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14 minute read.
There is a seat, if you would like it.
Honestly, I’d rather you sit.
If you want to stare, at least make conversation while you do.
There. Isn’t that better? Perhaps you’d like a drink?
Ah-ha. That always brings the crowd.
Go on then.
I’ll get a round.
If you’re calculating the ease of tackling me to the ground and cutting off these pretty little fingers of mine for the rings, don’t. You see those men in the corner? Very impressively sized, aren’t they? Yes, you hurt a hair on my sweet head, and they will split you open from navel to craw.
I’ve seen it done.
Here are the drinks. Excellent.
Of course I can manage it. Do you ask me that because I am small, or because I am a woman? Either way, I’ll drink you under the table.
Let’s do it tonight.
So. My lovely little crowd of acolytes. Any questions?
Ah. That old one.
I think I’m fully human. Though I never met my papa, so who knows? My mama told us (me and my brother, that is) that she’d herself met the kindly ones: those strange creatures that slip between worlds with the hawthorn flowers and full moon. They were the ones made the tunnels, she said, that honeycomb beneath the forest floor. Yes, I could be a half-breed, I suppose.
I could have been fathered by anyone, to be honest. Mama was, lord love her, a bit of a slut.
Though look at this hair on my upper lip. You think a pixie lady would allow her upper lip to sprout such an obstinate little whisker? It’s a pain in my arse, I must pull it periodically and it always comes back stronger than before, ready for a struggle.
You want more?
There were additional tales, of course – further speculations concerning my birth. And the others. There were seven in total, seven little dwarfish things born to different mothers in different villages dotted down the river – me and my brother being the only ones who shared a mama. Though perhaps we all shared a father, if the theory of a whoresome fairy knight holds any water.
Some said it was a curse. Maybe an infestation of changeling children, slipped in the sleeping mother’s bellies by trickster elves. Or, in the dramatic view of the local priest, divine retribution for pagan peasant ways that will not die.
In the face of this mysticism my brother (ever the dull little pedant) insisted there was a rational explanation for it all. He traced the sprouting of the children along the river’s winding course and concluded there was something in the water meant we were born dwarfs.
I’m not so sure.
My mama told a different story.
She was what many called a witch, but what my brother called a doctor. She had the knowledge of herbs and human flesh, could creak and crack bones into place, turn a baby in the womb. My idiot brother insisted it was science. That the reason her patients did not die was not because she had a strange, unholy power, but because she washed her hands.
But I saw our mama chanting in the moonlight. I followed her strong-clever fingers as they wove charms to catch bad dreams. I saw her eyes a-seeking fore-knowledge in still, black pools of mirrored water.
She said, for seven years, babies were born like us, born early or late but always on the winter solstice. And, finally, the last one, the eighth: the princess, up in the palace. The only one of these winter babies born with limbs appropriately lengthened, a shape acceptably formed.
A great surprise indeed. Given that mama herself had been brought, years before, to examine the queen and had concluded that nothing was to be done. The womb would remain empty. The earth herself had willed it. To distort and overturn such natural happenstance requires a dark magic – sacrifices mama would not make.
Ah, but there are other witches in these lands. Not like my mama. Those others twist, and wrench, and take. Bend the world to their will.
The Queen’s new handmaiden, fair as a primrose, was such a one.
Mama saw it in her face, when she was called again to the palace nine years from the first time, to deliver the princess.
(The only midwife, you know, in our parts, to have never lost a mother nor a child.)
It was there, in a gilded room reeking of refuse and sweat, that mama saw the handmaiden herself. All it took was the merest glance.
Hair the colour of a primrose. Eyes the colour of a golden coin.
The baby, born silent, white as moonstone. Perfect and pristine, in contrast to the peasant children littered down the river, the seven years of sacrifice it had required to twist the natural order, obtain one heir for the king.
We bought her existence with our flesh.
And, to add bitterness, he didn’t even get a boy.
