"You are clear on what you are to do, then?" asked the Queen, as she leaned forward on her throne.
"Yes, Your Majesty," the Huntsman replied.
"The girl's heart," the Huntsman said. "In here." He held up the box in his hand.
"Good," said the Queen. "Then go." She rose and vanished through the doorway behind the throne. The Huntsman shuddered. Sometimes he had nightmares about where that door led.
He looked down at the box. Such a lovely thing -- red cherry wood, impeccably carved and fitted together, with polished brass hinges and a clasp in the shape of...a heart. Her Majesty had been keeping this little trinket for years.
One of the guards cleared his throat, and the Huntsman turned to leave. In the anteroom, he stopped to check his reflection in the mirror.
"She's going mad," the Huntsman said softly, so the other guards would not hear.
"'Tis true, I'm sad to say," the mirror replied, its ghostly face appearing in the center of the glass. "But she's our Queen, come what may."
"She is our Queen," the Huntsman agreed. "But killing girls and keeping their hearts? This is dark madness. Far worse than usual."
"On this matter you seem conflicted," the mirror observed. "With what doubts are you afflicted?"
The Huntsman considered the box again. He also considered the gold the Queen paid him for each item he brought her, usually for a deer or boar, though. Being the Queen's Huntsman was a good job, no question about that. It was certainly better than being one of the Prince's guards. What a bunch of dullards they were....
"None, really," said the Huntsman. "I'm sure the girl's blood runs as red as a stag's."
"Skin of white and blood of red," said the mirror. "No matter, though -- she'll soon be dead."
The Huntsman stared at the mirror. "Why in God's name are you speaking in rhymes?"
The mirror sighed, an odd sound for a mirror to make. "The Queen requires it. She thinks it makes me sound more mystical. But it's not easy, rhyming everything, so I was practicing. But to return to the subject, you should do what is right."
"Does not the Queen decide what is right?"
"Her power rises," the mirror said. "But the Fates are beyond her. Wickedness shall fail." Suddenly the mirror's face brightened. "Did you like that? It is called a haiku."
"It was wonderful," the Huntsman replied. The mirror is mad as well, he thought. And then: But I'm the one talking to a pane of polished glass. Who's mad here?
"Fare you well," said the mirror.
"Thank you," the Huntsman said, and he took his leave. On his way outside, he passed by a window overlooking the courtyard. The girl was down there, singing away. She was always singing, just like that fool Prince. But not for long, he thought as he glanced yet again at the box.
"Oh, look!" The girl beamed. "Those look like roses!" And just like that she bounded across the field to a bush beside a path that wound into the deep of the woods. The Huntsman knew that path well. There were beasts down there which would make short work of a girl.
"The day grows short," he said. "We should go back."
"Now, my good Huntsman, not without berries for the pie I want to bake. It will only take a moment!" She turned her attention to the blueberry bush. Six songbirds kept fluttering around her head. She was always surrounded by songbirds.
He glanced at his horse, tethered back at the tree. He thought of the wooden box in his saddlepouch. He really needed to be on with it.
"Do you like blueberries, Huntsman?" asked the girl, her back to him as she picked.
"Umm...yes," he said. In truth he hated them, but lying wasn't quite as bad a sin as the little duty he was about to perform for the Queen. Get on with it, he told himself. He drew his trusty hunting knife.
"Oh, they're so ripe!" The girl babbled on. "The pie will be so good. And I'll have so many berries...maybe I can make a cobbler too!"
The Huntsman moved forward, holding up the knife. The blade, freshly sharpened, gleamed in the late afternoon sun. He was very particular about his knife.
"And pancakes too, light and fluffy..."
He crept up behind her. Why are you being so quiet? It's not like she's a skittish doe who can outrun you if she takes your scent--
The songbirds, damn them, started shrieking.
Do it now! You're close enough! One stroke and it's done!
The girl, alerted by the songbirds, turned then. She saw the knife and screamed.
No matter! She'll be dead! Do it, you coward!
He lowered his arm and dropped the knife.
For a while, after she had run into the woods, the Huntsman sat on his horse, gazing at the box with the heart-shaped clasp. He wondered if he'd done the girl any favors, letting her escape into those woods. There were dark things down there, and if she got far enough she might wander into the mining country. If she got that far, she'd better pray she found nice miners to take her in, because the nasty ones were a lot worse, and there were a lot more of them. But that was all out of his hands. What to do about the Queen and her precious box?
