HANS MY HEDGEHOG

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From Almost Midnight: Three Classic Fairytales.
Available now in eBook and paperback. 

Illustrations by Ben Sigas.

There once was a young man who lived in a village famous for carving wood. He desired, in secret, to take up the chisel and become a woodcarver like the wealthiest and most respected members of the village. But his father was a woodcutter, and his father before him, and his father before that. And so, when the young man was old enough to choose his tool of trade, he chose the axe and accepted the modest lifestyle that came with it.

One day, some few years after the young woodcutter had taken up his trade, a glorious silver carriage drawn by four black horses thundered into the square. Out stepped an old man with sword at his hip and a golden circlet on his brow. In a booming voice, he called for the most accomplished carver in the village to step forth.

The young woodcutter looked on in wonder, for the old man was the king of the land himself. He was a great man, strong and proud and wealthier than any man who walked the earth.

After some argument among the carvers, an old woman with fingers gnarled from holding the chisel stepped forward.

‘You will have one bag of gold, good carver,’ the king promised, ‘if you can make a table like no other to adorn my great hall.’

The old woodcarver bowed her head. ‘As you wish, my king,’ she said. ‘Return one year hence and I will have such a table waiting for you.’

Choosing the tallest and strongest of woodcutters, the old carver went into the forest and stayed there longer than any cutter or carver ever had. When they returned, the woodcutter pulled behind him a felled tree of shining silver the like of which nobody had ever seen before. From the shining wood the carver shaped a wide table and covered it with leaping stags and a hunting party in the king’s own likeness, and with it cemented her title as the most accomplished carver in the village.

The king returned the following year with the promised bag of gold. But when he saw the silver table he fell to his knees in awe of such beauty and handed the carver not one, but two bags of gold. ‘You have far exceeded my expectations, good carver,’ he said, and bowed to her. ‘No king in any land could have a table of such unique beauty as this.’

The young woodcutter watched as the old carver thanked the king and handed one bag of gold to the cutter who had felled the silver tree, and all at once was no longer satisfied with the cozy cottage of his family or his modest living.

But the old carver and the tall woodcutter refused to share the whereabouts of the silver trees, condemning the rest of the village to fell and carve trees of brown while they took order after order from the king and all his lords and ladies.

Envious of the wealth of the carver and the cutter, the young woodcutter implored his father to come with him into the forest in search of the silver trees. But his father, content with his situation, refused. So the young woodcutter went in alone, armed only with his axe, a donkey and a small cart.

With no clues as to where the silver grove lay, the young woodcutter walked past the trees the men in his village had felled, refined and carved for centuries and into the deepest woods where few humans had dared set foot before. After five full days journey, the wood of the trees turned a gleaming black that would be sure to fetch a handsome price, but not one so high as the silver. And so he kept walking.

‘Where are you going?’ a voice asked him on the sixth 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 six days?’

The young woodcutter gave up and directed his response to the heavens. ‘I search for wood so beautiful that kings will seek me out and pay me in gold.’

‘For what would you use this gold?’

‘To build a fine new home for my family. To buy father a retirement and my mother the help of a servant and my sister the freedom to do whatever she wills in life.’

‘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. She resumed her movement, and after one stunned moment, the young man followed.

For twenty-four days and twenty-four 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 her immediately turn away.

‘You are leaving?’

‘I have a family,’ the hedgehog said, ‘with many children I need to see. I have been away too long.’

‘I will miss you,’ said the young woodcutter, and meant it.

The hedgehog shook her tiny head. ‘You will return to your family soon enough. One tree should earn you gold enough to take care of them. Farewell.’

The young woodcutter watched her leave, but his sadness at their parting lifted when he turned at last to look upon the promised trees.

His breath caught. Instead of the silver trees he had been seeking, the hedgehog had led him to a grove of trees the colour of spun gold. He went to work at once, 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 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 so lovely it made their hearts ache.

The tall cutter and the old carver were flabbergasted, for the golden wood was unlike any other, and begged the young woodcutter to reveal the whereabouts of the golden grove. But he refused to share the secret, just as they had before him, and took the cart of golden wood to his family.

They 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 were made on the tree as he worked at refining it into planks on the street before his father’s 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 silver carriage and black horses pulled into the village it was a young king who dismounted.

‘Where is this golden wood?’ he asked the crowd who had gathered to see his arrival. ‘I would pay a great deal even to look upon it, if indeed it exists.’

