FRANCES KOZIAR is primarily a fiction writer of the contemporary fiction, high fantasy, and young adult genres, though she also publishes poetry and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in 35+ literary magazines, including previously in the Scarlet Leaf Review, and she is seeking an agent for a diverse NA high fantasy novel. She is a young (disabled) retiree and a social justice advocate, and she lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Website: https://franceskoziar.wixsite.com/author
“What if I don’t want to be a princess?” Snow White had asked her governess, Irmel, in a fit of rage when she was ten. “Then half the kingdom will rightly hate you for it,” Irmel had answered calmly, her dark hair neatly concealed in a white linen headscarf that looped over her head and around her neck, “because you are one of the only people born into power when so many suffer all their lives for not having it.” Snow White had stood there sullenly, her arms crossed. “And the other half?” “They already hate you, for being what they aren’t. “You have an opportunity,” Irmel had added more gently, “to change things. Others dream all their lives for such a chance, no matter how small.” The conversation came back to her as Snow White climbed down, bruised and tired, from the tree where she had spent the night, and wondered what opportunity she had really had. Her younger brother Jorg would inherit the throne, and the best she could have done was marry some other prince, nearest among them the dead-animal-collecting Hanns to the east and a five-year old to the west. Snow White came to another tree, one that was proof that her death sentence hadn’t come as a total surprise, and climbed it nimbly. From a crook in the tree, she tugged free the sack where she had been stashing food, tools and coins for a year, her long cotton dress—green, thankfully—hiked up around her waist to reveal her white linen hose. She dropped to the ground, her legs bunched beneath her, and then scattered the soil where her boots had made clear prints. Not that she expected the two hunters to come back looking. She had been suspicious the moment the men had asked her to go hunting with them at first light (one of them, not too long ago, had suggested she would enjoy embroidery over the horseback archery she had been practising) and after making an excuse to split up and spending hours laying false trails, backtracking and walking through cold forest streams, she had thoroughly lost them. But her victory had been bittersweet. She had circled back. Had heard, lying on the ground, when they had suggested giving a boar’s liver instead of her own to the queen. When they had confirmed that Queen Margareth, her stepmother, had tried to kill her. It shouldn’t be a surprise, she told herself, but it was. Knowing her stepmother was vain, knowing that her stepmother hated her for the beauty her mother’s spell had granted her, was one thing. Surviving an assassination attempt was another. It meant, amongst the rest, that her stepmother would never forgive her. After a hard day of walking and trying to keep ahead of the memories, Snow White slept another night in the forest, this one on the damp ground, as insects crawled on her and her feet pulsed and ached. But as she set out at dawn, it was sorrow, not fatigue, that weighed her down. She would never go home again. She would never spar Nicolaus again, the old veteran of her father’s guard whom she’d persuaded to start teaching her tracking and sword-fighting years back. She would never train Hannus, the red fox she had tamed through hours of feeding the forest animals, to hunt. And she would never see Jorg again—something which surprised her by hurting. He was only ten, and unlike her, rarely alone. It was Jorg whom the huntsmen that had tried to kill her normally spent their time with; Jorg whom the masters of horse and sword trained. He was the only one who wasn’t some official, captain or head of state that her father’s gaze ever registered. “He too, has great power,” Irmel had said once, sadness in her grey eyes. It had been one of her final lessons, a couple years back. “But do not underestimate your own. You do not know what it is to be powerless, Snow White. Remember that, even if you don’t know why.” But Irmel’s words still washed over her, flickering in and out of understanding like fireflies in the night, and all that was left was that maybe both she and her brother had been turned down paths they would never have chosen for themselves. Snow White picked her way through the underbrush, heading east and deeper into the forest. She tried not to think of where she was going, of what she would do, just as