The Bear and the Fairy

My lover is Death, and as this is winter, I have not seen him for some time.

If we were mortals, our short lives would be spent together – from young lovers exchanging shy smiles and innocent brushing of fingers, to a married couple finishing each other’s sentences and pretending to be cross at one another for habits we refuse to break.

Then we would grow old together, becoming the couple who hold hands as they walk with unsteady steps down the much-rutted road, their backs bent with age; yet still their faded eyes shine as they see the love reflected in each other’s gaze. Finally, we would die – within months, weeks, perhaps even days of each other – and be laid to rest in the shaded corner beneath the eternal yew tree, permanently side-by-side.

But Ankou is doing his loathsome duty, reaping the souls of the old, frail and infirm, whilst I, Goddess of Spring, am left to pine.

 

Some of the other gods and goddesses have tracked me down by the shores of the Fairsing Sea. Dylan is already by my side, trying to make me smile, although in truth I find his jollity a little wearying. I know he adores me, but his boyish charm simply cannot compete with Ankou’s dark, devoted soul. If the world were rent in two and heaven was swallowed by the seas, I know it would be Ankou who would plough his way through to reach me.

 

“Tell us a tale, Olwen,” Amaethon begs as she curls up to sit at my feet. Like me, the Goddess of the Harvest finds winter dull and drear, although at least her bronzed skin still carries a touch of autumn’s rich colours. The blood in my veins is as cold and colourless as the sky above our heads, my deep blue eyes more haunted-looking than normal.

 

Winter transforms me into a ghost of my usual self. Like a miser hoarding his coin, I have pinched the flowers up tight, not allowing them to bloom until the season ends and my love returns. Then I will welcome Ankou with a carpet of snowdrops and lead him to our sweetly-scented bed of crocuses and lilacs. We will make love, the sap from the pale, delicate flowers smearing our bodies, until finally Death will fall asleep in my arms, his ancient soul finally at peace.

 

Back on the beach, I begin to plait a section of Amaethon’s brunette hair, streaked as it is with the auburn of her mother, Aine. “It will be a sad tale, for I am in a sad mood,” I warn her, idly weaving the different strands together.

 

“But one with a happy ending,” she insists, nodding firmly to herself as if that decides the matter.

 

“Such a child.” The Goddess of Love reaches out to tweak her daughter’s nose. Amaethon glares at the beautiful, laughing red-head, her expression so petulant even I am forced to smile.

 

“Such a pair of children,” speaks a voice brimming with resentment. I look up to meet the glare of Morríghan.

 

Her eyes are black with a hint of red seeping round the edges, like a coal in the deepest, hottest heart of a fire. Unlike a fire, they are devoid of warmth – cold, black anger is Morríghan’s only emotion. The ex-lover of my lover, the Goddess of War whose implacable bloodlust he grew tired of.

 

“But are we not the Children of Light?” Dylan pipes up. Morríghan’s hateful glare turns away from me as the genial Sea-God attempts to smile at her. “Apart from Lady Aine and yourself, obviously,” he adds hastily, nodding respectfully towards the Goddess of Love who sits beside me on the beach.

 

“You are correct. Lady Aine and I are superior to all of you, although I fail to understand why she associates with the lesser gods.”

 

“If that is the case, how come you are here?” Arianda snaps. “Surely mingling with us lesser gods is beneath such a great being?”

 

The Moon Goddess glowers fearlessly at Morríghan, while the rest of us cower. Arianda’s temper is sharp, her tongue quite often running ahead of her thoughts. It was this hot-headedness that saw her betray her husband Llew with their own son – an act she pays for once a month by being cut in half by the Sun God’s relentless sword.

 

“You are right,” Morríghan snaps. “I will leave. There is a town about to be sacked and burnt to the ground in Golvàgóra – my weapons are needed there.” Before she turns to leave, she throws me a sour smirk. “Perhaps I will see Ankou. Our paths do cross so very often…”

 

Her voice fades into the mist rising from the sea as her visible form slowly disappears. Aine reaches out to wrap an arm around my shoulders.

 

“Just ignore the bitter old bat. There is no love in war, and she cannot understand why the God of Death should crave the sweeter things in life.”

