Wolf’s Heart (Continued)

Now a hunter, who was hunting in the wood, heard Thorn’s cries, and found the boy, with the wolf at his throat, at the door of the woodcutter’s cottage at the edge of the wood. Seizing the woodcutter’s axe, the hunter cut the wolf open, and Thistle sprang out alive. And the hunter took the wolf’s skin as a trophy, and brought the two children home with him to the town where he lived.

The hunter and his wife adopted Thorn as their own child, for he was as fair of face as an angel, but they scorned Thistle, for her face had been marked and scarred by the sharp teeth of the wolf. And when they asked her how she had come by the scars, she would not speak, so they banished her to the stables, where she lived among the animals like a dumb beast, and cared for them.

Thorn never came to see his sister there, for the scars on her face reminded him of his fear, and her wretched condition filled him with shame. And because he could not speak of his shame, his heart grew hard and cold.

As Thorn grew into a young man, the hunter taught him to hunt. And because he had lived as an animal, and knew their ways, Thorn soon became the greatest hunter in all of that kingdom. All of the young men of that town admired Thorn for his courage and skill at hunting, and longed for his friendship. And all of the young women dreamed of him, and hoped he would ask for their hand. But he would have none of them, for his heart was as hard as stone.

By day, Thorn would go out into the woods with his quiver and bow, and bring back game for the village. But by night, he would put on the wolf’s skin, and go hunting as a wolf beneath the silvery moon, killing deer and cattle, and sometimes, when the blood lust was upon him, peasants who had strayed too far from the town.

Now the fairest woman in all that country was a young princess called Elisande, who was as good of heart as she was beautiful, and as fair as she was wise. Of all the women in that town, only she had a kind word for poor Thistle, and often brought her cakes and tea while she worked in the stables.

The moment he saw her, Thorn wanted Elisande for his own, and he went to the king to ask for her hand. And though he was fair of face, and charming, and renowned throughout the kingdom, the princess feared him, for reasons she could not explain.

"Elisande, Elisande!" cried her father the king. "It is time and long past that you should be wed. For three hot summers and three long winters you have been courted by the finest and fairest lads in all the kingdom, and you will have none of them. What will it take to please you?"

"By the law of this land, my husband will one day be king," Elisande answered. "To be worthy of that office, the man that I marry must be at once as brave as a lion and as gentle as a lamb, as strong as an oak and as tender as a reed."

"Daughter, be reasonable!" cried the king. "There is no man in all the world who is all these things at once. This young man seems stronger than some, and braver than most. What will I tell him?"

"For seven long years, a great, fierce wolf has roamed this land, killing cattle and deer, and filling the people with fear," Elisande answered. "The greatest hunters in all this kingdom have hunted it, by day and by night, but none has ever captured it.Tell the young man this: Only he who brings me the heart of this wolf will have my own."

The king summoned Thorn, and told him what the princess had said. When Thorn heard Elisande’s words, he howled in agony, for though his heart was hard and cold, he loved Elisande more than life itself.

That night, he ranged over all the countryside, but he could not find a wild wolf to kill. So he slew one of the king’s own deer, and tore out its heart, and brought it next morning to the king.

"Sire, I have slain the wolf, and here is its heart," said Thorn. "Pray, honor your word and give me your daughter’s hand."

The king brought the heart to his daughter, but she held him off, saying, "Tell him to return at cock’s crow tomorrow, and I will give him his answer." The king sent Thorn away, and the princess went to the stable where Thistle toiled, and showed her the heart.

"Tell me, you who are wise in the ways of birds and beasts, whose heart is this?"

Thistle could not speak but she could sing. And she answered:

"It is not a wolf’s heart you hold here, Thorn has brought you the heart of a deer."

The princess returned to the castle, and told her father what Thistle had said. When Thorn returned at first light the next morning for his answer, the king cried angrily: "How dare you try to deceive my daughter!"

"Last night the sky was dark, and my arrow missed its mark," Thorn answered. "But tonight, by the love I bear your daughter, I swear I will slay the wolf."

That night, Thorn hunted twice as far and twice as wide, but could not find a wild wolf to kill. So just before dawn, he slew his finest hunting hound, and tore out its heart, and brought it to the king.

"Tonight I have slain the wolf, and brought you its heart," said Thorn. "Now you must honor your word and give me your daughter’s hand."

Again the king brought the heart to his daughter, but again she put him off, saying, "Tell him to return at cock’s crow tomorrow, and I will give him his answer." The king sent Thorn away, and the princess went again to Thistle’s stable, and showed her the heart.

"Tell me, you who know the ways of every living thing, whose heart is this?"

And Thistle sang:

"This is no wolf’s heart Thorn has found; the heart you hold is the heart of a hound."

When the princess told her father what Thistle had said, the king told Thorn angrily, "Twice you have attempted to deceive my daughter. Now I say this. If you do not bring me the wolf’s heart by cock’s crow tomorrow, you will lose not only Elisande’s hand, but your life as well!"

The king’s words filled Thorn with grief and fear. That night he roamed far and wide across the kingdom, searching for a wild wolf whose heart he could steal, but his quest was fruitless. And because the king’s men were hunting him, he sought refuge at last in the stable where his sister Thistle lived.

The king’s men found him at first light, asleep on the hay, naked save for the wolf’s skin that covered him, and summoned the king. When the king came with his daughter to the stable, he ordered Thorn to stand.

"Get up, you scoundrel, and prepare to die!" cried the king. "Twice your life is forfeit to me — once for your wanton slaughter, and twice for deceiving my daughter!"

Thorn rose slowly, covering his nakedness with the wolf’s skin. Thistle placed herself between her brother and the king, but Thorn put her gently aside, and spoke to the king, and to Elisande, tears flowing from his eyes for the first time in many years:

"Though dawn has broken, the cock has not yet crowed," he said. "I have given you my word that I would bring you the heart of a wolf, and while I live I will keep that word."

So saying, he plunged his hunting knife into his own heart, crying:

"I have kept my word to the one I love best. The wolf’s heart lies within my own breast."

As he fell, his sister, Thistle, knelt beside him. And the blood from his heart and the tears from his eyes washed the scars from her face, though they left deep marks on his own. And from that day forward, Thistle could speak again, and when the story of her ordeal was told, she was loved and honored by all the people in the village.

Now you may think that Thorn died from that wound in his heart, and indeed, for many a day he lay as one dead in that stable. But Elisande, who was indeed a wise woman, nursed him back to health. And the next spring, when he had recovered, she pleaded with her father to pardon him for all the harm he had done.

"But Elisande," her father protested. "This man is as scarred on the inside as he is without. He has lived as an animal, hard and fierce, and cold and cruel. Why do you waste your pity on a man such as this?”

"A man whose heart is filled with rage and fear and shame, but does not know it, has a wolf’s heart, father," she answered with a smile. "But a man who has felt rage and fear and shame, and has cut from his heart with his own hand, is at once as brave as a lion and as gentle as a lamb, as strong as an oak and as tender as a reed."

And, in time, Thorn and Elisande were married, and became king and queen of that realm. And if they were not the best rulers that kingdom had ever seen, they were surely not the worst. And if they did not live happily ever after, yet they were not so unhappy as most. And he that can claim better, may God bless him, and the Devil not call him a liar.