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In the Shadow of the Sun

Summary:
A different take on the story of Psych and Eros. Like Twilight it features a strong female lead who must undergo a series of adventures and trials in order to join the world of her unnatural lover. Gilda has been sheltered, isolated and kept at a distance from people her whole life. Raised by her grandmother in a cottage in the woods, Gilda is unaware that the life she knows is mostly lies and her origin itself is fiction. She cannot fight the intense feeling that she wasn’t meant for the life of an ordinary peasant. Gilda begins to doubt what she knows about herself as her life begins to unravel. She begins hearing strange rustling, whispers and laughter when in the woods near her home. As her house is miles from the nearest village, she cannot shake the suspicion that she is being watched. But Gilda has more serious problems than whatever might be stalking her from the forest. Gilda’s otherworldly appearance and the effect that it has on the men of the village has caused great suspicion in her provincial little town. Things come to a crux at the annual village fair, when Gilda is accused of witchcraft…ironically something that she doesn’t even believe in. Unfortunately for Gilda, it is very real and had been at work in her life since she was small child. In fleeing for her life from her accusers, she finds the one person who will believe in her innocence. He suffers a generations’ old and deadly curse cast by a true witch. His unnatural double nature means that he is in even more peril from the villagers than Gilda is. But his mysterious curse hides a dark secret from Gilda’s own past about who she is, and why she is an orphan. Together they unravel the mystery that surrounds them, or they will burn.


Notes:


1. In the Shadow of the Sun

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In the Shadow of the Sun

‘The first sunlight that touches your cheek will touch not the face of a man, but the hide of a beast.’ – From the Witch’s Curse

Prologue:

He watched the little girl with the golden hair playing by the stream. Her Gran was in the small garden quite a ways away tending to the roses that had been savaged by a recent rabbit incident. The grandmother was not paying the slightest attention to the little girl who was so close to the water’s edge. He growled softly. He couldn’t reveal himself as he was if she fell in…she would be more frightened of him than she would be of drowning. The little girl was terrified of wolves, and he was much much bigger and more frightening than a mere wolf.

The pretty little girl with her fluff of dandelion hair began throwing flowers into the water. Sunlight sparkled on the surface of the stream as the ripples branched out from each flower. Recent rains had swelled the meager creek until its banks could scarcely contain it, and it would be better called a river. It rushed with new currents and eddies, delighted in its larger more important life. The girl was all knees and elbows, she was thin and unused to the lengths of her limbs. She was young and had recently had a growth spurt, she couldn’t keep track of her own arms and legs. The golden child leaned over the edge.

“He loves me.” She said tossing in a petal. “He loves me not.” She said with a giggle as she tossed in the second to last one. “He loves me!” She said as she threw in the final petal. She watched as it became trapped on a rock near some tree roots where the stream had strayed from its banks. “Oh. I think I’m supposed to save that one.” She said, cocking her head to the side as she examined the trapped petal. How did she plan to get to it? The creature drew in its hot ragged breath as he watched the girl try to ford the stream toward the little white petal. He knew that she could not swim. She was a very small nine years old, and the stream had found speed in addition to purpose with its recent promotion to ‘river.’ His clawed feet clicked on the wet stones as he stepped forward, closer, then back into the shadow. He wasn’t supposed to do anything. There were rules. The others would not appreciate it, if he saved this particular girl. She was becoming a large concern for them.

Her foot settled on a very slippery, very mossy rock as she struggled to retrieve her petal. “Darn thing doesn’t want to be caught does it?” The girl said out loud as she reached for it, only to have it slip to a root further down. The creature bit back his reply. She wasn’t talking to him…she didn’t know he was there. Instead of stepping onto a new rock, she simply leaned further to try to reach the escaping petal. Her foot slipped off the mossy rock and she slipped right along with it. Flowing with the river downstream. He could run as fast as the river could flee, but there was every chance that she would see him…and he was only supposed to watch…not to interfere.

Chapter 1: An Otherwise Ordinary Walk in the Woods

‘Dark and shadow will be your respite, and you will have your true form again.’

Gilda woke up with a buzzing sense of anticipation. She was sure that today was going to be the day in which her snares would be full. Full snares meant she could finally get all the money she needed from the pelts, in order to buy the blue dress hanging in the window of the dress maker’s shop. Once she had that…Well! Queen of the Faire was even more inevitable than ever. She didn’t feel particularly vain for thinking that way…honesty was not vanity. Modest people were simply dishonest people playing down their attributes so as to receive more compliments. Logically this made a modest person significantly more vain than she was. Therefore, if she was to be a good person, she should admit just how special and unusual she was…and that the most beautiful unmarried girl in town, was always made Queen of the Faire.

It wasn’t as if she wanted to be Queen for purely silly reasons. The Faire attracted nobles, traveling merchants…possibly a knight. If a girl was going to get noticed, and to escape her backward existence…being Queen of the Faire was her only chance. Especially if that girl was an orphaned peasant…like she was. Gilda looked down at her reflection in the bowl of water she was about to use to wash her face. She splashed the cold water against her golden complexion. Her constant time in the sun had given her unfashionably tan skin…she would never pass for an aristocrat. However, the fact that she was golden from her hair to her eyes to her skin was so striking that no one seemed to mind. Her appearance gave the impression that she was made of poured gold. It was striking enough that it had been causing some problems for her recently.

For years the village boys had teased her about her unusual appearance… but lately they had stopped teasing and started staring and ceasing to speak all together when she came near. It was like they forgot to breathe when she was close by. More than one of them had actually fainted. Mostly they just turned red, stammered and became almost senseless in her presence. She didn’t mind being beautiful, that in and of itself was rather pleasant…but she hated the “senseless idiot” effect it seemed to have on men. She wanted poetry, sonnets, grand gestures, flowers, and epic romance! Instead she got beet red faces, gasped out greetings, and sweaty palmed kisses of the hand. Gilda gave an involuntary shudder remembering a recent encounter. What good was her supposed beauty if it didn’t produce the love story of the century? And, being female, penniless, and orphaned with no family history…her options for escaping her life without a man…were highly limited…possibly nonexistent.

Her grandmother’s morning knock startled her from her mooning over her reflection. She suspected that her Gran intentionally knocked early to keep her from spending too long admiring her own appearance. It wouldn’t have been the first time she had been caught doing so.

“You wake yet Gilda?” She called out in a raspy voice. Gilda wished her grandmother’s speech wasn’t so common, but she was far too old to be taught, so there was nothing she could do.

“Just dressing Gran, I will be out as soon as I am decent.” Gilda said as she pulled on her pale yellow dress and brown leather boots. She sighed as she did up the lacings. She would need new shoes also, these would never do for a Queen. She swung open the rough wooden bedroom door and stepped into the kitchen. The house was small. No, small was generous. The house was tiny. Even house was a stretch…it was a hovel. The kitchen was the dining room as well as the living room. Her Gran slept in what had been her parent’s room and she herself slept in the little added on room that her father had built for her before his death. Her room was scarcely more than a “lean to.” All told the spare rough-hewn dwelling had three rooms. Gilda sat down in her chair at the table. It was a simple, but polished wooden chair her father had made. Being that he had been a carpenter, he had made almost all the furniture in the house. Gran set a bowl of porridge down in front of her.

“Eat up Gild-a-lily, you’ve got a long walk today.” Gran said kindly. Gilda looked at the porridge. Her Grandmother invariably made it two ways, boiling hot and thin as milk with no flavor what-so-ever, OR cold, lumpy, nearly chewy, and overly sweet from too much honey or treacle. She imagined it was possible to make it somewhere in between, but not for Gran, so there she was. She took a tentative bite. It had the texture of beef steak, and was cold enough to make her believe that it was from the previous morning. A large amount of honey seemed to have been dumped on top to disguise that fact. She resented the expense that the unnecessary honey, which did nothing to make her breakfast more palatable, was causing.

“I’m actually none to hungry this morning.” Gilda said taking two large and painful bites and washing them down with a gulp of milk. Uck, it was soured. Gran seemed to have no sense of taste. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “It’s just that I’m very eager to get to the traps and see if I have any decent pelts out there.” She said standing up and pulling her shawl off the hook.

“At least take a long a little snack then.” Gran said wrapping what was most likely roasted squirrel in a cloth and handing it to her. She kissed Gilda on the top of her gleaming curls. “Best not fret if there isn’t enough to get you that dress Gild-a-lily. You’re a mite too pretty to need any trappings an-a-way.” Gran said pressing what had to be a second squirrel into her other hand. Gilda smiled as warmly as she could at her Gran and headed out the door. Gran gave her a wrinkly smile and waved.

“Thank you Grandmother.” Gilda tried tentatively. The expected rejoinder came back.

“You know I ain’t fancy enuf for any a that nonsense girl. I’m your Gran, an that’s that.” Gran shouted after her. Gilda shrugged. That meant “grandmother”, “grandma-mah” and pretty much anything respectable she could refer to her grandmother by had been vetoed. Well, she would simply have to avoid addressing her in public then! It had taken years of practice to lose the classless accent from her own speech, and she couldn’t risk people hear her using such common terms of familial affection.

Gilda stepped lightly down the front walkway and tucked the squirrels into the pockets of her apron. She reflected that the main problem with trapping as a source of income, was that one generally had to eat what came out of the traps. A diet of squirrel, rabbit, and the occasional bird tended to be gamey and tough, even when paired with the produce from Gran’s well-tended garden. What she wouldn’t have given for some pork or beef in her diet! Yet another thing she could look forward to once she was no longer a peasant.

Gilda latched the little gate behind her so that the rabbits she sought to trap stayed out of her grandmother’s prized vegetable patch…or worse yet, her roses! Gilda’s grandmother worshipped her little “Gild-a-lily” but she still hadn’t forgiven her for the time that she had left the gate open and the rose bushes had been eaten nearly down to the roots. She had only been eight or nine, but she hadn’t been given dessert for a week or more after the incident.

Gilda practiced her “Queen walk” as she meandered down the familiar path into the woods. Heel, toe, heel, toe, head held high, shoulders back. Just because she lived in a hovel, and trapped small animals in order to buy food and clothing, didn’t mean she couldn’t at least attempt to improve herself whenever she was given the chance. She glanced at the roasted squirrels making bulges in her homespun apron and laughed out loud. Oh yes, she was a Queen all right, a Queen holding two dead squirrels and walking with her nose in the air. She laughed again. She would have to eat one of them for lunch, but she could use the second one to bait one of her larger snares. She could always hope to catch something big like a wild cat. One of their soft gray pelts would get her a new pair of shoes all on its own.

The trap nearest the house was empty. It usually was. She supposed it was because the animals could smell their brethren bubbling away in her grandmother’s soup pot and knew to stay back. Soup was the one thing her grandmother was fairly good at making. Gilda had vague memories of her mother’s cooking, which seemed to center around baking. Her mother had been an excellent cook if her early memories could be believed. She had vague notions of a blonde woman with kind brown eyes pressing warm and flakey treats into what had been pudgy little dimpled hands. These memories didn’t really bear consideration, as they could only cause her pain.

Her parents had both been killed by a wolf pack that had once roamed their little corner of the wood. They had been taking a pig into town to be sold, when the smell of pork had proved too tempting for the pack to ignore. Gilda tried not to dwell on these circumstances of her past, as she didn’t like to wallow in self-pity. It was only recently that the women of the village had stopped looking at her with sympathy. She suspected that the transition from scrawny little girl to a glowing young woman had been a large part of that. It was just as well, she didn’t enjoy others feeling sorry for her anyway.

Gilda reached the second trap. It held a beautifully plumed pheasant. Pheasant would make a nice change from squirrel meat, and the feathers would fetch a decent price from the milliner. She could be nearly certain of that. The man had been widowed some three years previous, and had just started flushing and stammering every time she brought him a batch of feathers. He was balding and near-sighted as all milliners were, but she didn’t mind the extra coins he had decided her more recent deliveries of feathers had deserved. She tied a string around the legs of the dead pheasant and hung it from a rope around her waist. It must have looked ridiculous dangling from her tightly corseted waist like a feathery men’s pocket watch. No matter, no one of consequence would see her out here. She wound her hair up out of her face and tied it with twine behind her head. She normally wore it loose around her shoulders, especially recently as she never knew who might be watching her. If someone who was involved in naming Queen of the Faire saw her with her hair bound up tight as a fishmonger’s wife, who knows what they would think! But loose hair and low hanging tree branches were a sure recipe for hair loss. She also doubted very much that any townspeople of great importance would be out here, in the middle of the woods.

Gilda reached her third trap in record time. A stomach that didn’t have a lead brick of lumpy porridge in it seemed to lead to faster feet. Her stomach unfortunately didn’t agree and was arguing audibly with her for not having given it the timely breakfast it was accustomed to. The 3rd trap was disappointingly bare. More disappointing than the first trap because this one had been sprung – the animal had simply gotten away. Gilda hated having to reset a trap that hadn’t even caught its quarry. She groaned and bent down to re-string it. As she worked the tiny strings and slip knots, she pondered as to who might ask her to dance at the faire. Was there even anyone she wanted to have ask her? Several of the boys in town were handsome enough, but she couldn’t stand the thought of one of them holding her waist in sweaty hands, and trying to gasp out a conversation with her during a slow piece of music. Not only would it ruin the blue silk dress, but it would be so very awkward. Perhaps people were generally quiet while dancing? At least if there was no talking, there would be no nervous stammering. Would any of the blithering boys actually be able to pluck up the nerve to ask her? She doubted it. Although, in previous fairs nearly everyone had danced with the Queen…so perhaps they would. The only question remaining then, was if she would enjoy it.

A particular face forced itself into her mind. It was that of a tall dark haired man she had seen a few times in town. He seemed…mysterious. He had long brown hair, down to his shoulders, angular features and very dark eyes. She had only ever seen him trying to enter shops for last minute trade after sundown, when all the proprietors just wanted to go home. At the time she had moved on quickly, presuming that a man who only came out after nightfall was most likely a highwayman or robber or something… But now she remembered that he had been handsome, and he had not blushed or stammered when she passed. Quite the contrary. He had given her a derisive glance and continued about his business. The dancing was bound to be after dark, so perhaps her handsome stranger would be there. Perhaps not, she thought finishing the trap. Even if he was, what good would it do her if the one man who didn’t turn into a puddle at the sight of her and would be capable of a dance without excessive sweating, found her to be inexplicably worthy of his contempt?

Gilda kept on walking. She heard a strange rustling in the thicket to her left. This had been happening more and more often lately. But every time she turned around…there was nothing there. It was more than a little disconcerting. She tried to look absorbed in a pebble on the well-worn path she had made, and then turned rapidly toward her left. Nothing. No surprise there. Perhaps her frequent solitude was driving her slowly insane? It was as likely a guess as any. Once again she cursed the foolish notion of her late father to build a house in the woods, rather than near town. It made perfect sense for a carpenter to be near an adequate supply of downed trees and material…but for a girl of eighteen? It was endless torment. She had never understood why Gran had abandoned her house in town, and her work of mending for ladies of quality, to come live in a hovel in the woods. Why had Gran not sent for her to come live in town? Perhaps she had thought leaving her home after the loss of her parents would be too painful for little five year old Gilda? Her grandmother did almost everything out of a genuine desire to be kind, she just seemed to guess wrong a lot. It almost made you feel more affection for the poor hapless old woman…almost.

Gilda stopped motionless in her tracks. Her 4th trap held a struggling young fox. He was gorgeous. Deep red, fading to crystal white on his tail, with perfect little ebony stockings on his tiny feet. Gilda knew well how fashionable it was to wear a fur wrap about one’s shoulders made of fox pelt. She had seen many elegant ladies in the village attired in them. The head wound around one shoulder, and the body across the back, with the little feet of the animal slung over the opposite shoulder. Some women even had the head made into a clasp, which would bite its own tail to secure the wrap. A fox pelt would buy her the rest of the dress and be a good part way to the shoes. But the noose had caught his delicate little foot, and not his neck. He was still very much alive and looking at her with the most beautiful green eyes she’d ever seen. She wasn’t prepared to kill the little gentleman with her hands or her knife. He was too lovely and his eyes too pleading.

“Ack.” She said kneeling down beside him and grasping him from behind so that he couldn’t bite her. Not that he made any attempt, he seemed surprisingly docile. He seemed rather relieved to be rescued, and he didn’t try to bite at all. He just kept turning his head to look in the direction of the rustling that had disturbed her as well. So she wasn’t entirely crazy, the little fellow had heard it too. Gilda sighed.

“If you knew what your pretty fur was worth my elegant friend, you would appreciate this a lot more.” She said cutting him loose. She pulled one of the laces out of her shoe and grasped about the forest floor with her free hand until she found a pair of short sticks. She sat down on the damp earth and fashioned a small splint on his wounded leg. “Sorry about the leg little fellow. This should help heal it if it is broken or sprained.” She pulled the roasted squirrel out of her pocket. “Are you hungry?” She asked setting it on the ground in front of him. He seemed too frightened to eat, though he sniffed it hungrily. He still had made no attempts to bite her, which she found very odd. She heard the rustling again, it sounded like a very large animal. She quickly snapped her neck to the side to look. Nothing. She tossed the roast squirrel as far as she could and let go of the fox.

“Go on then.” She said. “I can’t stay here listening to phantom noises and talking to foxes…that would really make me insane wouldn’t it?” She asked the little fox as he took off in a funny three legged gait toward where she had thrown the squirrel. Asking a fox for its opinion of your mental status was perhaps a bad sign. Oh well. Gilda got up and brushed off her dress. She was now muddy, missing a lacing, and down one perfect fox pelt. She wondered if kindness and foolishness were linked qualities. It sure seemed to be that way. She had even given it her lunch…or bait out of guilt over its little injury. Silly Gilda. She admonished herself as she continued her walk through the woods.

Morning was giving way to midday if the filtered sunlight through the tree canopy was any indication. She took a regretful bite of the remaining food. It was stringy and tough and oddly fishy. Definitely a squirrel. It took a lot more chewing than she would have liked in order for it to go down. She took another bite, only to pacify her stomach. Her mouth was decidedly in disagreement with her about it. Her 5th trap, the one for wild cats or wolves, was still empty. In all honesty, it had never been full. The old bait was still there. She cautiously kicked the dried out rabbit leg out of the trap without tripping it. She placed the remainder of her squirrel meat into the noose. With any luck she would catch something large and furry and worth the waste of her lunch. A wolf would be nice. It would feel oddly satisfying in a morbid sort of way to catch one. She knew the pack was gone, but she still couldn’t help resenting their species for leaving her parentless. Much as she loved her very well meaning, very old and penniless grandmother, she would have preferred parents. It wasn’t fair that she had no wolf pelt of her own when so many of the towns’ men wore them. Her parents had been well liked. The men of little town liked to handle things on their own, and so they had armed themselves nightly and gone hunting until all the local wolves had been killed or driven on. The older men of her little village still tended to wear wolf skin coats in the wintertime as marks of their heroism. Gilda had a strange macabre liking for the fashion and wanted one of her own. No one had thought to give her one from the wolf massacre, they probably would have thought her desire for one to be unhealthy.

A wolf skin coat wasn’t very lady-like, nor would it help her become Queen. Becoming Queen of the Faire was the only tiny stepping stone an orphan with dirty finger nails and fox hair on her dress could hope for. She’d imagined what glorious futures it could bring her for years.

Perhaps a nobleman’s son would come to the faire to buy a ribbon for his betrothed. Perhaps he see her, and be so taken with her beauty that he would abandon the quest for a ribbon and take up the quest for her heart. He would forsake his cold and aloof fiancé, all for the beautiful village girl and they would have a scandalous, but happy marriage. Her fantasies must have truly gone too far, as she noticed she was editing them as they occurred because they were so ludicrous.

Gilda kicked a rock in the path. Her vivid imagination seemed served two purposes. To keep her from despair in her less than ideal circumstances…AND to drive her half mad with desire for a better life. She took the twine out of her hair and used it to rethread her boot. She wouldn’t make it all the way to her final trap if her boot kept threatening to come off with each step. She really hoped that no more of her hair got tangled in the forest’s upper canopy. Thankfully her hair was remarkably good at staying full and lush.

The 6th trap held a very plump and fluffy dead rabbit. She tied it to her sash. Its fur was dark brown and velvety in texture. This one would actually be worth a few coins. It was scarcely worth bringing in the grayish brown cotton tails she usually trapped. They were common enough to worth next to nothing from a fair merchant, and only a pittance from a besotted one. She didn’t even want to go to Mr. Grummold’s shop if she didn’t have a significant amount of decent pelts. He had been…overly enthusiastic toward to her lately. It was becoming very uncomfortable.

Gilda tried to amuse herself on what seemed to be an unusually long walk (most likely due to the excessive hunger she was experiencing) by reciting poetry to herself. She started with well-known sonnets, and then progressed to making up her own. As she grew more tired and more hungry the poems got increasingly ridiculous.

“A walk I took in the wild wood upon a summer’s day,

The path it twisted and it turned and I found I’d lost my way.

A dapper fox in knee high socks did try to directions give,

But I found he spoke my language not, nor I his.

A rustling in the thicket did suggest a passerby,

Yet try as I might, none did I spy.

Instead of bread crumbs, a trail of roast squirrel did I leave,

In order to find my way back upon this now summer’s eve.

To my chagrin, this was bound to fail as many creatures like to eat,

A foolish girl’s, gamey lunch and think it quite the tasty treat.”

Gilda stopped reciting her poetry out loud after hearing what sounded like a stifled laugh. But she saw no one. Feeling more than a little frightened, she began walking faster. She was certain there was someone or something there now.

She found her 7th trap and restrung it almost in a panic. The rustling and shadows were doing a number on her mind. “Stop it Gilda!” She admonished herself. “There is no one there. You’re just being crazy. You’ve not eaten enough today and it’s making you a bit of a nutter.” She didn’t realize that she had been speaking out loud until she heard the strange throaty chucking sound again. It could have been the growl of a large animal…or a man’s stifled laugh. Either way it frightened her. She turned away from her restrung trap and stood up.

“Who’s there?” She looked around her. All she saw was sunlight through the trees and piles of leaves on the dry ground.

“I said who’s there? It’s not funny to scare a woman! If you were any kind of man you would know that!” She scolded the phantom. No one answered, not even the strange laugh. Gilda exhaled slowly. “Or if you are an animal, and not a man, could you just hurry up and eat me? Or better yet fall into my last snare?” She asked trying to peer into the shadows. A barking laugh, loud and frightening answered her. It was followed by a low growling noise and a four legged and very large shadow falling onto her path. Gilda decided not to stay and see what made the shadow. She lifted her skirts and began to run back down her path. The 8th snare had better not have anything in it. She wasn’t going to check it.

Gilda hefted her muddy skirts up to her knees and hopped on one foot as she removed first one boot and then the other. The poor lacing was making it hard for her to run, and she really had to get out of the woods. She couldn’t even imagine how ridiculous she looked with dead animals hanging from her waist, shoes dangling from her wrist, and her skirts gathered up past her knees as she clambered down the path. For once, she didn’t care what she looked like provided that she made it home alive. Vanity only served her well if she remained living. Gilda ran down the path as fast as her bare feet could carry her.

The four legged shadow stood up. It preferred walking on two legs, even it was a bit unnatural. It chuckled in a throaty growling sound again. Its goal had been accomplished. The girl had been deeply frightened. It began walking back toward its home.

The little blonde creature’s set of snares had gotten longer as she had grown older. Now the network of snares expanded nearly to where his territory began. Neither he, nor the others would tolerate that. The girl needed to be turned back, and hopefully this had done it. He had tried merely tripping her traps and leaving them empty, or freeing the animals caught in them, but she was persistent.

Trapping was no sort of activity for such a spindly young thing anyway. She was just as likely to get caught in one her traps as to catch anything. He scraped his claws through her final snare and crushed it, leaving a very large, very obvious footprint. He tilted his toes forward so as to leave strong claw indentations. The girl was terrified of wolves and this print was clearly larger than a pathetic wolf’s. If she came back again in two days, as was her habit, this should dissuade her from ever doing so again. Let her take up embroidery or knitting or something else to pay for her food, and stay out of his woods.

The phantom creature turned away from her trap and walked back toward his territory. The others would be waiting for him. There was much to do this evening and he had wasted all day frightening a little girl.

Chapter Two: Selling Wares and Hearing Tales

‘Sunrise and Sunset will be your keepers and Daylight will be your prison.’ – From the Witch’s Curse

Gilda had scared the daylights out of her Gran when she had returned the night before in such a dreadful state. Gilda rarely had a hair out of place, let alone being gray, sweaty, muddy and out of breath. She’d had to reassure her poor Gran 10 or 12 times that she had seen nothing, and that it had all been in her head. Gran had been over the moon about the glorious pheasant and it had been easy to distract her with that. If she let Gran dwell on her fright too much she might forbid her to check her traps anymore, and that could not be tolerated! Without the income from her traps…well, it didn’t bear thinking about. Besides, trapping had been Gran’s idea in the beginning anyhow. She couldn’t forbid Gilda do something she’d initially encouraged could she?

That had been two days ago, she was due to check her traps today, but she had decided to let them go one more day. She was busy curing a set of hides at the moment, and she could use that as an excuse to stay out of the woods for a little while longer. She added more rock salt to the barrel of hides and stirred it. The temperature was still correct, so she could let them sit for another day or two before they would be ready to temper. Gilda picked up her bags of feathers, carefully separated by size and quality, as well as the few furs she did have ready. It was a pity that the chocolate colored rabbit pelt wasn’t ready yet. That one was going to get her quite a few coins. The cotton tail pelts she did have, were only marginally better than nothing.

Gilda cut a fresh lace for her boot off of a piece of lower quality squirrel leather and laced them up. It wasn’t as if she could sell the squirrel hides, as no one would buy those. She then pulled a shawl around herself and fluffed her hair around her shoulders.

“Gran! I’m going into town before the milliner closes.” Gran poked her head out of the cabin.

“It’ll be nearly evening when you get there. I don’t want you walkin’ back in the dark ya hear? Best go in the mornin’.” Gran said waggling a bony finger at her with authority.

“I’ll bring a lantern, don’t worry. I can’t go tomorrow, as I’ll have to check the traps. Please Gran, I have to see if I can’t get the coin together for the dress. You do understand don’t you?” Gilda pleaded, turning her big golden eyes on her Grandmother. Had Gran ever been young and beautiful? If so, no evidence of it remained. Gran’s hair was gray and stringy and her eyes so pale and watery it was impossible to see what color they had been. Could she really understand why a girl like Gilda would feel like she needed a dress that much? How it felt like life or death? If she didn’t get the dress, if she wasn’t seen in it, if she wasn’t named Queen of the Faire, it would feel like dying. It would certainly kill her dreams. Every second that she wasn’t recognized for the extraordinary girl that she was, every second that she had to spend in this primeval existence, was agony.

“Alright then. But you best be walkin’ home alone! Don’t let no men walk you home, you never know which ones are highway robbers or seducers!” Gran warned her. Gilda just laughed and slid the lantern off the hook on the post by the door.

“No walks home from highway men – I promise!” Gilda said laughing and brandishing the lantern. She’d have a shopkeeper light it before she headed home. She turned the path toward town before she realized something. Highwaymen? Had she left this late in the day because she wanted to run into the dark man? She had never seen him before sundown…had it been an intentional attempt to see him? Perhaps it had. If she examined her conscience thoroughly, she had to admit the possibility. She certainly could have left for town earlier in the day. Hmmm. That was distressing. She was contemplating her own foolishness for a rather long time when she realized that she had come to the front door of the milliner’s shop. Oh. She hadn’t been aware of how quickly she was walking! Well, Gran would be pleased. The sky was still quite light despite the low position of the sun. She might make it home before it was utterly inky outside and everything. She pushed open the door and walked in to the sound of the little bell on the door ringing. Mr. Grant looked up.

“Miss Lillan!” He said surprised to see her. His breath nearly caught in his throat. He squinted more than usual in order to see the pretty girl clearer. Gilda Lillan was the most beautiful girl in the village, and probably the surrounding villages…probably the countryside. He found himself perspiring and fumbling for his handkerchief. He wiped his brow with slightly trembling hands. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” He asked in a voice he tried, and failed, to keep quaver free.

“I caught a pheasant.” The lovely vision said opening a series of bags and laying out some truly remarkable feathers. “I wanted to offer you first chance at them.” Gilda said laying out some of the best examples of each size and color. Mr. Grant coughed into his handkerchief. He hadn’t planned on buying feathers that day, but these were good quality, and with the faire coming, people were buying more frivolities.

“Well, Miss Lillan, these are lovely. I’m afraid I am a bit short of coin just now. Can I trade you something? A hat? A pin? A scarf perhaps?” He asked hopefully. Gilda shook her head slowly, her golden curls swishing slightly. Her eyes looked like honey.

“I’m afraid I don’t usually wear head coverings.” She said with a slight laugh as she fingered one of her perfect curls. Of course she didn’t wear head coverings! How could he be so stupid!? No one with such hair would wear a hat! He might has well have offered ice to a snowbank. No doubt she would offended by such an offer! He may as well have just told her he thought her head was worthy of being covered up.

“Please, Miss Lillan!” He said as she turned to leave. She turned back toward him in what looked like a swirl of gold to his hazy vision. His squinty eyes gave her an almost glowing aura.

“Yes Mr. Grant?” She asked letting go of the feathers she had been sweeping up. They fell like a waterfall of color back onto the white cloth of his counter tops.

“Perhaps I can pay coin for them after all. Will you wait a moment?” He asked, fearful that if he made her wait too long that she would disappear like a mirage. It had happened to him before, many years back, and with a different girl. Now he was on guard to prevent such flights. She nodded kindly.

“Of course Mr. Grant.” She said smiling sweetly. Ah, she was an angel. He dashed back to the counting room and grasped a bag of coins without even looking at it. He returned to the counter panting slightly.

“I apologize for the wait.” He gasped out. Gilda inhaled and smiled tolerantly.

“It was barely a moment. I was enjoying looking at your beautiful work anyway.” She assured him. Agh! She truly was an angel, he had not been exaggerating! So patient, so sweet, so kind. He flushed and wiped his forehead again. His hands were perspiring so much that it was hard to count out the slippery coins. He managed to grasp slightly more than the appropriate amount and thrust it towards her.

“Here you are Miss Lillan.” He said in a voice that somehow managed to come out in a squeak like a teenage boy despite his 38 years. The angel didn’t laugh at him, but instead took the coins silently and slid them into the pouch at her waist. Her slender perfect waist which was so narrow that it could have been turned on a wood workers lathe.

“Thank you ever so much Mr. Grant. You are too kind, and as always, exceedingly generous.” She said eloquently and curtsied lightly. Then, like a vision, she was gone. He slumped back against the wall behind his counter. His heart couldn’t take many more visits from that girl. He gasped a few shallow breaths before standing up again. He had a lot of work to do. He had just purchased a great deal of feathers.

Gilda left the milliner’s shop feeling rather good. Mr. Grant hadn’t fainted this time, so that was an improvement, and he had given her quite a nice sum for her feathers. She’d been truly concerned that he was going to try to convince her to take a hat for a minute there, but he had acquiesced in the end. She shook her head, she honestly didn’t understand the trouble she managed to cause lately. Her features couldn’t be that much more symmetrical, her hair that much shinier, her lips that much pinker than other girls’ were to inspire such strange behavior. As she was having this modest thought, the young man walking next to her walked straight into the communal horse trough and tripped and fell in. He had been staring at her, rather than looking where he was going. Gilda sighed. She’d never get a first kiss at this rate. Any man who tried would get so nervous that he would probably accidentally bite off his own tongue in the attempt. Gilda shook her head again. She still had to go to the clothiers to see if he would buy the lousy cotton tail pelts she had for him. She shivered involuntarily. She was not looking forward to this. Gilda sighed deeply and pushed open the door and entered the shop, her eyes traveling instantly to the empty display mannequin inside. Her trepidation was instantly replaced by shock, horror, and then fear.

“Mr. Grummold? Mr. Grummold?” She said running to the back of the store where the portly older man was seated, relaxedly smoking his pipe as though the worst thing in the world hadn’t just happened. She stopped abruptly in her tracks so as not to get too close. There was significant danger in standing too close to him…or so she’d heard.

“Yes Miss Lillan? Slow down before you trip and hurt your pretty little self.” He said gesturing to a chair beside him. She shook her head.

“No thank you Sir. I only wish to ask Sir, if you did not sell the blue silk dress? The one from the mannequin?” She asked with fear in her voice. He nodded.

“I’m afraid I may well have little dear. But that dress weren’t right for you any-ways. I find I have something real special just fer you.” He said in a conspiratory way. Gilda shook her head.

“I’m afraid Sir that I had scarcely enough coin for that particular dress, and even only if you purchased these…” Gilda pulled the cotton tail pelts from her satchel. “For considerably more than you usually do.” She sighed. “I don’t have enough coin for anything specially made.” Gilda looked at her feet. She was utterly dejected and miserable. Mr. Grummold smiled a wide toothless smile. Years of eating the sweets from the jar on the counter of his own shop had rendered him quite bereft of dentine.

“Not even for this?” He asked opening a box behind the counter and pulling out a beautiful green/gold dress. Gilda’s heart stopped. It was perfect. And certainly about twice as expensive as the blue one had been.

“Oh Sir, it is magnificent, and it pains me greatly to admit this, but I have no hope of affording that.” Gilda said sadly. He chuckled.

“What if I told you, that you could have it for no coin at all?” He asked twirling his pipe with another gummy smile. Gilda took a step back, ah, so this was how the horrid man managed it.

“I am sure that I do not know what you mean.” Gilda said backing toward the door. Mr. Grummold stood up.

“I think you do Miss Lillan. I think you do. You’re a very pretty girl. Too pretty. Kind of pretty that makes a man do out of character things. The kind of things that make him wonder if you don’t have some powers other girls don’t! Almost feels like witchcraft the way you draw a man in. My boy can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t even think a sane thought in his head for sniffing after you. Calls out your name in the night, like he’s possessed or something.” Mr. Grummold said as he continued towards her. Gilda was nearly at the door. Mr. Grummold slid a finger along her cheek.

“Other girls freckle in the sun…you turn gold. Tell me that isn’t witch craft! You don’t want to be accused of witch craft do you? Not when you could have this nice pretty dress free of charge? All you have to do is wear it to the dance with my boy, and when he makes his pretty speech to you – be obliging!” Mr. Grummold said reaching for her hand. Gilda snatched it back.

“Your son wants to marry me?” She asked surprised, trying to take the conversation back to a somewhat respectable place. His son hadn’t spoken a single word to her since she was fifteen. How did he think he could propose to her? Mr. Grummold laughed.

“If that’s the price one has to pay for your loveliness, then yes, he wants to marry you. Me, I just want you to show an old man some kindness…in return for a pretty dress. You don’t say a word to my son about the kindness, and I won’t say a word to anyone about how you bewitched him, or me-self.” He said grasping her hand in an attempt to pull her towards him.

Gilda took one giant step backwards and straight into the unyielding chest of a man who had just stepped out from behind a large display of fabric rolls. Gilda made a terrified squeaking noise. She attempted to twist and see who had now sandwiched her in so that she was trapped, but she could not move. The man to whom she was backed up into however, could move. He grasped her arm free of Mr. Grummold’s grasp and spun her around so that she was now behind him. He kept his arm twisted behind him so that her wrist stayed wrapped in his long fingers. His other hand pushed Mr. Grummold back hard, so that he made a satisfying “smack” noise when he hit his own sales counter. Her rescuer was exceedingly tall, and broad shouldered to the point where she could no longer see Mr. Grummold from behind him. She imagined that Mr. Grummold would look about as surprised as she felt.

“Don’t worry Gilda, I won’t harm you.” Her mysterious rescuer? Said.

“This doesn’t concern you Mr. Vanhelstad.” Mr. Grummold said in a high pitched voice, as though he too were afraid, or had recently had the wind knocked out of him. The exceptionally tall man – presumably Mr. Vanhelstad, laughed, it was a warm, woolen sound. He pulled Mr. Grummold to his feet.

“Nonsense. I like to be helpful when I can, and I happened to overhear your little misunderstanding with Gilda here. I thought that I might help clear things up.” The man said with a smile in a voice. “It would never do to stand by when assistance was needed.” Gilda wanted to squirm and see his face, but he was keeping her firmly behind him with a grip on her arm that was vise-like.

“The girl is obviously was only here to buy a dress.” The man continued. “I’m pretty sure that we both know she has neither the cunning, nor the skills to cast any sort of spells. Also, if she were a witch, and you were foolish enough to speak to her as you did, I am fairly certain that you would be a toad…or some other sort of slimy creature by now. Don’t you think? And although a toad would be a bit redundant, she doesn’t strike me as someone with much imagination.” The man turned toward Gilda. He was the dark man! The highwayman! Well, probably not a highwayman…he had just saved her…somewhat insultingly, but saved her nonetheless. His eyes looked kind, and trustworthy, despite his rakish long hair. So she stopped attempting to free herself from his grasp and just waited to see what his plan was.

“Come here.” He said pulling her back in front of him with a curved whip-like motion of his arm. “You came here to do business, so do it.” He said gruffly. Gilda looked up at him.

“What?” She asked. He sighed as if greatly irritated by her stupidity. He gave a sharp tug to the money belt on her waist. The little bag of coins fell off into his hand.

“You were here to buy the blue dress, but now he has offered you this one instead, yes?” He asked. She nodded.

“Well, sort of. But…” Gilda began, how much had he overheard from behind the rolls of fabric in the back of the store?

Mr. Vanhelstad dumped her coins on the counter, and with a second violation of her personal space, tugged off the rabbit pelts and laid them next to the coins. “There. She has paid for her purchase appropriately, and we will be going.” He said to the startled Mr. Grummold. The tall dark man picked up the box with the gown inside and resumed his hold on Gilda’s arm, pulling her outside the shop.

“But Sir, this gown is more expensive, I can’t just…” Gilda said as he propelled them out into the street.

“Doesn’t your beauty usually get you a discount?” He said in the same irritated tone, as he looked over his shoulder to see if Mr. Grummold was following them. The startled/frightened older man was not.

“I don’t know why are you are being so condescending! I’m only suggesting that I don’t wish to cheat Mr. Grummold.” Gilda said, sounding somewhat hysterical as she tried to process the myriad ridiculous things that had just happened. To her surprise the man chuckled again. It was a strange, gruff, but oddly comforting laugh.

“He’s trying to have you burnt at the stake if you won’t go to bed with him, and you’re worried about cheating him out of a few coins?” He asked. He shook his head. “You’re a very strange girl, Gilda. Now go home before you get into any more trouble.” He said turning her in the direction of her house. She turned back to him.

“You can’t say salacious things like that to a girl! It isn’t appropriate!” Gilda said still breathing heavily from the ordeal...or from the fact that she had laced her corset extra tightly in order to get a slight discount… He hadn’t been wrong about that. The man shrugged his very tall shoulders and leaned towards her, close enough that she could smell his strange woodsy smell…like pine needles and cured animal skin.

“That is because I am not a proper man. Now, you had better be off home before you spend any more time in the company of such a man.” He handed her the dress box and turned her by the shoulders again, towards the road leading to the woods. “And next time you have a batch of furs, take them to the cobbler! He won’t pay as much, as he doesn’t make stoles, or wraps…just men’s outer wear and shoes…but he won’t accuse you of any witch craft either.” He gave her a little push between the shoulder blades. “Go on.” He said encouragingly.

Gilda didn’t feel prepared to argue with a giant man dressed mostly in dark leather, save for a linen shirt, so she nodded and mumbled “Thank you” before she started walking towards home. About ten steps down the path she realized that there was no way he should have pointed her in this direction. Every sane person lived in town, or on the other side of it in the village hamlet. NO one aside from her and Gran lived in the woods. How did he know she ought to take the path to woods? Odder yet, how did he know her name? He had twice called her Gilda. She knew she had never mentioned her name to him…she’d never really met him before tonight. Mr. Grummold had called her Miss Lillan. She was sure of that. Fear had seared it into her mind. Feeling rather bewildered, she wandered up the steps to her house. Gran was standing at the door.

“You didn’t light your lantern! Don’t them shop keeps know they ought not let a wee girl walk home in the dark? Ain’t none of the village boys good enough to walk you home?” Her Gran asked. Gilda sniffed the air. Her grandmother had turned the rest of the pheasant into a pie by the smell of it.

“Didn’t need the light so much Gran. I know the way home alright. Besides, I thought you didn’t want a man to walk me home!” Gilda chuckled. Just like Gran to demand she have it one way, and then complain it was wrong when she did exactly that.

“You needn’t worry Gran. A man from the village did walk me part of the way. Not a highwayman.” She said reassuringly, falling back into the manner of speech her Gran expected from her. She considered a moment…Mr. Vanhelstad was mostly likely not a highwayman. She sniffed deeply. “Smells like you made a pie. Any chance that I could have some, now you’ve verified I’ve not been robbed?” Gilda asked stepping through the door. Gran nodded.

“Didn’t burn it none this time neither!” She said with pride in her voice as she spooned Gilda a bowl. Gilda didn’t even bother remind her Grandma that a pie should be eaten with a fork. The events of the evening had made Gilda hungry and disinclined to talk. She picked up the spoon and took a bite.

“This is really good Gran.” She said honestly. It was surprisingly good. She used her toe to shove the box under the table where she could retrieve it later. She didn’t want to face the wrath of Gran if she had to tell the story of how she got such a dress.

“What’s that there that you don’t want me to see? D’ya get that purty dress you been wantin’?” Gran asked. Gilda swallowed another savory bite of pie.

“Is that sage or thyme you used in the pie? It’s truly delicious Gran.” Gilda said trying to avoid the subjects of witch trials, marriage proposals and strange leather clad men who only came out after dark.

“It’s rosemary.” Gran said with more than a touch of pride in her voice. “But don’t you think compliments on my cookin’ gonna make me forget you got that big fancy lookin’ box.” She warned. Gilda sighed deeply and kicked the lid off the box with her toe. Hopefully at the angle it was under the table, it would look less spectacular than it was. Gran wiped her hands on her old gray apron. She picked up the shining dress out of the box. The colors shifted green and gold as she turned it in her hands, like sunlight through the tree canopy in the woods. Gran’s face first looked awed, then angered.

“The pheasant feathers were worth quite a bit Gran…and Mr. Grummold let me trade in the rabbit pelts toward it too.” She said swallowing a bite without tasting it. Gran fingered the lace at the low collar of the dress, it was intricate, handwoven bobbin lace.

“And how much credit did Mr. Grummold extend you then? How many more pelts will you need to be trading in?” She asked. Not accusing, not scolding, just asking, a small measure of disappointment in her voice. Pretty girls could get into such trouble with credit. She’d seen it often enough when she was a seamstress. Gilda was more than a pretty girl, it was unnerving how pretty she was. Probably meant she had a more than usual ability to spend money too. Gilda shook her head.

“No credit Gran. It’s all paid for, I don’t owe a thing, I promise.” She said looking at the table. Maybe if her mouth was REALLY full of pheasant pie, her Gran wouldn’t expect her to talk? It was worth a try. Gilda spooned another exceptionally large mouthful of the pie into her mouth. Her Gran looked at the dress.

“It looks a mite too fine to be paid off so easy.” She said skeptically. Gilda couldn’t disagree. She was just glad that her Gran hadn’t guessed, or accused her of any other reasons she could have the dress so cheaply. She sighed.

“Alright Gran. I do owe Mr. Grummold a further six pelts, but I am curing that many now! It is not so great an expense for such a fine dress. Please don’t be angry!” She begged, beginning to sob piteously as though she had confessed a great sin. It was after all far better to confess to being a spendthrift than a suspected witch. Her Gran sighed and sat down beside her.

“Oh Gilda, I ain’t angry with you. I just don’t want you living your life in debt to those shop keeps! It’s the great temptation for pretty girls to overspend their pocketbooks.” She said putting her hand on Gilda’s.

“You bess be off to bed, you gotta check your traps tomorrow. You need ta pay your debt, and the sooner the better.” Gran said in a superior voice. Gilda nodded as though her Gran had given her sage advice. She ate a quick five bites in rapid succession – who knew when her Gran would make anything palatable again? It felt like she was always hungry, waiting for such a time. She then rose to head to her room.

“Thank you Gran. I will. It’ll be like it never happened. I promise.” Gilda said reassuringly as she left the kitchen. It would be like it never happened…because it never had! She couldn’t give her poor Gran anything to worry about. The woman had worn herself to the bone keeping Gilda fed and clothed until she was old enough to feed and clothe herself. She didn’t need any excess cares on her shoulders.

Gilda slipped into her room to head to bed. She didn’t bother to light a candle, and undressed in the dark…ostensibly to save the candle, but more so that she wouldn’t have to look at her own golden skin. The sun only touched her face and hands, but she was actually golden from head to toe. Mr. Grummold’s words scared her. Could her appearance really be used to accuse her of evil? She had heard of women brought down by less…a neighbor’s sick cow, a crying cat, or even strange patterns of dead grass. She had turned an entire village of boys into jabbering idiots, and that was a fair bit more than a sick cow.

Gilda laid down with her head on her hard threadbare pillow. She was surely over-reacting. This was all going to be okay.

Chapter Three: A Peacock in a Snare

‘Every child that endures the blood of your line, shall also endure your curse.’ – From the Witch’s Curse

The dark man walked home in the moonlight to his cottage. His long legs were eating the distance rather quickly. His sister and brother were waiting for him at home. They would want dinner and he had forgotten to purchase the bread his sister had been looking forward to. She was a terrible baker. He sighed. That little blonde girl was taking up too much of his time. All he’d managed to do before the shops closed was to buy the woolen socks he had been sent for, but he knew Freya didn’t care about those. It was the sourdough she wanted, crackling hard on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. She’d send him back in an evening or two, which was inconvenient as there was every probability he would run into her again. Freya couldn’t go into town herself, and Frederick was too young. He sighed. Why did he have to get involved in that stupid skirmish? He slid his hand through his long tangled brown hair.

He’d gotten involved because he couldn’t let the girl be harmed by that horrid man. It wasn’t because her beauty effected him the way it did other men. It didn’t. It must have been because he’d seen her grow up since she was a child. Watching a little unsupervised girl, just watching, had quickly degenerated. It was impossible to simply watch a six year old child! Especially one whose Grandmother was too old to keep up with her. Could he really just watch, and not stop her from tumbling over a ravine? What kind of person simply stood by and watched as a child fell to her death? It had happened time and time again. He had thrown a branch into the water when she had fallen into the creek and nearly drowned as a scrappy nine year old. He had even chased the first rabbit into her pathetic snare when she was twelve and she her Grandmother were starving after a bad winter. He’d gone so far as to carry her, unconscious through a blizzard when she had become lost in the snow and fallen asleep on the ice. That was why he couldn’t let her be trampled by a portly shop keeper. It would be a waste. A waste of a girl he had personally kept alive for the past 12 years.

He rounded the bend and saw the little stone cottage in the moonlight. It wasn’t really little. It was fully two stories, it was just less than he had once been used to. Freya was in the doorway watching for him. Fredrick was on the roof adding fresh reeds to the thatch. None of them wanted the roof to leak again in the forth coming autumn rains. Freya leaned out of the doorway, hanging on by one arm.

“Where’s my bread Freyr?” She asked, one eye brow raised. She couldn’t smell it, and he didn’t appear to be holding a large enough bag. Fredrick leapt down from the second story roof, landing lightly on his feet – cat like.

“Forgot it? Didn’t you?” He asked, his blonde head cocked to the side. Freyr sighed deeply. Damn that gilded girl.

“Yes I forgot it.” He said throwing the bag of socks 30 feet into his brother’s stomach. Fredrick flipped backwards onto his feet as if bowled over by it.

“Can’t eat these brother. Did you bring us anything worthwhile?” He asked. Then Freya wrinkled her nose, sniffing the air, and shook her head.

“Freyr?” She asked closing the space between them and pulling a long golden hair off his leather jacket. “The girl? We agreed.” She said accusingly. Fredrick perked up and took it from his sister’s hand.

“THAT girl? Nicely done.” He said smiling with his head cocked again. Freyr growled and shoved his brother back.

“I had to keep a shop keeper from throwing her down…in the middle of his shop! During business hours! It’s not what you think. I merely kept him from hurting her and then I left. It’s getting harder to keep her safe. It’s getting ridiculous in fact. You should see the way they act around her in town…” He stopped speaking, he had said too much. Keeping her safe had never been part of his job. Freya sighed deeply.

“Then perhaps you should stop. Things would be easier for us if you did…and you might remember my bread. You have one task when it comes to her. If you want to change the rules…” Freya began in a sanctimonious tone. Freyr cut her off.

“No. The rules are fine. Obviously they are fine, I made them. They keep us all safe. No changes.” He was capable of just watching. He didn’t have to interact with her anymore…she was older now anyway, and she should be capable of staying safe by herself. It wouldn’t be the same thing as just watching an innocent child come to harm. Freya gave him a suspicious, calculating look.

“If you are sure. I just don’t want you to get distracted.” She said looking concerned, and sympathetic. Frederick laughed.

“Ohhh Freyr…is she distracting? All that time you were calling her vain, selfish, foolish, and irritating…was she distracting you? Complaining about watching her, the endless torture, was it because you were just watching? Mr. High and Mighty? The noble brother who made the rules for ALL the rest of us…and you’re the one who wants to break them.” Frederick kept on laughing. Freyr growled and launched himself at his brother, knocking him to the ground. Frederick laughed and leapt back up to his feet, assuming a fighting stance, hands up. Freyr stood across from him, on the balls of his feet, deciding whether or not to hit him. Freya inserted herself between the two of them, her reddish hair whipping around her face.

“Enough!” She shouted. She put one arm out on each side of herself between the two of them. “This is ridiculous. Freyr go inside. Frederick – not another word.” Freyr made a move toward his brother. Freya caught his arm and held it.

“Leave off.” Freyr shouted yanking his arm back and heading toward the house.

“Frederick will watch the girl tomorrow. You need a break.” Freya shouted after his retreating back. Freyr whipped around.

“Not tomorrow.” He said firmly. Freya raised her eyebrows.

“Frederick can handle this now. It’s been two years since…” She stopped speaking as Freyr shook his head and whispered in her ear. Freya inhaled. “Ahhh. Not tomorrow.” She sighed. “Alright. Then I will do it.” Freyr growled again.

“No.” He said quietly. Freya shook her head.

“You need some space from this. I can do it. I’ve been better lately. You know I have been better lately. I won’t let myself get sidetracked. I promise. We’ll be safe.” She assured him. It dawned to Freyr disturbingly that the thought that they wouldn’t be safe had not even entered into his mind.

