Polaris laughed. Caught up in a filmy web, racing through the inky black, the sound burst from her for the first time in centuries. The chime of star laughter is a sound not often heard by human ears; stars are old creatures, their laughter taken ill by decades of monotonous mortal disease. But now Polaris was shaking, rolling over and over in the abyss of space, chuckling and screaming, a shooting flame through the sky.

The thing that held her was a Space Net 1130™, the favorite choice of space pirate poachers, spider threads of silver splayed wide across the night to capture unsuspecting star-things in its wake, a splash of milky dust trailing behind the space pirate’s ship as it went.

Most of the stars had screamed fearfully as the Net approached, shrill pitches cut short by the sudden notion that they might hide from the approaching fearful beast. It is not in a star’s nature to hide. After all, the thing that they do for so many years on end is to shine forth through obscurity. Polaris knew nothing more than being seen, and so she did not hide quite well enough, did not wink out quickly enough. She thought she saw Betelgeuse cut a lazy side step through the chaotic night which was awhirl with the movements of a hundred stars like fireflies down on earth in the summer. She thought she saw Sirius open up his sunny arms and greet the challenge with a reckless grin.

Time stretching on had rendered her old and tired. Every mortal year that passed drew colder her shell, her colors setting like the sun into chilly red and orange. Inside, her heart burned white hot, a painful reminder of youth since passed, of hope endlessly unrequited. So perhaps she had allowed the space pirate to catch her, or maybe her way had been so set as to allow her no change in luminosity. On either hand there lay a captured star.

“I’m flying,” Polaris murmured, her voice breathy like a child’s. Though her back was pressed hard against the unbreakable pearlescent web, and the strands cut into her tough skin leaving angry welts of blue, she saw only the endless heavens before her.

This is what falling feels like, she thought. Polaris had always wondered. With each of her fellows that fell, her curiosity grew. But she was steady and she was true and she had never wavered from her post in the night sky. She had yearned though. As ancient as she had grown, she yearned to know what freedom felt like. Being stalwart and strong is all well and good, but Polaris had never had the opportunity to fly free, to chase the heavens to their end. In her core, she was the child who reaches her hand threw bars. Though it horrified her to think it, Polaris wanted nothing more than to know the brilliant agony of burning out in an arch of wishing flame.

Glancing quickly at her silver cage, Polaris sighed. She was not truly free. Stretching as wide as she could go, she felt suddenly so small.

“Watch it,” she snapped, a wonderfully childish heat of anger filling her as Sirius slammed one long leg into her side. He’d been flailing wildly with the motion of flight, a sort of chaotic dance through the darkness.

“Sorry.” While his expression read sheepishness, his eyes held only mischief. There had been a time when Polaris had fancied herself in love with Sirius and his constant, barking laugh, but that time had passed with Polaris’ belief in childhood things, stored away in her private center to melt with the rest of her dreams. It is a little known fact that stars dream; they have little else to do up there in the silent sky.

Now she felt all of those dreams, so carefully bottled, rushing through her veins in a sudden current. Sirius watched her colors grow flushed, his barking laughter joining her chiming chuckles. All of the young stars drew away from the two of them, growing bluer and bluer in the sea of night.

“Are you scared, Pol?” Sirius was, for once, without laughter. Humor was never far from his black eyes, as deep as the night itself.

“No,” she answered, and it was true. Polaris was excited, enchanted with the sudden unexpected adventure. If Sirius was surprised, he didn’t show it. With a shrug, he found some younger stars to wheedle. Polaris watched him and knew that he was not any more frightened than she. They had had many years to get to know one another, and she doubted that his comment was anything more than a hopeful attempt to find an excuse to fling his warmth around her chilled shoulders.

But Polaris was not so cold anymore. For a few moments, she amused herself by imagining the human chaos at her disappearance. How much trouble these particular pirates will be in, she mused, a ghostly smile carving her face.

“It’s been a long time since I saw you smile, Pol.”

“It’s been a long time since you payed attention, Sirius.” He frowned, and the delicious warmth grew within Polaris. She felt like a youth again, playing mean, masking games with the boy stars.

“I was always paying attention, Polaris.” Sirius’ eyes were burning into hers. Polaris wondered, not for the first time, how he had maintained such a happy spirit for so long. Now, however, she found herself infected with the same spirit, the champagne-like bubbly place within her burning through her veins in a sudden current.

Throwing back her head, Polaris laughed. Sirius watched her with gleaming eyes. There had been a time when he had called her the most beautiful star in the sky. That was before she had learned not to believe it.

Polaris was drowning in rebirth, fire sweeping her all over and over again. The Net progressed through the sky, unaware of the joyous star it held within. None of the younger stars had ever seen anyone so bright, so beautiful. They wondered where she had come from, for the Polaris who had entered the Net was not the same as the one they now knew.

Sirius laughed with her. It had once been his dearest wish to shine white hot with tendrils of laughter alongside Polaris. The Net bumped through a meteor field, slamming the two manic beings together. Polaris’ breath left her in a woosh. She slammed against Sirius’ cold, hard heat. Their flames mixed, twinkling brightly in the mess of silver light, a golden heart in the chaos.

For a moment, they were still and silent. Polaris felt younger than she had felt when she was born, a collection of universal matter. She felt younger than she had when Sirius had first ignited her night, younger than when she had danced with Andromeda in the inky spring, or flirted with Scorpio from afar.