The young woodcutter stepped forward. ‘The golden wood 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 brilliant golden planks.

‘Will you sell them to me?’ the young king asked. ‘I thought nothing on this earth could be more grand than my father’s silver table, but you have proved me wrong. I would have a throne made of this golden wood. A throne larger and more magnificent than any throne ever was or will be.’

‘Of course, your Majesty,’ the young woodcutter 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 and pay for my efforts, I will send you more wood. Though I must warn you that 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 gold followed. Thrilled by the deal, the young woodcutter raced inside to share his news and newfound wealth with his family. At last, he told them, he could buy them a fine 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 own 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 filled it with supplies for another year alone.

Though the young woodcutter had his plans for his sack of gold and the twenty-five more to come to keep him company, this year passed slower than the last, and he year after passed slower still. After four years and four bags of gold, 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 stay the same in his absence, and with each visit he found it changed: his sister married and moved into her own home, his mother and father grew older and passed away, and all too soon the woodcutter found that he was no long young, but a man grown and lonely.

One day, seven bags of gold after the first, the woodcutter found he could no longer lift his axe. He let it fall 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. The hedgehog sat in front of him, her brown snout twitching in the autumn air. ‘You’ve come back!’

‘I heard whispers from the forest creatures that a man dwelled in the golden grove,’ 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.’

‘And you agreed to this?’

‘How could I refuse? With all the gold he offers I will be able to buy myself a palace of my own and have servants to fulfill my every wish. I will be the wealthiest and most respected man in my village.’

‘Then why is your heart so heavy? Have you not been promised everything you wanted?’

‘I have no one 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 to father children. I wish for a family of my own. I wish for a son.’

The hedgehog cocked her head. ‘And you say you would give everything for this boy?’

‘Everything I could.’

‘Even your gold?’

The woodcutter hesitated, looking over his shoulder to the cabin, where eight 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 year of 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.’

‘How do you know?’ the woodcutter asked. But the hedgehog was already crawling into the darkness of the black forest. ‘Wait!’ he cried after her. ‘Please stay!’

Three days passed. The woodcutter could not bring himself to cut the golden tree or hunt in the forest for food. Instead he stayed in bed, one hand pressed to his aching heart and the other 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, took up his axe and cracked open the cabin door.

He lowered his axe as soon as his eyes found the source of the sound, 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, hands outstretched to snatch the baby up from the cold, hard earth. But instead of 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 not for beauty or wonder. 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 for all its ugliness, it was a baby nonetheless. 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 the woodcutter’s own. In that moment, he and the baby realized 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 brown paw around his finger, as if in approval.

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The woodcutter renewed his efforts on the golden tree with fervor, the strange baby boy strapped to his back as he worked. Hans gurgled and laughed each day as the woodcutter chop, chop, chopped at the tree and each night they fell asleep in the woodsman’s cabin, exhausted and happy.

One midnight, as the woodcutter stirred in his sleep, his eyes opened for a moment to fall on a sleeping human baby wrapped in soft brown prickle skin. But when the woodcutter 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, worried they would be cruel, or worse. But he had a bag of gold to collect, 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, showing him to nobody but his sister.

‘He’s a monster!’ she gasped, recoiling. 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 sons now of her own could not resist the sound of a crying child. 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, looking at 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 give you what my own boys have outgrown, and I will come to the forest once a year to care for Hans when you cannot.’

And so the woodcutter and Hans returned to the forest with a basket of nephew’s old baby clothes and toys and a new sense of safety. 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, though she had to leave her own children to do so, and very soon 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. The woodcutter filled his mind with all they would do once the king’s glorious golden throne was finished, of the palace they would buy and the food they would eat and the hunting parties they would lead and all friends they would have. And his aunt would talk about her two sons and her husband, and all the people in the village, and filled his heart with every tale of kindness and bravery she’d ever heard.

‘Father,’ Hans asked when he was five years old. ‘Why don’t I look like you?’

‘You look like your mother,’ the woodcutter said, for though it made his heart heavy to lie to Hans, 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 when he was ten years old. ‘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, and all the other people I’ve heard about?’

‘No, Hans. Your aunt looks forward to her time here all year. You cannot deprive her of it.’ And because it wounded him to lie to his son, 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.’

The woodcutter’s heart broke, for he had told Hans of music so often but had no talent to play or sing for him, and his horse was too afraid of poor Hans to allow him on its back. ‘I will try, Hans, my son,’ he promised.