Gilda woke up feeling full of shame and anger. Last night the fear of being accused of witchcraft had overpowered her irritation with the dark man – Mr. Vanhelstad. But in the morning light she was full of resentment. He had spoken so scathingly about her. What kind of a man attempts the rescue of a young girl by viciously insulting her? Surely there were more gentlemanly ways. BUT! She didn’t have time to dwell on him. Her snares were a day overdue, and her Gran would still insist on cooking with the animals in them, regardless if they were fresh or not. She didn’t wish to endure the stomach pain that such experimental cooking could induce.

Gilda sat up and pulled on her yellow dress. She’d washed it the other day, so at least it wasn’t muddy anymore. The hem was ripped in two places from her foolish run through the woods, but it was clean and she had no other. Well, she did have another one now…but it was a party dress! Gilda laced up the boots and ran a brush through her curls until they seemed to give off their own light. She stepped into the kitchen several minutes before her Gran would have rapped on the door.

“Gilda! You up an ready a bit early ain’t you?” Her Gran said in surprise. Gilda shrugged her shoulders.

“The traps are overdue.” She said by way of explanation. She tucked the book she had been reading into her waist pouch and sat down to the inevitable porridge bowl. On cue with her thoughts Gran dumped a spoonful of it into her bowl.

“Don’t know why you bother with all that readin’ nonsense. Ain’t none of the village boys gonna care if you know your courtly manners or whatever fool book you’re reading now.” Her Gran said petting her shiny hair. Gilda just sighed and took a bite of the thin, tongue burningly hot, flavorless porridge. She gulped water to save the skin on her tongue and coughed.

“I enjoy reading. Besides, I don’t care a fig what the village boys like or don’t like.” Gilda said sipping her hot porridge rather than using the spoon. It was too hot to spoon up, sipping off the surface was safer and quicker. Gran was the one who’d sent her to the village school to learn to read, so she couldn’t really complain now that Gilda was doing so.

“You’d best care!” Gran said shocked, turning to face Gilda from where she had been stirring the porridge. “I ain’t got morin’ one or two winters left in me and you can’t live here all on your own. Mos’ all your friends been married two or three years now.” Gran scolded looking deeply concerned. Gilda stood up and embraced her grandmother.

“Don’t be ridiculous! You’ll out live me! You’re far too stubborn to die.” She said feeling the narrowness of her Gran’s slight shoulders, and marveling for the first time that Gran was shorter than she was now, and had been for some time. “Besides, I didn’t mean that I have no intention of finding a husband, I meant that I suspect he won’t be a village boy.” Gilda said fluffing her hair and raising an eyebrow. Gran scoffed.

“Best not be setting your sights to high, or ye be liable to fall in the mud there girly.” Gran said looking dismayed at Gilda’s lofty goals. Gilda laughed.

“I don’t think I’ve set them high enough.” She said kissing her Gran on the top of the head and skipping toward the door. “I could be a true Queen an all – not just Queen of the Faire.” Gilda said with a facetious smile. Her Gran did laugh then.

“Fill your water skin and be off with you then.” She said with a dismissive wave of her hand. Gilda nodded. She took the dipper from the barrel and filled her water skin.

“Bye then Gran! See you for dinner.” She said heading up the path. Gran always did her washing on Tuesdays, so she might still be down by the creek when Gilda got home. Either way Gilda knew that Gran would have something bubbling on the little stove for her.

Gilda began her familiar route feeling slightly less terrible about the night before. Mr. Grummold was not actually going to accuse her of anything, and she would most likely never see the dark man again…so she really ought to stop dwelling on it. She needed to concentrate on things she could change…like her poverty for instance.

Gilda pulled a small mink out of her first trap. Pity. It wasn’t as if she could sell him for much now that she couldn’t take him to the dressmaker’s shop. She could get a decent amount for him at the milliner’s though if she held on to it until he was making his winter hats. Gilda kept moving.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a russet colored blur to the side of the path. Her breath caught in her throat – was that her phantom rustling? It had been huge, much larger than a wolf. She was driving herself crazy, if there was a wild animal out there it would have eaten her by now. Gilda forced herself to keep walking as if nothing was wrong. Second trap was empty and tripped. Gilda repaired it quickly and kept walking. She needed to be back in time to work on her pelts. She was out of coins and so she needed the pelts to be good enough to trade to the cobbler for a pair of dancing slippers. She wanted fawn colored kid skin shoes…but that was unlikely to happen. If all else failed she could beg Gran to make some out of a rabbit pelt. Gran did still remember how to sew, even if no fine ladies paid for her work anymore.

Third trap was empty too. Gilda could have sworn she saw the blur again, but she had to be mistaken. Her fourth trap was crushed, beyond repair. Gilda sighed and sat down to build a new one, so she set her book open on her lap. The book was a hard one, intentionally so, as she had been challenging herself lately. The prose was all in elevated language with terms that were known exclusively to the nobility. Given that she had only attended a little village school for a few years, Gilda was fairly certain that she was not up to the standards that her imaginary nobleman’s family was going to expect. Therefore, it paid to take whatever opportunities one had, in order to improve. By the time her snare was finished, she had also finished a chapter. Gilda stood up and brushed off her dress. She took a bite of the cold pheasant pie that Gran had wrapped in a cloth for her. Surprisingly it held up. She ought to snare more pheasants if it inspired her Gran to such feats of culinary skill.

Gilda stopped in her tracks as though she had been shot. In her 5th snare there was a peacock. A beautiful, unbelievable, gold, green and blue creature. It didn’t make any sense! The only way for it to be here – to be real and not a hallucination – was if it had escaped from a noble family’s menagerie. Perhaps even a Royal family’s menagerie. Then after making its daring escape, it would have to wander at least dozens of miles through the wood, if not more, in order to end up caught in her snare. It was impossible. No snare could be so lucky as to catch an errant peacock! A peacock, fully plumed, in the woods of Stratfordshire. Gilda sat down beside the trap. She was a witch! It was the only explanation! The only possible explanation that made sense, was that she was in fact a witch, and had willed this poor creature to escape and to run dozens of miles before surrendering itself to her snare. Gilda began to cry, holding the dead peacock in her lap, sobbing bitterly.

A rustling in the brush startled her from her tears. The russet colored blur was back again, just beyond the edge of her vision, as though it was trying, and failing to stay out of sight. Gilda stood up and tied the peacock’s feet to her waist. If she had brought the thing to its doom with just a wish, the least she could do was use it. She couldn’t sell it, as that would get her arrested for poaching… She’d have to use the whole damn bird on her dress for the faire. If she got arrested, she got arrested. If she didn’t, she was pretty sure there was a large phantom creature that was going to maul her to death anyway. Gilda giggled. She wasn’t a macabre person, and it was hard to be melancholy when you had a peacock tied to your waist. A peacock!

Gilda decided to ignore the phantom, as it had yet to kill her, and to keep walking. Who knew? A unicorn could be in her next trap. Gilda giggled again. “I suppose the next one will have a unicorn in it? Eh Phantom?” She joked out loud, calling the scary thing by its name, in order to make it less scary. She heard a chuffing sound, but it was not the strange growl laugh. Her phantom must not have found her joke amusing. Her sixth trap was empty, as was the seventh.

“No leprechauns with pots of gold for me to snare?” She said aloud. Gilda shrugged and restrung it.

“Quite a letdown after the peacock I’ll admit.” Her blur didn’t answer her. She straightened up. “Alright then.” She said resuming her walk toward her final snare. It was barely past noon, she was making record time. She reached the spot where her eighth trap should be, but it was gone. Not so much gone as obliterated…smashed into tiny pieces. There was an enormous clawed paw print in the mud right in the center. Her phantom blur had destroyed it. Had the snare contained a trapped animal that her phantom wanted to eat? Or was her phantom sentient enough to destroy something in order to frighten her? Wild animals couldn’t do that could they? Gilda couldn’t tell if it was deliberate or accidental, but it didn’t frighten her. It irritated her. Now she had to rebuild another snare.

“Bloody irritating is what this is!” She said, her speech common and vulgar with her anger. “Why’d you have to go an’ do this eh? Not enough is it to frighten me out-a my wits? You have to crush my livelihood?” She asked the silent woods. Good God she was crazy.

Gilda sighed and got out her book again. She was surprised that she wasn’t frightened, she felt like she should be. Her life had just become so strange lately, that finding out her phantom was most likely a wild animal and not something mythic or evil, was actually reassuring. Gilda repaired the snare and read another chapter in her book of etiquette, as that was the book she was reading. Knowing which fork to use for which foods was not important now…as her Gran used a knife as a fork, and a spoon otherwise…but someday if she dined in more distinguished company, it might be.

Gilda felt a defiant impulse brewing inside her. She stalked further into the woods and placed a ninth snare. If whatever wild animal was watching her didn’t like having her in the woods, it was going to be disappointed. She wasn’t leaving. Whatever damned beast it was would have to get used to having her in its territory.

Gilda walked back towards the cottage feeling like she needed to relax. She was pulsating with pent up anger and frustration. She could raid the little cabinet of liquor that Gran thought she was unaware of, or she could take a bath. She had finished her snares in enough time to take a bath, and she was rather fond of them. Given that it was the end of summer, the portion of the creek that she had dammed off to make a bathing pool would be particularly warm. In summer Gilda took baths twice a week – especially once she had learned to swim. Gran never seemed to bathe ever. When Gilda mentioned how warm the creek was in the summer for bathing, as a sly hint, her Gran had just laughed at her.

“I was nekked when I was borne, and I didn’t much like it then, so I try not to do it much now.” Had been her sophisticated reply. Gilda returned home to an empty house. Gran must still be out doing laundry. Gilda hung the mink and the peacock up in the shed to clean later. She grabbed her soap and her bathing dress. She was freaked out enough by her phantom’s vindictiveness not to grab her bathing mask. Her purity could stand the sight of herself undressed once. Although, she wouldn’t be able to claim “Venetian Virgin” status without it. She wasn’t from Venice, and although she had never seen a man in just a shirt without a jacket or vest, she would have seen herself in a state of undress. It was depressingly hard to bathe oneself masked without servants, as well as to dress and undress. She imagined that was partially why it was mostly wealthy young women who could claim such a lofty status of purity. Besides, how could seeing one’s own self naked, be the slippery road which led to wanton indiscretions?

Gilda slid out of her corset, dress, and under garments and into the thin bathing dress. It was quite providential that the harvest festival – and naming of the Queen – was at the end of summer. It made it that much easier to be sweet smelling and beautiful for it. After all, when the water was warm enough to make bathing pleasant, one was far more apt to do so. Gilda dove head first into the water. As long as she wasn’t wearing her mask, she might as well make it a swim instead of just a bath. Gilda floated motionless in the water, letting the tiny ripples slide over her body. She didn’t hear any strange rustling. It was quiet and still. Gilda felt relaxed for the first time in weeks. She soaped her hair and washed herself slowly. She exhaled for what seemed like the first time that day, enjoying feeling so free and tranquil. Gilda climbed out of the creek at last and hung her bathing dress to dry while she slipped into her clothes again. She looped her shoe strings over her arm and held her skirts up to her knees to keep them from sticking to her wet legs. She walked back up to the cottage which still looked empty. Gilda stopped short. The yard was not empty.

“Oh, oh my.” A young man said going wide eyed dropping the armload of yellow buttercups he was carrying. He must have brought several bags as he had set up rows and rows of cut buttercups as though they were growing in her yard.

“You knew I was coming, look at you!” He said running towards her in an attempt to grasp hold of her. She honestly had no idea who he was. Gilda dropped her boots and skirts raced up the porch steps. She grasped the broom by the door, and brandished it out towards him.

“Don’t come any closer!” She said, standing barefoot by the door, extending the broom to keep him at bay.

“But why? I can see that you’ve been getting ready for me! Look at you all freshly bathed, skirts up to show your legs… Why you’re a little coquette! You can’t be saying now that you don’t want me?” He asked climbing the steps. Which village boy was he? He wasn’t red or stammering, he must be one of the older ones. She shook her head.

“Want you? I don’t even know who you are!” She said waving the broom. He stepped back as though she had struck him.

“Don’t know who I am? We attended grammar school together – you were one of the only girls there. Surely you remember?” He said incredulous. Their love could not be exclusively in his head! Why would she have bathed, why would she have tucked her skirts up to her knees if not to seduce him? She was peasant, and peasants only bathed twice a year, and for an occasion such as Christmas Mass, or a relative’s wedding…for what had she been bathing if not his arrival?

“There were over 20 boys.” She said. It was true that she had attended school, and was one of the very few girls to do so. Why should she remember him? She was the memorable oddity, not him!

“I sat behind you every day!” He said sounding close to despair. He had sat behind her glowing golden hair for two years. The scent of it filled his dreams. Gilda just shrugged her shoulders apologetically. She was not sure why him having sat behind her, where she couldn’t see him explained why she ought to remember him.

“I memorized every strand of your perfect curls!” He said sounding nearly hysterical now. Gilda took a step back toward the inside of the house, her eyes wide.

“I’m very sorry.” She said truthfully. He looked crushed.

“You didn’t know I was coming? You weren’t preparing for me?” He asked crestfallen. She shook her head, the very thought was disgusting. Preparing for him? Had she thought she was about to surrender herself to him on the front lawn of her cottage? With her Gran due home any minute? This was ludicrous, that and the boy was not particularly handsome, and certainly not nobility.

“Why would I know that you were coming?” She said putting down the broom. He looked so dejected and deflated. At the moment he seemed harmless, now that his ardor had cooled.

“I was coming to ask you to attend the faire with me on Saturday…everyone says I am sure to be King. My father owns so many of the buildings in town…it’s just what everyone says…” he said sheepishly, as though his family’s wealth was an embarrassing reason to be chosen to be King. “Since everyone says you will be Queen…it seemed…they’ll all expect…I just thought… I mean, you would know that we should attend together. Surely you knew I would be coming to ask you?” He looked at his feet.

“Oh. You’re Theodore Brandon!” She said. She really ought to have known who he was. His father was the banker, and he held the mortgages to many of the properties in town. She had often thought that one of his sons might be a back up, should a young nobleman not chance her way. The oldest, Theodore, was unfortunately not the handsomest of boys, and clearly not the most logical. Despite being the oldest, he was skinny and looked quite young, and he was not the more intelligent of her former classmates. She hoped his father wasn’t grooming him to take over the business. He looked very earnest and kind, if not particularly clever.

“You do know me!” He said his voice rising in hope. “So you will go to the faire with me?” He asked hopefully. Gilda sighed.

“I’m sorry Theodore, I had honestly intended to go alone. I will save a dance for you.” She said hesitantly, to soften the blow. He reached out to take her hand. When his skin touched hers it discharged a mild shock of static from the dry straw of the broom. He pulled his hand back.

“Why did you do that?” He asked holding his hand. Gilda cocked her head to the side. Surely he had been shocked before? By straw or wool or anything?

“It was a shock, I didn’t do it to you on purpose!” She said, but he was already backing away.

“I’ll see you at the faire…I didn’t mean…any harm. You didn’t have to wave your broom at me, or smite me.” He said haltingly as he backed away from her garden and then turned to walk quickly away up the path. Gilda watched him go. Smite him? Like with lightening from the heavens? What on earth had made him act so strangely? He couldn’t possibly have thought she had intended him injury? Gilda shook her head and walked into the house. What was going on lately? It was getting worse by the minute. She sat down at the empty table. Gran would be home soon, she would know what Gilda should do. Gilda put her head in her hands. She was so tired. She hadn’t been sleeping well lately and today had been rather overwhelming. She must have fallen asleep, because the next thing she knew Gran was shaking her awake.

“Gave me a fright sitting there not movin! Thought you were sick! What’s a healthy thing like you doing sleeping this early? Ain’t you got chores to do?” Gran demanded. Gilda laughed. Gran’s homespun turns of phrase snapped her out of her gloom.

“Yes, I’m fine! Had a bit of a strange evening is all. You saw the flowers?” Gilda asked standing up and going to the stove to ladle a bowl of soup for her Gran. Gran took the bowl from her and sat down.

“What flowers?” She asked confused. Gilda set down the ladle and walked to the window, full of apprehension. She looked out into the front garden, which an hour or so ago had been filled with hundreds of buttercups. There was not a single one left. Not even a crushed petal to betray their presence. It was as if they had never been.

Chapter Four: The Harvest Faire

‘All shall suffer, until the day that you end what you have begun.’ – From the Witch’s Curse

Saturday morning Gilda woke up filled with excitement and dread. She couldn’t wait to go to the faire, but she was afraid of what might happen there. She wasn’t entirely positive that she wasn’t losing her mind. Gilda stepped into the shed. At least the shoes Gran had made of the dark brown rabbit pelt looked beautiful. They weren’t fawn colored kidskin, but she had been so loathe to go back into town…they would have to do.

Gilda opened her drawer of projects and pulled out her latest creation. She set to work finishing the crown she had been weaving of dried flowers and the yellow and green peacock feathers. It would be hard not to name her Queen when she was already wearing a crown! She looked at it smiling. It was beautiful. She had used only the smaller turquoise, green, and mostly gold feathers woven together with ribbons and dried flowers. It sat on her head, close to her hair, embellishing without spoiling the effect of her golden curls. It looked like a golden wreath, similar to one of her two consistant reoccurring dreams. Only the little golden short feathers were right.

She had saved the much longer tail feathers to make a short cape to go around her shoulders. It had two layers, shorter feathers on top of longer, with the end falling just to her waist in back. She had finished the top with ribbon and green thread. It was so incredible and unreal that it looked as though it had been made by fairies.

Gran stepped into the shed. “See you used most of that peacock. You gonna sell what’s left?” She asked, still looking a trifle suspicious.

“Maybe.” Gilda answered, biting the end of the thread and tying it off.

“It just found its way into your snare?” Gran asked gently. Gilda nodded.

“That’s the truth.” She said standing. “I have to change for the Faire. I want to get there in time to do some trading.” Gilda said walking toward the house. She wanted to trade as many furs and feathers as she could to the merchants who would have come from other towns to sell at the faire. She could no longer sell to Mr. Grummold, and she hated selling Mr. Grant anything more than she knew he really wanted. The poor man would buy just about anything for an excuse to talk to her, which felt somewhat wrong. Therefore, there was no sense in wasting an opportunity. Gran followed her.

“You sure you want to wear all that?” Gran asked. “Don’t you think it’s a bit much Gilda-lily?” She said fingering Gilda’s hair. “No sense in over dressing when you’re already the prettiest girl in town. Could get quite a pretty coin for that cape you made.” Gran looked at her concerned. “I wouldn’t mind you having a little put by, in case you need to get along on your own awhile.” Gilda faced her Gran.

“You’re as healthy as a twenty year old Gran! Stop worrying. I do have a bit put by and so do you. Besides, if you half think I poached the bird…then of course I can’t sell it! If I make any coins on it, it’ll bring suspicion. Suspicion can be a might more dangerous than too few coins put by.” Gilda said seriously. Her Gran nodded.

“Alright, you get yourself gussied up then.” She said giving in. Gilda kissed her Gran’s forehead before stepping into her room. She pulled the greenish golden gown out from under her bed. Every twist of the light saw new shades in the dress as she slid it on. It felt like water on her skin. It was intoxicating wearing something so fine. The very feel of it on her skin was like having had a glass or two of mead. She felt so beautiful. She brushed her hair until it was a cloud of curls that floated nearly to her waist. Gilda tied her hair back slightly so that it fell in a single column down her back and did not cover the entirety of the cape. The crown nestled perfectly on top of her head, adding glints of color to the waterfall of gold. She tied the cape lightly around her shoulders and looked into her water bowl. She looked more like the Fairy Queen that Queen of the Faire. She smiled. Sometimes, it was glorious to be so pretty.

“Well?” Gilda asked stepping back into the kitchen. A strange smile came over Gran’s face, giving her a wistful look that Gilda had never seen before.

“Oh Gilda-lily! You’ll do perfectly.” She said just as inscrutably as her facial expression was. Gilda smiled.

“Shall we go then?” Gilda asked holding her elbow out as though to escort her Gran.

“You go on! I’m baking a few pies to sell. We’ve had quite of bit of odd meat lately… No one will know it’s peacock if I put it in the handpies!” Gran said with a wry smile. “I’ll say they’re chicken. Should bring in a fair bit of coin either way. We’re oftly short on flour and butter.” Gilda laughed.

“We’re short on flour and butter because you’re making pies for an entire faire!” She stepped into the doorway. “I’ll follow the smell of peacock pies to find you then Gran.” She said giving a wave as she hopped out the door and down the path. The walk to town was not a long one, but her excitement made it seem interminable.

Finally she could hear the music of the faire and knew she was almost there. The trees thinned, and the path became more of a road as it connected with the other more well-traveled lanes leading into the village.

Gilda stepped out of the shadowy woods and into town. Sunlight sparkled on her iridescent dress, lit up her hair, and dazzled down her cape. The noise and bustle of the faire seemed to stop for a minute as she stepped into its midst. Heads turned in her direction, and their mouths dropped open. Gilda walked forward as the crowd parted to let her through, as if they were afraid to brush against her shining splendor. Gilda didn’t think trade was going to be possible, she was too much of a spectacle. As she walked toward the square in order to sign up to have her name considered for Queen she felt as if all the eyes were on her. Even if she were hideous there would be stares. No one in the village could afford as many peacock feathers as she was wearing, and the dress alone was conspicuous. Put all together, she stuck out like a rose amongst thorns.

Gilda stopped in front of the table where the other girls were signing up. They looked at her with a mixture of awe and hatred. Gilda almost felt embarrassed, she must seem ridiculous.

“That’s quite the costume Gilda.” Anna, the baker’s daughter said with her eyebrow raised. “Didn’t think you could get the crown on merit alone? Had to dress as if you’d already been named?” She asked picking up the straw flower crown on the table and brandishing it at her. “Even if by some chance you lose…You’ll still look more like a Queen than the girl who is named!” She said and tossed the crown back down on the table. Gilda tried to grab her arm as Anna turned to walk away. Anna had been her friend up until a year ago when Gilda had finished ‘blossoming’.

“Anna, please, wait!” She pulled a feather out of one of her bags. “Take one for your hair. I happen to have several.” She said quietly. Anna took the feather hesitantly, small a gift as it was, she did not own anything so nice.

“All the girls said you were seeing a noble! Did your fancy man give you this?” She asked eyes wide. “He did didn’t he?” She said narrowing her eyes in accusation. She laughed. “You don’t think he’ll actually marry you?” Anna asked incredulous. “Never really pegged you for stupid…but you don’t get an entire peacock for putting a man off do you?” Anna asked. Gilda shook her head.

“There is no fancy man!” Then she stopped speaking. It was almost better if her friends thought she had gotten her finery as a gift. “Just enjoy the feather, Anna. It’ll look a sight better in your dark hair anyway. Much more striking.” Anna slid it into her hair looking slightly pacified, even though Gilda had several hundred more.

“Thanks. Better sign up then. Can’t name you Queen unless you’re on the list.” She said with her voice still vibrating with jealousy that she was trying to bite back. Gilda gave her a wan smile and walked to the front of the line. The boy taking names looked familiar. Damn. It was Ethan Grummold.

“Hello Master Ethan.” She said avoiding eye contact as she wrote her name on the sheet. Hopefully her not so subtle insult would keep him from making any sort of pretty speech to her. Gilda looked at the rest of the list. Several of the names were only X’s. Not sure how those girls thought they were going to get their names called…

“It’s Mr. Grummold.” Ethan said in a squeak of a cracking voice. “I’m all of nineteen now. Fully a man and partner in the shop.” He said with his scrawny chest puffed out in pride. He was blushing a bit, but he wasn’t stammering. Gilda nodded.

“Forgive me. Of course it is.” She said turning to walk away. He caught her hand in his sweaty one.

“You didn’t even need to write your name you know. All this is just a formality. I’ll make sure it’s you. All the judges look up to me…my father…it’ll be you.” He said, his eyes roving over her in a way that made her uncomfortable. Gilda smiled tightly.

“Thank you…” She said awkwardly. “But I’m sure there are many other girls to consider.” He shook his head.

“There’s only you.” He met her eyes intently. “In every respect, there’s only you.” He blushed deeply. “You’ll dance with me…of course you will…won’t you? I’m actually anxious to speak with you.” Gilda shrugged.

“If I’m Queen of the Faire I’ll have to dance with all the young men won’t I?” She said trying to smile playfully. He laughed as though her joke was hilarious.

“Yes, of course! Mustn’t make it look as though there were favoritism…even if you and I…” He trailed off while rubbing a small circle on her hand. Gilda withdrew it hastily. He blushed again.

“I’ll see you later then…” He said, his ears purple. With all his blood in his ears, it was remarkable that the boy hadn’t gone white as a sheet. Gilda nodded and made a quick exit without speaking. All she wanted to do was get away from the uncomfortable scene. It was easier to discount the strange events that surrounded her when she met one or two people in town…it was harder when the streets were crowded with people and everyone treated her like she was from another world. She scurried toward the traveling merchant tents, at least they wouldn’t know her and make assumptions about her attire.

Gilda brought her bag of furs over to a little stall where a man was selling fine winter wraps, stoles, and muffs for women. She waited until his costumer left and then laid her mink pelt on his counter.

“Are you only selling today? Or buying as well?” She asked. He looked at her in confusion.

“My lady is selling pelts?” He asked. Oh! He had mistaken her for a noblewoman! Not ridiculous…she was dressed like one. None of the other peasants or even merchants and business class attending the faire could afford attire as ostentatious as hers.

“It just happens that I have some, of very fine quality.” She said, not destroying the illusion. He nodded. He seemed flattered that she would even wish to sell to him. He paid her more than she had expected, and purchased all she had. He probably thought she was a married noblewoman selling a few of her furs in order to get a bit of coin her husband didn’t know about. Gilda smiled as she wrote her little story in her head. No doubt he assumed she was the pretty young wife of a cold older man, who was overly controlling. Selling some of her wardrobe was the only way for the poor cowed woman to afford a little bit of freedom.

After she left him with the entire bag of furs, and a multitude of bowing she headed to look for a milliner other than poor Mr. Grant. The faire should have brought a few to town. If Mr. Grant bought any more feathers from her at the generous prices he generally paid, she might well drive the poor man out of business. His kindness seemed to be rooted in foolishness just as hers was.

Gilda had taken the extra time to mix the peacock feathers in with her bags of other grouse and quail feathers from her snares so that they would not be so obvious. Any accomplished milliner would recognize them, but hopefully only upon further inspection…once she was gone. As much as she wanted to avoid selling them to Mr. Grant, she couldn’t help it when he came up to her on the street. He was trembling and he was sweating, as usual. He looked exceedingly nervous.

“I heard you might.” He gulped. “Have some feathers to sell me.” He said. He was panting as though he had run to find her. “Can I tell you, that you look…” He trailed off and looked as though he might faint. Gilda put her hand out to steady him. She held his arm firmly. He looked at her hand on his arm with a strange expression…gratitude?

“Thank you.” She said smiling. “Yes, I do, have feathers, but I can sell to the other vendors if you don’t need more so soon.” She said earnestly. He shook his head.

“I heard you had some that were particularly special.” He gestured to her cape. “It seems you might?” He asked. She nodded politely and handed him the bag. He ran his fingers through it, sifting and finding the smaller peacock feathers that glinted and hid amongst the others. She had used the entire tail of the peacock in her outfit, but the iridescent blues, golds, and greens of the bird’s body feathers were just as unmistakable. He looked at her with his eyebrows raised.

“You have quite a few. A whole bird’s worth.” He said in surprise, adding with his eyes her attire to what was in the bag. Gilda wasn’t sure what to say. He handed her a small pouch of money. “I’ll take them all. I won’t say…anything about where they came from.” He said quietly as though it were a great secret. He bit his lip. Perhaps Miss Lillan would be grateful to him for helping her dispose of the suspicious feathers. It might make it slightly more probable that a girl of her caliber would agree to…no. Such an angel would never accept the offer of a middle aged milliner! It was pity. Her mysterious beauty reminded him greatly of the love of his youth which he had lost before marrying his late wife. Gilda shrugged.

“Only if you want to! It’s not a secret really…” She said. Anyone could see that she had somehow obtained a peacock…she was wearing most of it. He shook his head firmly.

“I do.” He laid his hand on hers to take the bag of feathers. He had to try. It was now or never. “You know that you would be safer if…” He coughed. “If you had a man in your life…a father, or a brother, or…” He swayed, almost dropping, he was so close to fainting, but Gilda caught his elbow. He clutched his throat momentarily as if his voice had spontaneously dried up.

“I’m alright.” He said embarrassed. He hurried away without finishing what Gilda could only imagine was going to be a very strange, very sweaty proposal. Gilda watched him dart away nervously. The poor man. If he couldn’t get through a short conversation on the street without fainting, how did imagine that he could survive having her as a wife?

Gilda spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the faire, looking at the various wares, buying a small gift for her Gran, and looking for the older woman. She couldn’t find her anywhere. Twice she had followed the smell of pies, only to find that they were chicken or beef…not peacock. The shadows were growing longer, and fires had been lit around the square to make it light enough for dancing. Gilda decided that Gran had better find her! She couldn’t miss the announcement. She hurried to the square where a few of the townsmen were standing on a makeshift stage. As she had hoped, the Squire and his family were there. Two of them were young men of precisely the right age… A semi handsome one with a devilish mustache and elaborately curled black hair, and a shorter less attractive one with light hair and an unpleasant expression. Oh there were sisters too, two of them…that could complicate things. Sisters rarely let their brothers make foolish mistakes…like falling love in with a peasant. Gilda bounced on her toes waiting nervously for the announcement that could change her pathetic life.

“If the ladies on this list, could please come forward?” The older Squire said beckoning. Gilda and seven of the other girls started forward to the stage. The townspeople, and even the Squire’s sons drew a sharp intake of breath as she stepped to the stage. The other girls looked downhearted. Their homespun costumes could not compete with Gilda’s outfit. Combined with her natural embellishments…the writing was on the wall. The men conferred off to the side, but it was only Mr. Grummold who didn’t look as though his mind was entirely made up. When the judges turned back toward the young women, it was only Mr. Grummold who wasn’t smiling. The Squire came towards Gilda with a smile, holding the straw flower crown.

“I would crown you with this my dear, if it wasn’t superfluous.” He said quietly, smiling at her. Gilda attempted to grin behind her hand, seeming overly pleased would not be lady-like.

“I suppose I have made it rather redundant with my costume, haven’t I?” She asked shyly looking up at the older man. He raised an eyebrow. He had not expected a village girl to know what superfluous meant. He smiled broadly and turned toward the assembled people.

“Allow me to present Stratfordshire with its new Queen!” He said loudly. Then he threw the crown into the crowd. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t think she needs this!” He said with a broad smile. The other girls ran into the crowd after it as if it were a bride’s bouquet. Gilda curtsied to the Squire. He nodded at her. His tight formal smile disintegrated as a boyish grin suffused his face. He’d just gotten a very ‘naughty’ idea!

“I would normally invite a man of the village to escort this young lady to the dancefloor to begin our festivities, as our King…” He smiled at Gilda. The tradition was long standing. The crowd drew in their breath waiting to see what change he was going to make. “But I find I would much rather open the festivities with this young lady myself.” He said with an apologetic nod toward the assembled young men. The Squire was a widow, so there was no wife to shock, but his grown children, and the rest of the townspeople looked greatly surprised. No King of the faire? Surely the Squire wasn’t going to take this simple pleasure from the young men of the village? Would he go so far as to give the Queen a kiss at the end of the first dance as was customary for the King? Gilda was still just a village girl after all, no matter how extraordinary she looked. Gilda was surprised as well, the senior Squire was not a wrinkle she had concerned in her plans to attract one of his sons. If he gave her the customary kiss at the end of dance, she would certainly never have a chance with either of his young men. Not to mention the scandal of him having stolen the small pleasure of being King for a day from the members of his estate. They would not be pleased.

“Come now my dear.” The Squire said taking her hand to lead her to the square. Gilda followed him, mute with surprise. She searched the faces of the crowd for Gran’s. She was there! She looked disapproving. Gran would think a dance with the Squire was evidence of her forgetting her place. Did she expect Gilda to refuse to dance with her Lord? The musicians struck up the tune. “You’ll forgive me if I am a bit rusty at this particular reel, I don’t usually dance at these country affairs.” The Squire said as he gave her a quick spin, his words were not intended to be insulting, but they stung a little. Gilda smiled at him anyway.

“May I tell you a secret?” She asked archly. He nodded.

“You may tell me anything you like.” He said kindly.

“I prefer the more elegant dances myself. Although, I doubt the other townsfolk would know how to properly perform a minuet.” Gilda answered. She had all of three minutes to convince him that she was worthy of one of his sons so that he would not kiss her at the end of the dance. Perhaps his sense of propriety would prevent it? He laughed.

“And here I thought you were going to confess to the theft of my peacock.” He said fingering the edge of her cape. He was glad to have chosen this particular dance…as opposed to one of the more popular “contra-dances” as he did not wish to change partners from this lovely vision to one of the more ordinary village girls.

“You are missing a peacock?” Gilda asked careful to keep the fright out of her voice. This was exactly what she had feared. Perhaps a gallows were in her future. He nodded in reply.

“One escaped a few weeks ago, through a large hole in the fence…I didn’t think it was deliberate…I rather blamed my gardener for neglect, until I saw how fetching you look in the ensemble.” He said touching her crown with an overly long caress that included her hair. Gilda blushed.

“I was fortunate to find an unlucky bird, quite dead, near my cottage in the wood. It seemed a pity to allow his death to be for naught.” Gilda said quietly. She couldn’t confess to snares…she wasn’t really sure if it could be considered poaching, since it was his bird. He raised his eyebrows.

“That was quite providential, especially the timing…for your costume for Queen of the faire…wasn’t it?” He asked teasing, but thankfully there was no anger in his voice. He was being surprisingly good-natured about the entire thing. He could have hung her after all, as the evidence of a crime was staggering. She blushed again.

“It is the truth Sir, although I admit it is hard to believe.” She said giving him a wide eyed look, it had never failed before. Unlike other girls with the same sensuous figure that she had, she was still able to project child-like innocence with her wide and unusual eyes. He smiled at her.

“As your cottage is far from my estate, it is possible the poor devil ran himself out and collapsed of exhaustion upon your door step.” He said benevolently. Gilda was momentarily relieved that he was so forgiving. But, then song ended and as expected, but not desired, the Squire gave Gilda her first kiss. He held her waist and kissed her firmly on the lips, quite a bit longer than was customary. He opened his eyes in surprise at the taste of her mouth, and failed to release her as was appropriate. The customary kiss was a peck, only lips touching. His was longer, hands tightly upon her waist, tongue grazing hers. She did her best not to recoil. He was a kind man, and he held the power to arrest her. Unfortunately this was the sort of kiss that could publicly ruin a young woman.

The young men of the village who had been on the list for King were not pleased. The Squire was King every day! He lived in wealth and excess and could have had a kiss from any girl he wanted, by virtue of being Squire. Today had been the chance for one of them to feel like a noble, to kiss a girl without having to marry her, to drink spirits all night for free, and to begin the festivities as though they owned the village. That once in a year chance had been snatched away by a man who did not deserve it, and he had done so, because the prize had been too irresistible. As angry young men often do, they didn’t blame the man responsible, but rather the accessory.

Freyr stood in the shadows watching Gilda be passed from partner to partner as the dance continued. Every commonplace boy in the village wanted a chance to hold her waist, to touch her bare hands, to put his face against her cheek. Freyr could hear the merchant’s sons grumbling about the Squire’s decision to be King. They didn’t blame him, they couldn’t, he was their social better. They blamed Gilda. The ploughmen and farmers were pleased just to get a chance to dance with the vision of loveliness. The men who’d had a chance to be King were not so forgiving.

Freyr didn’t like the look that the Squire’s sons were giving Gilda, or their father. It was clear that they didn’t like their father’s actions any better than the townsmen did. Was there ever a girl who could inspire such feeling? It was as if she were a match or a flame, she could boil water by just holding the glass. The Squire’s sons were conferring as if they were planning something, their eyes darted to Gilda over and over.

The snake, Mr. Grummold approached the Squire’s sons and two daughters who were still standing off to the side, unwilling to truly join in the party. Their haughty looks made it obvious that they thought taking part in the festivities was beneath them. The Squire himself had just begun his third turn with Gilda in the square. The older son, Lord Phillip, was twisting his curled black mustache in displeasure. He was a caricature of a villain. Mr. Grummold was whispering something to the ridiculous man-child. Freyr tried to get closer so that he could hear, but the crowd was not being very cooperative. They must be particularly attached to their viewing spots if they would not step aside for a 6 foot 5 inch man clad almost entirely in leather to pass by. Usually his appearance alone made people get out of his way before he even indicated the direction he wished to move in. He elbowed his way closer just as Squire Phillip waved Mr. Grummold away as if he were a pesky gnat. The elder Squire returned to stand by his children, clearly in excellent humor. He didn’t notice the dismayed expressions of his sons, or the concerned look of his youngest daughter. The elder daughter looked angry, she was turned away, unwilling to even speak to her father. Freyr seemed to remember something about her being about to get married. No doubt she thought this little scandal was going to steal the focus, or perhaps cast a pall on the event.

Freyr sighed. He could do nothing, and something bad would happen to the girl tonight on her walk home. It was not his job to keep her safe, but if you knew something bad was going to happen, weren’t you somehow responsible if you simply let it? There were too many angry men, too many of them were speaking with one another…if a mob mentality formed…or a notion of brotherhood – righteous punishment… He made a soft growling noise in his throat. They couldn’t go after the Squire to expiate their disappointment and feelings of injustice. There was no way that some of them didn’t go after the girl. The rumblings had started already, the joking suggestions that “a few of them should walk her home.” Freyr gritted his teeth. He was supposed to stay out of it. He sighed. Very well, what would happen would happen. He would simply stay out of it.

“The night’s getting a bit late for these old bones Gilda.” Gran said when Gilda stopped dancing for a breathless moment in order to have a glass of punch with her grandmother.

“Oh, alright Gran. Let me get my bouquet from Anna and we’ll go.” Gilda said handing her Gran the little cup of punch. The elder Squire, Lord Timothy Gravely had paid the man with the beverage cart a decent sum to keep her supplied all night.

“Oh no Dear, I didn’t mean that you should leave. The Queen of the Faire has to stay till the night is half gone! No no Gilda, only the old bones need to be to bed this early. You stay…but mind you dance with the young village boys, no more of this Squire Gravely nonsense.” Her Gran said with a wise old look. Gilda shook her head. It wasn’t as if she could refuse him when he asked!

“I’ll do my best. Do you at least have a lantern?” She couldn’t tell her Gran that the main reason for her objecting to her walking alone was because she knew the woods to be haunted by a blurry phantom that seemed to be obsessed with her. Gran would think she was touched in the head. Gran reached behind her to grab a lantern and shook it at her, it was a perfect pantomime of her little speech from the night she’d gone to town on her own.

“There, you see? I’ll be safe as can be.” Gran assured her. Gran didn’t want to tell Gilda that her main reason for insisting on going home early was so that an eligible young man would get bolder about courting her granddaughter. Maybe even offer to walk her home. No one would offer to walk Gilda home and propose marriage to her if she was already walking with her elderly Gran! If only Gilda weren’t so high and mighty in her choice of men! She needed to settle on some nice young man of appropriate esteem and start a life of her own. She needed to be in town, with young people, before she ended up being the weird old woman who lived alone in the woods. Gran was spry, but even spry didn’t live forever and she knew it. The girl had to be settled and soon. It would be easier to settle a feather in the wind than to settle that headstrong high minded girl. Why couldn’t she see the value in a nice farmer, butcher or woodcutter?

“Are you sure Gran? I’d hate to think I’d let you turn your ankle in the dark and lie in a ditch till I came along.” Gilda said, feeling honestly as though she should leave and accompany her grandmother. Gran shook her head.

“I’ve got me a light! You’ve got you a host of dancing partners! Don’t make me threaten to tan your little hide in front of all these young men. Now go!” Gran said shooing Gilda with a wave of the lantern. Gilda giggled in spite of herself. The woman had spirit alright.

“As you wish Gran.” She said with a sweeping curtsey, hand to her heart, head bowed low as though her Gran was the Queen. Gran nodded with a shake of her head and began the walk toward the woods. Gilda gave her a last nervous glance before allowing herself to be drawn back to the dance once again by the over-solicitous elder squire. He had materialized out of nowhere to claim his partner again. None of the villagers who had been waiting a turn to dance with the Queen would dare assert their prior claim.

“My dear girl, I understand if you feel a slight duty to your…Grandmother?” He guessed, guiding her back toward the dancefloor. “But as King, I cannot allow you to desert your subjects in this manner!” He said mock reprimanding her. Gilda gave her customary lady-like titter behind her hand.

“I did agree to let a poor old woman walk through the woods alone at night, in order to stay with my subjects Sir. I do not think they can accuse me of being over filial to my poor Gran…mother.” Gilda hurriedly finished, hoping the Squire had not noticed she was about to use such a common term for her Grandmother. The Squire did not seem to notice any of her errors, in dance, behavior or speech. Nor would he allow them to play any of the popular reels, or contra-dances when he was her partner. Nothing that would force him to change partners and dance with one of the other village girls. The action was both overly intimate and insulting to the other peasant women who naturally felt slighted. It was becoming quite a problem for Gilda. With the Squire showing such preference for her, none of the merchant’s sons or village boys would be able to compete. And as their father was all over her, there was less than no chance that either of his far more eligible sons would so much as glance her way. In fact, every time they did, it was with a look of extreme dislike. She should have realized that the only nobleman a peasant like herself, no matter how pretty, had a chance with…was a widowed old man.

After the Squire had kissed her and ruined her chances with his sons, Gilda began to realize she might have to give up her dreams of marrying a noble and take a more serious look at the stammering red faced boys…but NOW it was doubtful that even they would dare anger the Squire by approaching her. This many dances with the same partner in one night practically constituted an engagement! Or, in the case of a Squire and a village girl – who was bedecked in peacock feathers…it would appear that she was already something quite special and intimate to the man. The feathers would no longer seem like an inexplicable miracle, nor would his choice of her as Queen or himself as King. In every townsperson’s mind it would now be indisputable fact that Gilda was the Squire’s kept woman. It would look as though he had made himself King in order to avoid having to share her lips with a common village boy. In one evening she had lost all her chances of marrying even a farm hand. She would have to either resign herself to living alone in the woods, or relocate two to three villages over! Even if she told everyone the truth and never saw the Squire again, no one would ever believe her. She could not have convinced the village of her lack of virtue more thoroughly than if she had surrendered her chastity to the Squire in the town square in full view of all of them. Gilda laughed at the lurid thought.

“Have I done something to amuse you?” Squire Gravely asked. Gilda shook her head, her mind crashing back into her body. She couldn’t very well tell him that he had made her an eighteen year old, old maid! Although Gran had already been concerned about that, and it was most likely why she had left early. Most of Gilda’s friends had been married somewhere between the ages of 14 and 16. Out here in the middle of nowhere, girls married young, and quite often died young. The Squire seemed confused by her strange laughter and subsequent silence.

“Have I done something to offend you my dear? I think you may be unaware, being so inexperienced with men, that you have had a profound effect on me this night.” He said earnestly. Gilda smiled benevolently. The man had not meant any of the harm he had caused. There was no point in being angry with him. While his obliviousness was irritating, it was not entirely his fault.

“My dear Sir, I do not wish to be impertinent, or ungrateful for the undue attentions you have shown me…but I am afraid that the effect you mentioned has not gone unnoticed by me, nor certainly by the other gentlemen of the village.” She said gently, looking up at him through her lashes. He stopped momentarily as the song ended, but waved the musicians to begin another slow song. He was unknowingly starting yet another dance that the townspeople, who wanted more uptempo music, would not enjoy. He was also continuing to monopolize a highly in demand partner.

“Oh my! I had not thought of that. Do you fear that my attention has damaged your reputation?” He asked with concern, as if the idea was a surprising one. Gilda laughed again – a trilling – crystalline sound.

“If I were not bedecked in peacock feathers, it might well have been over-looked, but I am afraid that the combination of that and your kind attention… It is alright however. There were no young men of the village that I particularly liked anyway.” She admitted honestly. She couldn’t very well fault him entirely when she was the one who had made her self-aggrandizing attire. He still looked quite taken aback.

“The sad truth of having always lived in privilege is that one doesn’t always realize when one has taken too much advantage of it.” He said guiding her gently through the steps of the dance. “I can see now, however, how my choice of myself as King of the faire, as well as my lack of deliberation before choosing you, could be misconstrued by people as simple as these villagers. It is a poor society indeed that will allow a woman’s entire chances to be ruined by the foolish mistake of one man’s accidental impropriety.” He seemed greatly disturbed by the situation. It would be nearly impossible to rectify at this juncture. Gilda gave him a compassionate smile.

“It is not of your concern Sir. Even a man as powerful as yourself cannot change the rules of society in one evening.” She curtsied as the song ended, and turned to find herself another partner. The crowd was restless, they wanted to hear a song they knew and enjoyed, and were unlikely to while the Squire was dancing with Gilda. Rather than letting her go, he drew her to the center of the stage.

“My wonderful villagers! It is my great pleasure and privilege to be Squire of this magnificent jewel of a hamlet. A true King could not be happier than I am to have such a Kingdom. It was so very pleasant to meet so many of my people this evening, especially your lovely Queen. Thank you so very much for sharing your musicians and your dancing abilities with me. Whichever of you gentlemen is lucky enough to have this young lady as your bride will be a privileged man indeed.” He said bowing to Gilda. Oh God! How could he have gone and made things worse! A moment ago she would not have thought such a thing possible. The man was a fool. Now it looked like he was attempting to auction off his old mistress in order to find her a proper situation. Gracious. Gilda had never been so embarrassed in her life. Was he really so unaware of the social situation he had created?

“As the night is half spent, I think that your beautiful Queen and I will have to bring the festivities to a close. Perhaps you Sir, would take her to the floor in order to end our evening?” He said turning to Theodore, the banker’s son, who rather than eager, looked pale and awkward. He was however, in no position to refuse his Squire, so he nodded and took her hand. Gilda tried to smile both at Lord Timothy Gravely and also at Theodore, but she knew it looked forced and tight. Theodore took her hands nervously, which thankfully didn’t shock him this time, and drew her to the floor.

“Thank you for not turning down the dance.” Gilda said as the music started.

“Your solicitous Squire didn’t exactly give me a choice.” He said quietly. Gilda sighed.

“He is not my anything I assure you. I never met him before this night.” She said intently. Maybe he would believe her? He gave a derisive laugh.

“You are dressed in a gown you could never have afforded, and covered in the feathers of a bird only a Lord would own. Do you honestly think I will believe such a lie?” He asked. He was utterly destroyed by the thought that she had already been used and thrown away by a man several times his age and station. He had imagined her as pure and delicate as she appeared. He had been terribly wrong.

“No. I expect you to think it quite a boldfaced lie, because truth or not, that is what it sounds like. But I did pay for the dress myself and I poached the peacock. I did not refuse his offers to dance as I did not wish to be hung for my crimes.” She said telling Theodore the truth. He wouldn’t even meet her eyes…and his hands weren’t sweaty. He was no longer attracted to her. None of the boys were red faced sweaty and stammering anymore. That had been a consequence of them being profoundly attracted to her and thinking that they were so far beneath her that just breathing the same air as her was an honor. Their nervousness had been because they thought she had more than every right to turn them down…now they thought she was beneath them. Gran had been right. If she had married a boy from town a day ago, he would have spent years worshipping her, and trying to deserve her. If she had gotten her wish and married a noble, she would have had to have been the boot-lickingly grateful one. Now she would have neither. The song ended and Theodore walked swiftly away without bowing. The night was over. It was time for Gilda to slink home.

Chapter Five: A Long Walk Home

A vision of the future cannot be changed. All you can alter, is what the image means.’- Words of the Seer

Squire Timothy approached Mr. Grummold. The man was ridiculously supercilious and it was clear he wanted to do whatever he could to ingratiate himself to the noble family. He had noticed the man repeatedly attempting to cozy up to his elder son. Now was his chance to do the lovely girl a favor, and to flatter a disgruntled townsman. If he spoke to this man, whatever he said was sure to be spread around.

“Sir, sir, can you tell me where the Queen of Faire lives? I wish to send her a gift, and I do not wish to seem improper by asking a young lady for her address.” He asked the shop keeper with a humble flourish. Mr. Grummold looked confused.

“Surely your lordship knows where to find the young lady in question?” He said with an arch raise of the eyebrow, implying much with the little gesture. The Squire shook his head.

“I’ve never met the disarming creature before tonight. I’ll have to admit that she seems to have a curious effect on men though. Makes us do quite out of character things!” Squire Timothy said innocently, not realizing the giant error his words were. Mr. Grummold nodded in agreement.

“Is that so? Well, I can tell you that she lives in the old carpenter’s cottage at the edge of the wood. She lives with her grandmother, as her parents are long dead.” Mr. Grummold answered him. He adjusted his own wolf skin wrap, perhaps the Lord would know what it signified?

“She is the unfortunate daughter of the former carpenter and his wife? He was a goodly man, noble profession and all that. It was quite an unusual tragedy.” The Squire said thoughtfully. Mr. Grummold was surprised. Lord Gravely made all this sound as though it truly were the first time he had heard of it. Was it possible the girl was not unchaste? He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She was making preparations to leave. He regarded her as a hungry man regards a loaf of crusty bread that he longs to rip into, tearing it into pieces and eating it with his hands.

“She is. You really did not know?” Mr. Grummold asked still suspicious. The Squire shook his head.

“This is our first meeting. I assumed she lived somewhere in town. Such a lovely girl as she should not live in the woods! Has she no fiancé? No betrothed?” Lord Gravely asked. Mr. Grummold inhaled in surprise. So it was true! He leaned in toward the Lord as though conferring a secret.

“She was supposed to marry my son, but if you have the prior claim…” He intimated…still testing. The Lord shook his head.

“No no…no claim. No claim other than that of a foolish old man taking too many dances with a pretty young girl at a party.” He said attempting to repair the damage he had caused. A gleam so momentarily gone from Mr. Grummold’s eyes returned full force as he watched Gilda leave the party with her bouquet of white flowers. He could just picture them crushed, little ivory petals bruised and broken, all over the road in the dark woods.

Freyr watched Gilda leave town on the little road that became more of a little walking path as it wound deeper into the woods. Three men broke off from the crowd to follow her.

“C’mon. She’s the Squire’s whore and he doesn’t even want her anymore…it’s not as if we’d be doing any real harm!” One of the rough looking men said to a smoother more dapper looking type.

“I don’t know. Maybe we should just let her go.” He said looking unsure.

“Let her go? Little woodland slut thinks she’s too good to have a village man as her King? She takes the fun out of the whole faire, we don’t even get to dance one sodding reel, and you think we should just let her go?” The third man said in an angry, alcohol infused voice.

