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.


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