Her stellar core was glowing. In a thousand years, she had not felt this warm and alive. Perhaps somewhere along the ride, Polaris realized what would happen next. Perhaps it was when Sirius took her hand with the same whoop of laughter that had proceeded all his childhood adventures. Lying side by side on the shining Net, they stared at the free floating things in the heavens, dark matter and suspended celestial beings. Their smiles were near identical, though there had been a time when Polaris had been unable to fathom smiling as brightly as Sirius. In the last second, Polaris tried to wriggle free, but Sirius drew their joined fists tight over his sparking heart.

And then, in a blink, a wink of stardust, after thousands of years of waiting, Polaris went supernova, dragging Sirius with her by the hand into wonderfully agonizing freedom.


It hurts

People destroy themselves.
And it hurts.
People destroy their happiness.
And it hurts.
People destroy each other.
And it hurts.
And I watch them burn.
And it hurts.
And I burn with them.
And it hurts.

The Coffin Maker: Part 5

The End

The huntsman did not know how his son would transfigure the doe back into his lady, nor how the knight would wed a queen, but it was not his place to interfere further in the son’s story. With a musing smile, he allowed contentment to flood him. Juliet and he had raised brave children, though he had never thought himself to be much of a brave man. Juliet had certainly had a warrior’s spirit. An image of his wife dancing with a golden sword in the light of the sunset, her small son watching with wide eyes, entered his mind. His smile grew wider, a private kind of joy growing within him.

Alone, he traversed the forest to find the solitary cottage that stood unchanged for all that took place around it. He paused only briefly at the grave of his wife. He did not like to linger as he knew her spirit did not.This was one of the many things that he would have like to attribute to the wisdom of age, though he suspected it was the wisdom of his children that had caused his newfound acceptance.

The huntsman went back to his quiet days, wondering how long his existence would stretch on, though without the bitterness he had once known. Beard gone white with time’s passing, the chilled nights irritated his bones more greatly now than ever. He felt as if there should be creaking sounds made when he walked, observing it all with the good humor that Juliet had taught him long ago.

The roses she had planted outside the cottage had wilted in her absence and the absence of their daughter, but the house was still beautiful and he felt no desire to leave it. Travelers were scarcer now, but a few had come to coax him back to the city. With the same words he had given his daughter, he refused them all.

Autumn painted the woods in a raucous masterpiece that the artist hidden within the old man envied. Blowing like jewels through the sky, leaves left their sturdy homes on journeys far and wide, though all the while they were dying.

And as the nights lengthened, one in particular presented the huntsman with a surprising gift. A knock on the cottage door roused him from an oddly contented sleep where he had dreamed of Juliet as he had done every night since he was a youth with splinters in his hands.

With long, aching steps, the huntsman crossed the room to open the wooden door. Its hinges creaked just as surely as his joints, but he ignored the sound. In the darkness outside, he could barely make out seven weary-looking wanderers. He ignored them as well, leaving the door open as he turned to start a flame in the hearth.

When spark caught, he stood, turning on his heel to face the guests. They were all men with thick beards and all were at least a head shorter than he. Eyebrows rising, he surveyed the group.

“How may I be of service to you tonight?” he inquired, finding his mood strangely improved over the usual.

“You are the coffin maker,” the eldest spoke up. A quiver in his voice told the huntsman of freshly shed tears.

“I was...once. I am no longer.”

“And you could be again. We heard tale of design you once made.” This was spoken gruffly from some shadowed figure in the back.

“A--A coffin...of--of sorts,” a small figure shivered. The huntsman bowed him closer to the fire along with his companion who seemed afflicted with some early winter sickness.

“You have come far?” the huntsman inquired, dodging the statement as he observed the chilled group.

“Not too far,” the first man spoke again. “We are here to implore you to build us the coffin of legend.”

“I am sorry but I must refuse you. No--” He held up a large hand to ward off the quickly offered bag of gold. “I can’t take your money. You see, even if I wished it, my hands are no longer young enough to craft such a thing.”

“But, sir, it is for a good cause.” The huntsman sat, allowing his head to fall tiredly into his palms. A part of him was aching to accept the task, to allow himself to build the masterpiece that he had so long ago set aside.

“Tell me your story,” he said. Settling around him, the men began to speak.

They wove a tale of a lost princess, the fairest of them all, of treachery and poison.

“She is still beautiful in death, sir. I don’t know if you can understand this--”

“I know.” He closed his eyes on the pristine memory that floated now before them.

“Of course he knows, dolt,” the angry man spoke gruffly to the youngest man who had been telling that part of the tale. “Do you think he would draw such a creation if he had not known beauty such as we have?” The younger man shrugged and shut his mouth, staring dedicatedly into the fire. Another man spoke up then.

“Just tell us, please, if you truly made such a thing. We do not even know if the rumor is real.” The huntsman rose then, from his well-worn chair. Stepping carefully through the men sitting all around on the floor, he withdrew from a trunk (which he himself had carved with roses and vines and all the things Juliet had loved) a box. Feeling sickeningly like the sorceress who had caused so much destruction, he pulled from the box, not a dagger, but at scroll.