You’re far from the palace here. But news must have reached you, even on the outskirts of the kingdom, of the princess’ birth. You must have seen with your own eyes the eclipse, as the night swallowed up the sun then spat it out, and on the regurgitated day –
Queen, now, I should say.
We called her Snow.
Oh, you didn’t know that did you? Didn’t think I’d have met the queen.
I did more than meet her. How else do you think a little village girl, full of fire and fury, became a lady such as I? Look at this cloak. That’s velvet, that is. That’s ermine. Real, honest-to-god ermine. Yes, reserved for royalty.
Unless the queen makes a present to you.
You want a story?
I’ve got a story for you.
Seven years from the princess’ birth, and the old queen died, melting away like frost in spring. A new queen was crowned. Gold as clinking coins. A commoner, a handmaiden – and who knows what else.
My brother was sixteen when the soldiers came. I was three years younger. It must have been, then, two years we’d had with the primrose queen. We’d all heard the rumours. Of the sticky black witchcraft behind the palace walls.
That night, the full moon swelled and split apart the sky.
My mama screamed, and fought, and so did my brother, and so did I, but all it ended in was us chained and mama –
Sorry, I –
I am not a fragile woman. But I need –
There were seven of us in total, seven strangers sharing nothing but our heights. Some, like us, had seen their parents butchered.
Others had been sold.
The youngest of us didn’t speak, and it wasn’t until later that we put together that his grandmother had died some years before, and no one else had cared for him.
So it was, that we were brought up to the palace.
Oh, she was a beauty. Even shaken, the insides of my mother’s half cleaved head splattered on my knees, I was struck by that. Perfect pink and petaling lips. Skin so smooth and full of glow she outshone the yellow moon. I remember thinking that it had the texture of vellum. I remember that she smelt like funeral flowers.
Even without enchantments, perhaps, she would have won the king.
But it was for her spells that we were there.
She took from us –
My hair, shorn clean off while I wept.
My brother’s molar, which he refused to scream for.
She took the end of a finger, a shredding of skin, an eye. A toe.
Stitched the mouth of little Ginny shut.
Then we were taken to the underground. The cages, underneath the palace. No one there but us, and the smears of past prisoners wrecked across the walls.
She’d emptied it out, in a mad glut of seeking power. She was due a re-stock.
We refilled her larder, and they locked us in.
I was angry at my brother, who had not cried. But he was thinking. Even as we were butchered and beaten down into the dark, he was thinking.
It was when the guards had left that he opened up his palm, and we saw the key a-glitter there.
Cunning, he always was.
We didn’t dare go home. It was our neighbours turned us in, after all, if it wasn’t our own parents. And something in us was still sought after, by the new queen, for whatever ritual she was attempting to perform.
We found our way to the forest. And those tunnels I mentioned earlier? The ones they say built by the fair folk, the network honeycombing out beneath the forest floor – they were our home.
We lived thus, for a time. Ten years? Perhaps eleven. Long stretches of half starving, learning to hunt and scavenge. We lived on the edges, in the wild spaces still untamed. We raised each other.
My brother was the eldest. Doctor, we’d call him, for the knowledge he’d absorbed from mama. Doc. We thought it funny.
I didn’t have a nickname. Unless you count moody cow. Grumpy sod.
But why shouldn’t I be angry? The world had scraped our lives from us, turned us into livestock and thrown our families to the dogs. We were reduced to filth and wilderness, and I’d always been a neat little thing. I like my luxuries. See for reference –
My shoes. Lined with fur. You’d not imagine the comfort.
But this was how we lived. Until –
And here she comes.
Though we didn’t know that at the time. When we returned from emptying our traps, and found her lying in the entry to our tunnels, we thought she was a dead thing at first – so white! Sickeningly pale, between a lattice of fresh cuts and older scars. Contorted, she was, with welts and weals and faded silver wounds and fresh, prickling rashes and bruises, and gashed so horribly that the skin was barely seen between the injuries. It was only the slight rise and falling of her chest that let us know she was alive.
