Fantasy fairy tales

Huntsman

By Mari Ness
Sep 25, 2020 · 4,980 words · 19 minutes


From the author: A retelling of "The Twelve Huntsmen," originally collected by the Brothers Grimm, about a princess, the prince that abandoned her, the girls who now wear her face, and a clockwork lion.


At first, the twelve do not look much alike. 

That soon changes.

The engineers do some of this: dig beneath the skin and change the bone structure, adding a touch of bone to that cheek, removing a sliver of bone from that chin. The skulls, too, must be carefully shaped, the girls kept in painless sedation, their breathing monitored, as their arms and legs and faces are all sculpted to identical perfection.

But the engineers can only do so much. It takes a magicker to convert twelve pairs of eyes to the same odd shade of green, and that, too, must be monitored: magic does odd things to bone, especially healing bone. More than one girl ends up back under the knife after the magicker changes her eyes: really, the eyes should have been changed first, but they do not have much time, and the bone work, and the healing, takes so much of that that the eyes must be adjusted when they can, as they can. The hair is simpler: dye could do, but magic is more permanent, and so the new color is sung or painted into the hair.

And then the flesh over the bones. Every mole, every freckle, must match.  That requires more magic, more painting, more singing.  She tells herself not to clench her fists. She has time. She has plenty of time.  Even if the foot of the tenth girl is still wrong, even if the freckles will not stay on the skin of the third. It will happen. It will happen. 

Already she is having problems telling them apart.

It will terrify him, when he sees.

If he sees.

"Just like a fairy tale," he'd told her, placing a finger under her chin.  "A wise lion, the charming prince, the lovely princess, the magical kiss…"

She'd felt her face burning.  "And what if you turn into a pumpkin?"

His lips touched hers, oh so briefly.  "Never," he whispered. "This is the happy ending."

When the girls come out of treatment, there is still more work to be done.  Training first: they must be skilled at sword and bow. They also must learn hunting.  Here, the differences are immediately apparent: some of the girls are from the city, and have never been in the woods in their lives; some of the other girls are still weak from the treatments, and have difficulty just lifting the most lightweight swords, let alone pulling the bows.  Speed is of the essence now: they train from dawn until dusk, and beyond, until they are exhausted.

Food, too, is carefully monitored. They are all the same weight now, but she knows, from her own life, how easy it to gain or lose a few pounds here and there, and so she watches their diet carefully. They will exercise with her, train with her, sleep with her, and eat with her.  No one will be able to detect a single flaw.

No one.

She finds herself forgetting their names – not that these names were important anyway – and instead calls them by numbers: One, Two, Three, Four.  She gets those wrong, too, but it hardly matters.  She imitates their voices and tells them to imitate hers. She joins them in their training, raising swords with them, pulling bowstrings with them, watching with them as they look for boar and deer and rabbit and bird, until she almost thinks of herself as one of them.

Almost.

"This will all be worth it," she tells them. "For you as well as me."

"Yes," they respond together, in soft voices that she must – she must – get them to deepen. 

"I swear it," she tells them.

"Yes."

And then it is time to teach the eleven girls – and herself – how to be men.

Her dress did not shimmer like the moon, or capture the light of stars.  She had never heard a cat talk, or a frog demand a kiss. Her shoes were made of leather, not glass, and when she slept, it was for one night, not a thousand years.

She was not in a fairy tale. She had never been in a fairy tale.

She hires actors and jugglers and clowns for this, men who have pretended to be women, women who have pretended to be men.  They practice standing, movement, gestures, manners; dance as men; bow as men; hunt as men. 

He will think her transformed. He will think them all –

"Highness. More like this."

She freezes.  "How do you know who I am?"

Eleven identical faces shift to look at her.

"Forgive me, Highness. The others are less angry."

But she had kissed him. She had kissed him again, and again, and even allowed his hands to explore further – something a princess must never do, something she had done.  She had kissed him, and kissed him, and that should have been her happy ever after.   He had promised, and she had believed.

"You can still withdraw," her advisor tells her.

He is a small man, with his face wrinkled from years of pouring over law books and official papers, years of speaking into first her father's ears, and then hers.  He has always advised caution, prudence, restraint. Under his counsel, the kingdom has prospered: it is why the marriage had been proposed at all. The kingdom her father had inherited would never have earned such a prince.

The kingdom her father had inherited could not have hired such engineers.

"Your efforts need not be wasted," he tells her.  "Keep the girls by all means. Use them as bodyguards, as decoys. Shock the court when they step into it as men, and then later as girls. I can see the use. But this –"

"It's not just my honor at stake," she reminds him.  "This was an insult to the entire kingdom."