she tried not to think of the past, but both shifted at the corners of her vision like shadows in candlelight. She had only been heading away, but would she follow this forest to the border of the next kingdom? Could a new life await her there, if she went far enough that no one knew her name? As she stepped over a fallen tree, Snow White’s boot laces snagged on the trunk. When she stopped to retie them, the final ghost dogging her steps, the final person she would miss, caught up with her. What an ugly child, her stepmother had said at the awkward age of twelve or thirteen, and though it had been a slight, what Snow White remembered was the real, affectionate smile on the queen’s face, and the feeling that maybe this woman, who seemed so wise even if Snow White never understood her obsession with clothing and mirrors, might be the mother she had never known. Snow was used to telling herself stories to help her sleep at night over the familiar ache of loneliness, but it was worse that night, her third in the forest. The sounds of the forest, though familiar during the day, were a stranger to her at night. Here there were animals she had never fed, animals who never strayed near the palace. Here she was a nobody, unseen and unwanted. She began to hum against the chirping and the rustling of the night, breathing out a quiet melody on each exhale and pausing to inhale slowly, and in that way, somehow, she fell asleep. The next morning she forced herself to sit and think for a moment before setting out, absently combing out the knots in her black hair with her fingers. Her eyes caught on the white swirling lacework that marked her palms and snaked up her forearms, its echo hidden on her feet and ankles: marks that would always reveal her as a recipient of magic. Skin as white as snow, cheeks as red as roses, and hair as black as ebony is what her—foolish as well as vain—mother had asked for, but the forest dryads, thankfully, had made some adjustments. Snow White’s cheeks were a normal colour, her eyes a dark red instead, and her skin was pale but not unnaturally so. Magic could work miracles, Irmel had taught her as a child, even if it always came at great cost. Snow White hardly remembered her mother, but if beauty was the one thing she had asked for her with the power of magic, she didn’t know that she wanted to. Is my stepmother any different? a small voice asked. It had been an accident, the first time Snow White had heard her stepmother’s morning routine. Mirror mirror on the wall, the queen’s voice had said through the door of her bedchamber, invoking the spell placed on the curved sheet of polished brass, who in this land is fairest of all? And the mirror, perhaps reflecting the sense of humour of whatever ancient wizard had first created it, answered in a rhyme, its voice thin and echoey. You are the fairest, my queen, of them, from the eastern border to the western fen. Always the mirror answered differently, and gave different information beyond the answer to the question. It could answer three questions a day, and the queen always asked the same question in the morning. Snow White’s father usually asked the other two—generally, about particular nuances of data that were only relevant to his networks and weren’t worth eavesdropping to hear—and the fact that Margareth, hailing from a few kingdoms away, had come with the magic mirror had long been Snow White’s guess for why her father, already having a son and daughter, had remarried at all. Snow White stopped combing her hair, replaced her black velvet headband, and took a breath, forcing herself to focus. She could fight back, she supposed, or change her name and accept a quieter life. Marry politically, perhaps, as she was supposed to. Home, as much as she’d had one, would always have been something she would lose eventually. She got to her feet and started walking again, her first steps tender, and then resigned. For now, at least, she would keep going, even if she wasn’t quite sure what she was looking for. People, maybe. A cause, perhaps. They’re like me, Snow White had murmured under her breath, angry after some argument or other with Irmel, not realizing she had spoken aloud. Irmel had been leading her through a neighbouring town, dressed as commoners for educational purposes. Irmel had looked up at the travelling troupe of performers setting up, her mouth parting slightly. There had stood a man that was only four feet tall, being laughed at by passersby. Snow White had only been nine, but she still remembered how that small man’s dark eyes had locked onto hers for one moment, the people between them vanishing. There had been a hardship there that she didn’t