As a bit of a brain relaxing exercise in between work on my other projects, I’ve taken to writing classic fairytales in my own words, largely from memory, filling in any blanks or aspects I don’t care for with my own imagination.
Hope you enjoy, and a very happy new year to all of you.
Hans My Hedgehog
Versions I’m Familiar With:
Hans My Hedgehog (Brothers Grimm, 1819), Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Hans My Hedgehog (1988)
There once was a young woodcutter who lived in a village famous for carving wood. His father was a woodcutter, and his father before him, and his father before that. They made a modest living, enough to keep their family in good health and to keep a cozy cottage with a small garden and a brood of chickens.
So famous was the village that one day, the king of the land visited in person. The young woodcutter watched as the golden carriage pulled up the cobbled street, drawn by four gleaming black horses with blue feathers spouting from their bridles, and saw the king hand a carver a sack full gold for a great wooden table unlike any other to adorn his hall. The carver and a woodcutter went away into the forest and were gone longer than any cutter or carver ever had, and when they returned they brought with them a felled tree of such beautiful silver wood the king gave them another sack full of gold, and bade them carve it all over with trees and leaping stags and a hunting party in the kings own likeness, for no one in all the lands would have a table as great or gleaming as this.
Suddenly, the young woodcutter was no longer content with his cozy cottage, his modest living, or his family who were in such good health yet such worn shoes, who laughed long and loud but ate only the simplest of meals.
But the carver and the cutter refused to share the whereabouts of the silver trees, condemning the rest of the village to fell and carve the trees of simple brown wood, which fell quickly out of fashion as word of the king’s table spread.
Jealous of the newfound wealth the carver and the cutter, the young woodcutter implored his father to come with him into the forest in search of the silver grove. But his father, content with his situation, refused. So the young woodcutter went in alone, with only his axe, a donkey and a small cart for company.
With no hint of where the grove lay, the young woodcutter walked past the trees the men in his village had felled, refined and carved for centuries and off the path, venturing into the deepest woods where few humans had dared set foot before. After three days journey, the wood of the trees turned a deep, rich black that would be sure to fetch a price, but not one so high as the silver. And so he kept walking.
‘Where are you going?’ a voice asked him on the fourth day.
‘I am seeking my livelihood,’ he said, startled. He searched for the source of the sound, but found no living thing in sight but one small hedgehog.
‘Are you not a woodsman?’ the voice came again, and once more the young woodcutter looked and looked.
‘Yes,’ he said, confounded.
‘And have you not been walking through good, solid trees for four days?’
The young woodcutter gave up and directed his response to the heavens. ‘I search for wood so beautiful kings will seek me out and pay me in gold.’
‘For what would you use this gold?’
‘To build a new home for my family. To buy my mother new shoes and my sister a fine dress and my father a retirement. I’d provide food so rich they’ll feel like royalty.’
‘Follow me, then,’ the voice said, and the hedgehog began to crawl away. ‘For I have seen the wood you speak of.’
‘But where are you?’
‘Here, of course,’ the hedgehog said, stopping to look back at him with shining eyes.
The young woodcutter could hardly believe it, wondering if a friend had followed him to play a trick on him.
But the hedgehog sighed, weary, and spoke again, slowly and deliberately. ‘Come, we have far to go.’ This time, the young woodcutter saw the hedgehog’s little mouth moving as it shaped the words. It resumed its movement, and after one gob smacked moment, the young man followed.
For thirty days and thirty nights they walked, stopping only to eat and sleep. The hedgehog proved excellent company, and when they came at last to the end of the journey the young woodcutter was disheartened to see it immediately turn away.
‘You are leaving?’
‘I have a family,’ the hedgehog said. ‘Many children I need to see. I have been away too long.’
‘I will miss you,’ the young man woodcutter, and meant it.
But the hedgehog shook her tiny head. ‘You will return to your family soon enough. One tree should earn you the gold you seek to take care of them. Farewell.’
The young woodcutter watched her leave, but the sadness at the parting lifted when he turned at last to look upon the promised trees.
His breath caught, so beautiful were they. Instead of the silver he had been seeking, the hedgehog had led him to a grove of trees the colour of spun gold. He got to work immediately, taking his axe to the closest tree. But though their trunks were slender, barely wider than the young woodcutter’s neck, his axe made hardly a dent in the wood.
For a year he worked, first building himself a cabin from the much softer black trees surrounding the grove, and then patiently chop, chop, chopping at the first golden tree until, finally, it obliged him and fell, and he set about preparing the beautiful tree for transport back to the village.
Thirty-four days and nights he travelled home, and when he arrived a crowd gathered first to see the young woodcutter they thought had been lost to the forest, and then to look upon wood more lovely than anything they had seen before.
The cutter and carver of silver trees were flabbergasted, and begged the young woodcutter to reveal the whereabouts of the golden trees. But he refused, like they had before him, and took the cart and tree home to his father.
His family welcomed him home, overjoyed at his return, and showered him with all the affection and company he had missed in his time alone in the golden grove.
Many offers of gold were made on the tree as he worked on refining it into pieces on the street before his cottage, but every offer was refused. Finally, word spread to the king’s castle.
The old king had died during the young woodcutter’s year in the woods, and this time when the gold carriage and black horses pulled into the village it was a young king who dismounted.
‘Where is this golden tree?’ he asked the crowd who had gathered to see his arrival. ‘I would pay a great deal even to look upon it.’
The young woodcutter stepped forward. ‘The golden tree is mine,’ he said. ‘It was felled and prepared by my hand. I would be happy to show it to you.’
And so the young woodcutter led the young king to his home, and the young king fell to his knees at the sight of the gleaming planks of wood.
‘Will you sell it to me?’ he asked at once. ‘I thought nothing could be more grand than my father’s silver table, but I would have a throne made of this golden wood – larger and more magnificent than any throne ever was.’
‘Of course, your Majesty,’ the young man said. ‘But this is all the wood I have, and it is barely enough to make the arm of such a throne. If you are willing to wait, I can send you more wood, yet each tree takes a year in the felling.’
‘I would wait fifty years for such a throne,’ the king swore.
The young woodcutter laughed. ‘Fifty years is far more than I need. Give me twenty-five, Majesty, and each year I will have a new tree ready to be carved.’
‘And each year you will receive a bag of gold for the trouble.’
The young woodcutter and the young king shook hands, and a heavy bag of hold followed. Thrilled by the deal, the young woodcutter raced inside to share his news and wealth with his family. At last, he told them, he could build them a house and a life worth having.
‘You are kind, son,’ said his father, ‘but we do not need or want your gold or house. We are happy here, and our life suits us well. But if you would return to the forest to make your great fortune, you may go with our blessing.’
The young woodcutter was bewildered, and urged his father to see sense. When nothing he said could change his mind, he turned to his mother and sister, and once again was gently refused.
And so the young woodcutter returned to the forest, though now he had swapped his donkey for a grey horse and his cart for a wagon, and he filled it with supplies for another year alone.
This year passed slower than the last, though the young woodcutter had his plans and dreams for his sack of gold and the twenty-five more to come to keep him company, and the year after passed slower still. Soon, the thought of visiting the village and his family were all that kept his axe cutting into the golden wood day after day. But the village did not stay the same as it had been in his youth. His sister married and moved into her own home, his mother and father grew older and passed away, and the young woodcutter found that he was no longer young, but a man grown, and lonely.
One day, seven bags of gold after the first, the woodcutter found he could not lift his axe. He let it fall from his hands and slumped to the ground, his head in his hands, and wept. ‘Please,’ he whispered to the quiet grove. ‘Send me family. Send me a son to raise and teach and keep my company. I would give anything. I would give everything.’
‘Hello,’ said a voice.
The woodcutter looked up, for he recognized the voice at once. His eyes fell on the hedgehog. ‘You’ve come back!’
‘I heard whispers from the forest creatures that a man still dwelled in the golden wood,’ the hedgehog said. ‘Why are you still here? Did your bag of gold not feed and house your family?’
