The Elf Maiden and the HuntsmanbyJuneSummers©
Little Bell licked the torn skin on her knuckle and frowned when she tasted the blood. The tin soldier's ambush had been a success. She glared at her baby brother. "You play fair," she told him in a stern voice, "or by yourself."
The boy only giggled at her, undoubtedly relishing his victory.
Bell's hands balled into fists. If her father hadn't made her promise only to use force in self-defense, she probably would have beaten the boy to a pulp. Then again, she might have held back because he was still small and skinny, either because of his age or because he shared more with their mother than just her freckles and wild frizzy hair. Perhaps when he got older, Bell would take their sibling rivalry to a whole new level. But for now she'd turn to her father, who reclined in his armchair by the fireplace.
"Yes, Isabell?" his deep voice asked from behind his newspaper.
"Nate tore my finger!"
Her father lowered his paper and blinked at her raised hand. "Then you may tear his," he said calmly.
Nate gasped and stared with big brown eyes, first at their father and then at Bell.
Amused by the shock on her brother's face, Bell decided to relinquish the opportunity for now, but she wouldn't hesitate to retaliate the next offense evenly, in accordance with her father's consent.
Her mother sat on the sofa by the window, darning socks. "I'd like to suggest a pastime involving less violence," she said as if she'd read Bell's mind.
"Well, Nathan's a little young for board games or cards," her father said.
"What would you like, Bell?" her mother asked.
She didn't have to think too hard about that. "Oh, a story! A story!"
Her mother smiled. "Don't you have a story to share, Mr. Clark?"
"Hm, let's see." He scanned the pages of his paper. "Corruption, injustice, murder, and tragedy."
"What about your imagination?" her mother asked.
"A fairy tale!" cried Bell.
Her father frowned. "I'm not your granny." He turned to her mother. "Mrs. Clark."
"I'm busy." She nodded at the sock-filled basket next to her on the sofa.
With a deep sigh, her father folded his newspaper and placed it on the coffee table in front of him. Taking that as her cue, Bell scrambled towards him and sat down on the carpet at his feet while Nate followed suit.
"A story, a story... a fairy tale story," her father mumbled, gazing at the ceiling. A smile crept across his face when he turned to Bell and Nate. "I have a story," he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Bell felt prompted to guess. "Is it about a princess?"
Out with the tiara. "But it's about a girl, right?"
"Oh, yes," her father answered. "It's about a girl... and the man she married."
"Nooooo!" cried Nate, swaying on his knees.
Bell slapped his arm. "Hush!" Now she was even more eager to hear the story, knowing it would be a way of getting back at Nate.
"I hope it's age appropriate," her mother remarked.
"Of course it is!" Her father coughed in his fist.
Bell wondered whether he was alright when his face reddened, but he grinned so widely she reckoned he must be feeling well enough.
"It's about a girl alright," he began, "but she wasn't just any girl. She was something very, very special."
Nate stopped scratching the carpet and looked up. "Special how?"
"She was a wood elf, a dainty little thing who lived in the great forest. She ate nuts, fruits, and berries, played with the animals, and combed her hair with twigs."
"How long was her hair?" Bell wanted to know.
Her father raised his eyebrows, pausing for a moment. "It came down to her ankles. And her head was crowned with a wreath of flowers or leaves, according to the season."
Focusing her concentration, Bell closed her eyes while she tried to picture the elf in her mind. The hair was much longer than she'd expected, but at least the wreath worked well. Bell decided to add some little braids here and there, as a finishing touch.
Her father chuckled, causing Bell to open her eyes again. "But humans hardly ever saw her," he said. "Like most of her kind, she had an odd trick or two. She could blend in with her environment and become almost invisible. Most people wouldn't see her unless she showed herself willingly, but that rarely happened because she was frightfully shy."
"Why was she shy?" asked Bell.
"Because she had no clothes."
"Mr. Clark!" her mother cried in shock.
"She only wore a shift made out of... spider rag," her father explained.
Nate grimaced. "Ew!"
Bell had to agree with her brother on this one. She started to seriously question her father's imagination and the practicality of his idea. "Did the rag come with or without the spiders?"
"Without. Spiders won't catch anything if their webs are stuck onto, ahem, a body... or certain parts thereof."
Bell frowned, wondering why her father was getting so vague. Hearing a muffled sound, she turned to see her mother press a hand to her mouth, shaking uncontrollably. Bell looked to her father for an explanation, but he paid no heed to her mother's sudden affliction, apart from waiting for the worst to subside before he continued with his story.
