The prince wanted to marry the girl from the forest. He was a dreamy type, but practically too he must wed, and she was certainly a suitable bride. Forest notwithstanding, she was of noble stock – of some sort or other, probably middling well – and she was such a shy sweet little thing, she’d do very nicely. He did rather love her, and that was rare enough. He’d loved several women by then, quite fiercely, and he thought himself perfectly lucky that this one might hold, being well-bred and beautiful as she was. He could imagine spending time with her – as much as he would have, being king – and loving her, and growing old with her.
The queen started out from the castle, innocent of the huntsman trailing her with worry creasing his brow and muffling his footsteps. She hurried into the forest, feet uncertain over the uneven snowy ground and eyes searching the darkness between the trees. The huntsman had told her where to go, and she set her course – she’d brought a compass, for she was nothing if not practical – and began bravely through the thicket, away from the glimpse of her castle.
The princess was sitting with her prince, close together on the bench just inside the door, her sewing forgotten on the ground. He was sitting very near to her, his hand resting on her side. It was clasped at the base of her spine as he gazed ardently into her eyes, and she looked back at him without taking her mind from the uneasy awareness of his fingers low on her back.
He was talking – she struggled to hear him, for he often talked for a long while before she heard anything she wanted to answer. It worked, usually, for he didn’t often seem to expect an answer, talking to her about whatever it was and stroking her cheek. She smiled at him, and let her mind wander. He was so very handsome, quite a perfect prince, and his conversation – the discussion he was having now – showed him to be such an intelligent young man. Of course, he was absolutely wrong about many things, but he was young and that could change. So thought the princess, forgetting that she at fifteen was several years younger than this crown prince. Still, she watched him talk affectionately, and listened to his enthusiastic plans and ideas. He really was very dear.
The queen saw the cottage in the distance after two hours. Her thighs were sore from walking, and her back ached. The sun was beating through the trees to sink slow and painful into her skin, while her skirts dragged upon the ground still damp with melting snow. The light was bright and fierce on the drifts of white along the forest floor, and the drooping branches coated in snow and ice. Still, she kept on, and her heart sped when she saw the outline of a small house, just as the huntsman had described it to her.
In another half-hour she was there. Her pulse was thumping in her throat, and the sound of a crackle to her left made her start. A young man was riding away; he paused, and looked quizzically at her, before continuing. The prince dismounted, not far from the cottage, suspicious of this strange nervous woman. There was a route he’d often taken, and he did now. It was useful, as he could double back to the cottage and watch the princess against the side of the house from a cluster of trees nearby, unseen. He leaned against the crook of a branch, and waited.
The princess at the window knew that her time had come. The queen was coming for her, and her stepmother would try – she didn’t know what, but she was afraid. She had been found.
The queen knocked on the door, lightly, her hand almost afraid to hit the wood, as if hovering in the air before it would preserve that moment, and prevent any misfortune. The princess heard the tapping, as she’d heard the huntsman, through a blur. She was still sitting on the bench, her skirts still spread around her in the sunlight, the warmth of the prince’s presence still slowly fading. She stood, stiff, and started to the front of the house to meet the queen.
The queen didn’t hear her until she wheeled, frightened, to the princess standing before her. The girl was taller, her eyes large and shadowy dark, her hair long and black and flowing around her shoulders, and her skin deathly white as always. Her face seemed to gleam in the sunlight of the forest, as if her skin was translucent and there was nothing but bleached bone beneath. She was nearly as pale as the snow behind her spotting the forest, shining blue-white in the sun.
The queen took a breath, and let it out slowly, and composed her face. The princess was still, a carven statue of the winter.
After a moment, the girl said, “Why are you here?” – as if she didn’t know.
The queen looked at her, eyes wide, as if she were surprised. Her voice was scratchy when she answered, “I needed to know you were safe. Needed to bring you home – if you wanted to come.”
The princess’s shoulders tensed at once, lines sharp in her neck. “If I don’t?”
“Then I’ll know you’re safe.”
The princess looked at her stepmother in wonderment, and slowly, steps precarious and tentative, she stepped forward. The queen almost flinched, but her stepdaughter turned and opened the door to the cottage. It swung open, to the inside dim and warmly lit. The princess stepped through the door, and still facing away from the queen she said, “I suppose you want to come in?”
The queen stepped in after the princess, and shut the door behind her. At the thud, the princess walked forward, and the queen followed her into the kitchen. They sat at the rough-hewn wooden table, the queen stiff and the princess faint with bewilderment.