‘They did not want it. But the king heard of my wood and offered me enough gold to live the rest of my life in the greatest comfort if I bring him more. How can I refuse? I can build myself a palace of my own, have servants to fulfill my every wish…’
‘Then why is your heart so heavy? Have you not got everything you wanted?’
‘I have nobody to share it with,’ he said, hanging his head once more. ‘I do not have time enough in the village to find someone to love, or father children. My family has moved on without me. I wish for a family of my own.’
The hedgehog cocked her head. ‘And you would give everything for this?’
‘Everything I could.’
The woodcutter hesitated, looking over his shoulder to the cabin, where nine bags of gold were carefully stored beneath his bed. Now that he thought of it, giving everything he had hardly seemed wise. ‘I would give one bag of gold,’ he conceded. ‘A full years work.’
The hedgehog sighed with what sounded like disappointment, and her prickles gave an odd shiver. ‘Keep your gold,’ she said. ‘You will have your family soon enough.’
‘But how do you know?’ the woodcutter asked. But the hedgehog was already crawling into the darkness of the black forest beyond. ‘Wait!’ he cried after her. ‘Please stay!’
Three days passed, and the woodcutter could not bring himself to cut the golden tree or hunt the surrounding forest for food. Instead he stayed in bed, one hand hanging over the side to rest upon a bag of gold.
On the fourth day, the woodcutter heard a noise: a sharp, pitiful cry that sounded neither human nor animal. Alarmed, the woodcutter leapt to his feet and took up the bow and arrow he used to hunt his dinner, and cracked open the cabin door.
He lowered his weapon immediately, for he saw there was nothing to be afraid of. There, in the centre of the golden grove, was a small, squirming bundle. A baby.
The woodcutter ran for the baby, hands outstretched to snatch it up from the cold, hard ground. But instead of the soft blanket, his hands were met with a sharp stab of pain. Studying them, he found his hands had been lightly punctured a hundred times over.
The baby continued to wail.
Carefully, the woodcutter knelt beside the bundle and opened the blanket. His breath caught, but this time not for beauty. Inside the bundle lay a monster, not quite human, not quite hedgehog. Its peculiar face was screwed up, red from effort, and its voice was high and hoarse all at once.
But it was a baby nonetheless, and alone. So the woodcutter made a soothing sound, and stroked the baby’s forehead until it calmed and opened its black eyes. Not beady black the way the hedgehog’s had been, but the same black of his own. He and the baby realized in the same moment that they belonged to each other. The woodcutter took the baby into his arms without fear, and found the prickles were now as soft as lambs wool. ‘I will name you Hans,’ he told the baby, ‘for my father.’ The baby wrapped a tiny paw around his finger, as if in approval.
The woodcutter renewed his efforts on the golden tree with fervor, strange baby strapped to his back as he worked, and at night they fell asleep together, exhausted and happy. At midnight, the woodcutter stirred in his sleep, his eyes opening for a moment to fall on a sleeping human baby. But when he woke in the morning, he found nothing in the bed but Hans the hedgehog, and he was satisfied enough with that.
But when the time came to take the golden wood back to the village, the woodcutter grew afraid of what other humans would make of the hedgehog boy. He worried they would be cruel, or worse. But he had made a promise to the king, and he couldn’t leave the baby alone in the forest for even one day, let alone all the days to the village and back.
So he took up the blanket from his bed and wrapped Hans inside, and went to the village with Hans concealed, and showed him to nobody but his sister.
‘He’s a monster!’ she gasped, recoiling, and Hans began to cry.
‘He’s a baby,’ the woodcutter insisted. ‘Your nephew. He won’t hurt you.’
His sister gave him a concerned look, but with two children now of her own could not resist the sound. She reached for him warily, and found that his prickles were soft and his eyes were human. She took him up and held him close, shaking her head. ‘You can’t bring him here again, brother,’ she said. ‘Baby or not, he isn’t human. He’ll be chased of out the village – if he’s lucky. And if the king’s men see him…’
‘I know,’ the woodcutter said, watching his son with pity. ‘But when I have the king’s gold, it won’t matter what he looks like. Wealth demands respect, and he will have more than most men could ever dream of.’
‘You care too much about what your gold can do for you,’ his sister said. ‘But I will send you what I can, and I will come to the forest once a year to care for him when you cannot.’
And so the woodcutter and Hans returned to the forest with a basket of cast off baby clothes and toys, and a sense of safety. And when it came time to visit the village again, the woodcutter found his sister had kept her word and followed his directions to the cabin deep in the forest to care for Hans, and though she had to leave her own children to do so, she came to love Hans the same way the woodcutter did.
Hans grew up healthy and strong and curious about the world outside the forest, for the woodcutter and his sister told him wonderful stories. The man filled his mind with all they would do once the king’s glorious golden throne was finished, of the palace they would build and the food they would eat and all the music and laughter that would fill their lives. And his aunt would talk about her own children, and the people in her life, and filled his heart with every tale of kindness and bravery she’d ever heard.
‘Father,’ Hans asked in his fifth year. ‘Why don’t I look like you?’
‘You look like your mother,’ the woodcutter said, for though it broke his heart to lie, he could not think how to tell the boy the truth.
‘Sometimes I have dreams that I look like you, father. I wake in the night and I have hands, and toes, and a straight nose, and skin without prickles. But when I wake in the daylight, I’m me again.’
‘They are only dreams, Hans,’ the woodcutter said. ‘You look how you were meant to look.’
‘Father,’ Hans asked in his tenth year. ‘Can’t I go with you to the village?’
‘No, Hans,’ the woodcutter said. ‘I will only be there a day or two to meet with the king.’
‘But can’t I meet the king? And my cousins?’
‘No, Hans. Your aunt looks forward to her time here all year. You cannot deprive her of it.’ And because it broke his heart again to lie to him, he asked Hans if he wanted any special treat to celebrate his ten years of life.
‘I would like to hear music,’ Hans said. ‘And ride a horse that can bare me.’
And once again the woodcutter’s heart broke, for he had told Hans of music so often but could not play it for him, and his horse was too afraid to have poor Hans upon its back. ‘I will try, Hans, my son,’ he said with a heavy heart.
The woodcutter dealt with the king as quickly as possible, for the king was growing impatient with the throne’s progress despite his promises, and had begun suggesting he send an army into the forest to help the cutter fell the trees. But the woodcutter knew that help would mean sharing the gold and revealing Hans, and so he refused, and made note to keep a wary eye over his shoulder when he returned to the forest to ensure he was not followed.
That night, he searched his parents cottage high and low for a music box to bring music home to Hans, but found nothing but a pair of ancient bagpipes belonging to his grandfather. And though he searched all the next day for a brave young horse, he could find none that didn’t flinch at the sight of a hedgehog he’d found snuffling in the hedgerows.
Feeling he’d failed his son, the woodcutter loaded his cart with the bagpipes and a near-wild rooster he’d found still pecking in his parents garden and began the long trip home, where he presented the gifts with an apology. But Hans was more than happy with the bagpipes he could not play and the rooster he could not ride, and disappeared with them into the trees at once.
‘Brother,’ the woodcutter’s sister said as she mounted her own horse. ‘I cannot return next year, or any year after. The trip is too long, and too hard.’
He wanted to curse at her, but when he saw how much the words pained her he forgave her and kissed her hand and bid her safe journey. The next year, he left Hans alone, and though the parting hurt them both he returned to find Hans safe and well.
And so Hans grew into a young man himself, and when he was not hunting or helping his father fell the golden trees he played his bagpipe and cared for his rooster, which grew until it was the size of a stallion.
And with each year that passed and brought them closer to the final golden tree, his father spun stories of their future.
‘We will build a palace,’ he said, ‘on top of a hill, surrounded by fields and rivers. We’ll ride and fish and hunt all day.’
‘And will there be others there?’ Hans asked, wistful. ‘Other people?’