understand, but a loss and a struggle that she thought she had. No, Irmel had said, quietly but firmly, and Snow White had turned to her, surprised at her tone. Irmel was rarely angry, but her grey eyes had burned with intensity then. You are nothing like them. And though, after that, Irmel had humbled her into understanding some of the privileges she had been born to, still, Snow White found herself thinking of that man. Laughed at, exploited for looking different. Lonely, undoubtedly. And that, she understood. “Who are you?” the man asked her in a quiet growl, standing a dozen paces away next to a tree. Snow White blinked, wondering what had made her hallucinate so clearly. The man frowned, and then waggled his hands, as if trying to ask again in some gesture language. And Snow White realized he was real. It had been eight years since that day, since that troupe, and yet she was fairly sure this was the same man. He was dressed more raggedly now, rather than in the showy garb he had worn then, but his beard and moustache were trimmed neatly. He wore a worn black tunic that matched his hair, dark linen pants, and knee-high boots with a turned down top. On his head was a popular style of leather hat, but it lacked the usual feather, and at his waist, next to his belt pouch, swung a short knife. His eyes, unlike his clothing, were the same—dark and blunt and forged in pain. Who are you? he had asked, but what could she say? Anyone who knew what to look for could identify her from the dark red of her eyes alone. “You can call me Enndlin,” she said, giving a common girl’s name and choosing not to hide that it was a lie. The man’s eyes flicked to the white lacework on her hands and then up to her eyes. Would he guess? Did he remember? “This isn’t a place for you,” the man said. “Why not?” Snow White asked after a pause. And maybe something in the way she said it, something in the pleading note that escaped her, meant something to him, for his gaze softened a touch. He looked her up and down. “You look like a lady,” he said quietly. She couldn’t deny it. She was wearing a lady’s clothes—a dress that reached her ankles rather than her calves, and a narrow white (when it was clean) double apron that revealed more of her dress than the wider ones of commoners—and probably had a lady’s air and accent as well. “Do you live around here?” she asked instead, gesturing to the trees around them. She could hear no signs of a village nearby, or a travelling troupe. The man thought for a moment, and then turned his back to her. He looked at her over his shoulder and then began to walk away. She followed him. They reached the edge of a glade with a wooden cabin in the middle, smoke rising from its chimney, and through which ran a small burbling stream. Snow White’s first thought was that he lived here alone, but then she saw them. A couple were doing laundry in the creek. One was carrying a pot of water toward an outdoor fire. Another was adding a log to the flames. Two were walking in from the opposite side of the clearing. This isn’t a place for you, he had said, and now she understood why. She touched her fingers of one hand to the white lacework of the other. She had beauty, and according to her world, these people did not. Oddities, she had heard them called by the more sophisticated. Freaks, she had heard too, while in disguise. “How many of you are there?” Snow asked quietly. The man still looked fierce and yet pained at the same time. “Seven of us have dwarfism,” he said, “one with albinism, one with cerebral palsy, two hunchbacks, one giant.” “Twelve,” murmured Snow. “You shouldn’t be here.” The man’s face hardened again. “I mean,” said Snow. “You shouldn’t have to be here.” The man shrugged and turned away. “Well, we are.” The giant was one of those doing laundry. When he stood, she realized he must have been more than seven feet tall, maybe eight. He had a clean-shaven face, and wore a yellow tunic that made him glow in the sunshine and enormous boots. The man at her side stepped forward, out into the sunlight of the glade, and the giant saw him. “Jakob,” the giant greeted, but his eyes were on her. Snow White stepped out of the trees as well, and now the woman who had been washing clothes next to the giant, a woman with white hair and eyelashes and skin, stood as well. Her eyes were paler than the sky. “This is Els,” Jakob said with a nod at the young woman with albinism, “and this is Albrecht,” he said of the giant. Els patted dirt off of the off-white double apron that nearly concealed her peach-coloured wool dress, and eyed Snow White without friendliness. A white linen head wrap, like Irmel’s, covered all but a stray lock of her