Outside, the prince crept closer, secreted near the window and peering in at his love and this strange intruder. The huntsman watched him warily, and kept a worried eye on his queen.
The two women sat in silence for a time. Finally, the princess interrupted the quiet to say, “Have you eaten?”
The queen shrugged, and pulled out the food she’d brought. It lay on the table, meager, but her stomach grumbled. She was polite, though; she picked up a piece of bread, but before eating it she asked the princess if she wanted anything.
The princess tilted her head, without speaking, and the queen plucked the apple off the table and offered it to the princess. The girl held it up, and nodded, and the queen bit into her bread.
The apple glistened red, stark against the princess’s face, like the curve of her dark lips on her pale skin. She bit into the apple, and the sound was loud in the silence of the house.
The queen’s eyes were dark and deep, and she looked at the princess full of longing and ill-gotten love. The princess turned her eyes to the queen, and her eyebrows drew together. Her mouth was still closed on the bite of apple, crisp and fresh. She could not understand the queen’s expression, serious and sad. In a moment, the meaning of it shifted and for one heartbeat she understood, and she gasped.
Then she was gasping, heaving for air, her eyes round and panicked and her hands fluttering, clutching her throat. The apple fell from her fingers, and bounced off the table, and rolled across the floor to rest against the wall. The princess tried to cough, and gagged, and hacked against the fruit lodged in her throat. She turned her wide eyes on the queen, frozen with the bread in one hand and the other reaching out, helpless. The princess glared, choking, angry eyes full of betrayal and her gasping mouth trying to scowl, or to cry. The queen’s heart beat fast in her chest but she could do nothing. The princess’s eyes accused her, even as she struggled to breathe. She gagged one more time, and fell from her chair just as the prince burst into the room.
The princess was stretched across the floor. The queen thought she might have struck her head, and she was lying, so still, her arm reaching over her head and her face tipped up. The prince bent over her. He had no time for this stranger, evil as she may be, unmoving and staring though she was. He bent close to the princess, kissed her slack lips desperately, clutched her shoulders. She was breathing, but barely, and the air came shallow and labored from her lungs, as if her body fought against its life.
The prince shook her, and held her, and called her name, to no avail. The queen sat with tears streaming down her face, watching this strange man love her dying stepdaughter. She almost couldn’t feel when the huntsman’s arms gathered around her shoulders, and drew her slowly up and out of the room. She only tried to stay with the princess, a strangled sound escaping her, incapable of words.
He pulled her, gently and insistently, out of the cottage door and into the forest, where the afternoon light was dying and the snow glowed unearthly blue in the shadows.
She walked, numb, over the forest floor. She tripped and stumbled, but he caught her. The huntsman kept the queen close, and she walked in the warmth against his shoulder through the darkening forest, over the shadowy snow, while the light vanished and the cold crept in.
When they reached the castle, the huntsman let go of her. She felt the chill of the snow rise up and cover his absence, like a cold shawl around her shoulders. They walked through the hall, through the rooms of the court, and up the spiraling stairs. The huntsman fended off the maidservants, the ladies, the courtiers. He was quiet, and firm, and once or twice he was very angry. He brought the queen to her chambers, still blank with horror and distant. He sat with her there, while she shuddered and wept against his chest, and he stroked her hair.
In the cottage, the princess was lying pale and still on the floor, spread across the wood planks while her prince clasped her to him and sobbed. When he heard the footsteps outside, he thought the huntsman had come back, or the queen, and he gathered his love into his arms. He carried the princess, head cradled on his shoulder and limbs hanging limply, and staggered from the kitchen, past the small men filing in through the door, and outside. There he set the princess very carefully on his horse, and vaulted up behind her. She was barely moving with the wisps of breath that escaped her lungs. He leaned her body back, heavy in his arms, and gently he pressed his lips to hers before clutching her to him, and beginning to ride.
The queen, in the castle, shaking and weeping, saw none of this. She knew none of it, and barely guessed. She wondered, and her throat was raw and sore with grief. She struggled against the huntsman, in spates, but he held her firm, and finally she calmed. She was too far, and she would not see the princess. So she leaned against his shoulder, and let her eyes close so that she saw not at all.
The queen learned to hope that the prince saved her stepdaughter. It was possible that he’d kissed her, and that he’d shaken her, and that eventually he’d knocked loose the apple, or blown air into her lungs. He could have brought her back to his kingdom, and married her. Perhaps the queen herself could believe that, and be happy in her own castle – eventually – despite everything. Perhaps the princess was safe, and well. Perhaps she had a happily ever after.