Getting published is like waiting for a bus: you wait years for your book to come out and then two appear on the same day! As well as my novel Wildwood, this week also sees the UK publication of the 3-novella collection Enchanted, and my novella Bear Skin appears alongside Olivia Knight’s fantasy The Three Riddles and Leonie Martell’s gothic The People in the Garden.
In keeping with the fairy-tale theme, Bear Skin is a retelling of the Norwegian folk-story East of the Sun, West of the Moon. This is a very old story (it has its roots in the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche) and it attracted me because it’s a story of a woman going on a quest. I decided to set it in modern-day Britain … which was fun, since it’s about a girl who marries a bear. Yes, a bear. How could I resist a premise that kinky? And how could I get it past the Black Lace editors?
The basic plot of East of the Sun, West of the Moon goes: a young woman agrees to marry a bear who turns up to woo her one day. He’s a very well-spoken and wealthy bear, mind. She goes off to his house and is quite relieved to find that at night the bear turns back into a man; however, she doesn’t know what he looks like because he always comes to her under cover of darkness and no light is allowed in the house. After a few months she pays a visit back to her parents’ house, where her mother and sisters persuade her that she should sneak a look at her husband while he sleeps, and give her a bit of candle. She succumbs to curiosity and finds that her hubby is gorgeous – but he wakes and is furious, because he is under a curse and if she had just held out for a year she would have broken it. As it is, he has to go and marry an evil sorceress/troll who lives "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" and must leave our heroine forever. She is full of remorse but it doesn’t make any difference; he is dragged away to his marriage and she is dumped back home. Our heroine decides to rescue her husband and sets off walking around the world, seeking the way East of the Sun and West of the Moon …
Here’s an excerpt from fairly early on in Bear Skin. Hazel finds herself trapped in a pitch-black house with Arailt, the talking bear.
Stumbling in the dark, I barked my hip against a sideboard and scrabbled for the connecting door into the library.
‘Are you running from me?’ He didn’t sound angry or gloating, just a little unhappy.
Of course I wasn’t running from him: how could I? I was blind and lost, navigating by luck. He never made a wrong step, moving with heavy grace between the unseen islands of furniture. I had no chance of escape. My retreat was driven solely by instinct.
‘Book-dust,’ he murmured. ‘Printers’ ink and long wet afternoons while the shrubbery drips and the river roars in its bed. You smell of books too, Hazel, but not enough to hide in here.’
I collided with a sofa and it nearly knocked my legs from under me. Gasping, I waited for the sudden rush, the hot breath, the teeth. Nothing happened.
‘Your fear is sharp. I thought … I thought you braver than that.’
His voice was no closer. If he’d intended to catch me, I told myself, he could have done it long ago. I forced myself to straighten up, smoothing down my dress, swallowing the lump that was filling my throat. ‘Well, you’re right. I made you a promise. Come on then.’
I heard him move into the room, his claws scraping on the polished boards then muted on the rug. I breathed deep and let the smell of him fill my nostrils. I heard the wuff of his breath in those heavy jaws and thought, better if he takes me from behind. Turning, I gripped the leather sofa-back with slippery hands and set my feet apart.
He stopped. ‘Is that how you want it?’
‘It’s easier for you this way … I’d have thought.’ I didn’t dare admit that the desire to shield my vulnerable throat and belly was overwhelming. He didn’t reply. But I felt for the first time the moist touch of his nose against the back of my knee, and then that great muzzle pushed up between my thighs, lifting me onto my toes. I gasped. When my heels hit the carpet again I spread them wider, bending at the hips to push my bum out toward him, nearly choking with terror. I felt the hot gusts of his breath on my bottom. With one hand I reached behind me to pull up my flimsy skirt. Then he licked me with his great wet tongue, long enough to lap me from clit to bum-hole in a single stroke, and I cried out, unable to conceal a pleasure so shameful that it could only be confessed under cover of darkness.
