “She is Alyssum’s mortal child and therefore beneath your mother’s notice. Raisa does not expect courage, sacrifice, or even love from such a creature, and your beloved possesses such qualities in abundance. No, she will not joy at the thought of taking a husband of Raisa’s choosing, and she will naturally fear the prospect of surrendering to an unknown, invisible bridegroom, but she will refuse no offer to bring peace to her family.”

“But I have waited so long,” Peeta lamented with a quiet sob. “The home I have prepared –”

“–shall be hers, just as you intended,” Janek reminded him. “She shall share it as your wife and find happiness there, I think.”

“With an invisible, nameless husband?” wondered the honey-god miserably. “How can she trust a man she cannot see, let alone surrender her body to him upon their bridal bed? How shall I win her love when she cannot even learn my name?”

Janek chuckled very gently at this, but with neither mocking nor mirth. “My very dear boy,” he said. “Many a bride is grateful for darkness on her wedding night, and your own, I think, may prove chief among them. And as for the rest: you are far more than your appearance, or your name,” he murmured. “You are gentle, my son – among the gentlest beings who walk this earth, with fingers that safely caress bumblebees and harvest their down a precious pinch at a time – as well as compassionate, diligent, patient, and brimming with a lifetime of love for this girl. Lovemaking is a peculiar art, I grant you, full of strange longings and uncertain fumbling, but pleasure is found in this dubious fashion, and I know you will neither press your beloved into intimacy nor cause her pain in its pursuit.”

“I fear I shall break her,” the honey-god confessed with a blush. “So small and perfect she is, and I a brawny oaf.”

The harvest king chuckled again, this time with a glimmer of amusement. “Most women are hardier than we might expect,” he assured his son, releasing him with a gruff kiss to the top of his curly head. “And your bride is a huntress who slays wolves with her father’s bow. But if in doubt: you are the honey-god,” Janek reminded him. “Treat her as a garden of many delicate blooms, to be savored in the fashion of your bees.”

Peeta blushed hotter still at these words, in part at his father’s implication and in part because he could not quite comprehend it. He knew well that the sweetest harvests were sipped from hidden places deep within the heart of a flower, but where on Katniss’s body would such nectar be found, and how could his father even suggest that he might touch such elusive places with his mouth?

“You will make a surpassing fine husband, I think,” Janek said, laughing deeply now at his son’s clear embarrassment. “Simply remember that you love her with all your being and act always in that love, and even your clumsiest gestures will bring pleasure beyond compare. ‘Tis why they call it ‘love-making,’” he explained, “for that is how it was always intended: as an act of selfless and overwhelming love, and the new life kindled in that act is a tangible manifestation of such love.”

“Not always,” Peeta reminded his father quietly, to which Janek gave a bittersweet smile.

“No, not always,” the harvest king agreed. “But I loved your mother once, and for a time she loved me in return. A marriage can yield good things without love,” he conceded, brushing his son’s hot cheek with one hand, “but a union of true love brings incomparable bliss. Alyssum and I may never be wed, but I hope your sister may serve as proof that our coupling is an act of love, not loneliness or boredom or crude animal lust.”

“Indeed,” his son replied. “Even when I was a child, the love in your union was evident, and I was no better than Mother, to accuse you as I did. Forgive me.”

Janek shook his head. “There is naught to forgive,” he assured the honey-god. “You were furious and heartbroken, and I knew you spoke in pain. But come now,” he urged, “there is much to be done, and little time remaining in which to do it. I must return to the valley to bear your mother’s message – at least, in part,” he admitted with a little wince, “and if all transpires as I anticipate, tomorrow eve you shall have a wife. For all your laboring on the honey-cottage these ten years, surely there are a few things yet required to secure your bride’s comfort?”

Peeta’s bright eyes grew wide at this remark. “Indeed there are!” he exclaimed. “The pantry wants fresh fruit, apples and blackberries and a pumpkin for stew, and I must bake in the morning or there will be no bread for the bridal toast – and eggs!” he cried, breathless with both delight and dismay. “There must be eggs for bread and cake, and for my wife’s breakfast, but we shall have no eggs without hens. I must find hens, father; merry little hens that might have the running of our kitchen when the snow falls, and a milk-cow – or better still, a goat or two. Katniss is a goatherdess, perhaps she would prefer –”

“You love her above all things,” the harvest king interrupted gently. “It shines bright as a beacon in every word you speak, even in the timbre of your voice. Your wife will come to know you by these things,” he explained. “Do not veil your love for her, nor your delight in it, and I think she will love you sooner and with more passion than you might ever dream.”

“I should love that above all things,” the hopeful honey-god sighed, and he parted ways with his father to seek for milk-goats and merry little hens.

Chapter Text

Janek too sighed when his son had departed, for the weight of those things which lay ahead, then made with quiet haste for the hidden valley once more. It was full dark when he arrived and Primrose set aside her weaving to embrace him, delighted to see her father again after so brief a separation, but Alyssum frowned delicately from her chair at the fireside and Katniss caught his arm with something like desperation.

“What news of the youth?” she implored. “The boy with butter-curls, who was taken with honey-fever. He cannot yet be well; why then have you left him to return here?”

“He is quite well,” Janek assured her, “indeed, the fever broke some time ago, and he has returned to his mother hale and hearty. I come now on another matter, and an urgent one.”

Alyssum rose at once in quiet understanding. “Must we flee this place?” she wondered. “Is there danger?”

“There is both danger and hope,” her lover said plainly. “My wife sends me with an offer of truce and the promise of safe passage to her sacred apple grove, where she will discuss the terms of this peace tomorrow at midday. She has sworn blood-oath with me,” he said, “and her offer is true, though its terms are unusual and will not be greatly to your liking. If you wish not to treat with her you must tell me now and I will move you this night to another sanctuary, but for my part I would see you hide no longer, and Raisa is willing to lay down her ire, that you and Primrose may walk freely amongst mortals once again.”