He had no idea.
So he rode, taking the longest way home he could. Actually, he didn't even care if he got home that night. The Queen could wait until morning. He rode into the river valley; as long as he was out, he might as well get a deer...
What were the chances that the Queen would know a deer's heart from a young maiden's? She was no Huntress; that's why she paid him. Surely she wouldn't know. He'd get her a heart, then. It just wouldn't be the girl's. He rubbed his hands together and wondered why he hadn't thought of it before. So it was that the Huntsman wandered through the woods, looking to execute his plan.
And so it was that he found…absolutely nothing.
No track, no spoor, no trace of a deer, anywhere. That was very strange; but it didn't bother him too much. Deer fed at night, after all, so if he found a decent tree he could wait in its limbs for a deer to come. Still easy, and he was still feeling quite confident as he tied his horse and went to hide in a nearby tree.
He was not feeling so confident when the hours went by and nary a deer came, the whole night -- until he fell asleep and woke up in the morning, still in the tree and with the stiffest neck and back of his life.
There were no deer. And what was more, there were no birds singing, no squirrels, no rabbits -- where were all the animals? The Huntsman swore as he climbed down, repeating every unpleasant word he knew, in the three languages he knew them in. (Huntsmen, it is little known, swear more than sailors. They merely do it alone and very quietly.) He got his horse and rode off, wondering where he'd get a heart now.
I wish that whelp Prince would stop wandering around like a damned troubadour and depose the old witch, he thought as he rubbed his throbbing back. The Huntsman was in a bad mood. He was hungry, he ached all over from sleeping in a tree, and he had no heart for that damned box. And his horse kept trying to turn in the direction of the woodlands and the Mine Country, as if the beast smelled or heard something that way. Maybe that was where all the animals had gone, but then, the Huntsman couldn't imagine why they'd all be down there. All the animals in the forest, in a single place? It didn't figure.
He rode half the day without seeing so much as a field mouse. Actually, he did see a field mouse, but there was no way the Queen was going to fall for the heart of a field mouse. The Huntsman despaired of ever find a heart for the box. He'd failed, and the Queen would send him to the gaoler. "The Huntsman has failed, it must be said," the mirror would tell her. "So vile is he, that you must take off his head!" The Huntsman shuddered--
And that is when he heard the squealing of a pig.
He spun about and saw a small farmstead in the distance, near the side of the wood. There were two fields, a tiny barn, and a tiny cottage. And near the barn was a pen, inside which stood a fat sow.
The Huntsman couldn't believe his good fortune. He guided his horse over to the fence of the pen, dismounted, and tied his horse. Then he climbed over the fence, into the pen. He stood there for a minute, studying the pig and trying to decide if its heart was the same size. Surely it would be...and the big, dumb sow just looked at him, staring. The Huntsman felt at least one pang of guilt as he drew his dagger. He always felt guilty when the animals made it easy.
It took a few minutes, but he worked as quickly as he could. A few minutes, and the pig's heart was in his hand. He took the slimy, wet, bloody muscle back to his horse and cursed then, because he realized he'd forgotten to get the box out beforehand. He had no choice but to get blood all over his saddle and pouches and the box itself while he dug it out, but finally he got the heart inside. He was putting the box away when he heard the scream.
The Widow who lived here had found her dead pig.
The Huntsman yanked out his dagger. "Stand back, in the name of the Queen!" he shouted.
"You stand back, murderer and thief!" she flung back, her initial shock having given way almost instantly to rage. And where he had a hunting dagger, she had a giant scythe.
Ohhhhh nooooo, he thought. This woman was big and strong, large but not fat, older but not old. Her eyes were fiery, her sand-colored hair was long and tied back haphazardly, her ample bosom--
She's got a scythe, you idiot! Get out of here!
And that is what he did: he jumped onto his horse and rode away, off toward the castle. He rode through the castle gates just as the sun was setting, and was still thinking about that widow as he dismounted and only now realized that he had completely forgotten to stop at a stream to wash the pig's blood from his hands.
"A pig?" The mirror was indredulous. "You put a lot of thought into this, didn't you?"
"That was all I could find," the Huntsman replied. "Will she discover it?"
"Not as long as she doesn't ask me," the mirror said. "If she does, I have to tell her the truth. But until she does, she'll never know. She won't use it in any of her spells, that much I can promise. That heart is too important to her -- or, whose she thinks it is. But there are other ways."
