Snow (last bit)

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.

Snow (third bit)

The princess was restless among the little men. They liked her well enough, and were quite good at offering their hospitality and endeavoring to meet her needs. Nonetheless, the little cottage was a cramped and crowded home, and she yearned for more. She was a princess – she wanted grandeur. Or perhaps she wanted freedom, to ride galloping fast and hard across an open plain with the wind streaming across her face. What she wanted – though, at fifteen, she couldn’t know it yet – was the sweep and fervor of first love, and she was fated to avoid it if she stayed cooped in a cottage with a handful of little old men.

She’d never listened, intent, to stories as a child. She’d read the fairytales all on her own, and had turned away if the queen opened a book. The stories she read were beautiful, and solemn, and she dreamed of the formal and grand procedure of love. The quest, and the tower, and the dragon slain with a glowing sword lying scaly and sinuous but dead at the feet of the beautiful maiden. She longed for that – she’d never been told that anything else existed, and very probably she wouldn’t have believed it. Perhaps the queen would have dreamed with her, would have read the fairytales and sighed over the story of the knight with her stepdaughter, but very likely if that were the case the princess might have noticed that not every princess marries a king and lives with a happily ever after. It would not have occurred to her that the queen was unhappy, except that the queen was unhappy with her. As a child, it is too difficult to look past pain to see someone else’s. In fact, most people are children like this for much of their lives, and the princess had nobody to teach her that hard lesson, of learning the pain of others. She couldn’t reach it on her own. She was a princess, and she was beautiful and brilliant, and sad. She wasn’t very good with people.

So she stayed in the cottage, with the little men, and she cooked and cleaned with the rest of them, and taught them to do laundry – it was disgraceful, really, when she discovered the state of their linens – and got on with the practicalities of life in the forest. She of course hadn’t any clue how to do menial tasks like laundry. She was a princess. For that, though, she was determined, and she figured out the laundry and the cooking, the sturdy sewing and the scrubbing. She learnt it well, and she taught the little men until she could delegate, and send a few of them around the house under her orders. She was a princess, after all.
There wasn’t really much else for her to do, anyway, and so she focused on that. She couldn’t keep her mind from wandering, though. When she stood at the sink with her hands stinging in the heat of the water, the pot heavy, it was easy to daydream of a happily ever after.

The queen had retreated into herself, into her corner of the castle, away from the world. She would deal with the business of the kingdom – a fair amount of it fell to her, at this point. Her husband the king was occupied with other matters; so she would tell people, when they brought her some unattended matter and a dubious expression. “My husband the king is occupied with other matters. I will take care of this, my lord, and I’m certain that His Majesty sends his regards.”

She quelled the doubt in their faces and the hesitation in their voices, and she signed papers and issued orders. She was decisive and clear, strong-willed in her convictions and stubborn, refusing to bend to any influence, especially if it came from that baron she didn’t like. But she conducted this business in one of the two rooms remaining to her. She had retreated, certainly, gradually, like an army falling back against the castle waging war. The rooms had driven her out, bare echoing walls and lofty stone. She lost ground every day, and at this point she was locked in this fortress of two rooms abutting her bedchamber. She could greet visitors, and hear cases, and discuss politics there. After an exhausting day – several hours of courtiers – she could retire to her chamber, and ignore the lot of them. The rest of the castle – indeed, the rest of the kingdom – didn’t have to exist when she was done with the day. She huddled in her chamber, drawing a shawl around her shoulders, like some peasant woman instead of the queen of the land. She could pretend, there, that she was simple and honest, and had nothing more to do than any peasant, and could not have failed so greatly.
She knew at some point she would have to leave the safety of that room, have to leave the castle even. Eventually she would have to risk her own protected illusion, and venture out to look for her stepdaughter. Soon, she would find the princess.

