The Queen ordered him to kill the girl, and the huntsman acquiesced.

They went riding together, he and the princess. He had promised her that there was a white hart in the King’s Forest that often came to drink from the mountain spring. Galloping beside her, he wondered at his lie. The Queen had demanded that he cut out the girl’s heart to give her proof of the deed, and he, wretched, imagined the foul deed over and over, each time pulling a whiter heart from the girl’s young chest; and was this wordplay he made, in his empty promise to the girl, when he had never been clever with words before? He led her deeper into the wood, his brow knitting tighter, his stomach churning with the sin of his service.

They had not spoken for some time when he felt the girl’s cool fingers on his arm. She asked him what was the matter. His face, she said, his face was so sorrowful. Forgive her forwardness, she apologized, but he appeared on the verge of weeping.

“You must leave at once,” said the huntsman. “The Queen, your stepmother, has ordered me to take your life, and I am fain to do it or else I die.”

Showing no hesitation, the princess bared her breast to him. “You are a servant of the realm, as I am. Do your duty, sir.”

The huntsman was aghast. “Would you throw your life away so readily, for a madwoman?”

In a flash, the princess was gone. Harsh smoke, purplish cinders, consumed horse and rider, and in their place, once the wind had lifted all to the gloomy skies, was the Queen herself. “Madwoman am I?” she said. “I should have known a huntsman was too soft-hearted for this task.” Like the bolt of a crossbow her fingers dived through his chest. She wrenched them back, his beating organ clutched in her bloody hand. “Soft as cheese,” she said, and crushed his life.

On the morrow she arranged for the girl to be abducted by mercenaries. It was strictly a job for professionals.

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