hair. “This is Enndlin,” Jakob said to them. “She doesn’t belong here,” said Els, her voice soft and sweet, but her spine straight and gaze steady. There was half a question in her voice. She too, Snow White noticed, had a knife at her belt. “No,” said Jakob quietly, “perhaps not.” A pause, during which Snow White considered too late she might have been expected to say something. “I’ll help Linhart and Agnes,” Jakob said, and walked off toward the two people tending the fire and the pot that rested on the logs. One was a twisted man dressed in a bright red tunic, his hands perpetually bent at the wrists and his knees bent inward. The other was a woman with a hunched back and black hair beneath a straw hat, wearing a purple dress. “You’re beautiful,” said Els. It was half-accusation, half-question, and for a moment, Snow White heard a memory. You aren’t really pretty, the queen had sneered when her beauty had kicked in. It’s just magic. And despite Snow White’s agreement, despite her dismissal of her own looks, nothing she could say could stop the queen from turning her back on her utterly and completely. “Is there something else wrong with you?” Els asked bluntly. A flash of how her best friends were animals and paid employees, of her mother’s abandonment, her stepmother’s back, but Snow White shook her head. “No,” she admitted, and Els’ gaze hardened. “Then why are you here?” Els asked quietly, danger humming in her voice. “Come to look at us?” “I have nowhere to go,” Snow White said. But it wasn’t enough. And maybe also, it wasn’t true. Els turned away, toward the cabin, her eyes flicking away in anger. “I have to get out of the sun,” she said, and left. Maybe she should continue on, Snow thought. Head for the border. But she hesitated. She saw something here which she hardly understood—community, glimmering like heat in the air. She had companions of a sort in Nicolaus and Irmel, Hannus and Jorg, but she had never really been close to anyone. It came with being a princess. “Finish the laundry,” said Albrecht in a familiar tone, as if they did this everyday. He knelt by the water and Snow White copied him, realizing that he was giving her something. She knew how to wash clothing because Irmel had taught her, in one of many lessons where she had been made to do all of the chores herself that her servants did, but it had only been a lesson, repeated a couple times, and she struggled to match Albrecht’s deftness for the task. “Katherina has that too,” Albrecht said, pausing to point to her hands and the white patterning left there by magic. “Does she?” Snow asked, surprised. She had only ever met one person with the same markings. “Won’t tell us what it was for, though,” Albrecht went on. “They loved her, I think. Don’t ask.” Everyone looked at her when Snow White and Albrecht approached the fire after hanging the clothes on a line, but no one said anything. Instead, the people who had been talking fell silent. “You look like summer,” said Linhart, the bent man in red, with a smile. He pointed to each of them, between Snow White’s green and Albrecht’s yellow. Albrecht smiled gently, but the others just watched or looked away. The campfire was ringed with a high circle of stones, like a makeshift oven, and a pot of stew simmered on top. Everyone else was arriving, sitting on logs encircling the fire. Albrecht didn’t hesitate, but took a seat on the largest log. He looked a bit like an adult in a child’s chair. He patted the log next to him without looking in her direction, and Snow White took the closest thing to an invitation she was going to get, questioning again why she wasn’t leaving now. Stew was passed around the circle, and there was a bowl for her too. Across the circle, Snow White saw another woman with lacework on her hands, dressed in pale yellow—Katherina. She was even shorter than Jakob—perhaps three feet tall—and had long brown hair and a pretty, but not magically so, face. Katherina frowned at Snow White’s hands but didn’t hold her gaze. There were two other women with dwarfism, and apart from Jakob, three identical grey-haired men who were even shorter than him and clearly triplets. There was a hunchbacked man too, and the side of his face was scrunched up like a dried fruit. Seven men and five women, all told. And her, standing out like a cow in her father’s audience chamber. “We give thanks,” said Agnes in a grating voice, standing by the fire and holding her own bowl in one hand, “for this meal.” Her huge hump of a back pulled tightly against her purple dress, and she was half bent over like a much older woman. Snow cast a quick glance around the circle, but everyone watched the middle-aged hunchback, their