“But, if she is the Squire’s woman…” The more genteel man objected again. The first man laughed.

“Can’t steal a penny that’s already been spent! Stop wasting time, she’ll get away.” He said, his eyes shining from too much drink. The men grumbled to themselves a moment before nodding and heading off to the woods a length or two behind Gilda. She wouldn’t even know they were following her.

Freyr sighed deeply. There was nothing he ought to do… Nothing he could really. Whatever would happen would happen. He would just have to live with himself.

Gilda walked lantern-less through the dark wood toward her house. She was guided by the light of a very clear, very bright full moon. She kept thinking she heard rustling behind her, but that could very well just be her phantom, which by now she didn’t really fear. If it wanted to eat her, it sure was taking its sweet time doing so. The little path had just ended, and she was now walking on the narrow track that only hers and Gran’s feet had made. Gilda gasped in surprise as something very large dropped out of a tree behind her with a loud thudding noise. She spun around expecting to see a bear or wildcat or something.

“You!” She said in surprise. It was the dark man – Mr. Vanhelstad. “You frightened me!” Gilda said, not entirely sure she should not be frightened. A man who had apparently been stalking her from the tree canopy had just dropped onto the path behind her. Nighttime tree climbing was not a particularly normal thing for a man to do.

“Me? Frighten you? Why?” He asked as he came to walk beside her. He had a long, casual stride that for no particular reason, infuriated her.

“Because!” She said feeling irritated that he didn’t realize that men shouldn’t drop out of trees next to unsuspecting women… “Because! Men who dress like you and only come out after sundown are rarely up to any good.” He laughed loudly.

“My appearance frightens you?” He asked looking into her eyes as he linked arms with her in order to guide her closer to the center of the path, away from the tree line. He smiled to himself, she had many other, better reasons to pick to be afraid of him. It was somewhat amusing.

She pulled her arm free of his. She didn’t like his formal escorting of her. It was disconcerting given the extreme lack of formality in their current circumstance. As far as his question… well, his appearance didn’t really frighten her. His eyes were darker than the average brown eyes, and his hair was nearly black. His nose was thin and hawk-like, but somehow all of this just made him look exotic and very attractive.

“No. You just…you dropped in rather suddenly. How can I be sure you mean me no harm?” She said resenting his attempts to guide her. He growled strangely in his throat, and pulled her to the center of the track again, away from the rustling trees along the side. He grabbed a long branch from one of the overhead trees, and casually broke it off, using it as a sort of walking staff. He was absurdly tall, and apparently strong enough to break trees. Gilda swallowed.

“Did I not save you from a terrible run in just last week? Why should I care for your welfare then, and intend to harm you now? You are not the most logical woman.” He said insultingly. Gilda looked at him with irate eyes that looked cat-like and yellow instead of their usual melting amber. Rather of being taken aback he just smiled. Even more frustratingly, he was quite handsome when he smiled. His long dark hair framed his angular cheeks well, and for a man who did not seem particularly wealthy, he had surprisingly excellent teeth.

“Alright, so you do not mean to harm me. That is a relief…never had anyone pounce at me out of a tree before, so you will have to excuse my suspicious nature.” She said bracingly. He chuckled again. “But why are you walking with me? It cannot possibly be on your way home. No one lives out this way aside from me and Gran.” She demanded, realizing that she was being rude. He sighed, and using only his fingertips on her shoulders, moved her position again, this time to the other side of him. He kept his new, very large walking stick on the side she had been on prior to his indecorous touching.

“You needed an escort. And I do live this direction. Your house is on my way home.” Damn. He should not have told her that. He was desperately trying to keep her out of reach of the men stalking them from in the brush, and he had gotten distracted and told her something he shouldn’t have. His preoccupation with listening to their rustling, and gauging their position, all while keeping her in the dark about their existence, had allowed him to lose focus. He was just so concerned that the men might think three on two was decent odds and decide to attack them. He could handle all three men easily, but it would be hard to explain. Not to mention what he was going to do with three bodies…and that three inexplicable murders near her house would do nothing to help the girl’s tenuous reputation. He supposed he didn’t have to kill them during the skirmish, but it would be hard not to do so, even accidentally.

“An escort? I do not! I walk this path all the time and have never been accosted in any way.” Gilda said irritably. He laughed.

“The other times when you walked home alone in the dark, had you just made an enemy of every man in town? The spectacle of you and the Squire changes your circumstances a bit.” He stated logically. Gilda didn’t enjoy his matter of fact tone. It was worse than mocking her. She sighed.

“No. But none of that was my fault…if they should be irritated with anyone it should be that popinjay of a Squire.” She said. He laughed.

“True enough! But you will concede that the Squire has several servants as well as four adult children to see him home. You have one over-sized foreigner. Clearly my escort is not an overage of any kind. Nor, given my address, is it out of my way.” He stated. How was she pulling all this information out of him just by being disagreeable? Gilda shook her head.

“No one lives out this way. I rather think you are making up a false address as an excuse.” She said, still feeling rather suspicious. He laughed again.

“An excuse? An excuse to purloin the pleasure of your company by means of deceit? You think that your company is so desirable that I wish to walk several miles out of my way, in the dark, on a rather chilly evening, in exchange for a few moments of your disgruntled time?” He asked. His sarcastic tone made her blood boil. It was not the way she was used to having men speak to her.

“Well…alright… But what is it you think you are protecting me from?” She asked. He couldn’t possibly know about the phantom, and she could see no one following her home.

“You honestly don’t even see the danger do you? Miss Gilda-lily to whom no harm could ever come…because you’re what? To pretty to be harmed?” He asked putting his arm firmly around her shoulders and changing her position once again. He kept her tightly against his body as he maneuvered her.

“Stop moving me about! If you are going to walk with me the least you could do is be a gentleman.” She said chastising the incredibly rude and maddeningly handsome man. He shook his head and laughed again, running his fingers through his hair.

“Very well.” He said taking her hand and kissing it. “Hello Miss Lillan, I am Freyr Vanhelstad. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He gave a deep bow, such that his nose nearly brushed his knees. He was ludicrously tall. She looked at him quizzically.

“That name is unusual in this area. Freyr is Nordic while Vanhelstad is…”

“Not my full name.” He said simply. “It is not the name I was born with, but it is what I am called here.” He said without further explanation. He didn’t know why he kept giving her information! It was as if her angry little cat eyes had some strange power over him…the same way they had power over the townsfolk when they were amber and sweet. Agh. It was as if he were an ordinary man. How utterly horrible.

“So I am walking through the woods with a gigantic, barbarically clad man, with a false name, who supposedly means me no harm. My Gran will be ever so pleased.” Gilda said facetiously. She noticed then that they had reached her house. The awful man had brought her home safely. It was genuinely surprising.

“Well, Gilda-lily. This is your house. Mine is quite a bit further on. I shall bid you goodnight.” He said with another bow. Then as if hearing something in the distance, he pulled her close to him such that her chest was pressed against his torso. He looked in the direction of some oddly rustling trees. He abruptly slackened his grasp. “Never mind. Go on in. All is well.” He said, still glaring at the inoffensive trees. He had forgotten to release her however. Gilda looked up at him expectantly.

“What?” He asked, abruptly letting her go. Gilda blushed deeply and looked at her toes.

“I thought you were going to kiss me.” She admitted, feeling rather embarrassed. He laughed loudly again.

“Kiss you? Ha! You’d probably taste of old man.” He said derisively and began to walk away. Gilda climbed the steps of her house, attempting to figure out what that horrid man had meant. Then she remembered the Squire’s awkward kiss at the beginning of the dance. That had been a lifetime ago! He would remember such a petty, stupid thing. It further occurred to her that against all reason, she had somewhat hoped he would kiss her. Even from such an infuriating man, it would have been much more the first kiss she had hoped for. A handsome man, alone, in the moonlight…not a portly older man who tasted of tobacco and sherry. This thought was shot from her head like a cannonball to the brain when she realized what he had called her.

Gilda-lily. A name only her Gran had ever called her, and only in private. It was a silly joke about how Gilda was vain and silly and wanted fancy things, despite being so pretty as to not need them. She was “gilding-the-lily.” It didn’t help that she was cursed with the name Gilda Lillan, so as to make the play on words that much more fitting. Had he come up with the same joke on his own? Given her name, it was rather ‘on the nose’. Or had he been secretly listening to her and her Gran? He did know which house was hers…although given that it was the only one she knew of in the woods…that wasn’t too odd. Aside from the fact that he knew she lived in the woods at all. She hurried into the house and barred the door with a satisfying “thud.” She heard her Gran stir in the next room and hurried to bed so as not to wake her further.

Three men in the woods grumbled and headed back toward town. They didn’t have the fervor to beat down a door and harm an old woman as well as do mischief to a young woman. They had been thwarted by a tall dark man who was some sort of consort to the girl, he’d certainly been handsy enough. He’d been all over her on their intimate walk home. The girl consorted with a tall, dark man who could jump from trees, and break branches off of them with what was clearly inhuman strength. A man who dressed in dark brown leather…so dark it that was almost black. He was inconveniently over-solicitous of the young girl they had been…watching.

They had very serious concerns…concerns that went beyond petty jealousy or anger. Oh no. This was not a case of too much drink, and a pretty girl who’d done them wrong. No. This was a very serious matter. The only problem was, that the man they would ordinarily bring such Very Serious Matters to, was similarly in the girl’s thrall.

Something was going to need to be done. In matters of witchcraft, or demons, or chance encounters with the devil incarnate, it was impossible not to do something. Unfortunately it might have to be done outside the confines of the law. The work of the righteous often had to be.

Freyr curled his long legs up to his chest and laid down on an uncomfortable pile of tanning hides in the girl’s tanning shed. He wasn’t sleeping there to prevent the men from coming back. He just knew that he would be able to travel much faster once it was daylight. He’d be home in half an hour if he traveled during the day, whereas it would take him at least two hours if he walked during the night. Dawn was only a few hours off, and he might as well catch a bit of sleep before heading back. The shed smelled of salt and lye. It was not particularly conducive to sleep, but the girl had not intended it for that use. She’d never even know it had been. He’d awaken and be gone before the girl and her Gran were so much as stirring. He always woke before dawn.

He heard the men in the woods grumbling about the barred door and the presence of her elderly grandmother. They were giving up. The sound of their retreating footsteps coincided with his suddenly feeling very sleepy. He laid his head down on a deer pelt and fell asleep almost instantly. It was comforting to be within arm’s reach of the girl. This thought was disturbing, but not disturbing enough to keep him awake.

Gilda woke up late, as she had been out late the night before. Gran was banging pots and pans in the kitchen progressively louder and louder in what could only be an attempt to “accidentally” wake her lay-about granddaughter. Gilda swung her legs over the side of the bed and dressed hastily. She washed her face and wound up her hair quickly. Anything in order to be out in the kitchen sooner and to make the racket stop! The Squire’s attentions to her and frequent cups of the sugary punch laced heavily with wine had given her a terrible headache.

“I’m awake! You can stop that racket.” She said as she pushed her way through the door and into the kitchen. Gran turned to look at her.

“Oh, you up Gilda? Thought maybe you’d be sleepin’ late after last night.” She said coyly, as though she hadn’t intentionally woken Gilda up. Gilda groaned and flopped into a chair. To her surprise she was greeted not by porridge, but by eggs and toast.

“Where did you get these?” She asked her grandmother, biting into the gooey yolky egg on toast breakfast before it could vanish.

Her Gran set a basket onto the table with more than the necessary force. It contained eggs, a loaf of bread, a twist of salt in a brown paper wrapper, peaches, and jam. “You want to explain this?” Gran asked looking displeased.

“What is this?” Gilda asked incredulous.

“A gift!” Gran exclaimed. Now Gilda understood the desire to wake her up. Gran could not read, and there was a note on the gift. Gilda would not reward the old woman’s curiosity, which had caused her to face this headache so early.

“How nice.” She said setting it aside. “I suppose I shall have to see who sent it and respond somehow after I finish my chores! You wouldn’t have raised me right if you let me lolly-gag about with a letter instead of getting on with my work.” Gilda said slyly as she finished her toast and two eggs in record time. So much better than sticky porridge. Gran was making a huffing noise like a kettle about to boil.

“Oh stop tormenting a poor old woman and read the letter! Who walked you home last night? Anyone I know?” She demanded, working herself up into a tizzy while ringing a poor innocent dish rag in her hands. Gilda smiled and stretched as she cleared her plate and began washing it in the sink.

“I don’t think you know him. A Mr. Vanhelstad walked me home. He doesn’t seem the sort to send a gift basket though, so I have no idea who that could be from.” Gilda did have any idea. It began with meddling, old, son of a biscuit, and ended in Squire Timothy Gravely.

“Mr. Vanhelstad walked you home? The woodsman? The man who sells the wood in town?” Gran said with surprising amount of knowledge, and a tone of…hope? So that’s what he was doing in town…he sold wood! Maybe he did live in the woods after all. It mightn’t have been a lie in order to walk her home…in which case, it meant he really didn’t like her at all. It also meant that she had accused him, falsely, of lying in order to spend time with her, which was embarrassing. Oh my. She must have sounded extraordinarily vain. Oh well, it was just as well, he was incredibly rude…although he hadn’t spoken to her as though she were the Squire’s cast off woman…which had been a nice change for the evening.

“He’s a woodsman? I had no idea. He offered, and seemed nice enough, so I accepted.” Gilda grabbed the now empty water bucket by the sink. “Seems I used up all the water cleaning my dish. I should probably head to the well and refill it.” She said casually, as though she had forgotten the letter. Gran threw herself in front of the door.

“Gilda, don’t make a curious old woman beg. Open the letter – won’t you?” She pleaded with her watery blue eyes. “Whoever left it was so mysterious! They didn’t even knock, just left it on the step and were gone before I got to the door!” Gilda sighed loudly as though it were a great imposition to read it, but she was borderline interested herself as to what the note might say. She was putting it off because she knew it wasn’t going to be a surprise and that it could only be bad news.

“Very well.” She said as she opened the little letter. It was written in an elegant, gentlemanly hand. Gran’s face fell. It was the handwriting of a nobleman and there was no mistaking it. Gilda knew there was no point in pretending the note was from anyone else.

“My Dear Miss Lillan,

I know that writing to you after so short an acquaintance is terribly impertinent. I fear you have me in your thrall however, as I could not stop myself. I hope you will forgive me for breaking so many modes of etiquette.

I could not hope to convey my pleasure in meeting you last night. I no sooner arrived home than I felt compelled to send my messenger round to bring you a surprise breakfast. I hope it finds you well, and that I did not ply you with too much of the punch at the faire. My apologies if my gift finds you in poor health as a consequence.

I do however realize, and wish to make amends for the inconvenience my attentions may have caused you. If you would be so good as to visit me for tea tomorrow afternoon, I will propose a solution that I think will suit you quite well. I am loathe to write it down, so you must forgive my continued impropriety in requesting your presence in person. I will have both a male servant and a female servant present in order to prevent any suggestion of a tete-a-tete. My personal coach will be sent for you tomorrow just past noon.

Yours Ever Faithfully,

Lord Gravely

Gilda finished aloud and set the note on the table. Her Gran was not going to be pleased. Gran sank into the little rocking chair by the stove.

“Oh Gilda. What’ve you done?” She asked with her head in her hands. She looked so disappointed. “This ain’t what I raised you for!” She said with a shake of her head. Gilda threw the letter into the fire.

“I won’t go.” She said quietly. Gran sighed.

“Ain’t got no choice do ye? He knows where we live. He’d have every right to just come here’in fetch ye if it entered his head to do so.” She said truthfully. Gilda sat down across from her Gran. “Ain’t no chance of getting that nice woodsman to marry ye if he thinks you’ve been courted by the Squire.” Gilda cocked her head to the side.

“The woodsman? I thought you wanted me to marry a merchant’s son! Live in town! You think I should set my sights as low a woodsman?” She was almost insulted. Gran rocked in the little chair.

“I think we both know you lost your chances at one of the merchant’s sons when you danced with the Squire at the faire.” She said with no emotion.

“Gran! I had no choice in that!” Gilda said with some anger.

“No choice? Who decided to dress up like a peacock? Who went into debt to purchase a dress made for a noblewoman? Who’s been setting her cap for a titled man since she was thirteen? No choice? Gilda…don’t pretend.” Gran finished in a gentler tone than she began. Gilda hissed, seething in anger. So she should paint her face in dirt and wear rags to avoid being noticed? Then it wouldn’t be her fault if a selfish man behaved inappropriately?

“The woodsman doesn’t like me Gran. He walked me home because he too lives in the woods. He was worried that I needed an escort, after I angered so many townspeople. There was no chance of his proposing to me even if I hadn’t made a spectacle of myself.” Gilda said. “I’m sorry to have disappointed you.” Gilda got up from the table and took the water bucket to the well. She was too angry to speak with her Gran further. She would only say things that she would regret later. She swung the bucket onto the stone steps with a loud ‘crash’ and left it outside the door. She hurried off into the woods.

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Gilda screamed. She kicked an innocent tree. “That stupid stupid man! All the privileges of a Lord, and the social awareness of a toddler! How dare he ruin my life and turn my own Gran against me?” Being pretty was supposed to be a good thing! This was ridiculously unfair. Her appearance was going to get her shunned or killed, either for being a cast off woman, or for being a witch. Gilda felt rather like one of the women in a Greek tragedy. Usually their only crime was being beautiful – and for that they were often made a toy of Zeus and an enemy of Hera or Aphrodite. Gilda rather hoped her story was not going to end with her being devoured by a Minotaur. She heard the familiar rustle, just out of sight in the woods.

“Oh stop pretending you aren’t there! Just come out and face me!” The phantom ceased rustling and was quiet.

“Oh I know, I know. I’m not supposed to see you – I’m not even supposed to know you are there! But I do know. Well? At least offer an opinion!” She whirled around in a circle.

“You think it’s my fault do you? You think I’m vain and selfish and set my sights on marrying a rich man so it’s my fault eh? You’re as bad as that awful woodsman!” She shouted at her phantom. “He thinks I’m so stupid and vain, and he doesn’t even know me! Tell me Phantom…you watch me enough to know what I am! Tell me what goal I should have aspired to? Me. An orphan. A poor orphan. A poor orphan FEMALE. What lofty, creative, intelligent goals could I have for my life?” She demanded, throwing a rock in the direction the rustling had last come from…before considering that hurling rocks toward what she knew to be some sort of wild animal, might not improve anyone’s opinion of her intelligence. Nor, if the animal was still of on the fence about killing her, would a small stone thrown it’s way be discouraging.

“The best thing I could hope for in my life was a rich husband. The wisest decisions I could make were to do everything I could to achieve that goal. The clothes, the walk, the reading, the poetry and history…it’s all been to achieve a vain and silly goal…but what better option did I have? My crimes are more of too much imagination and too much optimism. I suppose becoming an old man’s mistress is about what I deserve for my foolishness isn’t it?” Gilda sighed and sat down against a tree.

“Unless you think that becoming your dinner is my best option… And since my life has all gone to ruin, you really may as well.” She said ruefully. Then, in spite of itself, the raspy chuckling noise happened again. She didn’t have time to dwell on the now scarcely frightening sound, as she was shocked by the sight of someone on the opposite side of the clearing moving through the trees. Not the phantom. A man, a flesh and blood man had been watching her shout at the air and kick trees. He was now hurrying back toward town through the underbrush. Well…that was not good. Sigh. It certainly didn’t improve her tenuous situation with the townspeople. There was certainly no chance that they wouldn’t all hear about her inexplicable behavior. They were a small village in the middle of nowhere, where nothing ever happened. The farmer who’s cow had borne the two headed calf had been the talk of the town for 6 months. She was fairly certain he’d ended up having to leave due to all the suspicion and whispered rumors.

Gilda stood up and went to check her traps. She really did have chores to do, and she had to get them done in time to get most of tomorrow’s done too. With the townspeople thinking she was mentally unstable, or engaged in witch craft, it wouldn’t do to turn down tea with the Squire. He might very soon be a very good friend to have, and aside from the Phantom…her only friend.

Chapter 6: A date with destiny

‘Rumors of the Demon King spread from land to land until every border country feared their Nordic neighbor and his curse.’ – History of Gyllene

“There’s no dissuading you is there?” Gran asked as Gilda brushed her hair for the third time that day, and it was not yet noon.

“He’s sending a coach Gran! What would you have me do? Besides, the situation is more complicated than you understand. It truly is best if I go.” Gilda assured her. Gran sighed and helped Gilda change into the green/gold dress. Her yellow day dress wouldn’t do for the Squire.

“I didn’t raise you to be no fancy man’s kept woman. Your Mah’r, and Dah’r, didn’t neither.” Gran said as she handed Gilda her green shawl. Gilda groaned.

“You know full well that I won’t agree to anything so insulting! Doesn’t much matter now though does it? Not when the entire village already thinks it.” Gilda said slipping into the rabbit pelt slippers.

“Aren’t we giving up on the woodsman too soon?” Gran asked desperately. “He doesn’t go into town over much…he won’t be party to gossip…” Gilda made a hissing noise.

“Give it up Gran. I may well end up being the weird old lady who lives alone in the woods. But you’ll live at least until I’m forty, so I won’t be alone for a good long time.” Gilda said tucking a few flowers into her hair in lieu of peacock feathers. Gran sighed. She certainly wouldn’t make it another 22 years. She was already 68 years old, which made her ten years past dead in the life expectancy of the average village woman. She was kept from retorting by a sharp rap at the door. Gran opened it to see a smartly dressed footman.

“Is a Miss Lillan here please?” He asked politely, although his eyes roved over the poorly kept house, the partially plucked chicken hanging from the ceiling, and the pile of badly cut wood on the front porch.

“Yes. She be.” Gran said in as thick a low country accent as possible. Gilda fought the urge to roll her eyes at her Gran or to slap her as she stepped into the light by the door. The footman fought to keep from displaying shock on his face. A beautifully dressed angel had stepped out of the gloomy hovel. He had half expected a snaggle toothed girl with dirty braids and a checkered apron. The fact that this girl had come from inside the hovel was nothing short of miraculous.

“I am she, Sir. You must be the footman of Lord Gravely? You are here to convey me to his estate?” She said in a beautifully posh, clipped tone. He nodded, mute with surprise and gestured toward the pretty little coach that was parked awkwardly in front of the cottage. With no road leading to it, it was remarkable that a coach had managed to make it there without upsetting. The driver must have been talented indeed to get it through all the trees. The only vehicle to have made it through the woods to their location previously, had been her parent’s cart. This meant that it had been thirteen years since anyone had a cleared the path to town.

“May I compliment you on your superior driving skills? Not many coachmen could make their way here without significant damage to their coach or themselves!” Gilda said to the little coachman perched on the front as the footman guided her to the coach and handed her in. The coachman doffed his cap with a surprised smile. He didn’t approve of his Squire mixing with the sort of class of person that came from hovels in the middle of the woods, but now he pitied the man. For who could not be taken in by this remarkable girl? She clashed so very starkly with her surroundings.

Gilda sat down on the shining leather seats. She had no idea what to expect from this afternoon, but it was certainly going to be different from anything she had ever experienced before. In general, she enjoyed new adventures. She was the sort of person who craved more than could possibly be gleaned from her meager surroundings. She hoped that she would enjoy this, although she didn’t hold onto high hopes about it.

“He’s inviting her here, for tea! Phillip you have to do something! This has already gone too far!” Lady Eugenia Gravely begged her brother. She flung herself down dramatically on the peach satin chaise in the little sitting room as though suddenly overcome by vapors. “I’ve worked myself into a state over this and she isn’t even here yet! Salts! Someone bring me some salts!” Lady Eugenia exclaimed melodramatically. Lord Phillip just rolled his eyes and went to watch out the window for the girl. This was only the third time today that his sister had demanded smelling salts…she was restraining herself apparently.

“She seemed very polite and sweet.” Lady Catherine said attempting to pacify her sister.

“Sweet and polite? Can you really be saying this? She was common! So dreadfully common! Obviously painted, possibly wearing a wig…and I’m not even sure she had all her teeth! And yet father is besotted with the creature.” Lady Eugenia exclaimed, having difficulty deciding whether to sound distressed or taxed and weak.

“How far can it really go?” Lord Phillip asked from the window. He stroked his fine waxed mustache and pointed beard. “It’s not as if he’s going to marry the girl, or worse yet take her as his ward! The worst that could happen is that he keeps her here. He’s a moral, mild sort of man. He will understand that the only suitable situation would be to keep her quietly. I’m sure he would be very discreet, limit her access to a handful of rooms. If she becomes his woman, none of us will probably even see her…he would never be so lewd as to expect us to mix with her. You’re over reacting.” Lord Phillip said confidently.

“But if he should do something foolish? As his wife or his ward she would be given money, an inheritance… Even if he kept her here, or kept her elsewhere, there would still be expense. Can we allow it?” Lord Andrew asked. He rose from the pianoforte where he had been aimlessly playing scales and joined his brother by the window. Lady Catherine sighed.

“Should we not just see what father intends before we jump to dangerous conclusions?” She asked.

“He is bringing her here!” Lord Andrew said tugging on his artificially curled pale brown hair. “What more do we need to know? Nothing good can come of it. We should think of a solution to handle the situation the minute we are presented with what that situation is.” He said in desperation. As the younger of the two brothers, he was already set to inherit so little. He wasn’t a tall, strong or handsome man. It stood to reason that as a less than attractive second son, he wasn’t likely to marry well either. He couldn’t bear the thought of some country girl taking what little he had. Lord Phillip sighed and put his forehead against the glass of the window pane.

“I already have a solution. It is a bit drastic. One of those utterly dreadful townspeople suggested it. The man resembled nothing so much as a fat weasel, and his plan was crude. However, should the need arise, I will feel no qualms in employing it. Please don’t trouble yourselves. I have it all in hand.” He said in a voice so stuffy and affected, that it was almost unintelligible.

Gilda was handed out of the carriage by the footman, and greeted by the smiling Squire. He was splendidly dressed, more so than he had been in town, and his gray hair was fancifully quaffed and curled with a pony tail and satin bow. He bowed to her jovially, she curtsied deeply and took his hand. She felt like a gaudy little bird compared to his pastel and sophisticated appearance.

“You are a vision my dear! Even without the peacock feathers, you look…” He took her in with a sweeping glance. “Simply divine. Are you sure you are not some sort of angel? Other-worldly spirit? Fairy Queen?” He asked teasing. Gilda blushed and shook her head.

“As mortal and ordinary as any other girl of your acquaintance, I imagine, my Lord.” She said sweetly. He was starting to voice an objection to her reference to herself as ‘ordinary’ but she was still continuing her speech. “I do wish to thank you for the lovely basket you sent to me and my grandmother! I am sure that we have never had so fine a breakfast. You have spoiled us so utterly that it will be nearly impossible to go back to porridge when the bread and eggs are gone.” Gilda smiled archly. “I suppose I should really be angry with you, for introducing me to such fleeting luxury!” She giggled so as not to make the remark seem calculating or grasping in any way.

“I’m afraid you shall have to permit me to spoil you further, as I have ordered quite a sumptuous tea for us this afternoon.” He said leading her into a very elegant parlor. A pot of tea was on a central table, flanked by two tall, elegant, sky blue padded chairs. A servant pulled out a chair and gestured for her to sit. Gilda wished she hadn’t put flowers in her hair. She looked so very peasant-like across from the very dapper squire. A large triple tiered silver tray of tiny little tea sandwiches was being set down. Gilda reached to pour the tea for the Squire. He caught her hand in his and shook his head with a finger to his lips as though keeping a secret. Oh! She had been about to commit a serious social faux pas by pouring her own tea, and the Squire was attempting to save her embarrassment. She withdrew her hands and folded them in her lap as her tea was poured by a disapproving servant with pursed lips. As a peasant she ranked lower than he did, and he no doubt resented being asked to wait on her.

“I do hope you like the assortment of sandwiches. I have cucumber, potted tongue, carrot and raisin, as well as butter and chive. However, I should tell you that if you prefer sweets they will be bringing muffins and marmalade once we dispense with the sandwiches and tea cakes after that.” He said almost nervously as he allowed a servant to hand him some silver tongs before taking an assortment of sandwiches. Gilda smiled politely and took a second set of smaller “ladies tongs” from a female servant with a sour expression. The woman was clearly there only the for the benefit of Gilda’s reputation. Male servers were more fashionable due to the higher wage they required. Gilda attempted to smile at the woman as she took one of each of the flavors, attempting to decide whether to appear rude for not trying the refreshments, or indelicate for eating too much.

“They all look so delicious, how does one decide?” She asked.

“One doesn’t!” He said with a chuckle. She noticed that his plate had eight on it, so she no longer felt awkward. “I always think it best to have everything. My late wife often scolded me for my excesses, my fits of whimsy, and my tendency to do as I please but…she was the one who awoke every morning with a headache from far too much sherry.” He said with a titter at his own humor. Gilda smiled generously and did not suggest that his wife’s embarrassment at his impropriety may have caused her tendency to over-indulge.

“Your way of life then, must be a particularly enjoyable one. Not all of us permit ourselves to embrace life so fully.” Gilda said honestly. He smiled.

“See you understand! Of course the girl who dresses in a cape made from foundling peacock feathers would understand! My children do not understand my ways either, they all think me a trifle senile I’m afraid. Just a doddering old fool, but you – so young and full of vivacity. You share my spirit do you not?” He asked eagerly. Gilda smiled indulgently.

“While I lack the years to be allowed the honor of being called ‘senile’, my Lord, I will admit that I am not always well understood and am considered a trifle odd. My grandmother has tried desperately to train the whimsy and the vain love of pretty things out of me. She even let me attend grammar school with the village boys. She thought an education might bore the vanity out of me. But I fear I am as silly and self-important as a French poodle.” Gilda giggled. “My apologies for the long-winded babbling. One of the many faults of vain and silly girls is our inability to be parsimonious with our speech.” Lord Timothy actually found her lengthy anecdote quite impressive. If the girl knew the meaning of the word parsimonious she was more intelligent and less silly than half the noblewomen he had met, let alone all the villagers combined.

“On the contrary my dear. When I wish to have a conversation with a woman, I do wish she would allow herself to converse! So many girls are trained to blush and smile and gaze becomingly up at you from under their lashes, but rarely to speak except to nod and murmur agreement.” He said with a shake of his head.

“They must sound like a herd of very delicate cows, with all the murmuring.” Gilda said, and then instantly regretted it. But to her surprise he laughed loudly.

“Sheep more like! Or goats. My elder son’s fiancé sounds just like a sheep – and the fluffy wig she wears! My dear girl, I cannot help say out loud that she…” He whispered. “Looks like one!” He squeaked in a jolly tone as he helped himself to a scone with cream as the sandwiches were whisked away and replaced by muffins and marmalade, as well as scones with sweetened clotted cream. “Would I be a terrible father if I said that my daughter’s intended husband has a wig of nearly the same quality? I am afraid I shall soon be surrounded a herd of them!” He chortled at his own whimsy.

“Dear me! I hope you plan to serve much salad in your dining room after their weddings.” Gilda said, mildly disappointed to hear that the elder son was engaged…as if that ship hadn’t sailed. Squire Timothy guffawed at her inappropriate joke.

“If only my older son less engaged or my younger son less…whatever he is.” Less of a judgmental, dandified, stick in the mud, were the words he would use to describe his very finicky younger child. Although what he really meant was…less French. However, these words were unsuited for the ears of this girl, who he was thinking of as though she were a Lady. “But that cannot be helped. Although I am older than your father would have been, I am afraid I made this mess of your life and reputation, and so I should be the one to fix it.” He said with a decisive nod.

“Please Sir, you must not trouble yourself on my account. I scarcely see how there could be anything you could do at this point. Only time will tell how tenuous things are. Please, my troubles are not the concern of a man who presides over an entire estate. You’ve much more important matters to think on.” Gilda said, embarrassed to be the topic of concern or discussion. He shook his head and put his hand on top of hers. Gilda was too surprised to withdraw it. He couldn’t possibly be about to…

“It is true Miss Lillan, that I have few options left to assist you. But as I am a widower who has produced two heirs and two daughters, by a very suitable baroness…I have more freedom than I had in my youth.” Oh God. He really might be going to. He was over fifty, gray haired, wearing a monocle, and yet he was most definitely her best current option. Gilda tried to swallow the rising bile in her throat without being obvious.

“I’m sure you enjoy having such freedom in your life! It must be a great comfort to know that you have achieved so much, while you are still so vital.” Gilda said flatteringly. Should she be buttering him up with compliments so that he would continue? Or she should be excusing herself and running for the door? He smiled at her indulgently.

“Were I a younger man, without heirs, things would be different of course. Even now, I suppose I could simply offer you a life here, with all the benefits it entails – clothes, fine food, lovely rooms, and the freedom to roam the estate… But given that I am much more free now, than in the past, I see no harm in offering you the benefit of my name as well as my resources. The difference in our stations and our ages might upset my children briefly…you are younger than all of them except Lady Catherine. But I think that I have earned the right to make such a bold choice. Don’t you?” He looked expectantly at her. Gilda swallowed. He was asking her whether or not she thought he should ask her to marry him? How could she answer without sounding either conniving and mercenary, or ungrateful? That, and he had put it so insultingly! Telling her he could simply make a pet of her, but he wouldn’t, so she should be ever so grateful.

“Sir, I am afraid I am a simple country girl. I’m not entirely sure I know what you are asking.” She said with a delicate look up at him through her eyelashes. When in doubt of what to say, it generally paid to play dumb. Men always believed it. They were never surprised to find that their turns of phrase had been too clever for a mere woman to decipher. But the Squire laughed.

“You may have grown up in the woods outside a little country village, but the country has made very little impression on you I think. You are too well spoken for me to believe you don’t know when you are being proposed to! You will marry me won’t you?” He asked clear as day. “Let me rescue you from that untenable situation in the woods. You were clearly made for bigger and better things my dear.” He said gripping her hand more tightly.

“But Sir, we barely know each other!” Gilda said stalling for time. Could she really marry this man? He was so much older than she was! It would be easy to think of the kindly, rather silly and oblivious man as a father figure, but she doubted that was the mindset he desired in a wife. He laughed in an indulgent way.

“My dear child, I find you utterly fascinating and am terribly drawn to you. Men, as you know have the luxury of falling in love before they are married. Society allows us to make declarations to women, whereas you must guard your hearts. Poor delicate creatures that you are, you are not permitted to show affection to a man until a formal announcement of intent has been made. You will, as most women do, grow to have affection for your husband after you are wed. I understand that in the country or the village marriage might involve love on both sides from the outset, but amongst the upper class it is simply not so! My late wife never did grow to have any great feeling for me what so ever, and she still fulfilled her duties as my wife quite to my satisfaction! She bore me four children, two of whom were male, was a superlative hostess for the necessary social functions and kept our estate in quite good order.” He said in a surprisingly happy and jovial tone, despite the very sad and distressing things he was saying. “I no longer require an impressive Lady from a noble family to host parties as my daughters have taken over those duties, and I have very nearly given up the managing of my estate to my sons. Your task will be very minimally difficult, if difficult at all. The fact that we have not known each other long should not keep you from making a quick decision. You’ll develop feeling for me by and by.” He assured her. Gilda got up from the chair, reclaiming her hand and moved to the window. The estate was beautiful. Every bit of everything she had wanted for herself. However, in her fantasies she had hoped it would be offered by a handsome young man…not a foolish older one. Had she really been so blind as to over-estimate her worth so absurdly?

“It’s just that it is such a surprise! I could never have expected to be made such an offer.” She said attempting to soften the rudeness of her flight to the window. She knew logically that she had to say “yes”, it wasn’t as if she really had a choice. If her refusal angered him, he could have her hung for poaching – he had the entire town as witness to her crime. He could also press her to accept if he wanted to. She doubted that he would…but she was a peasant and he was a Lord. All he would have to do is dismiss the servants and bar the door. She didn’t think he would stoop so low, but she had no other viable options than to marry him even if he didn’t. With the incident in the woods yesterday, she would need the protection of an advantageous marriage.

“I understand that a girl of your station could never expect such an offer from a man such as myself, but surely you realize what an opportunity this is?” He asked coming to stand by her at the window. “Of course you are concerned about the awkwardness that our differences in class could create, but I will furnish you with the most discrete of private tutors! You need have no fear of using the wrong fork at a banquet and causing a stir!”

Gilda just stared. She had not even considered refusing him due to fork-usage related concerns. He didn’t seem to notice her look of surprise as he continued rambling incessantly. “I do understand that you must protest momentarily out of maidenly shyness, but that time has elapsed! It has been a full five minutes since we began the conversation! No one could accuse you of appearing over-eager for the marital bed. You must, of course, pretend indifference to me so as not to appear mercenary, but I remember how you danced with me… You cannot pretend you did not feel a strong attraction. Oh do say yes and get it over with! We must strive to get you tutored in time to have an autumn wedding, I won’t wait until spring as that is terribly far off, and winter weddings are so exceedingly dreary. There is also the fact that a winter wedding would make my children nervous, as being with child is really the only excuse to wed when it is so cold and wretched outside.” Gilda realized she would have to answer him, if only to get him to stop babbling. He was working himself up into quite a state!

“Yes.” She said turning to face him. He stopped speaking mid-sentence.

“Yes? To my question? You will marry me?” He asked.

“I would be honored, Sir, to be your wife.” She said as tactfully as possible. He chortled like a school boy.

“My dear girl! You have made me so very happy.” He leaned in expectantly. “There can be no objection then, to a kiss, to seal the agreement?” He was very eager, to taste her extraordinary lips again. It was part of the reason he was proposing.

“I can honestly tell you that I cannot think of a one.” Gilda said, desperately trying to think of one. Lord Gravely grasped her face and kissed her quite firmly. His somewhat portly stomach pressed itself up against her as he continued the overly lengthy kiss, effectively trapping her against the window frame. Gilda finally realized that she would have to end this kiss if she was to home in time for supper. She extricated herself as delicately as possible.

“Please Sir, we are not alone!” She said inclining her head toward the two servants who were attempting not to appear shocked or dismayed, cowering by the door. He shook his head and reached for her again.

“My servants? I assure you that they are the very soul of discretion.” He was breathing heavily and nearly fell onto her in an effort to grasp at her. “You needn’t fear their gossip I assure you!” He said as she darted across the room. The taste of her exquisite lips had excited him beyond his expectations. He didn’t wish to be denied what he had so recently acquired.

“Please my lord!” She yelped. “If I were of noble blood it would be different! But as I am not, I must be twice as careful to appear as virtuous and lady-like. A woman of known reputation in your circles might be so bold as to indulge in a kiss, but I cannot!. As it is I am a nobody, and therefore I must behave much more carefully than somebody! We have had no formal announcement, it would not do for me to appear overly eager.” She said hiding herself behind one of the tall backed chairs as he followed her to the other side of the room in an exaggerated pose, as though he thought she were playing a hilarious game of cat at mouse. He wrapped his arms around her waist as she twisted to free herself.

“Dear girl, do not deny yourself the pleasure of my embrace!” He said as she slipped free and ran to the other side of the little sofa in the well-furnished room. She was not trying to deny herself pleasure…she simply found none in his embrace or anything else. What had she done?

“I would not, for the world sir! I would not, if I did not fear for my reputation! We do not wish there to be any more obstacles than there already are to our… wedding.” She said. He made ridiculous claw shapes out of his hands, attempted to yowl like a tomcat, and with a ridiculous little leap…tripped over his own eager feet and fell onto the chaise. His male servant rushed to help him up.

“Sir, please allow me to assist you to your feet, Sir.” The man said pulling his somewhat hefty Lord to his feet.

“Oh leave off Gerald. You are embarrassing me.” He scolded his poor servant, who had been trying to ignore his Lord’s ludicrous behavior. Apparently his Lordship was embarrassed by being helped to his feet, but not by chasing a young girl about his parlor like a giant corpulent cat. Gilda did her very best not to laugh at him as he regained his footing.

“I know what you want you naughty little girl!” He said resuming his jocular tone. Gilda very much hoped he was not going to offer her what she feared he was.

“You do?” She said, her back pressed against the wall behind a large velvet armchair. He slid an ornate little ring off his somewhat pudgy pinkie finger and offered it to her.

“A ring! A ring will reassure you of my honest intentions! Now you can stop denying yourself your true desires.” He said sliding the little gold and ruby ring onto her finger. He leaned in to kiss her once more, and as she was caught in the corner of a room she had very little chance to escape. She was terrified that she would have to endure a lengthy kiss, but as if by magic the door to the room burst open and the oldest son came in.

“Father!” He said in a tone of heavy disapproval. Gilda took the opportunity of the older man’s startled turn about, to slip out of the corner and run over by the window.

“Father, I think it is high time you sent your little guest home. Don’t you?” He demanded furiously. The older Lord spun to face his son, the sky blue velvet tails on his jacket whipping about with him.

“Guest? You mean my fiancé? I really thought she might stay to dinner.” He said almost as if he were asking his son for permission. His son’s face darkened to the same color purple as his brocade shirt.

“Fiancé? Father this is too far! I’ve indulged your whims long enough.” He strode over to Gilda and gripped her by the elbow. “You, are going home. Don’t ever presume to come here again.” He said handing her arm to a manservant waiting outside the door. “Don’t give the creature a carriage. She can walk home.” He said to the servant, who began towing her down the hall as if she were an errant child.

“Phillip please, I must protest! That woman is my fiancé! You cannot throw her out.” Lord Gravely protested. Lord Phillip sneered at him.

“That woman is none of your concern now.” He said and strode for the door.

“Phillip you cannot do this! I am still Lord of this Estate, I will disinherit you! You will have nothing! You will be ruined!” His father shouted with anger after him as Phillip locked him in the parlor with a satisfying click. Phillip chuckled and walked away from the door.

“You can’t disinherit me once you’re removed from power. I happen to know that the doctor is about to declare you unfit!” He shouted at the door as he walked away. He snickered to himself. The hefty sum of money he had just paid the doctor should guarantee him an accurate diagnosis of his father’s ailments. As for the pesky little girl, well, she was going to have quite the surprise party waiting for her to return home. As it was an hour’s carriage ride, she should just be arriving home – should she even be able make it home in the dark, around midnight. Either way she would not be bothering them again.

Chapter 7: A Warm Reception

Gilda was dragged from the manor and thrown out into the lawn. To say she was somewhat in shock would be a dramatic understatement. On her finger was a ring that cost more than she could make trapping in an entire summer. Yet here she was, flung into a mulberry bush like a stray dog that had snuck in with the milk. She got up from her embarrassing prostrate position and brushed the leaves out of her hair. They had dragged her quite a ways before throwing her into the brush. They must really not have wanted her to try to sneak back in. As if she would try to crawl in through the window or something! How desperate and grasping did they think she was?

The bush was unfortunately fruiting, so Gilda had several large purple stains from crushed berries on her new dress. Damn! It would never wash out. Mulberry juice was used as dye for wool for a reason. That ridiculous Squire continued to ruin every facet of her life…now he had gone so far as to ruin the one nice thing she owned.

A glint of sunlight on her finger reminded her that she could probably replace the dress ten times over if she could make it home without being robbed and dared ever poke her head into Mr. Grummold’s shop again. Gilda sighed and began walking. It would take her until midnight to walk home, and that was if she didn’t get lost. She had promised Gran she would be home in time for supper…and that wasn’t going to happen. Gran was going to be so worried about her. Gilda felt horribly guilty for the way she and Gran had parted, and she hadn’t even scared the wits out of the poor old woman yet. Judging by the sun’s position in the sky, that was a good 2-3 hours way. She hoped that Gran wouldn’t assume the worst.

Gilda made it a good hour’s walk before sincerely wishing she was wearing her boots. The stupid little handmade shoes, while pretty, were not cushioning her feet well. She’d be lucky if she still had feet when she returned home. They were like as not to be worn down to nubbins. Gilda limped through the unfamiliar section of the woods. If she followed the road, it would lead to town, and from town, she knew how to return home. She actually found herself lonesome for the somewhat frightening rustling that had been accompanying her for so long. At least if the Phantom was there, she was not 100% alone. She must be frightened if she was longing for her mysterious monster.

Gilda tried to recall when the rustling had started. It had certainly gotten worse ever since she had placed her seventh trap in the woods. The deeper into the woods she went, the more frequent the rustling. But she had heard it before then, although it had been infrequent before. She could write it off as the wind, or a curious rabbit when it had happened less often. Now it was always with her, as was the slight tingle of fear. But currently, in this section of the woods, it was not. It almost inspired some degree of fear by its absence! Was she really silly enough to think that her giant rustling phantom was going to protect her from other woodland critters? It would probably just roar to the other ones that, as it had been stalking her for years, it deserved the first bite.

The day turned to evening and evening turned to night. Gilda’s epic trek grew wearier and wearier. Her thoughts began making less and less sense as dehydration, hunger, exhaustion, fear, and the intense pain from her feet began clouding them. The trickle of the stream that fed the little pond she had made, informed her that she had not gotten lost in the dark! She rushed to its cool obliging surface and drank deeply. She painfully slid off the slippers and bathed her feet in the cold water. It hurt so much that it was almost worse, but she knew they needed to be washed. Now if only she had saved those mulberries that had ruined her dress! Then she could have softened her hunger as well as slaked her thirst. Well, once Gran finished yelling at her for scaring her half to death, she would surely give Gilda something to eat. After all they had that lovely basket of breads, butter and jam to eat. The thought of butter and jam was nearly enough to keep her walking on its own. That and how relieved Gran would be to see her.

No doubt Gran was right now assuming that she had agreed to be kept, and was currently being bedded down in a soft goose down bed with a cup of hot mulled wine. Gilda abruptly stopped the somewhat comforting fantasy, because the only way for it to end was with a slightly overweight, very pale, very silly man coming in to tuck himself in beside her. Gilda shuddered. Well, at least that engagement was never going to happen. She twirled the little ring on her finger – what had she been thinking? She never could have borne it. Ah well. Out of the frying pan and into the fire!

Dimly she could see lights surrounding the area where her cottage should be. Gran would not have planted a series of torches in order to light her way. Someone, probably many someones, were at her house. She was still a long way off, but having been in utter darkness for the last several hours, the torches appeared like a series of suns. Gilda felt a stab of fear for her Gran, and considered running wildly through the woods toward the cottage…but that would be stupid. Gilda was fully accepting of the fact that she was foolish…but she wasn’t an idiot. She crept slowly toward the cottage, ducking behind bushes, trees, and brush, one to the next so that she was continuously out of sight. She felt rather like her phantom, always close enough to see, but never to be seen.

It took longer than she would have liked to reach the cottage in this fashion, but there was nothing for it. Finally she was close enough to see who was there. Half the townsmen it seemed, and Lord Phillip – on a horse. Bloody bastard had given himself a horse and beaten her there. He’d probably left several hours after she had too. Damn selfish aristocratic swine! How could she have ever have fantasized about marrying him? To be fair, that had been before she had met him. Gilda crept closer until she was within earshot.

“These are serious crimes Mrs. Ovark. If you tell us where your granddaughter is, we may be able to leave you out of the litany of accusations. I’d hate to see an old woman rot in a cell for aiding a known witch in her escape.” Lord Phillip said, his shoulders back and his posture very righteous.

“An I’d hate to see an innocent girl arrested because some fool men with evil in their hearts think they deserve more’n they do.” Gran said standing in the doorway while several men searched the house. There was a lot of unnecessary breaking of fragile objects that were clearly not Gilda-sized. It was not as if she could have hidden in the sugar bowl! Poor Gran was rubbing what looked like an injured wrist. She must have argued with them at the door awhile before they forced their way in.

“Innocent? Innocent? You dare call your granddaughter innocent?” Mr. Grummold said stepping forward in the crowd. “We have witnesses to a long list of things that only a true affirmed witch would do!” He said brandishing a piece of paper that he had to know Gran could not read.

“If there’s a single one on that list that don’t have nothin’ to do with puttin’ desire in the hearts of innocent menfolk – an that ain’t witchcraft, its called lust – I’ll eat my Sunday bonnet.” Gran said emphatically. Mr. Grummold gave her a sickening grin.

“Why there are several on this list that fit that description. Did you know your granddaughter talks to a “phantom” familiar invisible to all but herself?” He asked with a sneer. “We have a witness who will testify to it.” He said in a self-important tone. Gilda but her lip…that wretched man from the other day had heard her talking to her mysterious stalker. Her word against his could only go one way.

“And we have three witnesses who will say they saw her consorting with a tall dark man in the woods – a man who jumped out of a tree like a cat. Clearly a secret rendezvous with the devil incarnate.” Mr. Grummold said triumphantly. Gilda bit her lip harder to keep from shouting out an explanation. So Mr. Vanhelstad had been right about her needing an escort. Three men had watched them walk home from the party that night. No doubt they had plans only slightly less wicked than the one that was currently in progress. She did value her life slightly more than her chastity. It was just like that wretched woodsman to turn a rescue into something that could be used as proof of witchcraft.

“There is also the small matter of her putting my father into a ‘thrall’.” Lord Phillip said with a voice full of deep shame. Gilda sneered to herself; that was clearly an act.

“Thrall? You mean he likes her? That ain’t witchcraft, that’s cause Gilda has a pretty face and not enough sense to go with it.” Gran said with anger rising in her voice. She didn’t know anything about a phantom or a dark man, but she knew for a fact that her silly little Gilda-lily was no witch.

“He put it into writing that Gilda compelled him to give her gifts…did you not receive a basket?” He asked challengingly. He showed her another sheet of paper she couldn’t read. Gilda knew it must be a copy of the letter Lord Gravely had sent her. How Phillip had gotten it from the Squire or copied it from his desk she didn’t know, but she did know that his exact wording had been “compelled.”

“She compelled me to give her a dress for less than half of what it was worth!” Mr. Grummold chimed in. “I’m a man of business, only witchcraft could cause me to do that!” He said in a wounded air. Gilda gritted her teeth. Or a botched attempt at forced seduction, she thought savagely. That one was partially the fault of her woodsman as well. The men continued arguing with Gran, mentioning her ability to cause married men to have lustful thoughts about her. Well, that was one she was aware of at least!

Gilda realized that she was going to have to make an appearance. If she continued to hide until they left or simply ran away, they might harm Gran in order to get information out of her. That was something she could not allow. She was vain and selfish, but she was not selfish enough to let Gran be hurt for her sake if she could avoid it. Gilda shook slightly, from cold, sheer exhaustion, and apprehension. She knew Gran would forgive her if she simply ran. She was old, and nature would take her soon enough. She also knew she couldn’t forgive herself if she betrayed Gran that way.

“One last time woman. Where is the girl?” Lord Phillip asked arrogantly.

“You saw her last! I haven’t seen her since she left here in your father’s carriage.” Gran said with a tinge of concern in her voice.

“I threw the witch out of my house at 4 o’ clock this afternoon. She should have returned home by now.” He said. Gran’s eyebrows shot up.