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 resolved 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 old 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 wagon with fresh supplies, 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.

‘Brother,’ the woodcutter’s sister said as she mounted her own horse. ‘I cannot return next year, or any year after. The trip has become too long and too hard.’

He wanted to curse at her, but when he saw how much the words pained her to say he forgave her, thanked her 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 and grew until it was the size of a stallion and could bare Hans comfortably and without fear. And with each year that passed and brought them closer to their final bag of gold, the woodcutter spun more and more extravagant stories of their future. The palace grew larger and made of solid silver, the clothes they would wear were spun of pure gold, and every meal of every day would be a feast fit for the king and all his lords and ladies.

‘And will there be other people there with us?’ Hans asked, wistful.

‘Of course, Hans, my son. Every night we’ll welcome people from all around to join us in feasting and music. And you shall meet a good woman and have a family of your own.’

‘A woman who looks like me? And my mother?’

Once again the woodcutter avoided the opportunity to tell Hans he was different. ‘It doesn’t matter what a good woman looks like, so long as you love each other’ he said instead. ‘And she will love 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. It pinned him beneath it’s narrow but heavy trunk, and though Hans had grown strong and swift he could not lift the tree quickly enough to spare his father fatal damage.

‘I am sorry, Hans,’ the woodcutter whispered as Hans carried him to bed. He took Hans’s paw in one hand, and rested the other on a bag of gold. ‘I have not told you everything, but I have made you the wealthiest man in the land, bar one. They will have to 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, he found that his dreams of skin without prickles were not dreams at all. At midnight, when the moonless night was at its darkest, his hedgehog skin fell away to reveal smooth, brown human hands. And when he touched his face he found a human nose and human lips, and on his head was a thick mane of human hair.

Hans did not speak, for he had no one to share his surprise with, nor did he exclaim, for he was not in the habit of talking to himself. Instead he put aside his tools and knelt to inspect the skin that now lay abandoned on the grass. He felt a strange surge of pride, for it was soft to the touch: prickles as soft as lambs wool on one side, velveteen on the other, and all of it beautiful. He wondered if this shedding 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 was ready to leave the forest, to visit the village of his aunt and meet the king and other humans for the first time. He was ready for friends, to buy the palace his father dreamed of and find love and start a family of his own.

So strong and so filled with desire to begin his new life was he that the final planks of wood were ready months ahead of schedule. Bidding a final farewell to the cottage and his father’s grave, Hans piled the wagon 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 set the beast free and hitched the wagon 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 twenty-fourth 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 an accompanying 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’s heart. They gathered in the square as Hans drew nearer and the bagpipes swelled louder, thinking such wonderful music could only herald a visit from the king. And so, when Hans emerged blinking from the forest, he found the whole village there 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.

Hans stood, climbing down from the wagon to tower over the villagers. He raised an excited hand in greeting, and all at once the spell was broken.

A villager screamed.

‘It’s murdered the woodcutter!’ someone shouted, and the cry was taken up within moments. ‘It’s murdered the woodcutter and now it’s come for us!’

Hans didn’t understand, reaching into the wagon to show the humans the planks of golden wood. ‘No, please,’ Hans tried to say over the frightened babbling of the crowd. ‘The woodcutter was my father!’

But none who heard him could believe that any human 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 ugly and unwanted.

He reached into the wagon once more, remembering his father’s last words and pulling free a bag of gold. ‘I’m wealthy,’ he shouted, desperate to quell the crowd. ‘Wealthier than any woman or man bar the king!’

And though a hush fell over the crowd, 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 chisel 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’s strength and newfound anger.

His aunt made her way through, crying out Hans’s name and begging the other villagers to stop, but at the sight of her Hans felt his heart break with betrayal, for like his father she had known the loathsome truth about him and kept it secret, letting him instead believe in a life of love and acceptance. And so when she touched him, her hand fell not on softness but came away with hundreds of tiny puncture wounds.

‘Hans!’ she cried.

But Hans had no more time for her, or any human. He leapt upon his rooster’s back, swiping his sharp, pricked arm one final time at the crowd and charged back into the forest with the wagon rattling behind him. A bag of gold ripped open, dropping coin after coin into the grass. The villagers fell upon the golden path but dared not follow it into the trees, for 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 woodcutter and no golden wood waiting for him.