"What do you mean?"
"Surely you've noticed the Queen's vanity," the mirror said. "She's always asking me to name 'the fairest of them all', 'the fairest in the land', and the like. It was when I reported to her that the girl had overtaken her own beauty that the Queen sent for you. Do you understand?"
The Huntsman did not. "The girl?" he mused. "With that complexion?"
"Eye of the beholder, you brute!" The mirror distorted the Huntsman's reflection, its way of showing exasperation. "And you're missing the important part. If she asks who is the 'fairest in the land', you may have a problem."
"I see," the Huntsman said. "As long as the girl remains beyond the borders, you can tell the Queen what she wants to hear."
"Yes. But there's more. The girl is now dwelling with seven miners -- don't worry, they are honorable, if a tad short -- whose home lies very near the border. So near, in fact, that the border actually intersects their potato patch."
The Huntsman winced. "So if she's picking potatoes at the exact moment that the Queen asks...."
"He understands!" The mirror flashed its edges, and the Huntsman scowled.
"Well, I will have to take my chances," he said. Then he leaned forward and studied his reflection. "Do you think my hair needs a trim?"
"Of course," the mirror replied. "And you could do with a bath. Why?"
"Oh, no reason," said the Huntsman.
He stopped on the crest of the hill and swallowed four times, forcing himself to face forward instead of turning back. Why am I so nervous? thought the Huntsman. I have faced wild bears with nothing more than a hunting knife to turn them aside. This, though, was far more terrifying. This was no angry bear. This was a woman.
And there she was, in her small field, working a plow behind an ox. He could hear her shouting at the animal from here; it kept trying to turn toward the forest, the same way his horse had all day. What on earth was in that forest, anyway?
The Huntsman looked at her, in the distance, and his heart sped up. He rode in closer, as slowly as he could without fully giving in to the impulse to turn away and forget it. Finally he arrived at the field and stopped at the very end of the row she was currently plowing. My God, she's beautiful, he thought as he watched her guiding that plow, head down. Finally she was close enough, and he spoke.
"Greetings," he said, and then he cleared his throat and said it again so that she might actually hear it.
The Widow looked up, recognized him at once, and dropped the plow. Then she drew the knife she wore at her waist. "Have you come for my ox's liver now? You'll have to fight me to get it! Off with you!"
The Huntsman gave the only reply that came to mind, that is, none at all. He could only stare at her, with her dirty britches and torn shirt and haphazard long hair and blazing eyes and sweating, freckled skin and…and then the clump of earth she'd thrown struck him in the forehead.
"Gahhh!" he cried out. "No, please!" And even as he threw up his hands to shield his head from the other clumps she was already lobbing in his direction, he winced at his complete lack of words.
"Begone!" she shouted. "You'll find no more hearts or stomachs or spleens or tongues here!"
"Please!" he shouted. "My Lady, please!"
That worked, if only because she was momentarily baffled by actually being addressed as "My Lady". She lowered her arm to a ready stance, still holding a rock. Good thing she stopped now, the Huntsman realized. With that aim and with that rock, she'd unhorse me. "I didn't come to hurt any more of your livestock." He held up one hand in a calming gesture, while with the other he calmed his horse.
"Then what do you want?" she demanded.
Her voice was deep for a woman's, deep and sultry…he cleared his throat again. "To make amends, My Lady," he said.
Her eyes narrowed. "Amends? How?"
The Huntsman reached into his pocket and drew out a small drawstring sack. "Gold, My Lady. Enough to buy three piglets when next you go to market. And...here is a gem, as well. A garnet set in a silver pendant, for your neck."
"And when would I have occasion for such a bauble?" she said. "I don't remember the last time I was invited to one of the Queen's masques."
"Well--" the Huntsman began, but stopped. He couldn't think of anything to say to that, except to point out that the Queen never hosted any masques, which he decided was not the right thing to say at all.
"Never mind," said the Widow. "I suppose your meaning is nice enough. And three piglets, for the heart of a sow seems fair. I would have asked for two. But I would also like to know just why you did it."
The Huntsman sighed. "That is a long story, My Lady," he said.
She chuckled. "Do I look like the Queen? Stop calling me that!"
Now he laughed. "No, you do not look like the Queen. In fact, the Queen is how I came to…do what I did. You see, I am her Huntsman -- or at least I was."