"Which could be answered in many ways."

She takes a deep breath. "No."

"More honorable ways. Less excessive ways."

Despite his years at court, he is a good man. A loyal man.  He means well, she knows.

"My ancestors made women dance in shoes made of red hot iron or glass, forced men to climb slick glass mountains, often falling to their deaths, sent women to sleep for a thousand years, tricked men into believing cats could speak.  How is this different?"

It is his turn to take a breath. "It's more dangerous."

"Than iron shoes?"

"What do you think he will do?"

"He will believe that he is in a fairy tale."

He spent long nights reading those fairy tales to her, from the old book he claimed had been given to him by his grandmother in his childhood, and given by her grandmother to her.  She somehow doubted that: the book did not look that old, though it looked old enough, but she found comfort in the thought, and more comfort in hearing his voice say, "...and they lived happily ever after."

Travelling as men is not difficult. It is everything else – the way servants do not rush to assist her, the way that everyone they meet on the road never hesitates to look her in the face – that is difficult.  And the way that they – twelve identical huntsmen in elegant clothing of brown and green – attract eyes wherever they go. She is not unused to looks, of course – she has spent a lifetime gathering looks. But these – these eyes are different.

The other girls are much better at this than she is. Now it is her turn to imitate them. She watches each one, trying to move as they do, trying to pretend that she is an ordinary man, not a princess. By the time they reach his castle, she thinks, she will be just like them. Even they will not always know that she is their leader, that she is the one that has transformed them into this.

Practice. Practice.

She almost has it, she thinks. Already the girls – no, the huntsmen – look uncertain when they stop for rests or for the night, as if they do not know who their leader is. They all have their own bags of royal coin, so that any of them can step forward and offer to pay. At night, she still calls them by numbers, but she never bothers to find out if she is using the right number.

As they approach his kingdom, however, one difference is obvious, at least to her: she is increasingly nervous; they are not. They are relishing the journey, the adventures, being men. She can only think of his kingdom and his tales, of the woman – the very lovely woman, by all reports – who may, even now, be sharing his bed.

Each night, she pulls out the old book of tales, its pages filled with princes and princesses, dragons and swans, pain and joy, tales where true love wins out, and ever after follows each kiss, staring at the covers.  She will burn it, she tells herself, when this is done, burn it and let its ashes drift on the wind.

He had dazzled her with tales of his home: the splendid palaces, the great forests filled with game, the magnificent mountains, and the wonders: jugglers who breathed fire, flowers that changed colors as you watched; dancing lights that some swore – he laughed at this – were actually fairies.  And a lion, he swore, that could not only speak, but tell the future when its mane was stroked. The lion that had sent him to her, a marvel that surpassed seven kingdoms.

"We have engineers and magickers of our own," she had said, almost offended.

He had laughed, and placed a kiss on the top of her head. "Nothing to ours, I assure you."  His eyes glowed.  "When you see the lion, you will believe in fairy tales."

"Remember," she tells them, as the palace appears in the distance.  "Here, our names are forgotten. Here, we are nothing but hunters and men."

They nod. She tells herself that she sees determination in their faces.

They had names once, the girls. No. The men.  Names. Lives. A place in their own stories.

Then again, she had once been only a part of someone else's story, not her own.

Their arrival, as she had anticipated, creates quite a stir. Their clothing may be simple enough, but their faces are not.  It is enough to have them taken immediately to the great hall, with its marble throne. And below that –

A lion.

No, not a lion – not a living lion, at least: a statue, gleaming with gold, but a statue. Nothing more than that.

Her heart is pounding. He will know, she tells herself. Surely he will know. Even in their male garb, he will know her face. Their faces. Twelve faces, identical to hers.  She must breathe.  She must breathe.  This must be a test.

The other huntsmen stand silently around her. If their breathing troubles them, she doesn't hear.

And they wait.

An eternity later, he arrives, the new princess on his arm.  His eyes move from face to face, with nothing there but mild curiosity. The princess – his princess now, as she is not, claps her hands gently.  "Oh, do hire them," she coos.  "Twelve huntsman like this? It will be the talk of twelve kingdoms, at least."

He laughs and drops a kiss on her head. "As you command, my bride. That is, if my lion agrees."

The other huntsmen exchange quick glances.  Her eyes remain on him as he saunters to the statue, placing a hand upon its head. As he touches it, she can hear the grinding sound of gears.

