Fairest of All (Part 2)

Three weeks had gone by since my flight from the castle. They were three weeks of quiet, with no word of the outside world; Three weeks of gratitude, serving the seven laborers who agreed to take me in; Three weeks of anxiously watching the door, fearful of the day all of this would end.  

The Queen did not visit. Despite knowing it was for the best, I still feared she may never come. There were times, late at night when my companions were asleep, that I even resented her, just a little. But by dawn these thoughts were dispelled with the cock’s crow and the promise of a new day. 

There were books in the little cottage where I stayed, and it was a welcome relief from scrubbing pots until my hands were sore. Most were nothing interesting, unfortunately: “Liber Lapidum: Rocks and Precious and Semi-Precious Stones,” “Natural History,” and my personal favorite, “Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Epitome of the Theater of the World).” The latter of the three kept me busy for hours on end, and I’m afraid I wore down the edges of the thick paper with my incessant flipping.  

The world had never before been so vast as in those pages, and it terrified me at the same time as it delighted me. I wondered if I would ever be able to travel across it from one side to the other, and what would happen if I got to where the map ended. Would I fall off? Would I float on into the air past the edge? Would I just… cease to exist? 

 As the days progressed, I found myself wondering about my previous life. Would it truly be all that bad to rule as the queen of a different kingdom? At first my answer had been uncertain. I wasn’t stupid—I knew that a lot of the worth of a queen was in her appearance, her comportment, and her childbearing capabilities. Even still, the child in me still hoped that my father had been somehow able to predict the compatibility between myself and this far-off prince. What if this prince’s affection was based on an inspired glint in my painted eye, skillfully rendered by the artist? Surely less loving matches had been made. These thoughts kept me busy in the worst of my labors, their perfumed promise masking the onerous odors of pony stalls needing mucked.  

My eyes opened at the start of the fourth week. Suddenly, the roof beams above my head crystallized, and something in my mind clicked into place like a joint back into its familiar socket.  

I realized something: I was free.  

It seemed silly to dwell on, but it had taken nearly two fortnights for me to know what that felt like. So long I’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop, not realizing that even if it had, I was not anywhere near it now. The Queen had freed my body from the grasp of the men who rule us, and now that I was far enough to see it, my mind was also free.  

As I got up and slipped on my only pair of underthings, my only dress, the remains of my only hair ribbon, I thought about the Queen. If I didn’t have her as an example, saving me and assuring me that my voice was just as important as my face (often more so), I would never have known what it felt like to simply… exist.  

I was no longer Snow White. I had stepped—no, leapt—off the edge of the map.  

In a similar way, I leapt from my loft bedroom and caught hold of the beam that stood a short distance from the ledge. Grinning wickedly at the startled cries of my housemates, I slid down the beam and landed squarely on my stockinged feet.  

“Scheiße, Sneewittchen! Wenn Sie sich brechen, bricht Königin uns,” one exclaimed, having nearly dropped his teacup in surprise.

The seven of them shook their heads ponderously, muttering in their thick language that I still couldn’t quite make out. They were mountain folk, all of them, women as well as men making a living in the roughest parts of the mines that proved too dangerous for most others to attempt. Perfect cover for an escaped princess. I set to work cooking up their breakfast, and soon they were out the door, tools in hand and a hearty whistle on their lips. The whistle seemed to echo as I stood in the doorway until even the hazy peaks of distant mountains sung the refrain.  

Anxious to get the goats milked before the sun dried up the cool morning mists, I slipped on my clogs, fastened the door and started for the animal shed.  

The jingling of reins made me freeze, rooted to the spot. Ice pierced my heart, and an animal urge welled up in me to run for the house. Before I could, a lone figure on horseback rounded the track to the cottage. The rider was hunched over, and white hair peeked from the hood. An old woman. The figure reined in the horse a short distance away and made as if to dismount.  

“Grandmother, you must be lost,” I ventured, heart in my throat. My coloring would be a dead giveaway to my identity. I could only pray she was blind or at least halfway there.  

“Grandmother? I should hope a month hasn’t aged me that drastically,” an achingly familiar voice responded. The Queen threw back her hood and straightened with a smile. Immediately I rushed over; my knees gave out when I reached her, and as I fell into a clumsy kneel, I threw my arms around her legs and let out a relieved sob. She hadn’t forgotten about me. 

“I’m so glad you’re here,” I cried into her traveling skirt. Her slim fingers petted my hair gently, then pushed my head back so she could grasp my chin and tilt my face up to hers.  

“I had to wait until the search for you died down. It’s taken a while for the rumor of your death by wild animals to spread, but it seems it’s finally taken hold of the court, especially after the game warden offered up the entrails of a boar as evidence of your demise.” The Queen seemed giddy with excitement, and I felt as though she had something more to tell me. She helped me back to my feet and surveyed me closely. Her hands turned over my palm, thumb caressing my newly formed callouses.  