The princess was anxious again to leave. The cottage couldn’t be safe, not now that the huntsman knew where it was. She hadn’t hurt him badly enough that it would even take him more than two hours back to the castle, and they must all be searching for her. In fact, the huntsman had gotten to the castle quite quickly, but he had not yet revealed her location. The princess wasn’t to know that, and she worried endlessly. She stayed because she had somewhere to stay, and the cottage was comfortable enough, and because the young and handsome noble who rode by every so often sent her sidelong looks as she sat outside with her sewing, or hung laundry on the line strung between the trees.

The queen had made all her preparations. She set aside a day to go. Her affairs were all in order, the business of the kingdom looked after. She’d worked very hard the week before, to have the entirety of one day to leave the castle itself, and ignore all her royal duty. She’d had a pile, waiting, on the dresser by her bed. There was a cloak and a simple dress sitting on the polished wood. She’d chosen a cloak made of plain cloth, very warm, with a hood. She had resolved to go alone. The huntsman was the only one who knew exactly of her plans, and he had resolved to follow her to ensure her safety. Even so, he was anxious. The queen was not. She had the calm certainty of a mother, that her actions were right, and for the child’s own good really. At last she would make it right between them, and bring the princess home.

The princess sat and embroidered, outside of the cottage. The young man had trotted by nearly a minute ago, and she sat very still with a smile playing on her lips, as if she knew that he was wheeling the mare around to go back to the little house. She looked up a moment later, and he was there, tall on the back of his dappled horse, hair shining in the soft sunlight of the forest, square jaw set and eyes gleaming. He stayed for a moment, still, and then he slipped off the side of the horse and started toward her.

The princess tensed, her back arched and neck bent. He was handsome, surely, but she was a woman alone with a stranger, and she was not royalty here. When he approached the bench where he was sitting, though, he bent smoothly in a bow, and on standing he spoke. He told her that he was a visiting prince, at a baron’s house in the kingdom for a few fortnights as ambassador. He had seen her sewing and he wanted to say, if it wasn’t too forward, that she was a very beautiful lady.

The fifteen-year-old girl flushed, and dimpled. She peeked out at him from under lowered lashes, suppressing a grin, and nodded her head regally to acknowledge the compliment. His face fell, a bit, but he merely bowed again and swung back onto his horse and rode away.

He was there again the next day, and the next. She wasn’t used to staying outside so long every day, but she found reasons to. She thought that probably he would be disappointed if she weren’t there. The third day he came, she told him she found him very charming. It startled her, when he stepped close, and her vision filled only with him. His eyes were staring down at hers, wide and innocent, and he tipped her face up to his and kissed her very gently.

The princess closed her eyes as if his lips were still on hers. His warmth was close to her, and one hand lightly resting on her arm. It vanished, and the sudden cool made her stagger, and her eyes flew open to the prince walking back to his horse, and riding away with a sweep of his hand in her direction.

He visited her every day after that first conversation, and while many of their visits were much like the first day, some of them found the princess startled again by his closeness, and his intent eyes. It frightened her, girl that she was, and she craved it.

She was giddy with the first flush of infatuation. The prince himself was very much in love. During the brief times they saw each other, in the short conversations filled with pauses, this worked very well.

The queen worried every day, nervous that each day she delayed her journey was one day too many. Her princess could be stumbling into danger at every moment, and her failure to go and to find her could cost dearly. Finally she was ready, and she donned the simple straight dress, and gathered the cloak around her. She stopped at the kitchen, slipped past the cooks and picked up a few things for her lunch. She didn’t think she would be back, and might not find an inn or someplace like. She brought a good helping of bread, and some cheese, and an apple.