"She looked quite pretty in the morning though. Dew drops would stick to her shift, causing it to sparkle in the light every time she moved."
Bell pursed her lips, nodding slowly. She wouldn't mind wearing a sparkling shift. "But nobody would see that," she reminded her father.
"No human did," he confirmed, "until one day a huntsman entered her part of the forest, looking for a kill."
"Kill! Kill!" cried Nate, bouncing on his knees.
"No!" cried Bell. "The animals are her friends!" She was pleased to see Nate calm himself down, even if he did so with visible reluctance.
"Yes, the animals are her friends," her father said, "but huntsmen will be huntsmen."
"Oh, no!" Bell pouted, staring at the carpet. She didn't want to think about how upset the elf maiden would be if one of her friends got killed.
"So this huntsman entered her forest, stalking a deer," her father continued. "He'd already nocked an arrow, but he waited to get a clean shot. The elf saw what he was about to do, but she was too afraid to intervene. When the deer entered a glade, the huntsman saw his opportunity. But just when he was about to release his arrow, a little fawn jumped out of the shrubbery."
"Aw!" Belle looked up, studying her father's face. She'd surely be able to tell whether he intended for something unfortunate to befall the fawn.
"The huntsman didn't have the heart to rob the young deer of its mother, so he lowered his bow and decided to look for other game instead."
Bell sighed with relief.
"But he hadn't walked three steps before he froze, squinting his eyes. There she was, on the other side of the glade: small and fragile, hardly visible against the trees and branches behind her, but he could see her gaze back at him with those big brown eyes. He wanted to get closer and talk to her. But the moment he moved, she was gone."
Bell wondered why her father's eyes had drifted towards her mother while he spoke. "How could he see her?" she asked when he paused too long.
He cast her a startled glance. "Well, she was so relieved and happy he'd spared the deer. Her heart filled with gratitude and she unintentionally lowered her guard as a result. The huntsman guessed as much. That's why he didn't shoot any animals around the glade that day, or any other day that followed. Although he returned quite often, hoping to catch another glimpse of the elusive elf maiden."
Her mother laughed. "How pitiful!"
"No, it wasn't," her father said. "She would show herself every now and then. The glade had become something of a safe haven for the animals, and she was afraid the huntsman would go back on his decision if he never saw her again."
"And what did he do when he saw her again?" her mother asked.
"Well, the first few times he remained very still because he wanted to win her trust. He hoped that the more the elf maiden trusted him, the more she'd show herself, and the closer he'd be allowed to approach her. And he was right about that. As time passed by she appeared more frequently, although she still ran off every time he moved too suddenly or too fast. But after a while she wouldn't leave entirely. She'd simply dart across the glade, waiting for him to spot her again. It amused her to watch him look for her. It became something of a game to them."
Bell pictured the elf maiden flitting from tree to tree, hiding behind her long hair, and the huntsman looking around with a dazed expression on his faze, unable to spot her until she giggled behind her hand. Perhaps it could be fun for a while, but Bell reckoned such a game would soon grow dull, or even tiring.
"Didn't they ever say anything to each other?" she asked.
"He only talked to her at first," her father answered. "Elves don't speak the human tongue, but she understood most of what he said. Elves are very clever that way, the women especially. But the huntsman wasn't so clever. It took him a while to understand he had to teach her his language. By that time, the elf maiden trusted him enough to subject herself to his tutelage. She'd sit with him to practice her pronunciation, close enough to touch. He never tried though. He didn't want to spoil what they had. He'd become awfully fond of the elf maiden, you see?"
Nate groaned, growing restless.
Bell ignored her brother. "But how did they end up marrying?"
"I'm getting to it." Her father tapped his chin. "The kingdom was ruled by a queen who had a taste for venison. When the supply of her favorite meat became ever more infrequent, she threw a mighty fit. All the huntsmen were summoned to court for an explanation. Our huntsman didn't want to tell anyone about the elf maiden, so he simply said they must have shot too many deer in the past and suggested they'd allow the population to grow back. He didn't think too much about it, but the next time he went to see the elf maiden, the queen's royal huntsman followed him to the glade and saw it was filled with deer and other animals."
Bell and Nate gasped simultaneously. "Uh-oh!"
"Yes, 't was bad indeed," her father said solemnly. "Because when the elf maiden showed herself, the queen's huntsman mistook her for a witch and decided to kill her right then and there."
"No!" cried Bell. The death of the elf maiden would surely end the story, and a lousy end that would be.