 

I try to smile, knowing that she is right. Mind, it still hurts that the God of Death and Goddess of War should have to spend quite so much time together, whilst I cannot stay more than a day in Ankou’s realm without the world beginning to fade of joy.

 

“Anyway, you promised us a story,” Amaethon pipes up, as determined as ever.

 

“I will tell you of the last time I saw my beloved Ankou. It was not for pleasure that I went to see him, but a matter of business. A life, hanging in the breeze…”

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Amongst the faery-folk, there lived one named Armorel. She was only a young fay – a water-sprite, with beautiful gossamer wings that shone pale blue in the sunlight. Her family were strict about her upbringing and as a result, she had very little contact with fay of the opposite sex and she learnt nothing about the ways of the world.

Some of the younger male fay in their clan fell to discussing their female counterparts, Armorel amongst them. One of the males – Jökul, a handsome but shallow specimen – declared that he could lay hands on any female and they would not be able to resist his charms. His companions began to tease him about this claim, until finally someone dared him to seduce Armorel. Jökul agreed, and so the bet was placed.

Avoiding the scrutiny of her parents, Jökul began to pay attentions to Armorel. The young sprite became so overwhelmed by his repeated avowals, she believed herself to be equally in love with him, and she allowed him to take advantage of these feelings. Of course, once he had succeeded in his quest, Jökul was soon boasting to his friends. Eventually, word got back to Armorel’s parents.

 

When her furious family learnt of this disgrace, they cast her loose in the most painful way imaginable. Declaring she was no longer a faery, they held her down and tore her delicate wings from her back, stripping her of identity and the ability to fly. She was then taken into the heart of a great forest and ordered under pain of death never to show her face amongst the faeries again.

 

It was a broken faery that wandered the lonely forest path, searching for a new home. Armorel had never stepped foot out of her village before; she was too scared to ask anyone for help, and she had no experience of fending for herself. Also, she was in some considerable pain from the wounds on her back. Just as the light was falling on her third day of wandering, she came across a small cottage in a clearing hidden deep within a valley.

Armorel had only eaten a few foraged berries in those three days. Hunger, along with blood loss, led her to tap timidly at the front door of the neat, well-kept house.

 

The door opened, revealing a tall, fierce-looking man with a mane of black hair hanging round his shoulders. Alarmed by his stature, Armorel shrank back. The man’s face softened, although he did not lose his look of suspicion.

 

“Can I help you, miss?” The deep gravel-like timbre of his voice was strangely soothing; like a dog’s tongue or an old, scratchy blanket.

 

“Might you be able to spare a crust, sir? Please?” Armorel’s cheeks burnt at having to beg for such a measly meal.

 

The man stared in silence, his dark, intelligent eyes fixed on her. Armorel got the impression that beneath the fearsome expression, a slow but steady mind was working.

 

His gaze shifted beyond her, evidently trying to work out if this were some trap and Armorel was the decoy. Eventually, he spoke.

“I got a meat pie I was ‘bout to cut into. I could let you have a slice of that.”

 

“Please… if it’s not too much trouble.”

 

“Come in.”

 

The man stood back, allowing her to enter the cosy room. A fire roared fiercely to one side, illuminating a small table set for one. The faery’s mouth began to water at the rich smell of meat and gravy wafting through the cottage.

 

“Sit down, miss. You look fit to drop.”

 

“Th-thank you.” Armorel threw the man a nervous look, but he was already disappearing into another room. Seconds later, he reappeared, carrying a dark brown dish filled to the brim with golden pastry. He vanished once more, this time fetching cutlery and a second plate.

When he cut into the pie, gravy bubbled out. Fat, juicy mushrooms and crispy brown onions spilled onto the plate as he served, along with thick hunks of meat.

 

“Eat up, miss,” the man said, placing the steaming plate before Armorel. His eyes were kind, although his expression remained unmoved.

 

Armorel forced herself not to gobble the pie down, starving though she may be. She had not eaten for some time, and her body could not handle too much rich food; besides, she wanted to savour every mouthful, uncertain when she would next receive such a fine meal.

