“Snow White.” The syllables spun forth from the king’s lips and onto her shoulders like an unwanted mantle as he stepped from his sleigh. Well, she wouldn’t have to wear it long. Regicide was a capital crime in the realm; if she were taken she could expect little more of her brief free life than a few weeks in chains and the executioner’s axe. “So this is how it ends.”
As the king spoke – she tasted the words “my father” on her tongue but they rolled away like drops of oil – she had to admit that he seemed neither angry nor particularly surprised to find his queen crumpled dead at his daughter’s feet. Which led her to wonder, why had he been following instead of accompanying his wife?
Whatever his reasons, she was determined not to go quietly to whatever fate he meant to mete out. Her bow sat unstrung in the cottage and her axe lay out of reach but a small hatchet hung from a loop at her waist and a throwing knife remained concealed in her boot. And who to dispatch first? The minister was old but a talented arcanist; the youth was tall and well-muscled and looked as if he might know his way around the sword belted across his back. The king – well, in choosing a politically advantageous second queen over his defenseless young daughter he had already proven himself to have the scruples of a viper and the cunning of a fox.
He exercised the latter in divining the woods woman’s intent. “Keep your hands away from your weapons, girl,” he said. “We’ve only come to talk.”
At a sharp gesture from the minister the young man, who had been gazing at her like a lovesick mooncalf in spite of the blood on her hands and tunic, reluctantly moved to help unload the shrouded, oblong object bundled into the minister’s sleigh. Even after all these years she recognized the mirror’s dimensions, and cursed the day her step-mother first gazed into it. “Then why did you lug that reflector of lies all the way out here?”
“But you have nothing to fear from it.” The minister looked over at her for the first time and struck the somber, knowing pose that had doubtless gotten him where he was today. His eyes were an eerie blue, the color of deep ocean waters. “You see, my child, the mirror reveals – “
Snow White snorted. “If you’re going to prattle on about ‘inner beauty’ you can stop right now. I’m not buying it.”
“But child – ”
“Give it a rest, Senex,” the king growled. “Blood will out, it appears.” He sought the woods woman’s gaze and locked with it, weighing, assessing, his eyes the same inhuman cerulean shade as his minister’s. “You’re more my daughter than I could have imagined. More than you would have been, perhaps, if you’d primped and preened at court your whole life.”
If his intent was flattery it failed, for there were few things that would please her less than bearing any resemblance to this corpulent, hard-faced man who dressed for winter in the forest as if he were at ease in his bedchamber, as if the wood and the weather were a thing he could break and defy as easily as a rival man’s realm. “What do you want?” she asked.
The young man dropped his half of the mirror in his eagerness to respond. To her regret the snow softened its fall and it remained intact, although the minister’s wrist twisting at an unfortunate angle gave her a moment’s grim pleasure. Leaping over the queen’s corpse as if it were a fallen log and dropping to one knee, the youth reached for her hand in spite of the blood. When she slapped it away he merely flinched like a scolded puppy, and her thoughts returned to the dagger in her boot. Perhaps she could hold him hostage and send the others away? “Lovely princess of the ruby red lips, with hair as black as night and skin as white as spring clouds, let me sing of my heart’s desire – ”
Repulsed by his lovelorn manner, she abandoned thoughts of hostages in favor of taking several steps back before he tried to kiss her feet. “You’re as mad as my stepmother.” She glanced down at the body. “Was.”
He held out imploring arms. “But what in her was jealous rage in me has been transmuted into a perfection of adoration like unto the finest grape transformed into the wine of Bacchanalian – ”
“Not now, Bellus,” the king said irritably.
Bellus. That name sounded familiar. The dwarves had spoken of a Prince Bellus, only son of a neighboring king with expansionist ambitions and the army to realize them. This very kingdom was rumored to be his first target and not at all guaranteed to withstand a determined assault. If only, it was whispered in the most private privacy of the merchant houses far from the ears of the king or his spies, a daughter had survived to wed the young prince then trade might not be disrupted.
The dwarves had always rather respected Bellus, a strong, well-educated, and independent young man. Snow White was having a difficult time reconciling their portrait to the mewling creature before her with his dog-earnest brown eyes. Brown eyes…She looked suspiciously from the prince’s face to the king and the minister, with their irises of a hue that never occurred in nature. “What manner of arcane trickery is this?” she demanded of Senex. “How have you ensorcelled this man?”
Prince and advisor looked equally incensed, and both spoke at the same time. “I assure you – ”
She dismissed them with a contemptuous wave and turned back to the king. “I ask you again – what do you want?”
He shrugged and gestured toward the dead queen. “You’ve already provided half of it. Such a wretched woman. I thought permitting her to dismiss her predecessor’s progeny – and you were just a girl, after all, a weak contender to the throne and a nuisance to keep in perfumes and powders – would settle her jealousies and rages.”