“She would not offer peace without something precious in exchange,” Alyssum reasoned, her ivory brow creasing with worry, “and we have little enough to give.”

“You know her well," Janek replied, and his gaze flickered sorrowfully to Katniss.

“No!” Primrose and Alyssum cried together.

“Should I sacrifice Jack’s daughter for a small measure of peace?” the spring queen demanded furiously. “Raisa means to slaughter her like a sheep, I suppose, and carry her head as a trophy!”

“Mother,” Katniss began, her silver eyes now hard with determination, but Janek did not permit her to continue.

“She does not wish Katniss’s death,” Janek said firmly; a half-lie, but a fair one. “Yes, it is a threat that hangs over her offer of peace, should you wish to refuse it, but she has another plan in mind for your mortal daughter.”

He drew a deep breath, conscious of his blood-oath and the thorny terms of his wife’s bargain, and explained, “Raisa wishes to give Katniss in marriage, sight unseen, to a man of her choosing. If Katniss consents to the union, she will be delivered immediately to her bridegroom and Raisa will cry peace with your family.”

“A sacrifice indeed, and one more terrible than swift slaughter!” Alyssum cried over the stunned silence of her daughters. “I should give my mortal child to some cruel brute – no doubt a man like your wife’s twin, cold and vicious – to abuse and debase upon their marriage bed? I shall go to that grove directly,” the spring queen swore, “and tear out what remains of her rotting heart with my bare hands!”

“It is not so bad as you suppose,” Janek placated, taking his beloved by her rage-trembling shoulders and staring deeply into her eyes; willing her to hear what he could not speak. “I have seen he that Katniss would marry and he is the very kindest of men.”

Alyssum caught her breath at these words, her violet eyes widening with something betwixt wonder and disbelief, then she swiftly shook her head and shrugged away her lover’s hands. “It is too much to ask,” she told him. “Kind or cruel as this bridegroom may be, Katniss is my dearest treasure and I will not trade her body for my own peace.”

“Then I shall,” the mortal huntress broke in boldly. “This valley, fair as it is, has served as prison these ten years and I know t’was done for my sake. Of us three, only I can be hurt beyond repair, and you –” she addressed her mother and sister – “can only truly be hurt through me. Give me to this bridegroom,” she told Janek, and her voice tremored faintly in the declaration. “If he is kind all will be well, and if he is cruel, I have a little might to repel him.”

“But if Raisa has chosen him, he must be immortal,” Primrose remarked in a small, fearful voice. “Mightier than you, sister, and impossible for you to withstand, let alone defeat.”

“On the contrary,” Janek told his daughter, “she has defeated him already, for his heart belongs to her.”

“Who is this man?” Katniss whispered, a plummy blush rising in her dusky cheeks. “In ten years’ time I have left this valley only once; this very day, it was, to slay a wolf. What man has seen me, that he should love me, and ask the very goddess of matrimony for my hand?”

“I know not who he is,” lied the harvest god, “nor how he became aware of you, only that he desires so badly to have you to wife that he sued for peace on your behalf, that you might live with him in safety and bliss, forever freed from Raisa’s threats.”

“Katniss,” her mother broke in, very softly. “I think you must do this.”

The girl turned away at these tidings, her face in her hands, and gave one muffled cry that sounded the very breaking of her heart, then just as quickly she turned back and faced her family with dry, blazing eyes. “I have said that I would,” she told her mother, “and now I must to bed, to be rested for my nuptials and the coming of my bridegroom.”

The mortal maid took her leave with a wet shimmer at the corners of her eyes, and no sooner had she departed the room than her sister followed, the little goddess broken-hearted and fearful and intent upon comforting with tender little touches and soothing murmurs.

“I told you truly,” Alyssum told her lover when both sisters had gone. “Your ‘votary’ is more beloved than you realize. Katniss’s heart is fierce but fragile, and it pains her more to be loved by a man who is not her sweetheart than it would to be given to a brute.”

“She will, I think, find happiness with him,” Janek said lightly, “though it may not come so swiftly, nor as easily, as she would like.”

The spring queen leaned close to kiss her lover’s mouth and tasted the golden secret on his tongue. “He is brave and selfless, this man who challenged your wife for my mortal child’s hand,” she whispered against his lips. “I am pleased beyond measure to surrender Katniss to his care.”

“You cannot speak of it,” he murmured urgently, his lips brushing hers. “Neither to Katniss nor her sister, not even to me, or I fear all shall be lost. There is danger still,” he reminded her, “and chiefly to Katniss, for this is a bargain of Raisa’s shaping. My wife does not concede lightly, and she does not care to lose.”

Alyssum drew back to regard her lover solemnly. “Tell me truly,” she bid him, “will Katniss be well if she weds this man? Not merely safe but joyous in their union?”

To this Janek gave a slow and radiant smile. “Her bridegroom will – in truth, already does – cherish her as the very jewel of his heart,” he said. “And I daresay she may soon find that she loves him in turn.”

His beloved kissed him at these tidings, a deep lingering kiss that tasted of honeysuckle and hope. “Come to bed with me,” she whispered. “For your eyes tell me what your lips cannot, and I would hear more of my daughter’s fate.”

So they retired to the spring queen’s bedchamber to drink each other in with slow caresses and caught breaths and quiet moans while Katniss lay in the room adjacent and buried her face in her pillow to stifle the strange, primal sounds of their lovemaking. As a babe Primrose had sat up in her cradle and laughed merrily, even clapped her little hands as her parents kissed and panted and merged their naked bodies with hushed, desperate sounds, but Katniss had ever been shy of the act – leastaways, as it transpired between adults. She had shared a blanket, almost as far back as she could remember, with Janek’s small son, whose shyness had slowly given way to affection and even – it seemed sometimes, as the dusty sunlit scenes replayed behind her eyelids – adoration. It had been such a silly, wondrous thing, to lie beneath the chubby yellow-curled boy and suffer his messy kisses on her face and neck through fits of giggles as they clumsily and jubilantly emulated their parents. As they grew older their poses grew minutely less intimate – somehow or other they gathered that it was not quite right for a boy to lie atop a girl any longer, clothed or otherwise – but still they shared a blanket and a sleeping place, sometimes with tiny Primrose tucked behind or between them, and kisses and embraces still took place, albeit shyer and brief in duration.

