I remember that first time I saw you. It was hardly what anyone would call the most ideal of conditions. You were drenched head to toe with the storm just past. Your dress that was once so regal was in tatters, and what remained was caked with mud and blood.
I stood a ways, hidden in the trees. My job that day was simple: make sure you were dead. You escaped the dungeons a day before you were to be brought to Her Highness for execution. What else was to be done for traitors, to those who threatened the queen?
A minor setback, the queen said, ordering her creatures to seek you out. I was rather miffed then, and I told Her Highness that my men could easily track you down. The queen said you were a being so vile that she could not entrust the hunting of you to her chief huntsman. But, she said, I could follow her minions and make sure they fulfill her decree.
“Make sure they carve her heart out,” she added as I bowed and left.
You led all of them in a merry chase, didn’t you? Three days. By the second day since you escaped, I’d already found you. I could have put an arrow through you anytime. But no, the queen wants her playthings to do the deed. And I am nothing but a loyal, obedient servant of the throne.
Still, what can a young woman do with just wits and luck? Three days. It is the endgame now. The queen’s wargs and harpies surround you. One of those vile feathered half-women just threw you a good distance on the muddied floor of the clearing. The lead harpy approaches, barbed spear ready to end your life and carve your heart out for the Light knows what the queen does with it. I never asked, even when His Highness the King was alive. I am a loyal, obedient servant of the throne, after all.
It was then that you screamed.
It wasn’t like the ones people do when faced with something frightening. No: there was anger and sorrow in that scream. And defiance.
I have seen the stoutest of warriors and knights whimper like little children against the queen’s creatures. Not you, though. You screamed at them, shouted your defiance in their hell spawned faces. Covered in mud, your clothes in tatters and one leg broken, you stood and shook a fist to the face of the lead harpy. You are, you declared, the scion of Lions. As the trueborn heir of your bloodline, you said, you would not die bowed down like a broken man.
The lead harpy stopped a moment at your challenge. Then, it realized you were weaponless and it held a wickedly barbed spear. It screamed back with a voice that can shatter glass and lunged for your heart.
It never got near you. My throwing axe, its blade buried in the creature’s face, made sure of that.
In short order, every warg had a poisoned arrow or two sticking out of it. I used the last of my shafts on the other harpies, shooting as I moved. One leapt into the air and dived towards me. My last two arrows found their home in its putrid mouth. That should teach it to not scream as it dove.
The remaining harpies rushed me, half-leaping, half-flying. I drew my sword, its single curved edge easily leaving the scabbard with that songlike whisper, and found the neck of the leading harpy. Its head flew to my left while its headless body crashed behind me.
I dodged and parried the attacks of the next before I cut its arms off in two sweeping motions of my blade. I finished it off with an arcing slice that halved the creature at its stomach.
The last two hesitated. With a screech, they flew up and away to the direction of the castle. I should have hurried to pick some arrows from the ground to try and shoot them down. But, I thought, why bother? The queen was a sorceress. She would know what I just did.
I turned to check on you, only to face the point of the lead harpy’s spear directly over my heart. I marveled at you then. You held the spear right, your grip strong despite the likely wish of your tired and injured body to just collapse; did you perhaps take lessons on fighting? How very unlike a princess. But then, your family has always bucked convention.
A fire was in those gray eyes. With a voice of authority, you told me to drop my sword. I asked if that was an order from my queen. That caught you off guard; if I was still with my old loyalties, I could have taken that moment to bat away the spear, move in close, and end your life.
But I am a loyal, obedient servant of the throne. I am sworn to the protection of this country’s kings and queens, to find their enemies and end their threat. I told you that, as you pointed out that I was the queen’s chief huntsman. I retorted that she was correct, only she must have mistaken which queen my allegiance was to.
Confusion continued to reign on your face. I would think your mind was going through the many times you’d seen me seek and take down those your stepmother ordered, even as your father, the man I swore service to, steadily became a decrepit husk. I am, after all, a loyal, obedient servant of the throne. Your stepmother gave us Huntsmen orders over the Seal of the king, we obeyed.
Perhaps in the long years your stepmother steadily usurped your family’s power you have forgotten why it is your family has never been hated by the people, always loved and respected. Your family has never looked on respect and authority as things to be given but to be deserved. That the ruled must be free to question, to ask. That faith in your family’s ability to rule and protect their people be founded [something]
If these things were missing all these years, it was because your stepmother gnawed away at the foundations of this realm’s institutions, weakening them until she could be in a position to do away with it all. Fear became her greatest weapon, especially as the Lions who once protected us were taken out one by one. It was fear that was behind our supposed loyalty and obedience to a throne taken through guile, seduction and sorcery by a creature vile and villanous.
But seeing you there, standing defiant and strong against her power…
I could see the uncertainty in your eyes. How can you believe, given all you saw these years growing up in a castle slowly darkening?
So slowly I held my sword, given to all Huntsmen at their investiture, blade on one hand, hilt held in another, and knelt on one knee in front of you, head bowed. With the tip of the harpy’s barbed spear so close to my forehead, I offered the sword to you.
I am a loyal and obedient servant of the throne. What does my Queen desire?
The speartip slowly lowers, and the weapon finally drops to the mud, as do you, no doubt exhausted by your flight, your near death and sudden change of fortune. I know you have injuries, though none may not be truly severe, but ones that should be seen to.
I sheathe my sword and rush to your side, trying to help you steady. You slowly attempt to stand, and I see how right I was that you have a broken leg; I would have to bind that.
I repeat my question as you stand, your weight partly supported by me. What does my Queen desire?
You look to the sinking sun in the West, its orange fire blazing defiantly amidst the grey clouds that seemingly cover this land since your stepmother took the throne. It will be dark soon, you say. We must find shelter. And we must put distance between us and this place where the sorceress will surely send more of her servants.
I know a place, I say, where we can have some respite. She counters that there might not be time, but I mention that I need to see to her leg and her cuts, and check if she has other injuries we both don’t know about. I assure the princess – now Queen, by right and law, her father dead not a fortnight ago – that I have ways to throw off our scent, and we will be safe in the place I know for a while.
She looks at me hard for a long while. I was right about the steel in this one, true to her heritage. Her eyes show that she relents, though, and bids me lead the way.
“Very well, my Huntsman”, you says. “We will do as you advise. But no more than is necessary that I not be a burden for our escape.”
I nod in assent to my young Queen as night begins to once more cover the land. But there is little to fear now. Tomorrow will see dawn break on a new morning.
If I remember correctly, this was partly inspired by the visuals of the song Breath of Life by Florence + The Machine, the OST for the 2012 movie Snow White and the Huntsman.
Done in two parts. First part was done all the way back in 26 May 2012, 0338. Finished the second part and the story (for now) on 9 May 2017 (almost five years to the day!), 2234.
Using this as an exercise to restart writing, especially for that joint project I have with some people.
Image sourced from here.