‘Of course, Hans, my son. Every night we’ll welcome everyone from the nearest town to join us in feasting and music and dancing. And you shall meet a good woman, and have a family of your own.’
‘A woman who looks like me? And my mother?’
‘It doesn’t matter what a good woman looks like, Hans,’ he said, avoiding once again the opportunity to tell Hans he was different. ‘And when we have the last of our gold, everyone in the land will want to know you. For we will be wealthier than everyone but the king himself, and such wealth commands respect and love.’
But the last bag of gold never came, for the last tree had rot in its heart and fell before the woodcutter was ready for it. It pinned him beneath it, and though Hans had grown strong and swift he could not lift the tree quickly enough to spare his father the damage.
‘I am sorry, Hans,’ the woodcutter whispered as Hans carried him to his bed. He took Hans’ paw in one hand, and rested the other on a bag of gold. ‘I have not told you everything, but you are the wealthiest man in the land, bar one. They will accept you, and you will have the life I always wanted for us. You will want for nothing.’
‘What do you mean, father?’ Hans asked, but his father’s black eyes had closed for the last time, and he could speak no more.
Hans wept, feeling truly alone for the first time in his life, for he had always had his father’s homecoming to look forward to. He buried his father beneath a golden tree, and played a song of his own creation to mark the passing.
And then, because he had nothing else to do, he continued work on the golden tree that had felled his father. Day and night he chopped at the wood, carving away the rot and preparing it for travel. And as he worked in the starlight, glancing up at intervals to watch the slow tracking of the moon across the sky, he found that his dreams of skin without prickles were not dreams at all. For when the moon reached it’s highest point, his hedgehog skin fell away to reveal smooth human hands, and when he touched his face he found a human nose and human lips, and on his head was thick human hair.
Hans did not speak, for he had no one to share his surprise with, nor exclaim, for he was not in the habit of talking to himself. Instead he put aside his carving tools and knelt to inspect the hedgehog skin that now lay abandoned on the grass. He felt a surge of pride, for it was soft to the touch: harmless prickles on one side, velveteen on the other, and all of it beautiful. He wondered if this had ever happened to the mother he had so rarely heard about and the other humans who looked like him, or if this was something he owed to his father.
When an hour had passed, the velvet skin returned to him unbidden, and he was a hedgehog once more. He took up his axe again and renewed his efforts against the golden tree. He wanted to ask the other hedgehog-humans if they could shed their prickles. He was ready to leave the forest, to visit the village of his aunt and meet other humans for the first time. He was ready for friends, to build the palace his father dreamed of and find love and start a family of his own.
At last, the final planks of golden wood were ready. Bidding farewell to the cottage, and his father who rested in what was left of the golden grove, Hans piled the cart with the twenty-five bags of gold and his bagpipes. And because his father’s horse would still not suffer Hans to touch it, he hitched the cart to his rooster.
Thirty days and thirty nights they travelled, Hans staying up late every night to watch his prickles fall away and exult in the feeling of the night air on his bare arms, and then the wonderful feeling of being made whole again as the prickles returned. On the thirtieth night, when the trees changed from black to brown, he felt his heartbeat change. It thumped a rhythm so new and giddy that he at once pulled out his bagpipes to play a counter tune.
The music travelled through the trees until it reached the ears of the villagers and filled them with the strange mixture of grief and excitement that dwelled in Hans’ heart. They gathered in the square each day as Hans drew nearer and the bagpipes swelled louder, thinking such music could only herald a visit from the king. And so, when Hans and his rooster and cart emerged blinking from the forest, the whole village was waiting for him.
There was a moment of silence as he put aside the bagpipes took in the small sea of faces, as human and smooth as his father had been, and they took in Hans, who with prickles and snout and claws was unlike anything they’d ever seen before. He reached out to stroke the rooster’s neck, drawing him to a halt, and though he could see no one who looked like him in the crowd, he smiled and raised a nervous hand in greeting.
At the back of the crowd, Hans’ aunt buried her face in her hands, for she knew what his arrival meant for her brother, and what it must now mean for Hans.
Hans stood, climbing down from the cart to tower over the villagers, and all at once the spell was broken.
A villager screamed, the sound breaking like a wave and growing, growing as men and women shouted in fear and revulsion.
‘It’s murdered the woodcutter!’ someone shouted, and the cry was taken up within moments.
Hans didn’t understand, reaching into the cart to show the humans the planks of golden wood. ‘No, please,’ Hans tried to say over the frightened crowd. ‘The woodcutter was my father… I am one of you!’
But none who heard him could believe that the man could be any relation to such a foul monster, and the chant of murderer and monster ran through the village like wildfire.
And so Hans learned at last that he was different, and that he was ugly and fearsome and unwanted for his beautiful prickles.
He reached into the cart once more, remembering his father’s words and pulling free a bag of gold. ‘I am wealthy,’ he shouted, desperate to quell the crowd. ‘I have more gold than any woman or man bar the king!’
And though a hush fell over the crowd at last, what Hans saw was not the respect his father promised, but a slow change in their eyes from fear to greed. One man rushed at Hans with a carving tool raised. Hans swatted him aside, but another came, and another. The crowd surged violently with tools and fists raised high, but found themselves at the mercy of Hans’ strength and newfound anger.
His aunt made her way through, crying out Hans’ name, but at the sight of her Hans felt his heart break in betrayal, understanding at last why she and his father had kept him hidden in the forest, never telling him the loathsome truth about himself. And when she touched him, her hand fell not on softness but came away with hundreds of tiny puncture wounds.
Hans leapt upon his rooster’s back, swiping his sharp, prickle covered arm one final time at the crowd, and charged back into the forest with the cart rattling behind him. A bag of gold ripped open, dropping coin after coin into the grass behind him, and though the crowd fell upon the golden path as far into the forest as they dared, the sound of his fury and hurt lingered long after any sign of him was gone.
When the king arrived, many months later, he found no golden wood waiting for him.
‘What is this foolishness?’ the king asked. ‘I have waited twenty-five years for the last piece of my throne, and I will not allow the woodcutter to renege on our deal now.’
‘But my lord,’ cried a villager. ‘The woodcutter is dead, murdered by a foul monster who keeps the gold and wood for himself.’
‘I do not believe in monsters,’ the king said, drawing his platinum ceremonial sword so that all who saw him could be impressed by his wealth and bravery. ‘I will have my throne if I have to battle the very devil himself!’
‘You will have to go deep into the forest, your majesty, due east for thirty days and thirty nights once the trees turn black,’ said an older woman with hands scarred with puncture wounds. ‘But you will not have to fight the devil, or any monster. The creature you seek is named Hans. He has a kind heart, but was betrayed by those he trusted. Treat him with respect, my lord, and he will return it, I’m sure.’
‘Ignore her, majesty, for she is mad!’ said another villager. ‘You must cut off the monster’s head before he impales you on his prickles!’
‘Or bites you with his razor teeth!’
‘Or strikes you with his mighty claws!’
‘Or bewitches you with his music!’
The king unhitched a magnificent black stallion from his coach and mounted it, signaling to the small party of men who travelled with him. ‘Then we will face this monster,’ he proclaimed. ‘And avenge the death of the woodcutter.’
And so the king led his men east into the forest, following the faint path left by the cart. For though the king did not believe in monsters, and did not care whether the woodcutter’s death went avenged or not, he was determined to see his throne finished and, if the woodcutter truly was dead, retrieve the gold he’d paid so handsomely for it.
The king, as it turned out, was not a kind, wise, or patient man, and the deal he had made with the woodsman in all the ignorance of youth galled him. His father had fought a war, won peace and governed fairly, but this king had no fight to win, no way he could see of proving himself to his people beyond his vast wealth. This magnificent throne, carved to perfection by a team back at the palace, was the mark he would leave upon this earth. And if his people thought he’d had to defeat a monster to get it, so much the better. He’d immortalize the battle on the throne itself.
