It had hurt quite a bit when the huntsman dragged the blade of the knife across her chest, but (as Fjolla had suspected) the moment he pried her heart out, the pain ceased.
Trygg next set about slicing the long braid from her head. Fjolla, meanwhile, had not expected her heart to be the size of her little white hand and turned it over to observe its make. It was dense and much tougher than she’d expected. Fjolla had pictured something squishy and fragile, but the pulsating lump she grasped with one hand resisted the squeeze of her fingers.
“It is a horror,” Trygg went on to say, “that one as lovely as you must be hereafter scarred.”
“That is true,” Fjolla said, “but more the horror to be born of that woman.”
Fjolla was fairly content with the prospect of living a dull and harmless life upon the delivery of her heart to her mother. It wouldn’t have made much sense to follow Trygg’s scheme– the slaughtering of another human in her place– because that cunning mirror would’ve tattled the tale instantly. In this way, Fjolla would be scarred, ugly, and left alone. Surely the mirror cared not if she were truly alive. Fjolla was dubious that the mirror had any cares at all, except to also be left alone. Besides, the only question her mother begged was a petty one, though not without its harms.
“You did bring a satchel,” Fjolla said, wondering why she had to hold her own heart.
“I would prefer it if I might wrap up your little heart in soft paper, and your hair too.” Trygg, ever faithful, said these words with his usual calm voice. “And for that, I need clean hands.”
The risk of it all, of course, was Fjolla’s unfeelingness. She was a cold girl in nature to begin with, but now she would not feel the pain should a shard of glass slice her skin open, or a needle prick her finger. Trygg had fought her wishes before for this very reason, but Fjolla stamped her foot and insisted.
The huntsman put the satchel on the table, and after washing his hands with water from the skin that hung at his hip, Fjolla could hear the distinct crinkling sound of the soft paper, as promised.
“Not,” Trygg said under his breath, “that she deserves such a gift.”
There was a quiet slipping sound after that (Fjolla was careful not to crane her neck), and then Trygg drew out a long red ribbon to tie the two parcels with. Within a few moments, he held out his hand for Fjolla’s heart, and she reluctantly relinquished her grasp on it.
After the organ and the braid, wrapped and ribboned, were delicately placed in the rough leather satchel, Trygg got to work with the needle and thread.
“I only had scarlet,” he said apologetically as he sewed her flesh back together. Red, where they came from, was a color used only to celebrate special times during the year.
“It is as much a festivity for me as it is for her,” Fjolla said with a yawn. After a moment, she continued: “I wonder that she did not order my corpse to be brought before her.”
“That is easy enough,” Trygg said. “Firstly because she hates to look upon you, and secondly because there is no death more dishonorable than to be torn apart and eaten by wild beasts.”
Fjolla supposed that was true enough. She remained silent the rest of the time that it took for Trygg, ever faithful, to stitch her skin back up.
When he was done, he took her hands and gently pulled her up so that she sat with her back straight and her legs stretched out upon the table. Fjolla noticed how the smile he wore was tinged with trouble. She reached out to pat his cheek, her fingers icy. Trygg only nodded sadly and shouldered the satchel.
“Remember to return upon nightfall,” he said.
The huntsman shed a single tear, though he did not tremble or frown. The tear froze on his face as it slipped down his cheek.
“You have done me a great favor, faithful Trygg.” Fjolla swung her legs off of the table and slid to the ground. She felt perfectly fine, despite the hollow where her heart had once thrummed.
Trygg gave a single nod. With that, he knelt and kissed Fjolla’s brow. When he rose, his back was turned to her, and he began his walk back through the woods to the castle.
Fjolla watched him vanish past the rows of starved trees while she put her shift back on, careful not to rip open the stitching that lined her torso as she stretched. The scarlet thread disappeared beneath the cloth, garishly bright against her snowy skin.
After this, Fjolla pulled a plain black dress over her head and tied a little white apron around her waist. Then she pulled a dark cloak about her shoulders. Inside the apron’s left pocket was a red ribbon, and inside the right pocket was a compass. Fjolla took the red ribbon and tied up what hair remained on her head. She took the compass into her left hand and spun around until she faced east.
With that, Fjolla set about to walk. And she did so, for a very long time. Along the way the trees kept stealing the ribbon from her hair, though she wrestled it back each time. Still, Fjolla made it a very long way before the sky began to darken early, as it did in the thick of winter.
In the meantime, Trygg the huntsman arrived at the castle before the queen, and with a bow, he offered the satchel with little Fjolla’s heart and braid of hair inside. The queen crowed in delight and tore at the ribbons and the paper until she held Fjolla’s heart with one clawed hand. With her other hand, she rang a little bell and summoned the cook.
“You shall dine with me in celebration,” The queen said to Trygg, her eyes bright and her smile sly.
With that, she waved the cook away (who was artfully expressionless), and he bowed out with the parcel in his large hands.
