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The Huntsman

She would never know me. Not the real me. But she was safe. I had made sure of that. She never could have cared for me as I did for her, anyways. I had no faraway castle to take her to, no charms to win her over. But I loved her all the same, knowing she would never truly be mine.

All my life I had watched the little princess. I found a baby worth so much to an entire kingdom to be intriguing. As she grew, I found myself captivated by the girl herself, rather than her title. She was enchanting. The most beautiful child you could ever hope to meet. I watched from a distance and hoped that someday I might actually meet her, talk with her.

My father had worked for the king my entire life, and when our sovereign finally remarried after his first wife's death the kingdom rejoiced. But it was then that my father began to change. Before, he would come home from a day of working and chop wood, talk with my mother, search out my brother and I, and wrestle us until he had us pinned to the ground. Now he came home and went straight to bed.

I didn't understand what had happened to my father until I was fourteen years old. I was working in the castle kitchens as a dishwiper, when I heard a sudden crash, like that of shattering crockery. I looked around at the rest of the workers to see if they had noticed, but either no one had heard or they simply were not interested. I looked around for someone to tell and settled on a girl about my age who was known to speak her mind freely. Sauntering over to where she stood, I asked her if she had heard the noise. Handing me the plate she was scrubbing, she talked fast, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. "Oh, that? That's just the queen, that is. Likely in one of her moods again. When I first started in the kitchens I thought I could do something to help, I did. Thought I could calm her down. Don't know why, when so many others had tried and failed. She took one look at me and hurled a mirror right at me, she did. Later, some guards came and chopped off all my hair, they did. Said I was doing a service to the queen. It used to be red." It was then that I noticed the scarf she had wrapped around her head. She must have been quite pretty when she had hair.

Over time, I became used to the queen's outbursts. I also began to notice small changes in the princess's appearance. As a child, she was dressed in fine silks and sheltered from the harshness of peasant life. As she began changing into a young woman, however, she started wearing rough, woolen materials and working as though she were a household servant. One day I saw that her hair had been cut short. I wondered why the king seemed to take no notice of this but realized that the king rarely seemed to notice anything anymore. At least, not since the princess's mother had died.

Rumors circulated that the queen was responsible for the princess's transformation. It was said that the queen feared her young stepdaughter would surpass her in beauty, although anyone could see that her efforts were not having the desired effect. If anything, the changes inflicted on the princess made her all the more charming.

When I turned twenty-three, my father died, and I took over his position as huntsman. Days became long and hard, for game was not always readily available. Regardless of this fact, though, I was expected to return from each day in the forest with something worthy enough to constitute our sovereigns' meals. One day, in the middle of my fourth month, as much as I searched, I could find nothing but squirrels. I did not want to bring back such paltry game, but I had no choice. When a week had passed and I had received no summons from either sovereign, I began to breathe easy— until I received a message that the queen wished to see me.

I had never met the queen personally, only seen her from afar. Now, I quivered at the thought of all of her attention being focussed on me. A pair of guards escorted me up one of the castle's long, winding staircases. We stopped at a pair of great oak doors that looked like it would take both guards to open. This they did, and I walked between them, tentatively. The guards closed the doors behind me, and I suddenly felt trapped. I took a deep breath, and looked around me. The room was rather dark, with the curtains closed. I scanned the room and saw the queen standing on the far side with her back to me. I didn't know if I should wait for her to acknowledge me or break the silence myself. After standing in the same place awkwardly for several minutes, I finally approached her slowly. I stopped about five feet from were she stood, and, bowing low, uttered the words, "Your majesty."

The queen stood still for a moment and then gradually began to turn until she was facing me. For a while, she simply looked at me. I didn't know what else to do, so I just stood there silently, half crouched, and gazed downward at the floor. Eventually, she began to speak in low, whispered tones, and what she spoke sent quivers down my spine. "Your father served me well. I trusted him with many tasks. Until he was too weak to perform a simple duty for his queen. He would not take care of one wretched girl. Your father met his reward. But I can trust you, can I not? You will not end up like your father, for you will do as I command. You will do as I command because if you do not you will perish. You will also do so because you love your queen. Tell me so." She paused and looked at me, presumptively.

I stuttered as I answered, "Yes, your...your majesty. I love my queen."

"Of course you do," she replied, curtly. "And to prove your love, as well as your loyalty, you will get rid of my stepdaughter. Take her far into the forest, and carve out her lung and liver. Bring them back to me as a token that the deed has been done." I could do nothing but stare at the queen. As I looked, I noticed that, while everything else about her was very astute and poised, her eyes were bloodshot. "Well, what are you waiting for?" she demanded. "Get out of my room!"

The guards led me downstairs, and as we walked I thought about what the queen had asked me to do. I had always loved the princess; her kindness drew others to her. As we got further down, I could see the princess standing at the bottom of the stairs, and I began to feel nauseated. I had only ever killed animals, never a human, least of all one I loved. The princess had the softest voice imaginable, and when I heard it, directed at me for the first time, I trembled. "I am told that you are to take me to the forest to pick flowers?" I nodded. "I do love flowers. Thank you so much." I swallowed the saliva that was gathering in my mouth, and motioned for her to follow me.

