The Huntsman and the Winter Prince

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    The prince was born on winter’s last night, as the moon turned black and monsters howled, animals feeling the shadow of starvation wind between their bones. In the rib cages of starving wolves the flesh of royal guardsmen sat, for blood was spilled on the night of his birth.
    Unnatural, they said, for wolves to be so daring.
    Within the confines of the castle, cold stone freezing next to weak torchlight, the queen’s screams grew fainter and fainter. Winter sits in her body, the healer said gravely, in her womb. She and the child will not last the night.
    Yet as the clouds crept away and the stars peaked through a cry rang out. A son was born with winter in his heart, and on his snow-pale skin. Hair dark as night, and lips as red as the blood staining royal sheets, and eyes the color of a curse.
    The king, shattered by the loss of his golden-haired summer wife, refused to see the child for the three days he stayed in the arms of the wet nurse. So the queen was set afire on hard ice ground and her ashes scattered at the base of the royal apple tree tree, its many branches piercing the sky before bursting into plumes of pure white flowers.
    The son remained nameless in his father’s grief, until the chief advisor took the child into his own hands- which shivered to touch him- and declared him a prince.
    The advisor was a cruel man, however, so he called the child James, meaning “Usurper” in the tongue of their land, though he knew that on her deathbed the queen had named him David, “Beloved.”
    As the long winter passed and the sun thawed the ground James grew, and left the arms of his wet nurse to venture outside the palace where his father’s grief made him small and the chief advisor’s shadow grew too long. So winter’s child played, and hunted, but his skin stayed pale and his hair stayed dark, and the sun did not touch him until he met the huntsman’s boy.
    It was the eighth year of long summer, and the prince chafed against his fine tunics and stiff boots, instead favoring bare feet and trousers only as he explored his future kingdom. Just inside the gates of the palace he found the boy, whose skin was the same color as the deer thrown over his master’s shoulder, his hair the color of summer wheat. He saw the boy carefully sort the huntsman’s arrows, and wait behind as his master took the kill into the kitchens.
    Then he saw the boy face the brutality of a palace knight, who believed it was his job to torment the washing girl, so James the prince gave the huntsman’s boy a precious gift: friendship.
    From that moment on they were inseparable, the Winter Prince and Seth, the huntsman’s boy, and the loyalty between them was forged with iron. Once, when James stopped breathing on one of their adventures, the huntsman’s boy thought his friend had died.
    “James!” he cried, clutching his friend’s shoulders desperately as the dark-haired boy gasped for air. Seth’ heart leapt when he heard the rasping intake of breath.
    “I’m fine,” James wheezed, but he didn’t look it. Next to the strapping Seth, he looked to be on death’s door, so suddenly had all his beauty faded in the wake of his stuttering lungs.
    “You have the Chill,” Seth frowned. They had traipsed all over the royal city and the surrounding woods on their adventures, and never once had James aid he was sick. Half of the trouble they got into was Seth’s fault, always leaping into battle where he was an injustice occurring, leaving James to drag him back, and now Seth understood the prince’s caution in overexerting himself.
    “It’s nothing,” he insisted, shaking Seth off.
    It wasn’t, but Seth let it go and they returned to the castle together, parting at the gates. One for glittering rooms and a soft bed, the other to an orphan’s lot, and the life of an apprentice sleeping at the foot of his master’s bed.

    Years lengthened and summer waxed hot and bright, until the prince was grown into himself and the king grown used to weakness. James, handsome and roguish, chased maids and royalty alike, no young man or woman of the court safe from his quick wit and easy smile. The secret of the Chill ins his breath remained a well-kept secret.
    Of course, the only one who saw to the heart of him was Seth, ever a constant companion, ever stealing the prince’s years with worry for health and foolhardy heroism. Then summer waned, long black nights crept in, and the chief advisor, fostering decades of influence and leeching power from a king driven to madness in grief, whispered poisonous words into the king’s ears.
    Before summer fades, should not the prince enjoy one last hunt? The future king, accompanied by court and hounds, must have his last of pleasure before winter brings its bite.
    Deeper and deeper James rode, giddy with the thrill of hunting such an elusive creature as this massive boar. It had seemingly come from nowhere and promptly disappeared again, but where the court would falter James was bold. And, of course, accompanied by the finest men the chief advisor had offered. Safety for the once and future king.
    The finest men ensured that the prince had no help when the boar charged, its tusk digging deep into his chest so blood stained emerald grass.
    The finest men dragged the prince deeper, deeper, where shadows creep and sleeping wolves lie, stomachs fat and full but not for much longer.
    Tears turned cold, as flesh turned to ashes. His summer wife gone, his winter son reclaimed by the earth, the king, who had lost everything as both husband and father, succumbed to his grief and was finally scattered beneath the apple tree.
    The king is dead.
    A new crown sits easy on the head which bears it.
    Long live the king.
    The chief advisor, now become the Regent, helps winter reclaim its prize.

