First published in Three Drops from the Cauldron, December 2016.
All rights remain with the author
I’ve eaten true winter strawberries. Not the tasteless kind you can buy in a supermarket but true, wild strawberries dug from under the snow in January. Those you have to hunt for yourself. I can’t describe the taste, which is like nothing but itself. Imagine if you had never tasted any fruit and you had your first bite, rich and sweet, with a tang that made you want to dance in your snow boots.
I’ll tell you how to find them, though you won’t thank me in the end. First you must steal the strawberry leaves from a ducal coronet. Plain gold is best, though one studded with pearls will do. Most are kept in bank vaults these days, so you just have to wait your chance to snatch one.
Then you need a bear who understands human speech. Not many of them survive, even in the forests of Russia, or at least, not many who will admit to their talent. I found mine in the north of Norway, not a polar bear but a brown cub in his first season away from his mother. He wasn’t lonely: bears like to be alone. But he was curious. He listened while I told him of the songs I would make about him, if our hunt succeeded. But it was the strawberries that tempted him: I knew that all along.
You need a fire hot enough to melt gold, a smith’s forge for preference. You put the ducal strawberry leaves into a pot, with seven drops of your own blood, seven from the bear, a lock of hair from your true love, a feather from a white owl and petals from a rowan tree which blooms in December. No, it won’t work if you have no true love. The strawberries must be for sharing with her – didn’t I say? You stir the pot all night long. In the morning, if you’ve done everything right, a stream of smoke rises up and escapes through the door you’ve left open. The bear chases it through the forest and into the mountains. He’ll go so fast, you’ll be hard pressed to keep up with him. High up, in a cranny where the sun glitters on the snow and the air is so cold it hurts to breathe, that’s where he’ll dig. When he finds the berries, you’ll both be drunk on the scent of them. That’s when you have to be quick. If you don’t snatch your share, the bear will take them all and run off before you can fight him for them. One little mouthful was all I got, just enough to make me crave for more. Then the bear scooped the rest before I could count them and he was gone. One mouthful and none for my true love. She has never forgiven me.
Sandra Unerman is the author of two novels of historical fantasy, Spellhaven and Ghosts and Exiles. Her short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Frostfire Worlds and Writers’ Café Magazine, both in November 2019. She lives in London and is a member of Clockhouse London Writers. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Middlesex University.