Heart of the Huntsman

Number four in my short story series based on the concept of Disney princesses in a dystopian world.

We found her wandering the woods. Covered in blood she was, the poor child and we took her into our home. Perhaps we should have asked whose blood it was that smeared her snow-white skin. We soon found out, but by that time we were committed to her care and were bound by our code of brotherhood to offer her sanctuary in our midst.

Our camp is small, but our workings are a vast underground labyrinth, and so there is space enough to let the child, whom we have named Margarethe, roam. Most days she satisfies herself with the flesh of wayward bats or small rodents, but we post a guard to discourage anything else from tempting our child, and every day we send messengers into the world in search of a cure.

Strong as iron, fast as the north wind she hunts. Possessed by the scent of blood on the breeze, Margarethe is unstoppable. Dear, shy Timon tried to stop her and now he is no more than a crumpled corpse on the cold ground. Before his blood even cooled she was upon him, tearing at his flesh with teeth and fingers so that our sweet brother is no more than an unrecognisable tangle of entrails and shiny white bone. My grief is so deep that I am happy to let her run through the briars and overgrown tangle of the ancient ruins, but the others have convinced me to bring her back. After so much destruction our healing world needs to be protected from whatever sickness this child carries.

When she weeps, our Margarethe sheds tears of blood. Crimson runnels scar her pale cheeks. She is sorry for Timon. She is sorry for the deer and mother bear she consumed. She weeps for something she has forgotten and even I, old and unyielding, find something in my heart soften at her distress. She is sated for now, but as she grows in strength, she grows in appetite and soon… so soon we will have to stop her permanently. The world grows ever closer. Every night we see lights sweep our forest and hear voices of survivors on the wind. Margarethe needs a cure or an end.

Strangely, it is Alphonse with his terrible allergies, who returns to the camp with the withered crone. This ancient woman must have seen the darkest days of The Apocalypse. He says she has the answer. He says she knows a remedy for Margarethe’s malady. It will cost us, but she knows a cure. Hope is such a tremulous thing, but we each feel it flutter in our breast.

“Come here.” The woman demands in a voice like dust. The child complies as if she understands. “Stand in the light so I can see you.” Another command and Margarethe does as the crone dictates. The woman peers through milky eyes and prods and pokes the placid girl. “I can do it for the agreed price.” She declares and holds out a hand to receive the leather pouch of diamonds and other uncut gems.

“How soon?” I can’t help but ask. Margarethe has the sunken cheeks and bulging eyes that precede her hunger.

“A week perhaps.” She says slowly. There is a glint of hunger in the crone’s gaze. Not for blood and brain matter, but for the riches of the Earth. I scratch at my beard and pretend to contemplate her timeline.

“I will double it if you can get it done in three.” She exposes toothless, blackened gums in what I have to assume is a smile.

“As you wish.” She hobbles to a corner of the cavern and begins rummaging through her pack. There is a suspicious clink of glass.

The result is underwhelming. I imagined a potion, a pill anything but what she presents to my brothers and I. I feel stupid for believing in her hollow promises.

“How do you expect her to consume this.” I point at the apple on the table. We have explained the hunger to the crone.

“Trust the process.” The woman cackles as our child prowls around the table. She is transfixed by the shiny apple. Margarethe reaches for it, and receives for her trouble, a rap on the knuckle from the elderly woman. She draws back her lips and scowls. Again, and again Margarethe reaches for the forbidden fruit and receives a vicious blow. Snarls turn to wails of frustration, and my brothers and I watch on with abject terror. The crone is deliberately antagonizing the child.

“Ask.” The woman demands, “If you want it, ask.” And to our wonderment Margarethe speaks. It is guttural, but our child has a voice.

“Please?” she cries, bloody tears of frustration mar her ravaged face.

“You may eat.” The woman announces and our child devours the apple as if it were a living heart. “It will hold her for a while.” The crone lectures, “I have prepared more medicine and as long as there are apples growing in the ruins, all will be well. Teach her as I have taught her, and maybe one day when you are all dust she will be able to live with the others.”