Katniss had loved Janek’s son; Peeta, the honey-god, for as long as she could remember. As a child of eight, her world had shattered when she realized that the honeycomb errand was a cruel distraction and the harvest king intended to hide her away from her playfellow, and she had responded accordingly with grief and rage. She had accepted the separation at first for Peeta’s sake, understanding that Janek sought to protect his son with ignorance, but she had never quite forgiven the harvest king, nor understood why it was that he could visit them so frequently while Peeta was never once allowed to come.   

When she saw Janek’s votary topple from the tree, a stocky youth with fair, rosy skin and plump honey-curls – the very image of her beloved playfellow as he had grown up, adored beyond measure, in her mind – Katniss’s heart had nearly burst. Of a certain it could not be Peeta – the very god of honey would never suffer so many bee-bites, let alone be taken with honey-fever – but she had wished and hoped with all her might as she cradled his burning head in her lap, soothing the stings with the cool cut roots of her namesake. Afterward, worried for the youth’s safety and troubled by his arrival, she had wondered madly, and for no more than a moment, whether that golden stranger might indeed have been her playfellow, come to their secret valley intent on being reunited with her, and his father had lied to maintain their separation.

Not for the first time the young huntress cursed herself for not having dared to travel further from their valley, nor to have ventured from it sooner. Janek had commanded them never to leave its protective confines and concern for her immortal sister had kept Katniss obedient until this day, but the threat of the wolf and the danger to Primrose’s beloved flock had prompted her to leave, just long and far enough to run the predator to ground with her father’s fine bow. She had pondered how it could be that she had not met the golden votary outside the valley and realized that he must have arrived in her absence, which only served to gall her further. The one time she had left the valley – in defiance of the harvest king’s command but in pursuit of a selfless end – she had missed their sole visitor, almost entirely. If she had been present when he arrived, they would have spoken, and if he was not her beloved playfellow, of a certain the youth could have conveyed a message for her: a message of love and longing for her distant sweetheart. Instead the wounded votary had lain in her lap, his mind so fever-addled that he had not spoken a single word, to her or anyone else.

Nestled behind Katniss on the coverlets as she had been so often these ten years of isolation, Primrose caressed her sister’s arm with gentle fingertips in answer to a sob Katniss had not realized she uttered. “He cannot be so bad as you fear,” she soothed, “this bridegroom of Raisa’s. My father would not countenance the union if it were so. He would steal us from this place and hide us anew, but instead he lies with our mother, who must be equally untroubled or she would not surrender so wholly to his embraces.”

Katniss shook her dark head against the pillow. She knew well how ardently Janek loved their mother and how he longed to see his daughter among men once more, both as a proud father and the harvest king. None other possessed the powers Primrose practiced so freely and her gentle second harvests could sustain many mortals, human- and animal-kind alike, in seasons of Raisa’s wrath. The earth itself needed Primrose of the second summer every bit as much as her harvest king father and spring queen mother, and for that reason alone Katniss knew she must accept Raisa’s offer and surrender herself to the unknown bridegroom.

Janek gave a long moan of pleasure, not unlike the lowing of a bull, and Katniss bit her lips together to halt a sob. Would this be her lot, to lie naked beneath a stranger as he splayed her legs with his sweaty girth and plunged into her secret place, grunting and moaning like a crude beast? Will I carry children for such a man? she wondered in horror. If the bitter harvest queen – the very goddess of childbirth – had a hand in the union Katniss would surely lead the life of a doe-goat, with endless seasons of mating and gestation and birthing, cycling over and over again.

She twined her legs together tightly, buried her face in the pillow and keened with sorrow. She would endure such a fate – and more still, were it required – to protect her sister, but still she wished with all her might that there could be another way. Perhaps I might kill myself, she thought desperately. Surely this bridegroom will have a kitchen; I shall obtain a little knife and if I cannot repel him from the marriage bed I shall cut my own throat and perish unspoiled by his lechery. The marriage will still have taken place and thus Raisa’s peace will remain, and my sister will be safe.

“Sister mine, do not despair,” Primrose said, her sweet voice gently breaking into this tragic and gory vision as she stroked her sister’s long braid. “Think instead on my father’s words. He has seen your bridegroom and calls him the very kindest of men, devoted to you already and willing to confront Raisa herself for your sake, to protect you from her vengeance while offering you the gentle pleasures of wedded life and the treasure of his own heart.

“The harvest queen did not devise that,” said the wise little goddess with uncommon conviction. “She may have turned his suit to her advantage, but she could have sought to harm you in any number of cruel ways without presenting you with a devoted bridegroom, to say nothing of crying peace with our family. He is shrewd, this lover of yours,” she said, “but not devious. Any man who would risk life and limb by challenging Raisa over this raw wound that is our family must be driven by a love that transcends understanding. Even my father has not done as much,” she observed with neither malice nor judgment, “but instead contented himself with hiding us away from her wrath, and you know well how wholly and ardently he adores our mother. But the love your bridegroom carries for you is greater still.”

Katniss turned to her back to regard her sister with tear-burning eyes that now held the faintest flicker of hope. “What manner of man is he, do you suppose?” she wondered. “Young or old? Loathsome or fair?”

“I think he is one of the attending spirits of the sacred apple grove,” her sister replied without hesitation and with much impishness, tapping Katniss’s nose with a fingertip. “Or perhaps an humble orchard-keeper of middle years who desires a dark and wild bride to feast upon cider and tarts and worship all the winter long with love songs and tender little gestures.”

