In the morning, the huntswoman's gloves were clean again, and her boots creaseless once more.
The huntswoman left her dark room in the corner of the castle and strode through the halls to the solarium, where she found the queen sitting in a puddle of sunshine, pouring tea.
"Good morning!" said the queen.
"I suppose," the huntswoman said. She was cautious, and prefaced her decision as to the goodness of the morning with a look through the wide windows of the solarium. She noted that the forest was still dead with winter, and brown of leaf. She noted the patterns of the birds in the icy blue sky, and nodded to herself. "It certainly has a look of promise about it."
"Tea?" the queen asked, hoisting the pot aloft suggestively.
"I suppose," the huntswoman said, and took a delicate bone china cup from the table. When she held it in her leather glove, it became a solid stoneware mug. The queen raised an eyebrow but said nothing. The two sipped tea, one sitting and one standing.
The king hurried into the room, distracted and muttering. "Good morning, my queen, my huntswoman," he said, and took up a teacup at his wife's urging. It did not change in his hand.
He turned to the huntswoman with glittering, glassy eyes. "Did you find her?" he asked the huntswoman. "Did you find my girl?"
"No, sire," the huntswoman said, and bowed her head. Her daily defeat preyed on her.
The king's eyes shifted, and he looked both lost and angry. He slammed down the teacup without saying anything. It shattered. He left.
The queen picked up the fragments of china; in her hands they became whole again. The china, coming back together, looked like the small fluttering of a bird before it became a cup once more. The queen looked up from her work, cradling the cup in her hand.
"No matter what anyone else tells you," the queen said, capturing the huntswoman's eyes with her own, "remember that you will be best rewarded by me. Just bring me the princess's heart, and her hands."
"Yes, my queen," the huntswoman said, and bowed her way out from the solarium.
In the hallway, the bard appeared.
"Huntswoman!" he called, and puffed from running to catch up to her.
She waited for him.
"Huntswoman," he gasped, and leaned forward, propping his hands on his knees, trying to find his breath. "Phew. Huntswoman. Have you had any luck with your quarry?"
"I report to the king and queen," she reminded him.
He looked at her shrewdly. "You report to the king, I thought; the queen is only the stepmother."
The huntswoman knew she had made a gaffe, but there was nothing to do but shrug one shoulder as though it didn't matter.
"Let me ask you this: did you dream last night?"
She rested her bow on the floor and leaned against it. "I don't know."
"You know," the bard said firmly. "There is no way you cannot know. Now, tell me. It's for posterity. When you rescue the princess, when you bring her back from the dark forest, it will be a grand climactic ending to my story, to be sure; but people are going to want to understand your motivations."
She closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to remember her dreams.
"I dreamed of my father," she said at last. "I dreamed that my mother came into my room and woke me and said, 'Your father is dead.' And instead of weeping, my heart opened up and a summer garden grew from it."
The bard was writing. "Yes. Yes, very good. What else?"
"Nothing else," she said.
"Oh," the bard said, disappointed. "Well, I'd like to interview your mother and father for this project. What are their names?"
"They have no names," the huntswoman said. "I am an orphan."
The good morning and all its promise quickly became an ordinary day without much pleasure. The huntswoman followed the game trails, but found no human footprint. She found loose feathers, and tufts of deer fur, and the white skeleton of a raccoon, but never a blood-red ribbon or a shred of bright, snowy cloth or a raven-colored hair from a little girl's head.
"She can't have gone far," the huntswoman told herself. "She only had slippers, and they were not very sturdy." She stared down at her boots, seeing how worn they were once again. "These days last for years," she told the boots.
They said nothing.
The sun retreated from the forest. The huntswoman returned to the castle for the night, where her bed would be harder and narrower than she had left it in the morning.
In the morning, the window in her room was smaller and let in less light to show her that her gloves were clean once more. Her boots now had a permanent crease at each ankle that the night had been unable to remove.