"You fell out of her favor?" The Widow whistled. "Now, that is a story I should like to hear. But now that I know you are a Huntsman, I can stop thinking of you as 'Murderer-of-Pigs'." She sighed. "And if you have lost her favor, then you are without home. You may stay in my barn, if I can trust you not to harvest my milch-cow for leather."
"And if you would be kind enough to fetch water and pick some berries from the bushes down yonder, that would go a long way to helping me be less angry with you. The raspberries, mind you. I don't like blueberries."
She doesn't like blueberries either! "Yes, My…I'm sorry, but how should I call you?"
She told him her name, and it seemed to him that it was the loveliest name in the world. He reciprocated by giving his name, which seemed...less so, in his ears. As he rode away from her, he could hear her singing behind him: "Ho-heigh, ho-heigh, I'm plowing all the day...."
The Huntsman couldn't help smiling.
The Widow leaned back in her wooden chair and folded her hands around her stoneware mug of tea. "So, you use my pig's heart to fool the Queen into thinking that the Princess is dead?"
The Huntsman nodded. "I looked everywhere for some other beast to use, but they're all gone."
"I know," she replied. "My cow keeps trying to go to the woods. I've had to tie her. Very strange. Why does the Queen so hate the Princess?"
The Huntsman shrugged. "Queens always hate their Princesses. It's that way in all the stories."
"And when the Queen discovers this, she will be angry."
The Huntsman nodded. That, actually, was putting it quite mildly.
"And won't she be missing you? You are her Huntsman."
"I come and go from her castle as I please, bringing her bounty as I find it."
"That's a good arrangement."
She stretched and yawned. "Well, I'd best be getting to sleep. Tomorrow's an early start, if I'm to get three good pigs at market. If I'm too late, all that will remain will be the runts."
The Huntsman bid the Widow good night, and then he headed off to the barn to bed down with the cow, which eyed him suspiciously as he smoothed out a sleeping-spot on a straw pallet. He thought of this beautiful, strong woman, living alone on her farm…and now in some danger, if the Queen were to find out what he'd done.
As he dropped off to sleep, he imagined he could hear the voice of a girl, singing, somewhere off in the distance...a song about her prince coming, someday....
Along the way to market the next day, the Widow told him of losing her husband two seasons before, and of her life alone on the tiny farmstead; and he told her of his life as a Huntsman: of tracking a deer in the forest, of finding its trail, of different kinds of tracks and how to tell which were fresh, and of wintering alone in a cabin deep in the heart of the wood. He enjoyed telling her of his life, and was surprised to find that he had so much to tell, but what he enjoyed more was listening to her telling him.
At the market, she traded with various vendors for provisions with a shrewd eye and a keen sense for barter. She also managed to get the three finest piglets from a litter, for a bit less than the price the man had insisted was his lowest offer. And while she was doing this, the Huntsman slipped away and perused the jewels and gold for sale. One pair of miners -- two dwarves, one who kept grinning like a fool and another who apparently was a fool -- had a particularly nice selection of rubies and emeralds. He would have to come back sometime with some fresh kill to barter a gem away from these two, something that would be lovely around the Widow's neck. He blushed with the thought.
They stayed for the Singing Contest that night, which was won by the Prince, who was a surprise entry and was still the biggest singing fool the Huntsman had ever seen. After that they rode home.
"The Prince has the finest voice I have ever heard," the Widow said. "His voice is the fairest in the land."
The Huntsman only nodded. The Fairest in the land, the Fairest one of all....
A month went by, and then two, with the Huntsman living in the Widow's barn and helping her run her farm. He occasionally desired to go to the woods and get a bear or elk, but mostly he was fascinated with the effort of coaxing a crop from the earth. Actually, he didn't like the work itself. But he was fascinated with her.
After one day of particularly hard work, he went down to the stream just inside the woods to wash before dinner. There was a deep, clear pool shielded by some rocks that was perfect for bathing, and with anticipation he leaned over the water, looked down, and saw reflected back a face that was not his own.
"There you are!" said the mirror. "I've been looking all over for you!"
"GAH!" the Huntsman eloquently replied, leaping back. Then, catching himself, he leaned forward again. "Don't do that! And what are you doing here? Since when can you appear in anything other than glass?"
"I can appear anywhere a reflection is available," the mirror replied. "But in a surface like this, I can't do it for long. Whatever you do, don't drop a rock in the water!"
"So why are you here now?"
"Do you remember what I told you about the miners and their potato patch?"
The color drained from the Huntsman's face.