bowls untouched in their hands. “We give thanks for our haven, and our company,” Agnes continued, the dark, shrewd eyes beneath her straw hat catching on Snow White as they swept the circle. “We give thanks for those who can truly see, those who can love, and those who have given us kindness. We give thanks.” “We give thanks,” everyone echoed, and a heartbeat late, quietly, Snow White said the same. After lunch, everyone went off in different directions, as if they all had something they needed to do and knew what it was. Even Albrecht left, until it was just her and Agnes. “Clean the pot,” said Agnes, and Snow White did so with only a nod, though she was filled with questions. Who were these people? How did they survive out here? What had happened to them? When the dishes were clean, Agnes led her inside the small cabin. Two rows of six sleeping mats lay along the back wall, while the front wall had household things likes pots and pans and brooms and a tub for washing piled to either side of the door. In the middle of the back wall by the cots was a closed fireplace that led up to the chimney. Agnes pulled another rolled up sleeping mat from underneath a pile of stuff to the right of the door. “Here,” she said, pushing it into Snow White’s hands. “Thank you,” she murmured. “Hmm,” said Agnes, indifferently. “Place it there,” she said, and pointed. “It was Anna’s,” she explained as Snow White laid the roll on the ground. “Her face was different; lopsided. She wasn’t here long.” “What happened to her?” Snow White asked tentatively. Agnes just frowned at the floor for a moment, and Snow wondered if she would answer. She was getting the feeling that questions weren’t asked much around here. Our haven, Agnes had called this place. Snow White thought of the meadow where she fed the sparrows and other wild creatures, but it didn’t seem the same. “She died,” Agnes said quietly. “Of her wounds.” And with that alarming answer, Agnes left her.
Two days later, Snow White had begun to piece together the people who slept alongside her. She knew that Agnes was sharp as a whip and kind beneath her gruffness. She knew that Albrecht was gentle and sad. She knew that Els had a spine that would have held straight in the face of the king and queen. She knew Linhart lived in the moment, laughed readily, and loved everyone. She knew Katherina was quiet but tough. She knew Jakob was a leader of people even when he was struggling with his own nightmares. And now she had new, different questions, like: why were these people outcasts, truly? And had she—inadvertently, shamefully, accidentally—done something to contribute to this? Irmel, in retrospect, had surely understood something of this, something of oppression and suffering, but why? Did she know someone in a place like this? Have family that were jeered at in a troupe? “Jakob, I’m…the princess,” Snow White had said to him the night before, unable to keep it a secret any longer. She knew that her stepmother’s mirror must have revealed that she was still alive, just as it must have said that she was now more beautiful than her when the queen sent the hunters after her. Depending on the rhyme the mirror gave, maybe it would also mention the cottage or the forest or the people she lived with. “No one else has dark red eyes,” he said, unsurprised. “Your beauty precedes you,” he added grimly. “You remember me?” But that only sparked confusion into his eyes. “Never mind.” She shook her head. “I wanted you to know,” she began again, “because the queen…” and she explained everything. Above the darkness in his eyes, Jakob’s eyebrow lifted. “So you are hunted for your beauty, and we for our ugliness.” “It’s not the same,” she had to say. She wanted to say more besides, that they weren’t ugly, but she didn’t know how. Jakob just nodded, and that had been the end of their conversation. But on her third day, a peddler came by. The others had left to pan for gold in one of the mountain streams where they occasionally found it. It was how they got the money for the few things they didn’t provide themselves. Snow White was alone in the house, sweeping. She liked the work she did for the others, and wished, day by day, that she could do more for these people who’d never been given enough. It made her feel less useless. Snow White opened the door without thinking when the knock sounded, and found an old peddler woman standing there, wearing clean rags and an elaborate contraption on her back for her wares. “Aprons?” the woman asked, her face strained, a hopeful smile on her face. Her face was blotchy with age, her hair concealed in a linen wrap that had gone off-white. The peddler had some aprons draped over one