‘What is this trickery?’ he demanded. ‘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 your Majesty,’ cried a villager. ‘The woodcutter is dead, murdered by a foul monster who keeps your wood and all the gold for himself.’

‘I do not believe in monsters,’ the king said, drawing his jewelled 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,’ said an older woman with hands scarred with puncture wounds. ‘But you will not have to fight the devil, nor 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, your Majesty, and he will grant you the wood, 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. ‘We will face this monster,’ he proclaimed grandly. ‘And avenge the death of the woodcutter.’

And so the king led his men east into the forest, 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, he would 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 and 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 his land. And if his people thought he’d had to defeat a monster to get it, so much the better. He’d have the ‘battle’ immortalized 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 king’s men turned back in fear of the tale of the monster and the oppressive darkness of the trees. The king, however, refused to give in to despair, for he had waited twenty-five years for the final piece of his throne and he would not leave the forest without it.

For ninety days he rode the forest alone, his sword long sheathed and the flesh of his face hollow from exhaustion. But just as he began to consider turning back, a beautiful melody reached his ears. It was faint, speaking to him of grief and pain, 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.

A glint 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.

The music stopped.

‘So,’ said a gruff voice. ‘Another human has come for my gold.’

The king’s hand went to the sword at his hip as he turned to search for the voice. A large brown lump covered all over in dangerous looking prickles sat on a stool beside the cottage, clutching an ancient set of bagpipes in its wicket claws. 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 naked loathing.

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The king let go of his sword. Though he was not a wise or fair king, he was a clever one, and now that he had seen that the monster was real, he had no doubt who would win if it came to a fight. ‘You are the creature Hans, I take it?’ he asked, forcing his tone to one of politeness.

‘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 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. He did not meet me with the last delivery.’

‘Aye,’ said Hans. ‘The last 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 love there that even anger couldn’t bury. ‘I met an old friend of his as I returned from trying to deliver the last of the golden wood. She told me many things.’

The king waited for Hans to continue his story, but Hans’s eyes grew distant, and the silence stretched between them.

‘And the tree?’ the King asked when the silence had grown too thick to bear.

‘In the wagon,’ Hans said.

The king went to the wagon and looked inside to find 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 many months 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 pain 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 not be wise.’

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. Guide me from this forest and travel with me to my castle, and you shall have her as your wife.’

‘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 was taller than a bear 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 not only had the king secured the return of the gold he had so rashly awarded to the woodcutter, but 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 hitched an oversized rooster to the wagon and led the king and his horse out of the forest. The villages gasped to see king and creature travelling together, remarking loudly to each other what a brave and strong man the king must be to have subdued such a monster. And though he did not let it show for fear of angering Hans, the king was pleased by their words.

Across fields and rivers and hills they journeyed, avoiding villages and towns at Hans’s request, until they caught sight of a great city built on a mountain.

‘My home,’ said the king proudly. ‘And yours too, if you wish it.’

Hans looked upon the magnificent city made of stone and grunted rudely.

Once more the king’s patience was tested, for he had not grown to like Hans at all in all their time together. ‘Well then,’ he said, forcing a thin-lipped smile. ‘Shall we?’

~

‘Might I borrow your cloak?’ Hans asked as they made to enter the city. He was reluctant to ask the silly king any favour, for he had not grown to like the king at all in all their time together. But Hans’s heart could not withstand a new crowd of surprised, frightened, hateful humans. ‘I do not wish to cause a scene.’

He was so embarrassed in the asking that pity flared, for the briefest moment, in the eyes of the king. He nodded once and unclasped his flowing cloak of blue and silver, handing it over with an unnecessary flourish.

The city folk spilled into the streets to cheer as they passed, for the king had been gone overlong. Children ran beside the wagon and reached out to touch the feathers of Hans’s rooster, peering up at the large, hooded stranger with wide-eyed curiosity and adults craned their heads in their attempt to catch a glimpse of the famed golden wood.

Up and up they rode, winding through steep streets, until they came to a castle built into the very peak of the mountain. All the king’s soldiers were gathered in front of the great iron doors, the king’s wife and two daughters at the very forefront.

Hans studied the young women from the safety of his hood. Both had hair the colour of candlelight, but there the similarity ended. One, the shorter of the two, was stunningly beautiful, with blue eyes and a smile so bright it made even Hans’s heart skip a beat. The other, as tall as any man, had her face concealed behind a fan and looked at him with eyes as grey and turbulent as thunderclouds.