    James stumbles, gasps, holds his hand to his side where tusks pierced deep into his vital parts.
    Seth will be waiting for the hunt to return, missing him, still complaining that he- the huntsman’s apprentice!- had not been permitted to attend and assist.
    His father will wander the halls asking for his son.
    Sleeping wolves wake.
    When he falls ice closes over him and wolves skitter at rock’s edge of the cliff he tumbled down, howling death for their meal.
    So the story goes; winter takes its prince, and he forgets.
    Everything.

    Fair folk, the great crafting dwarves who work wonders with the winter ice, find the prince, and realize he is not beyond repair.
    He remembers nothing but pain, the pain of fire and ice where once was flesh and bone and blood. The smell of honey wine shoved deeper into his throat to muffle the screams. The winter prince survives, thanks to the magic the dwarves have woven into his chest, many small, moving metal pieces now rest just beneath the surface and work to keep his heart beating.
    When he wakes, he meets Naskia, who is from a kingdom far north.
    Once a princess who spent her days training as a night, she was put into a tower when her parents were told of a prophecy; that one day, she would help kill a king and overthrow a kingdom. The witch who told the prophecy became her jailer in that tower, using Naskia’s own long, beautiful ruby hair to shackle her within. Rather than accept her fate, Naskia waited and plotted until she was able to kill the witch that bound her, and cut off all her hair to escape.
    For a time she traveled in secret, though whispers of the monstrous daughter of Roul Rochev followed her wherever she went, as did the curse placed on her with the witch’s final breath. She was a summer child prophesied to re-forge a kingdom, but it would cost her heart to do it.
    The Fair Folk, who harbor outcasts and heroes alike, took her without question. She, like the half-dead James who fell into their laps, was too glowing with destiny for them to ignore.

    Seth is the only one who looked for James. His winter prince.
    He cannot accept that the ashes are royal, that he will never again hear James call him a fool for picking fights he can’t win, or hear him laugh at his own humor. Watch him ruffle his hair and ask how he looks, because he knows he is handsome and has to hear Seth say it.
    No-one misses the huntsman’s, or the skinny white horse that goes with him, amid the festivities for the dead.
    To be followed, of course, by a celebration for the new king.

    James feels the weight of his chest, magic sewn with metal, cogs and gears whirring beneath his skin to replace the parts the boar tore from him. His skin is no longer beautiful like virgin snow, but sullied and sallow, and his dark hair falls in tangles past gaunt cheeks. Who now would say he is handsome? Seth would lie, say “handsome” rather than “haunted” no matter how many times James asks for the truth. But his lips are still red like blood, like summer apples, and beautiful.
    And he does not remember his summer boy. His Seth with his keen hunter’s hands. Who knew how long it would be until winter took him, too, and the chill in his chest grew to ice?
    But that is a concern of the remembered, and James can neither be counted by them or among them, for ice takes all and his mind is as bare as the winter plains.
    “They want nothing in return- it is their gift to repair, to bring life,” Naskia murmurs, placing a hand over the metal in James’ chest. She wears the draping blue cloak of the fair folk themselves, although she is human and they moved on without her. To the mines in warmer lands, she says, until the long years of winter receded at the sun’s blazing touch.
    James doesn’t speak- hadn’t spoken during those long days while the metal smiths worked, and Naskia fed him magic to dull the pain and keep his heart racing. Memory struggled beneath the ice of his mind- treachery, suspicion, lurked, at the thought of those fine knights leaving him to die, before those too were washed away by the snow.
    “We all have sad stories here, but the forest protects us,” Naskia says. “It took me a long time to reclaim my life, too.”
    But what life was there left to take back? His had been stolen, and to look for it would be death, only. Something within him told him that.