 

The two ate in silence, with only the crackling of the fire as their companion. The man finished his serving some time before Armorel, and he sat staring into the flames, picking at his teeth.

 

When the faery had eaten her fill, and she felt warm both inside and out, she dared to look up at the man.

 

“Thank you, sir.” He glanced up at her words. “That was delicious. Did you make the pie?”

 

A grin flickered across the man’s face. “No, miss, I ain’t no cook. Old Ma Trenwyn in the village, she looks after me. I get ‘er enough logs to last the winter in exchange.”

 

“Oh, I see.” Armorel glanced down at her hands, twisting them nervously in her lap. “Would you like me to wash up before I go? I can’t pay you otherwise for the meal, and it was very kind of you…”

 

The man threw her a sharp glare. “You don’t have to pay. Twas only a slice o’ pie.”

 

“Thank you,” Armorel murmured, feeling quite embarrassed.

 

“And you can stay the night. I can’t see you turned out to wander the forest in the cold and dark.”

 

“Oh no, really I…”

 

“You want to go out there?” He nodded to a window shielded with blue-and-cream check curtains. “Tis been raining the last half-hour.”

 

“Has it?” To her dismay, Armorel could now hear the steady drumming of rain. Droplets occasionally made their way down the chimney, causing the fire to hiss and spit.

 

“I got a spare bed. I’ll just pull covers back, give it an airing.” The man stood up and strode out the room, as if the matter were settled.

 

When the time came to retire for the night, Armorel offered him her hand in friendship.

 

“My name is Armorel. What is yours?”

 

“Bjorri, miss.” His hand completely engulfed hers, and she felt the scars and callouses that spoke of a lifetime of physical labour. Still, his grip was gentle, a fleeting smile lighting up his stern features for only the second time that night.

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Armorel actually ended up staying on at Bjorri’s cottage. Every time she made to leave, he would find some reason why it was better for her to remain. She started cooking and cleaning for him, and although his house was perfectly nice already, it became even more homely with a few simple touches. Wild flowers grew alongside the cottage, and she would pick a few to brighten the table. She began to help with the beehives down the end of his garden, drawing the dripping combs out and scraping the thick honey into a pail. When she made her first rabbit pie and the pastry crunched as she cut into it, Bjorri laughed and said it was just as good as Ma Trenwyn’s, if not better.

Some nights, Bjorri would disappear in the evening and not return until the following morning. He told her he was hunting and that it was better to do this at night during certain seasons.

 

One such occasion, Armorel lay awake, unable to sleep. She did not like it when he was gone, even though he had reassured her he was still close. That night, the moon was full and bright, its beams breaking through the forest and forcing their way into her bedroom, and she kept imagining she could hear noises outside – creatures moving through the trees, undergrowth being trampled; even the low growls of unknown beasts.

 

Eventually, her restlessness got the better of her, and she got up. Wrapping one of Bjorri’s old dressing gowns around her, Armorel tiptoed out of her bedroom and through the empty cottage. Silently, she opened the back door and stuck her head out.

 

The moonlight allowed her to see the length of Bjorri’s garden, almost down to the beehives. Beyond those, in a small orchard, he kept a dappled mare and a moorland pony – a tough little fellow that could pull logs and heave crates of apples as easily as drawing breath. The horses were invisible right now, but as Armorel peered into the night, she heard a shrill neigh followed by thundering hooves.

Pausing only to grab a slender crook left by the door, Armorel dashed out into the garden, bare feet and all. She was very fond of the horses, and Bjorri had actually just started to teach her how to ride the mare, so she did not think what danger she might be putting herself in to save them. When she had reached the orchard and clambered over the little picket fence, she realised at once her predicament.

 

The horses were backed into one corner of the grove, their eyes wild and flanks foamed with sweat. A long-bodied grey wolf was prowling ever closer and snapping its jaws at them, but between the wolf and the horses crouched an enormous black bear. The bear was facing the wolf, a constant chorus of growls rising from its throat and belly.

 

The wolf made to dart forward, the drool streaming from its jaws visible in the moonlight. In response, the bear stood up on its hind legs, huge and terrible. Armorel gasped, the sound loud enough to catch both creatures’ attention.