The huntswoman descended the many stairs to the solarium, where the queen sat bathed in gray light, staring at tiny rivers running down the windowpanes.
"Rainy morning," the queen said.
"I suppose," the huntswoman said. She looked out the wide windows of the solarium, at the drear winter-dead forest and the pattern of the clouds above it. "It certainly has a look of wet about it."
"Scone?" the queen asked, holding out a plate.
"I suppose," the huntswoman said, taking a scone. In her gloved hand, the scone became a crusty piece of bread. The queen raised an eyebrow.
The king came in. "Good morning, huntswoman, queen," he said, and took up a scone when offered by the queen. It did not change in his hand. "Did you find the princess?" he asked the huntswoman. "Did you find my girl?"
"No, sire," the huntswoman said, and bowed her head.
The king crumbled the scone and threw the pieces on the table, and swept from the room.
The queen picked up the crumbs, and in her hand they became a whole scone again. The pastry, coming back together, rustled like a mouse before it became a scone once more. The queen looked up from her work.
"Remember," the queen said. "You will be best rewarded by me, if you bring me the princess's heart and hands."
"Yes, my queen," the huntswoman said, and bowed her way out from the solarium.
The bard found the huntswoman in the courtyard.
"Where do you go today?" he asked.
She gestured with her bow out toward the dark, dreary forest. "As ever."
He peered myopically past the leafless briars that surrounded the castle, and shivered.
"What did you dream last night?" he asked.
"I think if you want to know what I dream at night, you should come into the forest with me during the day."
The bard looked at the dark forest again; the huntswoman held out a hand to him.
He turned away from her. She dropped her hand.
"Maybe you can answer a question for me," she said.
The bard half-turned, twisting his scroll in his hands. "What question, Huntswoman?"
"Why did the princess leave the castle?" she asked.
The bard shuddered, and moved close to whisper. "The queen watches all of us, in her mirror."
The huntswoman considered this. "So, she knows why the princess left?"
"We all know," the bard said, and his eyes slid away from hers. "The queen was jealous. . . ."
The huntswoman frowned. "Was there a fight? An argument, perhaps?"
"Many," the bard said. "They always ended with the princess screaming."
"I've said too much." The bard scuttled away, sideways, into the shadows. "You shouldn't ask these questions," he said, disappearing.
The huntswoman strode off, through the gates of the castle, and tried to remember her dreams of the night before.
She had dreamed of the princess, for the first time since she had come to the castle and been named the huntswoman. She had dreamed of a little girl tearing blood-red ribbons from her snow-white skirts, running down a broad and sunlit path in the forest. In the dream, the huntswoman was the little girl; she felt every stone in the path through the frail slippers, and hated the dragging hem of her white dress.
In the dream, the huntswoman had stopped running while the princess ran on, sloughing the huntswoman like a cicada sloughs its skin. The dream-huntswoman had watched the little white figure disappear down the sunlit path; then the sunlight had disappeared, and the path as well.
All was dark and silent in the forest now, as it had become in the dream. Bare bushes grabbed at every soft thing they touched. The leather of the huntswoman's boots and vest and gloves protected her; nothing in the forest could touch her.
The path of the dream was now no more than a rabbit trail; the huntswoman studied the ground for any sign of the girl's passage, or even a rabbit's. She trusted to the dream from desperation. She had no choice; the king and queen would employ her until all hope was gone or the huntswoman died of old age. And though she was young, the huntswoman believed she would die soon; her boots would wear through and betray her in the forest, perhaps, or more likely, the window in her room would shrink to nothing and she would suffocate in her sleep.
The huntswoman broke from the cover of the forest and found a river she had never seen before. The sun broke through the rain as well, and shone down on a mown, green bank. A clear path, strewn with pine needles, led upstream. The huntswoman followed the new path, and shortly came to a small cottage, with a door only half her height.
The huntswoman found a shadow beneath the trees and lurked there, waiting for sign of activity in the cottage; seeing none, she pulled her dagger out and moved cautiously to the front gate.