But though the king and his men travelled for thirty days and thirty nights in the black forest, they found no sign of any monster or of a grove of golden trees. For thirty more they wandered lost, and one by one the kings men turned back in fear of the tale of the monster and the oppressive darkness of the trees. And though they implored the king to return with them, he refused, for he would not return to the castle without the final piece of his throne.
Ninety days he rode the forest alone, his sword long sheathed and the flesh of his face hollowing from exhaustion and despair. But just as he considered at last turning back, a beautiful melody reached his ears. It was faint, but it spoke to him of pain and loss, of a broken heart and a future lost. The king sat up straight and urged his tired horse on, following the sound as it swelled louder and louder.
Soon, a glint of gold caught the king’s eye. A golden coin lay in the grass, forgotten. The king dismounted and swooped on it, holding it to the dim light to judge its authenticity. As he did, another abandoned coin caught his eye, and another, and another. Leading his horse behind him, he pocketed the trail of coins until the trees around him thinned and gave way to a glorious golden grove ringed with golden stumps. A cottage stood nearby, but the king paid it no mind. He let the last coin fall into his pocket with a clink as he walked towards the gleaming trees.
The music stopped.
‘So,’ said a gruff voice. ‘Another human has come for my gold.’
The kings hand went straight to the sword at his hip as he turned to search for the voice. A large brown lump sat on a stool beside the cottage, its head, back and arms covered all over in long, dangerous looking prickles. The lump clutched an ancient set of bagpipes in clawed hands. A snout sat where a human nose and mouth should have been, and above it the king saw two black eyes staring at him with plain distrust.
The king let go of his sword, for though he was not a wise king, he considered himself a clever one. The creature was already as big as he was sitting down, and he had no doubt who would win if it came to a fight.
‘You are the creature Hans, I take it?’ the king asked, forcing his tone to politeness and respect.
‘I am,’ Hans allowed. ‘Though you could only have heard it from my treacherous aunt.’
‘The woman did not say who she was, only that a kind hearted creature lived here who might help me.’
The creature snorted, but as the woman had promised he did not attack.
‘What then can I help you with?’
‘I may not look it after wandering this forest, but I am the king of this land. I made a deal twenty five years ago with the woodcutter who dwelled here to deliver golden wood for my throne. I never received the last tree.’
‘Aye,’ said Hans. ‘The tree fell too soon and crushed him beneath it. I am his son.’
The king could not conceal his surprise. ‘His son?’ Too late, he worried he might have offended the beast.
But Hans only frowned. ‘Not by blood. He grew lonely here, away from other humans for so much of the year. He wished for family, offering everything he owned in exchange for it. But when family was offered, he reneged, and would pledge only one bag of his precious gold. I am the son he received in exchange.’
‘He told you this?’
‘My father told me nothing of what I was,’ Hans said bitterly, though there was a fondness there that even anger couldn’t conceal. ‘I met an old friend of his as I returned from trying to deliver the last tree. She told me many things.’
The king waited for Hans to continue his story, but Hans’ eyes grew distant, and the silence stretched before them.
‘And the tree?’ the King asked when the silence had grown too thick to bear.
‘In the cart,’ Hans said. ‘You may take the horse, too. It won’t be touched by me.’
The king went to the cart and looked inside, and found the wood gleaming back at him. ‘I have your final payment,’ said the king. ‘One bag of gold. And of course the gold I found in the grass, if it is yours as you say.’
Hans snorted again, a sound that irritated the king. ‘Keep it,’ he said. ‘What use could I have for more gold?’ And with that, Hans returned the bagpipes to his lips and began to play.
The king recognized it as a dismissal, but hesitated, both in annoyance at the act of being dismissed by a commoner – less than a commoner, a beast! – and in concern, for he knew not the way out of the forest.
Hans paused in his playing. ‘Why do you linger?’
‘I rode lost for ninety days before I heard your music,’ the king admitted. ‘I do not know the way out. Will you guide me?’
‘I will not.’
The king gritted his teeth in anger, but forced himself to remain polite. ‘Please, Hans. I will reward you with anything you ask.’
At this, Hans grew quiet and contemplative. ‘Do you know of a good woman?’ he asked at last.
‘I know several,’ the king said.
‘My father’s friend told me that the end of my troubles lies in the love of a good woman. I have met only one woman in all my life, and am not likely to meet another if I stay in the forest. But to travel outside alone would bring still more trouble.’
The king’s clever mind began ticking, and he saw at once a way to serve himself in more ways than one. ‘I two daughters,’ he said. ‘The eldest is betrothed, but the younger is a finer woman than any you could ever hope to meet. If you show me from this forest and travel under my protection to my castle, you shall have her as your wife, and find an end to your troubles.’
‘Very well,’ said Hans. ‘I would be glad to meet her.’
‘Let us strike a deal,’ said the king. Hans stood, and at once the king was glad he had not angered the creature, for Hans towered over him and moved with all the grace and swiftness of a stag. He offered his paw to the king, who took it without letting his revulsion or triumph reach his face. For now the king had secured both the return of the gold he had so rashly promised the woodcutter so long ago in the form of a dowry, and a marriage for the plain and obstinate daughter he had been trying for years to be rid of.
‘I will understand if even a good woman does not consent to marry a creature such as me,’ Hans said, their hand and paw still clasped tight. ‘But beware, if I find you have lied to me about her nature I will ensure your throne will never be completed.’
‘You are a distrustful creature,’ said the king, once more through gritted teeth. ‘But you will find no falsehood in my family.’
And so Hans once again saddled his rooster and piled his gold and few belongings into the cart, and led the king for thirty days and thirty nights to where the trees turned brown, and through the village where the humans gasped to see king and creature travelling together, and remarked at what a brave, strong man the king must be to have subdued such a monster.
Across fields and rivers and hills they journeyed, avoiding villages and towns at Hans’ request, until they caught sight of a great city built into the side of a mountain, with a castle etched into the very rock.
‘Here it is,’ said the king proudly. ‘My home. And yours too, if you wish it.’
Hans looked upon the magnificent city made of stone and was unimpressed by it, for he saw not the achievement of those who had built it, but the amount of humans it must hold within. He grunted, and once more the king’s patience was tested, for he had not grown to like Hans at all in all their time together. The king was a man who liked to talk and gossip and brag, and Hans made neither a good conversationalist or listener. He travelled always behind the king and the cart, lost in a world of his own on his oversized rooster.
‘Might I borrow your cloak?’ Hans asked before they made to enter the city. The king hesitated, loathe to lend anyone, least of all Hans, his royal cloak of brilliant blue and gold. But Hans was so embarrassed in the asking that even the king was moved, and handed it over.
Hans covered his prickles in the cloak, and to the kings great surprise, not one pierced the fabric. Once he drew the hood far over his head and pulled his arms inside, there was no hint of a monster. Only a large stranger atop an exotic steed travelling with the king.
The city folk cheered at their arrival, so long had the king been gone. Children ran beside the cart and reached out to touch the feathers of Hans’ rooster. Up and up they rode, winding through the steep streets, until they came to a courtyard before the castle.
All the king’s men were there, and at the front of them, his wife and two daughters. Hans studied both young women from the safety of his hood. One was stunningly beautiful, with bright hair and eyes and a smile that came so quickly and easily Hans could not help but suspect its sincerity. The other he could only see partly, for she was concealed behind her open fan. She too had bright hair, but her eyes were dark. And though he could not see them, Hans knew that no smile touched her lips.
But he could not tell just by looking whether either woman was good, or which the king had promised to him.
‘Ada,’ the king called, and the bright eyed daughter stood forward. ‘Please greet our guest.’
Ada curtseyed prettily, looking at Hans with curiosity. She held her hand out for him to kiss, trying to peek beneath his hood. ‘Welcome to our fair city, mister…?’
‘Hans,’ he said, his voice hoarse with sudden nerves. He took her hand in his paw, and saw dismay shake her lovely smile.
