Just outside the village of Leewhey, Danvia, 1673 FTE (fairytale era)
“Ignore it,” Mother called from across the cottage where she sat peeling carrots in front of the fire. It was late autumn, but felt more like winter so the fire was a necessity. “It’ll just be a gnome again, and I don’t want the cold getting inside.”
“Never mind the cold,” I muttered. I was sitting on a stool near the small table we used for everything, a large blanket draped over me, the stool and the table. In theory I was mending it, but in reality I was enjoying keeping my legs warm. We still needed to buy new winter gowns and stockings, but the money had yet to materialize. “I don’t want the gnome getting inside. It was hard enough getting it out the first time.”
My twin sister Snow, who was sitting opposite me at the table – actually mending her part of the blanket – giggled, and Mother lifted her head sharply. “What was that, Rosaline?”
“She was just agreeing that the door should stay shut,” Snow called across to her, and I smiled at her in relief. As much as we both loved her, we knew Mother’s sense of humour had been very poor since Father died two summers earlier, but then perhaps losing everything would do that to you. And the way she’d called me by my full name rather than my commonly used nickname? Not a good sign.
“Of course it should,” Mother agreed, frowning. Her fine blonde brows knit above her nose, and she squinted irritably at the pile of orange shavings in front of her. “I don’t believe this knife is working very well. I’d vow I have more peel than carrot left over, and these carrots were not cheap!”
But then she’d insisted on buying the more expensive orange carrots that we always had when Father was alive, when the standard purple carrots were a fraction of the price. I opened my mouth to say as much, but Snow gave me a warning glance. “I’ll sharpen it for you, Mother,” she called back, climbing out from under the blanket to fetch the whetstone from the kitchen area. And by area, I meant corner of the room that served for everything except our beds.
“I’ll do it,” I said, regretting my previous snarkiness. “I’m better with the whetstone.”
“All the more reason for me to practice,” Snow retorted practically.
Fair point. I focussed back on the blanket – after all, we wouldn’t be paid for mending until we actually did the mending – until another loud noise interfered with my concentration.
BANG BANG THUMP.
This time someone was definitely outside the door. “That’s not a gnome,” I called. “Snow, will you get it?”
But she’d already gone to the door. I felt the wash of cold air as it opened, heard Snow gasp, and then a moment later heard the clunk of the door slamming shut.
“Who was it?” Mother asked impatiently. “Not another peddler, surely? They must see we’re in no position to buy trinkets.”
“Um…” Snow had turned as pale as her blonde hair, and stood wide-eyed, her back pressed up flat against the door as if to hold it shut. “It’s not a peddler.”
“I’m sorry,” a muffled, deep voice called through the thin wood of the door. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. It’s just this snow…”
Suddenly on alert, Mother and I exchanged wary glances. Three females out in the woods, not even within shouting distance of the village, and none of us very tall or strong or trained in the warrior arts…
“It’s a man,” Mother said tightly. “No one you know, Snow?”
She shook her head, then muttered something.
“What?” Mother asked.
But I’d been closer, and I’d heard what she’d said. Sort of. “Did you just say it’s a bear?”
“Please?” the person outside begged. He did have a very deep voice. “I can’t feel my feet. I swear I’ll pay you back, I just need to defrost!”
“Don’t be silly,” Mother scolded me. “Bears can’t talk. Who is it, Snow?” She put down the carrots but kept the knife, shaking out her full skirts as she rose to her feet. We might be poor as church mice now, but my mother still carried herself like a lady. (Or a former merchant’s wife who wanted to be a lady. Same thing.)
I followed her to the door, and Snow finally stepped away. “But it is a bear,” she whispered. “A brown bear, as big as the doorway. And it was talking.”
“I am talking!” the possibly-a-bear called through the door. “And I can’t help being a bear. I’m not normally like this, I swear! I’m-” And here the unknown person dissolved into a coughing fit.
“By the King’s crown,” I whispered back, my voice lower. Clearly our visitor had good hearing. “It has to be someone under a curse! And you know that if we turn away someone in need then we’ll have the curse turn back on us-”
“That only happens if it’s a Wyse woman testing you,” Mother said practically. “Like with that prince in Sudante a few years back. This could be another disaster waiting to happen. You both heard about that possessed wolf attacking Grandmother Hood last spring.”