‘Ada,’ the king called, and the smiling daughter stepped forward. ‘Please greet our guest.’

Ada curtseyed prettily. She held out her hand, 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 girl’s eye. She exchanged a look with her father, and her smile returned in full.

‘Welcome, then, Hans,’ she said, patting his paw. ‘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 stormy 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 any of the women who had gathered to see the king’s return, 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 coins on deserving doorsteps 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 each man had fled in turn to court 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 frightening paw: the 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 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 vast countryside. ‘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 child,’ the king grumbled. ‘All he wants is a good woman. But if you cannot pander to him, a silent one will have to do.’

Hans was waiting for her in the sitting room, 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, yards 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’s silence.

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’s 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 quiet tune, his long claws 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 inside the castle before. It was respect.

‘Well then,’ she said firmly. ‘Your face, please.’

Hans stood, over a full foott taller than she, 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. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, hunching his prickled shoulders with discomfort and anxiety.

But Dagmar only looked him up and down, settling 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 other’s company. They began in the sitting room, barely speaking but 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 from there, and they spoke of everything and nothing in equal measure.

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 alike. And when Dagmar took his arm for the first time, his prickles accepting her 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 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.’

The corners of Dagmar’s eyes crinkled with amusement. ‘Alone? At night?’

Hans blushed, though no hint of it showed on the outside. ‘Your mother may serve as a chaperone.’

‘Very well, then,’ she said. And then she took to her tiptoes and pressed her lips to Hans’s downy cheek for the very first time. ‘I would be delighted.’

~

‘Of all the suitors your father has found for you,’ the queen said, frowning over her needlework, ‘this is the one you choose to make an effort for?’

‘Yes,’ Dagmar said, wrapping her arms around herself. They sat in the sitting room waiting for his arrival, anticipation twisting her stomach in knots. She didn’t know what to expect from Hans’s request, but she knew that it 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, 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. It was almost midnight, a time her books assured her were filled with the potential for witchcraft and wonder.

‘Perhaps,’ Hans said, his voice trembling. ‘But first, I must ask you something.’

Dagmar felt a flurry of butterflies inside her. She knew what was coming. She’d been proposed to three times before, after all, but none of them had ever made her feel 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.’

‘Please, you know what I am asking.’

‘Then you should ask it, and plainly.’

Hans glanced at the moon, and then back at Dagmar. ‘Dagmar, will you be my wife?’

‘Yes,’ said Dagmar without hesitation. ‘Yes, I will.’ She stood on tiptoes to kiss his cheek, but though Hans thought his heart might burst with happiness, he pulled away.

‘Wait, I have something to show you first.’ He squeezed her hands. ‘Magic. Close your eyes.’

Dagmar gave her peculiar smile and humoured him, covering her hands with her eyes. ‘For how long?’ she asked, hearing her mother gasp.

‘Now. Look at me.’

A man stood before her.

He still towered over Dagmar, still looked at her with kind, black eyes. But his prickles had given way to smooth brown skin and a head full of thick brown hair and 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, 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 of relief that the creature her husband had brought home finally had a redeeming quality beyond his wealth. ‘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.

‘We shall have a wedding in three days,’ the king declared. ‘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 of the lust 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 favour to any powerful man the king wanted under his thumb where Dagmar would only ignore them. She had entered into an engagement with a dim but handsome 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.

But now her father was occupied entirely with his throne, and all his praise was reserved for Dagmar.

And Ada could no longer even laugh at Dagmar, whose situation with Hans had been so amusing at first. 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 repeated it around the court. 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 let slip the truth about Hans’s form, and a spark of pure, loathsome jealousy ignited in Ada’s breast.

‘I don’t believe you,’ Ada scoffed.

‘I saw it 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 one woman will ever see it. What a waste of such a man.’

And so, spark smoldering inside her, Ada stole that evening into Hans’s 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 ached to listen to it. But at last, Hans put his pipes down and lay on the bed and soon the room was filled with deep, snuffling snores.

Ada yawned but stayed in place, her 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’s 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 was fanned into a cold green flame.

Hans was beautiful. So beautiful it was an insult to even think of so plain a woman as Dagmar on his arm. Eyes welling, 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,’ the queen said, ‘and a man all the day round.’

‘But if Hans’s prickles can fall off,’ Ada reasoned, ‘surely something can be done to keep them that way. 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’s 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 her sister and suggested sweetly that Dagmar and Hans steal a few moments together before their wedding.