The gate was missing a hinge; the garden out front was overgrown, but verdant with unopened buds. She slipped the latch and went inside, where seven little beds, neatly made, lay beneath a veil of dust.
She came back out into the sunlight, blinking. A little man stood at the garden gate, staring sorrowfully at her, twisting a pointed red hat in one hand.
"This way," he said. "This way to see the princess."
The huntswoman was surprised. After all these years, that the object of her long hunt should be spoken of so casually by a forest gnome, yes, that was unexpected. She followed along, dagger in hand.
The little man led her upstream and across a bridge, to a meadow surrounded by cherry trees fragrant with pink blossoms.
On a platform lay a crystal casket, and in the casket lay a girl with raven hair, wearing a snow-white dress with red ribbons. The dress was far too small: the bodice was tight across the breasts, and the legs stuck out from the skirt like hairy sticks.
"Here lies the princess," the little man said. "She came to us long ago, fleeing for her life. A curse caught her, and she fell into sleep like death."
"My six brothers and I. But they have all passed beyond; I am the last guardian."
The huntswoman stared at the perfectly preserved princess. "You knew she was the princess. Why did you not come to the castle for help?"
"The castle!" the little man said. "But the castle is where the curse came from."
"Indeed," the huntswoman said.
"Please," the little man said, and his red hat was a rag in his hands now. "Please, kiss her, and she will awaken."
The huntswoman stared down her nose at him. Her hunting leathers made her flat-chested, true, but she knew her features were feminine enough, and there was no denying the narrowness of her waist.
"I'm no man," she said. "And no prince, able to break enchantments through the application of my lips."
The little man buried his face in his ruined red hat and wept.
The huntswoman lifted her booted foot and kicked back the lid of the casket. The crystal shattered into a thousand pieces.
The huntswoman took her dagger, and buried it to the hilt into the princess's chest.
The little man shrieked. "What! What are you doing?" He launched himself at the huntswoman, but she put out an arm and shoved him back. He fell to the ground.
The huntswoman slid the knife down, creating an opening. She reached in with both hands and pulled the chest of the girl apart, and took out the heart. She put it in her game pouch, as she would have with a pheasant brought down by her arrow.
"You work for the queen! You are the queen's huntswoman!" the little man cried, and attacked her again.
"I am not!" the huntswoman said.
"The huntswoman took the princess into the forest; only the huntswoman returned. You tried to kill her!" This time the dwarf knocked her over when he leapt onto her, punching and kicking.
She reached up and tossed him against a tree. He landed with a thud, and did not get up again right away. The huntswoman stood slowly, trying to catch her breath; and then she knelt, and cut away the hands of the sleeping princess.
"No! No, no, no!" the little man shouted, but he did not come near, fearing her now.
The huntswoman secured the hands in her game pouch as well. She sheathed her dagger and took up her bow. She left the clearing, left the crying man, and left the princess who had now neither heart nor hands.
The huntswoman strode through the forest toward the castle.
The briars grew thicker and crowded the path to the gate, and as she got closer to the castle, they tried to block her way. She pulled out her dagger and cut through them. They were fierce, piercing her gloves and lodging in the leather, so that with every movement she felt the thorns pricking her. But she hacked away until she reached the gate.
In the courtyard, the bard waited for her.
"It's over now," he said, staring into the forest. "You've brought the queen what she wants. Look at the noose she's pulled around the castle." He put a finger through the gate to touch the briars, which reached for him like yearning hands. He drew back his finger with a drop of blood on it.
"Those are not the queen's briars," the huntswoman said. "They tried to keep me from returning."
"But whose briars would they be?" the bard asked.
"You are the watcher here, the recorder of events. It is your task to interpret, not mine."
The bard fixed his eyes on her game pouch. He reached forth his bloodstained finger to point at the slight bulge. "There," he cried, poking the leather. "There lies the innocent's heart."