Two of the men dragged the kitchen table, which had taken part in so many stories, into the light of the flames. Tenderly, with careful fingers, the coffin maker smoothed the parchment flat for all to see. He heard their gasps as if from far away. The sight of his creation made him young again, in that moment, and fervor began to set his blood boiling.

“You have the drawing. You are the only one who could make such a thing, even now.”

“Even if I could, which I don’t think I can, I--” He did not want to explain his story, did not wish to talk to these strangers about his wife. But he knew that the girl these men cried for was the girl he had been sent to kill and he felt a strange mixture of guilt and rage when he thought of it.

“We know that the favor we ask is not a small one.”

“We w-would not ha-have come if--We are quite distraught, sir.”

“You owe us nothing, it is true. But, sir, how could such beauty be laid in the ground?”

He thought of the beautiful child, of the fear written on her innocent face. He thought of the sorceress who had finally destroyed her, and he realized that laying such beauty in the ground would be exactly what the woman wished. Finally, he thought of Juliet, of looking on her sleeping face and watching it come to life.

His shoulders lumped, his fingers working intricate patterns over the design. FInally, sage eyes rose to meet the nearest gazes.

“I will try,” he promised. And so it was done.

Though his hands were slower now, and his back far weaker, the coffin maker found that his body remembered the rhythm of the work. Perhaps the years had taken many things from him, but they had not been entirely cruel, and he remained an artist still.

It took much time. Winter frost began to cling to the trees and ground and the coffin maker’s eyelashes, but he finished the coffin before the first great snow. And then he brought it to the young woman.

He met them in the blossoming glade, though it was naked and empty in winter’s wake. They surveyed his work with awe, and he was not too modest to admit that he had missed the glow of such praise.

Then, from behind, the men bore forth the body. She lay limply in their arms, like water or mist. He helped them lie her in the bed, helped them close the many glass parts that formed petal-like shapes which encased her. He gazed through the glass and thought that, though she was not the fairest woman he had ever known, she deserved the gift he had given her.

“I have known many corpses in my lifetime,” the coffin maker said. “But I have only known one other as vivacious as she.” The men were crying, heads bowed and backs taught with grief. The coffin maker knew enough to see the purity in their despair; they loved her truly. “That woman woke, due to the love I bore her, for I can see no other cause. And perhaps your princess will be granted the same chance.” The eldest and youngest men smiled at him through dewey masks.

“You are kind, coffin maker, but we all know here that your relationship with death is far kinder than ours. We will not hope for such a gift.” Inclining his head, he granted them their solitude, for the last time exiting the glade where the trees bloomed with pink flowers.

For the last time, the coffin maker crossed the threshold of the ivy-covered cottage. For the last time, he sharpened his axe and stoked the fire. Quietly, he finished the last toy soldier, put the finishing flourishes on the crib he had built. And then, for the last time, he exited the cottage to kneel in front of Juliet’s grave.

The winter swept the forest which was no longer emerald. Somewhere in its midst, a princess slept with her own story’s end on pause, but in the clearing where the sturdy cottage stood, a legend was laid to rest. The coffin maker embraced death, his old friend, finally forgiving him his follies.

The children knew, of course, they felt it in their well-trained hearts, and they came to bury him in his crystalline coffin where he could sleep beside his Juliet underneath a blanket of snow. When the knight married, his wife revived the roses which had struggled through the snow, and they bloomed a blanket over the sleeping couple so that they would remain untouched by both love and war, forgotten finally by short memories, in the forest where stories were born.


The Coffin Maker: Part 4

One summer, the trees in the wood sprouted leaves a lovely shade of green, translucent, fragile things that filtered the life in gentle shades. The old man sat on deep green moss in the shade near his home, eyes closed and listening to the song of a nearby bird and his mate.

Then foreign sounds entered the forest, an approaching rider silenced the animals. Nature held its breath in waiting. The old man hardly knew what sort of person could seek him now, for he had hardly anything left to offer.

Slowly, a chestnut horse appeared in the clearing, blinking brightly in the sunlight. It shook its head importantly, but its rider was the only thing the old man saw. It was his daughter, grown into a young woman who looked like a portrait of her mother. Slipping from the saddle, she smiled at him. A rose flower tucked heavy curls behind her right ear, and a fine gown scraped the blades of grass below.

“Hello, father,” she said, blinking back the moisture that had begun to gather in her eyes.

“Hello, daughter.” Then she was racing forward, and he was forcing himself from the forest floor, and she was in his arms, smelling of roses. He laughed for the first time in years; his daughter had come home.

“I saw you,” she said as they sat with tea inside the cottage that had not changed almost at all since she had left it. “Don’t ask me how, but I knew--I saw you in such pain, and I couldn’t leave you any longer.” Wide eyes begged for understanding. The father covered her small hand with his own.

“I’ve missed you. But tell me of your adventures.” It was as if he had unleashed a flood. The daughter was all too willing to tell of her grand story but, from it all, he remembered only the end, the part where she fell in love. The emotion shining in her eyes was almost too much for him to bear. He felt a pride and joy in the region of his chest that had been absent for far too long.

The father had not even realized that such a thing could be repaired. In that moment, he stopped imagining Juliet’s empty, still face, and began to picture the way her mouth and eyes would have looked at the news of their daughter’s happiness.

“If only your brother could find such happiness,” he told her as she ascended to her saddle once more the next evening. The daughter was in quite a hurry, as she had left someone rather important waiting for her. The father she left behind was far different than the one she had greeted, and her heart felt lighter for it.