    Winter falls away, short, and it is followed by a shorter summer. Bare, scorching years where James and Naskia travel aimlessly, neither quite sure if they want to confront their pasts so they run from them instead. Sometimes they slay an errant dragon, or save a wounded knight, but it is all done with the purposelessness of the lost.
    He doesn’t know why, but the man now called Winter Prince, for lack of any other name in his arsenal- who is there who knows to call him James, but he who is far away, searching hopelessly, endlessly- does not like the kingdom whose crest is a bright apple, and whose king is newly crowned. They avoid it, and Naskia does not ask why.
    Winter comes again, and she falls more deeply in love.

    No body; no proof of true conquest.
    Suddenly the head that bears the crown finds itself uneasy.
    “Tell me!” he roars to the fair folk at his feet, their wrists bound with foul iron worked by human hands.
    “You can make it for me, something that will allow me to see as far as I desire,” he hisses, kicking the bronze-skinned folk viciously.
    “As far in this winter world as you can imagine,” the other says, his face bloodied.
    “Then build it, and your reward will be a painless death.”
    He lies, of course- both fair folk suffer greatly for their services, and do not rest easy until they are in the ground, their names passed through the mouth of each of their kin until the fair folk weep, and curse winter and its human king.
    Staring through the domed glass, the king searches desperately for insight, gaze roaming all across the vastness of the white-cloaked realm in search of James. He almost starts to believe paranoia is simply that, but then the genius of the fair folk betrays them, and the Regent sees clearer than any ghost the living heir to his throne, wandering the wilderness with a woman whose close-cropped hair is the cursed color of blood.
    In his rage his orders search parties, but James has a new companion, fierce and quick, and together they elude or kill those sent for his life. Subtlety, then, and red lips grow pale as poison takes its toll.
    Winter’s prince with skin like snow and hair like night and lips as red as lifeblood returns to the ice, a poison apple rolling across the snow. Betrayal tastes sweet, and goes down his throat burning.
    James lies dead in the looking glass, his companion fled like a snuffed candle, and smoke winds up and up until the Regent imagines it is from the pyre of the prince himself.
    Before the body can be returned, however, his companion returns with fury like fire, a flood of rage and grief that dismantles each and every man sent to burn her love. The king sends more, not content until he watches the flesh burn before his own eyes.
    Like the seasons before it, this winter is short, and after three years it burns itself to a quick and bitter end.
    “As far in this winter world as you can imagine.”
    When the first snow thaws, the glass goes milky pale, and suddenly the Regent finds himself blind to the vastness of his realm. Shards litter the floor of his tower room as he curses the fair folk and their trickery, and he searches desperately for more, but as they travel back into the summer lands they skirt the king’s realm to avoid his wrath and ruin.
    So James is hidden from him.
    “Fetch the huntsman!” he roars, for he foolishly killed the fair folk before realizing their trick, and has only one other option. A huntsman, known across the realm for his woodcraft and survival skills, known to have tracked a dragon all the way back to its lair and managed to steal its treasure without getting caught, known to have killed the river serpent that guarded the northern crossing to Roul Rochev. He is the greatest tracker alive, and the Regent doesn’t realize that he used to be a skinny apprentice in that very castle.
    When the huntsman comes and kneels, the Regent is too consumed by fear and anger to notice the similar emotions on the man’s face.
    “Bring me the heart of the Winter Prince; his skin is pale as ice, and his hair is darker than ebony, and he travels with a woman whose hair is red as blood. Do this for me and you be the richest man on earth, and I will grant any favor you ask of me,” the Regent says. The huntsman merely nods, and strides from the room, with no intention at all of doing as the Regent asked.

