The princess could feel the huntsman coming for her. From inside the cottage, washing up with the little men and mulling over what to make for lunch, she could almost hear his footsteps. Far away and faint, they rang in her ears, the soft pad of his moccasins on the forest floor as he crept closer, to reveal her secret safe hiding spot, to deliver her back to her stepmother, the queen. She could not let that happen. She was frantic, scrubbing the stovetop and the cooking pot from the morning in the frenzy. Her fingers were aching, and she pressed harder, hands frenetic, jerking fitfully through the suds, splashing her face with suds. The little men were watching her with worry. The one with the long grey beard and blue eyes – the grumpy one – stopped in, and looked at her, and frowned with his arms crossed over his chest. He said, “Girl, what is wrong? There’s no need for such haste.” She shook her head, and did not answer. After some time, they drifted away, and she was alone with the anxiety pulling at her like a weight inside her gut.
The huntsman was walking, slow and steady, in widening circles out from the castle. His hounds were with him, faithful and alert, eyes bright and tails high as they trotted alongside him. He had the scarf the princess had left as she fled. When they were not forty meters from the cottage, the dogs were suddenly anxious, ears pricked. Their tails twitched, and they turned to make sure the huntsman was following, in the right direction, as they filed forward. He grinned, affectionately. His sweet dogs always took him right, and he’d find the girl, and all would be well.
The princess heard the yelping of the dogs as they approached her cottage, her safety. Her eyes narrowed, and her breath came short. The wretched huntsman had brought his bloodhounds, and she was lost. The air froze around her, and the water dripped cold and sleek from her hands, still clasped around the scrubbing sponge and the knife from the morning’s vegetables. She couldn’t be caught, couldn’t go back to the castle. She didn’t know what the queen wanted, or what the queen would do to her. Above all, though, the princess couldn’t face her stepmother. Nothing good could come of that. She stood still, back stiff, and her hands tightened on the knife in her hands, spotted with soapsuds. She was capable. She had learnt to fend for herself. She would fend off this huntsman, and all would be well.
The huntsman sighed in relief when he saw the cottage emerge from the thicket of trees, and the glad warmth spread through him like breath as he found the path to the door, and his hounds clamored about him with tails wagging. He knocked on the door, softly, and then rapped smartly, to be sure he was heard.
The princess heard him pound on the door, like her doom come for her. She turned, slow, like moving against the weight pulling at her, and she walked with leaden movements toward the door, the knife tucked against her side and her head high. When she opened the door, the dogs began barking at once, filling her head with the noise of their triumph. The huntsman was standing, framed squarely by the wooden doorway, his handsome ruddy face staring straight at hers, and a smile spreading across it.
Slow, shaking, she held the knife in front of her – between them – and watched as the wicked glee faded, as his eyes were filled with fear and worry and his mouth fell open, like a fool. Even the dogs quieted, as if their barking put their master in danger. Perhaps it did, for the princess’s nerves were none too steady.
The huntsman took a careful step back, nearly tripping over one of the dogs – Trowser – winding behind his legs. He righted himself, to meet the girl’s wary wild face, her round glaring eyes and the knife pointed straight at his chest, held awkwardly in her delicate white hand. It was roughened now by calluses and reddened, but it was the hand of the princess certainly. The wonder filling the huntsman nearly overtook the fear, for it was surely wondrous that a princess had transformed so. Even then, wondrous as it was, it was perhaps more frightening that a wild princess such as this might not have so many scruples about hurting him. Might not recognize him, even, him who’d watched her toddle among his hounds years before.
The princess stepped forward, through the fear choking her. She had a knife, but the huntsman was tall and strong, and his dogs were dangerous. She waved the knife, vaguely, and croaked out, “You should go. I want to be alone here, please, just go. Nobody-“
He was still looking at her, astonished. She took another step forward, the knife wobbling in her hand, and she jabbed impulsively at his shoulder. When the tip of the knife slashed through the fabric of his tunic, and the tear wet with blood, they both looked at it in astonishment. She stared at the knife, red barely glinting on its edge. He looked first in awe at the spot on his shoulder, spreading slowly and darkening into a stain. He tipped his face up to the princess, and his eyes were clouded with the pain of the wound – slight as it was – and a shock and hurt that she did not understand. He turned, stumbling, and started away from the cottage, tripping and running unevenly. His dogs turned reluctantly, and trailed after, making not a sound. She watched him disappear through the gaps between the trees, until she could not see him.
The princess stood watching for a long time, even after she could not see the wounded huntsman. The knife was in her hand, the blood dry and the handle heavy to her wrist, and she nearly dropped it by the time she remembered to lower her arm, and drop her head, and turn to go back inside and finish washing up.
The queen waited anxiously for news. She trusted, perhaps, nobody at all as she trusted the huntsman. It was an odd alliance, but she had watched the court, the shallow courtiers and the counselors and the obsequious diplomats. They had given her the irrevocable conclusion that if there was anyone worthwhile to be found among the court, with whom one could form a friendship, the amount of nasty sly conceit among them made the trouble of finding one barely worth it. The maidservants were all afraid of her – and certainly she couldn’t truly speak to one of the maids, anyway, that wouldn’t be proper at all – but the huntsman was one nearly in between.
She had to talk with him often, to keep up the business of maintaining the castle and the grounds, and in those conversations she had discovered his good character, his honesty, and his loyalty. He wasn’t, for all that, the wit and sparkling intellectual she might have spoken with among the court, but his answers were frank and straightforward. The queen had found, after a long day among the labyrinth of court politics, that straightforward was exactly what she needed. She knew too that she hungered for the admiring glances he gave her – nothing more than the devotion due to his monarch, surely, but a handsome man watching her ordinary face with such intent eyes made her heart swell nonetheless.
When the huntsman entered the castle, panting from the exertion of finding his way back through the trees, bleeding, the servants surrounded him in a cooing cluster of fluttering aprons and grasping hands. He pushed them aside as best he could, and said, “The queen, I have to see the queen,” his breath wheezing in his chest.
The servants gasped, and all agreed that really it would be better if he could wait, that would be better, for he was bleeding you see, and he ought to get that wound treated like a good boy, and the queen couldn’t see that now could she and after all that just wouldn’t be right.
He ignored them, and repeated himself, and when they kept on with their chatter, trying to herd him to a bench and bring over a bandage, he bellowed, “I have to see the queen, now.”
They fell silent, and with barely a word – though many a pout and resentful look – two of the maids brought him gingerly to the room where the queen was pacing restlessly. They delivered him, having stayed far away from the bleeding wound and clearly glad to be away from the half-crazed hurt man.
The queen turned, her face aglow with hope, and the huntsman stepped forward with his head low to tell her why he was returning with nothing to show her but a still-blossoming spot of blood.