“’Dismiss?’” the woods woman scoffed. “That’s a pleasantly insipid way of putting it.”
“Yes, well, I clearly wagered on the wrong cock.” He didn’t even have the decency to look embarrassed. “And yet, once she proved how intolerable she meant to be, how to be rid of her? Your own mother died of natural causes, but as the saying goes…once may be an accident, but twice begins to look like carelessness.”
“So once we realized you’d survived, we permitted the obsession with you to grow in her mind again,” Senex interjected. “We knew she would pursue you sooner or later.”
“I expected the dwarves or the forest to finish her off,” the king admitted. “But this serves just as well. As for the rest – once the queen was dead I intended you to return to court, marry Prince Bellus, and cement a political alliance that none can withstand.”
Snow White shook her head. “I still don’t understand how you achieved this – obsession. Even if I once possessed some pampered beauty, that was no longer true within a few months of my banishment. Honest labor saw to that.”
“It would be easier,” Senex said, “if you permit us to show you.” A crafty glint glittered in his eyes but he swept the cover from the mirror before she had time to react.
And there she stood before herself, everything her mother had wished for, everything a woman should desire. Everything the dwarves had loved when they took her in: skin as milky clear as moonstone, hair as black as onyx, lips of a deep garnet hue. She was the fairest maiden in the land, and now that her jealous stepmother was dead she could slip back into the reflection that confronted her as easily as into the rich gowns she would order by the dozen once she returned to – her thoughts stuttered for a moment – to what?
You built this cottage with your own hands, a rough voice in her head reminded her. You hunt your own game, you split your own wood, you live a free and unconstrained life.
“And how dreary is it sometimes?” The girl in the mirror smoothed her ruffled pastel frock and looked out at her with pity. “When at the end of the day you smell of blood and of sweat and there is no warm bath waiting save the one you must draw for yourself? When no man looks at you with longing or showers you with gifts and adoration? You’ve lived your whole life as a child, with a child’s silly dreams. You have no idea what it means to be a woman – an obsession – a queen. To have men adore you – and despair.”
Snow White’s resolve wavered. Help me, she pleaded to the voice within her head.
Help yourself, it grunted. She felt the briefest tingle in her fingers, her hand twitch toward the hatchet at her belt, and she knew what had to be done. If she could make herself do it. For the girl in the mirror was lovely, and the girl in the mirror could be her, if she but made a simple choice. To walk away from one life, and take up another that had, after all, been taken from her, all those years ago.
The smug look on Senex’s face decided her. If the images in the mirror were truly desirable why had he and her father immunized themselves against them? She could find only one answer to that. And so with the last of her waning will she pulled the hatchet from its sheath and hurled it at the mirror.
The king sought first to defend himself, and Prince Bellus was too befuddled to do more than watch. Senex understood her intent and tried to deflect the weapon with magic, but yelped with pain as his injured hand fumbled the motions of the spell. The blade bit into the mirror precisely at the lovely, flinching face and stuck there. The glass shivered, cracked in two, and after a long moment slid with a creak of complaint to the ground.
A shocked silence followed and Snow White took advantage of the uncertainty. She seized her hatchet and struck the broken glass again and again. But try as she might, it resisted all of the fury she could throw into her blows.
Recovering his wits, the king rolled his eyes at his advisor. “It’s no use, child,” Senex said. “The glass is woven through with desire and illusion. You cannot shatter it so easily.”
Prince Bellus shook himself, shedding the enchantment like a dog’s undercoat in spring. He stared in horror at the dead queen, at Snow White’s bloodied clothes, but most of all at her weather worn face, broken nails and sun brittle hair. “What veil has obscured my sight?” he cried. “That I almost took this – this hag – for my bride?” He strode to the mirror shards, keeping his distance from her. “You wish to be rid of this abomination? On that, at least, you and I can agree.” Senex protested as Bellus heaved first one and then the second mirror shard into the forest and out of sight, but grew watchful and silent at a signal from the king. “There will be no wedding,” the prince announced to Snow White.
“Since you never thought to ask my wishes,” she replied tartly, “that suits me just – ”
“Forgive me,” the king interrupted, pulling a hand crossbow from his voluminous robes and aiming it at her. “I didn’t mean to imply that you had a choice in this matter.”
“Either of you,” Senex added, wiggling the fingers of his undamaged hand in a meaningful way at Bellus. Snow White was certain a spell wouldn’t misfire again.
“You can repair the mirror, Senex?” the king asked.
“Yes, your majesty. It will require a little time, but no longer than it would take for two ardent young lovers to disport themselves before taking up their court duties.” He waved Bellus toward the woods. “We’ll be looking for those pieces you so carelessly tossed aside and loading them back into the conveyance.”
The situation seemed hopeless, her fate entirely decided.
