O, Princess, when the Wicked Queen told me to bring her your
I could not. For what am I but the Huntsman? It’s all anyone knows of me, and all I really know of myself. My craft is my name and my life.
And you were too small. That wasn’t hunting, that would have been unadulterated murder, and would help neither Man nor Forest.
So I gave the Queen the heart of a Wild Boar; I suspect she guessed at the truth, but I prepared the meat carefully (over a fire of bramble and fragrant rare branches, using herbs few might find and fewer still might know how to use, roasted at the right heat and for the right time; how well a Huntsman knows patience!); and in the end, as is oft true of all but the most wasteful predators, the satiation of her hunger quieted her desire to kill.
And thus, she didn’t chase the matter down. Not unexpected, really; once a pest is out of sight, it’s natural to forget the thing, even if it isn’t truly gone. If it troubles us no more, it can leave our minds; who cares what it does to the neighbor’s garden, so long as it doesn’t come back?
And now, back you have come. And the Queen seeks you out, perhaps to slay you, perhaps to place you under some kind of enchantment unnatural. It’s this latter I cannot allow. I am but a Huntsman; I can’t predict sorcery the same way I might anticipate a heavy storm or an early thaw, and I therefore cannot protect that which I steward from its unknown and strange effects. If I knew it would definitely be the poison, well, that’s how one sometimes deals with pests; unfortunate, but understandable. But creatures of strength will tend to use their gifts; a buck, who might protect his hard-grown antlers, might instead lower his head and charge if the passion is in him. It is similar with the Witch-born; sadly, my Queen has powers beyond those of most mortals (which, perhaps, reside also in you, her daughter). She might, in her anger, do something like raise up a maze of tearing briar, an invasive species which will seek water and nutrients from the soil and choke my trees; a tanglewood whose thorns will wreak havoc on the flesh and stomach of the beasts under my care. She might cause the palace, or even the kingdom, to slumber for decades or centuries. Some of the naive think that if humans went away, nature would flourish, but humans are a part of nature, even when we do not cultivate the land or domesticate the beasts. Remove us, and our untended fields will invite blight or beatles, our carefully-bred horses will lose their source of daily grain; and should lightning upend a tree and dam a river, or should drought overtake us, there will be no man-made solutions forthcoming. I have seen some of these things with my own eyes, when I travelled in my youth, and I have heard of it from those who came before me. This, this I cannot allow.
I could blame the Queen; but she’s really only reacting to a threat to her ecological niche; that’s normal. I could blame you, but that would be unfair. You were just a certain thing born into a certain place, and you never asked to be the progeny of a species which eats its own.
To be honest, the forest doesn’t care about either of you; it only cares about greenery and abundance, or disruption and starvation.
My mother, Huntsman before me, passed this down from my grandmother, who was Huntsman first of all:
“We can’t always make the right choices for the Woods; there’s more to ’em than any individual can understand. But we can’t stand idle, either. We try to make that which is under our care flourish, and grow as best we can, and sometimes that means nurturing a seed or a runt, and sometimes that means removing a threat with the most merciful shot we can manage. So sharpen your eyes, sharpen your arrowheads, and do what must be done.”
Perhaps you would defeat the Queen; perhaps she would best you. Perhaps you would be better for the forest, and perhaps you would be worse. You’re an unknown, and my job holds too many of those already.
There is only one way to be sure of the disposition of your heart.
The Queen seeks you, but I hunt you; that’s what I do. So I’ll get to you first. There’s a family of boars who will consume anything I leave behind. When the Queen finds you gone, she’ll be annoyed, but the fundamental problem will have vanished, and that will be enough for her. It always is. She never spends more time in my woods than she needs to; nobody does, for some reason. She’ll go back to her Palace and her mirror, and I’ll go back to my cottage for a long winter’s rest, nuzzling my kith and kin, and feeding on cold meat from the larder.
Jeff Mach is at the other end of this keyboard, struggling to refer to himself in the first person. No luck so far, though.