“You’ve begun to toughen up,” she said with a smile. “Maybe you’ll soon decide that mining is your passion and ore your lifeblood.” 

I snorted. “Hardly. I would like to travel across the earth, not underneath it.” The mere thought of being confined under bedrock made me shudder. As we carefully picked our way out to the yard to tie up her horse, I piped up again, still feeling there was something else she had to say.  

“So, um, Your M… Uh, Queen…” I hesitated, suddenly realizing I didn’t actually know how to refer to her. Thankfully, she seemed to understand my dilemma.  

“Eva is fine,” she supplied with a half-smile.  

“Eva. Yes.” Her naked name felt funny on my lips, but I forged on. “You see, it’s just that it seems you have something else to tell me. Is it about my situation? Have you decided I should finally leave the kingdom?” Eva bobbed her head to signify yes and no.  

“Well, sort of. I suspect one of our complexion may not be able to travel successfully while Princess Snow White is still at large. I said before that we must kill her, and kill her we will.”  

My brow creased.  

“What do you mean? I was eaten by animals, you said it yourself. I watched the huntsman carry that poor beast’s liver and lungs back to the castle as proof.” 

“Yes, that did serve as adequate evidence for our court. However, once you left, we received a missive from your betrothed that he would be traveling here along with his best trackers to find your body. Until that happens, he won’t accept your death as genuine.”  

“I hate when princes have brains and use them,” I muttered, earning a grin from Eva. “So then,” I said, unfastening the horse’s tack and grabbing a curry comb, “why are you smiling? This could be bad.”  

My companion watched me begin to curry the horse in long, steady strokes. The horse leaned into me with a contented snort. The weeks I spent on my own had reinvigorated my love of animals, and the smell of horse was a comfort to me while we discussed my fate. 

“It could be bad, yes, but only if my plan fails. You see, we must show him you are dead.” I gave her a you’re crazy look, lowering my hand from the horse. He lipped at my shoulder, urging me to continue, so I did, straining to keep my lip buttoned until Eva had explained herself fully. She nodded and continued.  

“He will stumble across your funeral, up here in the mountains, and will see you lying in your glass coffin, stiff as a board. After all, for an evil queen as wicked and versed in magic as I,” here I could almost taste her palpable sarcasm, “it would be a simple thing to put you into an enchanted death. You may look alive, but to our dear prince and his men, you will be unmistakably dead.” Now I could see why she was smiling. The plan was very risky, but for a mind like hers, it was possible. Yet… something still troubled me. 

“How will he not realize I’m alive? I cannot help breathing, after all.” 

“Simple. I have been researching tinctures that will put you into a deathlike sleep for days. That should give us ample time to convince the kingdom of your demise. Then,” Eva’s voice lowered, “you can go wherever you like.” Possibility sparked and snapped in the low excitement of her tone and it made me wonder if she wished to be in my place.  

Despite my reservations, I had to admit I was itching to live without the fear of being discovered. Putting away the comb and patting the horse’s side, I finally nodded.  

“Okay, when shall we begin?”  

### 

When my housemates returned that night, they found me alone in the house, pacing nervously around the kitchen. Quickly I explained to them as well as I could what would happen soon, and after their initial surprise and horror at hearing that I would be dead, they soon calmed when I clarified that I would only seem dead. I’m afraid my companions were quite the concerned party. We spent the next week preparing for the event and despite knowing it wasn’t real, a trickle of uneasiness alighted on my back knowing I was arranging my own funeral. 

Finally, the day came. My dear Eva helped me into the glass coffin we’d decked out in flowers and ribbons like a morbid Maypole. She handed me the carrier for the drug: a perfect, red apple, as scarlet as my own ruby lips. I went to bite it, but she stopped me with a sudden hug. 

“I will see you when you wake, my dear girl.” She released me reluctantly, and with one last glance around the assembled party, I bit into the apple and immediately knew nothing more.  

### 

My first sensation when I awoke was the perfume of crushed flowers. A dull ringing echoed behind my ears that soon resolved itself into shouting and footsteps. A groan cut the air—my own, a response to the pressure mounting between my temples. Slowly my mind cleared, and it was then that I ventured to open my eyes, smiling as I anticipated the familiar face of Eva. 

I shrieked when instead I saw a man whom I did not recognize. His countenance, which had been smiling just before, creased in surprise. Immediately he reached out to me, but I shied away. A quick inspection of my glass coffin revealed that it was on the ground and half in pieces. In the glittering field of shards lay the bite of apple that had put me under.  

“Snow White, my lovely bride! At long last, I have rescued you.” I cast my eyes on the stranger once more and took in his rich attire. This must be the prince.  

My words were choked with tears. “What happened? Where is Queen Eva?”  