“You could come with me,” she begged, not for the first time. Sadly, the father shook his head, stirring dust motes in the rays of sunshine seeping through the canopy of the forest.

“I won’t leave her.” It was the answer he had already given her many times. The daughter nodded, for she finally understood why. The father stood tall for the first time in many years; never again would he allow himself to bow so low to the pressure of life. He watched his only daughter return to her love and he was glad.

Though the father’s hands were old and tired, he often forced himself to cut wood to use in the fire, though it would never again be so roaring and well-stocked as it had once been, and he often woke to find it had burned itself out. The wood cutter sometimes whittled little things in the wood with the thought that he might one day send them to his grandchildren; soldiers and unicorns, boats and castles, things that they might play with and remember him.

Now one day, his other child returned to him, though in a manner far less stately than his sister. The son returned to the ivy-covered cottage in the woods in a whirlwind of hooves and cloak and chain mail and sword. His golden hair was in a beautiful disarray like a sun burst. The father had the thought, as he looked at the young knight, that he could not fathom how he had raised a child to go to war. Like thunder, the son leapt from his mount.

“Father,” he cried, and it was then the wood cutter knew that his son had not come home for a simple visit.

“You need my help, Sir Son.”

“Always,” the son answered with a boy-like smirk.

“What makes you think I can help you?” The wood cutter’s skin was suddenly riddled with bumps, the ghostly memory of another such encounter assaulting him with chills.

“Father, she is my love, and I know no other who would understand.” Breath catching in his throat, the father surveyed the son’s desperate face, the wrinkles that had begun to form already in his brow. The son was the same age the coffin maker had been when he first laid eyes on Juliet.

“Of course.”

As they sat at the same table where father and daughter had discussed grand adventures, the wood cutter watched the son become a knight before his eyes. The knight had much success and much despair to share with his father, but he cut quickly to the tale.

“She had been transfigured, father.”

“A sorceress then, son?” The knight nodded in sadness and angry impotence, his hands forming fists on the table top.

“Into a doe.” Muscles tensed in the wood cutter’s back as he remembered the crime he had committed against a similar creature, once upon a time. “We must find her.” The knight’s voice held a note of despair.

Silently, the father swore that death would not win this battle. He let the silent promise ring to the sky as he promised his child that he would help him find his doe.

The Father

Shortly after, the huntsman left the cottage with the knight at his side. The sky did its best to cloak them in darkness, but the huntsman remembered the ways of the woods. Though his eyes were old now, his mind was not. Blood pumping with challenge, the huntsman tracked his son’s love.

Time was essential, every moment increasing the chance that the doe would be lost forever. The knight’s palms sweat and his empty chest rang hollowly with phantom beats, faster and faster with every moment.

The forest seemed cold and dark as the hunted, but the huntsman was legendary and the son had faith as only children can have in their parents. Eventually, they came upon a lake that was clear and pearly beneath the moonlight. Both men felt a peace steal over them as they observed it.

And as they stood at the water’s edge, a creature emerged from the sheltering trees. On fragile legs, a velvety doe tiptoed toward the water and lowered her graceful head to drink from its depths. The knight’s heart flew back to his chest and he gasped at the impact, his eyes full of the sight.

To the huntsman, the deer looked just like any other, but he was not surprised that the knight recognized her as his love. The knight raced along the lake’s edge and the doe did not scamper as deer generally do.

The father saw, in the smooth liquid surface, the reflection of a tall and pretty woman with dazzling brown eyes and mahogany braid. She smiled at the knight as he approached with a sad sort love. Reaching out a shaking palm, the knight lay his hand on the doe’s tender snout. In the water, the knight embraced his queen.


The Coffin Maker: Part 3

The Wood Cutter

Their life was glorious, golden and fragile like sunshine. Those days went by faster and faster, spinning top-like on the wind. The huntsman, in his previous life, had spent much time with death, but still he began to find his new occupation too cruel and, now that his skill had grown great enough to attract attention, when two children had been born to Juliet and him, he decided to take up work as a wood cutter instead.

The children of the wood cutter and his wife looked exactly like their mother. They were a boy and a girl of only a few years’ difference. The wood cutter and his wife doted on them, and always Juliet could be found leaping about in the yard with their son, teaching him to brandish the wooden sword that the wood cutter had made for him, or else kneeling in the garden with their small daughter, their pale arms caked with dirt. The wood cutter had, for his children, become an inventor. He built for them a castle, high in the trees. For his son, he built a wooden puppet, but the son traded it to a wandering carnival caravan. The boy cried with guilt when he saw his father’s face that day. The wood cutter was far to happy to have found the wandering child to care much for the toy, but children find much grief in the smallest things.

Often, the wood cutter would take the children with him into the forest as he worked to give their mother a few moments rest. Juliet’s beauty had softened with age. Where she had been stunning, her beauty now was the kind to grow slowly in one’s eyes, until one could do no less than stand enraptured by it. Her jovial nature had only ripened with wisdom. Their life was glorious, golden and fragile like sunshine. Those days went by far faster than any of them noticed.

So the day of her death was hung with shadow. The sky sat a blank gray without promise and the trees shivered nakedly in the wind. The wood cutter took his small children with him into the woods, the girl cradled in his right arm, an axe in the left hand, the boy riding high on his shoulders. He felt a giant among men.