When the bear saw her, it froze. The wolf did not. Instead, it began sprinting towards her, so swift she almost didn’t see it coming. Lumbering into action, the bear barrelled forwards, capturing the wolf and bringing it down with an almighty roar. Before the wolf could recover, the bear’s immense jaws had closed around its neck, snapping shut with a dreadful crunch.

The noise was enough to shake Armorel out of her daze, and she turned to flee. She had barely begun to run when a massive set of paws wrapped themselves around her body, drawing her into a furry embrace. Armorel screamed and thrashed wildly but it made no difference.

 

The bear kept her pinned against its body, but it made no other movement. Its teeth did not sink into her flesh; its claws only scratched her when she struggled. When Armorel eventually sagged in its hold, exhausted and gasping for air, the creature began to emit a deep whine, almost sorrowful.

 

The bear’s hot breath fanned her right cheek as it gently laid its head on her shoulder. Thinking it was about to break her neck, Armorel closed her eyes and started to cry. It came as a surprise, therefore, to feel a raspy tongue lick her face, wiping the tears away.

 

As she struggled to understand what was happening, Armorel suddenly became aware that the paws holding her were a lot less furry. In fact, they were hands – human hands. The arms wrapped round her were equally human, although their strength was still bear-like. Opening her eyes, Armorel dared to turn her head and look at the face pressed against her own.

 

When she saw Bjorri, she sighed with relief before realising what it meant. In the dark of the night, his expression was hidden by shadow. Only the intimacy of their situation – faces so close their breath intermingled – and the gentleness of his grasp told her she was safe. The understanding was too much for Armorel, and she passed out in Bjorri’s arms.

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When Armorel came to, she was in her bed and morning had broken. She wondered if last night had been a dream before turning her head and finding Bjorri, fast asleep in a chair beside her. His unkempt appearance and her own bare, dirty feet told her all what had happened was true.

She wondered whether to flee the cottage while he was still asleep, but his expression was so peaceful, she could not bear to leave. Besides, it appeared they had fallen asleep holding hands, and she did not dare try to break his hold.

 

As she lay watching him, Bjorri gave a small grunt, his head nodding to one side. His eyes slowly opened, settling immediately on her.

“Morning, miss.” He straightened a little in the chair, wincing as his large body adjusted to the cramped space. His grip on her hand did not lessen, however, even when Armorel tried to wriggle her fingers free.

 

His gaze was watchful, that of a predator almost daring her to try and escape. For a long while, they sat in silence, the merry birdsong and bright sunshine outside a painful contrast to their own mess of feelings.

 

“It was you,” Armorel eventually spoke, her voice croaky and uneven. She cleared her throat before continuing. “You were the bear.”

 

“Aye, I was the bear,” Bjorri replied in a heavy tone. “Are you afeared o’ me?”

 

“A little,” she admitted, not meeting his gaze. “I was more scared of you last night when I thought you were about to kill me.”

 

“Makes sense. And if I was to turn into a bear now, would you be scared once again?”

 

Armorel’s forehead puckered as she thought. “Maybe not scared,” she said slowly. “Alarmed, yes.”

“Do you think I would hurt you?” Bjorri leaned forward, his dark eyes boring into hers. She remembered last night, how the bear had held her without hurting her. How he had licked her tears away, trying to comfort her.

 

“Not intentionally. Are you able to control – I mean, can you…”

 

“Can I control the bear?” He finished her question with a sad sigh. “I am the bear. If I’m angry as a man, I’ll be angry as a bear. When I’m happy, I’m happy both as man and bear.”

 

“What are you?” Armorel asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.

 

“I am the Mathan-duine – the Bear-Man. A skin-shifter, the last of my kind. I can transform at will into the shape of a bear.”

 

She thought he sounded rather lonely. Certainly, she had never heard of such a creature, bear or otherwise. A thought struck her.

 

“So that wolf last night wasn’t another shifter?”

“No,” Bjorri growled fiercely. “He was a natural wolf trying to muscle in on my territory.” The mention of the impudent wolf seemed to stir up strong emotions in Bjorri, as he sat quietly growling to himself for a little while.