And then the metal jaw drops, and the lion roars.

That is all she hears at least – a roar – but the prince, it seems, hears something else.  An answer, or a command. He turns to them, laughter in his voice. "My bride is to be indulged, I see.  Take yourselves to the kennels, and begin."

The twelve huntsmen bow.  It conceals the shaking in her chest.

In her court, she never had to wait for him: one ring of her bell, one whisper to a maid, and he was there, bowing, ready to serve, he told her. Did she wish to go hunting?  Sing? Read poetry? Visit the nearby town, perhaps? Or have the town come to her?  A puppet show was visiting – not royal entertainment perhaps, but something she might find amusing. Whatever she desired. It was her happy ever after.

They begin the following day. The prince does not stint on accommodations or equipment: everything is of the best.  She, trained to be a bit more parsimonious, cannot help shuddering at the number of crossbows he has ordered, the size of the still empty kennels, the number of perches for falcons and hawks. They will begin to purchase and train hounds immediately, the huntsmen are told.  The prince will also need trained hawks and falcons, and fresh meat daily for the table: venison and boar are preferred, though partridge and other game meats might substitute. And they are to escort the princess whenever she wishes to go hunting, which turns out to be a rare event. But even without that, they are kept busy, busy, and she, looking just like the others, is treated just as one of them. And she does have other purposes here: tasks that keep her watching, judging, counting, watching again: how many magickers, how many engineers, how many manors and farms, how much gold.  Even with the training she had taken, she is unused to it. He body slumps with exhaustion.

Indeed, she is so tired that on one trip to the palace, following three others to speak with the steward in the great hall, she finds herself stumbling in fatigue – and falling on the lion.

The lion roars. It is so abrupt, and so loud, that it shakes her from her fatigue, sending her stumbling back into one of the other huntsmen, who firmly grabs her by the arms and hisses, "Remember." She straightens.  She and the other huntsmen look at one another. She gives them a tiny nod; they nod back.

But it is too late.  Others have heard, and come rushing forward, to see what has caused the lion's roar.  They look at the lion, still shaking back and forth from its roar, and the huntsman.  And at the prince and princess, now coming to the entrance. They walk with their usual dignity, in only a slight rush, but she can see the eagerness in his face.

"The lion. Who touched it?"

Trembling fingers point towards the huntsmen.

The prince looks at them, then walks up to the lion, placing one finger on its steel head.  "Lion," he says, clearly.

"Women!" roars the lion.

The princess giggles.

The prince does not.  He gives the huntsmen a long look. A considered look.

And then his eyes light up, and a smile breaks across his face.

She is not going to shake. She is not.

"Do you never fear?" she had asked him once, drawing her fingers up and down his arm.

"Fear what?"

She makes a vague gesture to the left, to the world outside the castle.  "That."

When he had only raised an eyebrow, she tried to stumble on.  "Assassins – riots – revolts – betrayal."

"You worry too much." He traced a finger down her cheek.  "Those are tales from former days.  We are more civilized now."

"I have a few tasks for you," the prince says, coming up to the huntsmen the next morning.

Not tasks, she thinks, but tests.  She watches his eyes.

Still no recognition, though he can now see twelve of her. Twelve pairs of her eyes watch him.

And yet he is testing her.  Them.

When he had left, that, too, had been a test, or so she had thought. A test of whether or not the heavy ring on her finger would bind her to him; whether or not she would remember the taste of his lips and wait for him.

Whether he would wait for her.

She had been trained never to fail a test. It was part of being a princess; part of being a queen.

The first test is laughably easy: they must walk firmly over peas, the way a man would.  The huntsmen shake their heads.

"Do real men ever walk over peas?"

"It doesn't matter," says another one impatiently. "Just step firmly."

She has to take control, has to remember, somehow, that she is still their leader, she is still their princess, that she will be the final test, even if her face is as muddy as theirs, even if she now thinks of herself as one of them.

"Like this," she says, stepping forward firmly.

She had walked that way once as a princess, trained by actors, her governesses, her father.   You must show your strength, her father had told her. When they see you, they must believe you can command.

She had commanded servants, her horses, her dogs, her court.  Only the prince, and the death that had taken her father, had failed to believe her.

The second test is even easier: to walk past rows of spinning wheels without showing any interest in them.   She hardly needs to warn the others; they recognize the trap as soon as she does.  Nor, as it turns out, it is difficult for them to feign disinterest: only two claim to have any knowledge of spinning at all, stating that they have always bought woven cloth and thread. 

