Once upon a time, in a country that was prosperous, and settled many miles away from the sea, an heiress to the throne was born. She was blessed in having soft hair of a deep brown colouring; tiny beauty marks that rarified her skin at intervals; and eyes the exact blue of the night sky, which had been bequeathed to her from her dear father, the King. She was both impressive and endearing, in the ways she moved and spoke as she grew older, so that the Queen esteemed her the prettiest rose of all the ages, no matter that she was still a long while away from blooming.
Years passed since her birth and the rejoicing that it caused, each following the one before it in rapid succession, until the Heiress had grown into a beautiful young lady of seventeen, and time seemed to slow down once more. The King and Queen were both unspeakably in love with their daughter, so that they wanted her life to be filled with only gifts and things to be grateful for, and the latter, one day noticing that she was nearing her youthful prime, decided that such a perfect picture needed to be immortalized. She called in renown artists from every reach of the country, commissioning them, and offering a great reward if they could only do the sweet Heiress justice.
Hundreds of men of varying talents set to work immediately, catching every glimpse of the Heiress as they could, and painting her to what they believed was perfection. The Queen, however, rejected every portrait that was offered to her, of which she received many each day, saying that none had yet captured her likeness properly, and that no one had yet earned the reward. Her high standards eventually led the Queen to despair, for she was beginning to think her daughter would grow old and faded before a suitable portrait was done, when, one day, an unknown man presented himself to her, offering to do the painting.
Skeptical of a recluse such as himself, the Queen asked to see examples of his previous work; he told her had none. She questioned him about his occupation next, and he replied that he was a huntsman, and lived in a small cabin deep within the woods. At this point, being wearied and out of humour, the Queen called for the guards to take him away, but he began to plead his case just as they laid their hands upon his shoulders.
"I admit, your Majesty, that I am not an artist, and have had no prior interest in such. I know neither the proper way to hold a brush, nor from what plants to extract my colours. I have, however, chanced to look upon your daughter - have watched her sit alone in the evening, as an image of beauty, or fanned herself regally beneath the August sunshine - and I believe that I can depict her in the exact way you've wished. I know the reason every artist seems to have failed to draw her; I can provide what has been missing."
Once he'd finished, the Queen nodded her head slightly, more desperate than impressed, and agreed that she would try him. She promised him less, however, as a reward than she'd done for all the others, but the Huntsman agreed to it readily, for it was still a greater treasure than he'd ever held in his life. He went away again, disappearing into the dark shades of the forest, but returned fifteen days later, hiding his creation under a stained drape.
As he walked through the village, the Huntsman was confident, for he had indeed conveyed in his painting what no other eyes had noticed; he alone had been able to look upon the Heiress as her parents did, and to therefore capture her in that selfsame unconditional light. The King and Queen saw her, after all, through the eyes of ones who love, and that's the reason, whenever they gazed into her eyes, which were the same blue as the night sky, they saw stars. No other painting had immortalized this slight detail, for no other man had been careful enough to notice this one little beauty in her.
A gasp escaped the Queen when the drape was removed and she saw the painting, so that she immediately professed that it was faultless. The King, when it was shown to him, had almost the same reaction, and both fell to their knees before the Huntsman, and proclaimed they were indebted to him. Being used to a simple life, however, the Huntsman shied away from such praise, and, as he'd been given his reward already, turned to leave. He would return most likely ever to the forest, for this had been one of the rare times he'd ventured from it, but, just as he was edging towards the castle door, a voice called for him.
"Oh, dear jaeger," the Queen addressed his royally, grateful beyond what words could tell for his painting. "Is there any chance you might be so obliging as to make copies of this portrait - that is, to paint others exactly like it? I would appreciate so much to be able to send some to distant relatives and old friends, who haven't yet had the good fortune to look upon the Heiress as you and I have, and who may never, for illnesses prevent them from travelling."
"My sincerest apologies, your Majesty, but I only agreed to do one painting, and have not enough materials left to make others."