    Seth finds him at a ruin from ancient times, identifiable only by the apple tree that bears pure white fruit even in the dead of winter, though whatever this place once was to their kingdom it has long since been forgotten.
    “James,” the huntsman murmurs as he sinks to his knees by the coffin, strong fingers pressing against the iron and ice and glass. No one had said that name in four seasons, two winters and summers short but fierce for it, and now the fair folk predicted that this thaw would last for ten years. Through all those seasons the he had searched, and though he became a man of renown, his heart is that of the huntsman’s apprentice, still struck with longing to see his prince again.
    James looks older, but not much- the coffin preserves him and Seth aches to see those eyes open again. He’d roamed every kingdom and spent years under open stars, but he’d never found a color among the natural world that came close to matching James’ eyes.
    Leaning back against the coffin, Seth closes his eyes and tries not to let his tears show. He’s finally found his prince, but has no way to wake him.
    “Did you love him, too?” a soft voice asks. Seth opens his eyes slowly, takes in the woman with hair like flame and movement like a snow cat crouching in front of him.
    “Yes.”
    “More than your own life?” There is pain in her eyes, unimaginable grief but for one who has felt it also.
    “Always.”
    “Then maybe you can do what I can’t.” She straightens, and Seth notices the glowing blue of her cloak, emblazoned with the shield of the fair folk although she is certainly human. When she trails her fingers across the coffin it is with a ghost of tenderness, as though she expects skin rather than glass to respond to her touch.
    “He was poisoned,” she says. Her palm spreads flat across the glass above his chest, his heart. “It was a curse, in an apple.”
    Seth’s heart kick-starts, and he rises with shock and hope written across his face.
    “Then he isn’t dead,” Seth says. He is already working the coffin latches, to which ice still clings stubbornly. The woman’s hands stop him.
    “Nearly. I couldn’t… I couldn’t wake him- someone cursed my heart long ago, and there isn’t enough left in me to dispel magic like this. I tried… but I’m not pure enough. The fair folk made this coffin, and it keeps him alive but only barely. If you open it and can’t wake him… he’ll die.” Seth sees the love in her eyes as clearly as he saw James’, so long ago. A different kind of love, but there nonetheless.
    “I have to try,” Seth says. With a mighty groan he pushes the lid back, ignoring it as it shatters against the ground. And there… There lies his winter prince.
    When Seth’s lips fall tender and sweet on his forehead, life floods the still body. Red returns to his lips and cheeks, and eyes like the winter sky behold the face of a friend so changed, and so familiar.
    “James,” Seth breaths.
    The winter prince stumbles up and back, metal in his chest clicking, face a mask of fear and hatred. The cursed apple ate memory like snow sucks the life of the earth, and ice numbs what is living so completely that oblivion seems preferable to pain. James had endured the teeth of both, and yet…
    Those eyes and gentle hands, they are familiar in the most painful, the most wonderful of ways. The winter prince swallows, images of a boy dancing over his view of this broad-shouldered man.
    “That was my name once,” he murmurs. “James…”
    “Yes,” Seth says. “I’m-”
    “Seth,” James says, chest faltering as he breathes in summer air. “Naskia.”
    “I’m here,” the woman says, hovering behind Seth with one hand outstretched falteringly.
    “We’re both here,” Seth says, and James falls forward into his arms, forehead pressed against his shoulder as the weight of memory and of four seasons lost and many years divided crashes around him.

    For all her sincerity, Naskia’s heart is shattered beyond repair- it will never break a curse, or bring the dead back to life, or power magic needed to save a life. But what little of it she has, she has given gladly.
    For all his courage, James’ spirit is crushed under the weight of remembering, and he knows in his heart that he will never be good enough for a crown.
    Even as the Regent’s head rolls to the floor of the throne room with a dull thud, all of them know that nothing will be as it was.
    The crown is cold in James’ hands as he lifts it, smiling softly at Naskia, whose heart-curse was broken when it was fulfilled and she helped to topple a kingdom, and Seth, who never once faltered in the quest to regain their home. James knows he will never be good enough to be king.
    The usurper is dead.
    Long live the king.

    So his Summer Boy, the huntsman who captured his heart, became King, and the realm experienced the longest summer in recorded history. Naskia finally knew the name of her seasons-long companion, and together they shed the guises of their darkest years in favor golden wheat fields and the taste of fresh strawberries on their tongues. She let her hair grow again, and it brushed her shoulders when she walked James down an aisle beneath the royal apple tree, not to become a King, but to marry one.
    They will never forget, but they have forgiven, and through the long summer and the long winter that follows more stories are told.
    Of the Winter Prince and his Summer Boy.
    Of the cursed princess and the fey-touched prince.
    Of the freedom fighters who toppled a tyrant.
    Of James, and Seth, and a coffin made of glass and an apple red as blood.
    Of love as pure and clear as the summer sky.

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