“I am surpassing fond of apples,” the huntress replied with a chuckle; a weak jest, but a hopeful one. “An orchard-keeper of middle years would be a fine match for me – better than I deserve, of a certain, and surely the love-making of such a man would be a kind thing.”

“You forget, sister mine, that our mother is the queen of springtime itself,” Primrose reminded her quietly, “and you her radiant firstborn, child of a huntsman with a voice lovely enough to silence every bird in the woods. I daresay only a god would dare to love you, let alone confront the Autumn Lady on your behalf.”

“I want no god in my bed,” Katniss lied firmly, for in truth she wanted one very particular god, and none other, to share her covers, to kiss her mouth and fill her womb, but he would not, could not be hers, and a union with the lowliest mortal would surely be preferable to an immortal substitute whom she could not love.

“A young one shares it even now,” Primrose teased and tugged her sister’s braid. “Remember, dearest one: not all my kind are aloof or grand or vicious,” she said, “and this bridegroom, as surely everyone has told you more than once, loves you with all his might. If he has done this much on your behalf already, once you are married I daresay he will treat you like a queen.”

“I wish to be no one’s queen,” Katniss lied again, fiercely this time, “neither of his home nor of his heart.“ For oh, how she yearned to be that and more to her former playfellow; to be showered with tender little gifts and unabashed affection by her curly-headed sweetheart as she had been all those wondrous years ago. Her heart clenched with grief at the memory of dusty sunlit afternoons, lazy and deliciously endless; of children’s mouths fumbling over each other, soft and wet and clumsy, beneath a canopy of goldenrods, and slumbering in the snug embrace of small chubby arms.

Katniss was certain she would rather die than suffer to be kissed by anyone but her beloved friend, let alone caressed and fondled and – horror of horrors – pressed into that crude, repulsive act of mating, and she gave a shuddering little sob at the terrifying images once more evoked.

“Sister mine, if you are truly queen of any man’s heart, mortal or otherwise, he will compel you to nothing,” Primrose murmured, resting her cheek on her sister’s head. “Such a bridegroom will never force his attentions upon you; indeed, he would recoil at the very thought. I think he will give you all the time in the world to decide if you might desire him, and if you find you cannot, he will honor and adore you nonetheless.”

Katniss sighed at these words and sank a little deeper into the pillow. She could not believe the whole of her sweet sister’s hopeful tidings, but perhaps this bridegroom, already reputed to be kind, would also be patient. She knew she would never love him nor happily surrender to his touch, but perhaps he would be satisfied with a companion’s sort of marriage, dividing the household duties and sharing meals and a fire. That much she could handle quite well, she thought, and perhaps this husband might in time come to serve as a friend. Katniss had encountered few children before coming to the valley and no one at all since, and sometimes her mind grew full and her heart heavy with unspoken things. Such a husband as Primrose and Janek described might help banish the loneliness of growing up in this fair, isolated place, and it might be fine indeed to hear a man’s voice about the house on a daily basis.

She smiled weakly into the pillow and gave a deep sigh. She could bear such a union for her sister’s sake, and perhaps in time the gaping wound of Peeta’s loss would not pain her so badly.

But for tonight that grief was too raw and deep to be so easily set aside, so Katniss curled away from her sister and endeavored to empty her heart in soft little sobs while Primrose patiently stroked her back till her quick wet breaths slowed and eased into slumber.

Chapter Text

Upon the morrow Alyssum roused her daughters gently but early, for the walk to the sacred grove was not a short one and they must be dressed for the midday audience in raiment befitting their birth and station, and Katniss most of all.

“You shall not be given away as a goatherdess who has dwelt these ten years in exile but as the firstborn of spring herself,” said her mother, already arrayed in her own robes of power: heavy, regal folds of bold crimson tulips and deep purple crocuses, trumpeting the triumph of new life after winter’s cold, with her pale hair netted up in jewel-bright violets beneath a crown of daffodils.

With deft hands she spun about Katniss’s slight form a billowing gown of fragrant apple blossoms, the silken white petals blushing here and there with rosy sunrise, and plaited her long black hair into a coronet of dainty snowdrops, then she formed a bridal cap of silver catkins on supple willow vines and pretty slippers of the same. The mortal maid looked not unlike a blooming crocus herself when her mother was finished, so small and exquisite she was in her snowy raiment, with her dusky face and bosom radiant as gold amidst the white of fragile blossoms, and her mother and sister – indeed, the harvest king himself – looked upon her in awe.

“You will unman your bridegroom with such quiet beauty,” breathed Janek, venturing strong fingers to touch a single ivory snowdrop amidst the intricate plaitwork. “And he is your slave already, unable to deny you anything. I think he would bring you the moon itself to wear about your neck,” he murmured, “did you but wish for it.”

“I want no impossible gifts, nor the slavish devotion of any man or beast,” Katniss scowled, but her fine cheeks were dark as ripe plums, and she swiftly turned her face from the harvest king’s gaze.

While Katniss made a parcel of her sturdy goat-boots and her father’s leather jerkin – for she would not go to her bridegroom without these, nor her precious bow and quiver – Primrose set to arraying herself in the warm yellow-gold of her namesake, woven together with sunny buttercups and pale, heady honeysuckle, with dark autumn roses woven among her pale curls. The result was rich and sensual as befits an autumn goddess and as unlike the rustic little goatherdess of the past ten years as might be imagined, and her father caught his breath at the sight.

“Raisa may rethink her promise when she looks on you,” he said softly, taking her face in his hands. “You are bold, my child, and very nearly a woman grown. She will not joy to see you treading the earth once more in her season.”

“It is my season too, Father,” Primrose reminded him, but without malice. “Belonging also to yourself and to my brothers. She may be its figurehead among mortals but hers are not the only powers which secure the harvest, nor which keep the peoples fed.”