"What is it you lack, my son?" she asked, growing affectionate in her despair, which had already made her half-crazy, and which made her madder still. "The kingdom will donate its finest paints for you, of course, along brushes and canvasses... tell me, son, what else could you possible need?" The Huntsman reflected on her words a moment, seeming troubled, but, as he could find no answer (or no bravery with which to speak it), he condescended to accept the offer. "Wonderful!" the Queen chirped, rising to her feet and clapping her hands for joy. "I'll have a bedroom made up in the castle, so that I can check on your progress daily."
Here, the huntsman grew more troubled still, and his flesh became pale and his eyes wide. "I must insist," he interjected, staring longingly out the castle door, and to the forest that bordered the town. "That I continue my work in my home. I'll bring you every portrait as it's completed, but, your Majesty, this is my one requirement."
She didn't understand, but the Queen nonetheless acquiesced, and soon saw the Huntsman off, his arms filled with new equipment and quality paints, who never once looked back to the castle as he walked. Instead, he looked to the sky, for he'd been detained so long that the day had already begun to end, and night to patiently evolve from it; the sun lay on the horizon, in a few moments to disappear. He watched as dozens of stars began to glimmer in the air - the stars that were beloved by every heart who ever felt, dancing causelessly in the darkness - the little virtues that were suspended in the night's sky, and, in seeing them, he cursed himself where he stood.
Early one night, from a child of grace and entire innocence, came a voice that echoed softly against its bedroom walls and called for its mother. She came running to him, careful not to wake her other children, and the scene she was met with was that of her oldest son, newly five years old, crouched upon his bed with wide eyes and an even wider smile. Such glee did not suit the night, and she sighed inwardly, for she knew that some magic visible only to his eyes had made him too hyper to sleep, and slid into bed beside him, wrapping him in her arms.
"You won't believe it," he began, in a voice that was awe-struck and breathless, before turning his head to the open window to their left, for he knew that his mother's head would turn with him. She waited a while, patiently observing the portion of the world that could be seen from the window, but, after seeing nothing remarkable, for she hadn't believed that she would, she returned her gaze to her son. He continued to watch, however, endlessly amazed, and eventually brought light to the reason, in the form of a whisper: "Falling stars."
Allowing him another chance, the mother looked once more to the window, and, for the first time, saw the exact magic that her son could see. He'd noticed wonders such as this all throughout his young life, of course, but those had only filled a few moments before vanishing... this one filled an entire night, for now it had the grace of being shared. "Incredible," his mother mused, perhaps more amazed than he was, for she had lived enough to forget ever having been young, but could remember now.
They sat together for the next few minutes - one enfolded in the other's arms; one in the other's love - as kin, sharing not only the sight, but also the experience that goes through a person and emerges as dreams. Truly, what they saw were falling stars, exactly the way it's meant, for every few minutes a point of light would seem to shudder, and pulse for a moment in the sky, before falling - at a monumental speed, they agreed, given how far above the earth they were to begin with. They left no tails, as shooting stars are fabled to, but simply seemed to move downwards - they did grow bigger as they fell, but only by a wink.
The spectacle ended a short hour later, and had been filled with the descent of a few dozen stars, and a few thousand gasps in consequence. Neither of the two spoke, but the mother, although she felt levelled with her son, and as young in spirit and conscience as he did, soon tucked her child back into bed, feathering kisses upon his cheeks for each of the brightest stars. He laughed in love, and offered some in return, and, when he was finally bushed, laying lifelessly and trying to blink the sleep from his eyes, his mother began to sing an old, cherished melody, which seemed deserving to end the night.
"At the mid hour of night, when stars are weeping, I fly
To the lone vale we loved, when life shone warm in thine eye;
And I think oft, if spirits can steal from the regions of air
To revisit past scenes of delight, thou wilt come to me there,
And tell me our love is remembered even in the sky."
"Mama," piped up a voice, seeming smaller than it ever had before. "Are the stars really weeping?"