My brother insisted we take her in. Wrap her up. Her fingers were as cold as the snow we nicknamed her for. She wasn’t dressed for the weather – a threadbare, ragged little dress. Skin with the pallor of a cave-dwelling thing. When her eyes batted open, black and swollen as obsidian, she didn’t seem to see us at first. And when, days later, she first spoke, her voice was hoarse and creaking, ragged.
She had not often spoken.
Not since her mother died, and her father married again, and the primrose queen was crowned.
She’d found all her words and her ways from books, and the nursemaids who scarcely seemed to see her, let alone sit with her and speak.
I suppose you’d think she’d be precious, her being a princess and all. Not so.
Feral. That’s the word I’d use. Hardly house-trained. She’d eat with her fingers if we let her, and we had to bully her into makeshift shoes. She was nervous in the sunlight, but loved to sleep outside, under the moon, stretched out and glowing and catching her death with cold. And the rats! Urgh, I’ve always hated them – nasty, dirty things. But she had such a soft spot for them. We’d be away for half a day, and when we returned, there she’d be, petting vermin.
I don’t know what my brother saw in her.
Perhaps because she’d read so many books- nothing else for her to do, as she’d had the run of the palace without playmates for over a decade. He’d sit up there for hours in the cold, running over Aristotle and Machiavelli and whoever and whatever it was they discussed.
I wished she’d stop bringing injured birds into the caves. They shat everywhere, and she wept up a bloody storm when they inevitably died.
I respected her though, when I found out how she’d come to us. Of how her trapped existence had come to the end one day with the appearance of a huntsman, who’d been commanded by her stepmother (the king long since dead by this point, and hardly relevant anyway to the life of the princess or even the running of this kingdom or even this very story, all considered) to take her to the forest. Oh, the terror and the awe she felt, trembling in the sunlight for the first time in so long. Following wherever the man led her, drunk on the first, cutting freshness of the spring. Into the forest with a desperate, delirious wonder.
And, of course, he’d drawn his knife. Commanded to kill her, and cut out her heart and liver, he told her. For the queen. For superstition, for cruelty, for delusion, my brother said.
But first, the huntsman wanted what men often want.
And here in the telling of it, the princess’ eyes got very hard, and I saw the steel underneath.
She’d been trapped inside the palace walls, of course, blocked from sunlight and humanity save for the nursemaid charged with guarding her and taking her for monthly visits to the queen (who’d cut her arms a little, or take her hair, or her back teeth, or her menstrual blood, for whatever spells she had in process). Hardly anyone to talk to, except the birds, and mice living in the palace walls.
But the princess had grown cunning in her isolation. Taught herself to hook her fingers into bricks and scale up the palace walls at night. Scrunch into narrow crevices and cracks and, for all she was a skinny thing when we first found her, she was strong – all muscle, like a river fish.
She’d seen the lust in the woodsman’s eyes, and not hesitated to run.
A fast thing.
Casting herself into a gully of stinging nettles, scratching herself up on thorns, putting the pain in the back space she kept all the painful things, and escaping the huntsman not because she was faster, or stronger, or able to fight, but because, unlike him, she was able to endure.
The mangled little princess, with her body riddled from the attentions of the queen, her mind all cut up from years of silence and solitary days –
It took time for us to teach her how to live like a human, but she adapted quickly. Learnt to wash and feed herself, not to flinch when you came near her, to help keep our dwelling spaces clean and neat.
I wouldn’t have had the patience for the teaching of her.
But my brother.
The way he tilted her leg to check the healing knee, pressed his palm to her forehead when she had the fever, the dark look in his eye when she spoke of the queen. The tenderness with which he helped her learn to live.
Then there’s the business with the apple. Don’t ask me about it. I could not tell you. Don’t even know why she was home that day. I expect my brother had insisted. We’d been hearing stories through the few traders we interacted with, the ones we sold our pelts to, that there was a search on for her. I suppose the queen has asked for her liver and heart, a standard requirement for most dark spells, and it had taken time to figure out she’d been placated with the innards of a lamb.
My brother says someone must have seen us, ratted us out.