‘Why?’ Dagmar asked, suspicious of her sister’s sudden interest in her relationship. She had heard the whispers and laughter when she and Hans walked the halls, and knew her sister was 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. 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 her suspicion lingered. ‘Why would you do such a thing for me?’

Ada gave her most dazzling smile, one that not even her sister could resist. ‘Consider it my wedding present.’

They met that night in the rock garden, and Ada smiled prettily at Hans as she left them. ‘Take your time,’ she urged them. ‘I’ll wait here.’

‘Thank you, Ada,’ Hans said, taking Dagmar’s hand.

‘Yes, thank you,’ said Dagmar, shooting her sister a grateful look.

Ada ushered them on, not so much as a whisper of guilt shaking the flame inside her heart. Allowing them a moment’s head start, she stole after them.

Her rage bubbled as Hans and Dagmar walked and walked, hand and paw clutched tightly together, speaking and listening in equal measure. And at midnight, when Hans’s prickles fell away and he and Dagmar stole into the shadows with bashful laughter, Ada’s rage spilled over.

She swooped on Hans’s abandoned prickle skin, nuzzling the soft prickles against her cheek. Hans would thank her, she told herself, when he was a man all the day round. And more than that, he would love her. For what real man could prefer her dull, plain sister over her?

Ada 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. Ada shrieked with pain, but kept to her plan and flung the skin into the fire.

A howl of rage and agony flooded the garden. Hans galloped out of the shadows, once more a hedgehog, only now 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 burning 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 Ada and fleeing into the castle.

‘Hans!’ Dagmar cried, 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 how 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 screamed, her hands covering her bloody and bruising nose, but Dagmar didn’t linger. She ran into the castle, finding her father’s glorious golden throne ablaze and the great hall filling with smoke and confused servants, but no Hans.

On she went, searching room after room even after she saw that his bagpipes and bags of gold were gone from his room and his rooster was missing from the stables.

At last, at dawn, Dagmar fell to her knees in exhaustion and let out a wail of sorrow. Hans was gone, and gone forever.

~

The golden throne that had taken over two decades to build burned slowly, but with such intensity that nothing the king’s soldiers could do would extinguish the flames. There it sat, untouchable, perfectly complete and completely unharmed inside a halo of white fire. The furious 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. ‘We will march across the country,’ he shouted, ‘and apprehend this foul creature who has spat upon our good will and hospitality.’

Dagmar clutched at her father’s arm and 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, his greed and spite and wounded pride would not let Hans off so easily.

‘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 go near him again. Your mother searches already for a new suitor for you, and you will accommodate him as you did that filthy beast or earn my displeasure.’

Ada heard this and smiled despite her broken nose. But Dagmar hid her face behind a fan and watched her father’s army ride north with all the horses in the city. When the sun had set and the army was well clear of the mountain city’s gates, she went straight to her chambers and packed her few possessions into a bag: her most cherished books, her clothes, some silver coins, and a pair of iron shoes given to 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 then put them away and forgotten about them. Now, she understood what they were for.

For weeks Dagmar 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 cruel 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 at last, 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. She began to worry, for though she knew Hans was fast and strong and brave, he was no match for so many. She hurried on, digging her iron clad shoes into the dirt to run from dawn until midnight, day after day, until she came to the village so famous for carving and cutting wood.

‘Has the king’s army been here?’ she asked an older woman sitting outside a 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 days until the black trees turn gold.’

‘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.

‘Tell Hans 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 brown trees turned black. Dagmar checked the position of the sun and continued due 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. There was no triumph on their faces, no sign of Hans with them or violence upon them. From afar, she saw that her father’s face was a mask of unsatisfied fury. It gave Dagmar hope, and she rode on with high spirits.

On the thirtieth night she came upon the golden grove, and her face filled with dismay, for the beautiful trees had all been set alight and the nearby cabin was 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?’

‘I do.’

‘Why?’

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. All I know is that my heart is heavy without him.’

‘But he is ugly.’

‘What does that matter? It does not change his heart or mine.’

There was a pause, and the grove was filled only with the sound of crackling golden wood. ‘Why then has he left you,’ the voice asked, ‘if you so love each other?’

‘My family was cruel beyond words to him. I have walked across the land to apologise what they have done and to beg his forgiveness. But he is not here, and now I am lost, for he never spoke to me of anywhere else I might find him.’