“A carriage only takes two hours or so to get here from your estate. She must injured or in trouble!” Gran said, her voice semi-hysterical.

“You think I gave that creature a carriage? I sent her home on foot.” Lord Philip said with a sneer. Gran struggled against the man who was holding her to the side of the door. She attempted to lunge at Lord Phillip.

“You sent my baby girl on a 7 hour walk through the woods alone at night? It must be two dozen miles to your estate from here! She could be hurt, or lost, or eaten by wolves! You come here and ask me where she is? You’re the one who marched her to her death! Search the woods for her, I’m sure you’ll find her pretty corpse!” Gran was furious. She was twisting and kicking at the man who held her, spittle formed on her lips as she screamed and raged at the Squire’s son. Lord Phillip raised his eyebrow.

“Calm yourself woman. Your excessive concern only solidifies her guilt, you must be in her thrall as well. She could easily have returned home more quickly if she so desired… I’m sure she is capable, as other witches are, of transformation. She could have become a raven and been here hours ago. Your age will not keep us from applying stronger methods of prizing information from you. Now – tell us what we wish to know.” He said stepping off his horse and advancing towards Gran, riding crop in hand.

Gilda said a silent prayer of thanks that they had not planned on searching the woods. If they had brought dogs she would be out of luck. As it was she had half a chance of escaping him on foot. If only the wretched woodsman had the good sense to offer her a rescue when men came after her with torches and pitchforks! Where was he? She cared slightly more about saving her neck than her virtue, but it appeared he did not feel similarly.

“Good evening Gentlemen.” She said in a cold voice, deeper and slower than her usual tone and cadence. She stepped into the clearing surrounding her cottage. They all turned to look at her in surprise. “If you are going to accuse me of crimes, at least get them right.” She laughed loudly. “I’m not a witch at all as it happens. Just a simple changeling.” She smiled with her head cocked to the side like a bird of prey, looking as frightening as she could. “A fay woman from another world. Poor stupid old woman never figured out I wasn’t her granddaughter…not in 12 years, the old bat.” She said derisively. A few of the men stepped towards her.

“I wouldn’t come towards me.” She said raising her arm toward them. “If I can cause you to lust after me, I can certainly cause you to turn on each other. Do you wish to be stabbed to death by your comrades?” She asked with a particularly vicious laugh. “Don’t you think that if I cause peacocks to loose themselves from menageries and throw themselves into my snares…that I could just as easily cause you to throw yourself off a cliff? I know you have less brains in your feeble human heads than the peacock…but don’t do anything foolish.” The men looked as though they were having trouble deciding if they should approach her or not. They turned to one another to see what action their comrades had chosen. She grinned at them with all her teeth.

“Two choices gentlemen. Prove that I am a mortal maid by capturing me, and you shall prove also that you are nothing but wicked, violent, and evil men who would kill an innocent girl to hide their adulterous desires… Or let me leave this realm, found out as I am, because you fear my otherworldly power.” She did not wait to see what they would decide, but with a trilling laugh, darted into the woods. They could follow her, and look very guilty, or let her go and look fearful. Either way, Gran should be safe. She had insinuated on no uncertain terms that Gran was one of her victims.

Gilda ran along the snare path that she knew exceedingly well. She kicked off her shoes, which were so damaged that they could scarcely be referred to as shoes anymore. She could run faster on bare feet anyway. The track her snares were on was obviously known to no one but her. A clear path would scare away the animals she sought to catch. Hers twisted and turned and wound through the woods. She really wished that she hadn’t just walked well over a dozen miles. She was dizzy and delirious with hunger, thirst, and exhaustion and now she had to outrun 15 or 20 men. She could hear them entering the woods. All the crushing and snapping of branches made estimating their distance easy. They even shouted to one another in the dark.

“After her! If we let her escape she could come back and kill us all in our sleep!” Someone shouted.

“She and her fay brethren will kidnap our children!” Another person responded.

“She’s too dangerous to let live.” A voice she was pretty sure was Mr. Grummold’s yelled, then he let out a yelp. Judging by the sound, he had ended up in one of her snares. Ha. Two benefits to using her snare path. They sounded far enough behind… Gilda stopped momentarily to tie off a giant snare, one tree branch bent and held so that a small movement would cause it to snap and recoil at whoever was unfortunate enough to be in the way. Gilda kept running, jumping over brush she knew was there, ducking under tree branches she had ducked under a hundred times.

She heard the satisfying sound of the branch snapping back and hitting something solid. A man cried out in pain and anger. Gilda tried to figure out how far behind her they were based on how long it had taken for them to trip the snare she had made. Far enough, she hoped. Gilda tore the sash of her dress and tied it between two trees like a trip wire. She had to force her bruised and painful feet to keep running. They were worked up enough that they would chase her a good while before they gave up. They had developed that dangerous herd mindset that made them capable of almost anything. She only hoped that the energy one gets when running for their life would keep her moving long enough before she collapsed from sheer exhaustion.

The sound of a man tripping on her sash and falling was almost far enough behind that she didn’t hear it. She didn’t hear the sound of him hitting the ground, just the higher pitched sound of him crying out. Gilda let herself move somewhat more slowly. She didn’t want to run herself out and collapse. Gilda ripped the lace hem of her underskirt off, balled it up and threw it as far away from the direction she was heading as she could. She didn’t know if they would see it, but they had torches, so the odds were pretty good. Hopefully that would get them moving in the wrong direction. Gilda continued stumbling ever forward, distressingly aware that she had no idea where she was going.

Theodore followed quietly behind the others. He didn’t want to find Gilda tonight. If she was found tonight, she would be hurt and he couldn’t bear that. He didn’t care if she was fay, or a witch. He loved her, and he was going to find her and keep her safe. He quietly triumphed every time one of the men was injured and turned back. She was keeping herself safe, safe so that they could be together. She must love him very much to go to all this trouble for him.

The Squire’s son was angry because his father had proposed to Gilda after only just meeting her. That meant she had never been his woman. She was innocent, true and faithful to their love. Pretending not to know him had been her shyness…she was so untried, so sheltered living in the woods. She was just a green girl, unused to the ways of love. No doubt her own feelings had frightened her. He understood now that he had not been wrong, they were in love. He would follow her, find her, and protect her from these other men and their accusations. He could be patient.

It was nearly dawn. The sky was that kind of pale gray that indicated the approach of morning. The other men were tired, most of them injured. It had been hours, however, since any of them had come across a trap. Most of them were grumbling about how late it was and how they’d have to walk all the way back to town still. She had run in a zig zag fashion which had led them all over the woods. Most of them didn’t even know where they were.

“An’ is’ like, if she is a fay changeling, then she’d have just popped into one of them hills you see? We’ll never find her now. Thas’ where they all live an’ all.” One of the men said to another man as he turned to head back.

“She could’a turned herself inna some other creature and be long gone by now. Best just ta keep an eye on her Gran’s house a case she comes back.” The other man replied as he turned back also. Theodore smiled to himself. Good. He wanted them all to give up and go home. Following Gilda was something he wanted to do on his own anyway. One by one the others decided to turn back also. Theodore alone continued to follow the girl’s trail. A heel print here, some blood there. His precious girl was injured. He needed to find her and care for her. She was going to be so relieved to be found by her one true love. He could just imagine the amorous effects of her deep gratitude. Heat suffused his face as he thought of it, and continued his search.

Gilda hadn’t heard anyone behind her in quite a while. It was nearing morning and she had zig and zagged back and forth all over the woods so much that she had no idea where she was anymore. All she wanted was a cave, or a hollow log or anywhere that she could lie down relatively hidden and sleep. Not all she wanted. She felt like she could drink a river and eat an entire turkey – dead or alive…but sleep and getting off her feet was more pressing. Her feet were cut to ribbons and in extraordinarily bad shape. She could barely walk and was afraid that if she kept going she might soon be unable to walk ever again. She’s once prided herself of the delicate beauty of her feet…that was pride she knew she would never have again. Gran had always admonished Gilda not to cry due to physical pain. She considered that to be weakness. Gilda found it ironic that she was near to losing consciousness from pain, but not shedding a single tear.

Gilda stumbled into a clearing. It was indicative of her decreased mental awareness, she had been trying to avoid them because of the lack of cover. But she was so tired now that her vision was blurring and in an effort to find the light she had stumbled into one. There she was in a clearing, and in it – a miraculous heaven sent stone cottage with a darling little thatched roof. She didn’t care if bandits or pirates or grave robbers lived there. They were too remote from town to know who she was and they would have to let her in. If nothing else she could buy a glass of well water and a bed in their small barn with the lovely engagement ring she was wearing. Gilda fell against the front door in her attempt to knock. Her feet simply stopped allowing the imposition of her weight being upon them and she collapsed. The sound of her falling against it did not cause anyone to come and answer the door. Gilda knocked properly while kneeling in front of it. Still no answer. Gilda tried the knob. Maybe it was abandoned? The door opened and Gilda fell in, onto a cool stone floor.

On the table as she entered she could see a pitcher of water and jug of milk on the table. Gilda climbed on her knees to the chair and pulled herself painfully up to the table. She drank the entire pitcher of water, and was surprised when she was not instantly sick. Generally drinking so much after running was a bad idea. Gilda then noticed that there was food – warm food – left on the table. It was porridge, which seemed like the greatest of ironies…but it was food. Gilda grabbed the smallest bowl as it was not steaming and seemed the right size for a stomach full of water. She ate the entire rich, creamy, perfectly sweetened bowl in three bites. She tore a chunk off the loaf of bread in the center of the table and half walked, half crawled towards the stairs. It was a two story house! The current level was the kitchen, dining and living area. The bedrooms must be upstairs. Surely they could not be grave robbers if they had such a lovely house. If they were not grave robbers, then perhaps they would be kind and not instantly murder an injured accidental intruder.

Gilda’s feverish over-tired thoughts were startled by the realization that she had tripped unseeing over a small footstool and crushed it. She was going to have a terrible bruise on her shin in an hour…no, more than a bruise, blood was running down her leg. She hobbled over the pieces to the staircase. At the top of those stairs were beds. Probably very nice beds. A two story house meant feather beds. She just had to get to them. It felt longer than the run through the woods to get up to the top of the stairs. Every step, every crawl was agony. Her poor scraped up hands were acting as feet to pull her up the stairs. She walked on all fours into the first room at the top of the stairs. It had a bed in the center. Without caring to see if the person whose room it was seemed to be male, female, highwayman or governess…Gilda fell on top of the bed face down and was asleep without even tucking herself in. It would have been rude to do so anyway…she was both sweaty, filthy, and bloody.

“Is that her? I can’t see her face, but the hair is unmistakeable.” A soft female voice was murmuring in the background. Sigh. It had been less than an hour, she was sure of it. She still felt 90% dead. She kept her eyes closed. Maybe they would go away and let her sleep. The fact that they thought she was someone they knew about was alarming, so she kept herself on the edge of consciousness, to listen.

“Yes, that’s Gilda.” A familiar male voice said. But while she couldn’t place the voice, it did not inspire fear. Comfort rather. Odd. “Of all the people that could find our house…it has to be the one that will bring all the rest.” He continued in an irritated…yet disinterested tone.

“She’s beautiful! Look at her!” A younger male voice said. The female one laughed.

“That’s why you’ve never been allowed to watch her.” She said firmly, but her tone was kind.

“Well apparently Freyr did a really bad job of it, because here she is – in my bed!” The younger male voice said, half in irritation, half in delight.

“I don’t watch her at night. She never goes into the woods at night! I assumed she was gone for good. She’d been invited to the Estate by Lord Gravely…I didn’t think she would ever leave. Or that he wouldn’t ever let her leave more like. I had every reason to believe my task was over.” Freyr replied, sounding defensive. Gilda felt suddenly more awake. She was in Freyr Vanhelstad house? Well…not really Vanhelstad, that was an assumed name. How on earth had she ended up in the house of that woodsman? If she hadn’t been half dead, she was sure that the possibility would have occurred to her, given that it was a cottage in the woods.

“It’s all right Freyr. No one blames you. How could you know there would be a witch hunt through our woods?” The female voice said again.

“She’ll need to be dealt with now. There’s no avoiding it.” Freyr said quietly.

“Freyr! The girl is injured. She will die if we throw her out. And if her death is what you mean by ‘dealt with’ that will not be necessary. She will heal here, and when she is well again she will know that we are not to be feared. She will not betray us.” The female voice said, gently. Gilda could think of no reason why she should fear them, that was, if they were not discussing the possibility of killing her. She kept her eyes tightly shut, so that they would not know she was awake. “She has nowhere else to go. Turning on us will only leave her homeless and in danger. Be reasonable Freyr.” The female one finished. The younger boy spoke again.

“Look at her hair, it’s not blond, or even flaxen, or like corn, it’s like gold. It shines like actual metal.” Gilda felt something touch her hair as he spoke.

“What do you remember of gold? You were a child the last time you saw it.” Freyr said derisively.

“I remember things! I remember more than you know!” The other voice said petulantly as he continued to stroke her hair. She hadn’t noticed at first, but suddenly she was very aware that what was stroking her hair was not a hand. It was hard, and had several points like claws, or knives. Gilda opened her eyes a tiny pinch – terrified –what the hell was touching her? Dimly she saw dark fur, light fur. russet fur by the bed. They were monsters. Huge, furred, monsters with claws. One of them was touching her. Gilda pinched her eyes shut again…no she was hallucinating. One of them was Freyr Vanhelstad and he was human. She knew he was human. She must be too tired to be seeing properly…perhaps she was infected from the cuts on her feet. Could she have ingested something? A poisonous plant? Could something have been in the water she drank or gotten into one of the cuts on her feet? Gilda opened her eyes a sliver again…still monsters. The cold clawed hand touched her cheek. It was too much.

“Stop!” Gilda cried out sitting bolt up in the bed. Moving to a sitting position had scraped her feet. Gilda cried out in pain.

“Shhh… It’s alright Gilda. None of us are going to harm you.” The reddish colored creature said. It looked like a bear. A huge, russet colored, bear….that was talking to her. It was impossible. It was bigger than she thought a bear should be, but that could have been perspective. One didn’t usually see bears inside a little bedroom. A blondish bear with the boy’s voice spoke.

“Don’t be afraid.” It said. Then the dark brown bear turned its face toward Gilda. The dark brown, almost black eyes were the same. They were Freyr Vanhelstad’ eyes. Gilda fainted dead away, tipping and rolling off the bed, hitting her head on the floor.

“You shouldn’t have spoken to her. It’s even more disconcerting that way.” Freyr said picking her up and putting her back on the bed. “She hit her head hard enough to sleep awhile. We should go out and lock her in. She’ll need to be dealt with when she wakes. She’s terrified enough to be very rash.” He said turning toward the door. His sister and brother followed him.

“She can’t even walk Freyr. You can stop worrying.” Freya said in her usual gentle tone. Freyr made a grunting sound that expressed his profound disagreement with that statement.

“You don’t know her. Logic is not her pervasive quality.”

Chapter 8: Gilda in the House of the Three…

‘The Demon King began his rule with thousands of dead men at his feet, corpses numbering almost more than his subjects.’ – Legend of Gyllene

Gilda woke up much later in the day with a terrible headache. She’d been having one of her repetitive dreams. She’d been very comforted by it, until she realized that she was not at home. It was just a little past sundown. The sky was glowing red, but the sun was beneath the horizon. She had slept the entire day…yet somehow she was still exhausted. Then she remembered that she was being held prisoner by some sort of bear monsters…unless she had simply lost her mind. Then she was just asleep in the wood cutter’s cottage. Neither of the two options were particularly appealing. She sat up painfully. Her feet had somehow been cleaned and bandaged while she slept. They smelled strongly of some sort of salve. The smell was astringent and overpowering. Hopefully it was as effective at healing wounds as it was intensely scented. Gilda looked around the room slowly, she noticed a water glass on the table and drank it gratefully. As she set the water glass down she saw that Mr. Vanhelstad – human Mr. Vanhelstad – was sitting in a chair in the corner of the room across from the bed. His long legs were crossed at the ankle, his hands on the arms of the chair, he looked calm and relaxed. His dark brown hair was the same color as the bear she had seen. His deep, dark brown eyes were the same eyes…but he was human. So she was just crazy. She had imagined it all. She was not sure whether or not that was a relief.

“I see you’re awake. How did you sleep?” He asked calmly. Gilda swallowed.

“Fine.” She looked down at her lap, her fingers twisted together.

“Are you alright? You seem afraid.” He asked, his voice quiet, his body still immobile in the chair. He was so still that she wondered if he was even breathing.

“I’m trying to decide if any of this is real. I am afraid that I might have lost my mind.” Gilda said, embarrassed. She didn’t want to say ‘I think you were a bear earlier…’ He smiled.

“You think you are imagining me?” He asked bending his long legs underneath him and standing up. He took a step forward. “Here.” He held out his hand. She shrunk back a bit. He smiled. “Go on then. Touch it.” She flinched backward further as he approached the bed. “It’s alright. I’m real.” He said in his very calm, even voice. She reached out gingerly and grasped his hand. It was rough, not like a paw, but like the hand of a man who chopped wood all day. He had a very strong, long fingered, masculine hand, it felt utterly and completely human.

“You’re a human. I mean a man, a real man.” She said with too much surprise in her voice. He laughed out loud.

“What did you expect?” He asked, raising his eyebrows. Gilda looked out the window. She was losing her mind and being patronized by a very handsome, very infuriating man.

“I don’t know. I think…I think I hit my head pretty badly.” She said, embarrassed. He laughed again, it was the same strangely familiar laugh. She felt like she should know why it disturbed her, but she couldn’t remember. The knowledge danced just out of reach of her addled brain.

“Freya asked me to call for her when you awoke. I thought since you knew me, my presence might be less startling at first. You were very upset earlier.” He said sitting on the edge of the bed. Gilda realized that she was still holding his hand, tracing the callouses in his palm. She released it abruptly.

“You can call for her.” She said without looking at his eyes. They were too dark and looked too much like the creature’s that she had imagined. “I won’t be afraid.” She said. Well, provided that his sister was also human…but she didn’t want to specify that out loud. He stood up.

“You will not be afraid and fall out of bed again?” He asked touching the painful knot on the top of her head. His touch was cautious and gentle. “You did rap yourself on the head exceedingly hard earlier.” He said.

“It’s okay. I don’t use it much.” She said quietly. She shook her head slowly. She had to ask. “She will be a person, won’t she?” She asked feeling so embarrassed that hot tears stung the corners of her eyes. He laughed again, his head thrown back.

“She is my sister, so I rarely think of her as a person…but yes.” He poked his head out of the door and spoke quietly, still in the same even tone of voice…rather too quietly to be heard across the house. “She’s awake Freya.” Gilda heard feet coming up the stairs, despite the fact that she could not have heard him. A young woman with reddish brown hair in two braids down to her waist came into the room. She had big hazel eyes and a gentle, though tense looking face.

“Gilda! So glad to see that you are awake. How are you feeling?” She asked in a kind voice. Gilda was so confused. What had she seen earlier that day? The voice was the same, but clearly this girl was not a russet colored bear. And why were they being so kind and so careful of her? She was an intruder, who had eaten their food and collapsed muddy and bleeding into their bed. Then she had hallucinated, screamed as though they were horrible monsters, and fell out of their bed and bled even more on their floor. Oh, and she had broken some sort of chair/foot stool thing of theirs.

“I’m alright. Everything hurts…” She said more honestly. Freya nodded.

“I assumed that might be the case. I’ve been bringing in buckets of well water for a bath all afternoon. I finally have enough. It is important to soak the dirt out of all of those scratches. You’ll feel better once the salt and dirt from running all night is out of them. I’d like to properly clean and bandage your feet too.” Freya said sitting beside Gilda’s bed in the chair. Freyr was leaning on the door frame, looking disinterested.

“Why would you go to all that trouble?” Gilda asked in a hoarse quiet voice. “You don’t know me…and I broke into your house.” She said tears spilling out of the corners of her eyes.

“Oh…Gilda…From what we have been able to piece together, it doesn’t seem as though you had much choice. And we want very much for you to like us. Hopefully a little hot water will help with that.” She said with a kind smile. Gilda nodded. Tears were falling down her face rather thickly now. Apparently she would not cry from pain, but she would from sheer awkwardness.

Freyr made a tisk noise. “Freya. You made her cry. I told you that you and Frederick should stay away until she was less disoriented.” He said kicking off on the door frame with his foot and standing up. Gilda shook her head.

“No no. It’s just that you are being so kind…I feel guilty for breaking your chair and everything.” She said avoiding eye contact with both of them. Freya gave a ringing laugh.

“You’re half dead, in a house full of strangers, hungry and tired…and you are crying because you broke Frederick’s foot stool? Oh Gilda.” She smiled and shook her head. “I thought Freyr was making things up.” She laughed. “Now. No more silliness. We’ve got to get you downstairs and into the bath before it gets cold…after all that effort, it would be a waste. Will you permit Freyr to carry you? I will send him and Frederick out, and I will help you with the rest.” Freya asked. Freyr leaned on his sister’s chair, he spoke almost silently as though she had a headache or something.

“She might prefer someone she knows to assist her with her injuries.” There was no hint or suggestion of impropriety in his voice. Freya twisted her neck to look up at him. Her eyes both surprised and critical.

“Freyr.” She said in a tone that implied he was very stupid. “She is a girl.” He raised an eyebrow.

“I am peripherally aware of that.” He said in that low, even, emotionless voice.

“I mean… That as a girl, she might prefer a female to help her undress and clean the scratches on her person, as well as that contusion on the upper portion of her leg. You might be…an inappropriate choice.” She said with a smile. Freyr rolled his eyes, and shook his head.

“Ahh. I see.” He moved towards Gilda. “If you will permit me?” He asked holding his arms out as though to grasp her. She nodded.

“Um, yes of course.” She said attempting to move closer to the edge of the bed and assist him. She was surprisingly wounded by the fact that he didn’t even seem to see her as a girl, so much so that he thought it wouldn’t be slightest bit improper if he were to undress her or put salve on a wound on her bare leg.

He lifted her up as though she were nothing more than a dried leaf. Gilda wished him less handsome, and his chest less warm, and inviting to lay her head on. It really wouldn’t be prudent to fall in love with a man who didn’t realize you were a woman, and might actually be a bear. Freyr’s postured stiffened. He craned his neck as though trying to get his face as far away from her as possible.

“Freya, I can’t. It’s too close to sundown…it’s the smell, she…” His voice trailed off. Freya leaned in and sniffed Gilda’s skin, close to her face.

“Ahh… That would be distracting.” She said with a laugh. Freyr’s face contorted in disgust and discomfort. “It’s not as if you have any choice. I can’t carry her and she certainly can’t walk.” Freya said laughing.

“It’s not the slightest bit amusing.” Freyr said carrying a very self-conscious Gilda down the stairs.

“I’m sorry…I walked all day through the woods...the Squire’s son wouldn’t give me a carriage…then I ran all night…” Gilda mumbled, in more pain from the notion that Freyr found her smell abhorrent and less from her shredded feet. “I must smell quite terrible after such exertion.” She said feeling wretched. Freya laughed as Freyr deposited her in the chair by the large metal bathing tub and raced out the door, towing a very curious looking Frederick behind him. They moved with speed that looked just this side of unnatural.

“Gilda! It’s not that! You do smell as though you were sweating a bit…but that’s not why he reacted that way.” Freya said with a wry shake of her head as she began undoing the buttons on the back of Gilda’s dress. “Oh, and do be careful when you step in, there’s quite a few hot bricks near the end. Much easier to heat those and drop them in than to heat all the water on the stove!” Freya said trying to change the subject, but not successfully.

“I don’t understand…” Gilda was suddenly horrified by the notion that maybe she hadn’t hallucinated the bears…maybe they were animals sometimes and human other times… She couldn’t stop her stupid over-tired brain from forming the thoughts or her mouth from forming the words. “Do you mean that he…wants to eat me?” She asked with wide eyes. “Do I smell like food?” She asked, mortified to even be voicing such nonsense aloud. Freya helped her step into the bath with a deep sigh.

“So you do remember.” She said in a matter of fact tone, as though being bears occasionally was no big deal. Gilda nodded.

“You were animals…you were bears.” She said biting her lip. All of all the foolish, silly, stupid things she had said…this had to be the most ridiculous.

“Yes.” Freya said handing her a bar of rose scented soap. “Yes. Sometimes we are.” She said as she scrubbed Gilda’s hair for her, pulling out sticks, leaves and other things that had gotten in there during her flight. Gilda stiffened under her fingertips. She was having her hair washed by a woman who had just admitted that she was occasionally a large, toothy, bloodthirsty animal.

“Don’t be afraid Gilda. We mean you absolutely no harm.” Freya said bending down to look her squarely in the eyes. “You are safe here.” She said firmly.

“But if you are sometimes bears…you might…I mean…bears eat animals…you might accidentally…” Gilda looked at her toes…which at the moment resembled little packages. Freya was unwrapping the bandages and washing off the strange smelling liniment.

“No Gilda. We are always people. Sometimes we have the form of bears…but our soul, our essence…our sense of self is always human. We simply choose to ignore the impulses that the animal suggests. Even in animal form we prefer to behave as humans. We even eat human food while dressed the form of animals. Sure, we can eat like a bear…berries, fish, small game. But it is not appetizing, it’s actually very unpleasant. I think if I were to eat you, it might be more unpleasant for me than for you.” Freya with a rueful laugh. Gilda failed to see how being eaten alive by a bear could be worse for the bear…but the kindness in Freya’s voice and her gentleness in unwrapping the bandages and sliding her poor injured feet back into the water…was hard to discredit.

“So I haven’t lost my mind. I did see it? I mean, I saw you, and your brothers, as…” Gilda trailed off.

“Yes. But I’m afraid that it’s a story best told by all of us. Can you wait until after dinner?” Freya asked. Gilda nodded, she didn’t want to, but she wasn’t exactly in a position to make demands. Freya smiled and got a towel off the top of the wood burning stove. “Here you go dear.” Gilda took very warm towel and wrapped it around herself as she stepped out back into the chair. Freya put her feet up on one of the surviving foot stools.

“Don’t move. I’ll re-bandage those, and your leg, and then we can get you dressed.” Freya said as she reached for a glass of almost clear liquid.

“Here. Drink half of this.” She said putting the glass in Gilda’s hand. Gilda smelled it. It smelled like the bottle of strong spirits Gran kept behind the dish cabinet…the one she didn’t think Gilda knew about. Gilda wrinkled her nose.

“Why? Why must I drink that?” She asked. Freya smiled.

“Because dear, I’m going to clean your wounded feet with the other half of the glass and it would cause you less pain if you were...somewhat lubricated first.” She said pushing the glass toward Gilda’s lips. “I don’t have any laudanum. Just this.” Gilda took a very large gulp. Then choked. Then coughed. Then was pretty sure that her lungs were on fire, maybe she had inhaled some?

“Ack! It burns!” She said coughing and spluttering. Freya looked at the glass which was still quite a bit more than half full.

“I take it you don’t often take strong drink?” She said with her sweet smile. Gilda shook her head. It was obvious to Gilda that Freya had not known that most women didn’t drink distilled spirits often. Her tone implied that she was quite used to drinking them.

“Never.” Gilda admitted. Unless one counted the punch from the faire…the faire that had only been days ago but now seemed like a lifetime ago. Freya smiled.

“It’s distilled from cherries, from the tree in our clearing. Taste it again…see if you can find the flavor.” Freya said handing her the glass. Gilda shook her head. Mixing alcohol and a head injury seemed like a poor choice.

“I don’t think I should…not when my head is already so…” She put her hand up to it. Freya shrugged.

“Alright, do you prefer a hard slap in the face as a distraction, or something to bite down on?” She asked alarmingly. Gilda shook her head with her eyes wide.

“Neither.” She said. Freya nodded.

“As you wish.” She said lifting Gilda’s first foot over the bath, checking it with her finger tips for debris, which was horribly painful, and then poured the alcohol down it. Gilda tried to bite her tongue but she couldn’t. She screamed. It hurt more than anything had ever hurt. Ever. Freya set that foot down on a clean towel and grasped the other one.

“No. Please don’t.” Gilda said clutching the chair with her arms.

“Do you like your feet Gilda? Walking suits you?” Freya asked. Gilda nodded.

“Then let’s not lose them to infection.” She said pouring the last of the glass over and through the cuts on the second foot. Gilda screamed again as though Freya was eating her alive. It hurt so damn much.

“What has happened?” Freyr said bursting in the door. Freya looked up.

“I was cleaning the wounds on her feet.” She said simply. Freyr sighed.

“Sounded like she was being murdered.” He said quietly and then shut the door behind him as he once again stepped out. He failed to acknowledge that Gilda was practically naked, with her legs bare up to the thigh, feet up over the side of a bath tub. Freya sighed.

“He thinks a bit too much of you I think.” She said inexplicably as she dried and bandaged what now felt like raw lumps of meat no longer attached to Gilda’s body. Gilda felt numb, like her legs were somewhere else and she was just watching what was happening to them. Freya put the salve and a bandage on Gilda’s leg. Then she stood up, crossed over to the table in the corner of the room and retrieved a pale pink cotton dress. “This should fit you I think, and it’s much cleaner and more appropriate for everyday than what you were wearing.” She said with a smile and she folded up the nearly destroyed gaudy green/gold gown. Gilda slipped the dress over her head and began doing up the buttons.

“Are you sure you can spare the dress?” Gilda said. She only had one everyday dress…did Freya really have enough dresses to lend her this one?

“It’s yours as long as you are here. Probably even after, as I can’t send you home naked, and this one is ruined.” She said putting the shredded gown in a basket by what appeared to be a sewing table. The thought of ever going home was like a knife in Gilda’s heart. It would probably never be safe to go home again. Would these bear people really keep her, forever?

“Don’t you like it? Are you sure you want to part with such a nice dress?” Gilda asked running her hands down the soft muslin dress. Anything to take her mind off the thought of never seeing Gran again. The dress was the color of an apple blossom, somehow pink and white at the same time. Freya shrugged and shook her head.

“It looks very well on you. Much better than it ever did on me. With my hair it was a bit too pink. Freyr got it for me in town and he doesn’t do very well at shopping for a woman.” She said touching her reddish braids.

“Why does only Freyr go into town?” Gilda asked as she stood precariously on her barely there feet, so that Freya could tighten the laces at the back of the dress. She left it looser than Gilda would have, but she supposed that a tight corset was not strictly necessary at the moment.

“Because Frederick got into quite a bit of trouble the last time he was allowed to go…and because I find it too painful. I stopped going a few years ago.” She said helping Gilda into an upholstered chair by the fire and putting her feet up. She grasped a brush and began attempting to disentangle Gilda’s hair.

“May I ask why it is painful?” Gilda asked with some degree of curiosity, wincing as the brush found an abundance of snarls in her curly hair. Running through miles of woods, twice in one day, with your hair down, was apparently bad for keeping it smooth and untangled. Freya shook her head.

“Not now.” She cleared her throat as if it were choked up. “Maybe later.” She finished combing through Gilda’s hair and set down the brush. “Right now it’s time to invite the boys back in and to have some dinner. Don’t you think?” She asked Gilda. Gilda realized that she was outrageously hungry. It was like her insides were attempting to eat themselves. Gilda nodded.

“I am very hungry.” She admitted looking down. She was wearing the clothes of these people and using their water and now was going to eat their food. She could offer them the ring…but even then she felt awkward accepting so much. Ordinarily she felt superior to most of those around her. Now she felt little, unimportant, and ordinary. The nicer they were to her, the more wretched she felt.

Freya checked a pot on the stove and then went to the door. She spoke barely above a whisper, in the strange calm, kind voice she had, that they all seemed to have.

“Gentlemen – the lady is dressed and dinner is ready.” Freya turned back from the door and returned to the stove as Freyr and Frederick came back in. Frederick was blonde, like the bear had been. As a young man he had light hair, blue eyes and a freckled nose. He was probably 18 or 19. He smiled broadly at her when he caught her looking at him, he clearly found himself very handsome. Freyr glanced at her and nodded briskly. His long dark brown hair hung around his face like a curtain and it made it hard to tell what he was thinking. Not that he ever seemed to wear his thoughts on his face.

“Freyr will you carry Gilda to the table? Her feet began bleeding again just from the walk to the chair.” Freya asked with a sympathetic look at Gilda.

“It’ll be worse now that she is clean.” He said without it explaining. If not because she smelled bad, and not because she smelled like food, what was it that he found so off putting?

“I’ll do it!” Frederick said springing towards her on his long coltish legs. Impossibly fast Freyr had reached his brother, and pinned him against the wall with one hand. He made a quiet sound…almost like a growl. Not the way that humans sometimes growl…but like the sound that an animal would make.

“No you won’t.” He said firmly, and calmly, as though he hadn’t just shoved his brother violently against a wall and snarled at him. The paintings on the wall were still swinging from the force. Frederick just laughed. He didn’t seem injured or surprised or bothered by his brother’s behavior.

“It’s not sundown anymore…I’m pretty sure I could handle it.” He said laughing, but he went and seated himself at the table.

“Like you handled it in town that time.” Freyr said with a scornful tone as he picked up the very embarrassed Gilda, who tried not to look at him or touch him anymore than was strictly necessary, and carried her to the table. He set her into a chair at the end, as it was easier with her injured feet. It left her feeling very much exposed, flanked on either side by these strange bear people. People, who even when human, growled and shoved each other like animals…and apparently had a strange adverse reaction to her – while clean or dirty.

“Well, here you are Gilda. I hope you like soup, and bread.” Freya said setting a bowl of what looked like beef and barley soup in front of her with a wedge of cheese and thick slice of sourdough bread. Usually Gilda was forced to eat a rabbit or squirrel infused version of the soup, so she was actually excited enough to eat it that she forgot to feel awkward.

“Thank you Miss Vanhelstad.” Gilda said trying to remember the proper address for a woman in this situation without knowing her station. Frederick laughed, spilling soup out of his spoon and onto the table.

“She’s just Freya. You don’t need to stand on ceremony. We all know who you are.” He said. Gilda looked at her plate. Was he going to elaborate on how he knew her? She certainly didn’t know them, and they hadn’t even told her why they were only partially human yet. Gilda was very used to controlling everything around her. She was pleasant and outgoing under ordinary circumstances, and until recently, very well liked. Usually she understood everyone’s motives for their behavior, and had become pretty good at getting what she wanted. In most venues the right look or sigh would have everyone bending to her will. Right now she felt so confused and overwhelmed and frightened that she didn’t even know what to do. It was hard to remember how to spoon soup into one’s mouth, let alone what to call people. She tried eating slowly and silently so as not to have to think about the bizarre situation she was in. It wasn’t working, even though the soup was unusually squirrel free and delicious.

“Are you alright Gilda? You seem distressed.” Freya asked when Gilda dropped her soup spoon for the 3rd time. “Do not like the soup?” Gilda shook head. If only her discomfort were soup related!

“No. No, the soup is lovely. It’s just that you are all being very kind to me, but somewhat familiar, and I don’t understand what is going on. I mean you say that you know me, but I don’t know you! Who are you? What are you? Why haven’t you thrown me out? I’m an intruder and I’m accused of serious crimes.” She asked mumbling, an act she knew was rude. Freya smiled.

“We will continue to be kind to you, and we will not harm you. We just need to make sure that you can be trusted, before we explain everything. Given your recent experience, I’m sure you can understand our fear of being found out?” Freya asked.

“Who would I even tell? Everyone I know wants to kill me, and if I return to Gran, she will be in danger. Who do you think I am going to tell about you?” Gilda asked, biting her bread rather savagely, but still remembering to chew with her mouth closed.. Freyr sighed.

“You’re a talkative creature normally. I’m sure you could find someone.” He said without emotion. Tears stung the corners of Gilda’s eyes again. She didn’t notice that they were falling until the surface of her soup moved in ripples.

“Freyr! The girl was nearly killed last night by those people. Don’t be so cruel.” Frederick scolded his brother, he gave Gilda a sympathetic look. Freya took Gilda’s hand.

“The townspeople became suspicious of you because you are different than they are. You are exceedingly pretty. So very pretty that it makes me a little uncomfortable and I am a woman! You don’t look like the rest of them, and you don’t behave like they do…so they branded you a witch and almost killed you. If they almost killed you for being pretty, what do you think they would do to people like us?” Freya asked gently. “We’ve been afraid for our safety, much longer than you have…and it is hard for us to trust new people. I’m sorry if we are behaving strangely or making you uncomfortable. It isn’t our intention.” Freya said handing her another slice of bread. Gilda looked up at her.

“Please tell me what you are. Not knowing is very difficult for me. I promise I will not tell anyone. I will be less frightened if you just tell me and I am not left to imagine all sorts of possibilities.” Gilda pleaded. She made her tear filled eyes as big and innocent as possible. Freyr shook his head.

“Don’t try that on us. It won’t work.” He said evenly. “One of the benefits to not wanting bed you, it that your little trick with the eyes doesn’t work on us.” Frederick smiled broadly at her.

“Speak for yourself Freyr. I’ll tell her what she wants to know.” He said wiggling his eyebrows at Gilda. Freyr attempted to kick his brother under the table. Had he been a normal sized human he might have been successful, but his extra-long legs caused the entire table to jolt and spilled everyone’s soup. Frederick laughed. Freya shook her head and sighed.

“It’s alright Freyr. We can tell her. She won’t be leaving here anytime soon, and hopefully when she does, she will be sympathetic to our situation.” Freya said and stood up from the table. “This is a long story, and better told in the living room, and with something to drink.” Freya said in a dark sounding voice. She pulled a wine bottle out of the cupboard and uncorked it with her teeth. “Well? Carry her to sofa.” Freya said and walking into the living room without a backward glance toward her surprised brothers. They looked at each other apprehensively, momentarily in agreement. They hadn’t expected her to agree. This was a secret that they had kept for a very long time.

Chapter 9: A Long Story About a Far Away Place

‘The gift of foresight is the gift of pain, until one learns to deaden their heart against it. A Seer is never a person to be trusted as their survival depends upon having a broken soul.” – Words of the Seer

Freyr took a glass of wine from his sister and sat in a tall backed chair by the fire. The chair threw long shadows across his face, making his dark eyes and hollow cheeks look more exotic and frightening than usual. Freya sat beside Gilda who had been set down on the sofa with her legs up on a pillow. Frederick was sprawled out on the rug by the fire. Gilda tried not to giggle out of hysteria. A bear man was laying in front of the fire like a rug. Freyr looked at her with an eyebrow raised.

“Does something amuse you?” He asked. Gilda shook her head rapidly.

“No. Please, start your story.” She said nervously. She didn’t want her hysteria to cause her to miss it. She shoved the sweet biscuit Freya had given her into her mouth so that she couldn’t say or do anything to stop him from beginning. He shrugged, he looked as if he didn’t much care whether he told the story or not.

“A long time ago, there was a small kingdom with a very arrogant, very handsome King. He had no bride, and enjoyed the freedom that this gave him. It is quite easy to seduce foolish young girls when you are the King and every single one of them hopes that they might become Queen.” Freyr locked eyes with Gilda and she felt her breath catch in her throat. It felt like a personal reprimand despite the fact that she had certainly not been present at the time the story began. He looked away and continued.

“It happened one day that he met a pretty peasant girl picking flowers in a meadow on his estate. She hadn’t realized she was trespassing, or she didn’t care, or she was hoping to meet him. It would be impossible to know. But he was captivated by her beauty. After that initial meeting he saw her often, and had no trouble convincing her of his affections. She was fully seduced by the young King, and when he tired of her and told her he had no intentions of marrying a peasant woman, she was surprised and distraught. She begged him to reconsider, but he would not and he sent her away.” Freyr paused to take a sip of his wine. Gilda had forgotten she was even holding a beverage and drank some of her tea. It had gone cold in her hands.

“Shortly after he dismissed the girl, his kingdom was attacked by a vast army. A much larger kingdom with more resources was attempting to take over his lands. He sent word to all his subjects and the neighboring areas that if anyone knew of a way to defeat this seeming less endless army, he would give them anything they asked for. Many opportunists came, but they were all proved false. After many promised dragons turned out be lizards, or potions that in the end did nothing, someone came who had real power. To his shock it was the young peasant woman who returned and told him that she could cause the entire army to be sickened. They would be unable to fight, and his smaller army could defeat them easily. He did not think that she truly had the ability to do what she said, but he told her that if she succeeded he would give her anything she wanted. She agreed to sicken the entire army, in exchange for his promise that he would marry her after she had done it, and that he would make her Queen. He agreed to this, assuming that nothing would come of it.” Freyr paused dramatically as he threw another piece of wood into the fire. Freya sighed, and began speaking instead. It was a story that they all knew equally well.

“The next morning, the entire attacking army was dead outside the gates of the city. Their King was dead as well. All the young King had to do was to walk his own army through his own land, and into their land to their castle and he was King of both realms. They had no army anymore with which to stop him. He was horrified by the thousands of dead men, and did not wish to marry the woman responsible. So instead of waiting for her to come and claim her reward, he immediately married the daughter of the dead King, and made her his Queen. This pleased the people of the conquered land. Thanks to the deadly and cruel actions of the peasant woman, he now ruled two happy and prosperous kingdoms.

A week after the wedding celebrations ended, the peasant girl returned. She told the King that she was a witch, and that was how she had been able to poison so many men at once. The King did not believe in witches and told her to go. To pacify her, he gave her gold in payment for her help, and informed her that as he was already wed, he could not marry her. The girl was furious. She threw the money at his feet and told him that he would regret breaking his promise. She said that she would lay a curse upon his house, and that he would become as much of a monster physically as he was otherwise. She told him that he would be both monster and man and could never exist fully in either world. By day he would be a man trapped in the body of a beast, while by night he would be a beast in the body of man. He did not like her threats or her riddles, and so he had her thrown out, but not before she spoke her curse. He would have had her killed, to prevent her from placing it, but she disappeared like smoke.” Freya paused a moment to drink from her glass. Gilda didn’t wish even to breathe for fear that it would be interrupting and that Freya would stop telling the story. Thankfully Freya continued.

“The next morning when the King awoke, he found that he was not a man anymore. He had been transformed into a beast. He was a gigantic, vicious bear, and while his mind was his own, inside the animal, he could do nothing to control the actions of the creature. His guards had heard the witch’s curse and so by some miracle, they did not kill him, but only kept him locked up. At sundown was relieved to become a mortal man again. He paid his guards ludicrous amounts to keep his secret. He swore very few servants to silence with money, gifts and titles, and dismissed all the rest. He became a recluse, restricting access to the castle, and maintained only the smallest of household staffs. He conducted all his state business at night, and claimed he had an illness which prevented him from going out in the day. The castle was nearly empty of people during the sunlit hours, and those that entered and exited were well paid. While rumors of various illnesses, including porphyria or even vampirism swirled around the kingdom, no one could possibly guess the true affliction of their honored King.

As he was a man at night, and already married…he had no trouble producing an heir with his young wife. A lovely baby boy was born just past midnight a year after the King had been cursed. The boy was human and perfect and his mother was so very relieved. Unfortunately, by morning the tiny baby she held her in arms had been transformed into a tiny wild animal. She was terrified. But strangely, unlike the King, who had to be locked up to prevent mauling his staff during the day, the baby bear behaved as a human infant would. Every evening her baby would become a human child again, and every morning it would take on the form of a bear…but it was always sweet and gentle and she did not fear it.

As the baby bear became a child, it was clear that it was different than its father. As a human boy it was normal, walked at the right age, began speaking at the right age, and was no different than any other. Except that the poor boy had to be kept away from all other children, as during the day it looked like a bear cub. It couldn’t speak as a bear, but it behaved in every way as if it were a human boy. It played with a rocking horse and read books in the library. The only time it was ever bear-like was for a short time after sundown and just before sunrise. The moment of transition seemed to allow the instincts of the bear to break through. As he grew to a young lad of 6 or 7 he was able to explain that the bear was always in his mind. It constantly expressed its desires, but that except for in those brief windows before and after the change, he felt free to ignore it. It was the exact opposite of how his father felt, fully trapped in the wants of the bear.

One day, the innocent bear child, decided that it would like to see its father. Due to some truly terrible mistake of the guards leaving the door unguarded, the little bear was able to free his father. The King roamed the halls in the form of a mindless bear, together with his son. The Queen happened upon them during their stroll. When she saw her child in the company of his father, she nearly lost her mind with fear. She couldn’t stand the thought that his father might accidentally harm him, and so she rushed forward to protect her child. Unfortunately the instincts of the bear could not ignore the threat of a human running toward his cub. The King accidentally killed his wife while he was in his animal form. The man inside the bear was fully aware of everything he was doing, and yet he was powerless to stop it.” Freya looked deeply saddened by her own story. She paused again to sip from her glass, while Gilda was ready to shake her until she began the story again. Finally, it seemed that Freya was able to continue.

“When evening came and he returned to the form of man, he apologized to his son and said his goodbyes with the boy. He made his advisor the boys’ regent, and left. No one saw or heard of their King again. The boy was protected, and the rumor spread that he suffered the same rare disease as his father. He even kept nocturnal court as he grew, and so as a teenager and young adult met many fine ladies of quality. When he turned twenty-one he proposed to his favorite of the young women. He revealed his secret to her, and much to his surprise, she accepted him anyway. Perhaps she wanted to be Queen very badly, or perhaps she had fallen so completely in love with him that she didn’t mind. Either way, she willing to endure marriage to a monster. She married him, became Queen, and kept his secret. Had she refused, or attempted to spread the information of his bizarre deformity…she would have been executed for treason. Even in proposing to her, the King had to be willing to either marry her or kill her.

Thankfully, the two of them ruled for several years without incident. It wasn’t until his first child was born that the King knew relief. His wife had borne him an heir, and the child’s transformation to a bear was even less dramatic than his own. His son could even speak while a bear. Aside from that very difficult time before and after transformation, he was almost entirely human as an animal.

The Queen was relieved as well, and after a few years of observing her son, had no fear of future children. So it was, that unlike his father, this King produced three children. All the children had the same milder version of the curse, and so for many years it was relatively easy to keep them safe and hidden. They were cooperative and could be treated as normal children, even during the day. It was only after one of the servants was a bit too loose lipped in the town tavern that the trouble started. Rumors flew surrounding the mysterious illness of the King and his nocturnal family. People theorized that they were a coven of vampires. Rumors of demons, witches, magic and other wild suppositions abounded. The King pretty much ignored them until a fire was set outside the children’s room one night. The person who did it was apprehended, but the Queen feared for the safety of her children. The youngest was only three, and although this fire had been put out in time, she was fearful of the next. She begged the King to let her take the children to their country estate until they were grown. He refused. The next incident was during the day. Someone broke in through the children’s window and saw them. No one believed the wild story, but the rumors intensified. People became fearful of their ruler and his family. One night the Queen caught a man with a knife in the room of her youngest child. The man was frightened away by the guards, but the damage was done. She pleaded with the King once more to let her take the children to the country, but he refused. He felt that such a move would make him look weak and would undermine his rule. He was already called ‘The Demon King’ in the areas which surrounded his kingdom, he wished to do nothing which would intensify the rumors that flew about his rule.

The very next night the Queen bribed several servants, bagged up as many valuables as she could, grabbed her children and left. She waited until after her husband had fallen asleep and was gone. Pretending to be a gypsy, and telling people that her children were trained circus animals allowed them to travel during the day without being recognized. Who indeed would believe that a gypsy with three dancing bears was really the Queen and the royal family? No one. They traveled hundreds of miles, into a new country, and far away from anyone who might recognize and fear them. The Queen kept them moving, never letting them stay in the same place too long, so that no one could ever grow suspicious of their odd behavior.

It took them three years to find a suitable village to live outside of more permanently. It needed to be a quiet country estate with a rather self-involved Lord who did not take much interest in his lands or his people. The town would need to be small and the kind of place that didn’t have many curious residents. This Estate, and this town matched the needs of our mother perfectly. She found a clearing in the woods, nearly half a day’s walk from town, and paid several builders to build a fine sturdy cottage there. We have lived here ever since.” Freya finished. Gilda was speechless. The story was insane, bizarre, and unbelievable, it could not possibly be true. Yet, she had seen them as bears…there was no reason to doubt that their story was correct. She was filled with even more questions at the end of the story then at the beginning. Were they really royalty? What kingdom were they heirs too? If their mother came here with them, where was she now? Why was Freya so upset by going into town? Did they plan to return to their kingdom and rule? Were they going to hide forever?

“How come we never saw each other? When you were children and we all lived in the woods?” Gilda asked. It seemed the least important question, but for some reason it slipped out first. Frederick laughed.

“Some of us saw you.” He said without elaborating. Freyr gripped the arms of his chair so tightly that his fingers sunk in to the upholstery, creating long tears, and growled at his brother. Gilda inhaled sharply. Clearly there were some effects of the curse they had not discussed in the story…such as intense strength while a human, and tendency to make sounds better suited to animals.

“What do you mean that some of you saw me?” Gilda asked quietly. Freya sighed.

“Your family came to live in the woods just a year after we built our home here. Mother was afraid every single day that your father would find our house while he was out looking for wood for his carpentry. But no sooner had your father finished building your cottage than he and your mother had that terrible accident. We no longer needed to worry about him discovering us…but you were another matter. You were a very curious child.

Your Gran came to live with you a few days after the accident, and while she was a loving care giver I’m sure…she could not keep up with you. One of us, usually Freyr, as he was a teenager then and more able to be cautious, kept an eye on you when you went into the woods. I did it occasionally, but sometimes if I spend too much time in the woods, I find it easy to get lost in being a bear. It’s best if I keep the house. I do not forget myself there. I do not know if my curse is different because of my gender, as it was designed for a man…or why it effects me so differently. So it had to be Freyr who followed you. If you seemed to be delving too deep into the woods he attempted to steer you closer to home. He’d growl and scare you back toward your clearing, or chase a deer across your path and startle you. It was easy when you were a small child, but when you started trapping, we really started to worry.” Freya said honestly. “You were so curious and so well liked amongst the townspeople…if you had seen us, if you had told them about us… They would have killed us all. Look what they did to you, a girl they knew and liked! What would they have done to us? We had to discourage you.” Gilda nearly attempted to stand up before realizing she could not.

“The phantom! You were my Phantom?” Gilda demanded glaring at Freyr as though she might leap across the room and attempt to strangle him. He smiled with just the corners of his lips.

“Usually. Occasionally it was Freya.” He said calmly, as though stalking her for her entire life was not particularly invasive.

“You followed me? You all watched me? Like my life was some pathetic source of entertainment? Is that why you think me such a joke? That is why you told Mr. Grummold that I was a stupid, insignificant worm? Because you’ve watched me long enough to know just how worthless I am?” Gilda was furious.

“I don’t think those were my exact words.” He said not moving a muscle. Gilda screamed and despite her shredded feet hurled herself across the room. She didn’t exactly know how she got there, but she was on his lap hitting him with her fists and yelling.