"I see you do," said the mirror. "The Queen asked, and the girl was picking potatoes. I cannot lie to the Queen."
"You can tell the truth in a way that misleads her," the Huntsman said. "Something she would take the wrong way--"
The mirror looked aghast. "You mean, deceive her intentionally?"
"That's what I've been doing all along, you miserable excuse for a looking glass!"
"No reason to get insulting," the mirror said. "I came to warn you, didn't I? She asked about the heart--"
But the Huntsman was already gone, running for the farmhouse.
On the way he passed an old crone, who was hobbling along the road carrying a basket of apples. "Good day to you, Huntsman!" the crone called out. He ignored her. He had to get home and he had to get the Widow out of there, to his old hunting lodge. She'd be safe there. The Queen didn't know where it was -- or at least, so he prayed.
"Dear!" he shouted as he burst in the front door. "Dear!"
She came up from the root cellar. "What is it?" she asked.
"We have to leave. The Queen knows."
She instantly knew what he was talking about, and sighed. "Let me get a few things," she said.
"Hurry. She will be looking for me."
"I know," she replied. "I will be with you. But we'll have food -- look at these beautiful apples! A peddler-woman was here just a while ago, selling these. They're the biggest, reddest apples I've ever seen. I bought one for each of us--"
The peddler-woman with the apples...the crone who had called out to him, "Good day to you, Huntsman?"
He'd been wearing no bow or hunting cloak, and his clothes were dirty from working in the field. How could she have known he was a Huntsman--
The Widow lifted an apple to her mouth.
"NNNOOOOOO!" The Huntsman sprang forward, reaching for her wrist, but she had already bitten the fruit.
The Huntsman was placing the last stones upon her barrow when the Herald came riding up.
"By Royal Decree of His Highness the Prince, I am bid tell you, the Queen is dead. From this day on, the Prince rules the land." Judging by his tone, this was at least the fiftieth time today he'd recited his spiel, and he turned to go before he even finished speaking. Doubtless he had a lot of other farmsteads to get to.
The Huntsman learned the details two days later when he went to town. Somehow the Queen had been engaging in some trickery with her appearance, but had been pursued up a mountain where she'd first fallen off, then been buried under fallen rocks, and then picked apart by buzzards. A fitting demise, at least, but the Huntsman took little pleasure in it.
And the Princess had turned up, living in the woods with seven miners, just as the Huntsman had known all along. But she was now dead as well, and had been placed in a coffin of glass, deep in the woods.
I let her go, and she is still as dead as if I had cut her heart out myself. The Huntsman tried drinking himself into a stupor at a tavern, but the taste of the ale no longer appealed to him, and he finally decided to go home. To the empty farmstead, whose mistress he had brought to ruin through his own attempts at deceit.
He remained there the rest of the season, bringing in the harvest as best he could even though he hated the work and knew little of its proper execution. Lifelessly, monotonously, he did her work, in the shadow of her barrow. Then, in autumn, he traded for provisions -- selling the three pigs and the milch-cow and the ox as well -- and moved to his hunting lodge in the forest for the winter. At least he had never brought her there; the memories would not be so strong.
But they were, all winter long.
The winter was long and cold, but the Huntsman survived it all right, as much out of habit as by design. His lodge was well-stocked, and to give up simply was not in his nature. But he found no pleasure in it at all, for the wound in his heart refused to heal in the smallest measure.
But winter finally gave way to spring, as it always did, and when the roads and passes were at last open the Huntsman rode to market with some of his fresh kill, hoping to trade for more provisions. He also had to decide whether he wanted to return to the farmstead, or remain a Huntsman. The choice weighed heavily on him, and for each moment when he was certain of what he wanted to do, there was another when he was equally certain that he wanted to do the other thing.
It all changed when he asked a simple question of the first trader he met: "What news?"
The Prince, it seemed, was to marry. And the girl was to be his bride. The one the Queen had killed. The Princess.
"What an amazing story!" said some old gaffer. "The Prince undid the Queen's witchery by kissing the girl!"
"Kissing?" someone asked.
"That's how he did it, mark my words. The Prince finally heard about the beautiful dead girl in her coffin of glass -- those miners knew what they were doing, surely enough -- and at length he came to her side and kissed her. And she returned to life then, and now she will marry him!"
"He kissed her?" the Huntsman said. Absurd. This wasn't one of the old stories.
"And she came back to life."
