Tansy ran across the meadow, her long legs sailing over scarlet poppies and green marsh grass. The wicker basket she carried over one arm bounced against her hip. The edge of the dark forest loomed closer with each joyful, airborne leap. Most in her village feared the forest. So had she, until she learned the truth. Now, those thick woods held all her happiness, all her reason for existing.
Especially on Summer Solstice.
The old stories told how another village, even larger than theirs, had disappeared one misty night. One day it had been there, busy and prosperous; the next morning, every single person was gone. When a band of strong men from Tansy’s village had gone to investigate, they’d been scared off by the biggest bear anyone had ever seen. The bear grew larger with each subsequent retelling, until it had assumed mythic proportions by the time Tansy first heard the story.
No one went near the site of the old village anymore. Well, no one except her.
The cool forest reached for her with spruce-scented limbs as she dashed into its shelter. She inhaled the aroma of the mossy earth – the smell of spring, of stolen moments, forbidden meetings – the smell of him. Barefoot, she darted around thick tree trunks, ducking under the branches that stretched across the trail. No one had been down this path since the snow melted. Most likely, no one had been this way since last Summer Solstice. The forest had started to reclaim the trail with its deep, silent embrace.
Fine with her. Nothing in this forest would ever hurt her. Bjorn had promised her that, and while he didn’t say much, when he spoke, he meant it. Goosebumps pebbled her arms at the thought of him, of his fathomless dark eyes, the passion in every brush of his flesh against hers.
She felt him everywhere, in the flash of a rabbit darting behind a tree, in the cool air against her bare arms, in the branches that tugged at her waist-length hair. The last time she’d seen Bjorn, he’d wrapped himself in her hair so they were pressed together, the sunlight filtering through the long golden strands. After she’d returned to the village, lonely and desolate, she’d refused to comb her hair for weeks. Until she’d realized that the tug of a hairbrush reminded her of his hands on her scalp, his lips on the delicate bone behind her ear.
There wasn’t an inch of her body that he hadn’t loved, possessed, treasured.
The path wound behind a giant boulder, then disappeared in a tangle of underbrush. It forced her to slow down and she gave an anxious sigh. Solstice was just a few minutes away. Sixteen minutes past the first hour after high noon, on the twenty-first day of June. She should know; she’d been counting down the hours since last Solstice. If she missed the exact moment of Solstice…well, she didn’t want to think about that. She’d make it. She had to. And it wasn’t far now. Just across the little stream, under the massive root of an ancient oak, into the green glade that spread like a welcome mat before a deep hidden cave. Birch trees made magical sun-spangled patterns on the soft cushion of moss that blanketed the glade.
Panting, she gazed around the empty clearing. It glowed like a green jewel. Joy and peace flooded her. She wasn’t too late. If he’d come and gone, she would have known. There would be tracks, evidence, a disturbance. Instead, it waited, perfect and pristine, as if the forest held its breath.
So did Tansy. High overhead, the golden sun slid across the sky to the balance point it would reach within moments. Here in the glade, the air hummed with strange, vibrant energy. A bee buzzed, then became muted. Tansy felt as if the atmosphere had transformed into some other element, something crystal clear that she could float through if she tried.
And then all the energy in the glade coalesced with a rush and focused on the opening of the cave. Sounds from within echoed in the shadowed dark. Tansy’s heart raced. The sun ticked closer. A figure appeared in the opening. Black and massive, it ambled into the sunshine, then reared on its hind legs. A bear, twice as huge as any normal grizzly.
Tansy’s hands went sweaty. As long as they’d been married, she never got used to her first glimpse of her husband in the spring. “Bjorn,” she whispered. The bear swung his head toward her. His brown eyes, set deep in the fur of his face, surveyed her with animal wariness. All the other bears had left these woods by now, gone to search for salmon in the rivers. But Bjorn stayed behind. Waiting. For her. For this moment.
He dropped back on four legs, then prowled toward her, his enormous head swinging back and forth. Tansy fought to stay calm. He wouldn’t hurt her. He would remember. He always did. So far.
When he reached her, she held out a trembling hand. It looked so pale compared to his fur, which was the color of spiced chocolate. He sniffed at it, his hot breath wafting across her skin. Her lips parted. His breath smelled earthy and wild. It ignited desire deep in her belly. The bear rose up on his rear legs again, threw his head back and uttered a mighty roar.
If you skinned the fur coat off a bear, you’d be left with a form not unlike that of a human. Her people considered bears to be the closest to humans of any wild creature. Tansy knew this, but still, she stepped back. Some primitive instinct urged her to flee.
He was magnificent, this creature. Untamed. Unpredictable.
But the sun must have crossed the magic line, because in that instant the dark fur shimmered into something more pale. The massive body shrank, seeming to collapse in on itself. Limbs reformed, skin took the place of fur, and the face morphed from animal to man.
Bjorn stood, blinking and naked, in the glade before her. It always took him a moment to get his bearings. She surveyed him greedily, running her eager gaze over each powerful ridge of muscle, each new scar, the longer length of his dark hair – she’d brought scissors in her basket. A new haircut was one of their rituals. He looked good. Handsome and strong. It had been a good winter, a fine spring. He was still alive. That was all that really mattered.
“Tansy.” His voice sounded like a rusting hinge. He cleared his throat. “My dearest love.”
She threw herself into his arms. He caught her up as though she was made of the most precious thistledown and swung her around.
“You’re here. You came.” His voice sounded thick with disuse.
“Of course. I’ll always come.” But they both knew there was no “of course” about it. Not many women could bear having a husband they could only mate with one day of the year.
His arms felt so good around her, so solid and real. Nothing else ever felt as wonderful as being in Bjorn’s arms. He pressed kisses into her neck, sending flutters through her body.
“Did you bring clothes?” That was another of their rituals. Haircut, clothes, the choicest morsels of food, a year’s worth of pleasures packed into a basket.
“Of course. But first…” She drew back and pulled the hem of her dress over her head. Nude and flushed, she faced him. His eyes darkened. “It’s been three hundred and sixty three days, twenty-three hours and fifty-nine minutes since I last saw you as a man. I don’t want to waste a minute.”
“Nor do I.” He drew her against him, curving one hand around her cheek with aching tenderness. “I love you so. You’re more beautiful every year.”
“Make love to me, husband.”
He lowered her to the soft grass. They had just under twenty-four hours to be together like this. Try as they might, the magic never lasted past Summer Solstice.
It was never enough, and yet more than enough.