Another random fairy tale retelling; same context: make an updated / retold version of an existing fairy tale for an NPC storyteller who has strong feelings on vows, consent, gender identity, and chekov's lions. Source text here: The Twelve Huntsmen, and thanks to @Phira for helping me find it again. (I own, like, eleven billion fairy tale compilations.)
Once upon a time, there was a good prince who was betrothed to a sweet maiden. He loved her far more than any passing fancy, and she returned his love with all fervent passion. But one day, as they were sitting together and feeling happy in each other's company, the prince received news that his father was seriously ill and wished to see his son once more before he died.
"I must go away now and leave you," the prince said to his beloved. "But take this ring to remember me by. When I become king, I shall come back for you and we shall wed." Then the prince rode away with a heavy heart.
When he returned home, his father was indeed very sick and on the verge of death. "Dearest son," the king said to him, "I wanted to see you one more time before my end. Promise me, my child, that you shall marry according to my will." And, saying so, he named a certain courtier's daughter who was to become his son's wife. "For," said the king, "she has attended me in my illness and I would see her cared for all her days."
So distressed was the son by seeing his father so wasted and frail, that he could not bear to deprive him of this last wish. "Dear father, your will shall be done, and I shall see her cared for," he swore. Then the king was at peace, and he closed his eyes and died.
Some time later, when the son had been proclaimed king, he found his heart heavy with the knowledge that he must keep the promise he had given to his father. He entered a long period of mourning, in the hopes that he might find the ability to forget his beloved, or at least learn to be happy in his duty if not in his marriage. And all the court was aflame with the gossip that the courtier's daughter would soon be wed, for the attendants to the king's deathbed had heard his last wish to his son.
The news carried on the wind like a galloping steed, and when it reached the ears of his beloved, she grieved so much over the loss of her prince that she almost died from heartbreak. But her father said to her, "Dear child, do not grieve so, for it would be death to me to lose you in this way. Name your wish, whatever it may be, and if it be in my power, I shall grant it."
The maiden thought for a long moment and said, "Dear Father, grant that I and my eleven handmaidens have your leave to travel." And though it grieved him sore well to part from his daughter, the father counseled himself in his heart that it might be better to lose her for a time to a trip which might restore her spirits, than to lose her for eternity to a journey from which there is no return.
"Your wish shall be fulfilled," he swore, and the maiden assembled her eleven handmaidens and made ready to travel. She ordered twelve hunting outfits made, one just like the next, and the eleven young women put on the outfits, while she herself put on the twelfth. She then took leave of her father and rode away with the eleven young women until they came to the court of her former bridegroom, whom she still loved so dearly. There she asked whether he needed any huntsmen and whether he would like to take all twelve of them into his service.
The king looked at her and did not recognize her. But since they were fine-looking fellows, he said, yes, he would gladly employ them. And so they became the king's twelve huntsmen, and though the maiden was still sore afflicted for love of him, she hoped she might find happiness as her beloved's companion if not as his wife.
Now, the king had a lion that was a remarkable animal, and which he had inherited from his father the king. This lion could speak with the tongues of men, and could detect anything hidden and secret. One evening he lay by the fire in the king's chamber as was his custom, and yawned prodigiously wide to show his handsome fangs, and said in the lazy way of lions: "You think you've got twelve huntsmen?"
"Yes," said the king proudly. "Twelve huntsmen they are, and the best in my kingdom."
"You're wrong," said the lion, lashing his tail as cats are wont to do. "They're twelve women."
"That's not true at all," answered the king, laughing at the absurdity of his pet and companion. The lion made no reply, as is the way of cats, but from the way he slowly cleaned his great paw with his broad tongue it was clear he thought the king a fool to argue with him. And so the king laughed again and said, "If you say my huntsmen are women, lion, how shall you prove your claim? It is your word against theirs, on a matter which only they can know!"
The lion, who knew all things hidden and secret, but who was perhaps not more wise than any other beast or man, considered this at length, yawning as cats do and lashing his tail. "Have some peas scattered in your antechamber," responded the lion at length. "You will be able to tell right away, for men walk firmly when they walk over peas, with not a pea moving or stirring. But women trip and skid and glide their feet, and the peas will roll."
The king was very amused by his advice, and ordered peas to be scattered over the floor of his rooms. Yet the next morning, when the king summoned the twelve huntsmen to him and they entered the antechamber where the peas were lying, they stepped so firmly on them and had such a strong and steady gait that not a single pea moved or rolled. After they departed, the king said to the lion, "You see, my friend? They walk like men."