Laughing at some childish statement, the three of them turned to wave to Juliet who stood bathed in cool, fading light, a smile perpetually frozen on her face. Everything else was hues of gray; pale roof, charcoal trees, ashy sky, deep gray smoke from the still burning fire coming out of the shadowy chimney. But Juliet, she was bathed in every scrap of light, seeming to capture it and turn it about like a prism.

As they entered the woods, the wood cutter left his heart with her, as he had done every day of every year passed.

A scream split the silence of the sleeping woods, and the wood cutter knew fear for the first time in his life.

“Stay here,” he told is children, giving them the lunch Juliet had packed for them. “I’ll be back as quick as I can.” He could not risk bringing them into danger.

“Father,” they cried. “What’s happened?”

“I’m sure it’s nothing. Everything’s okay. Just stay here. I’ll be back in no time.”

He ran--of course he did---but he still did not reach the house in time. His beautiful Juliet lay dead on the floor of their home. Her heart lay on a silver platter beside her. Gathering her close, the wood cutter gave in to his grief. Such was his pain in its purity, so silent and deep, that death, his old companion, felt for the first time, guilt. And some deep magic drew forth from the earth a mass of amethyst and topaz, obsidian and diamond which were given up as an offering of peace.

The wood cutter ran again, to the spot where he had left his children. But some part of him knew already they were gone. The sorceress was sworn to take from him all he loved, and so he could not expect any small mercy.

His grief that had before been boundless now folded in on itself, consuming all that he was inside. With his grief, the coffin maker made a resting place for his wife, mincing raw his hands on the jagged crystals gifted to him, for with her mangled heart, Juliet would no longer like a glass coffin. And he made a coffin for himself as well, as he doubted how long a man could continue on without his heart.

He buried her in her gemstone bed, satisfied that the earth itself had pledged to protect her. As night breached the horizon, the crystalline grave glowed with light that seemed dim in comparison to the beauty it housed. His eyes would never be able to comprehend the final sight of his love, and so he tore them from the sight.

The wood cutter set out to find his children. Juliet’s life with him may have been a stolen gift, but his children were subject to no such rule. He would have them back.

Now the children had inherited every bit of their father’s brilliance, and they had left him a trail from their lunch. He followed it with a savage intensity. Never had he been a man given to overt emotions, but in a short space of time he had become their slave. He was grief. He was pain. He was fear and anger and desperation. He was guilt.

When he found them, they cried, all three of them together, for the children knew instinctively the hard truth he had to tell them. They told him they had killed a sorceress, and he hoped they would take a sort of poetic justice from that, though theirs was not the same witch who had taken Juliet from them.

Again time passed in the forest, the children grew older and so did he. He was hardly half a man, but he could not bear to leave his children again, and death was no longer a friend of his, so he struggled on with a gaping wound in his chest.

He even added a new story to his legend when he saved a young maiden from a hungry wolf, though all that stuck in his mind was the crimson of her cape, stark red against the snowy wood. The tale hardly savored when he returned to a cottage where Juliet did not wait for him to share with. He ate dinner with his children who, though thoroughly impressed, could not stomach the gorier details. The wood cutter thought that death had given him an easy win anyway, but still he could not forgive his old companion.

With time, his children left him, both having an abnormal desire for adventure. His daughter went off to some enchanted palace in a distant and isolated land, and he rejoiced that she was free from sullying wars. His son hunted a knightly title with enough determination to earn it and spent his days slave to the love of a queen who he would never have.

Eventually, the wood cutter was hardly able to cut wood any longer, so frail had time wrought him, and so the fire in the hearth was mere embers more often than not. The nights were long and empty, and rarely did he have any cause to remember one day more than another.

His hands became stiff and painful, fingers aching with cold that seemed to seep from everywhere and cling to his very bone. There were many days in those emerald woods where he despaired of ever finding any semblance of peace.

In some moments, he even cursed his young and beautiful wife for leaving behind such an emptiness in his chest, for giving him a glimpse at joy and then taking it so suddenly. But immediately after those moments, he would be given over to ugly sobs of torment and guilt and his shudders would rock him to sleep.


The Coffin Maker: Part 2

The Huntsman

They were married in a glade where the trees bloomed a sleepy pink and dropped their blossoms to make a soft carpet of the forest floor. There was no one to bear witness but the trees and the birds and the sky.

And they lay on the soft carpet of petals together, hands clutched tightly.

“What if all of these petals were wishes and the trees were wishing trees?” Juliet said sleepily. The huntsman wrinkled his nose on a laugh, the way he’d picked up from Juliet.

“And what if for every promise we made and kept to one another, here in this place, a wish came true?” he played along.

“Then I would promise to love you always.”

“And I would promise to build you a strong house.”

“I would swear that our home would always be warm.”

“That I will dance with you every night that it snows.”

“That I will teach you to ride a horse.”

“That I will love you always.”

“That I will grow strong roses for our sturdy home.”

And on they went, laughing until their sides ached. It was a tender moment, unlike anything the huntsman had ever known. And he wished that it could be this way always, though such wishes are hard to find granted.

The huntsman loved Juliet with his whole heart and further then, and she loved him just as fully in return. It wasn’t strange in their country for two wandering souls to find each other so fully, but it was a little more scarce in the capitol.