The queen leaned close, clasping her hands together and rubbing them in excitement. “How did she look?” She whispered loudly, spit flying past Trygg’s ear. “Was she very frightened?”
Trygg could not meet the bulging eyes of the queen, wide with madness and black with envy. However, he stood very still and nodded his head once.
“She looked…” he began.
The queen’s hands had not stopped rubbing together, and the sound was like dead grass rustled by the wind. She leaned in closer, her crown tilting slightly with sudden movement.
“…ghastly,” he finished.
“Ghastly!” With a sharp intake of breath, the queen barked a laugh, and though she covered her grinning mouth with one hand, her laughter would not stop, until tears streamed from her eyes. She staggered backward a little and nearly lost her balance. Trygg gripped her wrist and set her on her feet again. With a blush, the queen observed him as shyly as a girl.
“Am I not beautiful?” She said.
Trygg took a long look at her. It may have been said by any who did not know the queen that she was lovely– indeed, breathtakingly so. The king had thought so when he married her; had proclaimed her as the “fairest of all”. Before Fjolla was born, Trygg would have willingly agreed. The queen had long hair black as an inky raven’s wing, lips red as blood, skin white as snow, eyes dark as midnight. Even her voice had been enchanting, her very footsteps alluring.
But now, Trygg observed, all of these things were twisted by her lunacy, exaggerated and frightening. She looked as if she were a very crude painting done in mockery of herself. She was not beautiful at all.
“It ill behooves me, in my lowly position, to remark upon the beauty of my queen,” Trygg said with a short bow.
The queen’s blush only deepened, and another string of slippery laughter burst forth from her lips. She clapped her hands twice and ordered that they sit at the long dining table together.
“You were the king’s favorite,” she said. “Thusly you must join me in his stead.”
Fjolla, meanwhile, stopped in her tracks as the sky darkened and the moon’s light fell on the forest floor. She had walked in a half-circle, as Trygg had told her to, and found herself not far from the castle.
Time had slipped away faster than Fjolla had noticed. With an increasing pace, she sped through thorn bushes, kicking up fine, powdery snow. All the while she clutched her compass, and by the moonlight, she followed the hand that pointed her west. Sure enough, she approached the castle.
Fjolla marched through the gates and slipped up the side staircase that led to the main hall. She tucked the compass back into the pocket of her apron and removed her boots, setting them in the corner by one of the doors before ascending the winding staircase to make no noise.
Fjolla caught her breath before she climbed one step after another until she reached the wide hall. She did not know where Trygg was, but she allowed her feet to lead the way as she traveled between the shadows of the hall, careful not to let the light fall on her lest anyone see her.
At the back of the dining room hung a large mirror, Fjolla knew, which she was certain her mother was bound to interrogate. She burst through the door in time to see Trygg’s eyes widen, and the queen whirl around to face her, Fjolla’s braid of hair in her hand. With a clatter, Trygg dropped the goblet he’d been holding. The cook in the corner eyed Fjolla in surprise but said nothing.
“It is her corpse, come to haunt me,” The queen whispered. “Why, her lips are blue as ice, and her skin pale as death..”
“I’m not a corpse,” Fjolla said indignantly.
“It must be because I ate her heart,” the queen’s voice was barely audible now.
“Ate my–” Fjolla began to say.
Trygg slid out of his seat to join Fjolla’s side. The goblet had spilled wine as dark as blood on his hands, and his grasp was wet when he took her hand in his.
The mirror behind the queen flickered like a candle, quiet and silver.
“But tell me now,” said the queen to the mirror, turning back around, “tell me.”
The mirror hissed, and a sound like a coin being thrown in a pond echoed through the room. Trygg’s hand tightened around Fjolla’s, but he did not look down at her. After a moment, the mirror spoke, its voice whispery and cold.
“Yes,” The mirror said.
The queen froze. As Fjolla and Trygg looked on, a buzzing sound filled the room, tinny and irritated. A fly landed on Trygg’s fallen goblet, still rolling on the stones. Fjolla thought she heard a clock tick. The mirror went as still as an undisturbed lake, and the glass became very dull. Rust lined its edges.
Fjolla might have been nervous, but without a heart beating in her chest, she simply looked on with a face as blank as freshly fallen snow.
“I am fairest in all the land now,” the queen said quietly at last. “Truly, I am.”
“That is no surprise,” Fjolla said in her usual dry manner. “I imagine I look wretched in my current state.”
Trygg nudged her to keep silent, and she glowered up at him.
They did not notice the queen until a happy cry escaped her lips and she crumpled to the ground in a disheveled heap.
“Is she…?” The cook said, clearing his throat.
Fjolla marched to her mother’s body and knelt to the floor, pushing the queen over so that her face pointed upwards rather than down. Then Fjolla held a hand over the left side of her mother’s chest. After a long time, she looked up in wonder at Trygg, her eyes shining with pride.
“Well done,” said Fjolla at last.
Trygg, ever faithful, did not answer. He simply sat beside his mistress and began his work.