The Queen and the Huntsman
Illustrations by Sam Crow
*Editor's Note: Originally published in the charity anthology Gather Around the Flame.
This king then, he was arrogant, lazy, greedy and more in love with himself and his wine skin than with anyone else in the world, which was not so very fair on his wife now, you know? Ah, and it broke the young queen’s heart, so it did, for she was very much in love with him, as it goes, and in turn this small fact broke the heart of the king’s master huntsman, for he was head over his own heels in love with the queen and there now, you know, we have a nice lot of fish to put in our kettle and brew a good tale with, so I will delay no more and get about it.
Now this king, after the fashion of those who came before him, he was fond of a good hunt (and all the good wine that went along with it, you know?) and ever and over again, when his court was growing dull (and that was about every Wednesday, you know, for courts are tedious places at the best of times) he would call upon his master huntsman to saddle up the horses and rally out the hounds and off he and his party would hie themselves across field and farm and forest on the tail of some poor quarry. I say ‘quarry’ like that for a purpose, child, for this wicked king and his wine-poached courtiers never minded whether they hunted man or beast and this also broke the poor huntsman’s heart for he was a far gentler and nobler sort of man than that, you know.
And, every time the hunt rode out, the king would call up to his wife “What token shall I bring back for thee my queen? Name anything in the world and, on my honor, I shall bring it thee.”
He did not say this out of love, you know, only out of more of his boasting and the queen knew this too and so she never much bothered or thought about what she asked for but would sometimes say, “Oh, a cloak of red or green velvet,” and other times, “Oh, just a brown rabbit skin mantle,” and then, less often, “Oh, a little bracelet of silver or gold,” and all the things he ever brought back she would give to her serving maids for she knew it was not the king himself who had been here, there and over the place to get them but that each time the party camped he would send out his master huntsman upon the errand while the king himself made merry by the fire and slept easy the night through.
And so the king’s gifts meant nothing to the queen and she pined away lonely and longing for him to pay her just one tenth of the attention he paid to his courtiers, his hounds or even to his wine skin. Ah but there is always a twist in the tale, little one, and here it is...
Now the queen, you will not be surprised to hear, was in the habit of going to the little chapel on the hill (where once there used to be a well) at the hour before it gets light and there she would clasp to her chest a little angel, all carved of white bone, that had once belonged to her grandmother and to the swelling breast of the dawn she would whisper her masses and her curses in equal measure. (What? Oh, do not wonder that I say she cursed, child, for she was a queen, remember, and whilst the lips of a maiden only pour out milk and honey, the lips of a married dame have been stained by the filth and bitterness of men.)
Now, one dark whisper of a morning, while her head was bent in silent prayers of devotion and wrath, the young queen suddenly heard a fluttering, as of great feathered wings, amongst the eaves above her head and, startled, she jumped and dropped the little bone angel which struck the flagstone floor and shattered into a considerable number of pieces.
The queen looked up into the rafters, expecting to see some large bird, a stork or heron perhaps, which had made its way into the chapel by mistake, but the rafters were bare and the dark air still and silent. Feeling uneasy, the queen gathered the broken pieces of the bone angel together in her handkerchief and, as she did so, down from the roof of the chapel fluttered a large, solitary black feather. It landed in the centre of the handkerchief and the queen at once knew better than to touch it for she could plainly see with her own two eyes that the outer edges of it glowed white hot and that, even as it rested on the handkerchief, it left black scorching marks upon the white silk. But the queen, although cautious, was not afraid for she knew that at least something, or someone, had been listening to her prayers and so she trusted that those prayers were, in some form, about to be answered “For Mother God” she told herself, “must have many servants, and who am I to judge the one she sends?”
So she gathered the corners of the handkerchief together and gingerly carried it back to her room and hid it in her top drawer (which incidentally is the first place every woman hides anything and therefore the first place every woman looks when she wants to find something).
Now I’m sure that you, who have listened to a thousand and one stories under the sun, and many more under the moon, already know that all this happened on an especially dull day in the middle of the week and that morning at breakfast the king announced that he would ride out that afternoon and called upon his master huntsman to haul out horses and hounds and make ready for the hunt.