“How dare you?! Did you watch me all the time? Did you watch me when I’d injure myself as a child and do nothing to help? Did you watch me when I would bathe? Were you all just laughing at every foolish thing I did when I thought I was alone? Reading poetry, teaching myself to dance with a willow branch, practicing imaginary table settings with sticks…” Gilda trailed off. She had done so many ridiculous things when she thought she had been alone. To know that someone had been watching was actual physical pain. It made her feel even worse that her feeble attempts with tired scratched up arms to wound him seemed in-effective. Though oddly no one was stopping her. They seemed used to minor bouts of violence. All those times that her phantom had made that strange chuffing noise…Freyr, or possibly Freya but more likely Freyr had been laughing at her. Freyr stood up, wrapping his arms around Gilda’s struggling form and taking her with him.

“It wasn’t just to keep you away from us Gilda. You were young and you needed an eye on you. We owed you at least that.” He said, holding her limbs against her as he carried her towards the stairs. “I think she should go to bed. She is hysterical and needs rest.” He said without acknowledging Gilda’s attempt to wound him. He didn’t even seemed bruised.

“Put me down!” Gilda said squirming in his arms. He gripped her more tightly so that she wouldn’t fall. “I’m not hysterical! I want to know what you meant! You barely know me, how could you owe me anything?” Freyr looked as though he were about to speak. Freya shook her head emphatically.

“She doesn’t need to know that Freyr.” Freya said firmly. “We’ve told her enough.” She gestured toward the room on the right of the stairs. “Put her in my bedroom. She and I can share.” Freya said as she followed Freyr and the very unwilling Gilda up the stairs.

“I’d keep an eye on her if you put her in my room.” Frederick said hopefully. “She’s already shown a preference for my bed.” Freyr couldn’t smack his brother as his arms were full of a wriggling girl who kept threatening to fall and injure herself further.

“You’d keep more than an eye on her I imagine.” Freyr said as he brought her into what must be Freya’s room. It had two beds in it. It must have been where their mother had also slept. He deposited her with surprising gentleness onto the bed furthest from the window. Freya entered behind him and stood close to the edge of the bed so that Gilda could not attempt an unwise escape.

“Goodnight Gilda. I hope you sleep well.” Freyr said with a slight bow and swept out of the room. Freya shut the door behind him. Gilda sat up in the bed with her arms wrapped tightly around her knees. Freya sat at the foot.

“I’m sorry Gilda. This must be quite a shock. I can assure you that when you were home, far from our house, we rarely had an occasion to watch you. Your privacy was preserved whilst bathing or dressing. It was only when you were out in the woods and we feared you might accidently stray too far that we kept an eye on you. We did try to be as appropriate as we could. Sometimes we forget ourselves…we are animals half the time – more really as we sleep much of the time when we are human. We are so isolated…it’s hard to remember how ordinary people would view our actions. Our own survival has been our sole focus for so long…” Freya stopped speaking. Gilda had tucked her head down onto her knees and was not speaking.

“I will let you get some rest, but please at least promise me that when I fall asleep you will not attempt to injure yourself by climbing out of bed and trying to use the stairs? Despicable though our actions may have been, we are your best choice for safety.” Freya assured her. Gilda laid down on the bed and turned herself toward the door. Freya looked at her with concern. Freyr had put her on the bed closest to the door, as Freya usually slept in the one by the window. She understood his motive, but thought it was perhaps not the best choice. Gilda was very upset and might try to escape. Freya pulled her blanket and pillow off her own bed and laid it down by the door. Gilda sat up and looked at her.

“You think I am going to try to sneak out? I would get barely ten steps before fainting from the pain, and even if I did make it back to Gran’s house without bleeding to death, I’m sure there are several townsmen there waiting to burn me alive. I know Freyr has told you how exceptionally foolish I am…but I am not entirely without sense.” Gilda said resentfully. Freya nodded and returned her bedding to the bed by the window. It was better if she was by the window, she could leave through it in the morning before she began the change.

“Alright Gilda. I will trust you.” She said climbing into her own bed. “Please do not betray my trust.” She said gently. Gilda made a ‘humphing’ noise and laid down and closed her eyes. Freya waited until Gilda’s breathing became even and regular before she closed her own. What on earth were they going to do with this girl? How long before the search parties found their house in an effort to find the girl? And when they inevitably did find them, what were they going to do? As long as the woods were being searched, none of them were safe. Freya sighed inwardly and attempted to sleep.

Freyr sat astride a branch outside the bedroom window. Gilda knew that the bedroom doors all met in a central hallway by the stairs. Silly though the girl might be, she most likely wouldn’t try to escape in the direction of the two men who had recently proven to have exceptionally keen hearing. If she did attempt to leave, it would be through the window. Freyr was fairly certain of it. He laid his head on a branch and closed his eyes. Like an actual animal he was capable of sleeping in a tree.

Freyr slept more lightly than Freya did, who slept as though she were an actual hibernating bear. Even their rooster’s crow did not wake her in the morning. Occasionally she even would go through the transformation without waking. It made her a somewhat dangerous sleeping companion for the girl. If Gilda managed to wake Freya up when she was still in the half hour before or after the change, Freya would not be able to control her actions. Freya was gentle as a bear, but with very protective instincts. As she had been twelve when their mother died and Frederick only seven, she had adopted the role of mother to him. When she was a bear, her instincts to that end could be very extreme. She had once torn an unlucky wolf to shreds for wandering too close to their hen house in the morning. It had been a full hour after the change, but Frederick had been retrieving the eggs, and as he was still young, he had not noticed the scent of the wolf. The wolf must have been a fairly stupid one in order to wander so close to a hen house that had a baby bear in it. It had perhaps deserved what it had gotten for being so moronic. Freyr just couldn’t bear the thought of cleaning up shreds of Gilda…the wolf had been bad enough. As had the unfortunate hunter…but that was a long time ago. Frederick was older now though, and Freya was much better…much calmer now that he no longer looked like a cub while a bear.

What were they going to do with Gilda? She couldn’t live with them forever. Especially not with her smelling so utterly irresistible three or four days out of every month. The senses of the bear never fully left them even in human form. They could just barely ignore it if they were vigilant. It was hard to be vigilant when a beautiful woman smelled like a ripe piece of fruit. Women waxed and waned like the moon. Sometimes they held little allure for the bear, which had three imperatives in life: eat so as not to starve, protect itself so as to stay alive, and as all animals do – reproduce itself. When it was clear that reproduction was likely due to the fertile state of a woman…she smelled like perfectly ripened fruit, perfuming the very air around her. The desire to utterly consume her in carnal passion was very very hard to ignore.

Right now Gilda was curled up inside his house, emanating the scent of her perfection like a peach sitting on the counter in the warm sun. He could smell it lingering on his clothes like perfume. The bear inside him was in a frenzy with desire to open the window, crawl into bed with the girl, and climb onto her like an animal. Freyr would never do that if he could help it. After all, he was the one who made the rule against making more of themselves. But Gilda made it almost impossible. She was so beautiful that it was hard to believe she was an actual living person. She looked more like a glossy oil painting, something to be admired, but never touched. He had tried very hard to hate her, to look down on her silliness and her ridiculous goals in life…but he had been unsuccessful. His fingers dug grooves in the tree branch he was holding. It wasn’t even close to dawn but the smell of the girl on his shirt was making him half mad. He took off the leather tunic which bore her scent and threw it on the ground.

He closed his eyes and attempted to sleep, but with his eyes closed, instead of seeing the tree branch and the night sky he saw himself undressing Gilda. His half-asleep brain was very suggestable. A familiar lucid dream began, him caressing her golden skin, twisting his fingers into her golden hair… He opened his eyes, something was moving inside the room. Was Freya getting up to check on Gilda? No. She was still fast asleep, looking like the dead. It was Gilda, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and attempting to step onto the floor. He could hear her exhale sharply as the pain of her feet on the floor startled her. He could smell the blood start running again on her heel. Stupid girl! She crawled across the floor like a thief toward the window. What did she think she was going to do, climb down the tree on shredded feet? Then crawl through the woods on her knees? Where did she think she was going to go? Gilda opened the window and gasped as Freyr swung silently in through it, cat-like and picked her up.

She’d had it open less than a second, and he was already gripping her tightly against his inexplicably bare chest and carrying her back toward her bed. As many times as she imagined being carried against the muscular chest of a half-naked man toward a bed…it had never been by a man who was half animal and holding her prisoner. Gilda moaned pitifully as he set her down in the bed.

“How did you know that I would try to escape by the window?” She asked. She had thought that it would be the route that they wouldn’t be thinking of. She half expected that he had been sleeping in the hall, but never the tree outside the window. He shook his head.

“Because you never do things the easy way. Much as you despise me for watching you the last twelve years, it has afforded me to opportunity to get to know you pretty well. People are never more themselves than when they think they are alone.” He said quietly, as though trying not to wake his sister. Gilda sighed softly. This was mortifying.

“I hate you.” She said angrily.

“I thought you liked your phantom.” He said with a smile in his voice. Gilda could not see his face well in the dark, but she had a profound desire to slap it.

“You terrified me for so long that you burnt out my ability to fear you. I finally spoke to my phantom to keep from being afraid or from going completely insane.” She admitted. He unbent her legs so that she was lying down again, head on the pillow.

“Go to sleep Goldy-locks.” He said, using the name the village boys used to call her…before they all went mad and started staring speechlessly at her.

“How could I possibly sleep with you sitting on my bed? It’s unseemly.” Gilda said rolling away from him so that she was facing the door. He sniffed the air.

“Your feet are bleeding.” He said in a matter of fact voice. Gilda found it excessively creepy that he could tell that by smelling the air. She shivered in spite of herself. She really didn’t want to let him know that he had any kind of effect on her.

“Yes. I stepped on them in my attempt to escape the three bear-people who stalked me my whole life and are now holding me prisoner. And I’ll admit that it was unwise…but how could I stay here after this evening? I found out that you are all half-animal bear people with no sense of decency, and I attempted to beat you with my fists as if I were a tantruming child!” Gilda hissed, for some reason also trying not to wake Freya. What was wrong with her? Freya would never let her brother stay here, in the dark, in bed with Gilda…so why was she whispering in the dark so as not to wake her? Surely she didn’t want to stay this way with Freyr Vanhelstad, otherwise known as her phantom stalker? Freyr was lightly chuckling at her angry characterization of him and his family.

“I’m sorry. I must be misunderstanding you. Are you saying that you tried to escape because being burnt alive by evil men, was to you, a better fate then staying here, because it would be embarrassing? Embarrassing because you tried to hit me with your tiny girl fists and didn’t even leave a mark?” He asked holding the bedside candle up to his chest so that she could see it was not even bruised. A drop of tallow fell from the candle onto his skin.

“Ah! Well, now there is…a mark I mean.” He said chuckling softly. Oh for heaven’s sake. Did he really not realize that she was a woman? That having a muscular shirtless woodcutter in your bed dripping hot wax on his chest was a bit much for a young woman to endure? She willed herself to begin speaking, so that she was not just staring at his naked torso.

“Well…I didn’t think I had hurt you. But I did behave rather emotionally. I didn’t think I could face any of you again.” Gilda said sounding sheepish. Not that he hadn’t deserved it…he had deserved worse. She was more embarrassed that it had been so ineffectual.

He slid down to the end of the bed, running his hand softly along her calf until he grasped her bleeding foot gently and examined it in the darkness. Could he see it? Could this man actually see in the dark as well as smell her bleeding foot and hear his sister across the yard when she spoke in a whisper? He grabbed a sock from the drawer by the bed and rebound her foot in it.

“The bleeding has stopped now. Go to sleep.” He ordered. Gilda sighed.

“Are you going to leave?” She asked.

“No.” He said stretching out on the floor beside the bed.

“You can’t stay here!” She said…although she didn’t exactly want him to leave.

“Freya is here for propriety’s sake, and I will not lay a finger on you.” He said rolling to face the opposite way from her, toward the door. Gilda was extremely tired, and she knew that Freyr had no desire to touch her…he despised her and found her unintelligent and unappealing…the only man of her acquaintance to feel that way. He also apparently had no idea that she was aware he was a man. Painfully aware. So she obediently closed her eyes and attempted to go to sleep, her face and chest still hot from anger…or something that felt like anger…but different. Infuriating man.

Freyr lay on the hard floor, almost afraid to fall asleep. With the scent of the girl perfuming the air he knew what he would dream about. As sleep overcame him, he was lucid for the tiniest moment as his dream began. He almost groaned in his sleep. The dream was the same as it always was when he’d gotten too close to the girl. It was a dream that was painful to wake up from. It was a dream in which he and Gilda were alone in a clearing in the sunlight, and he was a human man.

Chapter 10: Theodore finds his Quarry, and Something Happens which is not Usually done by Accident

‘A curse is dangerous, certainly to the bearer, but also to the witch who casts it. It is necessarily tied to the life force of the caster, feeding on her hate, and on herself.” – From Witches to the Wise

It had been almost a month since Gilda had arrived half dead at the house of the Vanhelstads. Freya had allowed Freyr to sleep on the floor of her room every night, as he was a lighter sleeper and it was clear that Gilda could not be trusted…and that if Freya managed to sleep through her transition, she might accidentally maul Gilda to death. Gilda for her part had not tried to escape anymore. She was obedient and cooperative. She did not bring up the stalking after that night, and was in every respect a pleasant house guest. Her feet had healed to the point where she only required assistance with the stairs, and Freyr still carried her up and down them in the morning and at night. If she walked minimally during the day, she could hobble about on her own on the level ground. It appeared that she would not be permanently maimed.

Fall had officially arrived. The air was growing cooler at night and the fruit trees surrounding the stone cottage were heavy and full of fruit. Gilda had spent most of the day picking apples. It was easier to do in the sunlight, and easier for her to do it. Her hosts had a difficult time harvesting the apples themselves during the day as they tended to accidentally pierce every tenth apple with an errant claw. The fruit from their orchard was a considerable portion of what fed them through the winter, and it was nice not to spoil a significant percentage of it. Having Gilda around was actually very useful to them as she could harvest fruit in the daylight, and the chickens laid twice as many eggs when they were collected by a human instead of giant bear every day. Freya was especially enjoying having another woman around, and told Gilda daily how much she valued her presence. Being alone with her brothers for the last twelve years had been extremely trying for her.

Gilda had been placed up into the apple tree by Freya, who during the day was quite strong due to her more muscular animal form. Gilda scarcely noticed that they were animals anymore, and not for the first time since arriving, had not flinched at all when Freya touched her with her paws. She’d even gone so far as to ride on their backs when they were bears and she needed help getting from one spot to another with her injured feet. Somehow, it was all becoming normal. The only part that was still excessively trying, was her intense attraction to Freyr. While her feet were getting better, her feelings toward Freyr were getting worse.

Gilda gently placed several more apples into the basket that Freya was holding up. It would have made a very comical picture to anyone who saw it. A barefoot girl with bandaged feet, sitting astride a tree branch, skirt rolled to her knees, handing apples down to a giant auburn colored bear who was holding a basket…and talking to the girl in the tree. Not only was Gilda’s pose quite immodest, but bears did not generally talk.

“Are you ever going to tell me why you don’t go into town?” Gilda asked looking not into Freya’s eyes, but at the apples on the upper branches as she filled her skirt again before handing them down.

“I’m going to have to at some point aren’t I?” Freya answered. It was only the 10th time her curious little friend had asked. As she knew most of the details of Gilda’s life…through constant spying, it seemed fair that Gilda should know some of hers.

“I’ve not tried to escape for weeks now. Surely you know that you can trust me.” Gilda said unloading her skirt into the proffered basket.

“Very well then.” Freya said helping Gilda out of the now empty tree, as carefully as possible. She had no desire to rend Gilda’s skin the way she would have done to a considerable portion of the apples. It would have been very easy to do, given that she currently had 4 inch claws on each finger. She slung Gilda’s arm over her shoulder and helped her hobble over to the apricot tree. That one had to be done today in order to get the apricots dried or into jars before they became overripe and spoiled. Freya lifted Gilda up easily with her immense arms. Gilda swung her way up into the canopy, agile as a monkey while Freya collected the few from the ground, as carefully as she could. Apricots were much easier to pierce and ruin then apples were.

“Well?” Gilda asked…doing her best not to be annoying. Admittedly her best was really not very good. Freya sighed.

“Alright alright!” She said, but she was not exasperated. “I never go into town because the man I loved as a girl lives there…and he is married to someone else.” She all in one breath, trying to keep the residual sadness from her voice.

“You were in love?” Gilda asked in surprise. She had kind of gotten the impression that they weren’t much interested in people…well Freya and Freyr. Frederick was obviously very interested in Gilda…especially the first three days she had been with them, and again yesterday and today. She kind of assumed that was a fluke, and that bear people didn’t find humans any more appealing romantically then they did as food.

“Believe it or not – my heart is always human, regardless of what I look like.” Freya said with a wry smile. It disturbed Gilda only slightly that she could discern the facial expressions of bears now. She’d been with them too long.

“It was when I was seventeen, and I still went into town often. There was a shop keeper there…” Freya paused, seeing Gilda’s horrified expression. “Not Mr. Grummold! A very nice, very sweet young shop keeper. He was kind to me and often let me do business in the evenings when he was supposed to be closing the shop. He didn’t seem to mind staying open late just for me. Eventually he asked me to take dinner with him at the inn one night after merchant’s hours were done. I quite foolishly agreed. After that I saw him several times a week. He was so kind to me, and he never even questioned the odd hours that I kept. Which was impressive considering that a woman only seen at night garners an even worse reputation than a man only seen at night.” Freya said wistfully, as if she was well aware that the understanding man had been her only chance at as normal a life as she could expect. She exhaled slowly and deliberately and continued.

“Winters are lovely for us, as we are human by three thirty in the afternoon and stay that way until nine in the morning. It is almost like being normal. We could go ice skating, take walks, and be almost like any other couple. When summer came and I was only available in the late evening, he never said a thing about it. I don’t think he wanted to know what I was, or why I was so strange. I don’t think he wanted to believe ill of me, and he knew asking questions made that more likely. He was so kind, and despite my curse, my life was momentarily blissful. He even went so far as to prepare a moonlit picnic for me on a summer evening. Summers are the hardest for us as the days are so long and the nights so short. He noticed my sadness and did everything he could to make me happy. Finally he began proposing to me. I kept putting him off. I knew I could not accept him. I wanted to be with him as long as I could…but eventually he tired of asking and married someone else. For a year or two I continued to go to town, but at some point seeing him with his lovely wife was just too much, and I stopped going.” Freya said quietly. Gilda handed her a series of apricots straight into the basket. The soft flesh of apricots made Gilda’s assistance that much more invaluable. Gilda put her hand on Freya’s furry shoulder, almost as if she was a normal human.

“Why could you not tell him the truth and see if he wanted to marry you anyway? If he loved you enough not to question your odd hours, could he not love you enough to accept the truth?” Gilda asked. Freya shook her massive furry head.

“It’s not that simple. My father was a King! If the girl he had proposed to had been frightened and threatened to expose his secret, he could have simply had her thrown into a dungeon for the rest of her life. If it came to it he could have charged her with treason and had her executed to preserve his safety. I certainly do not have those abilities, nor I suppose, would I want them. I could not risk the safety of my entire family that way. You’ve seen how quickly the town can turn on someone with even just the whisper of a ridiculous rumor – let alone a true verifiable factual monster.” She sighed. This was the more embarrassing part of her situation.

“There is also another problem. My grandfather spawned one child before he murdered his wife and disappeared. My father produced three. If each of us married and produced several children, the country could theoretically, within several generations be highly populated with accursed animals like us.” Freya said looking miserable. More than anything she wanted a little child, but she wanted it to be human.

“But maybe they wouldn’t be! The curse has lessened with every generation…perhaps your children would not have it at all.” Gilda said. Freya shook her head.

“There is no way of knowing that, and none of us would wish our bizarre, dangerous and lonely lives on a child. We were able to have something of a normal childhood for a while, if a very solitary one. We were royalty! We had nannies and servants and toys and a massive castle to wander in without fear...until the end. Raising a child out here in the woods without nannies or guards to prevent them from running off and being seen, would be too dangerous. The child would inevitably get sick of these four walls and this section of woods… It would put that child in far too much danger. I could never have a child, only to worry every single second of every day about the poor thing’s safety. If the townspeople were willing to burn an innocent girl like you for your beauty, what do you think they would do to a child who was also a bear?” Freya asked. Gilda shivered, it was a horrible thought, but she had to admit Freya was right. Freya was silent for several minutes. The appetites of a bear meant that it would likely be more than one child, the more one had, the harder they were to keep track of.

“I’m sorry.” She said simply. There was not much else she could say.

“We’ve all made a promise that we will be the end of the curse. None of us will marry or have children.” Freya said. For reasons that Gilda was not willing to admit, this thought filled her with intense sadness. It was like being stabbed in the heart. Freya looked up at the sky. The sun was very low to the horizon.

“Do you need to leave?” Gilda asked. Freya nodded. She pulled Gilda gently out of the tree, being careful to keep her claws as far back as she could.

“Stay here. I’ll come back to bring you into the house in an hour or so, Freyr may be back sooner. Don’t try to finish the tree or carrying those baskets into the house yourself. You’ve just gotten those feet to scab over properly and begin healing. If you tear them open again, after all those baths and bandages, I won’t forgive you. I’ll bring in the fruit when I get back, and we’ll finish the tree tomorrow.” Freya said firmly. Gilda nodded and sat down under the branches.

“I will sit here and watch the sunset like always. Now go on before you maul me to death.” Gilda said crossing her legs and looking the picture of innocence. Freya laughed and headed toward the woods. “Alright Gilda.” She said as she disappeared into the trees.

This was always the most boring part of the day. It was better if they had been working inside and she had some knitting or something to do, but at the moment she was just going to be sitting under a tree alone for a significant period of time. At least it was still a nice autumn day. Gilda marveled at how strange it was that all this had become normal so quickly. Her life had been relatively standard just a month ago, and now she was in the middle of the most bizarre situation she never could have imagined.

Being alone was actually pretty freeing. They almost never left her alone, except for that window of time in the morning and in the evening when they all three disappeared into the woods. Given that they were faster and stronger than her, could smell her, and hear her from a distance, there was no chance that she could get far enough away in such a short window of time to properly escape. But she had stopped even thinking or planning about it weeks ago. She had now entirely accepted her strange situation. She didn’t feel like a prisoner anymore, more like a trusted friend. She also had to admit, that prisoner or no, she had nowhere else to go.

Gilda heard rustling in the trees. It was too soon for Freya to be back. She would be in human form by now, but with the mind of a bear. She didn’t know what Freya could possibly want to do to her when she was that way, but apparently it was dangerous enough that she kept her distance until she was fully herself. Gilda turned around to look into the trees, but saw nothing. Ten minutes went by, and no one had come out of the woods. Could it have been the wind? That seemed unlikely as there was no wind at the moment. She knew that Freyr was her phantom…so that was unlikely as well. It wasn’t as if he would spy on her for old times’ sake. Suddenly she was hoisted to her feet from behind and pulled back toward the house, gripped tightly against someone’s body.

Gilda struggled and kicked at her unseen assailant.

“Gilda!” A voice whispered in her ear. “It’s just me. Stop fighting.” Freyr continued to pull her bodily into the house, tightly against him with a finger to her lips as though she were a doll. Once inside he set her down and bolted the door. He turned to face her, his finger to his lips for quiet.

“Your man has been prowling out in the woods for weeks now. I’ve been keeping any eye on him to make sure he doesn’t get too close.” Freyr peeked out the window. “Just now he nearly entered the clearing. I’m fairly certain he saw you. He has found us.” Freyr whispered urgently. He was even more concerned about being found than Gilda was, and that was significant.

“Man? I have no man.” Gilda said in confusion. Freyr grasped her hand roughly and held her ring to the light.

“Then what is this?” He demanded, still in a whisper. Oh. Yes. That.

“The Squire is in the woods?” She asked. She had all but forgotten that dreadful tea which had led to the strange events that were now occupying all of her time. She hadn’t even remembered she was still wearing the little token, but apparently Freyr had.

“Not the Squire!” He hissed. “A young man – 19 or 20. Tall, gangly, sandy hair, bad skin.” He said angrily. He spun to face her, eyes dark. “How many fiancés do you have?” He asked sounding derisive.

“You mean Theodore? He’s the banker’s son. He can’t be here – he thinks I am a witch, and he is afraid of me.” Gilda said, now she was terrified.

“If he thought you were a witch he wouldn’t be looking for you alone. He’d be with several men and a few dogs. That’s how they have been searching for you lately.” Freyr rubbed his forehead. “The boy is besotted with you like the others used to be. He must be here in a backward attempt to rescue you and keep you in his debt for not turning you over the hunters.”

“That cannot be! I can tell you honestly that he is terrified of me.” Gilda said nervously, she really really didn’t want to be found and brought back to town. The sound of a boy’s scream filled the air, startling her and enraging Freyr.

“Frederick! My worthless brother has found the boy.” He said unbolting the door. “Bolt this behind me, don’t open it for any reason. I will return through the upstairs window. Anyone attempting to come through this door will not be me.” He said dashing through the door at inhuman speed. Gilda bolted it after him obediently. She sat in a chair at the table, head in her hands, attempting to steady her panicked breathing. She could hear the loud ‘thwack’ of a body hitting a tree with great force. She rather hoped it was Freyr hurling Frederick away from Theodore. Frederick would be relatively unharmed…Theodore would be dead.

Frederick lay dazed at the base of a tree. He rubbed his head. Freyr had found him attempting to kill the trespasser. His own brother had hurled him against the tree in order to make him stop choking the life out the stupid village boy. He understood why Freyr had done it…but he resented it all the same. He’d never killed anyone before and this fellow had at least deserved it. The only reason for him to be here was to arrest Gilda for witchcraft. Frederick blinked until his eyes could see properly again. Freyr had the boy by the shoulders and had hoisted him up into the air against a tree.

“What are you doing here?” He demanded shaking the boy. The boy looked terrified.

“I was trying to find Gilda.” He managed to gasp out. “I’ve been worried about her, I thought she was dead.” He said sounding panicked.

“What do you want with her?” Freyr demanded without putting the boy down. Because of Freyr’s height, the boy dangled a considerable length over the ground.

“I love her.” The boy said still looking like he feared for his life. “What have you done with her?” He asked, attempting to sound demanding and not like a frightened little boy. Freyr dropped him hard in order to grab the front of Frederick’s shirt and hold him back. The boy let out a startled gasp as they air left his lungs when the hit the ground. Frederick had regained his feet and was attempting to run at the boy again. His head was down and he was attempting to charge at the frightened villager. Freyr’s hold on his shirt was all that kept him from flinging himself at the boy.

“Love her! You and your friends are the reason she collapsed in our house half dead a month ago. Do you know how long it took her to walk again? She bled her way through our house before losing consciousness on the bedroom floor! You’re here to find her and take her back to town and finish the job.” Frederick shouted, struggling in his larger brother’s grasp. Freyr was holding both his arms behind his back by the wrists as he growled and snapped at the boy. Frederick longed to sink his teeth into the boy’s quavering throat. It was very close to sunset and his instincts were still mostly ursine. He could see the large vein of his jugular pulsing in his neck. He could feel his teeth snapping the taut flesh and the heat of the blood foaming on his skin…even though it wasn’t actually happening.

The boy slithered backward against the trunk of the tree, clearly horrified by the behavior of the two men. They were acting more like vicious animals than humans. The strange snarling and snapping noises they could make reminded him of wolves or bears.

“No! I would never do that. I just want to keep her safe.” The boy pleaded. “I never wanted them to hurt her. I swear it! I love her, and I know she loves me. I’m here to make sure she is safe, and to take her home! She wants to be with me, please just let her come home with me.”

“She’s safe here. You can go.” Freyr said coldly. “If you took her ‘home’ she would not be and you know it. Do you want her burnt? Why are you still here? Go.” Freyr said leaning forward menacingly toward the young man.

“No he can’t!” Frederick said attempting to turn in order to attack his brother instead of the trespassing villager. “He’ll just run back and tell everyone where she is. They’ll come with torches and dogs and kill us all. We have to take care of him…permanently.” Frederick said with a determined glint in his eyes. Gilda’s current level of fertility had his bear instincts in over drive wanting to protect her. He could smell her ripeness across the clearing inside the house from where he was. The fact that he had never lain with her didn’t stop the bear from thinking of her as his mate. He was ready to kill any rival who tried to claim her, or any predator who tried to harm her.

“I won’t tell anyone where she is! I don’t want to kill her…I want to marry her! If she is married to me, then I can vouch for her morality. My father is a powerful man…” The boy cried covering his head with his hands. “I just want her to be safe.” He begged.

Freyr cocked his head to the side. The boy was in earnest. He was thoroughly spent on his affection for Gilda and would not leave unless he thought the reason he came for no longer existed. A plan to send the well-meaning, but very inconvenient boy away had formed in his head. Freyr didn’t particularly like it, but it would work. He laughed at the boy on the ground, pulling himself up into an aggressive stance, made all the more formidable by his height.

“You want to marry her?” He laughed again. “You can’t marry her. She is married already.” Freyr said giving his brother a backward shove to deter him a moment as he pulled the boy to his feet.

“Married already? How can that be? She has not been back to town…” The boy looked startled. Freyr smiled with too many teeth.

“I mean married in the…more rural sense. She was living here under our roof for her own protection... We may be simple woodsmen, but even we realized that it wouldn’t be seemly if she wasn’t married to one of us. And as we couldn’t send her away without consigning her to death… I married her…after a fashion.” Freyr said raising an eyebrow.

“You took her as your common law wife?” The boy said with horror in his voice. The idea of his sweet Gilda, pure as a blossom, being forced into such an arrangement made him want to vomit. Freyr nodded smirking at the lad’s despair.

“As is common in the country, where vicars are scarce, we adhered to the tradition of hand-fasting. We spoke the vows in front of my brother and sister as trustworthy witnesses, enacted the consummation, and have lived here as husband and wife for several weeks now. You are too late. The most you can do for her is keep the secret of her whereabouts.” Freyr said releasing the boy. Frederick stood at arm’s length watching the boy’s reaction to this ridiculous lie. Why would Freyr make himself the husband? He was so much older than Gilda, it was completely unrealistic. It would have been much better if Freyr had said that he was the one who had married her.

“You used her fear for her life to convince her to lie with you and accept a ‘spousal’ marriage? Did you even apply for a marriage contract?” The boy demanded anger and disappointment rising in his voice in equal measures. Without a contract this horrid woodsman could simply leave Gilda when he grew bored without any legal consequences. Freyr laughed.

“Don’t pretend you would have acted any differently.” He said coldly. “A pretty girl too sick to walk landed in my lap, and you think I’m not going to take advantage of the situation? Anyway, as an educated young man you know that even without a contract it is valid and legally binding if it had valid witnesses and if there was consummation. I assure you that there were both.” He smiled lasciviously at the boy. “As a simple woodcutter I’ve been afforded precious few opportunities to ensnare such a choice creature, you do not think I would not press the advantage given by such a unique situation when it regarded a girl such as Gilda?” Freyr said, his posture and tone both exceedingly convincing.

“And how do you expect me to possibly apply to the church for entry into their records and a marriage contract at this juncture? Were I to inquire for either, my lovely young wife would be taken from me and burnt at the stake! Would you have me do that to her? Or have allowed her to live in my house with myself and my brother without offering her the protections of even a ‘spousal’ marriage as you say? Surely you can admit that I have acted in the girl’s best interest.” Freyr finished. The boy was crying. Ugly, hacking sobbing noises were coming out of him. He wiped his dripping face on the back of his hand.

“Can I at least see her? I wish to say goodbye. I won’t tell anyone where you are if you just let me see that she is alright, and that she is happy. Please. I can’t leave unless I know it was by her choice.” The boy was crying bitterly. Even Frederick relaxed his fight ready posture. The boy was truly a pitiable sight. His searching through the woods had left him dirty, and scratched. It was clear he unaccustomed to such exertion. His eyes were hollow from lack of sleep and his overly emotional display had left him runny nosed and red faced. The boy was no danger to Gilda, unless he didn’t see her, in which case he might do something foolish and desperate.

“Very well. I thought you were here to cause her harm, so I told her to bolt herself into the house and let no one in. Let me go into the house and get her. Frederick, this young man is our guest. Do not harm him.” Freyr said sternly as he gave his brother a severe look. Frederick rolled his eyes. He wasn’t going to hit a crying runny nosed boy. There would be little fun in that. He was just angry that Freyr had made himself the common law husband…As he was significantly closer to Gilda’s age he would have made the better choice. Freyr disappeared around the back side of the house. Frederick smiled, the boy would think there was a door there. He would never guess that a common woodsman would be climbing 30 feet into the air and jumping through a window.

“Gilda.” Freyr said stepping off the staircase into the kitchen.

“Is he here to scout for Mr. Grummold or Lord Phillip?” Gilda asked in a panic. Freyr shook his head.

“He is here because he is in love with you. He wanted to marry you in an effort to protect you from the accusations. Obviously that would never work, and he was being particularly adamant about it…so I had to make up a convincing story to dissuade him.” Freyr said looking almost embarrassed. Gilda had never seen him look anything less than self-assured and completely at ease.

“What is that?” Gilda asked. Freyr rubbed his temples.

“I had to tell him you were already married…after a fashion anyway. That way he will think that the reason he came no longer exists, but that you are safe, and he will neither come back, nor tell the townspeople of your whereabouts. There is just one small problem.” Freyr said, his voice quiet, even for him. Gilda looked surprised.

“What is that?” She asked. Who had Freyr told him she had married? Not the Squire, there would have been an announcement in town, and it would not explain her presence here. After all, the Squire would expect his bride to live with him in his Estate, not in a cottage in the woods.

“He wishes to see you, in order to verify that you are happy being married to me.” Freyr said almost inaudibly, and unless she was mistaken, a faint blush had appeared on his narrow cheeks. No. That was impossible. Freyr had no emotions other than irritation when it came to her.

“You?” Gilda laughed. “You told him I was married to you? That’s ridiculous! We have never been to town! How does he think we managed to get married?” She asked. Freyr looked at the ceiling. What she had assumed was a flush crept across his face once more.

“Handfasting…a troth plight.” He said still not making eye contact.

“But those are not binding unless… Oh.” Gilda said.

“I indicated that that had been taken care of as well.” Freyr said leaning on the wall, looking anywhere but at her. How would she react being told that there was a young man in the yard who wished to marry her… But had been dissuaded by being told that she had already surrendered herself, under significant duress, to a giant woodsman?

“Ah. Well, we had better not leave him out there with Frederick alone. He might do him harm.” Gilda said in a surprisingly matter of fact tone. Freyr laughed in relief and looked at her. She was being so normal. He had assumed she would be angry, or at least horrified.

“He was trying to kill him when I first went out there.” He said unbolting the door. He took her hand in his. “For appearances.” He said simply, his voice once again bare of emotion.

“Of course.” Gilda said quietly. She very much liked the feel of Freyr’s hand in hers. His roughened palm felt right against her smoother one. She really couldn’t let him know that though, it would be so embarrassing. Freyr led her out into the clearing, the sky was still purple from the recently set sun, and the moon was rising.

Theodore rushed towards them. He stopped a few steps back, as he was still afraid of the massive man next to her. “Gilda! You are safe!” He said with great relief that she appeared whole and had no obvious injuries. He didn’t even seen any bruises or minor contusions like one might expect the wife of a common woodsman to have. He knew men like those were generally animals toward their wives. Was the moonlight just hiding her bruises? No. Her face was still as perfect as the oil painting of an angel in the Vicar’s office at the church. She might not be physically harmed after all…unless the wounds were under her clothes. He could hardly ask them to allow him to undress her to verify that she was unharmed…could he?

Freyr gripped Gilda’s right hand tightly and kept her close to him. Gilda smiled gently at Theodore. “Yes Theodore, I am alright. Freyr and his family have been very kind to me.” She said.

“So it is true then? You married this man?” He asked sounding utterly destroyed.

“Yes. I have accepted him as my husband in accordance with the old traditions. Those were after all, the only ones available to us.” Gilda said grasping for the right phrases. She had once been to a hand fasting ceremony for a friend who was clearly already fulfilling some of her wifely duties. The wedding was held in mid-winter as a quick ‘spousal’ affair. Despite being winter, it had appeared that her friend had put a large summer melon under her dress. All they had needed to do was hold their right hands and say “I accept this man as my legal husband…” etc etc.

“As I said, I have taken this young woman as my wife. There is no more reason for you to be here. Your presence here, away from town at this hour, puts her in danger of being discovered. When you come slinking in late at night again you will arouse suspicion. You do understand that I cannot allow you to put her in further danger?” Freyr said clutching Gilda to him possessively and looking at Theodore menacingly. Theodore gulped and stepped back. The gigantic man looked ready to dismember him.

“This is what you want Gilda? You will be well cared for here?” He asked sounding half strangled. It seemed more from emotion than his recent choking at the hands of Frederick.

“Yes.” Gilda said looking up at Freyr. “This is what I want.” She said…then realized with horror that she had spoken the truth. Oh no. Her heart beat sounded like a drum in her chest. Could Freyr hear it? Would he assume it was embarrassment, or fear, or anger…of even worse, know what it truly indicated? Theodore bit back a sobbing sound and turned to walk back through the dark woods. He gave Gilda a forlorn backward glance.

“Goodbye then Gilda. I’ll keep your secret. I…I..” He stopped speaking abruptly and dashed back through the woods. There was a lot of crashing and branches breaking. The noises seemed to be designed to cover the sound of his guttural sobs…but they did not. Gilda gave a deep sigh as Freyr released her hand. As soon as the boy was out of sight he had dropped it like he was holding snake, or something equally unpleasant.

“The poor boy.” She said as she watched him disappear. Freyr shook his head.

“Hopefully he doesn’t come back.” He said beginning to head back into the house. Frederick walked quickly after him.

“Rather ridiculous of you to make yourself her husband.” He said sullenly. Freyr scoffed.

“He’d never have believed it if I said it was you.” Freyr said giving his brother a light hearted shove.

Freya stepped up from behind the tree line where she had missed the entire affair. She always took longer to return to her own mind than Freyr did, a problem which felt unfair, but nothing could be done about it. She watched her two brothers leave the poor injured girl stranded in the yard. She sighed. Men! She slid up behind Gilda and put Gilda’s arm over her shoulder.

“Did those two ridiculous puffed up roosters forget to help you in?” She asked helping Gilda hobble back toward the cottage.

“I think Freyr just wanted to get away from me as quickly as possible after having to pretend to be my husband.” Gilda said embarrassed. Freya looked at her with wide eyes.

“He did what now?”

As usual Freyr woke up before the sun rose. He made sure that Freya woke and left for the woods before she had a chance to sleep through her transition. Once she was safely through the window, he could relax. He couldn’t have her accidentally ripping their house guest into pieces!

He himself had not left for the woods yet. He preferred to eat breakfast when he had actual hands. He could easily get into the woods before the transition began, and there was no chance that Gilda would wake up this early and come into the kitchen while he was in such a tenuous state. She still required help on the stairs and was unlikely to attempt it herself for no reason.

He sat at the kitchen table eating porridge and contemplating the situation with Theodore. The ruse would hopefully be enough to keep the boy away, but they needed a plan for what to do if the other townspeople did figure out that Gilda was with them here. No one in town actually knew where they lived…other than the man who had built the cottage, but he had died years ago. Still, it was a small estate and it wouldn’t take long for the hunters to eventually stumble upon them. If they ever got any kind of real hunt or formal inquest started, it would be all over.

Freyr began to feel a bit strange. The change was coming. He sighed and rose, removed his boots and put his bowl in the sink. Time to head to the woods. A creak on the stair startled him. He whipped around to see what had made the noise. Gilda was standing in the kitchen. Oh God no. She couldn’t be here. Not when he could feel the raw desires of the animal filling him, not when he had less than ten minutes before he grew claws and inch long teeth.

“Freya was gone already…I had assumed you were gone too…” Gilda said. He plastered himself backward against the wall by the stove, trying to keep as far from her as he could. If she didn’t come any closer, if he didn’t have to smell that ripeness…maybe he wouldn’t have to do this. Gilda took a step towards him.

“I wanted to see if I could make it down the stairs without you having to carry me. I know you hate it.” Gilda said apologetically.

“You foolish girl!” He gasped out. “Don’t you know what the bear wants from you?” He couldn’t stop it. He flew to her, gripping her tightly and pressing her against the wall. He kissed her hard, his hands lifting her into the air, wrapping her legs around him and holding her to him, with her back firmly up against the stone wall. His hands left her waist and slid up her thighs, bringing her dress up with them. His tongue slid along her lower lip, while his hand released her naked thigh and wove its way back up her waist and across her chest to anchor itself in her hair while he kissed her open mouthed and desperate. It felt like he was a drowning man and she was air. His lips traveled down her face and kissed the curve of her neck, his hand left her hair and slid up under her leg again, his fingers caressing the bare flesh. Gilda almost managed to make a sound of surprise before his mouth covered hers again, hungrily. Gilda could scarcely breathe, she was being consumed by him, and she was enjoying it. He tasted like salt and honey and his hands were warm and insistent as they caressed her. How had she tricked him into doing this? How could she make sure he didn’t stop?

Abruptly he ended the kiss and shoved himself back. He was halfway across the room before Gilda could see why. Claws were forming on his hands, he’d ripped the sash off of her dress and she hadn’t even noticed.

“Get out!” He roared. Gilda turned and ran out the door. Her feet were on fire from running on her new skin but she ran to the tree line and climbed the apple tree and waited. Was he going to follow her and maul her to death? The number one rule was to stay away from them while they were changing. Why had he been in the kitchen? Why had he kissed her? What did he want from her? He couldn’t possibly feel for her the way that she wanted him to. It seemed that her beauty only had the power to make her life miserable…not to get her what she wanted. Gilda rested her forehead on the branch. What had just happened? Minutes slipped by in what felt like hours as she clung, blushing, to the tree. After what seemed like an eternity, the door to the cottage opened.

Freyr, unfortunately the bear Freyr, stalked out of the house…but he was moving like a man…not like a bear. He had regained control.

“Would you like help down?” He asked holding out his arms. He was unsure if she would allow him to get her down. She had literally climbed a tree on her delicate injured little feet to get away from him. He could hear her heart thudding in her chest louder than it had ever been. Her face was flushed and red. She must be utterly terrified. But, surprisingly she grasped his paw and allowed him to help her down.

“I didn’t know you would be in the kitchen.” She said looking at the ground, her face suffused with even more blood until it was almost crimson instead of gold. He sighed.

“I shouldn’t have been. It won’t happen again.” He said, his voice once again utterly devoid of emotion, calm and even.

“You mean you won’t kiss me again?” She asked. The thought was painful. She’d never wanted anything more in her life.

“I didn’t actually kiss you. I was not in control. The bear kissed you.” He said, evenly, he didn’t even look embarrassed. How could he explain this so that she would not fear him? He couldn’t let her think he’d enjoyed it, or she would be afraid he was going to do so again. Gilda was confused.

“What?” She asked. He exhaled in a sound like a growl.

“Shortly before the change, and shortly after the change, I find the instincts of the bear very hard, if not impossible to ignore.” He sighed deeply. “What are the instincts of an animal Gilda?” He asked as though she were a small child.

“To stay alive, and to that end: to eat, to drink, to sleep, to protect itself.” She said simply. He made a sighing noise that sounded like he was disgusted by her stupidity.

“And?” He asked. Instantly Gilda understood.

“To make more of itself.” She said looking at the ground. Why could she not be smarter?

“Yes. You are just lucky that you caught me transforming to a bear, if it had happened when I had just turned into a man… It would have been much worse.” He said looking away from her. “None of that was about you. Any young woman of child bearing age would have caused the same effect. It was the time of day, nothing more.” Gilda sat down and began to cry. Her wet sobs were pitiable enough to make him even more ashamed than he already was. He’d scared her witless. The shock had worn off and now she was crying the tears she had been holding back this whole time. Tears of abject horror. He looked up from the crying girl as Freya emerged from the woods, also a bear. The morning light had lit up Gilda’s hair like a beacon, making her little huddled form conspicuous from the moment Freya entered the clearing. Her head was in her hands and she was weeping like a small child.

“Gilda? What is wrong? Freyr, did something happen?” Freya asked kneeling beside the crying girl. Freyr just looked away.

“She came into the kitchen while I was about to transform.” He said and didn’t elaborate.

“How far did it go?” She asked, stroking Gilda’s hair. She knew exactly what would have begun, she just hoped he hadn’t finished it.

“Just a kiss.” Freyr said and stalked off into the woods. Gilda cried harder, it hadn’t been ‘just’ anything for her. Freya put her arm around her.

“Did he stop before he turned completely?” She asked fingering the shredded sash. What had the poor girl experienced?

“Yes.” Gilda said wiping her face. “But he said he didn’t kiss me because he wanted to…he said he would have kissed any girl of the right age.” She said feeling intensely rejected. It was a new experience for her, generally no one rejected her. Freya sat down beside her. For some reason Gilda found her warm fur very comforting.

“Oh.” Freya said petting Gilda’s hair carefully as if Gilda were the furry one. “You care for him.” She said as though it were a great misfortune. Gilda nodded. “He cares for you too I think, and it pains him greatly. Because of our commitment, he knows that he could only ever make you unhappy.” Freya put her massive arm around Gilda. “He was telling the truth about why he kissed you…” Freya cleared her throat. “You are particularly hard to resist right now. Women’s ability to become…to get…to bear a child grows and ebbs cyclically through the month. I’m sure your Gran told you something like that. Right now you are very tempting to him, and to Frederick honestly.” Gilda wrinkled her eyebrows and looked at Freya. She was glad Freya was not human right now. This was a very strange and personal conversation. She didn’t think she could have borne the awkwardness if it was with another human person. Having it with a monstrous bear was difficult enough.

“How do you know?” She asked. Freya looked away.

“It’s a scent you give off. Bears can smell a female bear who is…ready, for miles. Freyr couldn’t resist kissing you, and couldn’t have resisted a lot more than that if the transformation itself hadn’t stopped him. You were lucky to have caught him at this transition and not the other! That may have been why he did it…but it doesn’t mean he didn’t want to, or that he hasn’t wanted to for some time.” Freya shook her head. Then she laughed.

“Oh dear! Freyr! He doesn’t know you desire him. He must think you are crying because it was so frightening and terrible. No wonder he left. Poor man must feel dreadful.” Gilda shook her head. Freyr wasn’t a poor anything!

“That’s not true! He despises me. He looks down on me. He doesn’t care for me at all! He does nothing but mock and insult me constantly.” Gilda argued. Freya helped Gilda to her feet.

“It is true. It’s been true for a while…even before you knew him. I think that’s why he is so unpleasant towards you. He’s been doing his best to keep you at arm’s length. But you make it very difficult! Surely you have noticed your effect on men?” Freya asked her eyebrow raised. “Do you think that he is really so different?” Freya asked. “Well, aside from the obvious.” She said with a laugh. Gilda bit her lip and nodded.

“He is different than any man I’ve ever met. That’s the problem.” Freya laughed and brought her over to the apricot tree.

“Leave it to you Gilda, to have every ordinary mortal man at your feet, and you want the one who is bear.” Freya shook her head. “Come on now, the apricots won’t climb out of the tree by themselves.”

Chapter 11: A Favor Done with the Very Best Intentions

“Under ordinary circumstances a beautiful girl should not inspire lust, but merely admiration. The presence of lust in those that observe her, should be taken as an indication of unnatural power at work.” – From the Eradication of Witchcraft – a guide

“Pastor Donnelly?” A young man’s voice called out after the frazzled Vicar as he headed back toward his study. He had just finished working out wedding details with Lady Eugenia Gravely and his nerves were shot. Woe betide the poor man she was marrying. He was getting a handful. The Vicar considering pretending not to hear the boy…but he was a man of God, so he turned and looked at the lad.

“Yes?” He asked, then belatedly recognized the banker’s son. “Oh Master Theodore! A pleasure to see you again, how is your father?” The young man shook his hand.

“He is well Sir. And if you please Sir, I have turned nineteen. You may just call me Theodore, as opposed to Master Theodore, or Mr. Brandon if you prefer.” The young man said, stretching his skinny self up to look more imposing. The Vicar nodded, ahh yes, one mustn’t forget when a youngling was to be considered a man!

“Of course Theodore. Would you like to come into my office? I am greatly fatigued and my leather chair seems like the perfect place to be fatigued.” He said kindly as he opened the door and gestured for the boy to come in. Theodore stepped in after him and took the wooden chair on the opposite side of the desk. Vicar Donnelly settled his very old bones down into the large reddish leather chair on the other side.

“Now, please tell me what I may do to assist you, unless it is about that girl, in which case my mind has already been made up.” He said firmly. Theodore’s eyes widened.

“Do you mean Gilda? I mean Miss Lillan? I mean…well, she’s not Miss Lillan anymore.” He finished, realizing that even admitting Gilda was alive was a very stupid thing to do. Especially as he had not discovered what side of things the Pastor was on. He silently cursed himself

“She is alive? Oh thank God. I’ve been very worried about the poor dear. What do you mean she is not Miss Lillan anymore?” Asked the Vicar, in a concerned tone of voice.

“You aren’t planning on assisting with the witch hunt are you?” Theodore asked, still suspicious and protective. The Vicar shook his aged white haired head firmly.

“No. I’ve told Mr. Grummold that daily for the last month! I just finished telling Squire Phillip that I do not intend to file any official paperwork with the church or bring in any kind of inquisition. He was very interested to know if I had. Squire Timothy still maintains that she is an ordinary girl, and despite the insinuation of mental incompetence on the part of the physician his son hired, I see no evidence of witch craft, or of any unfitness in Lord Gravely. Furthermore, I have met Miss Lillan myself several times since her parents’ funeral. And apart from being uncommonly pretty, I saw no signs of strangeness to her.” He sighed and pulled a bottle of something Theodore could guess was not water out from inside his desk. He took a short swig and slid it back.

“I should not tell you any of this my boy, but Mr. Grummold’s wife, Mrs. Grummold has come to me for counsel for many years regarding the various times her husband has developed a wandering eye. Were I to convict every girl he fancied and had turned him down, of witch craft, our village would be very empty, very empty indeed. Lord Phillip obviously only accused the girl to prevent his father marrying her and embarrassing the family. The rest of the complaints seem to be merely attention hungry souls who want to get in on the excitement. Our village can be rather sleepy and an honest to goodness witch seems to be too exciting for our more feeble hearted townsfolk to pass up. I even had a man tell me that the witch had cursed his house because his bread had gone moldy after only three weeks in his larder. No, Theodore, your young bride is safe.” He said with a knowing wink. Theodore hung his head. If only that were the case! The vicar had guessed wrong. The old man thought that he himself had married her, and it was almost enough to make him begin crying again. He’d spent all of yesterday trying to stop. He was going to have to tell the pastor the truth, and he wanted to do it without weeping like a woman.