"So," put in the trader, "what happened to those miners? Seems to me they should get a reward."
"Oh, indeed," said the gaffer. "They were given joint ownership of the mine, and...."
The Huntsman ignored everything said after that. His mind was too busy evolving a plan to listen to further gossip. He took the coins in his pocket from the trading he'd already done and, instead of buying new provisions, went to the silversmith to buy a mirror. This he took into a secluded alley.
"Mirror, mirror in my hand," he said, "your presence here is my demand!"
Almost immediately, his own face in the mirror was replaced by that other, stranger one which looked vaguely disheveled.
"I come as com--" The mirror peered at the Huntsman. "You! How do you know those words of summoning?"
"I'm not just some brute who shows up every few weeks with a dead deer on my shoulders," the Huntsman replied. "I see things."
"Quite," said the mirror. "Well, I must say, things are much better since the Queen took that spill of the cliff. No more required rhyming! I've been able to study other forms of poesy. Did you know there is a thing called 'blank verse'? Apparently a playwright in England is doing a lot of fine things with it, and--"
"Mirror!" the Huntsman cut in. "I summoned you for a reason."
The mirror sighed. "Yes, I figured so. What do you desire?"
"I need to know if the Prince ever leaves the Castle."
"Well, of course the Prince leaves the Castle! What kind of question is that? Why, later this month…just what do you have in mind?"
"Never mind that," the Huntsman snapped. "What about later this month?"
He should have known. It was a singing contest.
The Prince was not to compete, but he still planned on attending, presiding, judging, even performing -- in general he was to add an air of royalty to the proceedings. It was to be the grandest of singing contests, with the rivalry of two of the greatest singers in the land to be at last decided and one of them to assume the position of head of the Singing Guild, or some such nonsense. The Huntsman cared about none of that. He only wanted the Prince.
The contest took place in the greatest City in the Kingdom, a day's ride from the Castle. (The Huntsman had often wondered why the City and the Castle should not be in the same place, but even the mirror could offer nothing on this point.) The Huntsman arrived at the City a week before the contest, after making the necessary preparations at the farmstead, and managed to bribe his way onto the City Guard. He would be able to get fairly close to the Prince, then, without looking out of place. All he had to do was wait. Of course, the City was so alive with song that the Huntsman soon wanted to drive his knife through his own ears, but there was nothing to do about that.
On the third full day of the festival, the Prince arrived in the City and came to the Keep, where a full ceremony was held. The Huntsman took his place in the phalanx of guards who would escort him inside -- and he nearly choked when he saw that the Prince had brought the Princess with him.
I almost killed her! She'll recognize me! He looked around for a way out, but there was none. He had no choice but to stand there and do his duty, while the Prince and Princess greeted the courtiers. Here she came, garbed in much nicer finery than the last time he'd seen her, but otherwise looking much the same: innocent and ridiculously pale. "Fairest in the land?" he muttered as she came near…and then passed by. She hadn't recognized him after all. He realized that he looked quite different now than he had back then. He'd shaved and trimmed his hair.
Then the Prince came by, and the Huntsman easily slipped the folded sheet of parchment into the Prince's pocket. It was an invitation to the Secret Festival of Song, where only the greatest musicians could gather in a sort of "elite of the elite". The Huntsman knew that the Prince wouldn't be able to turn such a thing down. He also knew that it was false, because he'd made it up. But the Prince would believe it, and that was what mattered.
"Where is he now?" the Huntsman asked the mirror. They were in the garden, near the oak-and-iron door in the wall that led outside the grounds.
"How would I know?" the mirror said. "I'm not all-knowing."
"You're not all-helpful, either."
"I could return to the castle, if I'm not wanted," the mirror sulked.
"I'm sorry," the Huntsman said. Apologizing to a mirror, kidnapping a Prince....
A pebble landed nearby, giving the Huntsman a start. But then there was another, and one more. Of course: his letter had instructed the Prince to signal his coming by throwing three pebbles, and then...
"Diddly-heigh, diddly-ho! I am not a drunkard, no, no, no!"
"You are a cruel man," said the mirror.
The Prince came around the corner. He was dressed, as instructed, for riding. The Huntsman shook his head. I hope he surrounds himself with good advisers.
"You're one of the guards!" said the Prince.
"More than that, actually," the Huntsman said.
"I must confess," said the Prince, "that I am a bit confused by this 'secret Guild'. How can I not have heard of it, when I have done more for song in this realm than anyone?"