The courtiers were in high spirits (that is to say they were well drunken) as they assembled in the courtyard on their steeds and, as usual, the king called out in his brazen, boasting fashion, to where the queen stood with her ladies upon the battlements to bid them all good riddance, and asked what trophy or token she would have him bring her upon his safe return.
“Oh, a little bone carved angel” she called “like that my grandmother used to own but which was broken just this morning and without which I cannot say my masses!”
Well the king made a great blustering show of saying he would get it (along with some choice remarks about maidens and masses which I won’t trouble myself to repeat to you) and with a great ringing of hooves and horns and howls the hunt tore off across the countryside and, as usual, they paid no respect to man nor beast, crashing through hedgerows, knocking down fences and trampling crops as they went.
Well, when their bloodthirst was quenched and the evening’s red and gold curtain was drawing over the land, the king called a halt and bid his servants make camp. Then he called his master huntsman to him and ordered him go to the nearest town and get for the queen whatever it was she had wanted.
Now the king, of course, had quite forgotten what on earth it was she had asked for but of course the huntsman had not and so off he went. When he got to the town, he sought out the master carver and told him the commission and, as it was for the king, the carver laid aside his dinner and all his other obligations, and worked at it while the huntsman waited by. All night the carver worked at the little bone angel and by the time the skin of night was peeling back to reveal the tender flesh of a pale and watery dawn, the little figure was complete and the huntsman thanked and paid him and returned, exhausted, to the camp.
The pale morning turned red and angry and the king woke sore headed from his meat and drink the night before and ill tempered from a night of troubled dreams and he barked and growled at everyone so that no one dared speak to him or even catch his eye. The company struck for home but they had not been riding long when, true to the old saying, a storm rose up around them and so wild was the wind and so thick the fog and rain that they could barely see to go on. The horses and hounds were blinded and fearful and it took all the will of the men to restrain them when suddenly, out of the fog and storm-swirl, they heard the swift drum roll of hooves upon the heath and a voice, shrill like the north wind, cried out “Stand and deliver gentlemen.” And to their awe the mists and rains parted to reveal a dark cloaked figure astride a magnificent white steed.
Now some of the men began to laugh for the situation truly was ridiculous; here was one lone rider expecting to gain the store of the king’s hunt, when to a man they were armed and that was not to mention the hounds… but oh dear, the laughter soon died on their lips as the rider put down its hood and they saw, not a common highway man as they had first thought, but the spectral form of a woman. Her silver hair which fell about her shoulders was not stirred an inch by the storm and the rain seemed not to touch it at all, her face was so pale that they could see right through it to the hills on the other side of the glen and the black hollows of her eye sockets blazed with red hellfire. “Stand and deliver gentlemen,” she said again, so sweet this time that her voice seemed to woo the wind into a stupor. “And if you do not, I’ll have the breath from each of yer.”
The hounds lay whimpering on the ground at her horse’s feet and, trembling with fright, the courtiers, servants and even the king himself, turned over their stock and store to her and she heaved it into a great black sack and strapped it to the horse’s saddle.
But the fiend, if fiend she was, was not done with her gaming yet and she turned her burning eyes upon the king and said, in a voice like falling pine needles, “One thing more.”
“B b b but I I have nothing!” the king stammered, his bravado crushed beneath her boot heel.
“Nothing!” The daemon, if daemon she was, frowned and shook her head. “That little bone angel you carry,” she said sternly. “Give me that, and you may all go your way.”
“No!” cried the huntsman, who still had the little figure tucked against his chest inside his cloak. “Take my soul and be damned bean sidhe but that figure belongs to the queen, and no fiend shall ever lay even eyes upon it!”
“As you wish,” said the woman, if woman she was, “then you shall all come with me into the mouth of hell.” And she turned her horse to leave.
“No! No, wait you shall have it!” the king cried and he and his courtiers seized the huntsman and tried to wrestle the bone angel from his grasp, but so tightly he held onto it that they had to cut off his hand to get it from him for he swore he would never give it up.
Well no sooner did they hand over the little angel, dripping red with the blood of the huntsman’s severed hand, then the ghost, if ghost she was, let out a howl of anguish. “Cursed are you all now!” cried she. “For seven hundred years your horses will bear you across the lands you have ravaged. For seven hundred years you will gather souls as greedy and selfish and loveless as your own, and when those seven hundred years are done and the flesh has rotted from your stinking bones, I will come and gather you and you will all ride with me into the mouth of hell, for in that land a maiden may come and go as she pleases, but a man is bound for eternity.”