Snow (second bit)

The princess could feel the huntsman coming for her. From inside the cottage, washing up with the little men and mulling over what to make for lunch, she could almost hear his footsteps. Far away and faint, they rang in her ears, the soft pad of his moccasins on the forest floor as he crept closer, to reveal her secret safe hiding spot, to deliver her back to her stepmother, the queen. She could not let that happen. She was frantic, scrubbing the stovetop and the cooking pot from the morning in the frenzy. Her fingers were aching, and she pressed harder, hands frenetic, jerking fitfully through the suds, splashing her face with suds. The little men were watching her with worry. The one with the long grey beard and blue eyes – the grumpy one – stopped in, and looked at her, and frowned with his arms crossed over his chest. He said, “Girl, what is wrong? There’s no need for such haste.” She shook her head, and did not answer. After some time, they drifted away, and she was alone with the anxiety pulling at her like a weight inside her gut.

The huntsman was walking, slow and steady, in widening circles out from the castle. His hounds were with him, faithful and alert, eyes bright and tails high as they trotted alongside him. He had the scarf the princess had left as she fled. When they were not forty meters from the cottage, the dogs were suddenly anxious, ears pricked. Their tails twitched, and they turned to make sure the huntsman was following, in the right direction, as they filed forward. He grinned, affectionately. His sweet dogs always took him right, and he’d find the girl, and all would be well.

The princess heard the yelping of the dogs as they approached her cottage, her safety. Her eyes narrowed, and her breath came short. The wretched huntsman had brought his bloodhounds, and she was lost. The air froze around her, and the water dripped cold and sleek from her hands, still clasped around the scrubbing sponge and the knife from the morning’s vegetables. She couldn’t be caught, couldn’t go back to the castle. She didn’t know what the queen wanted, or what the queen would do to her. Above all, though, the princess couldn’t face her stepmother. Nothing good could come of that. She stood still, back stiff, and her hands tightened on the knife in her hands, spotted with soapsuds. She was capable. She had learnt to fend for herself. She would fend off this huntsman, and all would be well.

The huntsman sighed in relief when he saw the cottage emerge from the thicket of trees, and the glad warmth spread through him like breath as he found the path to the door, and his hounds clamored about him with tails wagging. He knocked on the door, softly, and then rapped smartly, to be sure he was heard.

The princess heard him pound on the door, like her doom come for her. She turned, slow, like moving against the weight pulling at her, and she walked with leaden movements toward the door, the knife tucked against her side and her head high. When she opened the door, the dogs began barking at once, filling her head with the noise of their triumph. The huntsman was standing, framed squarely by the wooden doorway, his handsome ruddy face staring straight at hers, and a smile spreading across it.

Slow, shaking, she held the knife in front of her – between them – and watched as the wicked glee faded, as his eyes were filled with fear and worry and his mouth fell open, like a fool. Even the dogs quieted, as if their barking put their master in danger. Perhaps it did, for the princess’s nerves were none too steady.

The huntsman took a careful step back, nearly tripping over one of the dogs – Trowser – winding behind his legs. He righted himself, to meet the girl’s wary wild face, her round glaring eyes and the knife pointed straight at his chest, held awkwardly in her delicate white hand. It was roughened now by calluses and reddened, but it was the hand of the princess certainly. The wonder filling the huntsman nearly overtook the fear, for it was surely wondrous that a princess had transformed so. Even then, wondrous as it was, it was perhaps more frightening that a wild princess such as this might not have so many scruples about hurting him. Might not recognize him, even, him who’d watched her toddle among his hounds years before.

The princess stepped forward, through the fear choking her. She had a knife, but the huntsman was tall and strong, and his dogs were dangerous. She waved the knife, vaguely, and croaked out, “You should go. I want to be alone here, please, just go. Nobody-“

He was still looking at her, astonished. She took another step forward, the knife wobbling in her hand, and she jabbed impulsively at his shoulder. When the tip of the knife slashed through the fabric of his tunic, and the tear wet with blood, they both looked at it in astonishment. She stared at the knife, red barely glinting on its edge. He looked first in awe at the spot on his shoulder, spreading slowly and darkening into a stain. He tipped his face up to the princess, and his eyes were clouded with the pain of the wound – slight as it was – and a shock and hurt that she did not understand. He turned, stumbling, and started away from the cottage, tripping and running unevenly. His dogs turned reluctantly, and trailed after, making not a sound. She watched him disappear through the gaps between the trees, until she could not see him.