‘Hans will, if all goes well, become your brother in law, Ada,’ the king said. Something flickered in the girls eye, a look exchanged with her father, and her smile returned in full.
‘Welcome, then, Hans,’ she said, patting his paw with her free hand. ‘May you feel at home here soon.’
‘Dagmar,’ the king called to the second daughter, who had been watching the exchange without expression. Hans knew she had seen his paw, but she had given nothing away. ‘I have given Hans my permission to court you.’
Dagmar stood forward, closing her fan and offering her hand as Ada had done. ‘Hello,’ she said simply, her dark eyes meeting his in the shadow of the cloak. He had no way of knowing how much of his face she could see, but she did not flinch as his bristled paw closed over her smooth hand.
‘Hello,’ he returned. She was not nearly as pretty as her sister, or even as any of the women gathered to watch, and yet he found his eyes lingered on her when she returned to her place.
Dagmar had been courted by eleven men in her short adult life, eight of them princes and lords under the strong influence – and bribery – of her father, and three who aspired to wealth and power but had none of their own to offer in return. Of the eleven, only the three proposed, and her father had refused them all in disgust.
The eight were far more interested in Ada, both as the eldest daughter and the beautiful, interesting one. Ada liked to talk and laugh and gossip and brag, and Dagmar didn’t. She didn’t laugh at their jokes or feign ignorance over topics she knew about to stoke a sensitive ego. Dagmar liked to listen to the news of her people, to speak with them and try to find solutions to their problems – most of which went unheard by her father. She liked to read adventure stories and imagine a life where she wasn’t the plain, dull daughter of a king more preoccupied with the construction of his throne and counting his gold than the wellbeing of his own people, but a woman free to roam the land on the back of a horse; a crusader on noble adventures, capturing bandits and leaving anonymous donations of food and gold and silver on the poor’s doorstep in the middle of the night. She wanted a life that was worth something, and she wasn’t afraid to share these views with any man her father sent at her. And so they had fled in boredom and disdain to women with more patience, higher social ambitions, or fewer options.
And now her father had brought her a monster. Dagmar had yet to see him without the cover of his cloak, for he had requested to be shown to private quarters immediately after their meeting. But Dagmar thought she had seen something of him beyond that awful paw. A glitter of kind, intelligent eyes in the shadow of his hood, which had robbed her of any fear or insult she might have felt at being promised to such a creature.
After all, she told herself as she prepared for bed, the other suitors had all been beasts in their own way. At least this Hans was upfront about it.
The king pushed Hans and Dagmar together the very next day, eager for Hans to settle the matter for good. ‘Impress him,’ the king hissed to his daughter as he led her to a pleasant sitting room overlooking the city. ‘Hans might be a monster, but he has been made an incredibly wealthy one by this family. You must make every effort to secure him.’
‘We both know I have no say in the matter, father,’ Dagmar said calmly. ‘I will act in the only way I know how, and if this creature wants me he will make you an offer.’
‘Obstinate girl,’ the king grumbled. ‘All he wants is a good woman. But if you cannot pander to him, a silent one will have to do.’
Dagmar curtseyed to her father, and avoided the eye of her tittering sister, who was greatly amused by Dagmar’s new predicament, and stepped into the sitting room.
Hans was waiting for her, concealed completely beneath a new black cloak. Dagmar curtseyed to him, and watched without judgment as he rose hesitantly to his feet and gave a halting bow.
And then they stood, feet apart, staring at each other. For Hans had never spoken to anyone his own age before, let alone a woman, and after her long stream of chatterbox suitors, Dagmar had never had to start a conversation with a man before. Her mouth open and closed, disconcerted by Hans’ silence and concealment.
The minutes stretched out before them until at last Dagmar gave up and took a seat on the other side of the room, pulling a book from the pocket of her dress.
Hans’ great shape seemed to slump, and Dagmar wondered for a moment if she’d offended him. But then she saw a pair of bagpipes emerge from beneath the cloak. Hans began to play a soft but cheerful tune, his long clawed paws dancing lightly across the pipe. He moved to the window, sitting himself on the sill.
For an hour he played, with Dagmar alternating between reading and listening. She looked at him when he lowered the bagpipes, his cloaked head focused on the land beyond the city.
‘If you’re going to court me,’ she said, gesturing to his cloak, ‘I might as well know what you look like.’ Hans didn’t move, and again she wondered if she’d offended him.
‘Does it make a difference? You must know I don’t look human.’
‘I’d like a face to put to your voice all the same. Or will you wear the cloak all the rest of our lives?’
‘You plan to accept me, then?’ Hans asked, his voice wavering in surprise.
Dagmar’s forehead creased. ‘Do I have a choice?’
‘Of course. I would not force anyone to marry me.’
A feeling spread through Dagmar, warm and pleasant, and one she had never felt before inside the castle. It was respect.
‘Well then,’ she said firmly. ‘Your face, please.’
Hans stood, towering over her, and reached for the pin fastening the cloak at his neck. ‘Humans do not like to look at me,’ he said, hesitating. ‘Your father was polite when we first met, but I could see his revulsion. I saw it in your sister, too.’
‘I am not my father or my sister.’
The cloak slid to the floor, and Dagmar took in his prickles and his snout, seeming all the more unsightly set against the king’s beautiful sitting room. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, hunching his prickled shoulders with discomfort and nerves.
But Dagmar only looked him up and down, setting on the eyes she’d caught only the briefest glimpse of the day before. Kind, black, and so very human.
‘You’re a hedgehog,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ Hans replied.
‘I’ve always wanted to see a real hedgehog,’ she said. And then she smiled. A tiny smile that only affected the very left corner of her lips.
Slowly, shyly, Hans returned it.
Hans and Dagmar spent every day in each others company. They began in the sitting room, barely speaking but enjoying the feel of being alone in company, sneaking glances at each other over book and bagpipe. Gradually, Hans began to ask questions about the city, and Dagmar answered them and returned questions about the forest. Their conversations grew into their histories, their hopes, dreams, thoughts and views. Dagmar made Hans laugh with stories of her eleven previous suitors, and Hans made her eyes fill with furious tears as he reluctantly shared his encounter with the villagers.
A warmth was growing in Hans, a fire in his heart that burned whenever Dagmar was near and flamed when she was not. Before long, she was able to convince him to walk the castle grounds with him, and then the city streets, uncloaked and with all his ugliness on display. He found that so long as they were together, he barely noticed the gasps of fear and cruel snickers from courtiers and commoners. And when Dagmar took his arm for the first time, his prickles accepting her arm with gentle softness, it was as if nobody else in the world existed at all.
But at night, when he left Dagmar’s company to lay alone in his bed, his mind turned of its own accord to his violent encounter with the villagers. In those hated moments before he fell asleep he saw their eyes widen with fear, and then narrow with hatred and lust for gold. And the part of his mind that still ached with hurt and betrayal wondered if Dagmar truly did care for him, or if she merely hid her fear and greed behind those thoughtful eyes. But then he would meet her again in the daylight, and she would smile her almost imperceptible smile, and take his hand without a shudder, and unflinchingly meet his eye, and he would feel ashamed at ever having doubted her.
‘Will you meet me tonight?’ Hans asked her as he escorted her back to the castle, many months after their first meeting. ‘In the sitting room, at midnight.’
Dagmar smiled her tiny, lopsided smile. ‘Alone? At night?’
Hans blushed, though no hint of it showed on the outside. ‘Your mother could serve as a chaperone.’
‘Very well, then,’ she said. And then she took to her tiptoes and pressed her lips to Hans’ downy cheek for the very first time. ‘I would be delighted.’
‘But of all the suitors your father has found for you,’ the Queen said, frowning over her needlework. ‘This is the one you make an effort for?’
‘Yes,’ Dagmar said, wrapping her arms around herself. They sat in the sitting room waiting for his arrival, butterflies churning in her stomach. She didn’t know what to expect from Hans’ request, but she knew that whatever it was would be important.