 

Wishing to distract him, Armorel began rubbing her thumb gently against the palm of his much-larger hand, currently wrapped around hers. His scowl melted, to be replaced with a look of such innocent devotion, the young faery grew quite embarrassed. A small smile lifted Bjorri’s mouth as he watched her glowing cheeks.

 

“Why didn’t you tell me before?” she whispered. Bjorri let out a small huff of laughter.

 

“People have a habit of becoming alarmed if I tell them I can transform into a bear. Besides, you seemed nervous enough as it was. I didn’t want to scare you away.”

 

“Would you have ever told me?”

 

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Will you ever tell me?

 

She glanced up quickly, her heart beginning to race. “Tell you what?”

Bjorri leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on the side of the bed. Their interlocked hands were lifted to his lips, his breath warming them as he spoke. “There’s something not entirely human about you either. I can’t figure it out. I thought you might have a bit of sprite about you, or perhaps some elvish blood.”

 

Armorel swallowed, a tight ball of grief threatening to choke her. She had wanted to forget; over the past few weeks of staying with Bjorri, the memory of her disgrace had been slowly fading, as tentatively as the scars on her back were healing. Now, it appeared the wounds were to be re-opened, and by a person she had grown so fond of.

 

“I am – was – a faery,” she stammered. Bjorri’s frown deepened.

 

“Was? Shouldn’t you have wings?”

 

“They were taken from me. Torn off my back. I don’t know what I am now.”

 

Her hand was suddenly free as Bjorri released her and sat back in his chair, a look of amazement passing over his countenance. Armorel’s soft heart was once again pierced by the thought of rejection, and so she drew her knees up against her chest, placed her hands over her face and began to cry – great choking sobs that she had bottled up since being cast out by her family.

A deep growl reverberated around the room. Before she knew what was happening, Bjorri had clambered on the bed beside her and scooped her into his arms. His rumblings passed into her own body, till it was like being inside a beehive.

 

“Let me go!” She tried pushing him away, but to no avail. He merely clutched her tighter and began nuzzling his nose into her hair.

 

“Do you want to know what I think you are?” His hoarse whisper made Armorel’s skin ignite. She stopped struggling in order to gasp breathlessly:

 

“What?”

 

“I think you are mine, and I am yours – if you’ll have me.” His nuzzlings ceased as he pulled back to gaze at her. “Stay with me, Armorel. Fallen faery you may be, but you’ll more than do for this rough creature of the woods.”

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So they entered into a strange, new relationship. Bjorri fashioned a small ring out of oak, one which he spent hours carving the most delicate flowers round the edge. He then polished the wood with wax from his beehives, till it slid smoothly onto Armorel’s finger and shone like burnished gold.

Before the wedding, Armorel felt compelled to tell him she was no longer a maid. Bjorri asked no questions about the circumstances, save was that the reason her wings had been taken from her. When she replied yes, his eyes grew dark with sorrow and he treated her with even greater gentleness, as he could see that she was more wronged against than in the wrong.

 

On numerous occasions and at her request, he transformed into a bear. Even in this form, Armorel could see the humanity in his eyes, the intelligence of spirit that told her he was still very much Bjorri. In the slow, heavy heat of the afternoon, beneath the fronds of a weeping willow, she would fall asleep in the arms of a bear; when the cool air of evening roused her from her slumber, it was the embrace of a man that surrounded her.

 

On the eve of the wedding, Bjorri asked to see the wounds where her wings had been torn away. Slowly and tremblingly, she took off her shawl and slid the straps of her dress over her shoulders. Bjorri pulled her into his lap, facing away from him, and she jumped with surprise when he began to kiss along the two ugly, puckered ridges.

“Am I hurting you?” he paused to murmur. She gave a tiny shake of the head. “Tell me if I am.”

 

He resumed his kisses, making sure every scrap of skin received his attention before his lips worked their way up Armorel’s shoulders. When he had carefully turned her round in his lap, his face was flushed and his breathing heavy. He leaned forward to kiss her on the mouth, but Armorel drew back.