The princess stood watching for a long time, even after she could not see the wounded huntsman. The knife was in her hand, the blood dry and the handle heavy to her wrist, and she nearly dropped it by the time she remembered to lower her arm, and drop her head, and turn to go back inside and finish washing up.

The queen waited anxiously for news. She trusted, perhaps, nobody at all as she trusted the huntsman. It was an odd alliance, but she had watched the court, the shallow courtiers and the counselors and the obsequious diplomats. They had given her the irrevocable conclusion that if there was anyone worthwhile to be found among the court, with whom one could form a friendship, the amount of nasty sly conceit among them made the trouble of finding one barely worth it. The maidservants were all afraid of her – and certainly she couldn’t truly speak to one of the maids, anyway, that wouldn’t be proper at all – but the huntsman was one nearly in between.

She had to talk with him often, to keep up the business of maintaining the castle and the grounds, and in those conversations she had discovered his good character, his honesty, and his loyalty. He wasn’t, for all that, the wit and sparkling intellectual she might have spoken with among the court, but his answers were frank and straightforward. The queen had found, after a long day among the labyrinth of court politics, that straightforward was exactly what she needed. She knew too that she hungered for the admiring glances he gave her – nothing more than the devotion due to his monarch, surely, but a handsome man watching her ordinary face with such intent eyes made her heart swell nonetheless.

When the huntsman entered the castle, panting from the exertion of finding his way back through the trees, bleeding, the servants surrounded him in a cooing cluster of fluttering aprons and grasping hands. He pushed them aside as best he could, and said, “The queen, I have to see the queen,” his breath wheezing in his chest.
The servants gasped, and all agreed that really it would be better if he could wait, that would be better, for he was bleeding you see, and he ought to get that wound treated like a good boy, and the queen couldn’t see that now could she and after all that just wouldn’t be right.

He ignored them, and repeated himself, and when they kept on with their chatter, trying to herd him to a bench and bring over a bandage, he bellowed, “I have to see the queen, now.”

They fell silent, and with barely a word – though many a pout and resentful look – two of the maids brought him gingerly to the room where the queen was pacing restlessly. They delivered him, having stayed far away from the bleeding wound and clearly glad to be away from the half-crazed hurt man.

The queen turned, her face aglow with hope, and the huntsman stepped forward with his head low to tell her why he was returning with nothing to show her but a still-blossoming spot of blood.

Snow (first bit)

Once upon a time there was a king, and his infant daughter. The queen, her beautiful mother, had just died, and left the baby princess alone in the world, a pale thin child wide-eyed at the loss that took her by surprise, and caught her breath. The king was sunk under grief, and confusion, and rather busy with the business of the kingdom. He married again, as a king ought to. There was a lovely lady, and he wed her at once, and she became the queen.

The new queen is timid, at first. She tries to hold the baby princess and to kiss its soft white face. The princess hits her in the nose with flailing fists, and she nearly drops the squirming bundle. The child is screaming for her mother – for the true queen, the one who came before. She sets the infant down carefully, in the crib, and arranges the brocaded blankets around her soft skin. She makes sure that her voice isn’t shaking when she calls for the nursemaid.

Whenever she tries to be with the girl – to read to her, to walk with her, even to sit with her – the same thing happens, the same outburst and sudden surge of grief and anger. She doesn’t know what to do with the brat. She’s helpless, and alone, and scared. Her husband the king doesn’t even remember the child’s name. It is difficult to be resolved to be a good mother – a good substitute for a mother – and to do her best, to be strong. She resolves anyway, because she must. For the child’s sake, she must be strong.