Deliverance began with the jay. Snow White looked up when she heard his alarm squawk, surprised to see him perched on a corner of her cottage with a bright eye fixed on the king. A crow took advantage of the noise to glide onto an oak branch just above the monarch and a squirrel scampered out of the leafy canopy with an acorn from his winter store. After carefully placing it in the crow’s beak, he disappeared into the foliage as the bird dropped the nut on the king’s head and swiftly flew away. The irritated king failed to find the culprits, and Snow White couldn’t help but laugh as the pair repeated the trick twice more.
“Laugh now,” the king said sourly. “You’ll be learning proper manners and proper respect when we return to court.”
The jay over her head squawked more urgently. She had only begun to weigh whether to reach for her knife or make a dash for the woods – for she would rather die than learn her father’s lessons – when Prince Bellus and Senex returned empty-handed and uneasy, four wolves padding behind and growling at any unexpected movements.
“What is the meaning of this?” the king demanded of Snow White.
She stared at the wolves in confusion as the squirrel hurled another nut at the king. “I have no idea.”
The king raised his crossbow, pointing it squarely at her chest. “A princess would be useful but not required for my plans. And I won’t have a witch of unknown power running loose in – ”
Before he could finish his sentence or Senex do more than open his mouth to cry out a warning, a massive bear leapt from the shadowy forest and casually struck him down. Seeing his opening, the prince seized a scarf he wore around his neck and gagged the arcanist. The jay grew quiet, and the wolves, to Snow White’s astonishment, came and sat quietly beside her. The bear locked his jaws around the king’s leg and dragged him into the trees. No one moved to stop him.
“I truly don’t understand,” Snow White said to Bellus.
“I believe I do,” he replied. “Desire and illusion, didn’t you say?” He shook Senex roughly. “You still have the use of your head, old man.”
Wide-eyed, apparently uncertain whether to be more afraid of the wolves or the bear or the angry prince, Senex nodded.
“Then any beast who gazes into the glass – ?” Snow White paused and frowned. “But you were freed of the enchantment as soon as the mirror broke.”
“Creature thoughts are simpler than ours,” the prince pointed out. “Perhaps the fragments suffice. It is certain – ” he kept his hands well away from his weapons as the bear returned from wherever he had disposed of the king and lumbered toward the dead queen, “that you are much beloved by these.”
Snow White reached out a hand to pat the head of the wolf nearest her but withdrew it after a moment’s thought. They were wild things, not her pets. “What will you do now? A realm requires a ruler, and ours appear to have succumbed in a tragic hunting accident.”
“My father meant to have this realm. Bloodlessly, through marriage, if possible. By force, otherwise.”
She retrieved her fallen hatchet, a pair of wolves pacing her as she walked. “You are fair-faced, and strong, of royal blood and most importantly – here. I have no doubt that Senex could concoct some plausible tale to put you in power if he were permitted to retain some measure of his own.” The advisor nodded, more eagerly now.
“And what of the princess?” Bellus asked. “I have no desire to be unjust, nor – to be frank – do I wish to see a rival claimant to the throne emerge at an unpropitious time.”
“My answer is unchanged. I will not marry you.” She spread her arms wide and twirled in a slow circle. “And I have a realm. I serve it, and it serves me, and if I die before my time at its hand it will be by my own carelessness, not treachery. Go run your little kingdom, my lord.”
Prince Bellus regarded her thoughtfully, then nodded. He knew the best deal he was likely to get when he saw it, and with a few curt words – behaving now like the man the dwarves had described – he unbound the cowed Senex and ordered him back into his sleigh. “I’m sure the royal advisor will serve me faithfully.”
She laughed and a wolf at her side howled in delighted accompaniment. “I wouldn’t trust him to decorate your chambers, though.”
A small, genuine smile tugged at the corners of Bellus’ mouth. “You are clear-sighted, and clever, and you are the last surviving heir of this realm. I may have been too hasty in my judgment of you, my lady. Perhaps – ?”
“No, my lord,” she smiled in return. “This is the life I have chosen. I mean to live it well. And alone.”
He nodded his understanding. “Then I will decree this acreage protected so you may also live it undisturbed.” Glancing at the wolves and the jay overhead he added, “Although I suspect you have no need of my edicts.”
She offered a moment’s silent gratitude that Senex and her father had been too unimaginative to plot other uses for the mirror. “I also mean to find those shards and bury them. I would not have even a grasshopper enslaved to a false image of me.”
“I wish you luck in that endeavor, princess. But I fear you will find that even among the lower beasts desire and illusion are difficult to uproot.” He waved a final farewell as his sleigh disappeared into the trees, and Snow White never saw him again.
His words to her proved prophetic. The woodland creatures hid their most precious treasure well, and search as she might she was never able to find the mirror fragments. But she gave them their independence to the extent that they were willing, and after she died at a ripe old age the glass reflected nothing but the faces that looked into it. The forest reclaimed the mirror, her cottage and her bones, and the wild things grew wild again.