I knew otherwise. I knew the queen, with her enchantress eyes, could have used the scrying power of a mirror to find her little sacrifice again.
The apple bit is true, though I do not think the queen herself the one who offered it. I reckon the old woman was just that – a poor old peasant caught up in a story she didn’t understand. No wonder she scarpered, as Snow began to choke.
My brother thought it poison.
I think it had the stink of magic to it.
We found her, as we had found her before, lying in the entrance to our home. Not dead. Not, at this moment, quite alive.
My brother tried everything. He did not sleep. Every day, tramping out into the forest, seeking out strange growing weeds. Risking the violent towns to purchase medicine.
Sitting with her. Holding her hand.
And then the invasion – the king’s nephew, coming to take the land back from the heirless witch-queen. There was a corruption in the kingdom, and he was here to save us, bringing with him the authority of the male line, the blessings of the church.
The army came through the wood.
We used to put her out in the moonlight, where my brother lay beside her, in case she woke. He insisted on it, even in the cold. For this is where she’d liked to sleep – her back against the cold earth, her face tilted to the sky.
And you know the rest, I trust. How the prince was smitten. How he fell to his knees before her and, when he had conquered the kingdom, had her bought to him, laid out in the throne room- for they’d put it together by then, who this white skinned woman was, with the hair of a raven and the lips of a berry.
And that he’d kissed here there, in the moonlight. And her eyes had fluttered open.
Tada! I present to you our queen. Our king, too. The wedding really was a lovely thing. And all of us rewarded richly – observe, if you will, once again, how my dress is soft. See how the silk catches in the light.
I’m travelling back to my estate, as a matter of fact. Have just been to attend the christening of the first child – a boy! An heir! A fine, strong thing, with his mother’s black hair and blacker eyes.
I wish on him a fierce and fighting heart.
And there it ends.
What are you still doing here? You want another drink, is that it?
Oh, child. Don’t you know not to ask for more? Some stories are not meant to be told. Most people don’t like them. They commit them to the underground, as they do with all confusing things that are not adequately formed.
But you’re not like that, are you?
You’re looking for the tilting: the place where comfort edges into truth.
Alright. Come closer, then.
I’ve a question for you.
What kind of man sees the corpse of a woman, laying in the moonlight, and feels not pity, not revulsion, but yelping want?
The new king, that’s who.
Of course, we did not let him do what he wanted with her. We ran out with all our meagre weapons and bared teeth and swore we’d gut him if he touched her.
She was ours.
And she wasn’t dead, my brother spat, his knife to the throat of the man who hadn’t seen him, who’d approached the girl in the moonlight and knelt and unbuckled his trousers and reached for her breasts. Look, my brother snarled, she breathes. She lives. His knife trembled on the invaders throat, and cut a line of blood. There’s some strange sickness in her, that’s trapped her in this sleep. Mayhap the sickness is already within you, for daring to come so close to her.
Or it’s a curse.
He turned and glared at me. He doesn’t like my old beliefs. But it was our mother’s faith, and it is mine, still.
The prince (thoughtful, diplomatic, trousers still undone) suggested that there was a way of fixing such a curse. A true love’s kiss, the old wife’s tale goes.
My brother might have stabbed him there and then, had I not gone forward and pulled him back.
The prince prised her mouth apart, and my brother shook, and I thought that if I let him go he’d split the man apart, soldiers surrounding us be damned.
Yet still, there is a power in a kiss. I know this to be true. And there was a shiver of something close to hope within me, as the prince pulled back and looked into her face. A hope that fluttered through us all, as the breeze made the threads of her black hair dance, in a way which might just have meant she moved…
But he’d had a taste of her now. We saw it, in the aching way he licked his lips. He savoured her: the notes of frost, and blood, and forest dirt.
He would, he announced, have a coffin made of glass for her. It was not fitting she should lie here like this, on the forest floor. She would be put in pride of place, in the newly conquered palace. For –
And his eyes were shifty, sharp and snake-like as he spoke –
He’d heard the princess was as white as snow and black as ebony, that her lips had the colour and the taste of blood. Was this not her? The lost heir, living in the forest with the dwarfs.