“Many have hungered in your seclusion, my daughter,” Janek said ruefully. “Marko and I have divided the grain these ten years so that none should starve, but in your presence even gleanings become a bounty. You have been much missed by the poor, the traveler, and the lost, to say nothing of the wild beasts, seeking the last bit of sustenance ere winter descends, and these have come to resent my wife the more in your absence, not admire her as she wished.”

“Then my return may prove a boon to her as well,” replied the little goddess with an impish glimmer in her cornflower eyes. “Come, Father, let us delay this journey no longer, for my fingers itch to pluck fruit from barren branches and pull fat heads of grain from shorn stalks, that all may feast and be filled in this season once more.”

Thus they departed the valley, with Katniss’s bundle over Janek’s shoulder – though the quiver and bow she would not surrender, and wore slung across her narrow back in startling contrast to her gown of delicate blossoms – and they had gone but a little ways when they were met by brawny Marko the reaper, chaff-dusted about his thick autumn beard and bearing both sickle and scythe at his back, who greeted them heartily with cries of joy.

His ruddy countenance shone with admiration at the sight of his radiant half-sister, whom he had not seen since she was a toddling child, and he kissed her soundly upon both cheeks. “I rejoice to see you take up the mantle of the second harvest at last, little sister,” he told her warmly. “It is my dearest wish to behold you walking the fields in my wake, leading the hungry and industrious to rich, forgotten harvests.”

“Perhaps you might join me when your harvest is done, brother mine,” she replied with becoming boldness, bright summer roses blooming across her cheekbones. “When your labors are finished, mayhap you will walk with me a little and take your leisure when I do. My apples, ripe and hidden, are the sweetest of the year, and I shall feast you upon them in a quiet place.”

“I should like nothing better,” the startled reaper answered, wide-eyed and ever so slightly at a loss for breath, and he took her small strong hands in his vast callused ones and pressed tender kisses upon the knuckles as their father looked on, unsurprised and subtly pleased.

Thus the party traveled onward: Janek and his grand lover taking the fore and Marko at the rear, curved blades at his back, ever ready to wield, and the precious sisters – one fair and shimmering-gold as the sun itself, the other at once luminous and dusky as a moon-kissed winter owlet – guarded in their midst.

The journey transpired without further incident or interruption and they arrived at the sacred grove, now ringed by the attendant spirits of the orchard in their robes of autumn leaves, to find the harvest queen not alone but flanked at her throne by her own sister Rooba, the stout, genial goddess of the flesh harvest; of hunting, slaughter and of butchering, and this gladdened both Katniss and her kin, for her father had made many offerings to that lady in his time and had been accounted a particular favorite of hers. His own mother, the fleet and fierce beauty Ashpet, had been chief among Rooba’s bow-bearing priestesses but had chosen a swift death to follow her gentle craftsman husband at his untimely passing, to the butcher-goddess’s profound grief, and it was whispered that her ebullient influence had helped secure each of them a fine place in the Dark King’s under-world.

The butcher-goddess had a great many children, sired upon her by lovers both mortal and immortal – indeed, it was widely known that she had considered Katniss’s own father for a paramour but good-naturedly abandoned the notion when he unwittingly snared the lady Alyssum and her heart – and Katniss wondered whether one of Rooba’s sons might be her mysterious intended. They were not accounted especially comely, these stout and burly nephews of the harvest queen, nor quite entirely bright, but they were practical, devoted men – if also, the rumor-bearers chuckled, a little overly enthusiastic in their love-making.

Of Raisa’s cruel twin, he that governed withering and decay, there was blessedly no sign.

“So this is she,” the harvest queen declared, rising gracefully from her throne to regard the party lined at the foot of the dais and focusing like a hawk upon the dark maiden, arrayed as a bride in her snowy blossoms. “The mortal huntsman’s mutt,” she said derisively, her lips twisting in malicious amusement. “To think a creature so little and plain should be the cause of such trouble.”

“It was never Katniss!” cried out Primrose before any other could protest, and the little goddess swiftly moved her golden form before her sister’s silver one, eclipsing her from Raisa’s sight. “It is me you despise, bitter wife of my father,” she declared, “and only a coward would turn her hatred for a fellow goddess upon that goddess’s mortal kin. Katniss has consented to be my sacrifice, but I like it not,” she said darkly, “and I will not swiftly forget, nor forgive you for demanding it.”

Raisa’s eyes grew wide at these words, though she gave a bark of laughter in response. “You should have been my daughter, little lioness,” she remarked. “Had you grown in my womb and suckled at my breast, you would have learned a better use for your ferocity than protection and love.”

“There is no greater cause than love,” Primrose replied without hesitation. “And I glory that I was not born of you, cruel lady.”

Something stung in these words, making the harvest queen flinch as though struck in the face by a shard of ice. “You have come before me as a bride,” she said coldly, looking beyond the little goddess’s golden form to the slender shadow that was her mortal sister. “Though surely no bride attends her nuptials with weapons to hand. Do you consent to wed, sight unseen, the man of my choosing?”

Katniss stepped alongside Primrose, twining her dusky hand about her sister’s fair one. “Do you lay down your ire against my family?” she demanded in reply. “That my mother and sister may walk freely among mortals once again?” and all in attendance caught their breath at the beauty of her voice. Like a raptor’s cry, it was, high and fierce and wholly without fear – though, unaccustomed to such admiration, she supposed they gasped at her boldness, and flushed accordingly.

“I have sworn it with blood oath,” the Autumn Lady bristled. “Full peace between our houses, should you accept blindly the bridegroom I have chosen.”

“Can you promise he will not hurt her?” broke in Alyssum, the first she had addressed her adversary in over ten years’ time, and her voice trembled for her mortal daughter.

“I imagine he will rend her maidenhead like any man,” Raisa replied frankly, for she knew her youngest son was a virgin, and clumsy after a fashion, and the invisibility she had commanded would be no boon to either him or his bride. She envisioned him lumbering blindly atop this slight, fierce maiden, endeavoring to fit his swollen, invisible member between her legs, and bit back a smile.