 

She thought he wanted more, and the fear was obvious in her eyes. Wishing to put her at ease, Bjorri merely drew his arms about her tighter and began to sing an old lullaby. He vaguely remembered his mother singing the song to his baby sister; even after the baby had died, she had continued to hum the tune as she darned by the fireplace.

 

As he slowly rocked her, Armorel’s eyes began to droop, till eventually she fell asleep.

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They were married, and all was well for a number of months. It was not a time of joy for everyone, however. During Armorel’s absence, Jökul – the fay who had wronged her so badly – had been unable to forget her. The news that her parents had cast her out only gave fuel to his obsession, and he longed to have her back – not because he loved her, but merely for his pleasure. He therefore began to trace her movements, at last learning of the forest where Bjorri dwelt.

When he heard that the faery had married the forester, Jökul’s vain and shallow soul was outraged. He could not believe that one of his race would willingly tie themselves to a rough and dirty human, and so he convinced himself that Armorel had been forced to marry him. His bloated ego led him to believe she needed rescuing, and he was the one to do it.

 

Proud fay though he was, he was not bold enough to actually confront Bjorri. Instead, he watched the couple from afar and waited.

 

Once day, the forester left to venture deep into the woods, and that was when Jökul struck. Bjorri returned home in the evening to find a cold, abandoned cottage and washing strewn on the grass. He called for Armorel, tearing the cottage apart when he failed to find her. Finally, he transformed into a bear in order to follow her scent.

Immediately, he caught the scent of another –similar to Armorel’s but a male– and so he guessed what had happened. There was no trail to follow, however, and he assumed the fay had flown away with his prize. His rage and despair wrought to the highest degree, the bear set out into the forest, searching for his wife.

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For a year, he roamed without success. At length, despair crept in as Bjorri began to wonder if Armorel had left of her own accord. One night, he laid down in a bracken-filled hollow, still in his bear form, and started to cry.

A mouse had also taken shelter within the warm bracken. He was astonished to see a bear weeping – so astonished, in fact, he popped his head out of the undergrowth and gave a small squeak.

 

Bjorri glanced round, but when he saw it was only a mouse, he laid his head down again with a great shuddering sigh. Daringly, the mouse crept a little closer and asked what the matter was.

 

The bear was bad-tempered to begin with, and did not want to share his story. He growled so fiercely, the branches surrounding them trembled, but still the mouse persisted. Bjorri then tried to seize the nosy mouse, either to swallow him in one gulp or crush him in his paw, but the tiny creature merely slipped through the bracken, popping up in a different corner of the hollow. The mouse simply would not leave him alone, until eventually Bjorri gave in and told him his tale.

When he heard of Armorel’s disappearance, the mouse grew quite excited. Instructing a bemused Bjorri to wait, he dashed off, only to return with what appeared to be his entire family. Their squeaking grew to such a pitch, it gave Bjorri quite a headache; sitting back on his haunches, he let out one mighty bellow.

 

The mice fell into whispers, shoving the original mouse forward with their pointy snouts.

 

“Good sir,” he said, addressing a still-glowering Bjorri. “We have some news which may be of interest to you. Just over a year ago, a cousin of mine, Tom – or was it Jack, or perhaps Wyatt?” A chorus of ‘get on with it’ rang out from the mice crowded behind him, accompanied by Bjorri’s own low growling. Hastily, the spokesmouse continued.

 

“Anyway, it was one of them. This particular mouse was wandering the woods one night – a little worse for wear after partaking too freely of the elderflower liquor. Tom – or perhaps Jack, or even Wyatt – is a stout mouse, but even he will admit he – ”

Bjorri’s growls filled the cosy hollow, and the mice all cowered. The spokesmouse was overcome by a nervous coughing fit, one which lasted until the bear laid his massive head right before him and rumbled for him to continue.

 

“Well anyway, Tom – Jack – Wyatt – whoever it was swore he saw two faeries struggling in the air. One of them was trying to carry the other away. We all thought it was the drink talking, but after what you’ve just told me about your wife –”

 

“Which way were they flying?” interrupted Bjorri. His heart was pounding to be after the fay who had stolen his wife, his claws itching to rip into that luckless sprite.

 

“West, sir; along the River Elwy. You’ll find the fay settlement twenty miles from here, on a small island in the middle of the river.”