We walked in silence and settled onto the shaded, forest path. We must have walked for several hours, the only sounds being the occasional chirps of the birds and the princess's infrequent comments regarding the greenery. Eventually, we came in sight of a small meadow, and the princess stopped. "Oh, how beautiful," she murmured and turned to walk over to it. I could not allow her to get as far as the meadow. I had to do it then or I would never do it. I stumbled as I walked towards her. She suspected nothing, all innocence. Grabbing her arm, I extracted the knife I had hidden in my belt. The handle felt rough under my calloused skin. Lifting up the knife, I held it before her heart. I could not look at her or I would not be able to carry out the queen's command. "Why, sir? What wrong have I done you that you should harm me? Tell me, for I know not," she implied me.

"The..." I cleared my throat. "The queen commands it," I said, speaking to her for the first time. I looked at her. The princess looked frightened but not surprised.

"Ahh, loyal huntsman, if you will only spare my life, I promise to never again return home. I will run away, deep into the forest. Only please let me live."

I felt ashamed. I had failed to think this through. The queen would never find out if the princess were to live. But then there were some who said the queen had magical powers, that she knew things. In my mind, I weighed the value of my life against that of the princess. The princess's was invaluable. "Run away then, princess. Into the forest, and do not look back. If you ever return, the queen is sure to kill you."

"Thank you," she said. I had thought to kill her, and she thanked me. I watched as she fled into the thick trees. I stood in the same place for a long while before turning to make my way back to the castle. The walk back was long and ominous. The trees themselves seemed to shun me, as I shunned myself for what I had almost done. I had almost returned to the castle when I remembered the queen's command to bring her the princess's lung and liver. I looked about frantically. It was then that I caught glimpse of a young bear. As it passed, I stabbed it and cut out its lung and liver. Wrapping them in my shirt, I walked the rest of the way to the castle. When I arrived, the guards took me straight up to the queen's chamber, and, as I entered, she walked quickly over to me.

"Let me see," she demanded. She had a wild look in her eyes when I showed her the bloody prizes. "Yes, give them to me." She grabbed them from me, and her long nails pierced the organs. I saw blood drip from her fingers, but she took no notice. She then walked over to the doors, which opened before her, and left me alone in the room. Later, I heard the kitchen workers talking of the queen's unprecedented trip to the kitchens. She had walked over to the cook and handed him the bear's lung and liver, declaring them to be her dinner. She had then watched as he prepared the meal, and, when he was done, she ate every last bite of them.

The next day, on my way to the forest to hunt for more game, I cut through the castle. Before I got very far, however, a guard stopped me. Grabbing my arm, he began to pull me toward the staircase. "What is this?" I demanded, but I received no answer. When we reached the queen's room, the guard opened one of the doors and shoved me inside. The queen took one look at me and screamed.

"You thought to fool me? You thought to disobey me?" she shrieked. "The girl is not dead but alive in the forest! You stupid, foolish man. Did you think she would ever love you? You, a huntsman who brings squirrels to her table? You are nothing, as was your father, and I shall give you a fate worse than his." As she said this, she began to chant words I did not understand. The room began to swirl around me, and I felt disoriented. Everything went black as I collapsed on the ground.

When I awoke, I felt oddly out of place in my own body. I couldn't seem to remember what had happened, and when I tried to stand I found that I could not. Looking down, I noticed that a bird was lying below me, surrounded by grass. I could only see its body, but it looked strangely large. I tried again to move, and when I did I saw the bird's legs move as well. It took me several minutes to realize what had taken place. The bird's and my legs were one and the same. The queen had changed me into a swallow.

While I was shocked by my new skin, the only thought I had was that the princess lived and the queen knew so. I had to find her and warn her. I used my newfound flying ability to soar as high as I could above the forest. Scanning the trees, I looked for a promising place to land. As I looked down, I noticed that there seemed to be a house in a small clearing. I dove downward until I reached the place where the house stood and perched on its sill. I looked in, and what I saw sent tremors through my miniscule body. Inside, the queen was standing over the princess's body, laughing. An apple had rolled out of the princess's hand and lay at a distance. I began to weep. The queen was victorious. I flew to the top of a nearby tree where I stayed, not eating or drinking for many days.

For a long time, the princess lay, never changing, on a hillside in a glass coffin that some small men had built for her. Then one day, from a treetop perch I saw a prince approaching. I watched him look upon the princess for the first time and saw several tears fall from his eyes. This was her prince, the one she always should have had. I watched as her prince lifted her carefully from the glass coffin, and, when he accidently moved her too jerkily, she jolted forward, the poisonous piece of apple dislodged from her slender throat. I watched as her eyes lit up, like they always did when she was inexplicably happy. I watched as her prince wrapped her gently in his arms and drew her to him, as he touched her smooth cheek, kissed her hands, kissed her lips. I followed them, and watched from outside the prince's castle as the queen dropped down dead upon arriving for a wedding and realizing the princess lived. I watched as the princess wed her true love. I watched, and I rejoiced that my princess had found happiness at last.





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