“I’m not going to eat you!” the bear-person cried from outside the door. “I’m not a cannibal! I’m-” And he broke into yet another coughing fit. It appeared that our visitor was unable to say exactly what the problem was, and I didn’t know whether that made me more scared or excited.
I moved to grab our most solid frying pan, the one made of cast iron with a smoke-blackened base. “What should we do?” I whispered.
Snow’s face was still white, but her grey-green eyes were intent. “We should let him in. I’m sure of it.”
There was something to her tone that made Mother and I pay attention. See, besides being as sweet-natured as she was pretty (and Snow was very pretty) my sister also had…well, we called it a gift from God, others called it the second sight, and the very superstitious called it witchcraft. Sometimes she just knew things. Always had, right from a young age, and we’d learned to trust her when she got that look on her face.
Mother and I looked at each other, and Mother finally sighed, running a hand over her face as if tired. “Very well, but let him be warned,” and here she raised her voice, “that any shenanigans and his fur will be warming our hearth.”
Snow gave her a reproachful look, then opened the door. Surprise surprise, there was a bear standing there on his hind legs. It – he – was big and brown with shaggy fur dusted with snow from our unseasonably cold autumn. He blinked his small brown eyes a few times as if startled by the sight before him, then bent over into what turned out to be a sort of bow. “Thank you…good ladies,” the bear said fervently. “You have no idea how much I appreciate this.”
I saw Mother brighten at being called a lady. Even when Father was alive, she hadn’t had the title to be named such; just the money. She stepped back, allowing the creature in. A moment later I did the same, and the bear shuffled forward, paused to turn sideways so it could fit through the door, then slumped onto the mat-covered earth of the cottage floor. I closed the door behind him and we waited for him to get up, or to say something further (because really, a talking bear is rather exciting), but his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell over sideways. Thump.
There was a moment of silence where I noted the matted, bloodied fur underneath that dusting of melting snow, and it occurred to me that perhaps the bear wouldn’t make it, under a curse or no. If so, Mother would have her hearth warmer after all. “Bags not skinning him,” I said dryly.
It was time for bed, and Mother was still scolding me for carelessly speaking about a guest, or more importantly a conscious guest. Snow had given me a reproachful look that pricked my conscience, but it was the bear-man’s expression of horror that really had me embarrassed. “I didn’t mean it,” I’d told him honestly. “We wouldn’t have done that, if you’d died. We would have buried you.” After winter, when the ground was softer.
I don’t know if he believed me, but he said that he did. Snow had spotted his wound – a rather nasty arrow one at that – and was cooing over him like he was a sweet little lamb or a unicorn rather than a giant carnivore. He’d lapped it up, and was even now snuggled under the blanket we’d been mending for Mistress Swanpoel’s gardener, watching her with a slightly awed expression. But then as I said before, Snow was very pretty. She wasn’t particularly short, but her delicacy made it seem like she was, and even with her fair colouring she never flushed unattractively pink. I was her twin – not identical, you understand – and I was darker and…well, heartier, with a tendency to flush deep red with embarrassment, anger, over-exercise…hence the nickname.
Mother finally stopped scolding me, turning to follow my gaze where it was fixed on Snow and the bear. She frowned a little, then shrugged. “It can’t do any harm for him to take a fancy to her. And who knows? Perhaps he’s rich.”
My eyebrows shot up, and she scowled at me. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, Rose-Red. A potential suitor is a potential suitor. I meant after the curse is broken.”
Famous words from my mother, who was convinced that a good marriage guaranteed lifelong happiness. Then perhaps it had for her, or at least until Father died and we found out he hadn’t been as good with money as we’d assumed. “Or he could just as easily be a pauper,” I pointed out.
Mother lifted her chin. “Then we’ve made a fine friend to help us through this second winter, have we not?”
I couldn’t argue with that. Last winter had been… not fun.