The retired into the warm emerald arms of the forest where they built a house with the riches of his former fame, and he promised that the next coffins he built would be their own, when they were old and gray and tired, ready to trade this life for deep contented sleep.

Juliet was full of laughter and she made everything into a jest, so it was hard for him to draw a serious answer from her. He never fully uncovered her tale, and she was quite convinced that everything before they had come together could be easily forgotten. Perhaps she was right, but either way many years passed in contented solitude.

With a wisdom seemingly endless, she planted roses and taught him to ride horses and all manner of things that he couldn’t fathom how she had learned. They danced slow circles on the fresh fallen snow of winter and retired into their warm home where he had begun to build her a table that would last far longer than they.

Every so often, a seemingly lost soul would come knocking on the door of their small cabin. Juliet would graciously welcome them inside to sit beside the warmth of their ever-burning fire. She seemed to dazzle in those days, glittering with happiness. The traveler would imminently be given over to desire of her, or if the traveler was a woman, they would wander from the house’s warmth to the shed behind the cottage where they were sure to find the huntsman. Just as surely, he would be immersed in work, for nothing else could drag him from his Juliet’s side.

The traveler would find him sharpening some instrument. He had, under Juliet’s tender spirit, become a good natured and jovial man. She had smoothed away his rough edges, an artistry of her own, and left only the best behind. No female traveler could help but want him. And none could miss their love for each other.

Now often, these lost travelers were not lost at all. The huntsman had a way of becoming the best at everything he did, and along with tales of Juliet’s beauty and kindness, rumors of his talents spread. So it happened that often the lost travelers come to their small, ivy-covered cottage in the woods were really rather determined, travelers on rather specific quests.

Many knew him from his days in the capitol and came to beg for a coffin to be made. There were many sad and tragic stories, but always he refused them.

“I am not a coffin maker any longer,” he would say, gently steering them toward the door, Juliet watching with a frown. As the traveler reached the threshold, he would lean close and murmur the name of the next greatest coffin maker he had ever known, a tall and handsome woman whose father was a blacksmith in the capitol of another land, and then the questing traveler would be gone.

Juliet would sigh, long locks tracking shadows over her porcelain features.

“I wish they could forget.” Smiling, the huntsman would draw her closer. She fit perfectly in his muscular arms now that they were both adults grown, childhood days left firmly behind. And he thought that his love for her that day in his coffin shop had been but a raindrop in the storm that now raged in his heart.

“People do not know how to forget those as strange as me,” he would answer, smoothing one large hand over her long curls, her head tucked beneath his chin.

“I love to hear your heart beat,” she would murmur, running her soft fingers over his sternum, almost absently.

“People cannot forget men who can walk alongside death.They do not see things as I do.”

“As we do. You forget that I too have slept beside death.” Placing a kiss atop her head, he would clutch her hand in his, forming a fist between their chests. The warmth of her body would melt the cold seeping into his fingers from his thoughts.

“I love to feel your heart beat,” he would murmur.

And in those long hours after the past came knocking, the would stand together beside the burning fire, determined to ignore the stain of darkness that death seemed determined to leave on their lives.

One such day it was raining, hard sheets like ice that slit the throat of the sky. Juliet sat reading by the fire that beat furiously against the gray sky. The huntsman sat beside her, sneaking peeks at her book simply because it annoyed her and, when she caught him, she would wrinkle her nose with a smile and turn her book away.

They sat this way, quite content, even as thunder made their home shudder. Their roof, however, did not leak. The huntsman had built it well. Absently, Juliet’s hand stroked her rounded stomach, and the huntsman hummed a lilting lullaby to the sleeping baby within.

A hush came over the storm, the hissing of steam in the fireplace was audible in the sudden silence. And the door to the cottage was flung open. Gaining his feet in an instant, the huntsman cut an imposing figure against the flames.

“Hello.” The voice was deep for a woman’s, velvety and far too sweet, like poison.

“What do you want?” Seeming to have forgotten all pretense of manners, the huntsman’s words were a growl. Juliet rose slowly to stand beside him, but he pulled her slightly behind him out of fear. He was not ready to build her coffin yet.

“You are the huntsman,” the woman purred, shutting the door behind her and dropping the hood of her cape. She was beautiful, but he had known she would be. Hair black but streaked with white and lips of blood red, she stalked forward with the grin of power.

“One of many.”

“The greatest.” Her brow rose with a knowing twist, her lips forming daggers with their words. The huntsman offered only an elegant shrug.

“He is.” Juliet spoke softly. The woman hardly afforded her a glance. It was then that the huntsman knew the woman’s weakness. She was threatened by beauty.

“I suppose I am then, if my wife says it is so. What have you come here to ask of me?” The woman pulled from within her cloak a long box, and from within the box, she pulled a dagger. Every fiber of the huntsman’s body was warning him to banish this woman from his home, to prevent her from saying anything further. There was no doubt that she was royalty (he had made coffins for enough of them to know), just as there was no doubt she was a sorceress (though these were admittedly far more rare). Neither of these suspicions gave him great confidence in her motives.

“There is a maiden,” the woman began, hatred adding a harsh madness to her voice, “with hair of raven and lips red as the rose. It has been suggested that she will become the fairest in the land, though I’m sure yourself would disagree.” She cast a dismissive glance at Juliet who drew herself up in a fair show of bravery. “This maiden is a princess with skin white as snow. I’m sure you know who I speak of, for you are an intelligent and well-traveled man.” The huntsman and his wife knew exactly who the woman spoke of, though they were loathe to admit it.

