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Deerskin

Robin McKinley

To Mary, Mary, Barbara, Susan, Alex, Steve, Andrea and George: thanks.

Author's note:

There is a story by Charles Perrault called Donkeyskin which, because of its subject matter, is often not included in collections of Perrault's fairy tales. Or, if it does appear, it does so in a bowdlerized state. The original Donkeyskin is where Deerskin began.

PART ONE

ONE

MANY YEARS LATER SHE REMEMBERED HOW HER PARENTS HAD

looked to her when she was a small child: her father as tall as a tree, and merry and bright and golden, with her beautiful black-haired mother at his side. She saw them, remembered them, as if she were looking at a painting; they were too splendid to be real, and always they seemed at some little distance from her, from all onlookers.

They were always standing close together as she remembered them, often gazing into each other's eyes, often handclasped, often smiling; and always there was a radiance like sunlight flung around them.

Her mother had been the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, and seven kings had each wanted her for himself; but her father had won the priceless prize, even though he had been only a prince then, and his father hale and strong.

When the old king fell from his horse only a year after his son married, and died of the blow, everyone was shocked and surprised, and mourned the old king exceedingly. But he was forgotten soon enough in the brilliance of the young king's reign, and in the even brighter light of his queen's beauty. When the worst grief was spent, and such a joke could be made, some people laughed, and said that the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms had the luck of seven kingdoms as well, for she was now queen of the richest, and for a mere year's wait.

It was the princess's nursemaid who told her this story, and told it often. It was the nursemaid's favorite, and became the little girl's, the long story containing many stories, of her parents' courtship and marriage. This story was better than uuytlung read draggingly out of a storybook-for the nursemaid was uneasy with her letters, but as the ability to read was one of the requirements of her post, she was extremely anxious that no one should find this out. She told the princess that there was no need for dull stories out of heavy hard books, and as she made the storybook stories dull and the stories she herself told interesting, the princess came readily to agree, perhaps because her parents were only a little more real to her than the characters in the storybooks.

'Your lovely mother cast her eyes down when her new people said such things to her, for she was a modest girl then as she is a modest woman now; but everyone knew that she would have chosen your father over the other six kings even had he been a goat-boy with naught but a bell and a shepherd's stick to his name.'

'Tell me about the task he was set,' said the little princess.

'Ah, it was a terrible task,' said the nursemaid, cuddling her close on her lap.

'Each of the seven kings-six kings and one prince-was given a task, and each task was more difficult than the one before, as your lovely mother's father began to comprehend the setting of tasks; for such a joy was the daily presence of your lovely mother that her father was not eager to part with her. And so he looked to drive her suitors away, or to lose them on topless mountains and in bottomless valleys or upon endless seas. But who could blame him? For she is the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, and he died of a broken heart eight months after she married your father and left him, and even your uncle, who is now lord of those lands, says the country, the earth itself, is sad without her.'

'The task,' said the princess.

'I was coming to it,' said the nursemaid reprovingly. 'So your father was the seventh suitor after the six kings, because his father thought he was young to marry, and had heard besides that your lovely mother's father was setting such tasks that might lose him his only son. But in the end he did his son no favors, for his son-your father-would go, and so it was he who had the last and hardest task.'

'And what was it?' said the princess, though she had heard this story many times.

'I am coming to it. The task was to bring a leaf plucked and unfallen from the tree of joy, which grows at the farthest eastern edge of the world, and an apple plucked and unfallen from the tree of sorrow, that grows at the farthest western end of the world. 'And when your lovely mother's father said the words of the task, he smiled, for he knew that no living man could accomplish it; and so at worst his daughter had but six suitors left.

'But he did not see the look that passed between his daughter and her seventh suitor; the look that said, I will do this thing, and was answered, I know you will, and I will wait for you.

'And wait she did; four of the six kings returned successfully from their adventures, bearing what they had been ordered to bring. The word came that the fifth king had been killed, and that the sixth had

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