"Would you, if you could sleep in the clouds, travel the world, and play among the stepping stones of the sky?"
"For joy, maybe."
"Then yes, the stars weep."
The small voice was hushed once more, and its speaker smiled, as if satisfied. It recurred one final time, however, no matter that it was edging closer to sleep than to waking now: "Mama, is every last star going to fall?"
"No, my love," his mother cooed, as she rose, silently treading to the bedroom door, where she then turned to look at him. "They've never fallen before, and won't ever again. This one night of magic occurred, yes, but it was just for us, and everything will be the way it should be afterwards. Rest safely, my love; hold onto the wishes that you've been given this extraordinary chance to make, and know that the rest of the stars are fixed exactly where they belong."
Thus the scene ended. A beautiful scene between one generation and the blood of its blood - a scene that has played at least once in every household of the village. Each mother or father has said the same thing to their child, claiming that that night had been the only in which the stars ever fell, and therefore made just-for-them. And yet, if they'd tracked the stars, or even watched the sky from night to night, instead of on one solitary occasion, they would have seen the exact same thing, repeated over and over and over again, and the miracle of falling stars would have been made terrifying for its continual occurrence.
They were wrong, also, in that it wasn't because of magic, and that the stars weren't falling just for the sake of wonder or to create a thousand new wishes worldwide (although the true reason could hardly compare to this). Instead, it occurred deep within the forest, in sections where only the Huntsman was known to tread, who would then, at hours bordering midnight, raise his bow and arrow heavenwards, and shoot star by star clear out of the sky.
He collected a great number every evening - between thirty and forty, because not even he could conceive that something so abundant and nearly endless could ever be made extinct - but, in the end, this could fill but a crease in the palm of his hand. He kept them in a tiny glass case, where they together took up less room than a droplet of water, and would transfer them, when he got home, into the eyes of the painted Heiress.
Each star was barely more than a piece of dust, although it never ceased to shine, so that each portrait was not only impressive because it contained pieces of the heavens, but because it did so in such large quantity. It was a trying labour, and took up most hours of his days, but the Huntsman adored his task, and quelled whatever guilt that surfaced by telling himself that the Queen would only want a few more paintings; that he'd soon be finished, and the night sky would therefore be but lightly defiled.
The weeks passed, however, as the years had once done: quickly, one after the other, and without change. The Huntsman first began to suspect that he'd never be able to call a single portrait his last, and soon knew this to be right. The Queen was constantly wanting more, and even though her friends and families had each their own copy by now, she'd always invent a new reason: to send to other kings and queens of different royal lineage; to send to museums and historians, although this was only to nurture her own vanity; and eventually even to send to her enemies, bragging about her daughter's loveliness.
It went on for so long, in fact, that the miracle of it had ceased, as now more and more townsfolk began to notice the disappearance of the stars, and take heed against whatever bad spirit had caused it. They spoke about it openly, although always with rugged faces and broken expressions, and would always stare to the clouds as they did so, be it night or day. "I wouldn't've noticed, mind you, if my Mary hadn't called me to the window last night, saying nothing more, but pointing towards the sky. Heck, I know it was a few years ago, but when we were newly in love and first fell to romancing and wooing 'neath the full moon, I could've sworn there was millions of them. Millions upon millions, and now you're lucky to see a handful still up there."
"My Corinne did almost the exact same thing, except it was a few nights ago, and she cried when she showed me. She seemed horribly distraught, and I suggested that she should lie down a while, but she just kept muttering that if a star's gonna go ahead and fall like that, it might as well do some good."
"My grandfather's an astronomer, you know. For as long as I can remember, every night he's dragged me out of bed - me unwilling, of course - to stare up at whatever goddamn constellations he found especially bright. They always amazed him, the stars, even though they were just a bunch of old lights in the sky, and I used to wish that something would happen, just to make 'em interesting. Well, a few months ago, he looked somewhat crestfallen, and said, 'something has. Enjoy the stars while you can, my lad, because the great devil's picking them out of the sky, one by one, and soon there won't be a single star left'."