“I would like you to...dispose of her.” As the fervor in her voice had risen, she had begun to pace forward, losing touch with her control. The huntsman held up his hands to ward her off, and it seemed to remind her of herself. Smoothing her gown and robes and hair, she settled back on her heels.

“Carve out her heart and bring it to me.” To their credit, neither Juliet nor the huntsman choked. Their expressions remained entirely neutral, though their own hearts beat far faster with every passing moment.The fire behind them burned brightly, casting their silhouettes in grotesque mockery on the walls.

“Why me?”

“You used to be death’s concierge, and now you are his weapon.”

“Why would I ever be expected to accept such a request?”

“I will pay you handsomely.” A flash of pearly teeth in the dark. “But of course you wouldn’t be interested in that. Hmmm...” She paced a small circle.

Rapidly, like a snake, the woman’s hand was flung forward and, beside the huntsman, Juliet fell to the ground.

“No!” The cry was torn from his throat, guttural and terrifying. He dropped to the ground beside her, gathering her limp form into his arms.

“Did you think she came to you by chance? Perhaps she did. But the life she lives is borrowed...or maybe your love is so great that it has been gifted to you. Either way, I assure you I can take it. I can take from you everything you will ever love.” As he felt the stillness of her pulse, tears cut opalescent lines down his cheeks and clung to the stubble on his jaw. His eyes were full of her quiet face, exactly the same as when he’d first met her, though now his heart held the anguish of love grown and lost, a plant reaped at its ripest.

“If I do this thing, she will live?” Breath entered his Juliet’s body even as he voiced the question.

He had no choice but to make the deal, his hand closing around the daggers hilt with finite cruelty. The woman had cut from him his strength, and it was all too simple to shrug back on the cloak that he had long ago borrowed from death.

Far away, he made the journey, to a field fair flushed with blossoms. He was not shocked to find the land beyond the forest again engaged in war, but the horrors he had witness along the roadside seemed to fall away when he entered the field. The scent of spring tickled his nose as he stalked forward, a shadow in utopia. The huntsman took pause at his first sight of the princess, for she was but a child. Though visions of Juliet’s trusting gaze filled his mind, he knew she had not wished him to do this thing, no matter the cost. She cared far more for the price to his soul, and all the while, the child shrank from him with frightened eyes like a deer.

The tale of the huntsman’s inability to take the fair maiden’s heart has become legend, and even he knew the doe’s heart he had sent instead would not prove a worthy ploy. But years passed by quickly in the woods, and Juliet lived alongside him in the bright sunshine without any sign of the woman’s fatal retribution.

The Coffin Maker: Part 1

The Coffin Maker

He used to be a coffin maker, during the wars. And his home was a land fair riddled by war, though it mattered not to the common people who sat on the throne as it changed so often. In those days, it had made little difference to the coffin maker for whom he crafted the coffins; his skill was plied no better or worse for a title or two.

As the last war ravaged the capitol and the line of grief-stricken lengthened out the front door while the line of corpses lengthened out the back, he met a young and beautiful Juliet. It was she who would become his wife.

The shop had been packed that day, brimming with sweat and tears. The hazy, golden mist of summer swam stickily before his eyes. He much preferred it to the crimson steam of the battlefields.

It was a strange quirk of this country that it’s battles were often fought at home, in the capitol itself. To see the glass and metal buildings glittering mirrored fractions down at the carnage below, to see death run rampant among pristine marble and the glistening treasures of the earth worked so frivolously into the capitol’s famous spiked spires, to see it all in its juxtaposition made it all the more horrendous. Though he had never stepped foot on the fields of war, he had seen enough of it brought home. The coffin maker made it his policy to require the bodies be brought to him as soon as his fame and talent allowed him the quirk, which was admittedly quite soon after he began the job.

So the day that he met Juliet, his name was quite famous to the dead and dying, the grieving and the grieved, the lost and the losers left behind. His Juliet came in the back door, as all the corpses did, a beautiful and pristine ghost on a cart. He felt himself fall for her, the young coffin maker did. His heart tipped from his breast to lie in the grave beside her, with one simple wish: to never be parted from her still and beautiful face. Wishes had a way of often being granted in that blood-stained land.

He knew instantly that she was not a casualty of battle, and he was glad that war’s ugly hands had never touched her pale, smooth skin. But death had certain kissed her pink, upturned lips. He envied it the chance.

Everything in the shop had gone still and cool when they brought her in, the constant revolution of chaos stopping to watch the coffin maker’s face crumple into a thousand emotions at once. Lines of feeling etched themselves deep and simultaneously in his countenance, so that for a moment he became the old man he might have been in another life, dying in his sleep with this woman in his arms. That old man had never known the horror of a city at war, the putrescence and disease that infiltrated the bodies, minds, and hearts of the city’s people. He would never have known what it was to look on someone’s face and see only the size and shape of their coffin, building itself in his mind.

And as he looked at her face, the abandoned place in his chest despaired, for how could he build a coffin worthy of this woman? How could a man be expected to bury his own heart?