The princess grows from a pale wide-eyed baby to a pale scrawny child. She is quiet, and wary, and doesn’t speak at all to the queen if she can help it. She barely remembers her own mother, but she knows she was not this interloper. Everyone knows what stepmothers do with their stepdaughters, and she glares, slit-eyed, at the queen.

The queen is quiet, reserved. She’s often withdrawn, sitting rigid and upright, skirts arranged around her ankles, perfectly still but for the breath moving in her breast. She gives the child long, unreadable looks. They make her nervous. The queen’s eyes are pale, and ringed with dark lashes, and the child is afraid of her. When the stepmother tries to take her by the hand, she shrinks away. The princess spends a lot of time alone, in the cold corners of the stone castle, curled against the rough chill of the wall.

Sometimes the queen sits alone in her lavish room, with the canopied bed and the luxurious dark carpet. She sits in front of the mirror, with the gilded frame, and she looks at her own face reflected back, a light patch against the royal richness of the bedroom she no longer shares with her husband the king. There are lines streaking down her face with the years – not that she was ever so beautiful, even in the beginning. Her face always belonged to others anyway, and she saw well their critical looks, the appraising glances and the disappointed sighs. She’d done very well, to be the second wife of a king of a tiny country. Even to be the forgotten queen in the empty hallways of the drafty castle of this measly country, with an absent king and a bitter stepdaughter. She’d done very well. So she sat on the tasseled cushion of the chair, and looked at her face staring back, and tried to remember that she’d done well, especially for someone so plain.

By the time the princess had passed her twelfth year, and her body was shifting to that of a woman’s and her narrow face was growing sharp, things had changed, though barely. They had a tacit understanding, the princess and the queen. They ate dinner, alone in the vast hall on the long shining wood table. Their silverware clinked and scraped, but every so often they would break the silence with words, polite and sometimes even friendly. The queen hoped that, in time, the princess would soften. She so wanted to have a daughter – for this almost-daughter to be hers.

She didn’t know that the princess’s fear had never died. The girl had something of an imagination, and while the queen was spinning a fantasy of some kind of family, the princess saw her plotting. Each long gaze must be the blank stare, the menacing look of someone calculating how best to deal with her. The princess stood in the way of the queen, did she not? She was going to inherit the kingdom, as soon as her father went ahead and died. The queen didn’t care a whit for her; she barely spoke to her, and seemed to catch her breath even when she did. The princess knew that the only explanation was a hatred so fierce it bit at her; she would never have guessed at the queen’s own fear. So instead, she saw the narrowed eyes of the queen, not pleading but planning. She feared for her throne, her safety. Even her life. Each dinner they ate, the knives scraped against the plates and she winced, hearing in that shriek an echo of the doom to come. She would speak, hastily, to cover her own shudder and to quell the horror rising in her throat. The queen always looked up suddenly, startled, when she spoke.

The princess would talk for a moment, and watch the queen’s careful answer, the stiff look on her face. She saw revulsion where instead there was cautious and hidden hope. When the princess was fourteen, she wandered the castle, and walked about the hallways so long that she lost track of her turns. After a while, she stumbled upon the queen’s own chamber, and was horrified at her mistake.

The princess stood, stock-still, in the doorway. She didn’t move at all. It took the queen a moment to notice a face reflected next to her own in the mirror, the pale features small and perfect behind her own worn face. She whirled, startled, and her eyes opened wide to stare, pale and round, at her stepdaughter. The princess spun around, her velvet skirts flaring out to slap against her ankles, and she ran. Her feet pounded down the hallway, the stones jarring shivers up her bones through the thin decorated rugs. The queen had started out of her chair, and called her name, her voice hoarse. The princess ran faster at the sound, already faint, and drowned out the plaintive cry with the drumming of her feet in their woven slippers as they flashed forward. She had to escape. She’d seen the shock in the queen’s eyes, and the absolute strangeness. She could never have begun to realize that the queen had dreamed that the princess would approach her. The stepdaughter felt herself hated, unloved, and thrust from the castle.