We spent the night tending the bear’s wounds. Or rather, I spent an hour binding the wounds with Snow looking on and making sympathetic noises. Mother had long since gone to bed. Then I went to bed, and Snow stayed with the bear “making sure he was alright”.
Good for her, but I’d rather have a decent night’s sleep.
In the morning the bear was still slumped in a furry pile in front of the fire. Now before you think that was actually a convenient (and warm) chair for us, I should say that our cottage had only two rooms. After Father died – well, his debts were sizeable, and we had to go from being comfortably well-off commoners to being poor ones. It’s a cliché, poor widow lives in tiny cottage in the woods with her young daughters, but the truth is that it happens so often. Especially as there are so few things that a woman can respectably do to earn money. Without our dowries, Snow and I, having just turned eighteen, were more appealing to people as a hired ‘escort’ than for marriage now. And by ‘escort’ I mean…well, if you don’t know, then I certainly won’t be explaining it to you. But we actually had a few of those dishonourable offers when Father first died and we had to come here where the living was cheaper. I tell you, if I had the funds, I would start up a business that employed widows or girls without dowries for good work!
Sorry, got distracted. Yes, the world is unfair, but it doesn’t do anyone any good to dwell on its unchangeable evils. Anyway, the whole point of what I just said was that the darned bear took up a lot of room. Not exactly convenient, but we couldn’t kick some poor person out into the snow just because they weren’t currently human.
When the bear finally woke up we gave him a bowl of water and some leftover stew. He mumbled his thanks, and Snow and I watched in amazement as he carefully picked up the wooden bowl and ate it with as much manners as the average street urchin, which is rather more than your average bear has. “Thank you,” he said when he’d finished, setting the bowl down on the floor and then slumping as though exhausted. “I feel as though I haven’t eaten in an age.”
“Were you hibernating?” Snow asked him.
The bear looked at her blankly, and I cut in. “If he was hibernating, then he’d be a lot thinner. Bears don’t eat while they hibernate.”
“Actually,” the bear said apologetically, “I wouldn’t have gone into hibernation quite yet, as it’s technically still autumn…or supposed to be, anyway. Except I’m not really a-” And he collapsed into another coughing fit. I hadn’t even realised bears could cough, yet here it was.
“Here, have some water,” Snow suggested, offering up the bowl.
“Thank you kindly,” the bear said again, giving her what might have been a warm look. Hard to tell with all that fur. He slurped at the water, getting a bit of it over his coat, then knocked the bowl with his plate-sized paw, spilling the whole thing over his front. “Oh my. I’m dreadfully sorry. It’s these paws, you understand. I’m not used to them, because I’m not usually a-” And here he burst into another uncontrollable coughing fit.
“You’re not usually a bear,” I said clearly. “That’s what you’re trying to say, right?”
The bear nodded, then clapped a paw over its mouth. “I do believe I can’t say it. The thing that you just said.”
“What, that you’re not really a bear?” Snow asked sweetly.
He went to speak again…cue another coughing fit.
“Oh dear,” Snow said sincerely. “You needn’t keep trying to speak, but I’d venture a guess you’re cursed, are you not?”
A furry nod.
“And you’re actually human.”
An emphatic furry nod – although really, we’d worked it out by then.
“Oh, good,” Mother said from behind us, having just entered the room. “Then perhaps we might introduce ourselves, as you are currently our guest? I am Madame Lena, a widow, and these are my twin daughters, Snow-White and Rose-Red.” That was how everyone always said our names, Snow’s first. Perhaps it just sounded better that way.
But I saw the bear’s surprise at the knowledge we were not just sisters, but twins (the colour difference got them every time, or perhaps he was surprised by our rather literal names), and then he remembered his manners and touched a paw to his own chest in a gentlemanly manner. “I am- COUGH COUGH COUGH COUGH…”
To cut a long story short, we figured out that he couldn’t speak directly about the curse, or about who he was. Using nods for yes, head shakes for no, we did work out that a) he might know how to break the curse, b) he certainly couldn’t explain it to us, and c) his name was something like Edward or Edgar, but even us calling him those names set off coughing fits. And let me tell you, a persistently coughing bear is not a fun companion, even one who apologises after each fit.