“It is not me who has married her Sir. It was the woodsman who found her. He says he and his siblings found her near death in the woods by their cottage and took her in to bring her back to health. She apparently had collapsed and was insensible for a few days after her escape. He claims that he married her to avoid damage to her reputation as she was living under the roof of both himself and his brother. But Sir, without access to a Pastor, it was just a simple hand fasting sir, in the presence of his siblings. I just fear for Gilda’s…Miss Lillan’s safety, legally speaking, as she has no marital contract.” Theodore blushed to his earlobes. The Vicar nodded sagely.

“I’m sorry my son. Unrequited love and chances lost are the hardest to bear. Were you able to see her? Could you ascertain the character of the man and that she is not being kept against her will?” He asked earnestly. An injured girl as pretty as Gilda could easily have been misused. Theodore nodded.

“I did see her. She has been cared for, and her wounds tended and all. He strikes me as a rakish ne-er-do well, but she did not seem to feel similarly about him. He seems to have fooled her rather completely.” He admitted looking at his lap. The way Gilda had looked at him, and said that he was what she wanted. It had cut him like a knife, because it was true. For all her talk of bettering herself, getting an education, wanting to prepare herself for society, what she ended up wanting was to be a wood cutter’s wife. What a dreadful waste. He at least could have introduced her into better society!

“Well, thank heaven that she is safe and well, and that she loves the scoundrel. I fail to see how we could even mount a rescue for her at this time, what with things being how they are. If it wasn’t to ask for a rescue, or to have the hand-fasting over turned due to his cruelty or non-consummation, what did you hope to accomplish? I do not think I can dissolve it now, at least not well enough to let her marry another… If she wants to be bound to him, there is very little I can do. Why did you come?” He asked the blushing boy.

“I was wondering if you could, for her protection, put their marriage in the parish records? I could take a marriage certificate to her, with your seal on it. She could keep it safe should she ever need to prove they were married. I mean, if he turns out to be the type to try to leave a girl in a poor situation.” Theodore stammered. If this was all he could do for his precious beloved, then he was going to do it. Pastor Donnelly scratched his chin.

“Normally the bride and groom come to fetch such a document themselves, but I understand why that would be excessively difficult just now. If you know their full names, then I suppose I could enter it into the record with the date being a few weeks ago. I’ll put the record back far enough that it doesn’t get seen when the record of Miss Eugenia Gravely gets entered in. That will draw a lot of attention the old book!” He said heaving the massive tome up on to the desk. He pulled a certificate out of a nearby drawer.

“So Miss Gilda Lillan, and Mr?” He looked at Theodore.

“Freyr Vanhelstad.” He answered. The pastor raised his eyebrows.

“Odd name. Mr. Freyr Vanhelstad. So he’s a foreigner and an opportunist! Well. No matter. I’ll date it the day after the harvest festival. That’s a full two pages back from where Lady Eugenia’s wedding will be this Saturday. And here – is your certificate. You are sure you can get it to the young lady and not to her opportunistic husband? Best if you got it directly to her so that she could hide it from him.” Theodore swallowed audibly thinking about the strange blonde brother’s hands on his throat.

“I hope so Sir.” He said honestly.

Lady Eugenia lay in a pose of long suffering on the fainting couch in the living room. The estate was buzzing in an attempt to ready itself for the impending nuptials of its eldest Lady. That and of course the gossip surrounding the veritable imprisonment of its Sr. Squire, and his supposed mental illness.

“I just feel as though your little witch hunt is going to completely overshadow my wedding to Lord Cunningham. And your treatment of father is appalling! How can he possibly walk with me down the aisle at the church, arm in arm, if you have him squirrelled away! Even hidden as he is, it is likely that someone will notice that he has not lost his senses! It’s selfish of you, that’s what it is!” Eugenia said rolling over to her stomach so that she could see her brother better.

“I agree that his behavior has been erratic, but to deny me the chance to have my father attend my wedding! You are really too cruel Phillip. Why, his absence is sure to steal focus – that and your silly pursuit of that girl. I half think you are in love with her yourself the way you are carrying on with this!” She said glaring at Phillip. “What would your betrothed think?” She demanded. “I’ve half a mind to tell her about it.” Lady Eugenia said with an audible sniff. Lord Phillip had been steadily growing more flushed during her little speech. He was now thoroughly incensed by her groundless accusations. He wanted nothing more than to wring the troublesome girl’s neck.

“After all I have done! Have I not agreed to take you down the aisle myself? A simple proclamation that he is ill should prevent the focus being stolen from you!” Lord Phillip turned away from his sister and strode to the window. “You know I had to do all of this to preserve our inheritance. A young wife means more heirs! You saw the way he was with that girl – completely in her thrall. Wills can be changed you know! You owe me a debt of gratitude Eugenia and don’t you forget it. She could very well have convinced him to change the will and leave us all destitute!” He said angrily. Lord Andrew sighed in a deep, languid manner befitting a dissipated younger Lord. He too was in a recumbent pose, stretched across a sofa with a book put over his face. He removed the book from his face and sat up. He didn’t really read them, but they were a nice prop – like a fashion accessory.

“Will the two of you stop all the shouting? I’ve solved the little problem with the witch girl. You can let it go until after the wedding, and even then it will be out of our in hands and into those more capable than ours.” Lord Andrew, fluffing his hair back over the pillow, enjoying his two older siblings’ heads turning towards him, waiting for an explanation. He was so rarely the focus of any attention.

“What do you mean?” Eugenia asked.

“Well, after that Pastor Donnelly was so unhelpful, I went over his head and notified the proper authorities that we had a witch in our midst who needed to be eradicated. They are on their way now I’m sure. They were eager to begin an inquisition.” Lord Andrew finished looking quite smug and pleased with himself. Lord Phillip strode over to his brother and slapped him hard across the face.

“You notified the high council?” He demanded. Lord Andrew held his wounded cheek in surprise. The servants were attempting to decide whether to assist him, or pretend not to notice the impropriety.

“Yes. They are the experts on the matter after all.” Lord Andrew said allowing a servant to hand him a large piece of gauze filled with ice and tied off with a string. He placed it against his cheek before a bruise could form. Why would his brother strike him? He’d done him a favor! “Why would that be bad?” He asked. Phillip’s eyes looked black.

“Because the girl is not a real witch! She is just an inconvenient peasant girl who father fell stupidly in love with. AND father is not actually ill, just in love with an unsuitable girl. One of two things will happen: they will search for a coven of witches – because there is never just one, AND as we have no real witches they will realize that we wasted their time for our selfish reasons and will take us out of power. But it could get worse. They could torture and maim the entire town searching for this mysterious coven of our fake witch, and when all the wives and sisters and daughters are scarred and maimed and some dead after being falsely accused due to our impropriety…their husbands will all recant their stories about moldy bread and impure thoughts. When the council leaves due to lack of evidence, or due to having slaughtered most of the women in the village, this only ends one way for us! The villagers themselves could revolt! Either the council has us taken out of power for our actions, or the townspeople rise up over throw us like Hebrew slaves overthrowing the Egyptians.” Phillip finished, spittle flying in yellowed tobacco scented flecks from his lips as he spoke. Lord Andrew was wide eyed.

“She’s not a witch?”

“No.” Lord Phillip said coldly.

“And they don’t ever think maybe there was just one…one who hadn’t gotten around to starting a coven yet?” Lord Andrew asked nervously.

“No. Never. At least not before questioning…well let’s say it honestly -torturing a fair number of women in an effort find out.” Lord Phillip said bitterly.

Lady Eugenia coughed from over on the fainting couch. “They won’t arrive till after the wedding? The townspeople won’t know about their being sent for until after? I don’t want the fear and terror and maiming to over shadow…” She said reaching for some smelling salts and inhaling liberally. “My wedding.” She finished as though it were a great effort.

“No one in this room cares a lick about your lousy wedding! We are all in very real trouble at the moment Eugenia and I would thank you to notice it.” Lord Phillip scolded her. She scoffed.

“So they catch and burn a stupid social climbing trollop and scratch up a few peasant girls. They aren’t going to remove us from our Estate and neither are the townspeople. The town will forget the incident in a few weeks, a bastard baby or a two headed cow will turn up and it will be in the past. My wedding, on the other hand, is something I shall remember my whole life. I do think that I am focusing on the right thing Phillip! Honestly you are such a wet blanket.” Eugenia said with considerable disdain for her foppish and nervous older brother. He was almost worse than their sister Catherine, who had refused to speak a word to them since they had begun isolating their father. She had taken every meal with him and had made it her duty to keep the ridiculous man company.

“Eugenia you will do well to shut your foolish mouth before I shut it for you!” Lord Phillip raged. Lord Cunningham rose from his seat in a little armchair unnoticed by all, in the corner. He crossed the room over to Eugenia’s side. Phillip stared at the man in surprise. He had honestly forgotten that the quiet, mousy man had returned with them after their meeting at the church.

“Please Lord Phillip, I would thank you not to speak to my intended bride in such a manner. It is only natural that the weaker of the sexes should allow their gentle minds to focus on subjects more suited to their constitution. Do not ask that your sister turn her mind to things beyond her scope. It could only harm her delicate mentality.” Lord Cunningham said grasping Eugenia’s hand and helping her into a sitting position. She too had honestly forgotten he was there, as she looked up at him in surprise. Lord Phillip knew there was nothing delicate or gentle about his sister, but it was clear that Lord Cunningham had not discovered that yet.

“Very well. If you do not wish for me to speak to her this way, then you had better remove her. I will speak my mind to my brother and if you must preserve her innocence then you had best get her out of my way.” Lord Phillip replied coldly. Lord Andrew seemed to be attempting to shrink in on himself in the chair by the window. He did not want his sister to leave the room. Without a lady present, his brother would be much worse.

“I will remove the Lady.” Lord Cunningham said helping her to her feet. “Please my dear, let us venture to the garden. I have taken the liberty of bringing you a lovely purple rose bush to plant in the statuary in honor of our impending nuptials. Perhaps you would like to supervise its placement?” He asked as Eugenia rose and took his arm. She made a dissatisfied noise.

“Purple? It’s as if you don’t even listen to me. I’ve told you time and time again that my favorite color is blue.” Lady Eugenia whined as he led her out. Phillip could just hear Lord Cunningham trying to explain that there are no blue roses and that even the purple ones were exceedingly rare and the closest to blue available. He rubbed his forehead. Pretty soon Eugenia would not be his problem anymore. He turned toward Lord Andrew and walked towards him.

“Well, Andrew. Now we can speak freely.” Lord Phillip said menacingly. Lord Andrew swallowed audibly and clutched his little bundle of ice.

Gilda had gone up to bed early. She simply couldn’t face Freyr that evening. She was pretty sure she was going to have to try to escape again. How could she stay here with this level of embarrassment? It was simply too much to endure. The strain on her heart alone might very well kill her. She lay in her bed listening to Freya greet the boys as they came back from the woods. She really hoped that Freyr slept in his own bed that night and not on the floor beside her bed. If she had to listen to him breathe all night long she would probably die. Not because it would be unpleasant, but because it would remind her of his heavy, desperate breathing as he had kissed her neck all the way along the line of her dress…and slid her skirt up...and grasped… Gilda put her hands over her eyes. She had to stop replaying the scene in her head. Even without the pictures in her mind it would be impossible to listen to the sound and not fantasize about it happening again. She knew he would never let it happen again. Not when he found her so unappealing.

Gilda rolled over and tried to sleep, but it was going to be difficult.

“Can I speak with you alone Freyr?” Freya asked after setting Frederick’s dinner on the table. He nodded sullenly, like a boy who had committed an error and was about to be scolded.

“Are you in trouble Freyr?” Frederick asked, sounding delighted. It was always nice when his sister was mad at someone besides him. Freyr just growled. “Did you eat Gilda? I don’t see her…” Frederick asked laughing, but then he did begin to wonder where she was. Freyr hadn’t sent her away had he? Frederick inhaled deeply. No. She was upstairs, in the bedroom. That was a relief.

“We’ll be back in a minute Frederick.” Freya said evenly. “Just go ahead and eat your dinner.” She said pulling Freyr outside by the arm.

He shook her hand off his arm. “Stop it Freya. I’m not a child. I honestly don’t think that there’s anything to discuss.” He said once they got outside. She didn’t try to resume her grasp on him.

“That’s not true.” She said. Freyr sighed and sat down against the apple tree. This spot was far enough away from the house that Frederick most likely wouldn’t ‘accidentally’ overhear. He knew Frederick had his ear pressed against the wall, straining to know why Freya was mad at him.

“Look, I terrified the living daylights out of the girl. It was wrong of me to be in the kitchen at such an hour. If you are worried she is going to escape again, I will sleep in the tree. This doesn’t have to change anything about the plan. I’ll just try to be out of the house as much as humanly possible to avoid frightening her until she is less afraid of me. She will have to get over the incident eventually, however stubborn she might be.” He said looking sullen. Freya put her hand on his shoulder.

“She is not afraid of you.” She said quietly.

“Of course she is. She was literally sobbing until I left this morning.” Freyr said, angry.

“She was crying, and you left. And she wasn’t crying because she was afraid of you.” Freya said. Freyr looked up at her.

“Don’t be ridiculous! I heard her heart pounding like she’d been terrorized by a beast…because she had been.” He said quietly, but with barely controlled anger. Freya groaned and sat down beside him.

“You ridiculous, self-important, arrogant, son of a bitch – Is that really the only reason you can think of that a girl’s heart might be beating fast? Are you really so wrapped up in your own self-pity?” Freya demanded. Freyr looked at her in surprise.

“That’s ridiculous. I’ve heard the girl speak of how insufferable and awful she finds me. It’s as if she doesn’t know I can hear her.” He said looking away.

“She had no idea you were listening outside her Gran’s house…and she complains to me about how much you dislike her and avoid her. It may also be the case that she doesn’t know you can hear her from across the house or yard. You are in significant denial if you don’t understand what is really going on. Surely you can hear her heart beat speed up when you enter a room? You can feel the heat of the flush of her skin? An ordinary human could be this thick, but you should not be. ” Freya lectured him.

“Freya, this is enough. Your little hints and ridiculous assertions are meaningless and false. There is nothing more to say.” He said quietly, trying to quash the absurd surge of happiness he felt in allowing himself to believe for one minute that Gilda cared for him. “The girl is even now hiding from me.” He said defensively. Freya shook her head. Why were both her brothers so idiotic?

“You were very cruel to her this morning. She is hurt and embarrassed Freyr, but not afraid of you.” Freya said. “You need to apologize.” He looked at her eyes wide.

“Apologize? No. That would only make things worse.” He said with great finality. Freya laughed.

“I’ve never found a situation in which a man apologizing to a woman made things worse. Now go – she’s still awake.” Freya said. Freyr sighed deeply. If Freya was wrong, this was going to scare the senses out of the girl. If she was right…oh God, what if she was right?

He pushed through the door into the house, almost toppling Frederick who had definitely been standing with his ear against the door. Frederick was springing like a long legged grasshopper back into his seat at the table, attempting to look as though he had been there all the time. It was not a successful attempt. His face was still red from being smacked by the door. Freyr continued past him toward the stairs without speaking or even acknowledging it.

“Hey wait! Did Freya give you an earful? What’d you do now?” Frederick demanded. Freyr shook his head.

“None of your affair. If you excuse me, I have to go apologize to the lady I seem to have offended.” He said starting the stairs. Frederick laughed.

“You’d better not have offended Gilda, Freya’s half adopted her already. You know she always wanted a pet!” Frederick shouted after him. Freyr didn’t reply, he just mounted the stairs. He could hear Gilda’s breathing next to the door by the landing. She too was apparently the sort of person who listened at doors. He knocked and opened the door quietly, pretending to believe that the girl who had clearly recently flung herself back into the bed and had her eyes closed, was actually asleep.

“Gilda? Are you awake?” He asked standing beside, but not sitting on the bed. She still smelled far too…tempting. She rolled over and sat up slowly. She nodded.

“It’s come to my attention that I owe you an apology.” He said awkwardly. She put her head on her knees, her golden hair spilling across the little white nightgown that Freya had given her. He knew that there was no perfume in the house, so it made no sense that Gilda’s hair smelled like incense every time it moved or caught the air. He remembered his baby brother’s christening as a child, the thick floral smell of the church incense…it had smelled mysterious and enticing. Gilda seemed to exude the same smell, without any rational explanation. Her natural scent, combined with her current level of enticement, made even standing this close to a bed with her in it, palpably difficult. He sat down on the very end anyway.

“Are you alright?” He asked. “I’m somewhat concerned that I frightened you. Freya has her own conclusions, but she is rather… Anyway, I need to ask…do you fear me after what happened?” He asked. She shook her head, the smell of incense intensifying with the movement of her hair.

“No. You don’t frighten me.” She said quietly. Her heart was a hot leaden knot in her chest. The mortification she felt made it difficult to even breathe. She felt as though her heart had stopped beating because all her blood was in her face and ears. How could a person survive being this wretched?

He put his hand on hers hesitantly, she didn’t pull it away. “I’m sorry for yelling at you, and for saying things that I did not mean. You did not deserve to be rebuked when you had done nothing wrong. Nothing that occurred this morning was your fault. I didn’t mean to say that you were just any ordinary girl. There is nothing ordinary about you, and I think you know that.” He said, his voice warm for the first time in Gilda’s memory. She looked up at him, but did not speak.

“Now, will you please come have some dinner? Freya is very concerned that you will fade away to nothingness up here.” He said, ending the emotional part of the conversation before it had even begun. He saw no reason to embarrass her further by asking about her feelings regarding him. Despite Freya’s romantic notions, he knew how things stood between them. Gilda shook her head.

“Can we just go back to things as they were before…tomorrow? May I have this evening to be mortified and sorry and wretched? Then tomorrow I will go back to everything as it was before and never mention it again. I promise.” Gilda begged. Surely she could have just this evening in which to be alone, to not have to face any of them in the candlelight where they could see her red eyes? Freyr sighed.

“Mortified? Sorry? What have you to be mortified about or sorry for? You did not terrorize an innocent young girl and then turn into an animal did you?” He asked her, squeezing her hand. Her skin felt like warm silk…not even like human flesh at all.

“No. I didn’t. But neither did you…terrorize me I mean.” She said withdrawing her hand and covering her eyes with both of them. Her heart was thudding in her chest so loudly that he could have heard it even if he wasn’t cursed. Freyr inhaled sharply. Was it true? She wasn’t afraid or upset by what had happened? Had she enjoyed it? No. She had said she wanted to go back to the way things were before. Pressing her up against a stone wall and kissing her as if he planned to…well, that certainly wasn’t as before, and it wouldn’t happen again.

“You may of course remain here for the evening if you wish. But may I bring you up something to eat?” He asked rising. She shook her head in the darkness, aware that he could see it as well as if it had been daylight.

“No thank you.” She said. He nodded and left the room. Gilda lay face down on the pillow. She had laid everything bare, told him that she had not regretted the experience, nor been frightened by it. He had not responded in kind, but rather changed the subject and offered her dinner. He did not love her…she was just a girl who had been nearby. It made her want to hit him in his stupid arrogant handsome face.

Gilda lay awake in bed listening to the sound of Freya’s breathing. It was almost silent and perfectly consistent. She was certainly sleeping. Gilda could not sleep. She was haunted by memories of her own foolish mistakes. Every time she got close to sleep, another careless thing she had said or done blazed like fire through her mind. In light of those moments, it didn’t seem so strange that Freyr did not care for her. He’d seen all of them. The men and boys in town saw glimpses of her, and had admired her beauty and pretty speech. Of course she spoke kindly and politely…she’d been trying to sell them things! None of them had ever come close to knowing her. It must have made it easy for them to love her for her pretty face and ample figure. If they knew anything about her, or even spoke to her a handful of times, would they feel the same? Was it only possible to admire her until she opened her mouth?

Gilda hadn’t even realized how selfish her past actions had been until she examined them from the perspective of others. She realized suddenly that if she had done the one thing that Gran had ever asked of her, all of this would have been prevented. She could picture the first harvest faire when she became aware of her effect on those around her. She’d been fifteen, and it was as if the world had suddenly bent to her will. The lemonade was free, the men selling apples hadn’t charged her either, and all the boys sought her in the games of blind man’s buff. She’d not taken notice of any of them. Suddenly all the puzzle pieces were sliding together in her head. She sprang up quietly out of bed and tiptoed out into the hall. She couldn’t sleep while feeling this way. She might as well go down and try a glass of their horrid cherry spirits. Gran had fallen asleep after drinking spirits in her chair often enough that Gilda knew they had a soporific effect.

She didn’t trip over Freyr, as he had gone back to sleeping in his own room. Either he couldn’t endure being so near to her after the incident, or they trusted her now. She really assumed it was the former. He must feel so disgusted after having been forced by his animal nature to kiss a girl he thought was so lacking. He’d been generous enough to apologize to her, but it was she who’d owed him the apology. He was suffering more than she was. If him kissing her had been for him, what the Squire’s kiss had been for her… Agh. It was torment to imagine. She stepped lightly down the stairs into the kitchen. She was fairly certain that the bottle she was seeking was in the cupboard by the wash basin. She’d seen Freya pour herself a glass often enough to know. It was there. She shut the cupboard rather too noisily. Oh hell. She knew the noise, quiet as it was should have woken him. Freyr was a lighter sleeper than anyone she had ever met. She heard a sound from the couch in the living room. She glanced toward it in surprise.

“Freyr?” She whispered. He was stretched out on the sofa, eyes closed, legs hanging off the end. Should she try to sneak back upstairs? Was it possible she hadn’t awoken him? He opened one eye. Disturbingly, it shone in the moonlight the way that an animal’s eyes would. She bit her lip so that she would not gasp out loud.

“Yes.” He answered quietly. Why was she here? Why on earth would she come downstairs? He fought hard not to grasp her and bring her onto the sofa and roll her underneath him.

“Why are you downstairs?” She asked. He sat up.

“Why are you?” He asked. Gilda didn’t wish to confess to having been attempting to find alcohol in order to fall asleep.

“I can’t sleep.” She said quietly. Her soft amber eyes looking pitiable. He stood up resignedly and threw the blanket off. He was shirtless and in linen trousers.

“And I am here, because I assumed you might attempt to sneak out again…given that it seems to be what you like to do when you are embarrassed.” He said with a slight smile.

“Come with me.” He said as he stood up and beckoned for her to follow him into the kitchen. He went over to stand by the stove and ladled a dipper full of milk into the small pot and added honey and a sweet smelling exotic spice. She assumed based on research only that it was either cinnamon or nutmeg. She’d never tasted either, Gran never spent money on such things…but she had read about them. She shook her head to herself. Did he really think she had woken him up late at night as a request for warm milk like a child with a stomach ache?

“You don’t need to do that. We can just talk if you like.” She said. He continued stirring the milk. He didn’t want to talk. He’d rather do almost anything else than go over the events of the morning again. Either he had deeply wounded the only girl in the world who had ever mattered to him, or he had aroused her. Neither of those was tolerable.

“I will do whatever I can to induce you to sleep Gilda. This seemed like a good idea to that end.” He said, sounding somewhat out of sorts. It was late, and he did have to wake up before dawn…so she wasn’t entirely surprised. Gilda took a deep breath.

“I wanted to apologize to you actually…so it is just as well that you are here...” She said. He turned to look at her. Aside from waking him up when he should have been sleeping, what did she have to apologize for?

“I’m the reason that your home may not be safe much longer… Until now I thought that I was mostly blameless in that. As I came here accidentally, and you would not let me leave… it was easy for me to forgive myself. But now you may be discovered. While my coming here was an accident, they would still be searching the woods…because of me.” Gilda said. Freyr shrugged. That was not news. Why should that keep her up now?

“You were falsely accused of witchcraft…it’s not as if you actually committed a crime.” He said without turning to her again. Gilda sighed. She didn’t really want to talk to the back of his shoulders…no matter how well they looked in the moonlight from the window.

“But, they wouldn’t have accused me if I had been more prudent. I didn’t realize until tonight that I could have made a different choice, a rather simple one, and it could all have been avoided. Instead I made a series of poor choices, with my own self-interest in mind.” Gilda took the cup of milk he offered and sat down by the last of the fire. She sighed.

“They only allow girls of eighteen to enter their names for Queen of the Faire. It’s not to laud the loveliest girl in the village…it’s to shine a spotlight on the girls who are not yet married. It’s a sale on the last of the quality meat before it spoils!” She said putting her head in her hands. Men could marry any time before they died! The girls in the village begin getting married around 14 and by 20 the men didn’t even consider them anymore. They’d already started looking at the girls who’d just finished maturing. Gilda bit her lip.

“I thought I should wait to marry until I fell in love! Or even better, until I met a man of great importance. I didn’t realize that that wasn’t the purview of a village girl. Village girls get married because they’ve reached the right age and they need security. I didn’t understand that.” Gilda admitted. At faire after faire, and trip to town after trip to town, she had ignored any advances and gave no encouragement to the men who had made any sort of suggestions. She had been waiting so that she could turn eighteen and be Queen. She gripped her little cup as if she thought it would give her the courage to confess just how very stupid she had been. Too bad she had never actually found the liquor.

“I thought if I was Queen, I would meet a noble and have an epic love story. Or, I would have my moment of glory and then I would pick the best that it offered me. I didn’t see what my waiting was doing. Most of my friends are still unwed, several years beyond when they would like to have been…because of me. The men of the village, even the widows, aren’t proposing to any of the other girls. They were all waiting, to see what I would do. I should have just accepted one of them, and freed all the rest to look elsewhere.” Gilda said sipping the warm milk.

“Who should you have accepted?” Freyr asked, almost amused. Gilda had a rather impressive way of making everything…even the fate of an entire village, about her. He wished that he didn’t find it endearing, it should disgust him.

“Anyone, it wouldn’t have mattered, I didn’t like any of them. They all seemed pretty much the same honestly. But it would have pleased Gran, left with me a few friends, and made it clear to others that I was just an ordinary woman.” Gilda said. Villagers liked people to seem common – they liked what they understood. When she, despite having had every opportunity remained unwed it would have been confusing for them. Then she had went ahead and made a spectacle of herself at the faire, and got named Queen. Gilda looked away from Freyr.

“Instead of behaving normally, I stole the moment in the sun from girls who needed it more. It’s intended to be an auction, and I didn’t realize that I was auditioning to be the prize piece of livestock. I thought it was an honor.” Gilda put her head in her hands. She looked up at him. “Then, to top off my foolishness exquisitely, I went and engaged myself to the Squire of all things!” Gilda said. Freyr laughed.

“That was exceedingly foolish, I will warrant you.” He said with a soft chuckle. Gilda shrugged.

“He had every right to hang me for poaching if I didn’t…he probably wouldn’t have, but who knows. It never should have gotten that far. If I had never been Queen, if I had gotten married a few years before…I’d never have been accused of witchcraft and never have caused any of you harm. I never would have caused the events of this morning either. I know how disgusted you must be…I know how awful it was for me when the Squire kissed me. I imagine it was the same for you.” Gilda said. Freyr just looked at her in surprise. She thought he had been disgusted by the kiss? He realized belatedly that he had essentially told her as much.

“Gilda, wait, you don’t understand.” He began. Gilda shook her head.

“No I do! You were right about me. I’m so vain and so selfish and so foolish that I didn’t even see what I was doing to everyone. I understand now why I have no friends…other than Freya I suppose.” Freyr sat down beside her on the sofa, tucking his long legs to the side so that he was able to sit with his shoulder against her head. She didn’t flinch away, she just looked surprised.

“Gilda.” He wanted to tell her how he really felt about that morning. But there was nothing to be gained from doing so. Although she had told him that she didn’t like any of the other village boys, she had not indicated any preference for him. Instead he answered the rest of her questions. “Gilda, is it really so very selfish not to marry any random man when you are scarcely more than a child? It wasn’t as if you could predict this outcome, even if you were wildly intelligent.” He said with humor in his voice. He should at least convince her that he did not look down on her. And that not being psychic was not a crime for which she needed to apologize. Gilda sighed.

“I could have predicted that there would negative outcomes at least.” She said stubbornly. He smiled.

“But not that you would endanger a cursed family of half-bear people living alone in the woods. You don’t have anything to be sorry about. It’s ridiculous, even for you to think that you should have just closed your eyes and pointed at a man to marry so that no one would be silly enough to wait for you…or to be jealous of you.” He took her by the chin.

“Besides, isn’t it a bit vain to attribute the preponderance of unmarried girls over seventeen in the village to your beauty alone? Surely there could be other factors?” He suggested teasingly…even though he knew she was right. She was the sole reason for the lack of weddings and for the strange behavior of the men in town. She was the reason that he was finally losing the battle to stay away from the fair sex after so many years. Celibacy gets easier after years of practice…but the taste of Gilda’s kiss had melted the fifteen years of resistance he had built up like a brick wall inside himself. Now he was bare, ready, and vulnerable to her slightest touch. His impenetrability was breached beyond repair. Her beauty was incredible, but her foolish sweetness was endearing to the point of madness.

“Perhaps so.” Gilda said, answering the question he had asked, seemingly ages ago. “Even my apologies and guilt are laden with excessive vanity. No wonder you don’t like me very much!” Gilda said, rising. She handed him back the now empty cup of milk. “My beauty has done me a great disservice…like a pretty flower I’ve attracted only bees. I don’t think it will ever get me what I actually want.” Gilda said meeting his eyes momentarily and then giving a melancholy shake of her head.

“Thank you…for the milk. I’m sorry to have disturbed you…I didn’t know you would be down here, but I suppose it is good that you were… After being angry with you for so long for thinking me foolish and selfish…I suppose I ought to apologize for it…since you turned out to be quite right in the end. Quite right.” Gilda said with a self-deprecating sigh as she began ascending the stairs and went back to bed. Freyr watched her go without knowing what to say. What had she meant about not getting what she wanted? Had she intended to meet his eyes when she said it? It would be so infuriating if Freya were once again proved correct. What could he say to Gilda? He didn’t actually think poorly of a girl who would examine herself so thoroughly that she could attribute an entire town’s insanity to her refusal to behave like other ordinary girls. Ordinary girls got married to the first boy who showed any interest and lived in dirty hovels surrounded by hungry children. If Gilda was vain to think she was above such a fate, then what was he for thinking it too? She did not belong in the life that had been given to her. She deserved to be on the pedestal from which she had so recently fallen.

If she’d been an ordinary girl she’d have married that first clod of a boy who ‘tripped’ and caught himself on the softer aspects of her figure in a spirted game of blind man’s buff when she 15. He’d certainly shown interest. Freyr almost chuckled to himself remembering how he’d wanted to break that lecherous creep’s fingers for touching her. He’d barely been able to restrain himself. The fellow’s blind fold had been intentionally askew. The young man had known who he was seeking and when to stage the fall. But Freyr couldn’t have come out from the bracken to offer himself as an honest partner to her then… He’d had fur and claws at the time. He certainly couldn’t offer himself to her now…even if there was a chance that she did want him to. What were they going to do with her? She’d been right about one thing, the woods were no longer safe, for any of them.

Outside the window, the watcher drew an intake of breath. The wind was blowing the right direction tonight. He could observe them without them knowing. They seemed to be keeping a very pretty pet. Given what had happened to their mother, he had doubted they would interact with fragile humans at all. But in this case he couldn’t blame them. This girl was particularly special. But she did complicate things. If they liked the girl as much as they seemed to, it was going to be difficult to do what he had to do. Although, they already despised him enough that if they had known he was outside their house they would have run him down and torn him into pieces. It most likely wouldn’t make a difference if they objected to his next course of action.

Freya returned to the clearing the next evening to see Gilda dragging the last basket of apples from the orchard to the root cellar. Silly girl, she had made her promise to wait until she had returned from the change in order to help her. Gilda had just regained the ability to walk on her own, and she shouldn’t be dragging baskets of heavy fruit. She turned to head toward Gilda and assist her when she heard something snapping behind her. A twig or branch, had been broken by something bigger than most forest animals. Freya abruptly turned behind her, whatever was rustling in the trees wasn’t either of her brothers. A tall skinny young man had just entered the clearing. He looked terrified, as if he were about to faint he was so frightened and overwrought.

“Sir? Are you alright?” Freya asked turning towards him, her long red braid flicking out like a lash behind her as she turned. He trembled slightly as if even the motion of her hair was enough to frighten him. Anyone finding them was bad, but if guessed correctly, this was Theodore, the boy who had found them a few nights before. She hoped Freyr’s, rather than Frederick’s assessment of the boy was correct.

“Please. Please don’t tell your brothers am I here.” He said shaking a little, his hands palm up in fear. She smiled at him comfortingly.

“I won’t. They haven’t returned yet from cutting wood in the forest. What is it that I can do for you?” Freya asked stepping cautiously towards him. He pulled a shoulder bag off his arm and rifled through it. He pulled out a stiff piece of paper and handed it to her.

“Will you give this to Gilda? Miss Lillan? I mean Mrs. Vanhelstad? Please give it directly to her for her safekeeping. Not to your brother? Please?” He asked. He looked so forlorn, as if he were about to have some kind of mental break. He looked as though he hadn’t eaten properly in a while, nor slept well. Freya knew that Gilda was not a witch, but no one who saw this poor boy would believe he wasn’t in her thrall. He looked like a man possessed.

“Of course I will give it to Gilda. Would you like to come in and have something to eat? Or even just a warm cup o something to drink? I will be serving dinner as soon as my brothers return home.” Freya asked, reaching to take his hand. He looked horrified at the mention of ‘brothers.’ He stepped back hurriedly.

“No no…I just came to give this to Gilda…just see she gets it please? Tell her it is on record with the Parish too…nothing he can do to alter it now. I mean no insult…I don’t want to bother you, or your brothers.” He said flushing crimson and dashing back into the woods. Freya watched him scamper away, breaking branches and stumbling over roots like a long legged stork. Poor boy. She looked down at the paper in her hands. What on earth was so important that he had risked his life to bring it? After his previous run in with her hot-headed younger sibling she’d have assumed he’d never want to come back. Freya turned it over to the side that had beautifully written lettering and a red ink seal. Freya began laughing. Her laughter reached a level of hysteria that was near tears. She walked back toward the house, still laughing. Freyr was not going to like this, and she couldn’t wait to tell him!

Gilda was setting plates onto the table inside the house. She’d managed to finishing hauling apples, and was now setting plates. She had assumed that Freya would scold her for risking injury over a few house hold chores, but she was too busy laughing over the piece of paper she was holding. Freyr came in the door on the other side of the house with Frederick, both fresh from the woods. They were still damp from having cleaned up in the wash basin outside. Frederick shook himself like a dog and looked at his sister quizzically. She rarely laughed.

“Are you alright? What is so funny?” Frederick asked. Freya shook her head and took Gilda’s hand before putting the piece of paper on the table in front of her. Freyr’s better eyes could see it from across the room. He rushed to it faster than Gilda was capable of moving and snatched it up. Her fingertips had been just on its surface when he slid it out from underneath them more quickly than she could grasp it.

“This is not funny.” He said coldly. “Where did you get it?” He demanded. Freya laughed.

“Oh Freyr, I disagree – it is very very funny and it will amuse me for some time.” She took it from him firmly and handed it to Gilda. “It concerns you too my dear.” She said contentedly. She smiled at them both. “I got it from Theodore. He came to bring it to you Gilda. He made me promise that it should go to your hands, not Freyr’s. He is terrified of you Freyr. Look at it – it’s genuine. Sealed with hot wax and stamped with the pastor’s ring and everything. He said it was on record with the parish too.” Gilda looked up at Freya.

“Is it legal?” She asked. “I mean is it true? Are we…” Freyr snatched it from her.

“Of course not.” He said looking at it again, verifying the seal on the paper, and the signature of the Pastor.

“I don’t know. When you pretended to be married before, you said you held hands, did you say anything in front of Theodore and Frederick that could have sounded like an oath or a pledge?” Freya asked.

“No.”

“Yes.”

Freyr and Gilda answered simultaneously. Freya collapsed into a chair giggling.

“I’m going to believe Gilda’s account. Oh this is too hilarious! You’re married! You who made the rules, you kept me from being married, who practically disowned poor Frederick after his dalliance… You’re married!” Freya was laughing so hard that it started to sound like sobs. She felt broken inside all of a sudden. Her laughter stopped abruptly.

“But...but I didn’t get to…” Gilda looked heartbroken.

“It’s alright Gilda, once the situation with the witch hunt is over I will go into town and explain everything to the Pastor. I will get this quietly dissolved. You will not have to be married to me any longer than strictly necessary.” Freyr said looking at the document in some sort of panic. Gilda’s face at the news had been enough to destroy any fragile hope…fear?…that he had entertained of her having some sort of feeling for him. Gilda shook her head.

“It’s not that.” She said near tears.

“Then what is it?” He asked touching her shoulder, and then pulling his hand back as if afraid his touch might burn her. He could not understand her reaction. Why was she upset if not because she had found herself accidentally married to a monster?

“I didn’t get to wear a nice dress or have a party or…” She inhaled and looked up at him with her big golden eyes. “I dreamt ever since I was a child about my wedding…not about a hand-fasting and a document, I didn’t even get to throw a bouquet! I mean you are technically a Prince…which is better than a Lord…but still not exactly what I imagined.” Gilda could hear herself babbling but she couldn’t stop. Freya’s laughter had started afresh due to Gilda’s ridiculous protestations, and even Frederick who had until now been silent had begun laughing.

“He neither asked, nor did you answer, he spends the majority of his day as a bear…and your biggest complaint about the situation is that you didn’t get to toss a bouquet of flowers? Didn’t get to wear a pretty dress? And here I thought Freyr was making it up when he kept complaining about how silly you were.” Frederick said. Freyr glared at him. Gilda looked at the floor.

“It’s just supposed to make you feel special. A wedding is the highlight of a young woman’s life. It’s not so silly.” Gilda said sitting at the table and hiding her face in her arms. Freya stopped laughing.

“Of course not Gilda. I’m sorry to be so light-hearted about it. It is a bit of surprise, but as you love him and he loves you, it is not so terribly inconvenient. It wouldn’t be likely that you’d have gotten a real wedding anyhow…shortage of Lords around, you being on the run and marked for death…all that nonsense. At least I get my room back to myself, and I won’t have to worry about sleeping too long and accidentally mauling you.”

“What?” Freyr asked looking horrified. Frederick’s face was if possible more upset than Freyr’s.

“She’s your wife, she’ll stay with you in your room from now on. You won’t have to sleep on the floor anymore. It will work out better for everyone.” Freya said calmly as if discussing the use of cross stitch pattern for hemming a dress. Gilda swallowed and said nothing. She had been upset about the lack of muslin dress and a lace veil…she had forgotten that being Freyr’s wife meant she would get to sleep in his bed. That would not be the worst thing that had ever happened to her.

“That’s impossible. Gilda would never…” Freyr looked at Gilda who was blushing and looking at the floor. She hadn’t objected. Her heart beat sounded like crashing cymbals. She wanted to share his bed? Oh. She actually did. He’d been wrong. Freyr could not decide if this was good news or dreadful news. Frederick made a strangled noise.

“Why should you get to be the one to get her? You never let me or Freya have any fun, and now at the first opportunity you get to slice off a bit for yourself? It’s not fair, you could have just as easily said it was me. He could very well have gotten the letter for me! You are a filthy horrid excuse for a brother.” He said kicking the table. He nearly turned it over as he stood up and ran out the door, slamming it forcefully behind him. Freya watched him go.

“Let him.” She said as Freyr turned to go after him. “The new living situation will take a bit of getting used to, but it is the best thing. He needs clear boundaries. He never had any sort of chance with Gilda, and this will make it clear for him. You know how much he is affected by you Gilda, and as your affections lie elsewhere, this is necessary.” Freya said firmly as if there was nothing to discuss. She stood calmly at the stove and ladled soup into bowls. Freyr and Gilda sat down at the table silently. Neither of them could think of anything to say.

“Oh before I forget, you should give me that ring the Squire gave you. Freyr, go get mother’s ring please. She should really wear yours.” Freya said as she set the bowls of soup down. Freyr started to object, but Gilda was already silently pulling her ring off and handing it to Freya.

“Sorry. I’d forgotten I was wearing it.” She said quietly. Freyr just shook his head in shock. This situation was ludicrous. He sighed.

“Very well.” He said heading to the ornate box on the mantle and retrieving a very attractive ring with the royal seal of an unknown country on it. Freya took Gilda’s ring and put it in the little jar of coins on the kitchen shelf. Freyr set the ring on the table next to Gilda without saying a word. Gilda retrieved it slowly and sadly. She had thought he would at least put it on her finger…but apparently he didn’t even like her enough to do that. She slid it on anyway. It was too big and too lovely not to. It had to be the most beautiful ring she had ever seen, a ruby cut to the shape of flying bird surrounded by diamonds, with a rim of gold around the outside.

“Good. Now if anyone should come looking for her, or try to harm her, Gilda has the protection of being married to the crown prince of Gyllene.” Freya said sitting down and picking up her own bowl of soup. Freyr exhaled. It was true, being married to a foreign prince would prevent her for being subject to their laws. She couldn’t be burnt now. But if he used his name to rescue her, then they would all have to return to Gyllene and swear fealty to their former crown.

Dinner was eaten entirely in silence, with neither Freyr nor Gilda making eye contact with the other.

Chapter 12: A Visit From the Big Bad Bear?

‘The Kingdom of Gyllene is made up of the two smaller kingdoms of Gyl and Eillene. The two were combined after an entire generation of Eillenese men died on the eve of battle.’ – History of Gyllene

Gilda undressed in the dark and slipped into the white nightgown. Freyr was readying himself for bed elsewhere and had allowed her to use the bedroom. Gilda laid down on the very edge of the bed nearest the window, she imagined Freyr slept by the door, ready to jump up if the need arose. The blanket in here was thinner than in Freya’s room, and the nights had become much colder despite the continued warmth of the autumn days. Gilda shivered slightly. She wasn’t entirely sure if she was shivering from cold, or from nervousness.

She felt she could be almost one hundred percent certain of how things were going to go. She would sleep on this edge of the bed, and Freyr would sleep on the other edge, both of them almost falling off, neither of them touching the other. It was not going to be the night she discovered the meaning of the Song of Songs. And if she was to be with Freyr, given the rules of his existence, it was unlikely she would ever learn.

Gran had never questioned Gilda’s sudden interest in the bible at the age of 15. Gran could not read and so did not know that Gilda read frequently from the rather spicy accounts from the Old Testament, or the Song of Songs. Gilda had initially picked it up because she thought that when she married a nobleman she would likely be required to know a few psalms or proverbs. Being able to recite such things was a mark of the education of the nobility. She’d never really begun to memorize those however, as she had gotten a bit sidetracked elsewhere. Gilda tried to get the very sexual imagery out of her head. She curled up into a tight ball and shut her eyes. Was Freyr not even going to come in? Would he sleep on the chaise by the fire or out in the tree? The door made a slight creaking noise as it opened and Freyr did come in. Gilda didn’t turn to look at him. He sat down on the bed, and leaned over her, his chest touching her shoulders. Gilda almost turned to him in surprise, but then quickly realized that he had only leaned over her to blow out the candle on the bedside table next to her. Gilda exhaled the breath she had been holding. She could hear Freyr pulling off an article of clothing, likely his shirt, and laying silently down on the other far edge of the bed, as Gilda had predicted.

Gilda lay silently for several minutes before realizing that Freyr’s room, unlike Freya’s had no grate, no fire. She wished she had not chosen the side of the bed by the window. The slight draft around the frame was turning her skin to ice. Maybe she would just wait until Freyr fell asleep, then sneak next door to Freya’s room and get a second blanket. She could simply ask him for it…but that would involve breaking the strange code of silence they had both adopted since dinner. Gilda shivered. She wished she had kept her socks on. She could never sleep in socks, they were horrible inventions, but her feet were freezing. Her teeth chattered slightly.

“Would you rather freeze slowly to death in the night then speak to me?” Freyr asked, but his tone was light. He put his arm around her and pulled her to his chest, it was bare and warm. He tucked her into the crook of his arm so that her head rested against him. He wrapped his leg around her so that her freezing feet were tucked in between his. She would have thought that lying with her head this way would be uncomfortable, especially on the muscular arm of a man who spent so much time chopping wood, but it was very much the opposite.

“It’s not as though you spoke to me either.” Said Gilda a bit defensively, glad that she was still facing away from him so that he could not see that she had been happy when he had reached for her. He tucked his chin onto the top of her head, nestled in her hair.

“I suppose I didn’t.” He said quietly, his arm curving around her waist. At no point did she stiffen, or protest, or turn away. On the contrary she seemed to soften and relax in his arms. Oh Damn it to hell. Gilda did want him…at least to a degree. He was not sure to what to degree that was. His every fiber longed to test it. This was truly the most awful thing that had ever happened. She was so very soft and lovely in his arms, all except for her feet. “How is it that your toes are like ice? It is not even winter.” He asked.

“You could always get a second blanket for my side of the bed, as it seems you are considerably warmer than I am.” Gilda said beginning to relax and daring to run her finger along his arm, which was almost hot to the touch compared to her cold skin. Her touch was so delicate and so innocent, yet he felt himself respond intensely to it. How innocent was she? Would she even know what the change in his position meant? This was more difficult than he had imagined. He kissed the top of her head softly.

“That would help.” He said quietly into her hair. Gilda felt herself unbending into his arms. She felt so safe, so comfortable, and suddenly so sleepy! The past few weeks had been so tumultuous. Now she finally felt safe, wrapped in Freyr’s strong and comforting arms. It reminded her of a pleasant dream. This was the first moment she had not expected someone to burst in and pull her out by her hair ready to murder her …in a week! She was asleep before she even could answer him.

Freyr listened to Gilda’s rhythmic breathing. He inhaled the scent of her hair, thankful that she was no longer so ready and didn’t entice the bear portion of him anymore as a female in heat. Unfortunately the man part of him wanted her just as badly as the bear part had. Her current state meant that he could be fairly certain that if he did exactly as he wanted to with her, there would be no consequence. But that couldn’t happen. Not only would his brother and sister overhear, and subsequently despise him for breaking the rules, but he knew if he had her once, he wouldn’t be able to stop. He could never cross the line, or he would be surely become reckless, allowing his passion and not logic to dictate when he lay with her. As it was she was almost impossible to resist. It was almost as if she had been designed with him in mind. Every contour of her sleeping body fit perfectly with his. How could she be of natural origin?

Freyr cautiously rolled up the sleeve of her night dress and ran his finger down the length of her arm, attempting not to wake her. Her skin was utterly hairless. Not finer haired like the arm of an average woman. Completely smooth and soft, devoid of all hair, freckles or imperfections. From one end of her arm to the other, not one tiny bump or dimple marred the smooth perfection or impeded the sliding motion of his hand. It was as if she was the victim of magic as well. But she was cursed exactly opposite from him, not to be a monster, but to be the embodiment of physical beauty. What on earth was she?

Alone in her cottage, Gran waved her hand across the flames of the fire. She had to be careful that the men watching for Gilda outside her window did not see what she was doing inside. Inside the flicker of the firelight the image of Gilda entangled with the handsome woodsman appeared. Gran cocked her head to the side. Disappointing. Gilda was fully clothed, and the man was still wearing linen breeches. Things were progressing far more slowly than she would have predicted. What more could she have done? The infuriating man must have a will of iron. It was a pity Gilda could not have fallen in the love with the younger one, he would have had her pregnant by now. But it seemed nothing could have been done for that. Gilda had been for Freyr from the start.

She waved her hands over the flame again, and the picture changed. Her window now watched the other one. Regrettably he was still very much alive. She looked closely at the picture. Could it be? She thought she recognized his surroundings. He was close! But who was he tracking? The three young ones? Or her? She leaned back in her chair and smiled. If he was coming to see her, she wouldn’t mind at all. It had been a long time since they had seen each other, or rather since he was aware of her seeing him. She chuckled to herself. What a sweet reunion this would be.

Gilda sliced apricot after apricot, removed the pits and laid them on the large mesh screen to dry.

“You’re so much quicker than I am!” Freya remarked smiling. “I’m all claws myself.” She said smiling. Gilda laughed as expected, but her thoughts were elsewhere.

“Are you concerned that Frederick has not come back?” She asked Freya, feeling guilty. Freya shook her head.

“No. He usually finds and drags fallen logs with Freyr during the day, or simply pushes trees down. Being a cursed bear creature and a woodsman actually dovetail nicely. Unlike drying apricots or cooking food.” She said smiling wryly…there was a reason that they ate mostly porridge or soup. “Anyway, I don’t think he wanted to spend all day with Freyr. It’ll take some time, but things will be alright…besides I know where he is. He has a place he goes when he is angry with the rest of us. Being a young man and a cursed bear is a very difficult thing.” She said looking away.

“You do? He is safe?” Gilda asked. Freya nodded.

“He likes to watch the tavern from the tree line in the woods. No one will see him. He’ll come back for dinner I’m sure. He’s still growing. It’s not likely he will miss another meal, he hates eating as a bear. The raw meat and fur and skin stays in our stomachs after the change and is very hard to handle.” Gilda had not known that. She wrinkled her nose.

“So none of you really are going to eat me are you?” She asked smiling at her silly thought from a month ago. Freya laughed.

“As I said, more unpleasant for me than you!” Freya said carrying another basket of apricots toward the rack. Gilda groaned. How could there be more of them? She understood that they had to keep four people alive through the winter, but there was a limit to how many apricots she could pit in day before going crazy.

“I wanted to ask you a favor.” Gilda said hesitantly.

“If you finish that basket today, I think you could ask me for anything.” Freya said appreciatively as Gilda’s nimble fingers made short work of what would have taken her ages.

“I want to send word to Gran that I am alright. I thought perhaps you could tell her somehow.” Gilda said looking at the apricots and not at Freya. Freya’s already enormous bear eyes widened.

“Oh Gilda…I didn’t mean that you could ask for the impossible. I’m sorry.” She said sadly. “We’ve checked several times, and men from the village are still taking turns watching your Gran’s house. It is fewer and fewer, but there is always someone there. We could not bring her word without putting ourselves, or worse, her in danger.”

“Surely you could pretend to be an old friend and visit her, and find a way to get her to invite you in? Tell her you came to visit me…then she might guess…” Gilda sighed. Freya was right. Gran didn’t know Freya and would be confused as to why she was there, and given the situation, instantly distrusting.

“I didn’t want to worry you, but there is another reason I insisted that you share Freyr’s room.” Freya said breaking the unspoken rule that they not speak of last night.

“Oh.” Gilda said nervously.