“What is her name?” His voice was raspy from disuse, for he spoke rarely in those days. Head turning and craning, he found that no one had stepped forth to claim the woman as she arrived. “Is there anyone here for her?” he called. The room slowed in surprise, but there was no response, no family stepping forth from the throng.

“She is alone?” He addressed the man who had brought the cart, a tall fellow with wrinkled eyes, face worn and leathered by brutal images.

“Her name is Juliet, and I brought her from her father’s house. He loved her so greatly that her death took with it his own self.” A jerky nod indicated the second corpse behind the cart man. “Here is the sum their distant relatives sent for their burial.” Blinking quickly, the coffin maker’s hand stretched toward the pretty corpse, shaking. No part of him believed that he would be able to touch such beauty. But flesh met flesh. And, in that moment, she was his.

“I will take care of her,” he swore. The cart man cared not, so long as he was paid.

The coffin maker worked feverishly. Where haste would have been suspected to lend his craft imperfection, the beautiful maiden had inspired him so fully that even those plain coffins prebuilt for unnamed soldiers and poor widows‘ husbands were unmatched in their artistry. Never before had so many coffins made by his hands in so short a space, and never had they been so masterful.

In the space of a day, he cleared the shop. In the space of a night, he built a king’s coffin for Juliet’s father (and, just after, in the dawn’s light, built another quickly for the recently martyred king, though many would claim it was not half as splendorous). The father’s coffin alone was far beyond the small payment the cart man had brought him, but the coffin maker cared little for the money, having amassed a small fortune with his fame. Death is a high-paying business. And all the while, he sketched.

A design for Juliet’s coffin had begun to form in his brain, wrapped in tendrils of some strong emotion from his heart. He sketched always except for when he was called aside by some poor living fool with a lucky bastard on a cart who had taken leave of this mess. And as he drew up plans for one stranger after another’s grave-bed, they would take it upon themselves to observe his feverish sketches.

Always they were left open mouthed.

“Can you actually build such a thing?” they asked, skepticism written in their brows.

“Of course,” he’d reply. “Though I’ve never tried before.” They believed him because of the zealous emotion in his sage-colored eyes, burning with sad obsession.

“And who could afford such a thing?” they whispered amongst themselves, though all were too afraid to ask the craftsman himself. Instead, a brave soul or two inquired, “Who is this creation for?”

The coffin maker would smile, a grin lighting his face aglow. He was really a quite handsome fellow, though his occupation had labeled him rather darkly. It is often that those who work with death are determined to be somehow off, as if the shadow of fatality has somehow changed them, as if they are not the same as the other humans who shrink from finality’s sight.

The coffin maker would smile and say, “Her name is Juliet,” as if that settled all questions. It was clear then to any who had dared ask, that the coffin maker was in love with Juliet and she must have been his wife, and so they left off questioning.

As dusk came the second day, the shop cleared to a quiet, peaceful emptiness. Even the bodies had been taken away, except for Juliet. The coffin maker rubbed his brow with one tired palm, studying the girl. Her skin seemed to vibrate with a hidden life.

He had been unable to fathom putting such a vivacious creature into the earth, to let her be trampled by wars and given over to darkness. And so he had drawn for her a glass coffin, so that she would forever see the sun, so that she would remain forever safe from the sullying fingers of the world, a glittering, impeccable treasure.

Nestles in vines of masterfully wrought wood, the glass would lie, a gem in twirling wooden arms, a diamond showcasing far greater beauty. The light would glitter off its surface and no nature would ever seek to destroy such a brilliant creation.

Slowly, because he could not help himself, he placed a soft kiss on her still pink lips.

ANd her coffin would remain forever a drawing, whispered about by awed gossips through city squares, a legend of sorts in the land of death, because in the moment when the sun set that day, Juliet awakened.

Wide, green eyes flew open with a great fluttering of lashes that seemed to displace all the air in the room. The coffin maker could almost see the pulse of her heart inside her breast. She sat up slowly, long, golden hair spilling down her back, studying him. Had he expected anything, he would have expected her to ask him questions, to cry for help in confusion. He would have thought to comfort her, maybe to hold her as she cried. Juliet took great pleasure in dispelling expectations.

“My father’s dead,” she stated in a clear, calm voice. It rang like a bell in the empty space, and the coffin maker’s ears burned pleasantly at its sound.

“Yes,” he nodded, letting his deep voice mix with her chime.

“And you are the coffin maker.” It was another statement. She sat so that their faces where inches apart. In that moment, he realized she was slightly older than he had thought and not half as fragile. In that moment, she realized that she could love him.

“I am,” he answered again. It was the first time in his life that he thought to be ashamed of it. Slowly, her small hand came up to touch the bones of his face.

“I’m not sure I can marry a coffin maker.” Eyes glittering with laughter, she smiled at him. He had never seen anyone so alive in his shop before. Covering her hand with his own and pressing its coolness to the warmth of his jaw, he smiled at her. He felt his own eyes twinkle for the first time since he had come to the capitol.

“I don’t think I’ll make coffins anymore then.”

“What will you do?” she asked. Her voice held the tiniest twang, sweet and mischievous like summer rain.

“Whatever you like.” He caught his tongue between his grinning teeth, years of strife falling away to reveal the youth burdened beneath them.

“I’ve always loved the forest.”

“So have I.”

And so the coffin maker became a huntsman. And so the huntsman took a wife.