The hedgehog looked at her and sighed, and all at once Dagmar knew who the voice belonged to. ‘I know not where he has gone either. Only that he was here just long enough to burn the grove and flee,’ said the hedgehog. ‘I have so many children, but 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’s fate was sealed: to be human for only one hour of every day. Had his father kept his word, Hans would have been human.’

Dagmar silently cursed Hans’s father, and then her own for all the love they had shown for gold above others.

‘Cursing will help no one,’ 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 ended journeys and chasing false whispers.

Another hundred days passed. And then another.

The soles of Dagmar’s iron shoes grew thin and her red 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 ugly, 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. But please, tell him I’m sorry for all I have done, and all I failed to do.’

‘I have so many people to apologise for,’ said Dagmar. ‘But I will do as you ask.’

And so Dagmar went on alone and followed the music up, up, up the mountainside. Her shoes wore away to dust on the craggy rocks, and when she came to Hans’s 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. 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, dancing all over with burning golden embers. His eyes were narrowed, his face distorted with pain.

Dagmar reached for him, but his prickles sank into her skin, marking her with scorching pinpricks. Her eyes watered at the sting, but she did not cry out.

‘You think that burns?’ he asked. ‘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 unkind and deceitful as the rest of them. Be gone, Dagmar, lest I throw you from the mountain for what you have done to me.’

Dagmar was silent, wounded deeply by his words and the contempt he spat at her with every syllable. But she did not leave, and as Hans raised a burning arm to push her away, she planted her feet and set her jaw.

‘Stop,’ she ordered. ‘I won’t be treated like this by you or anyone. I worried for you until my hair turned white and followed you until I wore out a pair of iron shoes, all because I love you and because I owe you an apology. But now I believe you owe me one in return.’

Hans hesitated, lowering his arm. But he still looked at her with great suspicion. ‘I should not have threatened you,’ he admitted. ‘I meant only to scare you into leaving. But I cannot see what apology I owe you beyond that.’

‘My sister heard from my mother that you were more beautiful than any man on earth and wanted you for herself, but only if she could rid you of the beast. She tricked us both that night.’

‘She said it was for you,’ said Hans, his eyes growing wide. ‘She said you were afraid to marry me.’

‘And you believed her when she spoke the worst of me,’ said Dagmar. ‘For that, Hans, you owe me an apology.’

A flurry of emotions swept across Hans’s terrible face, shame and understanding chief among them. 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.’

Dagmar knelt beside him and her hand through his singed prickles, which now lay flat and did her no harm. ‘I am here now,’ she said. ‘And I am sorry for what my sister has done to you. And I carry, too, 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 made you doubt that you could ever be loved, and for my father who has never loved anyone the way he has loved his gold. And I’d like to thank you, Hans, 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.’

‘Even now, after all I’ve done, you still want me?’

‘I do,’ she said, wiping the tears that threatened to spill over his ragged cheeks. ‘Though I will not chase you across the world again, for I’ve no longer the shoes to do it.’

Hans tried to laugh, but his pain turned the sound into a halting wheeze. He took her hand. ‘But I can no longer become human,’ 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 sun was still high in the sky, Hans was human. 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 prickle skin. ‘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 rubbed his bare, prickleless arms and looked away, for he was afraid. ‘If you say there is goodness, then I must believe you.’

Dagmar saw his concern. ‘Would you be happier if we used it to build a palace upon a hill?’ she asked, for he had told of his father’s dream. ‘And held great feasts and dances, where you could gain many friends and all their respect?’

But the dream that had given him such hope and joy as a child now sounded empty and false, and Hans knew Dagmar would not be happy in such a world, and would retreat to her books and forget her smiles once more. ‘No. 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. ‘Would it bother you if I wear my prickles sometimes?’ he asked as the rooster leapt agilely down the mountainside. ‘I feel bare without them and will not believe in true goodness unless humans can show me kindness as both human and beast.’

‘Hans, my hedgehog,’ she said. ‘Whatever you are is enough for me.’

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 a quiet village to settle in. And though they lived in a small cottage and ate no feasts, they earned the respect of their village and the love of their children, and they laughed loud and often, and were content.

HH-003

 

Almost Midnight: Three Classic Fairytales can be found on eBook for US$2.99 from AmazoniBooksNook and Kobo.
The paperback is available for US$11.99 from Amazon.

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