 

Giving the mice clan a nod of thanks, Bjorri lumbered out of the hollow, heedless of the night. By the time dawn broke, the bear had reached the banks of the shining, silvery Elwy. It was not a great river, like the Chynogod or Itchen, but a merry, clear-flowing stream – so clear, in fact, you could see the rainbow of pebbles that lined its bed, swept by ribbons of milfoil, water-mint and liverwort.

 

Bjorri noticed none of this, as he stalked the riverside, staring intently across the water. When at last he saw the fay village, he plunged into the river and began to swim. The faeries had thought their little hamlet was safe from outsiders – they had not reckoned on a determined bear, well used to braving strong currents and icy waters.

 

After he had clambered ashore on the other side, Bjorri transformed into his human form, as he wished to speak to the faeries first. He made his way to the crossroads at the centre of the village, folded his arms and waited.

 

He did not have to wait long. The presence of a human was unheard of in the fay village, and news of a huge, savage-looking man soon spread. A group of village elders was hastily convened, stepping out to meet the stranger.

 

“What can we do for you, human?” one called out from a safe distance.

 

“Return my wife!” Bjorri bellowed in response. A shocked ripple ran through the gathered crowd, with a few beginning to suspect who the man was referring to.

 

“We have not got your wife. Why would we take a human woman?”

 

“My wife,” Bjorri snarled through a clenched jaw, “is not human. She was a faery, until you lot cast her out. Now, I find one of you has stolen her back. Armorel is her name.”

“We can assure you she is not here,” the alarmed elder replied. “She was a stain on her family name, a disgrace to us all.”

“Another fay was seen carrying her away against her will. I’ll be bound it’s the same lily-livered sprite who hurt her so badly before. If I find he’s hurt her again, he’ll know what it’s like to have his wings torn off. I’ll rip them off myself, and then his arms and his legs, and finally his miserable head! Where is he?

 

Throughout his speech, Bjorri had advanced upon the quailing crowd. Although faeries can fly, they have no other form of magic, and they felt very small against the hulking man.

 

“I haven’t got your wife, you filthy mongrel.”

 

The voice was slow and drawling, confident and riddled with scorn. As the crowd of faeries drew back, a male fay swaggered his way through, walking up to a silent Bjorri – although he made sure to leave a safe distance between them.

 

Bjorri looked at him and wondered what Armorel had found so appealing. The fay’s face was pale and pinched, his chin unfortunately prominent. Dark circles ringed his eyes; he had a gaunt, feverish look about him. Immediately, Bjorri could sense the instability within him.

“Then where is she?” he growled. The fay shrugged, smirking slightly as he answered.

 

“Maybe she grew tired of living with such a filthy beast.” He looked askance at Bjorri's bedraggled clothing, his matted hair still streaming wet from the river.

 

Bjorri realised he would get no useful information from the cocky fay, not without intimidation. For such large creatures, bears can move surprisingly fast – Bjorri used this ability now, thundering towards the unsuspecting fay so quickly, he barely had time to draw breath.

 

Before the fay could escape, Bjorri’s strong hand was wrapped around his arm, yanking him off the ground. His feet kicked uselessly in the air as he squirmed and let out a high-pitched yell.

 

“Tell me where she is,” Bjorri ground through his teeth. He shook the fay as though he were a leaf, small and brittle.

 

“I don’t know,” squealed the fay, his courage deserting him as fast as springtime winds blow the blossom from trees. Bjorri bared his teeth, allowing the pointy incisors to lengthen into their bear size.

Tell me,” he hissed, bringing his face up close to the terrified, yet still defiant, fay.

 

“I don’t know where she is now. I took her. She was mine first – you had no right to her.” Red-faced, the fay spat the words at Bjorri. Spittle flew from his mouth, yet the bear-man did not flinch or pull back.

 

“The fool didn’t want to come with me though,” the fay continued to rant.

 

“What happened?”

 

“I dropped her. She was struggling so much, she slipped right out of my grasp and fell into the Elwy. It was night-time, and all I heard was the splash. When I returned in the morning, there was no sign of her.”