The huntswoman twisted away from the bard, but his blood remained, a smeared fingerprint on the pouch. "It was barely beating," she said. "Why do you not run and tell your master I have returned from a successful hunt?"
Before he could answer, the castle rumbled slightly as all the doors and windows contracted a few inches.
"It's happening again," the bard said, looking fearfully up at the tower as though afraid it would fall on him.
"It happens every night in my room," the huntswoman said, and turned to walk away.
"Not like this," the bard said. "This—this is the end of all things."
He made a weak grasping motion toward the pouch. She sidestepped him, ready in case he should attack her as the dwarf had. But when he could not reach her, he simply turned aside, shoulders slumping in defeat.
"I bear witness," the bard murmured. He wandered away like lonely woodsmoke.
The huntswoman entered the castle.
The queen was not in the solarium, but the king was. He was hunched and lonely, and did not seem to notice the huntswoman when she came into the room. She turned to leave.
"Huntswoman," he grated, and she saw that he held two pieces of a dinner plate in his hands. "Have you found her? Have you found my girl?"
The huntswoman watched him as he tried to push the pieces of the dinner plate back together, over and over again.
"She was never your girl," she said, and left.
The queen was not in the great hall. The queen was not in the kitchen; nor was she in the high tower nor the low dungeon.
The huntswoman searched the rest of the castle and found nothing. Finally, she returned to her room, and there was the queen, peering out the tiny crack in the wall where once a window had been.
"You were almost too late," the queen said, not turning all the way around. The huntswoman noticed that the queen held a finger in the crack, and a keen breeze whistled there.
"So you know I found her?"
"Of course," the queen said, and a silver mirror slipped from under her cloak and hit the floor, shattering like the crystal coffin had shattered in the spring orchard.
"Your mirror!" the huntswoman said, starting forward, far too late to catch it.
"Let it go. We've no need for such glass any longer." The queen's smile was serene, as always, though the crack in the wall grew smaller around her fingers, cutting into her flesh.
"The window—" the huntswoman said.
"Quickly! Let me see her. Let me see the hands and the heart of the princess," the queen urged.
The huntswoman opened her game pouch, but paused as she touched the items. "How will you know they are hers? How do you know I haven't tricked you?"
"There was nothing else out there for you to find."
The huntswoman handed the heart to the queen. The queen cradled it in her free hand, and the heart began to beat. The huntswoman stared.
"The hands," the queen said. "Take them out, and put them on, over your gloves."
The huntswoman hesitated, unable to see how this could be done; but at the queen's urging, she took the right hand from her game pouch and slid the tips of her gloved fingers into the ragged flesh at the wrists without resistance. The hand slid onto hers, up and over the heel of her palm until wrist met wrist, melding flesh to glove and glove to flesh. In a moment, there was no visible sign that the hand was not her own, and it moved as though it were her own right hand; even faster, the same magic was performed with the left hand.
"Now, take the heart from me; place it in your chest."
The huntswoman, entranced, lifted the heart and pushed it through her hunting leathers, through her skin and bones. It continued to beat there, inside her chest, long after the flesh closed up around it.
In that moment, the huntswoman awakened, as she had not when a thousand princes kissed her.
A sudden brightness of light blinded her: the crack in the wall had blossomed into a window. In the corner, the narrow pallet had grown into a bed fit for the bearing of royal children.
The huntswoman blinked, looking down at her creaseless boots and her pale, lovely hands. "What enchantment is this?"
"It is but the work of time," the queen said.
The huntswoman shook her head, bewildered. "I am . . . lost."
"You were lost, perhaps, but you have found yourself again. Look through the window, my dear," the queen said, and the huntswoman stared out at the countryside through the wide window. She lifted her face to the summer breeze and smelled the air, and looked with wonder at the trees in leaf.
"It's beautiful, stepmother," the huntswoman said, clutching her new hands to her chest, feeling her new heart beat beneath her skin. "It's so beautiful."
The queen's eyes glowed. "As are you, princess, daughter."