“Freyr told me there was talk in town earlier this week of an inquisition by the council. Lord Andrew told them about the witch hunt. They are sending representatives to search the town for a coven and the woods for you. You are safer with him.” Freya cleared her throat. “I love you as my sister Gilda, truly I do, but I would never kill for you. I killed for Frederick once and am sick at the thought of ever doing it again. Freyr would kill the entire council if they tried to take you. The closer you are to him, the safer you will be.” She said quietly. Gilda’s mind filled with a terrible thought.

“May I ask who you killed?” She asked, the unspoken question hanging in her tone. Freya’s eyes grew wide. She was both hurt and offended. The fact that the emotion was visible on her bear face, denoted just how much.

“No! A poacher, a poacher about to shoot him when he was still a cub. Your parents had nothing to do with it. Please Gilda, none of us are monsters. We may look like it, but we have made so many rules for ourselves in order to preserve the truth that we are human.” Freya assured her, not meeting her eyes.

“Sorry.” Gilda said touching Freya’s wiry furry arm. “I’m sorry. I know that.” She looked toward the woods. “But, if I am safer with Freyr, why am I not working with him in the woods?” She asked. Freya laughed, at ease again.

“Because I am a bear now, I can protect you in this form! And what use would you be in the woods? You are much more use to us here…this work requires fingers much more than hauling lumber does, and I confess that I do not have any fingers at the moment.” Freya said looking up at the setting sun. It was a half coin now. “Speaking of protecting you, off the house with you. I’ll be back in a bit. Lock all the doors. We can all make it through the window. We need to exercise extra care now that an inquisition is after you.” Gilda nodded.

“I’ll make some supper then…maybe we can have something besides soup.” Gilda said with a smile and walked obediently back to the house, carrying her little apricot cutting knife. It would need to be washed before the pulp dried or it would be impossible to clean. She shut the door to the house behind her and bolted it firmly. She turned and walked over to the sink. She poured water from the bucket next to the sink over the knife. Suddenly she turned, a noise from the living room startled her. Her eyes widened in surprise.

There was a massive bear in the living room. Not a blonde bear, not a dark brown bear, not even a russet colored one, a giant black bear. A bear she did not know. Gilda was surprised that the sight of a bear could still terrify her…but it definitely could. Her heart physically stopped in her chest, and her blood felt more like ice water. The bear snarled, its lip curled, flecks of saliva on its lips. Gilda brandished her tiny knife, but did not move. This was not the bear’s territory, if she did not threaten it, maybe it would not harm her. She did not stand between it and any resource, nor its offspring. It had no reason to attack her. It blinked at her slowly. She looked at its eyes. Its eyes were human eyes. Big light blue eyes like Frederick’s. This was not just a bear. But which of the other two was it?

“Please, do not hurt me. I do not wish you hurt you.” She said lowering the knife. If it were the one it was likely to be, it might not have a choice. “I think that you are a him and not an it.” She said taking a step backward. She did not wish to stab a member of Freyr’s family. The bear was about to transition, which made it more dangerous than a real bear. It would have human and animal inclinations that it could not control. It was definitely more dangerous than Freya or Freyr or Frederick because it was of an earlier generation, which meant it was less in control of itself. If Freyr lost control so utterly during his transition, she had no idea what an earlier generation would do.

“I know that you are about to change, and you feel very intensely right now.” Gilda took a deep breath and un-bolted the door with her hands behind her. Could she get it open without turning her back on the bear? “Will you let me go outside, so that I am safe?” She asked. She held her hands up, in a gesture of non-violence. The bear glanced at her hands. She could almost feel its human eyes hovering on the ring.

“Yes!” She held up her hand. “The ring! You recognize the ring! The signet ring of the crown prince of Gyllene, I did not steal it – He gave it to me.” It seemed strange to say it. She was not his wife in any normal sense, but it was the truth and maybe the bear would understand her. She had to get outside before this thing mauled her, or worse. It was turning into a man at the moment, and while Freyr hadn’t acted like she smelled disconcerting today, she was still herself, and her effect on men was inexplicable even when they were not beast-men. The bear sniffed the air, and charged toward her, its paw raised to rake her with its claws.

Gilda had no time to make decisions. All she could do was react instinctively, so she ducked and stabbed upward as she leapt to the side, effectively stabbing the bear in the underarm. She tripped over her own feet, fell down and skittered under the table like an insect. She peeked out from under the dining table, wondering why the bear had not crushed it like a dead leaf in an effort to get at her. The bear was hemorrhaging blood. She must have hit an artery. It was losing its blood at an alarming rate. Instead of charging at her like a wounded bear should, it weaved dangerously and collapsed onto the floor.

Gilda gasped in panic. What had she done? She crawled out from under the table, and stepped out of her under skirt. She rolled it into a ball and ran to the bear. She couldn’t believe that she had just murdered their father or grandfather! She pressed the balled up skirt to the gaping wound, the knife still clutched in her other hand. The animal shuddered under the touch, and convulsed. The strangest thing Gilda had ever witnessed was occurring. It was disgusting. Fur shrank away to become gray mottled skin that turned pink as the hair faded. Its claws tucked backwards and became toes. Gilda covered her mouth with her hand as a snout collapsed in on itself and its fangs shrank back into teeth…Gilda abruptly realized that he was going to be naked. She pulled the table cloth off the table, and threw it over his lower half. It was less important than saving his life, but she didn’t wish to violate his privacy either…she had done enough.

Several minutes later a haggard looking man with lank black hair, and the saddest blue eyes she had ever seen lay breathing heavily under the cloth. He looked thin, skin stretched over unevenly muscled long limbs. His eyes widened as he looked at her. Faster than her eyes could follow, he reached out and gripped her arm. Gilda pulled it back, but the man was trying to pull her towards him. Gilda tried to stand up and pull back.

“Stop! Please!” Gilda begged as she twisted, trying to break free of his grasp. “I don’t want to stab you again!” She pleaded, releasing the cloth she had been staunching the blood with in an effort to get away. It was the oddest thing. As a man he was not injured, the gaping wound under his arm was gone. The floor and her dress all bore evidence of the blood, but he had no wound. He stood up, utterly naked, still not speaking. He opened and closed his mouth, but no sound came out. She was fairly certain that he was not yet capable of speech. He grasped for her again. Gilda stepped backward and tripped, falling to her knees.

“Don’t. Please!” Gilda begged as the naked man continued to approach her. She had never felt so at war with herself. Gilda once more stabbed him, this time in the thigh. The man screamed in rage, but instead of trying to kill her, he grabbed the tablecloth and ran out the door. Had he been trying to kill her? Or rape her? What had he wanted from her? Gilda watched him disappear into the woods as the sky glowed deep red with the disappearing sun. She was covered in blood, her under skirt was a sodden mess, and she was shaking uncontrollably. Freyr burst in through the side door, his clothes misbuttoned and on incorrectly. The smell of blood was overpowering. He could smell it from the clearing in the woods. He’d had to wait to come to her rescue until he was sure he was enough in control of himself that he would not become a second aggressor. Every second had seemed like hours.

“Who was here? I could smell him from the tree line!” He asked picking her up off the floor and grasping her by the shoulders trying to meet her eyes, deeply concerned. It had not been a human, he knew that. Freya appeared, similarly out of nowhere and in a panic. Her hair was unbraided past her waist in a blur of red, her skirt tucked to her knees so that she could run faster. Her eyes were still wild and she seemed even less in control than Freyr. Both of them were nearly vibrating with panic.

“Gilda, Gilda are you alright? Did he harm you? Whose blood is this?” She looking at Gilda’s clothes and the knife. Gilda was still lead fingered, gripping the hilt like her life depended on it. Freya grasped it gently and tried to pry it out of her stiff fingers. Gilda let it drop into Freya’s hand. Freya set the knife on the floor. The knife was bloody, and if Gilda was in shock, she was just as likely to stab Freya while she tried to attend to her wounds. Freya touched the damp sections of Gilda’s dress cautiously.

“It’s his blood…bear and human. I stabbed him twice.” Gilda said woodenly her voice dead and dull.

“He was one of us.” Freyr said, unsurprised. “That explains the smell. At first I thought there was an animal in here, and then a man. Then I knew what it was…it makes sense. Are you hurt? Did he do anything to you?” He asked, unsure if he should put his arms around her, or if she was now terrified of bear people. Gilda shook her head.

“I don’t even know what he was trying to do to me. He wouldn’t stop trying to grab me. So I stabbed him…I stabbed him in the leg. He’ll die of the wound out there in the woods. Oh God, I’ve killed him!” Gilda cried collapsing, Freyr caught her as she collapsed and carried her to the chaise. He laid her down carefully. He gently felt the sections of Gilda’s body that were covered by blood. He needed to be certain that there were no wounds underneath it. Thankfully the blood didn’t smell like hers, it smelled ursine mostly…with a little bit of masculine human blood.

“You haven’t killed him. It’s alright Gilda. I promise it is alright, He will survive the night and be good as new by dawn.” Freya said pouring the terrible distilled spirits into a cup. “Drink this.” Gilda took it, but did not drink. The stuff was horrid. Why did these people seem to think it was some sort of cure-all? All it did was to set your stomach on fire.

“What do you mean he will be good as new? I stabbed him, badly. I was frightened. I don’t even know if he was trying to hurt me or not… he knocked me down and he wasn’t dressed so I just…I just stabbed him!” Gilda said, aware that she was stuttering and speaking in short bursts. Freyr sat down beside her on the sofa.

“Every time we change, we get a healthy version of our human or bear selves. If we can survive until morning, or until evening, no disease, no injury stays with us. I suppose it could be considered a benefit of the curse if one wants a long life.” He said, starting to put his hand on her and then changing his mind and removing it. Even if she hadn’t before, she would find creatures like himself to be disgusting or terrifying now.

“So I have not killed him?” Gilda asked sitting up. She felt enormously relieved. Freya shook her head.

“No. You have not killed him. I do wish to know who he was though…did you get a very good look at him?” Freya asked taking the glass of distilled cherry spirits back from Gilda who clearly did not desire it. She downed it in one swallow. No matter who the bear man was, it could not be good news.

Gilda nodded. She had gotten a far better look at him than she wanted to. She had seen everything there was to see of the man. She swallowed, embarrassed. “Mmm yes. He was nearly as tall as Freyr, over six feet, he had black hair and brown eyes, he was thin and wiry, probably in his mid fifties.” She said looking down. The man had looked haggard, out of his mind, and in great pain. Freyr rubbed his forehead with his hand.

“That would make him our Grandfather, and incidentally, your parents’ murderer.” He said putting his face in his hands.

“But that’s impossible. He was only fifty five or so, he couldn’t be your Grandfather!” Gilda said instantly. Then she had a second to process the latter half of Freyr’s sentence. “What you mean? My parents were killed by wolves…how could he have killed them? You said no one ever saw him again!” Gilda was overwhelmed, this was too much. Freya, in a rare moment of animal instinct, growled and snapped at her brother and hit him open handed across the back of the head. Her teeth gnashed together and she raised her hand as if she was about to hit him again, but then she paused. Gilda had never seen Freya behave like a wild animal, but it was still so close to sunset.

“Why would you tell you her that? We agreed. I’ve never had a friend in my whole life Freyr! You really want out of this so much that you’ll scare her away?” She said shoving him off the sofa and onto the floor. “You want her to run off? You know she will. Why?” Freya leapt over the chaise towards him. She looked as though she planned to continue striking him. Gilda gasped and pulled her feet back so that she wouldn’t be in the way of a fight between two freshly transitioned bear people. Freyr leapt to his feet in a fluid motion.

“If he’s lying in wait for her, here in our house, she deserves to know. You’re the one who wanted her to belong to me! If you want me to possess her so badly, you’ll suffer the consequences. She’s mine now, so it follows that I get to decide what she does and doesn’t hear.” Freyr said half crouched, facing his sister, waiting to see if she would attack him again. Gilda stood up, furious. She knew that he was currently half animal right now…but that did nothing to temper her anger.

“I do not belong to anyone! I may be your property on paper, but we both know that could easily be invalidated due to the fact that you don’t even properly want me!” Gilda made a disturbing figure, standing, shaking, covered in blood, her hair wild. “I will decide what I do and do not get to know! And I decide that I want to hear it all!” She yelled at them. “You will tell me everything! Or I really will leave you all.” Gilda demanded. Freya turned towards her, her face apologetic and fearful. Freyr straightened up, folded his arms and looked away.

“Of course Gilda. I’m sorry. Freyr, you’re right. She should know everything.” Freya said sounding defeated. She looked utterly dejected. She did not like losing control. “Sit down Gilda, let me explain, explain why we kept back half the story.” Gilda shook her head.

“I don’t care why you did it. I just want you tell me why I have no parents and why your grandfather, who should be in his seventies, is not, and is here in your house.” She said. As she finished speaking Frederick came in through the side door.

“I followed him, I chased him into the woods, I called out to him but he wouldn’t stop. He wasn’t in his right head yet, he must take longer to transition than we do. I don’t even think he could speak. I nearly caught him, as he was wounded, but he jumped in the river and rode the current. I couldn’t follow his scent after that. The current was too fast and I wasn’t able to catch him.” Frederick said, avoiding eye contact with Freyr, who was closest to him. He abruptly noticed that Gilda was covered in blood.

“Gilda! My God, did he do this to you? Where are you hurt?” He asked, running over to her and putting his hands on her waist, where the worst of the blood was, feeling about to see if there were cuts under the fabric. He forgot for a moment that she belonged to his brother, his only thought was to make sure she was not injured. Freyr made a noise like a warning growl. Gilda gently pushed Frederick’s hand away.

“It’s not mine. It’s his.” She said softly. Then her anger got the better of her and she snapped out the second half of her sentence. “Do you want to tell me why he’s here? Why he killed my parents?” Gilda asked, she didn’t want to let them change the subject and get away with not explaining the truth. Frederick sat down in the chair next to Gilda as though his legs had been kicked out from under him.

“She knows.” He said in surprise. Freya nodded.

“And it’s time we tell her the truth.” She said. Ever the caregiver she handed Frederick a plate of apricots and cheese. He hadn’t eaten in over a day and was likely hungry. A bear attack didn’t change her misplaced instincts towards her younger brother. She then turned slowly back toward Gilda.

“He is young because of the curse. It is the same reason the wound disappeared. We do not age as rapidly as average humans. We are never injured, and we are never sick. Injuries and illnesses age a normal person, but only time ages us. Every ordinary stressor humans face have no effect on us if they do not kill us before the end of the day. Freyr is thirty two but only looks to be in his mid twenties… As we get older, the disparity gets larger. When we last saw our Grandfather twelve years ago, he looked to be in his mid forties.” Freya said, sliding an armchair towards Gilda. Gilda wouldn’t sit down.

“That’s the least important thing you need to tell me. What about the rest?” She asked, she still sounded furious. She didn’t want to sit. It gave them even more of a physical advantage due to their height. All of them were mountainous compared to her, with Freyr having the largest disparity. Freyr left his position by the door and walked over to her. He lifted her up off her feet and set her bodily in the chair.

“You will want to be sitting for this Gilda, it is a long story and not a happy one.” He said. Gilda almost stood up again just to make a point, but her feet really hurt from standing already, so she stayed. He knelt beside her, without touching her further.

“Our Grandfather had not been heard from for more than 20 years when he found us. We had just built our home here… and yet our mother was almost ready to leave, she was so frightened of him. He said he wasn’t there to harm us. He was looking for the witch, and he found us instead. He spent a week with us, but he didn’t follow the same rules we did. When he was a bear, he just let himself be a bear. He was tired of trying to fight the animal without any success. He’d given up. He said it was like screaming for help where no one could hear him. He’d learned instead to turn his own mind off. During the day, it was just the mind of the bear. Our mother didn’t like this, she thought it was unsafe for us, even if he spent his entire day far out in the woods. She was quickly proven to be right. His bear came across your parents taking their pig to the live stock market by Squire Gravely’s estate. He killed them when they tried to keep him from attacking their pig. A wolf pack discovered the kill and chased him off. When the townspeople found the scene, only the wolves were left…but they had been the scavengers.” Freyr looked at Gilda to see how she taking it. She looked gray, instead of her usual glowing self.

“Please go on.” She said when he paused for too long. He sighed. He had no desire to tell her the rest. There was one detail that he was entirely unwilling to share with her as it would mean that she would never let him come near her again. He couldn’t stand it if she never let him touch her again. So he omitted it.

“My mother told him he could no longer stay with us. He promised to leave, and never come back. He said he would go to another country, he’d heard that witches were rampant in Italy. I don’t know if that is where he went or not, but we did not see him again after that. We didn’t want to tell you about what he had done because we didn’t want you to fear us. We couldn’t let you run away again and get caught by the people who are after you. An inquisition is coming. Surely you can appreciate that we were only trying to protect you.” Freyr said, his tone pleading. Gilda stared at him.

“I’m not a child Freyr! I don’t fear any of you. But I am very angry with all of you.” She turned to look at Freya. “You may be almost ten years older than me, but you don’t need to speak to me as though I were your child. If you want a friend Freya, then treat me as your equal.” Gilda said rising and heading toward the stairs. “Do you have anything I can wear while we eat dinner?” She asked, startling all of them with the change of subject. “This dress is covered in blood and I have no other.” Frederick sighed.

“Thank goodness we’re still having dinner. I thought you were all going to skip it because of the whole Gilda stabbing our Grandfather incident.” He left his chair and headed toward the stove. “No one’s started anything?” He asked looking at the empty stove. Gilda turned from her position on the third stair.

“No. I was going to…but then I was attacked by the bear that killed my parents. I’m sorry if it inconvenienced you.” Gilda said running up the rest of the stairs and slamming the door to Freyr’s room. She realized belatedly that it had been a cruel and childish thing to say…after all, whatever else he was, he was not just a bear. He was their Grandfather.

Freya came up the stairs a few minutes later with a tray of bread and cheese and a dress tucked under her arm. She knocked lightly. Gilda opened the door. She was in still in the blood soaked dress.

“I was going to take it off…but I used my underskirt to staunch your grandfather’s wound. I’m afraid I’m rather naked under this.” She said. Freya smiled.

“It was kind of you to try to help him. Of course you didn’t know who he really was, and what he had done at that point.” She said handing Gilda a bucket of water and a cloth. Gilda undressed awkwardly and began scrubbing the dried blood off of her naked limbs.

“I still would have helped him even if I had known.” She said. Freya almost turned to face her, but then realized that as Gilda was naked, and not submerged in a tub, that she should continue to face the wall.

“Really? You would have?” She asked surprised.

“Yes. He didn’t mean to. It’s not entirely his fault…more like the witch’s fault in the end.” Gilda said. “May I have the dress please?” She asked.

“Oh of course.” Freya said handing it backwards over her head to Gilda.

“You can turn around now.” Gilda said. Freya turned to face her. The dress was one that she had worn as a twelve year old, but she had been tall, and it actually fit Gilda rather well, although the bust was very tight and the hem showed her ankles. It was also too gaudy, but she’d been a princess when she’d worn it. It was red crepe de chine with gold embroidery of tiny flying birds and a wide cream colored sash.

“It’s really the best I had. It looks very well on you.” She said. “Next time we go into town I will buy you something else to wear.” Freya said apologetically. She knew the blood wasn’t going to come out, and she could hardly ask Gilda to wear a dress stained with the blood of her parent’s murderer.

“It’s a bit tight in the chest, and I’m afraid I may disturb Frederick quite a bit as my ankles show…” Gilda said with a smile. Freya dropped the plate of dinner and hugged Gilda tightly. If she could make a joke then she must not hate her entirely.

“I’m so sorry Gilda. Is there the slightest chance that you could ever forgive me for not telling you?” Freya asked. Gilda nodded as Freya released her.

“I’m going to have to. It would be awfully awkward to hide out in here forever if I despised you.” She said looking at the plate of food on the floor. “Should I just come down to dinner? I don’t want to make you carry up another plate…and I would prefer to eat something that hasn’t rolled in the dust.” She said trying to be light hearted…the dust that had covered Freyr’s floor now covered her food.

“You’d come down and eat with us?” Freya said surprised. Gilda felt almost sorry for her. Up until this point she had felt like the intruder, eating their food, wearing their clothes, living in their house, all by virtue of a silly mistake she had made by falling asleep in their bed. Now she understood that she was more than a guest or a prisoner. They’d been outcast and ostracized for so long that they felt lucky, grateful even that she was kind to them and didn’t treat them like less than human. She hadn’t realized that their self esteem was so lacking. Freya’s look of surprise and gratitude made her realize that they honestly thought they were monsters…and they were the ones who felt lacking in her midst.

“Yes, I will eat with you, trauma tends to make me hungry.” Gilda said with a further attempt at levity as she followed Freya down the stairs in the brilliant red dress. She was going to have to forgive them. Much as she wanted to throw a giant fit and hate them forever…she was going to have to forgive them.

Dinner had been quiet again. Frederick had not wished to speak to her or Freyr, as he was still angry at the two of them. Freyr had apparently no desire to talk to anyone. Freya and Gilda tried to keep a conversation going, but with only monosyllabic answers from the men, it was difficult. Quiet dinners seemed to be becoming a habit, Gilda thought to herself as she removed the rather constricting red dress and pulled on the soft linen nightgown. Maybe if she laced her corset tighter tomorrow, the dress would fit better, she might not be able to breathe, but that was a minor consequence.

She lay down on the edge of the bed again…she was fairly certain that after her little outburst, Freyr was going to want to be rather far away from her. He entered the room silently, sliding into his side of the bed almost without sound. He tucked an extra blanket over Gilda’s side. Oh. He really wasn’t going to hold her again…that had been just to keep her from freezing. Gilda wrapped the new blanket around herself and sighed audibly. Freyr was laying on his back, arms behind his head, stretched out. But when she sighed he turned towards her, leaning on his elbow.

“So. Just how much do you despise me now?” He asked. His tone light, but he was serious. Gilda turned to face him.

“Despise you?” She asked. He was lying on his side, his face level with hers.

“Are you angry that I hid such a terrible secret from you? Or are you afraid of me? Now, I mean, because I am like him?” He asked, his eyes staring into hers from across the bed. It would have been possible to fit two or three people between them.

“Afraid of you? Freyr, I am not, nor have I ever been, afraid of you. Except of course for when I thought you were a phantom, stalking me in the woods.” She said, realizing that she was still somewhat angry about that.

“But you are angry.” He said, it was not a question.

“Less so with you than with Freya. At least you told me eventually, she was never going to.” Gilda said, she turned to look away. “I am irritated with you, however.” She said, not willing to meet his eyes anymore.

“And if lying to you about your parents does not cause anger, what could I possibly have done to irritate you?” He asked, sounding amused and curious.

“You told Freya that you had every right to tell me about my parents, because I belong to you, and that means that you have the authority to make decisions for me. But that is not precisely true. It’s not as if I really do belong since since…I mean if I were not accused of witchcraft, I could have it invalidated because…because it has never been…” Gilda cleared her throat and continued. “I just mean, you told her that you didn’t even want me to belong to you, but that since I do…you were going to exercise your authority. Doesn’t really seem fair.” Gilda said, realizing that nothing she had said made any sense. Freyr chuckled softly in the dark. He ran a fingertip down her arm.

“You are not mad, that I claimed archaic rights to control your life, but because my justification for doing so was invalid? You are upset because you think I do not want you?” He asked. Gilda said nothing. There was nothing more embarrassing than loving someone more than they loved you, especially for a woman. For a woman to desire a man at ALL let alone more so than he wanted her…

“Do you think that I am immune to you? Every other man in the world finds you irresistible, whereas I, have no reaction at all, to the most beautiful girl in all of…anywhere?” He asked as if the answer should be obvious. Gilda didn’t think it was, although she did like being called the most beautiful girl in the world. She again said nothing, still stubbornly facing away from him. Freyr groaned. He pulled her towards him with lightning speed, flipping her onto her back and holding her wrists to the bed. He climbed on top of her, lowering himself along the full length of her. His weight held her immobile. He kissed her forehead.

“I want you.” He said quietly. He kissed her temple, sliding his hand down her body. “I want you.” He kissed the curve of her neck, his one hand holding her arms above her head, the other hand caressing the entire length of her. “I want you.” He said kissing the edge of her jaw, but not her mouth. Abruptly, and far too soon, he rolled off of her and pulled her to his chest, settling his chin in her hair. He had changed the tone from one that had had her heart racing to the point of being audible, to one that left her deeply disappointed. She turned her face up to his and attempted to kiss his lips. Freyr lifted his face out of her reach and twisted her around so that her shoulders were against his chest. The difference in their sizes meant that he could maneuver her as lightly and easily as if she had been a doll.

“I’m sorry Gilda. But if I let you tempt me too much, I will lose what little resolve I have left.” He kissed the top of her head again in a companionate way.

“A kiss is too much?” She asked. It seemed like the merest crumb of his love to ask for. He sighed deeply. He couldn’t explain what had happened the other day when he had kissed her. Her mouth had tasted like honeysuckle or apple blossoms, and the feel of her soft lips had lit a fire that he could see only one way of quenching. If he had not transitioned at that moment, he would certainly have kept her against that wall, until he had sated himself completely. While he knew now that he would not have been taking her against her will, it didn’t mean that it could happen. Her kiss held the power to drive him half mad, and there was only one way for that to end. She even had his brain attempting to justify the actions he wanted to commit. But his wretched secret life, and his mother’s horrifying death had made the rules for him exceedingly clear.

“I’m afraid Gilda that if I kissed you, I wouldn’t be able to stop. I would do all the things that I want to do, and break all the rules my siblings and I have set. It is like the fable of the monkey and the bananas.” He said cryptically.

“What is the fable of the monkey and the bananas?” She asked. He tightened his arms around her waist.

“In the library of the castle I grew up in, there was a book of fables designed to teach children lessons. One fable was written as an attempt to teach children to avoid temptation. It was about a monkey who loved bananas. Unfortunately this monkey became violently ill whenever he ate bananas. His ailment became so bad, that his doctor told him that he must not eat any more bananas, or he would die. The monkey was deeply saddened as he adored bananas, so he asked the doctor if he could simply carry one around with him, would that kill him? The doctor told him ‘no, it would not’ so he carried a banana with him always. It then occurred to the monkey that he could perhaps peel the banana and smell it, without dying. So everyday he peeled a fresh banana and enjoyed its mouthwatering scent. Eventually he decided that he could probably simply wrap his mouth around it without chewing or swallowing the forbidden fruit. He did this for several days until the temptation became too great and he ate the banana…and promptly died.” Freyr gripped Gilda’s hand.

“Do you understand what I mean?” He asked. Gilda knew what a monkey was, as they were often kept in the menageries of noblemen, a subject she had researched… But she did not know what a banana was, or how a monkey would come to be acquainted with a doctor. However, the moral of the story was clear.

“You think that if you were to put yourself too close to the limit, that you might not be able to avoid truly claiming me…and then the world would be overrun with a legion of bear people.” Gilda said as angrily and indelicately as possible. She was too frustrated to be lady-like and demure. Freyr sighed. He sounded disappointed in her.

“I wouldn’t put it that way…but yes. Is that something you can live with?” He asked sounding somewhat regretful. It wasn’t something Gilda could live with. But she didn’t plan to. Freyr may have thought he had told her a story about why they could never be too affectionate, but what he had actually done was give her a recipe for his seduction. She simply had to become slowly more and more impossible to be resist. The more slowly and carefully she enticed him, the easier it would be for him to justify and tolerate every advance. Soon he would be unable to avoid it. Gilda was not good at very many things, her chief skills being foolish behavior and vanity…but she was good at being hard to resist.

Chapter Thirteen: How to Seduce a Married Man

‘A witch should beware of giving spells as gifts. Even beneficial magic has an inexplicable tendency to be fatal, especially for the recipient.’ – Witches to the Wise

Gilda had a plan. She was going to become more and more impossible for Freyr to ignore. She had two very real problems. One, she had never had to work at seducing someone. Every man of her acquaintance had fallen under her spell without her having to do anything! She had no idea how to begin. Two, Freyr was a bear most of the day. It was not appealing to do seductive things to a bear. She would have to squeeze a day’s worth of irresistibility into a few stolen moments in the evening when his siblings weren’t watching. Several days had gone by and the opportunities had been few and far between. Her plans had been further complicated by the fact that Freyr was spending much of his time in the woods searching for his Grandfather.

There was also the small matter of the members of the high council arriving in a matter of days. Freyr’s mind seemed much more occupied with these weighty matters, and it was harder than she liked to admit to turn his attention. She felt as though all the other men of her acquaintance had been a fluke. Getting Freyr to pay attention to her was like trying to hold water in your cupped hands, he would simply slip away.

Frederick had been sent up and down the roads by day to see if carriages, especially important looking carriages were coming. There had been a huge scare one day, two really – as an entire legion of impressive carriages had arrived. However, they turned out not be an inquisition, but several groups of noble families coming to attend Lady Eugenia’s wedding. Frederick had had to get rather close to the road to ascertain this however, and had been shot as a consequence by a drunk Baron. The man simply leaned out of the carriage, shot at the bear he thought he had seen through the trees, and then fallen out of his carriage. Frederick had managed to get back home and had transitioned to a healthy human body before the shot had been able to kill him. Luckily the bullet had lodged in his shoulder and not somewhere more vital. Gilda was beginning to feel guilty about the trouble they were going to in order to keep her alive. It was more than likely to get one of them killed. These high minded thoughts made it difficult to concentrate on thoughts that came from much lower. Thoughts of how to seduce her husband.

That evening she decided to try a trick that Gran had suggested. Using seduction suggestions from an unmarried old woman meant that she was extraordinarily desperate. Gran’s suggestion had always been that the way to a man’s heart was through cooking him delicious food. It seemed as good an idea as any, and she was not in a position to discount the advice.

Gilda had spent most of the day cooking, which meant letting poor Freya attempt to pickle all manners of vegetables alone. It was hard to watch Freya in the yard attempting to put lids on jars of hot pickling liquid with clawed paws…but that couldn’t be helped. She had her own work to do. Gilda had caught and butchered her first chicken. She found it not too different than a squirrel thankfully. But she hoped that it tasted better than one after she breaded and fried it. She had managed to bake perfect golden biscuits, churn a batch of fresh cultured butter, and layer the last of the ripe autumn peaches with cream, and sugar.

As she pulled the biscuits from the wood burning oven with a rapid motion, as she felt a profound lack of desire to be burned by the extreme heat, her top button on the too small red dress popped off. Gilda looked down. The top curve of her breasts was now very visible, and particularly eye catching given how tight the bodice was. Gilda contemplated attempting to find a needle and thread and fix it. But it was nearly time to serve dinner. She bit her lip, maybe this unfortunate accident was not so unfortunate. It was perhaps tasteless, but she was out of better ideas.

With the change complete, Freyr, Freya and Frederick came back to the house and entered the warm kitchen from the chilling evening air. Frederick smelled the air appreciatively.

“Real food! You made us something that wasn’t thrown in a pot and boiled! Every trio of bears should keep a pet human.” He said squeezing Gilda’s shoulders and going to sit down. “Married” to his brother or not, he would still take whatever chance he could to touch her.

“It better be worth me canning all day alone!” Freya said, but her tone was jovial. Gilda put the food onto their plates, rather than letting them serve themselves. She leaned over and set a plate in front of Freyr.

“Here you are.” She said smiling at him, the front of her dress angled toward his face. Freyr could easily see that Gilda had lost a button. The perfect golden curve of her chest was distressingly visible. She must not have noticed. He was not so lucky. He rarely saw her skin in the light, it had a strange glittering golden quality as though shards of mica were under her skin. It made him want to touch the curve of her silken breast, if only just to discern what she was made of. He took the plate, trying not to look as though he were leering at her. He didn’t want to think about the fact that legally, he had every right to drag her upstairs, throw her across his bed, rip every last button off the dress and…

“Thank you Gilda.” He said mildly, attempting to rein in his rapid thoughts. This was too much. He’d sew it up while she was still wearing it if he had to.

“Freyr?” She asked. He looked up at her eyes.

“Yes?” He asked startled.

“I asked if you wanted any sauce, for your chicken?” She was holding a dish of juniper sauce, bent towards him again. Good God, how much was she going to make him endure? This could not be intentional?

“Yes…please.” He said, voice empty. She poured the sauce on his meat and turned to set down Frederick’s plate. She didn’t lean over, or say anything to Frederick, but he caught her arm in his hand firmly and didn’t let her turn to offer Freya her plate.

“Gilda, you seem to have missed a button. Let me get it for you.” Frederick said as he reached toward the front of Gilda’s dress, his fingertip grazed her chest so lightly that she almost didn’t feel it. Freyr had grabbed Frederick by the shoulder and pulled him forcibly from his chair just as he had been about to touch her. He was halfway across the room by the time his fingertip grazed her.

“Keep your hands off of her!” Freyr said, his voice a snarl. Frederick laughed.

“I was merely going to offer the lady assistance.” He said innocently. “It’s not as if you’re taking advantage of having such a lovely…prisoner. Pretty sure I would hear it from across the hall if you were.” Frederick continued. He turned to look at Gilda.

“Should you ever require a more-active sleeping companion, I’m just across the hall.” Frederick said raising his eyebrows at her. Freyr attempted to rein in his desire to hurl his brother across the room.

“ENOUGH FREDERICK!” Freyr shouted, continuing to hold his brother by the back of his shirt. To reconcile his desire to kill his brother with his desire not to frighten Gilda, he shook him like a dog would shake a rat…rather than throw him into a wall. Frederick made a strange keening noise like an injured animal, but it had been a ruse. He used the moment of startled regret on Freyr’s part to slip out of his shirt, and out of Freyr’s grasp.

“Gilda hasn’t said it was enough. She can speak for herself. Besides, I’m fairly certain she wants more than you’ve been offering.” Frederick said attempting to return to the table, where Gilda was. Freyr held him fast by his now bare shoulder. Freya stood.

“Go outside Frederick, take your plate, and finish your meal out there if you are going to behave like an animal. Just because we forced to inhabit their bodies some of the time, it does not give us license to behave like ones continuously.” She said in a disappointed tone. Frederick just laughed. He grabbed his plate off the table, with a prolonged look at Gilda.

“I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Just being honest. Think it’s rather silly of you lot to deny what you are all the time in point of fact.” He said. Freya grasped him by the back of his shirt and thrust him out through the door with surprising strength.

“What the fuss is about? After what Grandfather did? To his wife? To Gilda’s parents? To our own mother? If we accept what we are for one minute, we run the risk of becoming like him. Spend the night outside in the barn with the other animals, but don’t run off. Tomorrow you and I are going to town, and I know you won’t want to miss that.” She shut the door firmly in his face. Freyr returned to the table and sat down.

“He can’t go to town, and you don’t go to town.” Freyr said picking up his fork and knife as if nothing had happened. Gilda cautiously sat down in her place at the table. She realized she hadn’t spoken in quite a long time.

“I think ten years is long enough to mourn the loss of a lover. Hopefully I will not see him or his wife, and it is not as if I need anything from the milliner’s anyway.” Freya said taking her own plate. Gilda almost choked on a bite of chicken. The mysterious lover was Mr. Grant? Balding, near-sighted, timid Mr. Grant?

“I’m sorry, was there a different milliner ten year ago? Or was your almost fiancé Mr Grant?” Gilda asked in utter surprise. “I’m sorry, I’m being terribly rude, but you’re beautiful and he’s be-spectacled and balding!” Freya laughed a little with a slight shake of her head.

“He wasn’t ten years ago. I dare say if he is now, it will be easier for me to see him. Provided that I don’t have to see him and his wife together of course.” Freya said looking at her plate. Gilda looked up at Freyr, he hadn’t told her that Mr. Grant was widowed? He shook his head at her firmly. Gilda raised her eyebrow. She opened her mouth to tell Freya when Freyr began speaking before she had a chance.

“You may be allowed to go to town, but Frederick is not. Have you forgotten what happened last time?” He demanded. Freya sighed.

“He slept with a tavern wench, who being a tavern girl was not stupid enough to have any consequences of the foolish youthful dalliance! Obviously it was a selfish mistake, but he isn’t likely to repeat it with me sitting right next to him is he? I will supervise him the entire time, and we will come back the following morning. We need to let him be with people! He is pent up here and having Gilda around doesn’t help, she just reminds him of everything he is missing. He is a young man of 22 whose youth was robbed from him. Having Gilda here just illustrates what a hermit-like existence he has been forced to lead.” She looked at Gilda who was attempting not to be noticed, even though she was sitting between them. “I’m sorry dear, but it is true.” She turned to Freyr. “I am taking him to town. Gilda needs a dress that fits, I need to find out what is going on with the inquisition, and Frederick needs a change of scenery. He’s going mad inside these four walls! Given that we need several items from town, and your recent dust up with Theodore, as well as that night you walked her home… it is better if I go. We can’t have you hauled in for questioning. Even you can see that I’m sure.” Freya said. Freyr looked disgruntled.

Gilda hadn’t heard anything after the part where Freya and Frederick would be gone for an entire day and night. It would be much easier to seduce Freyr without any on-lookers, and when he was human, as opposed to a bear.

“Gilda?” Freya was asking her something.

“Yes?” She asked. Had she said something out loud? Had her vague expression given away the very tempestuous thoughts she had been thinking?

“I just wanted to know if you could finish pickling tomorrow, while Frederick and I are gone? There is quite a bit left of the garden. I can help you in the morning of course, but then I will have to leave to walk to town. I want to make sure we arrive just after the transition. It will give Frederick as much time as possible to spend with other humans.” Freya was asking. Gilda nodded. The last thing she wanted was to smell like pickle brine when she attempted to convince Freyr to…well she would do her best to avoid pickling herself. “Thank you Gilda.” Freya replied. Gilda nodded. “Oh, and Gilda? Will you be alright here on your own, with just Freyr I mean?” Freya asked with no trace of sarcasm in her voice. She was actually concerned that Gilda might not want to be alone with Freyr. Gilda attempted to nod slowly. She really didn’t want to seem over eager.

“I still don’t think you should go.” Freyr said stubbornly. Freya smiled as she poured more sauce on her chicken.

“Thankfully dear brother, it is not up to you.” Freya said with a twitch at the corner of her lips.

The former King of Gyllene waited in the woods. He had managed to find his clothes, and his wound was completely healed. He was ready to meet his quarry, but unfortunately her house was being watched. One man made a lonely vigil, standing in front of the house all night, sleeping in front of it by day. The others had all given up. Surely this stubborn old man would give up soon! He would want his own bed, warm food, and a nice fire. Surely his wife and his family would be missing him. Once there were no witnesses, he could do what he came to do.

His grandchildren being nearby was a problem. They had caused him to give up his quest when he had been so close, all of twelve years ago. The incident with the carpenter and his wife had been unfortunate, but he could have returned in a year or so after that. They hadn’t even known the people. If only he hadn’t made that mistake with their mother, all this would all be ancient history by now. But he had given them time to grieve, and time to move past the incident. Now he was back, and he would finish what he had wanted to finish so very long ago.

The light in the house flickered and went out. The woman had gone to bed. He had promised himself there would be no additional casualties this time…but the man out front was making it difficult. He would give it another day or two, and if the man did not leave, he could not be responsible for his continued existence. The King curled up in a bed of pine boughs, and wished desperately that they were goose down blankets. How had he sunk so low? There had been the small matter of murdering his wife, and his chief advisor threatening to expose him if he did not abdicate in favor of his more even tempered son…but no King, no matter what his crimes, should be reduced to this. He tucked the tablecloth he had recently acquired over himself like a blanket and went to sleep. The woman would still be there in the morning. And if the man was…well he could easily have an accident.

Gilda woke up, as usual, to an empty bed. Freyr would already be in the woods felling trees, especially now that Frederick was taking the full wood cart into town. She smiled slightly to herself in anticipation of her plan. As she had accidentally done with his grandfather, she was going to catch Freyr on the human end of his transition…rather than the one in which he was becoming a bear. If she was at all lucky she would get a much longer kiss, since he would not be growing fangs and claws. She was not afraid of bears anymore, but she certainly didn’t want to kiss one.

Gilda put on the red dress, which she still had not repaired. Frederick was gone, and she wanted Freyr to see what the missing button exposed, so why bother? She went downstairs to make herself something to eat. Freyr had beaten her to it. Two eggs and buttered toast were waiting for her on the table. Gilda smiled. It was nice to have him show some sort of affection towards her without having to be tricked. To be sure, he had an odd way of showing it…but there were significant extenuating circumstances. Still, the kind gesture made her feel some small measure of guilt for plotting against him.

Gilda finished her breakfast and began the incredibly tiresome task of pickling the vegetables from the garden that would not survive the next month. Beets, cucumbers, undersized water melons… This was why winter was awful. One had to subsist on the terrible things they had jarred and put in a root cellar. Rather foolish of her to marry a prince who moonlighted as a woodcutter. Just her luck to find the only prince for a hundred miles, and to find that he lived worse off than a mere butcher or baker. If she had married a nobleman they would have a greenhouse full of fresh strawberries year round. The thought of strawberries and snow quickly faded when she thought of Squire Gravely’s lewd cat like pouncing and paunchy features compared to the rustic perfection of Freyr. His strength and youth and appeal…he was infinitely preferable to the Squire. She had once scoffed at girls who wanted tall, dark and handsome…she preferred rich and titled. She was willing to admit to having been wrong. Although…she could do without all the pickles.

As the sky began turning colors Gilda quickly put away the pickling supplies. She rushed inside to wash the salt, and brine off her arms. She scrubbed with the last of a bit of rose scented soap Freya had given her in order to mask whatever scent made Freyr and Frederick a bit crazed. Hopefully it could also cover pickle brine. It had been days since the smell of her skin had given her the advantage, so she would have to rely on her other charms. Gilda ran a brush through her hair until it became a golden cloud floating around her shoulders. She then rushed back outside to check the sky. The sun was a half coin on the horizon. She had to find Freyr just as it went down. She wanted as long a time as possible before he regained his iron will.

Gilda raced toward the clearing near the woodcutting area where she knew he went to change. It was the one place that she had been forbidden to go, so it seemed the most likely place to start. Gilda slowed down as she approached it. She didn’t want him to hear her. If he noticed her too soon, he might still have the sense to run away. As a bear or a man he was much faster than she was, especially with her newly healed feet. If he wanted to escape her, he could. She took tiny mincing slow steps, like a cat might.

Gilda abruptly stopped as she reached the clearing. The sun had finished setting and Freyr was getting dressed. He was just tying the leather ties on his breeches. His shirt was still on the forest floor. Gilda swallowed. She had paused too long. Long enough to listen to her own thoughts. She was attempting to catch a man during a time in which he was entirely out of his mind. A time in which he essentially had no free will, and would do what she wanted him to. But what she wanted from him, was not something that he wanted to give her. What kind of person was she?! She was as bad as one of the men from the village.

She sighed quietly. She couldn’t do this. She watched Freyr bend to pick up his shirt off the forest floor, the last of the daylight gleaming in his hair. Pity. Gilda turned to walk back to the cottage. Her abrupt turn swung her long hair into the breeze, which caught it and lifted it into the air. She couldn’t see for a second as her hair blew across her face, briefly obscuring her vision while she tried to get it under control. While she was still momentarily blinded she felt strong hands catch her shoulders and spin her around.

“Oh Gilda. You are so foolish! Do you think that what the bear wants from you is anything compared to what the man wants from you?” He asked gripping her tightly. She looked up at him in surprise. She hadn’t even heard him come towards her. He must have been almost silent. He met her eyes for an agonized moment before he lost the battle to resist.

The rest was a blur. He was kissing her, passionately, like before, but with greater desperation. He lifted and carried her several feet to press her up against the rough bark of a tree at the edge of the clearing. Instead of sliding her skirt up like he had before, he simply slid his fingertips along the sides of the dress. His fingers must still have had the slightest bit of claw remaining, because he was able to shred her entire dress off her body with just his hands. She had not a single scratch, but she was entirely naked, pressed against his bare chest. He flung the shredded dress away from them as though it were a minor irritation and held her skin to skin against him. His lips kissed her firmly enough that she tasted a blood, but his tongue flicked across her lip taking away the taste and causing heat to race down her spine. He moved his lips almost roughly along her cheek, her mouth, her neck, her shoulder, and her chest as he brought her to the forest floor. His kisses felt like they were lighting a fire that threatened to engulf her. He stretched himself alongside of her. His hands spreading themselves along her chest, sliding down her frame, caressing the entire silken length of her body. Gilda shivered on the cold carpet of leaves beneath them. His hands were warm and firm as they sought the gentle curves of her breasts. His tongue slid down between them along the length of her torso. He returned to kiss her lips hard, biting her lower lip again before pulling her hips towards him. It was violently passionate, everything she had not even been aware that she wanted, and not even the slightest bit like what her friends had told her it would be. His kisses were hungry and desperate, every part of his body expressed desire, need, want of her. She could scarcely breathe, as he held her tightly to him, one hand holding her hair, her head to his chest, the other hand sunk deep into the soil and leaves gripping the forest floor pulling himself endlessly into her. His breathing was hoarse in her hair, and the friction of his body against hers intense and inexplicably thrilling. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, letting her nails cling to his shoulder blades. If she held on tightly enough, maybe it wouldn’t end.

Freyr collapsed off of her, momentarily sated and content. Then his own mind came crashing back into his skull, forcing the mere animal out. He turned, horrified, toward the girl he had just ravished. She was lying still and naked on the carpet of fallen leaves that blanketed the forest floor. She was not scratched or bruised, she was in fact entirely perfect, but her eyes were closed. Was she in pain? What had he done? He rolled back towards her, lying half across her, his hand on her forehead stroking her hair.

“Gilda! Gilda are you alright? Have I hurt you? Oh God what have I done?” She opened her ridiculous amber colored eyes like twin gold coins and looked him in surprise.

“Of course I am alright. I’m not hurt at all.” She smiled and stroked his face. How could she not be hurt? He knew from watching her for 12 years that she had never lain with a man. He knew that any sort of introduction to physical love was painful to a maiden girl…and what he had done was neither introductory nor gentle.

“What do you mean you are not hurt? Of course you are.” He said, but she was blushing, stroking his chest as though she had enjoyed the experience. He inhaled. There was no scent of blood on the air. “Are you not a maid?” He asked perplexed. Instead of being insulted, she giggled and blushed.

“Not anymore.” She said reaching for his shoulder and attempting to pull him back towards her again. None of this made any sense. Why had she been in the woods? How had he come to make violent love to this impossibly beautiful virgin girl who had apparently felt no pain nor even bled?

“Gilda, stop.” He said pressing her back down. “This can’t happen again.” He held her down firmly, bent to her neck, and inhaled deeply. The ripeness had passed and she had not begun her bleed…there was no chance of a child. He sighed deeply. Relief came crashing through his body like a wave. He had not injured her with the force of his passion, and what had happened to his mother would not happen to her.

“Why not?” She asked sitting up to wrap her arms around him and kiss him behind his ear, her perfect face nuzzling his neck. He extricated her arms from around her neck and looked around to find something for her to wear. Her nakedness was making this almost impossible. Her dress was in shreds, no one piece connected to the other. He had literally torn it off her like paper wrapping.

“Here.” He said handing her his shirt. She looked as though she was going to cry. “Gilda please, this was an accident, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The very worst time. It can never happen again and you know that. Don’t cry as though this is a surprise.” His voice was hard and cruel. She was already sobbing.

“I didn’t mean for this to happen. I thought you would kiss me, I wanted you to kiss me, but then I saw you, in the woods, and you looked so stoic…I didn’t want to take you unawares. It was wrong, so I turned to leave, but then you were suddenly here, and…and it was…please Freyr. I’ve never felt so loved and desired by anyone. I didn’t even know how much I wanted it until I had it. Please don’t be angry, I love you. I’ve barely ever loved anyone besides myself…please” Gilda begged. Freyr inhaled.

“You found me intentionally? You knew that the most important rule in my life was to never cross that line, and you intentionally put me in a position so as not to be able to help it? How could you do that?” He asked, shocked and angry. Gilda pulled his long shirt over her head. It came down to her thighs, but the lacings up the front were made for the broad chest of a man and left much of her chest visible. Her hair was loose and had leaves in it. Little crystalline tears were running down her glimmering cheeks. She looked irresistibly forlorn.

“I had considered it…I just wanted to convince you to kiss me again, really that’s all! But I changed my mind, I thought it was wrong so I turned and left, but…”

“But I found you.” He said simply. He pulled her into his lap, her long golden legs wrapped around him. Gilda nodded.

“I’m sorry Freyr.” She said. “I just…I need you. Surely, during times such as this when there is no danger of producing a child you could…we could…and other times, when there was, you could at least kiss me? Kiss me and nothing else?” She pleaded, her tears falling on his shoulders. He wanted nothing more than to agree to whatever she wanted. Even to spend a few nights a month tangled with her in this way would be heaven. But he knew now that he had tasted the fire, he would want it far more often than that.

“It is true that it would occasionally be safe for me to lie with you this way. But then all the other times would be agony. How could I continue to lay beside you each night, all the while knowing what ecstasy exists in your arms?” He slid his hand down her warm bare thigh. “Your skin feels like satin, your lips taste impossibly of rich dessert, your hair smells like incense, and your breast fits in my hand as though that was the size it was measured for! Every single thing about you is exactly as I would want it to be, and to be denied it, now that I have had it…would be impossible.” He said no longer angry, his forehead against hers, his lips whispering against her skin.

“What are you saying? Freyr, just forget these stupid rules. I was a lonely child and I survived! You have led this strange existence and survived it. I will do anything. I will raise our children and love them, whether they be cursed or not. Please just try to have as normal a life with me you as can!” She pleaded gripping his face and turning it towards hers. She kissed him repeatedly on what felt like unyielding stone lips. He sighed and took her hands off the sides of his face so that he could turn it away from her.

“There is more to all of this, to why we have the rules, than I have told you.” He said, not wishing to reveal that he had spared her information a second time in as many days. Gilda did not like having information withheld from her.

“There was a fourth sibling. My half-sister. It was her birth that killed my mother, and her inability to birth her that killed my sister.” He said turning Gilda away from him and holding her against his chest. He had not stopped running his fingers along her bare skin, and Gilda, despite the new information had not so much as flinched. She knew that she was actually bound to him now. No matter what he told her, she was his and would never be afraid of him or leave him.

“But your father is still ruling his kingdom! Hundreds of miles away…how could she have borne a child many years after she last saw him?” Gilda asked, more confused than horrified. Women died in childbirth all the time, it was natural for men to have such fears, but these fears could be assuaged. Gran had taught her so many useful things in regards to the successful bearing of children.