And the company found they could do nothing but climb back onto their horses and, once they were in the saddle, they found themselves rooted there, unable to dismount, and with a wild crash of thunder overhead, the horses bore their riders away and into the storm.
Well that could be the end of the story couldn’t it? Ah, but you know it is not, for although the lady, if lady she was, tipped her hat to the huntsman, who still lay bleeding on the ground, and turned her horse to face the storm, the huntsman cried out to her in fury. “She devil!” cried he and he struggled to his feet and flung himself awkwardly into his saddle, clasping the bleeding stump of his severed hand to his chest. “That angel you have stolen belongs to the queen and I will have it back from you even if I have to chase thee into hell to get it!”
“As you wish” the devil said, if devil she was, and with that she turned and whipped her steed into the hills with the huntsman hot upon her tail. Over the glen and up into the hills, down through the plains and into the tangled forests they flew, through day and night and into dreams the chase went on and never once did either of them stop for anything until they reached the gates of hell and that is where we will leave them.
Now the queen had been waiting all this time but she was not troubled, for the king and his courtiers were often gone for days on their hunting trips and, truth be told, the ladies of the court did not miss their company a bit, and when you have been married long child you will understand why that is. But on the second night of their absence the queen was suddenly awakened by the fluttering of wings, as if an enormous bird were hovering above her bed and she leapt up, startled, to find a creature, if creature it was, sitting cross legged upon her windowsill. Now this creature could for all the world have been a woman, for she certainly had the body and the face of one, although her face was so pale that the young queen could look right through it and see the stars twinkling on the other side and in the dark hollows of her eye sockets there burned the red flames of hellfire. Then again she could have been an angel, for up from her back rose the most elegant and sleek pair of wings an angel could wish for, although the feathers that covered them were blacker than a starless night. And, then again you see she could have been a devil, for her long black tail trailed snake-like over the window sill and onto the floor beside her and out from the top of her head of long silver hair sat a merry couple of little horns.
Well this creature smiled at the queen and bid her good evening in a cordial sort of fashion and the queen replied likewise, thinking it best to be polite to such a creature and not to offend it at all, but in her heart you know she knew just what the creature was about and why it had come and so presently she asked it, “what has become of my husband? Will he bring me back my little bone angel as he promised?”
“He will not,” the creature said, “for he has lost his soul to hell and don’t pretend to be amazed that that has happened or I shall think I have misjudged you.”
The young queen trembled from head to foot but she shook her head solemnly “I am not amazed,” she said.
“Good.” The creature smiled. “However, about your little bone angel, there is an interesting tale. You have lost the man who had your heart, but the man whose heart you own waits for you at hell's gate. Your husband gave me his stock and store and even his soul tonight dear, and he would have given me your little angel also, but his huntsman would not let it go and in the end the king’s men cut off his hand to get it from him.” The queen gasped in horror but the creature, if creature she was, continued, “I sent the king and his men to serve out their curse and I would have let the huntsman go but so fierce was his devotion to you that he chased me all across the land, through night and day and the realm of dreams right to the gates of hell and there I gave to him the little angel that he sought and told him to wait and see if you would come and claim it for truly you should know that he is near to death and I doubt that he can survive the journey back again alone.”
“Then I will go to him at once!” the queen cried and she leapt out of bed and began pulling on her riding leathers and her cape.
“Ah, but it is not so easy as all that,” the creature replied, idly stroking her long black tail, “you see, to get to the gates of hell you must first ride through the valley of bones which will rattle your teeth in your head until they are all broken down to stumps. Then, if you survive that, which most don’t, you must ride through the river of blood which will boil the skin from your flesh until you are raw and blistered and bleeding. Then, if you survive that, which most don’t, you must ride over the mountain of fire which will burn the flesh from your bones and melt your eyes in their sockets so that you are nothing but a black and charred skeleton. Then, if you are still alive, and I am not convinced that you will be, you will meet the huntsman who is so in love with you, dear, that he has already undergone all these trials and, if you can stand the sight of each other after all that has passed, you may try to get back again to the mortal world together, although I must tell you now that I know of none who have ever done it.”