The lion frowned and considered this, turning his head this way and that. "They knew they were being put to a test," the lion decided. "A servant must have heard us speaking and told them, so that they controlled themselves when they walked. But you shall see I am right. Have twelve fine spinning wheels brought into the antechamber, and they shall be drawn to examine them with delight. No man would ever do that."
The king was amused by the lion's advice, and so he ordered that twelve spinning wheels be brought into the antechamber. However, when the king summoned his twelve huntsmen the next morning, they came through the antechamber and did not even so much as glance at the spinning wheels. Once again the king said to the lion, “You see, my companion? It is clear that they are men, for they didn't even glance at the spinning wheels.”
"They knew they were being put to a test and thus controlled themselves," answered the lion, all in a huff, but the king would not believe him anymore. The twelve huntsmen became his steady companions whenever he went out hunting, and the longer they were with him, the fonder he grew of them all.
Now it happened one day that the king urged his horse too fast in the hunt and was thrown to the ground by his steed. When his beloved witnessed him lying on the forest floor, it was like a stab through her heart, and she was so hurt that she almost fell to the ground unconscious. She flew to the king's side, and in order to examine him for wounds, she did what she had never done before and removed her glove.
The king stirred then, for praise be he was unwounded, and he saw on her naked hand the ring he had given to his beloved. When he looked at her face, his cloud of grief was lifted and he recognized her as his heart's true love. He was so moved that he gave her a kiss, there in front of the entire court, and when he could speak again, he proclaimed to her, "You are mine, and I am yours. No one in the world can ever change that."
And his beloved wept for joy to be reunited with him, and with sorrow for all the time they were apart, and even the stoniest heart in the king's court was moved to tears for the sweet huntswoman. Yet there remained, dear listener, the problem of the king's vow to his father, and the honor of the kind courtier's daughter, who had tended so selflessly to the king in his long confinement.
The courtier's daughter, who was a kind and selfless girl, was sent for at once, and passed the evening in the company of the king and his lion and his twelve hunters. The king explained to her his vows, both to his father and to his beloved, and asked her if she could desire in her heart that the king take two wives: his beloved and her as one.
The lady considered this with much serious thought, but at last said with all humble politeness that she would not be the king's bride, neither alone nor in a pair. The love she bore for the king's late father rendered him now like a brother to her, she said, and though the king and his beloved were kind and generous in their offer of love, the lady did not relish the thought of starting out as a stranger with two who already knew each other so well.
Then the king was sore afflicted in his heart, for he had sworn on his honor to marry the lady in order to please his father and care for her. The court all put their heads to the problem as one mind, but none could see how the king could both preserve his word and honor the lady's will. The late king had not thought to include the desire of the courtier's daughter in his command, assuming as he did that any woman would wish to marry his son.
Yet here the lion, who knew all things secret and hidden and saw charity in the lady's heart, pointed out in the lazy way of cats that the king could not marry the lady if she were already betrothed to another. "If the fair maiden will take me for a husband," the lion offered, resting his head on his paws and looking up at her with cat's eyes. "I shall be to her the best of husbands." And the lady, who was kind and generous, thought again long and hard and declared that she would, for the happiness of the king her brother was dear to her and she thought it would be no more a burden to wed a lion than to wed a man.
"I will," she said. No sooner had she said that, the lion leapt into the great fire that blazed in the king's chambers. His mane instantly caught flame, burning brightly, yet there were no howls of pain. The lion stood on his hind paws in the fire, as calm as the spring breeze, and as his skin burned and peeled away, all the court could see that he was a man, as pretty as the day, with golden eyes and a warm smile. Stepping out of the fire, as naked as a baby and with not a burn on his skin, he embraced his kind bride. "For I am the youngest prince of a faraway kingdom, who was cursed to take the form of a lion until a maiden agreed to marry me," he explained to the astonished court, and all were much amazed. And the kind lady thought to herself that though she had been fondly resigned to being the wife of a lion, she would well rather be the wife of this prince.
So the weddings were held, for the king and his sweet beloved, and the prince and his kind lady. And the king was ever after true to his word to his father, treating the lady and her husband always as his dearest siblings and caring for them both as if they were his own bride and bridegroom. And his beloved was the best and kindest of queens, and loved the prince and his lady with the same love she bore her husband and king.
For years after, the court was only divided on the question of whether the lion had been right or wrong. To be sure, all the huntsmen had once served as handmaidens to the queen, yet it could not be denied that more than one of them remained a huntsman their entire life and could not be persuaded from the king's service. And so some called the lion wise and some called him a fool, but I believe it was the king who had the matter right, for only the hunters themselves could ever say if they were also women.
And now, my listeners, I have set my tale free upon the air where only the quickest can catch it.