Indeed, neither Peeta nor his bride could expect a truly happy marriage, for his invisibility and anonymity would ever hang between them, and of course, this girl would be subject, time and again, to the clumsy ardor of an invisible young god, with no prior amorous experience to guide his movements.

Raisa thought she might observe their wedding night, and relish the amusement it provided.

“You slander the bridegroom merely to terrify his bride, and her kin,” Janek thundered. “Speak truth, madam, or say nothing at all on the subject.”

Her brows narrowed at this challenge but she inclined her head minutely in concession. “For my part,” she begrudged, “I have witnessed no cruelty in this bridegroom’s manner. He will treat the girl kindly – and, I daresay,” she added reluctantly, “with affection.”

“Doubt not that if my firstborn comes to ill by this union, it shall be the worse for you,” said Alyssum silkily. “You know where my husband now dwells, and in whose kingdom he holds rank. His mother’s hounds stalk your orchards in this season, and they would glory to capture such a ripe prize as yourself. The Dark King has been without fair company for far too long in his land of perpetual shadow,” she warned softly, “and his fellows would need little prompting to annihilate your brother.”

The harvest queen gasped as though a blade had grazed her heart, for this was no hollow threat, and the butcher-goddess rose to lay a stout hand on her sister’s arm and answer in her stead: “I have little love for Luka, save in the joy he now and again brings our sister, and would grieve his loss little enough. But he that means to wed your mortal daughter, Spring Lady, is the very kindest of men,” she explained, and in a somber, gentle tone, free of her customary mirth. “She is the very jewel of his heart already, needing only to be enthroned properly in his home and his arms.”

“And if I should not desire those arms?” Katniss asked in reply, a quaver in her jeweled voice. “Does this bridegroom’s kindness extend to patience, where a reluctant bride is concerned?”

Raisa parted her lips to respond, cruel humor simmering on her tongue, but her sister spoke up before she might do so. “Your bridegroom is both patient and kind, little huntress,” the butcher-goddess soothed, “and the marriage need only take place – not be consummated – for peace to be struck. My sister made no such condition ere the offer was made,” she declared with a keen sidewise glance at Raisa, “and it is far too late for such amendments.”

“This much, however, I can and do insist upon,” the Autumn Lady countered coldly. “If you consent to wed him whom I have chosen, mortal one, you will trothplight by proxy before these witnesses and be delivered immediately to the home of your bridegroom, there to be wed at the hearth, and you will remain in that place, apart from your kin, till such a time as you are granted leave to depart.”

“You cannot!” Primrose cried, but Katniss quieted her with a hand, if a trembling one. “It is no worse than I expected,” she consoled her sister. “Indeed, I did not expect I should ever be allowed to return to you. At least this way there is a chance we might see each other again.”

She raised her eyes to the harvest queen then, and with them a single hopeless supplication. “I know I have neither the right nor the rank to ask anything in this place, lady,” she said, “and yet I beg you: please, let me see your youngest son; the honey-god, but for a moment, ere I must plight my troth. He and I were playfellows many years past, and I should like to see him once more ere I am wedded to a stranger.”

“You cared for him once, I think,” said Raisa keenly.

“I love him still, and no other,” Katniss declared, her voice resonant with both passion and grief. “I could never hope to win his hand, but I should like to bid him farewell ere I am given to this other, that he might know my heart has been his all these years and will remain so for the rest of my days, even when I drift as a shadow in the Dark King’s under-woods.”

Raisa frowned, for there was something in this mortal maid’s words that chipped at the frosty shield about her heart, like the beak of a small bird, and she brought a hand to her chest, troubled by a sensation that was pain and not-pain all at once.

“Peeta is absent from court this day, as is his wont,” she answered at last, frowning still, but there was no malice in her voice, only a strange sort of sadness. “I regret I cannot grant you this boon.”

“He did not come to see me wed?” Katniss asked, with such sorrow it struck her listeners as a blow, and a tiny crack formed beneath the beak at the harvest queen’s icy heart.

“He was, I believe, engaged elsewhere at this hour,” Raisa replied carefully. “Though I suspect he will endeavor to compensate for his absence by every means possible.”

Someone chuckled softly at this – the harvest king or perhaps the butcher-goddess, quickly stifled – but this granted sufficient pause for the Autumn Lady to collect herself. “Do you consent, mortal daughter of Alyssum,” rang out her voice in regallest tones, “to wed, sight unseen, him that I have chosen for you, in exchange for which I shall strike peace with your family from this day forward?”

Katniss turned to draw her sister into her arms and watered the crimson blooms amidst her pale curls with salt tears and kisses. “Do not do it,” Primrose whispered against her sister’s dusky cheek. “We have might sufficient to oppose her, perhaps even in this place. We will find my brother, the honey-god, and you may wed him still –”

But the mortal maid drew back from her, eyes hot and bright, for she knew the Autumn Lady stood at the height of her powers and would devastate them all at any opposition, especially here, at the very base of her throne. But more than this: the honey-god not only did not want her for himself but had not come to see her wed. She might not desire this other bridegroom, but there were no longer any grounds to hope that her playfellow loved her as she did him, and in her grief she could yet provide her mother and sister with a restoration of their rank and prestige and well-being.

She took a measured step toward the dais and bowed her snowdrop-crowned head. “I do consent, lady,” she replied.

Her chin was raised a moment later by chill white fingers and she gasped through her tears, for the harvest queen had descended from the dais to regard her directly, her hazel-flecked eyes puzzled, even curious. “What fire fuels you, little mortal?” she wondered, so quietly that only Katniss might hear. “What metal steels your spine and drives you willingly into grief, even when flanked by your mightiest allies, who would do anything to spare you from it?”

“I have given you all that you asked,” she whispered, banishing her tears with swift, furious flicks of her knuckles. “Where is my bridegroom?”

