Once, in the mountains at the edge of the world, there lived a community of women. They were hunters and weavers and star-watchers, skilled with bow and spindle and glass alike. And they prayed to the Great Bear, and because she heard their prayers and kept the mountain forests filled with game, they called themselves the Daughters of the Bear.
Now it happened that a girl-child was born to the Daughters of the Bear whose hair was like spun gold. And because of her hair, she was called Aura. And Aura grew into a skilled and patient hunter who brought many deer, rabbit, and wildfowl back to her mothers and sisters. She would often disappear into the forests of the mountain for a moon at a time, but her mothers never feared for her, for they knew her skill and they knew that the Great Bear would watch over her.
One moon, when Aura was tracking a broad-shouldered stag, she came upon a bear cub which had been caught in a trap. The Daughters of the Bear never hunted their kin, and so Aura knew that the trap had been set by a stranger to the mountain.
The cub looked up at her and cried, “Cousin, save me! The hunter shall soon return and take my fur and leave my meat and bones for the wolves!”
And so Aura pried and tugged and bent the trap until it finally broke. No sooner had she freed the cub, though, than the hunter returned, and he was indeed a stranger to the mountain. When he saw what Aura had done, he roared in anger and drew his dagger. Aura drew her own knife and, in a matter of moments, the stranger lay dead upon the ground, his blood seeping into the mountain.
Claiming his dagger as her own, Aura lifted the cub onto her shoulders and carried him through the forest to the great den by the lake. There she found the cub’s father and mother waiting for him, surrounded by the bones of their prey.
The cub told his father and mother what had happened, and the father turned to Aura and said, “Cousin, I owe you my son’s life. Call on me once, and I shall answer, and do as you ask.”
The mother looked to Aura and said, “Cousin, I owe you my son’s life. Call on me once, and I shall answer, and do as you ask.”
Finally, the cub said to Aura, “Cousin, I owe you my life. Call on me once, and I shall answer, and do as you ask.”
Aura thanked the bears, bid them farewell, and returned to her mothers and sisters.
Winter came to the mountain, and then spring, and finally summer, the trees thick and green and the streams rushing with cold water. As it was the custom among the Daughters of the Bear, Aura, now grown, took up her bow and her knife and the dagger of the strange hunter, bid her mothers and sisters farewell, and set out into the world.
Her adventures were many, taking her from the mountains at the edge of the world to the deserts of the south and the glaciers of the north and finally to the bright blue ocean at the center of the world. And on the shore of that sea stood a city whose people prayed to the Many-Breasted Lady of Love and Fertility; but though they honored a Goddess above all others, they had long been ruled by Kings. And the current King had but one son and one daughter; and his son had gone out into the world and never returned. And this much troubled the King and the people alike.
So the King proclaimed a contest: there would be a race from one end of the city to the other, and the man who was victorious would wed his daughter and rule when the King himself joined his forefathers in the underworld. And soldiers and athletes and merchants and princes from throughout the land and beyond poured into the city, eager to win the throne.
Curious, and eager to test herself, Aura presented herself to the King, as well. He laughed when he saw her; the Princess did not. With a fickle wave of his hand, the King allowed Aura to enter the race, certain that she would fail.
The day of the race came, and all of the suitors gathered. The citizens lined the roads and cheered them on as they ran from one end of the city to the other. The King and the Princess waited at the finish line, the Princess standing silent, the King cheering upon his throne.
But he was much troubled when it was Aura who was victorious, her face flushed and her long golden hair shining in the sun.
Pounding his fists in fury, the King demanded a second race; for surely Aura could not have won of her own accord.
And so there was a second race, from one end of the city to the other and back again. Citizens lined the streets, many of them cheering for Aura. The King and the Princess waited at the finish line, the King upon his throne, the Princess standing straight and tall.
Once again, Aura was victorious, her face flushed and her long golden hair shining in the sun. And when she crossed the finish line, she smiled at the Princess.
Kicking in fury, the King demanded a third race; for surely the Many-Breasted Lady of Love and Fertility would not allow a woman to rule her fair city.
And so there was a third race, from one end of the city, beyond the far gate, through the fields of grain and fruit, and back again. The suitors gathered at sunrise, and they ran and ran and ran, under the hot sun, until they reached the finish line, the moon rising at their backs.
The King and the Princess and all of the citizens waited there, the King frowning upon his throne, the Princess smiling at Aura, the people cheering long and loud. And once again Aura was victorious, the other suitors trailing far behind her.
The Princess turned to her father and said, “My King, three times Aura has won the contest. Three times she has fulfilled the requirements you laid out. It is time that you kept your promise.”
Grudgingly, the King relented and called Aura forward. As she bowed, though, the dagger slipped from her belt and tumbled to the ground. With a cry, the King leapt to his feet and ordered his soldiers to seize Aura; for the dagger belonged to his only son, who had gone out into the world and never returned.
Aura’s bow was taken from her and her knife was taken from her and her long, golden hair was shorn, left to be trampled into the dirt. And though the Princess pleaded and wept, the King ordered Aura to be chained in the darkest, coldest dungeon beneath his palace, to die forgotten and alone.
Or so he thought.
For though Aura had traveled long and far, she had not forgotten the three promises made by the bears on the mountain at the edge of the world.
She called the cub first, and he appeared to her, much grown in size and strength.
“Cousin, what would you have of me?” he asked.
“Break the chains which bind me,” Aura said, and the cub did so, shattering them with a single swipe of his paw.
Next, Aura called the mother bear.
The mother bear appeared, gray tingeing her fur and asked, “Cousin, what would you have of me?”
“Break down the door which is locked before me,” Aura said, and the mother bear did so, shattering the door with a single swipe of her paw.
Up and up and up the stairs Aura climbed, from the darkest, coldest dungeon to the throne room of the palace. There she found the King and the Princess. The King trembled at her appearance and the Princess laughed.
Aura called the father bear, and he appeared to her, his fur gone gray with age.
“Cousin, what would you have of me?” he asked.
“Kill the King and place his daughter upon the throne,” Aura said, and the father bear did so. He shattered the King with a single swipe of his paw and placed the Princess upon the throne, still slick with blood and sharp with bone.
And Aura took up her bow and her knife again. The dagger she would have given to the new Queen, but the Queen refused. Instead, she asked Aura to remain with her in the city.
Aura considered the Queen’s request, finally saying, “I will stay with you until my hair is grown long again.” And she stayed by the Queen’s side, advising her and growing to love her. But when the day came that her golden hair had grown long again, Aura took the dagger and sheared it; and she said again to the Queen, “I will stay with you until my hair is grown long again.”
And so the years passed for Aura and her Queen in the city of the Many-Breasted Lady.
Three times, Aura returned to the mountain at the edge of the world to stay for a time with her mothers and sisters. Each time, she returned with a daughter of her own, to be weaned on the milk of bears and to be taught the ways of the Daughters of the Bear. And each time she took her daughter to the den by the lake on the mountain to meet the father bear and the mother bear and the cub, now grown with cubs of his own.
And as for the adventures of those three daughters and the cubs who accompanied them out into the world — well, that is a tale for another time.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her fairy tales, fantasy, horror, mystery, poetry, romance, and science fiction can be found there. “Aura and the Three Bears” appears in The Fox and the Rose, and Other Pagan Faerie Tales (Asphodel Press).]