The door opened, and Hans stepped inside. The Queen couldn’t hide the sharp intake of breath she always gave when she saw him, and concentrated doubly hard on her needlework in an attempt not to offend him further.
But Hans only had eyes for Dagmar. He took her hands and drew her to sit at the window, where they were bathed in moonlight.
‘Are you going to show me some magic?’ Dagmar asked, looking at the moon overheard. It was almost midnight, a time her books assured her were filled with the potential for witchcraft and wonder.
‘Perhaps,’ Hans said, his hands trembling. ‘But first, I must ask you something.’
Dagmar felt the butterflies like a flurry inside her. She knew what was coming. She’d been proposed to three times before, and each had at least pretended it was for something close to affection. But none had ever felt like this. ‘Yes?’
‘Dagmar, could you be happy with a creature such as me?’
‘I am happy with you,’ she said, and meant it.
‘Could you be happy as a creature’s wife?’
‘Not any creature,’ she said. ‘I’m sure not all creatures are as good company as you.’
‘You know what I’m asking.’
‘Then you should ask it, and plainly.’
Hans glanced at the moon, and then back at Dagmar. ‘Dagmar, will you be my wife?’
Dagmar smiled her peculiar smile. ‘Yes, Hans. I will.’
‘Then I have something to show you.’ He smiled. ‘Magic. Close your eyes.’
She put her hands over her eyes, but at a second gasp from her mother she opened her fingers to peek through.
A man stood before her.
He still towered over Dagmar, still looked at her with kind, dark eyes. But his prickles had given way to smooth, unblemished skin and a head full of thick, dark hair. His snout had been replaced with a straight nose and brown lips.
He was beautiful. More handsome than any man Dagmar had ever seen. She reached up for his cheek in wonder, and he put his hand over hers and kissed her palm. ‘You’re a human,’ she said in wonder, for she didn’t know what else to say.
‘Only for an hour, every midnight. Could a life of this be enough for you?’
‘Enough?’ Dagmar burst out laughing, and the smile that spread across her face was so wide and true that she was, for that moment, more beautiful than even her sister. ‘Hans, my hedgehog, if you were human all day I’d go blind for staring at you.’
And then Hans laughed too, and drew her close.
‘You’ll stop there,’ the Queen interceded, though she wore a smile borne almost as much out of joy for her daughter’s happiness as it was relief that the creature her husband had brought home finally had a redeeming quality. ‘Anything else can wait for the wedding.’
The king was overjoyed at news of the engagement, and hastened to Hans to give his almost sincere congratulations. ‘Did I not tell you she was a good woman?’ he asked, thrilled to have Dagmar off his hands at last.
‘The very best,’ Hans said seriously.
‘Then we shall have a wedding in three days,’ he decided. ‘My throne will be finished tomorrow, and how fitting that its unveiling should be at the wedding of my daughter and the son of its woodcutter.’
Hans thought of his father, and the need for gold and all the respect it could buy that had seen his life end before its time. ‘Yes,’ Hans said sadly. ‘A royal wedding would have pleased him greatly.’
Ada had done everything her father had ever asked of her. She gave him counsel when her meek mother would only agree and she entertained his guests and paid favor to any powerful man the king wanted under his thumb where Dagmar would only ignore them. She had entered into an engagement with a much older prince from a neighboring land on her father’s command and convinced herself she was happy about it, for though she had no love or warm regard for the prince, her father’s heaping praise was enough. And for a long while, she believed herself.
Until now. Her father was occupied entirely with his throne, and all his praise was reserved now for Dagmar, who had secured both a husband and much of the gold the king had so foolishly given away.
And Ada could no longer even laugh at Dagmar, whose situation with Hans had been amusing, for a time. Her ugly, dull sister courting a monster. Her ugly, dull sister marrying a monster! Two foul creatures together, she had said to her ladies in waiting, who had giggled and said it to many more people each. It was exactly what Dagmar had deserved for so many years of refusing her father’s commands and leaving Ada to do all the real work.
But now Dagmar was happy. Deliriously and sincerely so, and Ada couldn’t laugh at her no matter how much she wanted to, for the smiles of her usually sullen, aloof, and argumentative sister made a mockery of Ada’s own. Her joy at the prospect of marrying a beast made Ada feel false and lacking.
And then, on top of all insults, her mother had let slip the truth about Hans’ true form, and a spark of pure, loathsome jealousy ignited in Ada’s breast.
‘I don’t believe you,’ Ada scoffed.
‘I saw with my own eyes,’ the queen insisted. ‘He pulled his skin clear off, and laid it down like a fur. And the man beneath was a God on earth.’
‘No man is that beautiful.’
‘The hedgehog is,’ the queen said. ‘Underneath all those prickles. And to think, only Dagmar will ever see it. What a waste of a man.’
And so, spark smoldering inside her, Ada stole that evening into Hans’ bedchamber and hid inside a wardrobe to see the truth for herself.
Hans arrived as darkness fell and, lighting a lamp, took out his bagpipes and played a song so beautiful and so filled with joy and yearning that Ada’s heart broke to listen to it. But at last, Hans put his pipes down and lay on the bed. He didn’t bother to cover himself, and soon the room was filled with deep, snuffling snores.
Ada yawned, but stayed in place, eyes glued through a sliver of open door to the sleeping beast. Somewhere, carried faintly on the wind, the sound of a chiming bell curled into the room:
Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding.
On the twelfth, Hans’ prickles fell away.
Ada straightened in fright, for she hadn’t expected the process to be so sudden or simple. She crept out of the wardrobe to hover over the sleeping man, studying his face by the light of the moon.
She gasped, first in shock, and then in fury as the spark of jealousy caught alight into a cold green flame.
He was beautiful. So beautiful, it was an insult to even think of so plain a woman as Dagmar on his arm. Ada reached out to touch the skin lying like a rug beneath him, and it was soft and velvety and inviting. Eyes welling with envy, she crept from the room and ran sobbing back to her own.
It wasn’t fair, she thought. She had done everything her father had asked, and now Dagmar was reaping the reward.
And so, when the sun rose, Ada marched to her father’s hall, where he stood supervising the final touches on his golden throne, and demanded to marry Hans in Dagmar’s stead.
The king only laughed, thinking she was making fun. ‘You have a perfectly good fiancée already,’ he said. ‘You will unite our kingdoms, and your children will rule both lands as one. What could you possibly want with that nasty creature? Leave him to your sister.’
And so Ada marched to her mother, and begged to marry Hans in Dagmar’s stead.
‘Your prince is perfectly handsome despite his age,’ the queen said, ‘and a man all the day round.’
‘But if his prickles can fall off,’ Ada reasoned, ‘surely something can be done to keep them off. He’d be a man forever, and with all his gold and beauty, he’d make a king worth following.’
‘Ada, your marriage will help our kingdom more than Hans’ face or gold. Leave him to Dagmar.’
But the cold fire in Ada’s heart burned, and she would not leave Hans to Dagmar.
And so Ada marched to Dagmar, and suggested sweetly that she and Hans steal a few moments together before their wedding.
‘Why?’ Dagmar asked, suspicious of her sister’s sudden interest in her relationship, for though Dagmar did not imagine what Ada could be plotting, she had heard the whispers and laughter when she and Hans walked the halls, and knew her sister had to be in on the joke, if not the cause.
‘Because, dear sister, you don’t want your first kiss to be in front of a hall of people, do you?’ Ada asked, wide eyed. And then she leaned in, lowering her voice and grinning. ‘Or have you already kissed him?’
Dagmar blushed and looked away.
‘I’ll tell mother I’ll chaperone you,’ Ada said, ‘and then you and Hans can sneak off to the garden.’
Dagmar nodded, but the suspicion didn’t clear from her dark eyes. ‘Why would you do that?’
Ada gave her most dazzling smile, a smile not even her sister could resist. ‘Consider it my wedding present.’