So she ran. She ran farther and faster than she could have thought possible – clattering down the stairs, her skirts dragging, and racing across the bridge and into the forest beyond. Her feet, in the delicate fabric, sank into the soft damp ground as she ran, until the floor of the forest became rough and hard and the stones and twigs began to bruise her feet. She ran with her skirt catching on twigs, her hair coming undone from the careless, elegant twist and streaming dark and tangled down her back, and her breath coming short. When she could run no more, she slowed and stopped, head hanging inside its black curtain, panting inside the prison of rich cloth that constricted her ribs. There was a cottage, not far off. She could see the shape of the walls through the lines of the trees, and she started toward it – slowly, wearily, wincing with every step.

In the castle she had so recently left, the queen’s head was hanging too. She was sitting alone, hands wrapped gingerly around her own waist, mouth working against her hurt. She had sat stunned for moments after the princess had disappeared, and then she had gotten out of her chair, out of the bedroom, and tried to follow her. She had walked down the hallway, calling her stepdaughter’s name, until her voice gave out and her knees gave way. The maidservants rushed forward and brought her, gently, into her bedchamber again to lean against a chair, eyes clouded and puzzled. In the midst of her fog, the huntsman came forward to tell her, quiet and respectful, that he had seen the princess running past, “like a thing possessed,” he said, then looked embarrassed. He was a handsome man, with a rough beard on an angular kind face. The queen had nodded absently at him, barely seeing him and he had left.

She was not fit to be a mother. She could barely be a wife. She couldn’t hold onto a daughter, and she had no claim to the girl. It was no wonder she’d gone, really. So she leaned against the carven wood of her chair, holding herself as if she would break.

The princess, alone in the wood, knocked on the door of the strange cottage. The door opened, and she drew herself up, in her tattered velvet skirts and sore feet. She looked none the less the princess, her face pale and regal against the night, her black hair tumbling around her shoulders and her dark eyes blazing. She walked into the cottage before the invitation was wholly out of the little man’s mouth. She had escaped the queen and was going to make the best of it, now, until she could claim her own life again, and her throne. The men gave her dinner – what was left of a chunky soup and rough bread, but she was hungry, and she did not expect half a dozen men to be able to cook. Perhaps they would learn, or she would teach them. They gathered around the table as she ate, watching the spoon emerge from her red lips with awe.

When she had finished, the questions began. She explained that she was a princess. There was a stepmother involved – and that, truly, was nearly all she had to say. They nodded, and sympathized. The oldest of the men clucked his tongue, shaking his head, eyes sorrowful. “That a girl like you got to suffer like that, it’s not right, dear.” She nodded solemnly, and from that first day her friendship with the small men was firm. They made up a bed for her – again, modest. Simply a straw mattress with a plain quilt. She could adjust. She was a princess, after all, but that was no reason she couldn’t get by. She liked the small men, and their jovial ways, and the flush on their faces when they let slip a curse in her presence. She laughed when they did, and they grinned at the sound ringing in their dull cottage. She learned to cook, and very quickly was making porridge and stew better than Grip, who didn’t hold it against her. He was the small man with the bushy brown beard, and twinkling brown eyes. Most of them were grey-haired.

The queen stayed fixed in her sorrow and her shocked unhappiness for nearly a week, and then the worry overcame her. The lines between her brows seemed to etch into her face. Soon she could stand it no longer, to sit and wait, and take no action. The king still had not returned – he was on some diplomatic trip this time, she thought. Or perhaps it was leisure traveling. Whatever it might have been, it didn’t matter. She sent out the hunstman, asking him to please, no matter what to find the princess, and if not to bring her home to ensure she was safe. The man had listened to her earnest voice, faded with strain, and his eyes had been blue and serious when he swore to her that he would find her stepdaughter.