Yes, she’d be at home again, in his new kingdom. His cousin caught in living death. His –
His pupils dilated. We swore we saw him harden through his breeches.
His wife. For if she was asleep, she could be married. Perhaps even bear a child – he’d heard of such things. In a kingdom down south, choked in briar flowers, a princess had conceived and born two children while she slept. A similar sickness to this one, perhaps.
Not a curse, though, if she was not woken by his kiss.
He’d come for her when the battle was won, in the morning. Until then, he left guards.
There were twelve of them, trained soldiers against us seven.
At least he had not underestimated us.
When the battle was won, we went with her to the palace. I was allowed into the room where they stripped her bare, and washed her, flopping her around like a dead fish. They shrouded her in white silk, and weighed her down with silver in her hair, golden bracelets clamped around her arms.
We watched them lay her on the dais.
The prince, now king, was in many ways old fashioned. He did not, he told us, intend to lay with his new bride until her wedding night.
So we had tonight to sit with her, and say goodbye, before we were sent back into the wilderness.
The others slept.
I did not.
And neither did my brother.
My brother, rational and stoic. Refusing all hint that there was something deeper in this land than could be explained by his sharp mind. Retreating to philosophy, and science.
In the moonlight, while the others slept, he climbed to stand beside her. The glass had not yet caged her. Her face was open to the air.
He kissed her bloody lips.
And here is where I’d take some credit. Where my mama’s old beliefs ring true.
My brother kissed the girl who would be queen.
And she awoke.
The look she gave him. Raw and tender as a heart.
I felt something in me break – some glass wall I’d melted round about my heart. I felt, for the first time in many years, my blood: rich and warm and loving and alive.
She kissed my brother, and the beauty of it made me weep.
Ooh, it makes me teary still. Got a hanky?
Why have I told you all this, you ask? Surely, it’s a little unwise, you are thinking, to speak of the new king thus. To impugn the honour of the queen.
Perhaps I trust you, child. Besides, you are a peasant. I, as my pretty jewels attest, am a Duchess – and advisor to the Queen.
Did you hear what became of the last Queen? The usurper, who had our families killed, and would have kept us in her cages, drawing blood and teeth and hewing limbs for her dark weavings (as she had done to the poor things we found in the catacombs, dissected and still half alive).
My girl commissioned the shoes herself – little Ginny, our blacksmith, forged them over many days. Perfect, pointed slippers, that slid over the queen’s lovely feet like silk.
They had been heated in a fire. Oh, how she howled.
And then we made her dance. We cooked her, and we made her dance.
Even I had to look away. Only the new queen, jaw determined, and my brother, eyes so sharp, kept their gazes on the wretched thing, as she danced and crumpled and blistered and cried, underneath the moon.
I only looked back when it was over, and the witch was twisted and quite still. I said some of my mama’s words over her, for good measure – not a prayer, no, nothing like that. A fastening spell, to keep her spirit far away.
And another thing. Come here. Closer. Give me your ear.
They say the king is getting sicker, in these dark days. That he withers and is failing. Frail, some have said. On the way out. My brother should know. He is the court doctor, after all. Forever at the bedside of the king, with his medicine, his concoctions, his ever-spinning brain.
The queen will be a widow soon.
I do not think she feels inclined to marry again. She’s already had her baby. United her kingdom with her soon-to-be-late husband’s. Strengthened our armies, and our borders, purchased stability and legitimacy with her belly. What would the point in a new husband be? She’ll be happy to rule alone. Good at it.
It is a strong babe. Of the usual shape. His skin is darker, maybe, than the queens – but other than that he is the perfect copy of his mother. Doted on by all.
Loved by, and loves especially, it seems, my brother.
Whom he does not resemble.
Save perhaps around the eyes.
But I’ve concluded from his screaming, so grumpy and big bellied, that he’s got his auntie’s heart.