"The only person I ever saw at a spinning wheel was my father," giggles one.

She turns on the girl – no, the huntsman – staring into the face so exactly like her own. "Your father was a king. Never forget that. Never forget that."

The other huntsmen freeze in place.

The huntsman – her mirror, her image – bows.  "Yes, majesty," she whispers.

As she stalks off, she hears a murmur: "Everyone forgets."

She had told herself to forget when his letter had arrived, when she had read it in front of a court that had gone deathly silent at the look on her face; told herself to forget when she had kneeled beside her father's deathbed, hearing his last breath.  She had told herself, and told herself, but her lips still burned, until she called the engineers and the magickers.

The third test is trickier. Indeed, she does not even recognize it as a test at first.  All he does is summon one of the huntsmen. Only one.

The huntsmen glance at each other and quickly nod to the one standing closest to the door – if the prince only needs one of them, the closest will be good enough. It is not until the huntsman leaves, stepping silently on the marble floors, that she realizes the danger.  Realizes that this, too, is a test.

Her fists clench. She knows him, she knows him, knows how easily his voice once convinced her to do anything.  And the huntsman who has just left is, after all, her – her in every way that matters. She glances at the other huntsmen. Most are busy with their work, bending over tools and cleaning them, but a few, like her, are watching the door.

"Come," she says suddenly, and without an argument, the huntsmen follow.

They had laughed at her.  At her, the princess who had thought she had found true love.  The princess who had thought happily ever after could be found with a kiss.  The princess who had forgotten how many fairy tales spoke of false brides.

It's easy enough to follow the huntsman and the prince; they are hunters now, after all, and although the prince has become a skilled hunter, he has never learned to conceal his tracks.  The huntsman, perhaps expecting something, has left even clearer signs of a trail. They move silently, carefully, following the huntsman and the prince into the woods.

The day grows darker as they walk, sliding into evening shadow, but they can still hear the murmurs of the prince and the huntsmen between the crackle of the leaves and winds. They can hear when the two stop, in a small clearing, grey in the darkening twilight, and see his sword emerge in the light of the rising moon.

With sharp nods to one another, they surround the clearing, drawing out their own swords and knives, watching as the prince places his sword beneath the huntsman's cheek.

"So."

The huntsmen take a silent step forward.

"When I came to your court, when you bound me to your soul, were you, even then, a man?"

Her heart is pounding, pounding; her chest has tightened. These woods do not have enough air. She has to breathe. To breathe. Not think about his lies, not think about how, even now, he frames his words in the language of fairy tales.  She and the other huntsmen take another step forward.

The huntsman at the center never even flinches.  With a swift movement, she places her hand on the top of his sword, and pushes the blade down her chest, letting it cut the laces binding her tight leather jerkin, and the tight bindings beneath. Blood spreads across her fingers as her breasts spill out into the darkness.

"I don't think I would have called myself a man," the huntsman says. "But then again, I never bound you to my soul."

At that, the others step out, pointing their swords at the prince.

His eyes never leave the huntsman's face. "Ah, but you did, my love, you did.  Did I not tell you that you would believe in fairy tales?"

"You didn't tell me," the huntsman says. "You told one of them."

At that, finally, the prince turns, circling to see every identical face, every identical sword pointed at his throat.

"You have three days," she tells him, and is proud. Her voice does not waver.

"Three days to find the true princess." Another voice takes up the refrain.

"Three days."

"Or," she says, in a tone both casual and deadly, "you will find yourself believing in another sort of tale."

When the message had arrived, she had stopped believing in any stories at all.

For the next three days, the prince hunts them, one by one, drawing each one aside for a conversation, a touch, even a kiss.  She sees the huntsmen return with marks on their hands and necks; tells herself not to think about that, not to imagine how the marks appeared upon their skin.  Sometimes he calls one of the huntsmen a second time, or even a third. Once she follows, hiding behind a wall as he whispers to the huntsman, to her, placing his mouth against her neck, and biting.

They are ordered to eat with him at every meal, in small, almost intimate gatherings, and the larger, formal dinners.  They sit together, watching him, watching one another, watching her.

No one, it seems, has told the false bride. No, the true bride. She has to remember that; they all have to remember that.  He and this princess are married.  Married. At his father's orders, he hastily hisses at one of the girls, who whispers to another, and so on down the table. Easily dissolved. They, meanwhile, continue to appear at the table in their forest garb, twelve identical huntsman, young and grim. The false bride – the princess – smiles and urges them to eat more bread, more meat, to gather their strength, pointing to plates of delicate pastries and luscious fruit.  She talks delightfully of the lion, who has, it seems, already purred about future children.