They met that night in the garden, and Ada smiled prettily at Hans as she left them. ‘Take your time,’ she urged them. ‘I’ll wait here.’
‘Thank you,’ Hans said, bowing to her before taking Dagmar’s hand. Dagmar shot her sister a bewildered but thankful look as they walked into the night, and only the smallest breeze of guilt shook the flame inside her. But it was not nearly enough to put it out, and after mere moments she stole after them.
Hans and Dagmar walked and walked, heads close and voices low, speaking and listening in equal measure. Ada had never shared such intimacy with a man, resorting instead to wide eyed listening and high pitched laughter and as many brushes of their wrist as she could decently manage in polite company.
Hans wasn’t acting at all like the men she had courted, or the man she was betrothed to, and Ada felt a fresh surge of burning hate, aimed entirely at her sister. What had Dagmar ever done to earn such respect, she thought. What had she ever done to deserve such kindness?
And at midnight, when Hans’ prickles fell away and he and Dagmar stole into the shadows with bashful laughter, Ada went almost blind with jealousy. She swooped on the abandoned skin, nuzzling the velvet inside against her cheek and promising herself that Hans would thank her when he was a real, permanent man, for she believed with all her diminished heart that without his ghastly snout more women would want him, and he would see that he had more options than plain old Dagmar. But he would only want the woman who freed him. The only woman whose beauty rivaled his own. He would only want Ada.
She carried the skin to the closest brazier, and as the warmth of the fire fell upon the skin the prickles turned jagged in her hands and drew droplets of blood. She shrieked with pain, but kept to her plan and flung the prickles into the fire.
A howl of rage and agony flooded the garden, and then a woman’s scream of fear. Hans galloped out of the shadows, once more a hedgehog cloaked in blackened, smoldering prickles.
‘But how?’ Ada gasped, looking back to the brazier. The skin was gone, the brazier empty but for the flames.
‘Treachery!’ Hans shouted, charging her down. He grabbed her in his great paws, lifting her high above the ground.
‘No!’ Ada shrieked. ‘I was trying to help you! To make you a man!’ She glanced behind him and saw Dagmar running from the trees, so much slower than he, and still so very far away. ‘I did it for Dagmar. She… she was afraid to marry you like this. She begged me.’
His eyes welled, and he howled once more, dropping her and running into the castle.
‘Hans!’ Dagmar cried, her heartbreak and worry plain on her face, but she had no chance of catching him. ‘What have you done?’ she directed at Ada instead.
Ada, who had now seen that Hans could not be made into a man, and who had now rendered him uglier than ever, simply smiled at her sister with a malice that glittered so plainly in her eyes Dagmar wondered she hadn’t seen it there before. ‘Giving you the husband you deserve, dear sister,’ she said.
And so Dagmar, speechless with anger and sick with concern for Hans, did what the heroines in her books never did, and punched her sister square in the nose. Ada gasped with pain and shock, but Dagmar didn’t linger. She ran into the castle, only to find her father’s glorious golden throne ablaze and the castle filling with smoke and confused servants. Hans’ bagpipes were gone from his room, and his rooster missing from the stables.
Hans had left, and left forever. She fell to her knees and let out a wail of such sorrow it was matched only by the cry of the king as he found the throne he’d waited twenty-five years for engulfed in flame.
The golden wood that had taken so many years to fell burned so slowly, but with such intensity that nothing the king’s men could do would extinguish the flames. There it sat, untouchable, perfectly complete and completely unharmed in its protective halo of fire. The king demanded an answer, and was met with a wave of tales already distorted: Hans the hedgehog had attacked the princesses, lit the fire, and stolen the king’s gold.
The king called his army together that very day to march across the country and apprehend the foul creature. Dagmar tried to defend Hans, explaining what Ada had done, but though the king heard her and knew in his heart of hearts that his eldest daughter had broken the deal made between himself and the beast, he would not let Hans off so easily after he had shown him such hospitality.
‘Then take me with you,’ Dagmar demanded. ‘For I owe him an explanation, and an apology for Ada’s behaviour.’
‘You owe him nothing,’ the king dismissed her. ‘And you should want nothing more to do with him. Hans the hedgehog is a thief and a liar, and no daughter of mine will come near him again. Your mother searches already for a new suitor for you, and you will accommodate him as you did that foul beast or earn my displeasure.’
Ada heard this and smiled. But Dagmar only hid her face behind a fan and watched her father’s army ride north with all the horses in the city, and then went straight to her chambers and packed her few possessions into a bag: her most cherished books, her clothes, some silver, and a pair of iron shoes made for her by a travelling wizard. They were light and comfortable as air, he had promised her, and strong enough to bear her to her hearts desire. She had given the man one of her slight smiles and a piece of gold, entertained by the thought, and put them away and forgotten about them. Now, she understood what they were for.
As the moon reached its peak, Dagmar set forth.
For weeks she walked the land her father ruled, following the trail left by his army, sleeping by the roadside and appealing to the better natures of town and village folk. She told nobody of her connection to the king, leaving instead a silver coin for anyone kind enough to take her in. And though her heart was heavy with grief for the pain she knew Ada’s trick had caused Hans, her body felt healthy with activity and air, and her mind filled with fresh knowledge of her country and her people. She was on a real adventure, striking out in the world on her own and doing, she hoped, some small measure of good for those she met.
On and on she walked, falling further and further behind the army, and she began to worry. For though she knew Hans was strong and brave, he was no match for so many men, nor for her father’s wounded pride or greed. She hurried on, digging her iron clad shoes into the dirt to run from dawn till midnight, day after day, until she came at last upon the village beside the forest.
‘Has the king’s army been here?’ she asked an older woman sitting outside a modest cottage.
‘Aye,’ the woman said. ‘Twenty-eight days past.’
‘What about a creature?’ Dagmar asked, heart sinking. ‘He may have been wearing a cloak, and riding an oversized rooster.’
The woman squinted at her suspiciously. ‘What do you want with him?’
‘I love him,’ Dagmar said without hesitation. ‘But there’s something I need to set right.’
The woman looked her up and down, her expression melting into something softer. She grasped Dagmar’s hands in her own, which were scarred with tiny pinpricks. ‘Take my horse, then,’ said the woman. ‘And ride due east for thirty nights when the trees turn black.’
‘Thank you,’ Dagmar said, accepting the gift of the horse and leaving a silver coin in its place. The woman saw her to the edge of the forest, boosting her up into the saddle. She waved goodbye, urging her horse forward.
‘Tell him I’m sorry,’ she thought she heard the woman call after her, but she was by then too far into the forest to ask the woman who she was, or if she’d heard her correctly.
Soon enough, the trees turned black, and Dagmar checked the position of the sun and rode east. On the twentieth day, she heard voices and the footfalls of a thousand horses. She dug her heels into the horse’s flanks and rode aside, concealing herself as the army rode past. But there was no triumph on their faces, no sign of Hans with them or violence upon them. From afar, her father’s face was a mask of fury. It gave Dagmar hope, and she rode on with high spirits.
On the thirtieth day, she came upon the golden grove, and her face filled with dismay, for the beautiful trees were all alight and the nearby cabin empty.
‘What do I do now?’ Dagmar asked, dismounting and sagging to the ground beside her horse. ‘Where do I look?’
‘You seek the hedgehog boy?’ asked a voice, though it was more statement than question.
‘Yes,’ Dagmar said, looking all around her, for there was no sign of anyone else. ‘We are betrothed.’
‘And you love him?’
Dagmar pinpointed the direction of the voice to a tree, though saw nobody sitting in or beneath it. All she found was a small hedgehog snuffling in the leaf litter. ‘I am not sure of the reason,’ said Dagmar. ‘Perhaps it is because he is kind, or because he is good company, .’
‘But he is ugly.’
‘So am I, to many people. All I know is that my heart is heavy without him, and I have walked across the land to apologise for what my family has done to him. But he is not here, and now I am lost, for he never spoke to me of anywhere else I might find him.’