Life progressed in this manner, with the stars no longer truly falling, but being stolen from the sky, and the Huntsman, guilty for committing so terribly a crime for the sake of so pathetic a cause, grew ill and pale, and, as long as it continued, could find neither reason nor want to smile. He desperately longed to rebel, to somehow save the stars that had only a few more nights of life left, but knew, that with the will of the Queen, one had no other option but to comply. A change occurred, however, or at least he thought it would, the inevitable day when the Huntsman appeared at the castle empty-handed.
He tried many approaches, all the while bracing himself against the hateful gaze of the Queen, which had the strength almost to cripple. First, he told her that he wouldn't paint another portrait, but to this, she simply lorded her authority over him and commanded that he must. Next, he tried to explain that he'd run out of supplies, but was then offered more paints, brushes and canvasses, courtesy of the kingdom - for what else could any artist need? Finally, he chanced to challenge her, asking why either she or the world needed so many paintings, but to this she merely laughed, and they both knew that the laugh sufficed.
Realizing that he was beaten, and that no amount of strength could have won, the Huntsman conceded, and revealed his terrible secret to the Queen. "Your Majesty, as I told you before, I am not an artist. I could see that, for the portrait of your daughter to be perfect, there needed to be stars in her dark blue eyes, but I also knew that things so small and wonderful could never be depicted or painted using these hands." (He motioned to his own.) "Therefore, I've been using actual stars downed from heaven, dislodging them with my bow and arrow - for I am a hunter, after all - and afterwards transferring them into the portraits.
"I agreed to this task because I thought I'd only be making a single copy, and figured that the heavens would allow for such. But you, in your extreme selfishness and vanity, have demanded so many paintings - more than any soul could possibly have use for, no matter how dearly she says she loves her daughter - that not a single star remains." The Huntsman paused here, aware that his voice had raised in anger, and that blood, in the form of a blush, had filled his cheeks, so that he took a moment to calm himself, before adding a final desperate plea: "An endless amount of future wishes have been sacrificed for the sake of your daughter. Please, let that have been enough, and let me return to the life I had before."
"Well, future generations can still wish on the eyes of the Heiress, can they not? Those portraits will survive, won't they?" the Queen mused, seeming to deeply reflect on the words that the Huntsman had spoken, and, as he almost believed, to repent the world of damage she'd caused. However, once a few minutes had passed, she rose from her chair, standing deliberately above the Huntsman, cruelty brimming in her eyes, and uttered the words, "I don't care.
"Find a substitute to the stars, learn to paint them yourself! I don't care, just think of something." A dark shadow suddenly seemed to fall over her, caused by an idea that had just occurred to her. "Take pieces of the moon instead! They'll glow, won't they? Grind them until they're the size of stars, and that should see us through another hundred portraits, don't you agree?"
The Huntsman, in that instant, was almost driven mad by the want he had to protest, and to rage against this tyrannic Queen - however, he found himself speechless. He knew that ridding the stars had had no repercussions, aside, of course, from the lessening of magic in the world, but that destroying the moon would have consequences not only on the night but on the tides and whoever lived on the shores of the ocean. He'd only need to convince her to care for the lives of those she reigned over, and not simple of those whom she loved - but he was terrified of her, and, if truth be told, terrified for himself.
And so, sick at heart, diseased by guilt, and with the stature of a broken man, the Huntsman left the castle, waved off by a smiling queen. He set to work immediately that night, finding he could chip off pieces of the moon as easily as he could the stars, and that, once broken up, it resembled almost exactly the same luminescent dust. Their glow wasn't as bright, however, and the effect they gave couldn't compare to that of the stars, but the Queen remained pleased for the next few months.