"Yes, well, that's complicated," said the Huntsman. "I will explain it on the way there."
The Prince folded his arms. "You will explain it now, Huntsman."
The Huntsman winced. Maybe he had underestimated this man, all these years…
"Yes, I recognized you," said the Prince. "My wife did not, but I did. She told me about what you did for her, so I owe you some gratitude; but now, I would know why you are trying to trick me into coming with you to the meeting of a secret Guild that does not exist."
"Ummmm...." The Huntsman's mind raced. He had not considered this possibility, not for one moment. "You did come alone, didn't you?"
"Of course not!" snapped the Prince. "If people take me for a singing fool, it is because I wish them too. My personal guards are watching even now, and I have told them who you are. Now, I ask one last time before I call them forward and have them throw you in the dungeon: why am I here?"
The Huntsman swallowed. "Well, Your Highness, it's like this." He stepped forward, and lowered his voice. "I don't want everyone to hear this, but I have a problem that only you can help me with. You see--" and here his fist flashed out, striking the Prince on the chin and sending him into unconsciousness. I may have misjudged your wits, Prince, but not your jaw.
"Are you mad?" the mirror yelled from inside the Huntsman's pocket.
"Shut up," the Huntsman growled as he dragged the Prince to the door. He opened it -- as a City Guardsman, he'd been given the key -- and then closed it behind him, after he'd dragged the Prince into the alleyway beyond. Already he could hear shouts from inside, but he had time to drop the bar (strange that the door could be barred from the outside, but the Huntsman didn't question such things), and, for good measure, shove a stick into the keyhole to jam the lock.
"Well, now what?" the mirror asked. The door was rattling behind them.
"I'm thinking," the Huntsman said.
"You might have given that a try before now," the mirror said. "Thinking tends to produce better results the sooner one does it."
"Glass breaks, you know," the Huntsman growled. All the ruckus behind him -- they'd break that door down soon -- and the revelry of the singing festival in the town square, which was just down the alley….
Then he had it. The Huntsman tore off the Prince's jacket and every badge of office he could find on the Prince's person. Then he grabbed some dirt from the ground and rubbed it over the Prince's clothes, and he was lucky enough to have a rain puddle nearby, so he splashed some of that on the Prince, too: the dirtier, the better. He mussed up the Prince's royal hair and tossed his fine cap aside.
"Someone will recognize him!" the mirror yelped.
"Will you shut up!"
The guards inside were banging against the door with something big and metallic, and the hinges were straining. The Huntsman inverted his City Guard cloak, and then he heaved the unconscious Prince up and slung the man over his shoulders, as he had many a dead deer. Then he tossed the inverted cloak over the Prince and made his way toward all that revelry.
For once, luck was with him. He was taken for just another reveler carrying home a friend who had taken too much wine, ale and song. By the time the guards had the door down and were searching the square, the Huntsman had made it to the livery where he'd stabled his horse. And by the time the City Guard shut the city gates, the Huntsman was already through them and riding for the farmstead.
"I'll have your head!" the Prince yelled when he awoke. Nevertheless he took the cold cloth the Huntsman offered and pressed it to his swollen jaw. "How dare you kidnap me! You'll not blackmail me into attacking Guilder--"
"I'm not holding you," the Huntsman said. "You'll be free to go quite soon, actually. I'm sorry I had to hurt you. I didn't think you'd come if I asked."
The Prince blinked. "I'm free to go? What is this?"
"You're almost free," the Huntsman said. "I'll even give you a horse to get back on. There is one thing I'd like you to do, though, before you go, however."
"Of course," the Prince said. "You're an agent of Guilder, then, and you want me to sign that treaty. As I've told your King--"
"I am not interested in Guilder!" the Huntsman cut in. "I'm not interested in any of that. Only one small thing interests me, and it will only take you a moment. Come."
He rose, and escorted the Prince outside. They went past the barn, past the fields, to the edge of the woods where the Huntsman had smoothed out a small clearing for a special purpose. The Prince gasped when he saw what that purpose was.
"I bought it from those miners," the Huntsman said, almost whispering.
There, in the clearing, stood the glass coffin, and inside it lay the Widow. She might have only been sleeping -- except she was not.
The Prince swallowed. "You...you mean for me to...."
"I heard your tale," the Huntsman said. "All I ask, before you take your leave of me, is for you to work once more whatever magic resides in those princely lips of yours."