“Might we give you a nickname?” Snow asked. “We can’t keep calling you ‘the bear’ since it seems rather disrespectful.”
“What, like ‘Hairy’?” he suggested.
Snow giggled – showing she’d got the joke, where Mother and I certainly hadn’t – and said, “I was thinking more like ‘Eddie’. That’s a nice friendly name, and perhaps not too far from your own.”
“If you like Eddie, then so do I,” the bear agreed promptly. The newly named Eddie gave Snow a look I could only call gooey, which was strange to say the least on a face like his. Snow had made another conquest. That fragile blonde prettiness would do it every time. Still, if you’re going to have a giant predator in your house, better to have one that likes you, right?
An hour later Eddie was still being cared for by Snow, and Mother had got back onto the mending. That left me to do my usual chores, because someone had to. “I’ll go and get firewood,” I told the room at large.
Snow didn’t respond. Mother said, “Please get some eggs at the market while you’re out,” without looking up.
“But we haven’t finished mending anything yet,” I pointed out. “We don’t have any money.”
Suddenly I had everyone’s attention, and I felt my cheeks heat. Of course Mother and Snow knew our financial situation, but somehow I felt embarrassed that now Eddie did too.
“I darned the rip in Master Jameson’s jacket last night while I was tending Eddie,” Snow said. “It’s by the door. That’ll be enough for half a dozen eggs.”
She’d fixed it last night, while she’d been up and tending a talking bear, and while I’d probably been snoring obliviously. “Oh. Thanks.”
I grabbed the jacket, a large basket, and my faded blue winter cloak, then headed out the door.
The day was as cold as expected, with the cloudy grey sky visible through the burnt orange leaves of the forest surrounding our small property. Luckily it was neither raining nor snowing, so I pulled my warm hood down around my face, then began to stride along the well-trodden, muddy path leading towards the village of Leewhey. It would be nice to chat with a few villagers I hadn’t seen since the cold set in, then I could collect firewood on my way home.
Half an hour later I’d reached the village, had offloaded the jacket to Mistress Agnes Jameson, and was happily accepting the hot soup she’d offered me in exchange for one less egg. “It’s cold out,” she told me, “even though your cheeks are red as ever, Miss Rose-Red. And why were you walking that path alone today, I ask?”
I didn’t take offense at her nosiness. Agnes was like most of the village women in that she lived for gossip, but was kind-hearted enough for me to overlook the habit. “Snow needs to stay in the warm today,” I replied, carefully skirting around the truth. I didn’t want to tell anyone about Eddie, not until he explicitly said we could. “But I don’t mind coming out.”
Agnes clucked her tongue. “Of course Snow would feel the chill; dainty, lovely girl that she is. Well, you just watch your step out in those woods, and no talking to strangers, you hear?”
I bit back my response that Snow was tougher than she looked, and focused on the second part of her comment. “What strangers could there possibly be?” I asked, briefly forgetting a certain talking bear. “It’s a village of two hundred people.”
She raised her chin loftily, for a moment looking more like a duchess than a butcher’s wife. “You haven’t heard?”
“Haven’t heard what?”
She leaned in towards me, her tone taking on a conspiratorial air. “Mistress Joan told me that one of the royal princes was seen about the area this morning. Riding a fine black horse, he was, along with half a dozen guards. Now what do you have to say about that?”
I blinked. “A prince? Like, a prince of Danvia?”
“Yes, a prince of Danvia!” Agnes said with some exasperation. “We’re not likely to receive any foreign princes all the way out here, are we?”
“I suppose not.” I considered that for a moment. Thanks to village gossip I knew that our king, Xavier, had one daughter and two sons. I’d even seen a painting of the royal family, when I’d delivered goods to a local, wealthy household. It had been a faded image of a golden-haired couple surrounded by a trio of golden-haired children. The littlest had the round cheeks of an infant. But it figured the princes were no longer children, if one was able to ride out here alone. Barring the guards, of course.
She seemed to want more of a response than that, so I added, “You don’t need to worry. If I run into anyone in the forest, I won’t stop to chat.”