And then the hedgehog looked at her, and sighed, and all at once she knew who she was speaking to. ‘I know not where he has gone either, only that he was here long enough to burn the grove,’ said the hedgehog. ‘I have many children, and I see now I have not spent as much time with Hans as I should.’
Dagmar approached the hedgehog on hands and knees, lowering herself to her belly so they could see each other better. ‘Hans is your son?’ Dagmar asked. ‘How is that possible?’
‘He was born of my good intentions and his father’s loneliness,’ said the hedgehog. ‘But neither was enough. His father never told him the truth about himself, and though I tried to guide him after his death, it was too late. The world has not been kind to him.’
‘Why did you make him a hedgehog, then,’ Dagmar asked, ‘if you knew he would have such troubles?’
‘It was a spell of his fathers own making. He offered everything for the chance of having a child, but when a child was offered he reneged, and would give only one bag of gold from all his riches. And so Hans’ fate was sealed: to be human for only one hour of every day. Had his father kept his word, Hans would be human.’
Dagmar silently cursed Hans’ father, and then her own, for all the love they had shown for gold above others.
‘Cursing will help nobody,’ said the hedgehog, sensing Dagmar’s thoughts. ‘Least of all Hans.’
‘What can we do?’
‘We can look for him,’ said the hedgehog, ‘and hope love is enough.’
‘Come then, I’ll carry you on my horse.’
‘No horse will bear me,’ said the hedgehog. ‘I fear this journey will be a long one if we take it together.’
‘Then I will walk beside you,’ Dagmar decided, taking her horse by the reins. ‘However long it takes to find him.’
And so they walked, first for thirty days and thirty nights out of the forest, and then a hundred across the land. They followed tales of a monster, catching at times the faint strains of bagpipe song, but always they were too late. Hans was always gone by the time they chanced upon his sleeping place, and before long he began to mislead them, sending Dagmar on dead ends and chasing false whispers.
Another hundred days passed, and then another.
The soles of her iron shoes grew thin, and her light hair grew snowy white with grief. Her only solace was the hedgehog, who was excellent company and kept her calm with wise counsel.
At long last, in a land far from her own, Dagmar heard the sharp tones of music dripping down the side of a mountain. It was not a sweet song, as she had grown used to hearing during their courtship, but one filled with swirling rage. It was an ugly song, a song to strike fear into the heart of any who heard it.
Dagmar went to take the hedgehog under her arm, but the hedgehog stepped away. ‘He has nowhere left to run,’ she said. ‘You must go alone, for I fear he will not welcome me after all I have done – or neglected to do for him. But please, tell him I’m sorry.’
‘I have so many people to apologise for,’ said Dagmar. ‘But I will carry your words.’
And so Dagmar went on alone, and followed the music up, up, up. Her shoes wore away to dust on the craggy rocks, and when she came to Hans’ cave she was barefoot and ragged and looked nothing at all like the princess she had once been.
‘Hans,’ she said to the mouth of the cave, and the music stopped at once. ‘Hans, I have walked the world to find you.’
‘I know,’ his voice returned, cold and harsh. ‘You have wasted your time. I have nothing to say to you.’
‘But I have much to say to you.’
‘I will not hear it,’ said Hans, showing himself. His prickles were still burned black and smoldering. His eyes were narrowed, his face distorted with pain. Dagmar reached for him, but he swatted her hand away. His prickles sank into her skin, marking her with scorching pinpricks. She clutched her arm, eyes watering at the sting. ‘You think that burns?’ he asked, and contempt shaped his words. ‘I burn always, because you lied to me. I am uglier, and more loathsome, because you could not bear to marry a monster. I thought you were different from other humans, but you are as treacherous as the rest of them. Be gone, woman, before I throw you from the mountain.’
Dagmar listened to him speak, open mouthed and wounded beyond words. But as he raised his arm to her, she planted her feet and set her jaw.
‘Stop,’ she ordered. ‘I won’t be treated like this by you or anyone. I worried until my hair turned white, and walked until I wore out a pair of iron shoes because I owe you an apology. But now I believe you owe me one, too.’
Hans hesitated, and lowered his arm. But he still looked at her with great suspicion. ‘I should not have threatened you,’ he admitted. ‘Though I cannot see what apology I owe you beyond that.’
‘My sister heard from my mother that you were handsome,’ Dagmar said, ‘and wanted you for herself. She tricked me into taking you to the garden that night, and thought if she burned your skin, you would become a man forever and choose her instead. She thought only a monster could love me, and that a man could only love her. And you believed her when she spoke the worst of me. For that, Hans, you owe me an apology.’
A dance of emotions played across Hans’ face, and the one he settled on was shame. He fell to his knees. ‘And I have made you walk all this way,’ he whispered. ‘You who loved me, and who agreed to marry me before you knew I could become human. You who I have been miserable without. I am sorry.’ And he bent his face to the rocky ground and wept.
Dagmar’s anger ebbed, and she went to his side and ran her hand through his prickles, which were now soft as lambs wool. ‘I am here now,’ she said. ‘And I am sorry for what my family has done to you, and I carry the apology of a small hedgehog who wronged you with her absence, and a woman with prickled hands who I now know kept the truth from you. And I believe I can speak for your father, who would apologise for not preparing you better for the world, and for a village of folk who could not see past your outside, and for my father who has never loved anyone the way he has loved his gold. And I’d like to thank you, for though my heart was heavy, leaving the castle is the most wonderful thing I have ever done, and for loving me, and for giving me someone to care for above all others.’
Hans looked at her. ‘Even now, after all I’ve done, you still want me?’
‘I do,’ she said, wiping his tears. ‘Though I will not chase you across the world again, for I’ve no longer the shoes to do it.’
And Hans laughed, and took her hand. ‘But I cannot change,’ he said. ‘Not even for an hour. I am trapped in this burning skin forever.’
‘Then I will help you bear the pain,’ she said, and pressed her lips to his. But instead of a snout, she found soft human lips, and when she ran her hands over his head she found thick, human hair. A pair of human arms wrapped about her waist, and suddenly they were both laughing and kissing, for though the moon was still low in the sky, Hans was human, and his prickles lay on the ground like a soft, black blanket, the smoke and embers extinguished forever.
‘Run away with me,’ Dagmar said, lying beside him on the prickles. ‘And we can spend our lives together on the road.’
‘What will we do with all our gold?’ Hans asked.
‘Give it away,’ she said. ‘Use it to help people, and build and buy much needed things. There is a goodness in people you’ve never been allowed to see before, and we could nurture it wherever we go.’
Hans was afraid, and rubbed his bare, prickleless arms. ‘If you say there is goodness, then I must believe you.’
And Dagmar looked at him, and saw his concern. ‘Would you be happier if we used it to build a palace upon a hill?’ she asked, for he had told her much of his father. ‘And held great feasts and dances, where you could gain many friends and all their respect?’
But now his father’s dream sounded empty and false, and Hans knew Dagmar would not be happy in such a world, and would return to her books and forget her smiles once more. ‘I want to earn respect,’ said Hans. ‘Not buy it. Let us take the road.’
And so the next day Hans concealed the bags of gold strung to his rooster’s saddle with his prickle skin, and lifted Dagmar to sit atop it, and led her down the mountain. ‘Would it bother you if I wear my prickles sometimes?’ he asked, as the rooster stepped onto a road. ‘I feel bare without them, and will not believe in true goodness unless humans can show me kindness as both human and creature.’
‘Hans, my hedgehog,’ she said. ‘Whatever you are is enough for me.’
And so they travelled the world together for a time, spreading good and helping those who needed it, and Hans saw at last the better nature of humans as both man and hedgehog, and felt the scars of his heart heal. And after many years, their spirits full and their gold nearly spent, they found themselves with a family of their very own and so found a quiet village and a cozy cottage to settle in. And though they had little, and ate no feasts and attended no dances, they earned the respect of their village and the love of their children, and they laughed loud and often, and were content.