“Oh, do not worry about that old witch. She will soon be dealt with.” He reached out and touched my cheek; I recoiled, but his hand followed until I was forced to allow the contact. Greed in his eyes shone out from noble ardor in his expression. His eyes could have been my father’s. My mind was still not yet completely clear, so I remained silent, staring at him. The prince cleared his throat and pulled me courteously to my feet.  

“You must be so faint,” he said, wrapping his arm around my waist and supporting me. “We should let you rest for the time being.” We were in the center of a large atrium and as I looked around, I saw a dozen or so servants lining the walls. The prince motioned to one of the assembled ladies-in-waiting and she rushed over to take me as her burden. The prince released his hold, but not before squeezing my hip possessively.  

“The Queen, may I see her?” I tried to keep the desperation out of my voice.  

“Beautiful one, I don’t think that would be wise. If you like, she can be brought to our wedding feast.” He smiled, and it was not a nice smile. “Yes, wonderful idea. It should provide a bit of entertainment.”  

“I need to see her,” I cried, but I was already being brought away. I tried to fight the matronly woman who ushered me out of the hall. When that didn’t work, I went limp. That didn’t work either; she merely dragged me down the corridor, deaf to my protestations. Even when upset I could not fail my comportment training, so rather than be carried like a sack of flour I regained my feet and walked with her to my chambers.  

The next day and night were spent in my opulent prison being primped and prepped for my wedding day. After spending that first night crying myself sick, I merely sat there like a broken rag doll while my attendants readied me for the ceremony. Each morning I awoke expecting to open my eyes and see Eva, and each night I cried myself to sleep knowing there was nothing I could do to escape.  

Back home I’d grown up hearing stories from women about the magic of their wedding day, sure that my own would be just as memorable. But the ceremony binding me to this stranger passed in a blur of tears that to this day I hardly remember aside from the sharp, unpleasant scent of incense that lingered in my nostrils all through the prince’s vows. The only other thing I remember is that, though my father was there, not once during the service did he meet my eyes. 

Our wedding feast, at least, provided a respite from my sorrows with the musicians playing a jaunty tune and servers offering delicious little morsels styled as miniature animals. For once the vapid conversation of noblewomen around me was a welcome relief from mental contemplation. If I did not think, I need not think about my renewed imprisonment. I also didn’t have to fear for the safety of my dear Eva, whose fate was still ominously obscure despite how often I pleaded with the prince to tell me. 

Sometime after the third course my attention was drawn by a bell rung near the hearth. Once confident he had everyone’s attention, the royal announcer clapped his hands and said, “My dear gentles! As a wedding present for the prince and his new bride, we will now have a special dance!” With that, he motioned to someone I could not see and did not particularly care about. I was just turning back to my wine when the sight of a gagged Eva being led out by two guards made me shoot straight up in my seat as though electrified.  

“What is going on?” I cried. My new husband laughed and gestured to Eva, whose dress was in tatters and whose beauty was marred by the bruises on her face.  

“She is going to dance for us! And for the occasion, we will provide some very special shoes, red as the apple she gave you.” The prince wore a wry smile, surely thinking himself quite clever in his cruelty. Craning my neck over the heads of others, I could see one guard detach from the trio and pull two things out from the roaring fire: iron shoes, red-hot from the blaze.  

Now I jumped up in my chair, but a guard was already there to push me back down.  

“Please don’t do this,” I sobbed uncontrollably, gnashing my teeth and gouging the guard’s arms with my nails. 

“This is for your own good, my dear Snow White. She has poisoned you with her fruit and with her thoughts, but one as beautiful as you can never be as wicked as she. I know you will eventually know I am right.” With that, the prince nodded at the guards holding Eva.  

My shrieks could do no good. Though I could see jewel-bright tears in her eyes, my dear friend held her head up and kept her shoulders straight as her delicate foot was being forced into the first red shoe.  

A hissing sound came from the union, and though I wanted terribly to look away I knew for her sake I could not. Seconds slogged by in painful slowness as they forced her second foot into its corresponding shoe. Then, they released her, sending her tottering and stumbling around the area ringing the hearth in a crazed, desperate dance.  

She did not scream, she did not weep, and not a single cry uttered from her lips. These creatures would not get the satisfaction of her pain. I could not tell if it was seconds that ticked by, or minutes, or hours, because all I knew was the intensity of her gaze as it tore through me until she finally stumbled and fell to the ground. She would never rise. 

### 

I have always loved the snow. Peering out at it now, I feel these memories resurface and blister anew. My razer-sharp quill is steady, but the words it writes can be tenuous and fickle in their remembrance. Ah—I spoke too soon. My quill has just slipped, and blood has dripped onto the paper. As I write this, I feel you quickening in my stomach, little Eva. As I write this, I hope you know how loved you are, and how loved the memory is of the one whose name you will bear. As I write this, I pray to God that you are red as blood, black as ink, and white as parchment.  

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