 

When Bjorri heard this, a haze descended over his vision. The human side of his nature retreated in shock, and the bear, sensing how vulnerable he was at present, came thundering to the fore.

The unfortunate fay cried out in terror as the hand holding him melted into a bear’s paw, while his fellow faeries scattered when they saw the massive creature emerge. With a tremendous roar, Bjorri rose up on his hind legs and struck the fay across the face with his free paw. The fay’s neck snapped, and he fell to the floor, dead.

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Bjorri left the faery village, keeping to his bear form for the next four years as he searched for news of what had happened to Armorel. Legends grew of the roaming black bear with a look of human suffering in his eyes, while faeries fled from his path, for it was said that he had an especial hatred of them.

At last, he came to the sea, close to death. It was not any physically weakness that hung over him, but a sickness of the heart – something that made him want to turn his face to the darkest corner of a cave and not rise up again.

 

As the bear stumbled through woods that ran alongside the shoreline, he came across a clearing with a temple dedicated to Olwen at its heart. The temple was made up of a ring of apple trees draped with wild roses and honeysuckle, and at its centre, Bjorri could see something white and shining. A thrill of pain ran through his blood, sending him hot and cold; without thinking, the bear stepped into the clearing and began to approach the temple.

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A group of worshippers – the Arthraigh – were tending to their usual duties, one of which included the daily care of their Beauty. This was a woman who had been found floating in a nearby river – not quite dead but very near. She had remained in this state for the last five years, and the Arthraigh were so touched by her beauty and the mysterious nature of her appearance, they had placed her on a bed at the centre of their temple and dressed her in robes of shining silk. Two of them were just arranging her long, dark hair when they heard cries of alarm.

They turned to see an enormous black bear stalking towards them. The Arthraigh carried no weapons, and so they had no option but to flee. When they were a safe distance away, they looked back and wept to see the bear rear up and stand over their Beauty, thinking he was about to eat her. To their amazement, the creature instead fell to its knees, transforming into a strange, wild-looking man as he did so. He gathered the Beauty into his arms and crushed her to his chest, sobbing all the while.

 

━━━━━━━━┓ ✠ ┏━━━━━━━━

Bjorri stayed in this position until night had descended once again. The Arthraigh – recognising that this reunion was something private and intimate – had slipped away, and so the temple was quiet and still. At last, Bjorri placed Armorel back on the bed, clasped her hand in both of his and began to pray.

He prayed to Olwen, the goddess whose temple he had found his wife in. He gave thanks to the goddess for having brought them together once more, and he prayed that Armorel be restored fully – that she might wake up and know him. His prayers were so fervent and his sufferings so lengthy, Olwen was moved to come down to him.

She appeared in her truest form: a young maiden with mild blue eyes and pale gold hair that brushed the ground as she walked. Where her hair touched the grass, flowers budded, and as she spoke, her words were threaded with music – a silver chain of sound that lifted the spirits of all who heard it. Laying a gentle hand on Bjorri’s shoulder, she spoke.

 

“Your wife cannot come back to you, not of her own accord. She is too close to death. In fact, her spirit is already there, hovering by the Gates of Ankou.”

 

Bjorri pleaded with the goddess, until at last she agreed to try and persuade Ankou not to claim this spirit, but to send her back. The Spring Goddess disappeared, having first lulled an exhausted Bjorri to sleep.

 

━━━━━━━━┓ ✠ ┏━━━━━━━━

“And did he?” Amaethon’s eager words break into my hitherto uninterrupted story. “Did Ankou listen to you?”

“What do you think?” A deep, solemn voice – like a stone rolling down a mountain – rumbles close to my ear. I turn and, with a cry of delight, see Ankou sat smiling beside me. Uncaring of the others watching, I throw my arms around him and plant a kiss on his pale, gaunt cheek.

“I’m thinking you did release the woman’s spirit,” Arianda remarks. “Or else Olwen wouldn’t be giving you her usual doe-eyed expression.”

 

Ankou does not reply, although his smile remains. Ignoring the watching gods and goddesses, he turns to bury his face in my neck, inhaling deeply and whispering my favourite words:

“Winter is over, my beloved.”

©2020 by Nicola Niemc