The young queen took a moment to digest all this and then, at length, she set her jaw grimly and nodded. “I will go with you” she said firmly, “though I will probably die it does not matter. I have lived a life in shadow without love for so long, what does it matter if I die tonight? But if I live, and if this man who has torn himself to pieces for my sake can love me when I too am burnt and ruined, then even if we die on the journey home, at least I will have known love, no matter how short the time we may have together.”
The creature grinned a very beautiful grin and said, “Ah, I was sure I had not misjudged you, very well then, come.” And she leapt out of the window and onto the back of her waiting steed who shone as silver bright as the moon. The queen looked out after her and saw her own horse, saddled and waiting in the yard and within seconds she was down and out and onto its back and they were off.
Through day and night and dreams they flew, through the valley of bone, though the poor queen’s teeth rattled so hard that they smashed to pieces and crumbled like cookie pieces out of her mouth and the jagged juts that were left split her lips open so that she tasted her own blood. Through the river of blood they rode, though it boiled the skin from the poor queen’s flesh until she was raw and she had never known such nakedness and pain. Over the mountain of fire they rode, though the heat and the flames scorched the flesh from the poor queen’s bones and left them black and charred with only a few scraps of hair clinging to her scalp like seaweed. And then at last they reached the gates of hell, where the huntsman was waiting.
When the queen’s steed finally came to a halt she fell, writhing in misery and pain from its back and in truth she wanted nothing more than to be allowed to die for she guessed that nothing could be worse than continuing on the way she was, you know? Ah, but then she saw her huntsman and at first she shrank back in fear because he was nothing more, you know, than a charred skeleton with lumps of his once fine flesh still clinging onto him here and there and she saw in him at once how terrible she herself must look and she despaired of course of him ever being able to love her, you know?
For tell me who could love such a gruesome and unsightly thing?
But to her amazement the huntsman opened up his charred, black and twisted arms, still with the one hand missing, and welcomed her and she crawled along the ground to him even though it took the last of her strength to do it and for a long time she thought she would die happy like that, loving him and he loving her and nothing else much mattering at all. But at last it was the angel, if angel she was, who spoke to them and said “Stir yourselves now. For in a moment the devil herself will drive her hounds out through these gates and onto the earth for their daily exercise and the sight of her terrible beauty will finish both of you ( and if it doesn’t she will eat you anyway).”
So, the huntsman struggled to lift the queen onto her horse and he clambered with great difficulty up behind her and away they went.
And what happened then you might ask? Well, I can tell you that they both expected to perish, for what was left to burn or boil or break but their charred bones and their still beating hearts? And surly they would not last long over a mountain of fire, a lake of blood and a valley of bone? Well no, they wouldn't, would they?
But as the couple rode back over the mountain of fire, they were amazed to find that the flames lapped at them gently like cool water and soothed just a little of their pain and misery and despair and by the time they had reached the other side they stared at each other in amazement, for their flesh, raw and searingly painful though it was, had grown back over their charred bones.
Next came the river of blood, of course, and this time they found the waters cool and soothing as aloe sap and as they rode out on the opposite bank they gaped at each other, for their skin had also grown back over their blistered flesh.
Lastly they had to ride through the valley of bone, but this time they found that the bones, although they clattered and creaked beneath the horses hooves, seemed only to be chattering to them like old friends and as they reached the opening into the mortal world them grinned at each other and joyfully realized that even their broken teeth had grown back.
Now the huntsman was still without his hand and he remains so to this day but he does not much mind about it. And the queen is still without most of her hair, as it never quite all grew back, but she does not much mind after that either. After they left the valley of bones they hugged and kissed and cried for joy as if they had just been born and then they took themselves off secretly to a little hut on the edge of a little forest and there they made a nice little living for themselves from that day to this as far as I know. Oh, I don’t say they lived happily ever after child! Don’t get me wrong, this is not some mealy wealy fairy story I am telling you now! But, I suppose, when you have been to hell and back with the one you love, any other hardship or irritation, inconvenience or setback, must seem very, very little by comparison, wouldn't you agree?