Arailt uttered a low rumbling moan and then said, ‘Turn round.’ His voice was thick with urgency; I knew that sound.
I wanted him to lick me again. I was wet to match his mouth. I let out a sob.
I obeyed, tears running unseen down my face.
‘Hazel...’ He rose up suddenly and planted his forepaws to either side of my hips. His fur was damp from the rain. I flinched, shutting my eyes though it made no difference to either of us. His breath smelled of honey, as it had done the day we met.
Oh God, I moaned inwardly, my heart running riot. ‘Arailt,’ my lips whispered as I reached for him, plunging my hand into the soft pelt of his chest – and encountered smooth skin. For a moment I froze, speechless. Under my moving palm the fur parted as if along a seam, and I slid my hand beneath it down a hard musculature: pecs and flat breastbone, the torso of a man. I touched his forelimb and the fur fell away to disclose an elbow, a hard bicep, a shoulder. ‘Oh God – What-’
Arailt’s fingers covered my lips, pressing the words back. ‘No questions, ever,’ he whispered in my ear, his voice the bear’s voice and a man’s voice, the same as it always had been. Fingers, not claws or paws, I thought – and then they were withdrawn and his mouth took their place and any questions I had were stolen from my lips along with my breath as he kissed me. He tasted of honey, and of my sex. I ran my fingers along his jaw and felt stubble a week old but no fur, then down his throat and found his Adam’s apple. His lips were hungry, his kisses laden with intent, but his teeth were not like shears. When he caught my bottom lip between them he drew no blood, only a leaping stab in my heart and a low cry from my throat.
Gently, he released my mouth. I passed one hand over his face. His eyelids trembled under my fingertips. He kissed the palm of my hand. ‘Arailt,’ I repeated as if it were a spell, a word of profound magic.
My other hand slid across his shoulder and I felt the bear-pelt finally slip from his back, heavy as sodden velvet, heavy as a bear-hide would be with skin and fat still adhering, sliding to the carpet. Underneath he was naked. Christ but he was a big man – not anything like as big as a brown bear of course, but broad-shouldered and solid with muscle. He made me feel fragile. I felt his strength as he put his arms about me and pressed up against me, his skin hot on mine. His strength – and his desire. He was immensely aroused and his erection was insistent. His lips sought me out again, needing no light. For a moment we clung together, face to face, breath mingling. ‘Not too much of a disappointment, I hope?’ he asked, laughter bubbling under his words.
‘No.’ Suddenly, out of nowhere, I began to shake.
‘Don’t be like that.’ His hand cupped my face and encountered the wet smear of my tears. ‘Hey, my Hazel; is it so bad?’
‘Just a shock.’ My voice was quivering too. I’d steeled myself for the bear; I’d been ready for him. I was not ready for a man. I hadn’t been for months. There was an intimacy and a danger in the man’s embrace that there could never be in Arailt as a bear, I realised. A bear, even a talking bear, can only treat you like meat: it takes another human being to treat you like shit.
‘Oh God,’ I gasped; ‘oh God…’
Was it? Was it okay to yield to him now? I couldn’t get him and the bear straight in my head. Heart racing, I ran my palm down his chest, smoothing the slight roughness of his body hair, all the way to his groin. He had a lovely big cock with a velvety foreskin, hot in my nervous hand. ‘You’re real!’ - it came out as a hiccup and a giggle.
‘Too right,’ he said with fervent delight, folding his hand around mine, guiding my grip on his member up and down the shaft.
Want to read on? This excerpt continues on my blog.
And if you want to win a free copy - just drop a comment on this post before Sunday and I'll pick a winner at random. Go on - I'm being so generous this week I'm going to need a little lie down.
The watercolour illustrations of the original fairytale, by the way, are by Danish artist Kay Nielsen (who contributed artwork to the original Fantasia movie). More of his wonderful fairytale paintings are archived here.