By the end of seven months, however, this resource, too, had been exhausted, and each night became its own eclipse: there were no longer any lights to either illuminate the magic on earth, or to be magic themselves. Both he and the Queen had expected that it would last for longer than it had, and to "do more good than this," as she'd complained. But, as even she could recognize that the nights were now dark and nothing else, and that no other such lights existed, the Queen released him, expressing farewell in a handshake, and vowing that he'd done a good thing.
Guiltier than he'd ever felt before, and more bothered by it too, the Huntsman stopped at a small bar on his way home, knowing nowhere else to seek comfort. There he learned that the villagers viewed the killing of the moon as an omen, and they even asked him, as they did every new stranger who entered the bar, how he thought the world would end. He answered honestly, knowing that it wasn't an omen, in fact, but simply a terrible mistake, making use of the knowledge that only he and the Queen had. "When there's ever an heiress born whose eyes are the same blue as the day's sky."
The bar erupted into laughter, but the Huntsman merely shrugged, and held to his answer. "That's what you believe?" one man asked, in a mocking tone. "Not by flood or fire or plague, but that the world will end with a daughter?"
With every night that passed, the Queen was hushed into sleep thinking how noble a cause the million great flames of their earth had died for - she was the sole person who felt that way. Long after her daughter had grown and eventually married the man she'd been meant for, she comforted herself with the portraits, having kept the last dozen or so all for herself, so that, when she died, they remained unknown, unloved, and locked in an underground chamber.
The Huntsman returned to his home, deep within a forest he vowed to never again leave, and he never would have expected to, but continued to live his life, and chanced to smile from time to time for many different causes. He had a son now, who was bright and spirited enough to almost replace the lights of a once-upon-a-time sky; he continued to paint, having taken a liking to it after all these years, although reserving himself to landscapes; and, which was the greatest reason of all, he had lied to the Queen.
Not all of the shattered moon had been harvested and imprisoned in the Heiress's painted eyes. He'd kept at least half of it, in the same small, transparent case as had once carried the stars, except that, for the first time, it was filled to the brim. He held onto these as one does to a dream, and intended to release them into the air one day, where he'd then blow upon them, so that they might ride upwards upon his breath until they reached their long-ago home. He would undo, as he told himself, the tragic falling of the stars.
The only problem was the Queen, who, he knew, would order the stars to be brought down again the second she saw them there. His hopes lay in the Heiress, but she took the throne only to be no better than her nurturer; to have the same vanity, and to want to same petty things for herself. He feared his dream would outlive himself, and that he'd die before the kingdom saw a proper ruler, and so he appointed the task to his son, a few years after he was born. That moment became the one, final joy of all his life, when he saw the expression of a nine-year-old boy, who'd just been told that he was holding the stars in his hands.
"You've never seen them as they are in the sky, my son, free and scattered as they're meant to be, and for that I'm sorry. They need to be released, and I pray it will be by your hands, but there's no guarantee, and so - listen closely, now - I want you to have sons of your own when you're older, or daughters, but be sure that you raise them properly, for I don't know how many years will have passed before a living queen can again look at the stars, and not think that they should fall for her.
"Treat them kindly, the stars; care for them, and love them almost as if they were living. The Heiress may have a kingdom in her name, and a right to rule over thousands of people, but I think you'll agree that this is a far greater legacy."
The boy, his eyes still fixed downwards, and onto the stars he could barely believe he held, began to smile. "And don't you worry, dad," he chimed, in a voice that seemed suited for someone as young and innocent as himself, but not for the wisdom with which he spoke next. "Paintings are human, but the stars will live forever. One day all the colour will pass away from her eyes, and the works themselves will turn to dust, but the stars won't seem changed or aged a day. And then maybe someone will separate them from the dust, and return them to the sky, by blowing upon them - someone who'll care to do good, almost as much as you care.
"Or," here he began to grow excited, and his words became less clear, as if he were rambling. "Maybe they'll find their way home on their own, without anyone to help them, since the only direction they have to remember, after all, is up. And then, a million years from now, or the year after that, maybe they'll just start reappearing in the sky, one by one, the same way they fell."