He never calls for her. It is nothing, she thinks; three of the other huntsmen have no marks on their skin. Unless he has found the old book of tales hidden beneath her pillows. But then, how would he know which of them sleeps upon that bed?

She is not sure how much of this she can take. She is grateful beyond measure when the third day arrives.

"You will see," he had told her, as he put the heavy ring on her finger. "When you come to my land, and meet our lion, who will tell you of how he told me to find you, told me that you were the fairest princess in all the lands, who would capture my heart and bind my soul. Of how he swore that this and this alone could bring an endless peace between our lands, that if I failed to win your heart, famine and war would fall upon my kingdom, and I would wish for the days of dragons and ogres. You will see. You will see."

"What will you do, after this is done?" she asks them that evening, after the candles have been blown out.

She knows part of the answer. If she lives – if they all live, and are not hanged or beheaded for this spectacle – she will pay them each a bag of gold, will offer them positions in her palace, or the ability to leave, if they wish. If they live, and she does not – well.  She has studied enough history to make a guess about that. If she lives, and they do not –

She will not think about that.

Slowly, the answers fill the semi-darkness. Travel. Marry. Sing. Hunt. Farm. Hire engineers and build steamships. Study magick. Create fine dolls. Sail the seas.

Become a princess. Or a queen.

Not an unreasonable plan, she thinks. After all, her face had been enough for a prince – once – and now, these other girls wear it.

In the tales he had told her, the princesses heal, the princes regain their eyes, the wicked suffer and the kingdom thrives.  In the tales he had told her, everything good shines with beauty, and everything evil with horror.  Even tricks are easy to tell, and every hero finishes the quest.

None of them considered traveling, or singing, or hunting, or building vast factories filled with engineers and magickers.

None of them faced war.

The prince studies them, the twelve calm faces watching him beneath rich cloaks of green and brown.  "Remove your hoods," he says.  They glance at each other, before one of them nods, pulling back her hood, exposing her neck to the moonlight.

Slowly, the others follow, letting the prince see their skin.

He breathes, and takes three long steps, to kneel before the huntsman with three bruises on her neck.

"My true bride," he whispers, seizing her hand.  "A charming prince. A lovely princess. And a happily ever after."

She tries to breathe.

"Not I, your Highness. Not I."

The prince steps back, his hand falling to his side.

And she steps forward, with a sigh that makes him turn towards her.

She pulls off her hat, to allow her hair to hang loosely, as it had once in her gardens, where he had kissed him. She pulls off her gloves, to show the large pink topaz, surrounded by fine sapphires, glowing on her hand, pulls the ring off her finger to show how long it is has been there, long enough to mark her skin. 

And then she reaches into the bag hanging from her shoulders, pulling out the book – the old book of fairy tales he claimed was a gift from his grandmother, the book with a picture of a great lion on the back.

At that he shuts his eyes.

"You have found me, my love, my true bride," he says, opening his eyes again. He steps forward, to seize the book from her hands.  "And now, we shall never be parted."

Around them, the huntsmen stir.

"But you did not find the true bride." She feels her lips stretch into a smile. "And what happens when the prince fails?"

His eyes close.

"Leave us," she tells the others, and they do, stepping silently, softly, as their training as taught them, leaving her with her blade against his throat.

When they met, she had not known how to use a sword. It was not part of the training of a princess, or even a queen.  She had known something of magick, something of engineering, enough to know that it could entertain, and keep the darkness away for an evening.

She had not known so much else.

"Are you going to kill me?"

She makes another slow circle around him, the sharp tip never leaving his throat, letting him know that she could, she could.  She so easily could.

"No."

His hands start to shake.

"But I will destroy your fairy tale."

His shoulders sag. "My new bride." He swallows.  "That will mean war. Not from me – but her father –"

She runs her blade along his neck.

Three days later, they ride out: twelve huntsmen in green and brown, with golden chains about their necks – gifts from a false bride, a princess, who allowed them to leave, under the eyes of her father's guardsmen.

And bouncing behind them, in a wagon lined with velvet and trimmed with gold, a great lion of clockwork and steel that purrs and roars with their lightest touch.  "Huntsmen!" it booms, as they ride, and laughter fills the forested road. Not from her; never from her. She will need him all too soon, she thinks, as her hands clutch the sword at her side.

 

This story originally appeared in Truancy, March 2016.


Mari Ness

Mari Ness has a tendency to let coffee and chocolate creep into her tales.