"Why did he mistake her for a witch?" her mother asked.
"The queen was the real witch, and a very wicked one at that. She'd cast a spell on those who served her at court to see all that which was evil as good, and that which was good as evil. The huntsman, being a killer, had only looked suspicious to them. But the poor elf maiden, who never hurt a fly in her life, became the epitome of evil in the eyes of the queen's huntsman. And so, he felt obliged to slay her."
"And did he?" asked Nate.
Bell was surprised her brother actually sounded worried. Apparently he cared about the elf maiden too.
"Oh, he tried," her father answered, "but when he raised his bow, the animals sounded the alert and the elf maiden managed to evade his arrow, even though it missed her only by a hair."
Bell and Nate sighed with relief.
"But by doing so, she threw herself into the arms of the good huntsman, who realized at that moment, when he touched her for the first time, just how much he cared about her."
"Ah, how romantic!" her mother said.
"Yes, I thought you'd like that." Her father cleared his throat. "Anyway, with the help of the animals they managed to subdue the queen's huntsman and--"
"Why not kill him?" asked Nate.
Her father blinked at the interruption. "Because he wasn't a bad person," he explained. "They'd only need to lift the spell. Of course they didn't know how to do that, so they searched the kingdoms of both humans and elves for the answer. They spent weeks, months, even years, traveling from the highest mountain peak to the mysterious ocean deep, and anywhere in between. They faced many trials and endured many hardships."
Bell almost prodded her father for specifics, but decided against it, preferring to find out how the matter would be resolved. "Did they find an answer?"
"Oh, they found many answers, most of which were hogwash. They tried them all in spite of that. You can imagine how disheartening it was when they didn't get the results they were looking for. Then one wise old crone told them that true love would conquer anything."
"I'm sure I've heard that one before," her mother said.
"I'm sure you did. Because it's true," her father replied. "But the huntsman and the elf maiden didn't know what to make of it. They returned to the glade where the animals kept guarding the queen's huntsman. They felt like they had failed the quest so they tried to comfort each other, talking about how they'd tried to do the right thing in the face of adversity. The huntsman told the elf maiden how much he admired her because of all the things he'd seen her do, and that he cared about her very much and wanted to be with her forever. The elf maiden, in turn, had grown to care deeply about the huntsman. Ever since he'd spared the deer, she'd seen the good in him and her feelings had only grown the more she'd gotten to know him. It didn't hurt that the huntsman was also rather good-looking, even by elfin standards." Her father paused to run his fingers through his hair.
Her mother shook her head and laughed, but refrained from commenting.
"And so, after they'd expressed their mutual love to each other, the huntsman grew bold. He drew the elf maiden into his arms and gave her his true love's kiss. While the queen's huntsman watched them, his eyes opened and he could finally recognize things for what they were again. Now he no longer posed a threat to the elf maiden, the animals released him and allowed him to return to the castle. But when he saw the queen again, he realized she was an evil witch and he shot her... dead!"
"Yay!" cried Nate.
Belle nodded in agreement with her brother, feeling greatly relieved.
"The death of the queen lifted the spell from the others she'd bewitched, but her former huntsman's eyes were extra keen because of the true love he'd witnessed in the glade. So the people elected him to become their king and lead the country with justice and compassion. The new king soon found himself a queen, a kind and sensible woman, who would rule in fairness at his side."
Bell thought her father was getting distracted from the main story. "What happened to the other huntsman, the one with the elf maiden?"
"Oh, the elf maiden couldn't live in the human world, so the huntsman stayed with her in the forest instead. He never hunted again, but turned to eating nuts, fruits, and berries like her. He did occasionally steal an egg when she wasn't watching, but together they were as happy as any couple in love could be. Their union was celebrated with a wonderful ceremony, attended by elves and animals. The elves also gave the huntsman something to stop him from aging, because elves don't age either. And then they all lived ha--"
"But did they have any children?" interrupted Bell.
Her father chuckled at the question. "Why, of course," he answered. "They were soon blessed with a smart little girl and, a few years later, a mischievous little boy followed."
Bell giggled, pointing at Nate as if he were that mischievous little boy. Likewise, Nate pointed back at her as if she were that smart little girl. Bell decided Nate wasn't such a bad little brother after all, and she was glad she hadn't beaten him before.
"What happened to the children?" her mother asked suddenly.
Having retrieved his newspaper, her father leaned back in his armchair and grinned. "Now that, Mrs. Clark, is another story entirely."