Raisa lifted one gold-tipped finger and brushed across Katniss’s eyes with its cool pad, and in that touch was the very breath of autumn, warm and crisp and damp and sweet all at once, and immeasurably soothing to the tissues beneath. “Your proxy,” said the harvest queen softly, “awaits you before my throne.”

Katniss raised her eyes to the dais with desperate hope, for only the harvest queen’s own kin could stand before her throne, save by her express command, and surely it would be the honey-god, concealed until this moment for Raisa’s own amusement. He would stand as proxy for her true bridegroom, of course, but she could see him one final time; join hands with him, even, before this assembly.

But it was not her former playfellow who waited before the throne nor even his eldest brother, the gentle brawny reaper, but their half-brother, Luka the younger: Autumn’s stormy prince, his pale countenance a masculine mirror of his mother’s.

Katniss shrank back at the sight but the Autumn Lady stayed her with one cold hand. “Come now,” she bid sternly. “This is assuredly not he with whom you will spend the rest of your days, and it is an unimaginable honor for the likes of you simply to lay eyes on him, let alone join hands. Accompany me to the dais and plight your troth, then he and his aide will deliver you to your husband.”

Led by Raisa, Katniss ascended the dais in her willow slippers, moving as an animal that knows itself to be captured but has not yet conceded full defeat and vigilantly anticipates any opportunity for escape. She had never laid eyes on Luka before and indeed, had scarcely heard his name spoken since their exile, at which time he was known as an angry, impetuous child, adored and indulged by his mother and dreaded, if not quite feared, by mortal folk. In these ten years he had grown into a solemn youth, tall and lean and strikingly handsome, if as unlike his half-brothers as could be imagined with his bone-white skin, hazel-flecked eyes, and red-gold hair.

“I know of you, Katniss,” he said, neither condescending nor cruel, but as though something in that knowledge intrigued him. “You love my brother with all your heart, yet you willingly give yourself in marriage to another, absent and unknown, for the sake of your immortal kin?”

“It is my privilege to stand as sacrifice for my sister’s sake,” she replied evenly. “But it alters not my love for your brother, which I shall carry to my grave, and beyond.”

His beautiful mouth curved upward infinitesimally, as though in spite of himself, he found something amusing in her words. “Such devotion surely merits a reward,” he remarked. “Perhaps Peeta will bestow gifts upon your marriage, or blessings at the least.”

“He was my cherished playfellow,” she said, swallowing her heartbreak at the prince’s words, for if he believed that his brother would find joy in her marriage to another, such that he would grant gifts to her upon the occasion, then Peeta truly could not love her as she loved him. Perhaps he had forgotten her entirely in ten years’ time; even found a more fitting bride for himself. “I would be honored to be thus remembered by the honey-god,” she lied evenly.

“Then take my hands,” bid Luka, stretching forth his own, palms upward, “and we shall deliver you to your bower, to see how my brother has remembered you.”

She had witnessed this as a child: the marriages of mortal villagers, in imitation of their immortal overlords, hands joined and bound in the betrothal knot of ribbons. White for amity, purity, and promise; red for the act of love itself, for consummation and fertility, twining like lovers about their joined hands. Such was a highly festive moment, the public trothplighting, culminating with a public kiss and sometimes a presentation of gifts, while the marriage itself was an intimate, even sensual affair of bread and wine, observed only by those closest to the couple, if indeed they desired any witnesses at all, before they adjourned to the bridal bower to consummate the union.

Mercifully, the consummation might not be required but Katniss would have to toast with her strange groom for the marriage to be real and binding, and she wondered how she would bear even that. Bread browned over the hearth, dipped in honey or wine and raised to each other’s mouth in a tender, sacramental exchange.

She laid her small dusky hands over Luka’s elegant ones and flinched at the chill of his pale flesh, so like his mother’s, not warm and radiant as the skin of the honey-fevered votary – the votary! her broken heart clamored in wild hope. Not her Peeta, perhaps, but so like how she had envisioned him as to make a tolerable mate. Janek had never said her bridegroom was not that boy, and honey-fever had driven men to rash acts before, of which confronting the harvest queen would not be the boldest, nor the maddest.

She thought of his curly head, heavy in her lap, as he gazed up at her as though she were moon and sun and stars all at once, and gave a quiet sigh. Such a union she might abide, she thought, preparing meals and mending garments for that ruddy golden boy, and so long as he required no further intimacies from the arrangement, in time she might even come to share a bed with him, to feel his warmth at her back on the coldest winter nights.

She raised her eyes to Luka’s and met a curious gaze, as though he had witnessed all that played out in her mind, and the corners of his mouth twitched, with the same faint amusement he had shown earlier. “Do you pledge yourself to me, in the stead of your bridegroom?” he asked formally, raising his voice so all assembled might hear. “Do you swear before this company to be joined in marriage to he whom the Autumn Lady has chosen?”

“I do,” she resolved, for she would not be cowed by this mocking prince nor his regal mother, and the harvest queen, standing above them as officiant, wound the crisp betrothal ribbons about their joined hands to bind them together, however briefly, in the bridal knot. This act pressed Katniss’s hands snugly into the cool shallow wells of the prince’s own and held them there, secure as any snare, and she suppressed a panicked urge to struggle against the binding, tear at the ribbons with her teeth – tear at her own flesh, even; to gnaw off her hands and flee this unwanted union.

It is but a fleeting trap, she soothed her terrified heart, and this prince will not be your keeper. The butcher-goddess herself calls your bridegroom both kind and patient; no such husband would bind his bride like a wild thing he fears will fly away. He may yet prove to be the votary you tended in honey-fever, and if not, surely you could share a roof and a pantry with a kindly orchard-keeper of middle years. Do not betray your fear before the harvest queen and surely all will be well.