"The Queen was here, too? Then this was her punishment for you, to take that which you loved." The Prince sighed. "Vile woman! I will try."
And try he did. But it did not work. The Widow did not stir, even when kissed by the handsome Prince.
"I am sorry," the Prince said.
"Go," the Huntsman said, his voice as dead as she. "The way back to town is clear, and the horse is in the barn. I will be here, when your men come to arrest me."
"I struck the Prince a blow."
"Ah," said the Prince. "Quite so." He stood there a minute more, but finding nothing else to say, he left. At least he didn't sing as he went.
For a week the Huntsman tended the farm. He trimmed the flowers by the coffin, and he repaired the fences as best he could. He couldn't think of anything else to do while he waited for the soldiers to come for him, which they finally did on the seventh day.
There were four of them, all wearing the nicest finery: uniforms of white with blue and gold trim, Florian leather boots, and feathered caps. The Huntsman thought it strange that the Prince would send so nice-looking a troop to take him into custody, but there it was. He rose to surrender.
"Hail, Huntsman!" the man in front said. "I am ordered thusly by His Highness the Prince of this Kingdom!" Here he produced a parchment and unfolded it. The Huntsman sighed. Formal charges, of course. "Deliver unto the Huntsman the message below, and then escort them back to the castle for reception. The message is this: 'You heard the tale incompletely. The magic is in love's first kiss.'" The man wrinkled his nose. "Now what can that mean? Ah well, no matter. Prepare to leave, please. You may bring whatever you need--"
But the Huntsman had already risen and was running to the clearing where she lay. For the Prince had not brought the Princess back by virtue of being the Prince. He had done so by virtue of being her love.
The Huntsman wasn't aware of anything. He wasn't aware of running through the fields. He wasn't aware of when he stumbled and fell, nor was he aware of when he picked himself up. All of it was a blur. The only thing he was aware of, as he came to the side of the glass coffin, was the pounding of his own heart. He lifted the lid as soon as he could reach it, bent over her, and whispered "My love" before pressing his lips to hers.
And after the longest moment he could ever remember -- she drew breath. Finally her eyes opened, and he took her into his arms.
"Where am I?" she asked, and her voice was suddenly the most beautiful thing he had ever heard. But all the Huntsman could say was, "Oh my love." He just held her there, trembling, until those soldiers arrived and their stuffed-shirt leader cleared his throat.
"Excuse me, sir...my orders, you know...."
And the Huntsman broke into laughter. "Escort them back", the man had said when he'd read his orders aloud. Escort them back. The Prince had known.
No singing fool, he.
"This collar is ridiculous," the Huntsman said as he tugged at the dress collar of the uniform he'd been given.
"Well, get used to it," the mirror said from its familiar perch on the wall in the throne room's antechamber. "Your old clothes have been burned, and good riddance to them."
The Huntsman sighed. He was waiting for his Wife -- now a Widow no more -- to arrive, when they would then be escorted to audience before the Prince and the Princess. They were to be officially made a Lord and Lady and granted the requisite lands. Of course, the tale of the Huntsman who had defied the Queen and spared the Princess was already sweeping the land in the form of a song. And not a bad one either, the Huntsman had to concede.
At last she came, with two attendants with her. He caught his breath to behold her, so wondrous was her gown and so beautiful was she in it; but no matter what gown she wore or what gems from the mines it was decorated with, she would never appear more beautiful to him than she had on that first day, when her hands and face had been dirty and his had been drenched in the blood of a pig.
"Are you nervous, my love?" he asked.
"No," she said. "Not as long as you stand beside me."
"I'll always be beside you," he replied.
She smiled. "A husband for a pig," she mused. "What a strange price to pay!"
They kissed, and then the doors were opened, revealing the throne room beyond, with the throngs of nobles filling it and the Prince and Princess on the far dais. Their names were called by the Herald, and they stepped forward. But then the Huntsman stopped. "Just a moment," he said as he ducked back into the anteroom, leaving his bride on the threshold.
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall," he said, "who is the fairest one of all?"
"This I can say is true," the mirror replied. "The fairest stands before you."
The Huntsman glanced through the door. Through the portal he could see both his love and, in the distance, the Princess. He laughed.
"I've been practicing your advice," the mirror said.
"So you have," the Huntsman said. "So you have."
And he went forward to take his love's hand in his, walking toward the "ever after" that is, in the end, not reserved exclusively for Princes and Princesses.