“The girl was not my father’s daughter. My Grandfather, during that time when he came by here, seduced my mother. She did not speak much of it, she was embarrassed. She never said that she had been unwilling, but her dislike of him and fear of him was clear. I do not think she chose to lie with him, but I have never been certain. But regardless of the conception, many months after he left, she gave birth to his child. My brother and sister and I, were all borne at night, as most babies are…but this little girl, wouldn’t wait for sundown. My mother tried as best she could, but the labor was too fast and too intense. She bore the child as an animal, and it caused devastating bleeding. The child did not survive either, as a human is not meant to birth an animal. We mourned our mother, and our infant sister, because after sundown we could see how beautiful she would have been.” Freyr’s voice was hoarse, he wiped something from his eye that Gilda could not see. “I was a teenager, and Freya almost so. Frederick was little so he doesn’t even remember agreeing to rules we set forth…but we made them. We made them so that none of our children would suffer the ostracism and loneliness and shame of this curse, and so that no one we loved would be killed trying to bear our child. Freya thought for a time, during the time that she was contemplating an engagement, that it might be alright. She was cursed herself, unlike our mother or grandmother, and so she would be safer. It was out of pity for her imagined children, and pity for Frederick and myself that she did not marry Mr. Grant. I wonder now, if I did the right thing in denying her that opportunity.” Freyr sighed deeply and gripped Gilda more tightly. He knew he had to leave.

“But, how could the child become a bear during the birth, but not while in your mother’s womb? Surely if the sun and the moon already held sway over the child, it would have been impossible to carry a child at all?” Gilda asked. She was trying to make sense of the terrible event. Freyr shook his head.

“The curse is specific. The words of the witch were ‘From the moment the sun touches your skin you will be a man no more, but wear instead the hide of a beast. In darkness and shadow you will find your respite, and be human once more. The sunrise and the sunset will be your keepers, and the daylight your prison. Every generation to endure your blood will be cursed with the same affliction, unless you end what you have begun.”

“She designed the curse so that children could generally be borne to my grandfather’s lineage. She wanted us all to suffer. You understand, now, why this can never happen again? Why I have to leave?” He asked seriously. Gilda’s eyes widened.

“Leave?” He had never mentioned the possibility of leaving! “Why would you leave? The curse can be ended! The wording itself is clear! It is designed to be undone. Please Freyr.” She begged. He shook his head.

“I do not know how to undo it if it is even possible. I do not think that I could alter it…I did not begin it… Either way I must leave.” He said quietly.

“NO!” Gilda shook her head. “No I will not let you!”

“Gilda, I can only trust myself not to overtake you when I have all my senses. There is a good hour or more between dusk and dawn every day in which I do not. Furthermore I find that I cannot trust you anymore. I cannot trust you not to take advantage of that weakness. I have to leave you. It is the only way that I can insure your safety.” He said looking regretful.

“No! No you must not leave me! I will cooperate, I will not seek you out when you are not yourself. Please just don’t leave me.” She pleaded, wrapping herself around him and holding on as tightly as she could. She clung to him woodenly so that it was hard for him to even move.

“Even if you never did, I am not sure that I could continue to resist you. You are far too tempting to me even when I do have my senses.” He said extricating himself from her grasp and helping her to her feet. “Come on, let’s you get back to the house.” He looked at the shreds of red dress on the ground, and at Gilda, clad only to mid thigh in his shirt. He shook his head. “I do hope Freya remembers to buy you a dress.” He said offering her his arm. Gilda took his arm and followed him through the woods.

“When will you leave?” She asked, her eyes full of tears.

“Tonight. I need to get a few things together, and then scout the woods in order to make sure you are safe, but I must leave immediately.” He said looking away from her accusing eyes.

“Immediately? You will not even wait until Frederick and Freya return home? You are going to leave me alone? Alone all night, when your grandfather is near and an inquisition is here searching for me?” She asked incredulous. She had never thought that Freyr would put her in danger. She’d thought to ask him if he wanted her…she had just assumed that he cared about her too much to let her die. Perhaps she had been wrong to assume that.

“The Council is not due for another day. Freya and Frederick will be back by then. My brother is very young and very foolish, but he would die to protect you. And unlike Freya, he would kill for you as well. You will be safe.” Freyr said, his voice cold, without emotion. Gilda began to cry softly.

“But what good is my being safe if I am without you?” She asked. Freyr opened the door to the cottage.

“I’m sure that your heart will heal. You are young and will forget me quickly. Who knows, maybe you can find that nobleman you always wanted.” He said callously as he helped her to a chair by the fire. “Stay here and get warm, you’ll be half frozen from walking all that way in just this.” He said tucking a blanket around her. “I’ll get you Freya’s last dress. It’s even more ostentatious than the red one, but I’m afraid it’s the only thing I have besides your nightgown.” Gilda flopped woodenly into the chair. She pulled her blanket tightly around her. She had not realized she was cold until now. Every bit of her was frozen, her feet were solid ice, and her legs could barely bend. She forced them to move and brought them to her chest. She stared blankly at the fire, not comprehending what she was seeing. She felt dead inside. Freyr came back down the stairs with the dress. He was wearing a shirt and carrying a leather shoulder bag of his own clothes.

“Better put this on. If Freya changes her mind about letting Frederick spend the night in town, they might be back before too long.” He said. He put a glass of water next to her and a piece of bread and butter before putting as much food as he could into his bag.

“I won’t forget you. I can’t ever forget you. I can’t forget my arm, or my leg, if you leave me now you may as well maim me for the harm it will do.” Gilda said looking up at him pleadingly.

“You don’t understand, if you had a human heart you would know how this felt! You can’t just leave me.” Gilda exclaimed putting her head on her knees. Freyr put his hand on her shoulder. He wanted so badly to stay, to carry the still half naked girl upstairs. To tell her that he loved her, that if he wasn’t afraid for her life and the kind of life their children would have, he would never leave her. But he couldn’t do any of that. He had to make her think that he didn’t love her. She’d heal all the faster.

“Gilda, I know that this grieves you for now. But I will not be the cause of your death, and I will create any more creatures like myself. I’m sorry Gilda. But I’m going to go now and there is nothing you can say to alter my position. Please see that you get dressed. I can’t have you in danger from Frederick too when he is the one who is supposed to protect you. If he comes home with you like this…my leaving will have been for nothing. I’m sorry Gilda. Give it a week or two, you will be alright. I promise.” He said setting another blanket around her shoulders. “Don’t just freeze to death down here out of stubbornness.” With those comfortless words, he left. He didn’t want to leave her before Frederick and Freya returned, but leaving immediately was the only way to convince her that she meant nothing to him. And, the cowardly part of him admitted, to avoid having to explain it to Freya and Frederick.

Chapter Fourteen: Alone, In the Strangest of Company

‘The lands of Gyl and Eillene were known as the Summerlands and the Winterlands by their ancient peoples. The unique geography surrounding them keeps one in almost perpetual warmth, and the other in constant snow.’

Gilda lay alone in the dark. Fully dressed, and lying shivering under the covers. Not only because the room had no upstairs fireplace, which was unbearable for a human, but because she could not contain the depth of feeling she was experiencing. Her whole body trembled in an effort not to quite literally fall to pieces. She considered returning to Freya’s room, which had a grate, but freezing alone in Freyr’s bed seemed more appropriate to how she was feeling.

How could he have left her? She was terrified. Every sound outside the window was a witch hunter, every creak on the floor was surely Freyr’s grandfather returned to maim her. She closed her eyes as tightly as she could. She tried to breathe slowly and evenly, so that she could fall asleep. She wished that Frederick and Freya would come home. If she could just tell them what had happened, they could go after Freyr. Surely they could change his mind, and they could bring him back. Gilda began sobbing, harder than she had ever sobbed in her entire life. She was breaking in half inside and she didn’t know how to put herself back together. What kind of a man would leave a girl like this? Make love to her and then leave her like she was worthless! Worthless now that she was spent and broken. How on earth did he think she find a nobleman to take her on? She was both used and marked for death.

Her heart split in half and her tears were the river that came out. She couldn’t stop. She must have cried until she had no water left in her. Her eyes felt dry and gritty, her mouth felt like it was full of sand. Her eyes were stuck shut with dried tears. She reached blindly for the glass of water on the bedside table. She sat up and drank it, dabbing her eye lids with the rest of it to unstick them.

She opened her eyes in the dark. She was hallucinating. She been crying too long. Her eyes must be too salty and damaged to see properly. She could swear she saw a dark form standing by the window. She blinked rapidly, trying to make her eyes work properly. The man was still there. Had Freyr changed his mind and returned? He would have been the only one able to get through the window. No. This man was slightly shorter, thinner, and more haggard in silhouette. Good God. It was Freyr’s grandfather.

“Are you real?” She asked rubbing her eyes. He came slightly towards her.

“I’m afraid I am. I’m sorry for not announcing myself. I didn’t like to disturb you, you seemed overwrought.” He said in a surprisingly gentle voice. “You don’t need to be afraid.” He said as she pulled her legs to herself as if trying to shrink away. “I’m not here to hurt you. I’m fully in control of myself for the next several hours.” He took another step. “Freyr left you?” He asked, noticing the half empty bed and missing clothes.

“He said he had to…because of what happened to his mother.” She said quietly. The man sat down in the chair by the bed. He eyes roved over Gilda in an only slightly disturbing way. She was used to being looked at as if the watcher intended to devour her.

“Ahh. That was tragic. I was gone by then, but I found out what happened. And to think that I could have prevented all of it if I had just found that witch and put an end to it.” He said sounding almost remorseful. “I’m sorry for frightening you before. I came to tell my grandchildren that I had found the witch. She was being watched by a few men…I wanted help to get past them. After all, a curse only lasts as long as the witch who cast it.” He said, a murderous gleam in his eyes. “You were just in the way, at the wrong time of day I’m afraid. I didn’t expect there to be any…ordinary people here.” Gilda sat up straighter. “But you aren’t particularly ordinary are you?” He asked running the back of his finger along her cheek. Gilda jerked her head back. He had said something too important for her to worry about his overly affectionate touch.

“Is what you said before true? If the witch is gone, the curse is gone? Freyr would come back!” She felt hopeful suddenly, and then saddened.

“But the witch, if she is still alive…she would be old…but do not witches live very long lives? We might be waiting until we are old ourselves.” Gilda said. If she didn’t find This was a very strange conversation. She felt as though she should be frightened of this man, as he was a murderer, but he did not seem frightening at the moment. He just seemed sad, and unkempt, a touch lecherous, but that was nothing frightening anymore. In fact…nothing could frighten her anymore. The worst thing that could happen to her, already had.

“Witches, like myself, are not susceptible to disease, and they can heal their injuries. This affords them a prolonged life, but they are not immortal, and they can be killed.” He said evenly. “However, I have a problem.” He said meeting her red eyes in the dark. To him the room might have been lit like daytime, he could see her perfectly well in the sliver of moonlight from the window.

“What is your problem?” She asked, wiping her face on the bed sheet. She must look awful.

“The witch that I wish to kill, is the grandmother of my granddaughter-in-law. If I wish to re-ingratiate myself with my family, I do not think I can kill her. Although, they would be grateful to have the curse lifted…perhaps if I had your permission?” He asked. Gilda inhaled. It had taken her a second…longer than she wanted to admit, but she understood.

“My Gran, is the witch who cursed you? That cannot be. She’s just an old woman. She isn’t a witch. She has no magic. The only profession she ever had was mending ladies clothing and making terrible porridge.” Gilda said, trying to absorb this insane notion. It simply was not possible.

“She is. I’ve been tracking her for years. It was difficult for a long time. I’ll admit that I had no formal training in tracking besides recreational hunting. However, when one has nothing but time…one improves. Finally, she settled here, because of you, and stayed in one place long enough for me to find her. I just missed her twelve years ago.” He sat wringing his hands, looking excited and angry at the same time. “I want you to tell me that I may dispense with her.” He said intently. Gilda sprang up out of bed, glad that she had stayed dressed, even if a blue velvet gown with silver embroidery was a bit ostentatious for the occasion. She did not wish to be half naked in front of this man.

“No. If Gran really is the witch, she will want me to be happy. She will lift the curse once she finds out that I am married to someone who endures it. You don’t need to hurt her. She loves me.” Gilda said pulling on her boots. “We must go now, before Freya and Frederick get back. They will most definitely try to keep me from going anywhere with you.” Gilda stood up ready to go. The notion was so clearly impossible, that this was likely to be some sort of trick. She was willing to risk her life on the ten percent chance that it was true, but Freya would not allow it.

“Although, I have to tell you that I am certain you are wrong. It is nearly impossible to believe that your grandchildren would travel hundreds of miles only to end up living next to the same witch that cursed you. It doesn’t seem probable.” Gilda said, gauging his reaction. If he acted as if her deduction had ‘found him out’ then she could be certain it had all been a lie. Instead, he laughed.

“It is rather improbable isn’t it? Can’t explain it myself. But it is true.” He stood as well. “Come on then, there was no guard on duty tonight, but that could change at any time.” He said opening the bedroom door. “I’m fully prepared to kill one person tonight, but I’d prefer it if it wasn’t two. My grandchildren don’t enjoy it when I kill innocent passersby.” Gilda looked at him in alarm. He had no idea that the passersby he had killed had been her parents. He fully expected her to follow him willingly… He didn’t realize that he was asking the daughter of the people he had killed to escort him. He’d most likely never known she’d so much as existed. She swallowed hard and followed him down the stairs, out the front door and into the night. This was a terrible idea. Every account she had heard of this man was unfavorable. He had accidentally killed his own wife, then intentionally killed her parents, then forced himself upon and accidentally killed his daughter in law, and had every intention of killing her Gran if he could. Also, if Freyr really didn’t love her, there was no guarantee he would come back even if the curse was lifted. So why was she risking her life walking in the company of a murderer, through a witch hunter infested woods, to see her Gran, who might very well be a witch herself?

“I’m being very foolish aren’t I?” Gilda said, accidentally out loud. This had to be the definitive example of her most prevalent personality trait.

“You mean walking through the woods at night with me? A man you stabbed not too long ago? Not without reason of course, don’t blame you at all. But yes, this could been seen as a rather foolish venture on your part. However it is my experience that women in love very often are exceedingly foolish. You shouldn’t reproach yourself, you can’t fight your own nature.” The man said in a tone that he didn’t intend to be condescending, but that sounded very much so to Gilda’s ears.

“If I am doing this foolish thing, by walking in your company…may I know your name?” Gilda asked. She tried very hard to keep up with him, but he was surprisingly fast and her feet had just barely finished healing.

“Oh, how very rude of me. Yes. I am King Freyr Grigor Vanhelstad Ardwith of Gyllene…the 3rd. Your Freyr, if I can still call him that, is the 5th. My son was also named Freyr, but as he had three children and could not name them all Freyr, he had to be a bit more creative. As all of those Freyrs might be a bit confusing, you may call me Grigor. I would have you call me Majesty, but I think that since I have not sat on the throne for many years…my Christian name is more appropriate.” He said, with more than a touch of arrogance. He turned to kiss her hand by way of introduction. It was overly long, and she felt his tongue on her skin.

“Please, Sir.” She said quietly. She didn’t wish to anger him, but some limits needed to be set. He smiled.

“Have no fear of me little girl. I try not to make the same mistake more than once. Bedding you would definitely fall in that area. Although you do make it difficult to resist.” He said with a shake of his head, as though such talk was not particularly inappropriate. Gilda looked distressed.

“Come now, don’t look at me that way! You’re simply more of a temptation than the women I usually meet, and you should give me some license as I am more monster than the monsters you already know.” He said without shame. Gilda nodded.

“Alright then, Grigor. I will not be frightened of you, and I will cooperate with your decision in regards to my grandmother if you will do me one favor.” She said resolutely. “Will you please allow me to go in and speak to my Grandmother alone, first? I know that you are no doubt eager to handle things yourself, but as she is my Gran…and I would prefer that you not instantly murder her…could you please wait outside?” She asked. She was becoming slightly more fearful of the situation she was in, and was aware that she might be using too much bravado so as to fool him. She really didn’t want to watch this ‘Mad King’ tear her grandmother apart in an effort to end the curse. She had been remiss in assuming he was anything like his grandchildren. He was mostly animal.

“I suppose that would be fair. However, you should know that I have waited for this moment for many years, and I will not hesitate to enact my revenge. I will give you until dawn. If the sun rises and I am not human, I will go in and I will destroy whoever is in that house. You had better not be in there if you wish to survive.” The spare haggard man said in a voice that chilled her. He was completely serious. He turned to see that Gilda was quite a bit behind him. “You are lagging quite a bit, and it is eating into your own time. Believe it or not, I do want you to succeed. I do not wish another death on my conscience…I simply cannot live this way anymore. And it seems that I am too much of a coward to properly end things the other way.” He said, his voice was angry, sad and disappointed all at the same time.

“I’m sorry Sir, I’m afraid that I was badly injured a month ago, with my feet being the chief victim. I have great difficulty walking. Especially this long distance…I do apologize.” Gilda said. She really didn’t want to be the cause of her Gran’s death, or her own for that matter. The King sighed and walked back towards her, his footfalls frustrated and purposeful. He scooped her up across his shoulders as though she were a calf and began carrying her. He held her legs over one shoulder and her arms over the other, leaving her horizontal and uncomfortable. He could have carried her on his back like a child the way Freya had, or across his chest like Freyr, but instead he chose the most physically awkward. Perhaps because it was also the least intimate? Whatever the reason, it was near to puncturing her corseted lungs. He walked quickly along the forest path, more than double the speed they were going before. Despite his spare appearance he was quite strong.

“You could have told me earlier and had an extra half hour to convince your Gran.” He said his voice vacillating between pity and irritation.

“I didn’t wish to burden you, I wasn’t sure you could lift me.” Gilda said with embarrassment. He laughed, it was a joyless sound.

“I am a bear! I retain the sight of bear, most of the strength, the sense of smell, the heightened tendency to act on instinct the entire time that I am a man. It taunts me. It reminds me that I am barely human even when I have the body of man. She never gives me a moment of true peace. Did not Freyr not tell you? Did he honestly not tell you how much we suffer when we are in our human form? We spend all winter desperate to sleep, we hunger for massive quantities of food, and if I let myself near civilization I will stalk a woman in heat with animal desperation. At this moment, if it were not more important to kill the witch, I would utterly tear you apart in carnality…an act I doubt that you would even survive. Those peasants they told you I killed? They came near a cave I was occupying. I told them that I killed them as a bear…but I had just become human. My territorial nature was so great that I destroyed them with my bare hands. Every second of every day it is all we can do to maintain our humanity! When I became a bear at first it was torture, I fought so hard to be human and yet I could not break through the mind of the animal. Eventually I stopped trying. I forgot to be a man, I forgot I was man. It is bliss. No thought, no decisions, no actions or consequence, I let it control me without fighting. In the evening when I become human again, naked, hungry, and alone it is misery. I want to have a real life, I wouldn’t mind having the company of family…I really want to eat cooked food and wear clean clothes and sleep in a proper bed.” His voice was tragic and desperate. Everything he had just said was horrifying and frightening, and yet her foremost reaction was pity.

“I’m sorry.” Gilda said. His curse seemed so much more intense than Freyr, Freya’s, and Frederick’s…but perhaps they simply hid it better, having not suffered as long. “Is that what happened with their mother? You couldn’t deny your instincts?” She asked, cautiously.

“Nearly so. She was lonely, I was lonely. I resembled her husband so very much…she made the slightest of invitations. She sent the children out to play. I think she wanted a friend, or a confidant. I think she just wanted to talk with another adult. I took the invitation as significantly more. I couldn’t help it, I couldn’t stop it, she smelled so…anyway, what is done is done. She hated me for it. And I regret it. I can only hope that when I free them from this curse, they will forgive me.” He said as he slowed to a stop and lifted Gilda off his shoulders. They were in front of her little hovel. This time there were no men with torches. It looked as it always had. There was no light in the window, but that was to be expected…it was the middle of the night. Gilda turned to look at him.

“I promise it will be alright. She will take back the curse.” Gilda said confidently. He shook his head.

“I hope for both your sakes that you are right.” He said sitting down under the tree in their little garden. He crossed his legs, and removed a flask from his jacket to wait with until dawn. It didn’t matter if he was inside or not, he could hear everything that was said from outside.

Gilda walked up to the front door and with slight hesitation, she entered. To her great surprise her Gran was sitting up, awake in her rocker by the fire.

“I saw you comin. Decided I mize well wait up for you.” She said cryptically. Her facial expression looked somehow menacing in the shadows from the firelight.

“Saw me coming?” Gilda asked, she wanted to run to her Gran and throw her arms around her, but the woman’s strange behavior kept her at arm’s length. Her Gran waved her hand across the fire and it became a sort of window in which she could see Grigor sitting outside beneath the tree. She gasped.

“Strange company you’re keeping these days Gilda-lily.” Her Gran said looking at the man, swigging from his flask.

“I only really met him tonight, and I couldn’t stay where I was. He said there were no more guards out here waiting for me…I wanted to come back to see you. Didn’t you want to see that I was alright?” She asked, moving closer to her Gran. Witch or not Gran was the only family she had and she was utterly miserable at the moment. She really wanted someone she trusted to hold her and tell her that all would be well. Even if she knew that nothing was ever going to be the same ever again.

“I knew you was alright. I been keeping an eye.” Gran said as she rose and crossed over to Gilda taking her into her frail old arms. “I did miss you Gilda-lily. I’m sorry if I was a bit stand-off-ish. I’m jus a bit disappointed in how things have turned out. Whasn’ what I designed you for was it?” She asked pulling back to look into Gilda’s wide golden eyes.

“Designed me for?” Gilda asked, confused. Raised yes, designed? Gran sighed and gestured for Gilda to sit.

“This is a long story, and with that man outside, I don’t imagine we have much time. What’s he waiting for? Isn’t he gonna come in here and try’n end the curse?” Gran asked.

“He’s given me until dawn to speak with you.” Gilda said quietly. Gran nodded.

“Very well then. That’s a good few hours off yet. I can start at the beginning.” She took a swig of her tin cup, which Gilda knew wasn’t water and began speaking in a powerful voice, almost devoid of her usual homespun phrasing.

“Quite a few years ago, I lived in a small kingdom in a country far north where summers were long, and winters were almost nonexistent. It was the Summerlands, the land of Gyl. The way the mountains framed the little kingdom was almost magical in what it did for the climate. I was young, and I was quite a handsome girl, many men sought my favor…but I had a secret, a secret which would put me in danger with any ordinary man. I was a witch, although I preferred the phrase Enchantress, but an outcast all the same. I turned all the men down, as I knew I couldn’t trust them. Finally I happened to meet King Grigor while I was picking herbs for my healing spells. I worked as a medicine woman, and that in and of itself can be a dangerous career. Fail to heal the wrong person, or heal one that people believe is too far gone…and you’ll lose your head. The King he was an educated man, he knew the herbs I was picking were medicinal. He asked me if I was a healer, said he needed one at the castle. I told him I was, as I figured that the King’s healer was safer than any other. So I moved into the palace. Turned out it wasn’t healing he was after. But I was young, and I was quite taken by the handsome King, so I did not refuse him anything. Several months later he fell very ill, so ill that he would surely die. By then he had guessed at what I really was, and he begged me to heal him, even though it was beyond the bounds of natural medicine. By this point I carried his young child inside me, and couldn’t bear for it to lose its father. I made him promise to marry me, and to protect me against those that would harm a woman of my talents, and then I healed him.” Gilda was staring at her Grandmother open mouthed. This version of the story was completely different than the one Freyr and Freya had told. She guessed that this was a version they had never heard. Gran took her hand, and waving her other one at the fire, caused images of a time long passed to appear and to illustrate Gran’s story. Gran had been a beautiful girl, and the King had once been handsome and happy, not haggard and tortured in appearance. Gran continued.

“News that the King was soon to die spread, and a neighboring army sought to conquer his land while he was weak. The Summerlands were envied by all the neighboring kingdoms, and it was not surprising that someone decided to attempt to take them from him. But I had healed him even better than he had been before. He could have led his armies into a fair fight, as they were evenly matched. However, by then my sweet baby girl had been born, and the king had found his secret weapon. He took her from me and threatened to harm her if I did not kill the army that advanced on him. Maybe if she had been a son he would have kept his promise and married me…I don’t know. Instead he used his own daughter as a pawn in order to win a war.” Gilda felt confused. If her mother was the half sister of Freyr’s father then they were cousins! True, cousins of noble families often married in order to avoid dividing lands and to maintain inheritance, but amongst the common people it was considered a bit incestuous. Gran did not notice her discomfort and continued.

“He locked the baby away from me and threatened to kill her if I refused to do as he asked, and so I killed hundreds of men in order to secure the safety of my one child. Any mother would do it, but it doesn’t make it any less awful. I mixed a poison from herbs and put it into the river they were drinking from. I am not a powerful witch, I can only amplify what is already there. I made the poison grow stronger until anyone who took a drink from the river would die. It was similar to the way that I had so often made healing herbs stronger, so that they could save a life. Once they were dead I cleansed the river…but I could not cleanse myself of the wrong that I had done.” Gran took a slow painful breath that rattled in her thin chest before continuing.

“The ruler of the army had been an opportunistic one in trying to steal the lands of an ill king. Even the people of his country could see the dishonor in that. They welcomed King Grigor, likely in the hopes that he would not kill them all too! The rumors of him being a ‘demon king’ started then, before I cursed him, because of the destruction he left in his wake. But he traveled to their kingdom and took my little girl with him. I followed them, but I was on foot, so it was much slower. Contrary to popular belief, witches cannot turn themselves into ravens and fly wherever they wish. At least I cannot. By the time I reached the other kingdom, he had married its Princess in order to secure his rule of both lands. In combining them he re-named them Gyllene. I asked him for my payment, that is, my infant daughter returned to me safely. I no longer cared about marrying him, he was an unkind man and I wanted nothing more to do with him. He told me she had died, shortly after they began the journey to the kingdom, of a simple fever. If I had been there, I could have saved her. I wouldn’t have even needed magic! I could have saved my child if he had left her with me, and now I had killed hundreds of men for her sake and she too was dead. He saw the murderous hate in my eyes and ordered me imprisoned. But even from inside my prison I could work the spell I wanted to. I sent word that I wanted to see him, that I had something important and powerful to tell him, a way in which he could amass riches beyond imagining… Like a bloody fool he came. And I told him what he would be cursed with, to by day appear to all to be the beast that he truly was, but he would be a witness and a prisoner locked within. By night he would be a man once more, but only because the monstrous nature of his own self was simply hidden again. I only amplified what was there. Yes, I made something ephemeral into something quite literal, but magic is like that. A monstrous man into a raging bear is easier than turning stones into coins – I can tell you that much!” Gran took another sip of her mug. Gilda felt like a sponge attempting to absorb a lake. This was much more than she had expected. So Grigor’s terrible words and actions had not been the result of the curse…but rather the extent of his curse was due to the evil of his original nature.

“I’m very sorry that he caused you to suffer so much. May I ask, is the severity of his curse, because of his personal nature? Or because it is the first generation?” Gilda asked, wondering if it was possible that Freyr’s was curse less terrible because he was a better person?

“Every generation removed from the source of my hatred will find their curse to be lessened. But the nature of the man changes the nature of the beast. Grigor is what he is, because of who he is.” Gran answered. Gilda wished to ask more, but she didn’t want to interrupt.

“Would it be terrible if I asked, if the King is not my grandfather then? If your first baby perished?” Gilda asked. Gran shook her head.

“Of course not, don’t be silly. Freyr is over 30 and you are 18. The child that came before him could not have been your mother. You and I are not even related.” The woman she had formerly thought of as her Gran stated. Gilda’s jaw dropped open, this woman who had cared for her for over 12 years and had posed as her grandmother was of no relation to her?

“Close your mouth child. I’ll get to that if it you let me finish.” She said giving Gilda a disapproving look for her ill manners as if everything was normal. Gilda nodded. None of this was normal, but she was apparently going to have to wait to get her answers…and to be polite about it.

“I’m sorry, of course. Please continue.” She said glancing outside at the thankfully still dark sky. Gran nodded and continued her story once more.

“The King did not enjoy his clever curse. He sentenced me to death, as you might imagine. Death at his own hands, by being locked in his chambers with him when he was a bear. It never would have worked, he cannot kill me as a bear. It obeys its desires, not his. Witches like me have a great affinity for animals. At any rate, I was only in his dungeon because I desired to be. Escaping was a simple matter of amplifying the weaknesses of the guards. Sloth fell asleep, Gluttony got drunk and passed out, and Lust unlocked the door and let me walk out.” Gran chucked at her own cleverness.

“I began my travels to stay out of his way, but I watched him in my fire every chance I got. He was tormented by the change, but he didn’t regret his actions, he felt no shame or remorse…he simply blamed me. It wasn’t enough. Even the birth of his own son yielded only more anger. I thought he would feel regret when he realized that the curse extended to life of his poor babe. I thought that he would care for something other than himself…but his anger only grew. I thought he would see that because he had taken my child from me, I was taking his from him. But he felt no pity for his son, no regret when he killed his wife, and no compassion for his orphaned child. He was angry with me, for what I had made him do. So he left, not to secure the safety of his son, but to find me. To enact his revenge.” Gran threw another log on the dimming fire so that new pictures of the past could spring to life.

“His son was somewhat better of a man his father had been. But the point of cursing a man’s line, is that the curse continues. A man’s progeny is his pride, and I was determined to spoil it for generations. Luckily for me, the son had his eye on a rather unintelligent girl. Sweet, kind, good-natured and trusting, she was perfect. I helped those qualities to bloom until she was the perfect girl to wed a man who was occasionally a monster. And wed him she did. My special little curse went on, and his children were also afflicted. I followed them, as they fled. I knew that if I did I could lead their grandfather to them. I wanted him to see them. In order for him to know how much his actions had cost his family, he would have to see what their life had become. Of course, I will admit that I followed them also to aid each of them in continuing what I had begun. The King had nearly tracked me down, when he was forced to leave out of remorse. His remorse was not for the death of your parents – whom he perceived as mere peasants…but for what he had done to the mother of his grandchildren. A father should never take his son’s wife to bed, and his crime was worse, because she was unwilling. He had broken familial bonds and the bonds of human decency, and he momentarily cared enough to leave.” Gran sighed, looking at the image of a somewhat younger King, his face full of shame and regret, but then it hardened, back to anger again.

“Very soon he was fueled by his own hatred again. I had thought for an instant that my curse would end there…but it did not. He did at least have enough pride to stay away, and he did not know for many years that what he had done had left the children motherless and alone. They were raised by Freyr who was a young man and as much as possible by the teenaged Freya. They made a very silly pact, never to fall in love, never to get married, and never to make more of themselves. They had seen the damage that monsters like themselves could do, first hand in their mother. The thought of all three of them setting out to start families, exponentially increasing the number of monsters generation by generation terrified them. They were after all only children. They did not know how impossible the wants of the bear would be to overcome.” Gran said.

“But you skipped over me!” Gilda said. Their mother had died AFTER Gran had taken her in. She needed desperately to know who and what she was. Gran nodded.

“Sorry. That is true. Their little pact was slightly after I found you. I always watched the King. I have examined his every action for remorse or regret, and when he killed that peasant family I looked for it, but I saw none. Even when your mother begged for her life, not for herself, but for you, her young daughter home alone…he felt nothing but anger toward me. Your poor mother had no idea that the bear could actually understand her pleas, but I did. I went to the home that I had seen in my visions. I found you, days before anyone from town showed up. She had plead for her child, but he never went to look for one. He would have let you starve to death alone. You never would have survived if I had not gone to you and cared for you! Please remember that.” Gran said, hesitating as if she did not wish to continue. Gilda nodded.

“I will. I do know you love me. Please tell me the rest.” Gilda begged, her eyes tried to fill with tears. She had honestly thought she had no more, but she was wrong. Gran swallowed and sighed.

“You were so little and so blonde and so lovely. My own daughter had been fair haired, and you looked so much like her that I could not leave you. So I stayed to take care of you…just that at first. Only to care for you because you were so alone and so like my own child.” Gran reached out to squeeze Gilda’s hand to reassure her, her eyes looking dark and haunted.

“I do love you Gilda, even if I was never related to you, or a seamstress or any of things I told you I was. I meant to just raise you! But their foolish pact began to threaten the continuation of my curse. Revenge is not over until the person who has caused it feels remorse…and sometimes it is not over until the one who wished for it, is also a monster.” Gran rubbed her face with her hand. But she continued.

“Freya nearly changed her mind as a young girl when she met a kindly milliner…but Freyr put a definite stop to it. He was stubborn and selfish. But it gave me an idea. If he were to wed, then the other two would certainly do likewise. They obeyed him and they followed his example. So I began to study him to see what he would want in a bride. He is an arrogant man, and has no patience for stupidity. He would need an educated bride, but one silly enough so that he could feel superior. Often a small amount of irritation can make something more interesting. A man likes to feel smarter than his woman so that he feels needed. He wants to feel as though she requires his protection and his guidance. Because of his iron will, the girl would have to be exceptionally pretty in order to draw his eye. There were no women remotely educated enough, naive enough, and pretty enough in town…so I betrayed you. I had a little girl that I had come to love…but I could see that you were the perfect raw material.” Gran said, her eyes begging Gilda to understand.

“Raw material? You saw an eight year old child and thought – ah, if I alter her enough, she could make the perfect wife for a twenty two year old man that I’ve cursed?” Gilda was incensed. “What did you even do to me?” She asked, feeling bile rise in her throat.

“It wasn’t like that. I had to start early, women out here marry by the time they are 15 or 16 years old. I couldn’t change you all at once! People would notice, he was watching you, he would notice. I had to make you bloom little by little like a flower so that he would naturally grow to love the woman you became.” Gran said pleading with Gilda to see what she had done in a less horrifying light. Gilda put her face in her hands and didn’t reply. Gran continued speaking.

“I had the perfect tool dropped in my lap by the very spirit of the earth…it wanted me to use you. It was the only explanation! How else could I have come to find such a perfect instrument? So, I began designing you to be the kind of woman who was so alluring that she could entrap a beast into marrying her, and who would be forgiving enough to want to marry him.” Gran said, sounding hoarse and overcome. “I just kept going so that I wouldn’t have to think about what I was doing. As my plan unfolded it seemed so perfect and so brilliant that I never stopped to wonder if it was wrong.” Gran said looking intently for Gilda’s reaction.

“Do you mean that everything you did for me, that I thought was out of love, was really done to make me for him? You baked me like a cake, to be his favorite flavor? You sent me to school despite the social consequences not because you valued my education for my own sake but because he would like it? Did you encourage me to be vain and silly so that he could feel superior? How many spells did you cast on me to make me look as I do? What did I look like before all this?” Gilda was babbling, panicking, what was she? Who was she? Was she even human? Was she a real person? Did she have an essence or a soul?

“Yes. Yes to all of it.” Gran sounded ashamed. “But Gilda, you were a beautiful child, such a sweet child. I knew that you could be perfect enough to tempt anyone to love you, and I had an impossible man to entrap.” She looked down at her hands. “I started with your hair. It was blonde, but dull. I made it shine a bit more like polished metal…it wasn’t much, but it made such a difference. Your skin was freckled from being in the sun so much, I simply made it all the color of the freckles until all your skin was gold – it made it hairless as a consequence. It made you like silk to touch and hold. You felt as sweet to touch as you did when you were a baby. But I had to get him close enough to touch you! Because the bears have exceptionally keen noses I encouraged you to bathe excessively, if nothing else so that you wouldn’t be like me! Children always rebel against their caregivers…can’t tell you what a pain it was to me to never bathe.” Gran shook her head wryly. She sighed.

“I was able to keep your skin smelling the way it smelled when you were little, like the head of an infant. It smells like innocence and beauty…drives men mad with desire to protect you. Every time I altered something I thought you were like a finished sculpture and I wouldn’t need to do anymore. When you were fourteen and such a beauty I thought he would have to meet you, to talk to you, but he didn’t. So I kept going.” Gran rubbed her weak eyes in the firelight. Images of Gilda’s slow alteration were flickering through the flames.

“The smell of you changed when you became a woman that summer when you were fourteen. He has the senses of an animal, he knew like a bear does, from miles away when you were ready for a man. I knew how much it effected him, and how much any woman could effect him. I made your hair smell like incense so that he would always know from a long way off that it was you. Your eyes were already light brown, but I lightened them…so that you would be all gold. I even made you glimmer a bit just to gild my perfect lily. Every parent shapes their child in a specific direction!” Gran said watching the horror rise on Gilda’s face.

“I just went a little bit further than the average one! I would have raised you to be sweet, innocent and trusting anyway. I taught you trap rather than to do needle point like other girls so that you would be in the woods, so that you could meet him, and show him how easily you could adjust to such a life. But that was good for you! It made you self-sufficient and taught you a trade that could keep you alive. You’d already lived in the woods trapping animals all your life, you were the perfect wife for a woodcutter. The only problem was that you wouldn’t quit with these silly goals of marrying nobility, I’d made you too pretty and too vain, you were something special and you knew it! All those men, everyone in town noticed you. I had to make the gifts disappear, and the notes blow away! I had to stop men’s voices in their throats to prevent them from making declarations to you. The stammering, the blushing, the fainting…it was all to stop them from asking you to walk out with them, or worse yet, marry them. I didn’t just alter you in pursuit of my plans, I orchestrated your life.” Realization dawned on Gilda again.

“You made the flowers disappear! The yellow ones, before the festival.” Gilda said. It had been bothering her since it had happened.

“Yes. As well as everything else various men left for you. In order to make you so irresistible that he could not help but be with you, I seem to have attracted every other man in town. The man was so stubborn about keeping his promise that it nearly got you killed. I suppose that skirmish could have been seen as a blessing though, it was taking forever and becoming too complicated to wait for him to act on his own.” Gran answered.

“So it is my fault! All those terrible things they wanted to do – they blamed on my witch craft – it was true! It was witchcraft. It is all my fault!” Gilda said putting her face in her hands again. Then her sorrow turned to anger. “You! You nearly got me killed!”

“No. No it is not true! It was not your fault and it was not my fault! Freyr was so good at ignoring you that I may have gone a bit far in recent years with my embellishments to your beauty, scent, the taste of your kiss, and your skin – just in case… But you are not the cause of their decisions. You are not the cause of their cruelty… You are an exceptionally lovely girl. No one was forced to do anything to you. No more than you would be forced to steal a beautiful necklace from a jewelry case just because it was shiny. Something might be lovely, and you might want it, but no one forces you to do anything immoral to make it yours. I’m not sorry things worked out as they did, but it did force him to act. He sought to protect you from them the night of the faire, he took you in when the witch hunt threatened you, and he married you when Theodore found you.” Gran sighed. “I did want things to be more romantic for you, but I had to speed things up. He even finally made love to you didn’t he? Before he left? I cast a simple spell for you, so there would be no discomfort, and he’d need feel no guilt. A little insurance so that he would persist until you were with child. Good men can be so nervous about causing a fresh girl pain. He’ll come back. I’ve watched him long enough to know him to be a decent man, and after all the work I did on you – he must love you.” Gran said as though justifying her insane level of interference.

“You changed the taste of the inside of my mouth? You used a spell to rid me of my virginity so that I would not feel pain? You think all is well?” Gilda stood up and towered over her grandmother. “You think he is a good man and that he will come back? He will not come back while the curse endures! You think he will ‘persist’ until I am with child? He will never touch me again while there is any chance he will create another victim to suffer your curse! If he does love me, is it any wonder that he does not wish me to die in the same horrible way his mother did? What would loving me even mean? I am not even a real person! I’m just what you made me.” Gilda was demanded, shaking with fury. “You say you feel guilt for the men you killed and the child you lost, do you feel no guilt for what you have done to me?” Gilda asked, her voice expressing more pain than anger. Gran shook her head.

“Every parent does things that may hurt their child, in order for the child to grow in the way they want them to. Mothers berate their daughters to make them thinner, prettier, more likeable so that they can catch a husband… Fathers beat the living daylights out of their sons in the vain hope that it might make their son into a good man. I never criticized you or beat you or yelled at you to make you what I needed you to be. I was so much gentler with you than a true parent might have been.” Gran said, her voice tinged with guilt.

“You sought not to make me thinner for a loving husband – you sought to espouse me to a man who was cursed! Who would struggle not to love me, who would hate me if I ever fell pregnant with his child! You strove not to give me a life of happiness but a life of pain!” Gilda raged. A few hours ago she thought she felt as hurt and betrayed as it was possible for a person to feel. She had been utterly wrong. At this moment she’d never felt more hurt in her life. Gran shook her head again.

“I didn’t see it that way. I still don’t. I do love you Gilda.” She said quietly. “Sometimes you begin something and then it spirals out of control until it’s hard to see how innocently it began.” Gilda made a growling noise. She’d been living with animals for too long.

“If you feel no guilt for what has happened to me… Do you feel guilt for what you have done to all the other innocent sufferers of your curse? To Freyr, Frederick, Freya, their mother, their father, and Grigor’s wife? To my parents? Why do you not end this?!” Gilda begged. Gran looked into the fire.

“I can’t. I’m sorry I brought you into it, but I can’t stop it.” She said refusing to meet Gilda’s eyes. She stirred the flames with a long iron poker. She paused and exhaled slowly. “You must know that you could however.” She said still looking at the flames as she tapped the last ember off the poker.

“There is an antidote?” Gilda asked. Gran shook her head.

“I know he told you. He can’t do it. He’d never get close enough to me to try. You could.” Gran said.

“No matter how angry I am with you, you must know that I would never hurt you, let alone kill you! Whatever you made me into, it wasn’t a killer.” Gilda said loudly at first, and then quietly sitting back down in the chair. Gran sighed and nodded, she seemed almost disappointed.

“A curse is fueled by the hate of the witch who casts it. Once that is gone, the curse is ended. Unless he suddenly feels guilt, and remorse for his actions, and admits fault, which you know he will not – even after knowing him for a hour, you know he will not. Or,…or I die, it will continue. It can end, only when my hate ends…and there is no situation in which he ends what he began.” Gran said sullenly. Gilda shook her head.

“Or, a third scenario. Forgive him. Forgive him, and end the curse. Freyr might come home, and we could be together. You could have a veritable litter of completely human great grandchildren. I will forgive you, everything you have done, and be your granddaughter again. You could be part of a loving family. Or, if you prefer to go on like this, you could be bitter and alone. Please Gran. Please just stop feeling hatred for him. Fill your heart with something better instead. Please.” Gilda begged. She had finally secured Freyr’s love after what had apparently been a years long battle she had been unaware of, and now she had lost it, because of her fake grandmother’s need to punish a terrible, but already miserable old man. Gilda was aware that these thoughts were selfish and perhaps unfair, but she couldn’t stop having them anyway.

“It’s not that simple pet. If I could have forgiven him I would have done so. I wouldn’t have had to do so much to you to make you my pawn if I could have just ended it. That isn’t going to work.” Gran said swigging from her mug again. Gilda grabbed it spitefully and threw it into the fire, causing a swell of flame. Gran just scooted her chair back to avoid the splash of fire that shot out of the fire place. She didn’t even look upset. She didn’t even seem startled by the flame that had nearly licked her knees.

“So there is no antidote? Nothing I can do?” Gilda demanded. Gran shrugged.

“Not to end the curse in its entirety. That depends on Grigor. You can perhaps end it for Freyr.” She admitted as if the information pained her to give.

“I can end it for him? But not for Freya or Frederick?” Gilda said feeling a swell of hope, and also a pang of guilt at the same time.

“Perhaps. The curse started because of my hatred, and he was borne cursed. But it needs to be fed, I don’t hate him, so my hatred does not fuel his curse. There is not enough power left in my anger by the third generation without some other strong emotion to feed it. That is why its effects were lessened as it progressed to people I had no reason to hate other than for their connection to him. It might not have any effect at all on a fourth generation, I was curious to find out.” Gran said as though Gilda were some sort of experiment. Gilda wanted to slap her Gran, but she was pretty sure that she would break the brittle old woman if she did so. So she held her own hands behind her back.

“So how do I end it?” Gilda asked confused…admittedly a frequent feeling of late. Gran shrugged.

“Find whatever emotion he has, strong enough for the curse to feed on, a negative one, and convince him to let go of it. I don’t know what his is…for Frederick it is most likely resentment…Freya –as a woman, probably guilt…” Gilda shook her head, interrupting.

“They were cursed from the time they were children, they were too young to feel resentment or guilt!” None of this made any sense.

“Yes. My curse was with them when they were borne, as my anger was still relatively fresh, and because I cursed his entire line. Thirty years later, it is ebbing, the curse on the entire line is given strength by my hate, but it must feed on other powerful negative emotions connected to the curse. You could possibly break one person’s connection to the curse if you cut off its source of power. You would also have to break their connection to it by symbolically breaking their connection to their own genetic lineage. It is difficult, I’ve never done it certainly, or heard of it being done. Honestly, most witch’s curses do not flourish this long.” Gran said, not very inspiringly. Gilda wanted to retort that if Gran hadn’t been fueling the curse and providing gullible brides to allow it to continue, it may well not have ‘flourished’ this long. Flourished like a well-tended garden of a crazy old bat with what actually amounted to a very reasonable grudge. Gilda had a terrifying thought – a vain, selfish, unimportant, terrifying thought.

“When you eventually do die- in 20 or 30 years…will the spells on me end as well? Will I look completely different? Will I be a person?” Gilda asked, embarrassed to be so vain. Her Gran laughed.

“No. Those were not curses. They were simple spells requiring outside ingredients other than my life force. I attached none of myself, my soul, my life force, to it. I tied it, all of it, to yours. It will last until you die. You are altered, slightly from how you began, but we all alter as we grow. It’s all set in place now. I couldn’t put you back the way you were now if I tried.” Gran said as though she meant to be reassuring. Gilda just shook her head. Was it a relief to hear that? Gran didn’t even notice Gilda’s inner deliberations. She was continuing to tell Gilda how to break Freyr’s connection to the curse.

“You will need an additional set of ingredients, other than for him to stop feeding the curse with his emotion I mean. You will need to burn a vial of blood from him, his father, and his grandfather and to speak an incantation. It will separate his line from theirs. Normally I would use this spell for healing, if a parent was afraid that their child would suffer the diseases which ran in their family…but it may sever the connection to the curse. If not his connection, certainly the connection of any future child. To my knowledge it has never been used that way before.” Gran said grabbing a slip of paper from one of the drawers in Gilda’s desk. She wrote down the strange healing incantation. WROTE it down. Gran could read and write. She didn’t really have a rustic accent and she could read and write and she wasn’t even her Gran. The level of manipulation in her life had been immense to the point of causing Gilda to wonder what in her life was real?! It was like waking up and finding out that your entire life had been a dream.

Gran walked over to, and opened the drawer in the little locked cupboard by the fireplace. Gilda had never known or cared what was in it…she never knew that her Gran could possibly be hiding anything interesting. The woman had no wealth, or secrets that she had known about until now. But the little locked desk did. Gran rummaged around the drawer of amulets, feathers, bones, gems, and smooth stones. She drew out a little leather bag and handed it to Gilda, she dropped a small stone and tin cup inside.

“You will need to seek your love if you wish to free him. These will help. Put this stone in a cup with water and it will make food. Lay the bag itself on the ground and it will become a bed. You will need to go before sunrise if you want to be gone for the monster outside comes in to kill us. I will be fine.” Gran assured her. Gilda raised her palms up in a gesture of hopelessness.

“Even if I believe you about these objects, how am I to find him? I trapped rabbits! I never tracked a bear man through the woods who had twelve hours head start on me.” Gilda said feeling hopeless. She wasn’t even close to where his trail began and she couldn’t find it from here. Gran looked at her.

“Do you have anything of his?” She asked. Gilda looked at her hand. She had the ring, but that had been his mother’s. Her dress was Freya’s. She pulled off the cloak she was wearing. It was the one that Freyr had wrapped around her before he had left her, half naked and alone. The clasp on it was not a clasp, but a large tooth. A bear’s tooth. She tugged it off the leather thong and handed it to her Gran.
“Is this his?” She asked. Gran looked at it appraisingly. She held it toward the fire. The image changed to that of a young bear, a brown one.

“This is his. He lost it as a child. A simple spell will make sure it always points in his direction. You should be able to find him despite his head start as he is not expecting you to be able to track him. You may be slower moving than he is, but he is terribly depressed, and he is not going fast either. Just one thing…” Gran said refusing to let go of the bag. “Don’t travel with King Grigor, he is not safe to be around. He doesn’t know who you are, or who your parents were. He has more reasons to kill you than to keep you alive.” Gilda nodded. She didn’t choose to argue with Gran at the moment. She needed her to cast the spell that would allow her to find Freyr.

“I won’t. He never planned to go and search for Freyr, he planned to murder you if you decided not to reverse the spell. He is waiting out there, and I do hope that you are right about him not being a threat to you. Whatever else you have done, you did care for me my whole life… Are you sure that I should leave you?” Gilda asked. Despite her anger at her…supposed Gran, she did care very much if the woman was harmed. Gran nodded. She knelt to Gilda’s feet and ran her finger along each one. She was surprised that they were still injured. Given the powers that she had given an unwitting Gilda, she should have even accidentally healed them by now. But, her feet were very far from the source of her healing gift, so perhaps it was not so hard to understand. She whispered almost silently as she touched them.

Gilda inhaled sharply. Her feet felt normal, for the first time in six weeks. They instantly felt better, more healed, and light. Her Gran stood up, and grasped the hand that held the tooth and whispered again, this time to the tooth. It quivered a moment in her hand, as though she were holding something live.

“You need to go now, before you lose too much distance on your love, and you can’t be found here. The triad of council members arrives today to investigate the witch.” She said giving Gilda a little push toward the door. “Go now Gilda, the sun will be over the horizon soon, and I have seen what he is like in that state.” Gran said firmly. The fire showed pictures of Grigor as a bear, snarling and raking its claws through a tapestry in what must have been the castle.

Gilda didn’t believe a word about the stone or the bag. The idea of magic was still so difficult to believe, even after living with bears for a season. But she took them anyway...this was a lot to absorb after what had been simultaneously the best and worst day of her life. She just hoped that the tooth, at least, did as her Gran said it would.

The sun was a sliver over the horizon as she stepped out of Gran’s house and into the wakening light. She had waited too long. She had no idea how he had managed it without making a sound. Mr. Grummold had apparently arrived at some point during the night. He must have wished to make sure she had not returned to her Gran’s house. A bear now stood over what was left. Mr. Grummold was dead. Very Very dead. The bear was streaked in blood and standing over the face down corpse. He had attacked Mr. Grummold from behind, no doubt before Mr. Grummold had even been able to make a sound. Gilda was not even slightly comforted by the fact that Mr. Grummold was a terrible man.

She hoped to heaven that her Gran was right about the bear not being able to hurt her. She tucked Gran’s gifts into the pocket of her apron and ran into the woods, away from the clearing. It looked like Gran had been right about not traveling with the bear. It was far too dangerous. If she was going to find Freyr and save him from his curse, she would have to do it alone.

What was begun will continue in The Demon King and the Golden Maid