“Such a brave little thing,” marveled the butcher-goddess, none too softly, from her place at Raisa’s shoulder. “Only look in her eyes, sister: she wants more than anything to slip these bonds and vanish into the undergrowth like a lizard or a mousekin and yet her little hands lie steady as a soldier’s in your bridal bonds. You will be greater than your granny, little catkin,” she predicted, “and not merely by virtue of a grander groom.”

Raisa quelled her sister with a sharp, speaking glance and laid both cold white hands upon the bridal knot. “What has here been pledged and bound cannot be severed, neither by means mortal nor immortal,” she declared, and the ribbons themselves dissolved to radiant, shimmering dust. “Go now to your bridegroom and toast your union,” she commanded, and Katniss gasped as Luka drew his cloak about her.

“Do not be afraid,” the prince murmured against her brow, and with a bluster of thunder and wind they were swept up through the sacred branches of the apple grove and swiftly onward through the open sky, over a dizzying expanse of mountains, fields and forests, lightning licking at their heels and a furious funnel-cloud roaring at their backs. Katniss had no choice but to cling to this mercurial young god, wrapping her arms about his waist and burying her face in his chest to escape the lash of bitter wind that engulfed them, and once more he murmured, “Do not be afraid.”

“You could not grant me one moment to bid farewell to my kin,” she cried over the roar of wind, breathless, frightened, and heartsick over all. “Is this the sort of kindness and patience I am to expect from my bridegroom?”

Luka chuckled – a gentle rumble in the midst of a thunderhead – and held her tighter to him. “I suspect you will see your family far sooner than you wish,” he replied. “And while the manner of our departure was of my mother’s devising, this is perhaps the only moment in which you will ever find your bridegroom impatient: to have you before him, in the home he has prepared for you.”

The sun drifted lower as they flew over husbandman’s homesteads and snug sheepfolds and ramshackle fisher’s huts – any one of which, Katniss thought, must surely contain her mysterious bridegroom – but none of these gave the prince or his tail-wind the slightest pause; indeed, they moved all the swifter over areas of clear occupation, till at last they slowed above a gentle wildwood of pine and oak and maple, with a lake hard by. The wind about them grew gentler, almost balmy as they descended, featherlike, amid foliage tenuously turning from green to more vibrant shades, to touch down upon a path of velvet moss, fenced along either side by wild orchids and ferns and columbines.

The wind stilled entirely then, as quickly as it had sprung up, and the dark funnel-cloud which had accompanied them settled into the form of a tall, powerful youth, black-haired and stormy-eyed, bearing Katniss’s forgotten trousseau – that is, the parcel of goatskin boots and her father’s jerkin that the Harvest King had borne to the sacred grove.

“And neither is he your bridegroom,” Luka remarked with no little amusement at her wide, wary gaze. “This is Gale, fiercest and swiftest of my winds, here solely to speed our journey – and carry your effects. This one needs a sweet wife to temper him, and you are altogether too wild to suit,” he teased, releasing Katniss from his arms and his cloak as though he fully expected her to bare teeth in reply. “You need a sweet husband, little vixen,” he said, with gentleness and merriment in equal measure, “and as it happens, just such a one has sued, quite successfully, for the honor of your little hand. Only see,” he bid, gesturing down the path, “where he hopes to keep you.”

Katniss looked ahead to behold a cottage as magnificent as it was homely. Its stone walls were all but concealed beneath lush honeysuckle vines, their cheery pink-and-yellow blooms – stubbornly persisting into autumn – bright and fragrant in anticipation of nightfall, and the thatched roof was spangled here and there with jaunty clusters of daisies and buttercups. Katniss had never before lived in a house with paned windows, and this one had not only proper panes but majestic mullioned ones, broad and bright, patterned in honeycomb-shapes of shimmering milky gold. The yard surrounding the cottage was robustly carpeted in clover and dandelions, with two pretty spotted milk-goats cropping happily at the blooms, their long velvet ears dancing as their muzzles bobbed, and three merry little hens – and one endearingly small rooster – making a last sleepy foray for crawling things to nibble.

It was every bit the home of a kind and patient bridegroom – a bridegroom like the ruddy golden votary of the harvest king – and Katniss heard her breath escape her in a sigh.

“It pleases you, I think – the property and livestock?” Luka wondered lightly, his amusement giving way to curiosity. “Let us see how you find the interior.” He offered her his arm in a courtly fashion and reached out the other to take her parcel from Gale and discharge him. “You need not accompany us further,” he advised the glowering wind-youth. “The bridegroom wishes to toast without witnesses, and your presence might well startle the hens straight into the mouths of vixens – and not the dark little one for whom they are intended,” he added with a deliberate wink at Katniss.

The dark youth scowled in a manner that might have been deferential and gave a curt nod to Katniss, then melted into the woods like a shadow.

“He likes not the manner of your nuptials,” the prince explained wryly when Gale had gone. “One wonders whether he might have sought you for himself, had not this bridegroom been so swift in his suit.”

Katniss frowned at this, taken aback at the thought of two suitors when but yesterday she had none to speak of, and let Luka lead her to the cottage. The door was a heavy, ornate affair of wrought iron – “He wishes none to enter without leave, nor peer inside,” Luka posited, but it yielded easily - even willingly – at the prince’s touch.

“You, it seems, are welcome here,” she observed, but neither went inside nor allowed her gaze to do so; suddenly, strangely fearful of what she might find.

“I am delivering its mistress home,” he replied with a genuine smile, startling in its beauty. “And if I am wholly honest: it might recall me from a prior visit.”

“You have been here before?” Katniss puzzled, for surely the god of autumn storms would have no cause to visit such a humble dwelling, nor the man who dwelt there.

“Yours was not a union rashly arranged,” he answered cryptically. “Your bridegroom sought my opinion, some time ago, regarding the quality of the residence and whether or not it might please the mortal daughter of the Spring Queen. Come, lady,” he bid, stepping over the threshold and extending a hand to lead her in. “Let us examine your new home and see how well your groom has anticipated your desires.”