arm—mostly the double aprons of peasants—but she looked Snow White up and down and removed her pack, pulling out a purple bodice instead. “I have one bodice,” she offered. Snow White stopped herself from recoiling. Bodices, only introduced in her mother’s time, were something only upper nobility wore. Was it so obvious that that was what she was? That it bothered her was new, but unsurprising, perhaps. If she had to pick between the cabin’s occupants and her family, the choice would be simple. The peddler caught wind of her reluctance, and her smile dimmed as disappointment rose in her eyes. “I’ll offer it cheap. No one else will be buying it, in them circles that welcome me.” And wasn’t that the case. No noble would barter with such a woman. In some ways, she wasn’t far off the seven with dwarfism and the others Snow White now lived with. She thought of the couple small coins she had brought with her. “Try it on,” the peddler urged. “I can do it up for you.” Snow White obliged, turning her back and holding the bodice to her chest. The peddler worked the laces. For a moment, it felt just like being dressed for court back home, and Snow White wasn’t sure if she liked the comparison. The next moment she was choking. When she couldn’t draw breath, she thought, for a moment, that it was only an accident. Bodices were often tied uncomfortably tight anyway. But then the laces became even tighter. The peasant cackled behind her, and suddenly her voice sounded younger. “Snow White, my queen, is fairest these days; now deep in the forest, a cottage, she stays,” the queen quoted behind her, as Snow White clutched at the bodice, trying to pull it away from her, to loosen it. Too late, she began to writhe and kick. Somewhere along the way, everything vanished. She woke as she was rolled from her side to her back, to see a circle of worried faces above her. She was gasping, and felt awful. The queen was gone. “What happened?” Jakob asked, and the others quieted. “A peddler,” Snow White breathed, clutching her stomach and her throat. The bodice was still resting on her chest, the laces now undone at the back, and she cast it aside. “The queen. Using her magic—in disguise.” Frowns, thoughts whirring behind eyes. Sympathy from Albrecht. Wariness from Els. A forgiving, but worried smile from Linhart. “No one ever comes here,” Jakob said. Snow White felt like an idiot. In retrospect it should have been obvious. She knew the queen could do more than the average dabbler in magic, but she had never seen her take on the face of another. “I’ll know next time,” she said, but Els and the triplets frowned at that, at her certainty that there would be a next time. “You are one of us,” said Jakob grimly. Generously too, Snow White thought. “And we help each other,” Agnes finished. Els looked away. Albrecht helped her to her feet.
It was five days before the queen struck again. In that time, Albrecht began teaching her how to spin, while Katherina taught her how to make sturdy, practical stitches almost too small to see that were far more useful than the embroidery and needlework Snow White had been forced to learn in the palace. Agnes began teaching her how to cook and what herbs were medicinal, while Linhart taught her a handful of different games that could all be played with only sticks and stones. She found herself laughing one day, in the midst of one of those games, and stopped, surprised at the sound. Linhart had just grinned crazily back, his brown eyes glowing. The second time the queen poisoned Snow White was an ordinary day, and as such, filled her with the strange new happiness she had felt growing since her arrival, happiness which blossomed alongside humility and a belated awareness of what Irmel had truly meant all those years ago. Agnes, Els, and one of the women with dwarfism were out foraging for food, while the triplets were out hunting and setting snares, and Linhart and the hunchbacked man were collecting firewood. The only ones near the cabin were Katherina and one of the other women with dwarfism, Magdalen, who were sewing just outside the cabin in the sunshine, and Albrecht, who was chopping wood. Snow White was inside the cabin, sweeping. Since the incident with the bodice, she had stayed close to the cabin, and there had always been someone near her. Els came in. “We’re back,” she said. Snow White looked up in surprise at even that much of a direct conversation. “Did you…find a lot?” she asked, not knowing what else to say, and feeling that Els was expecting an answer. She looked different: more at ease than usual; less suspicious of her. Els clutched something at her side, that she extended toward Snow White. “I found this,” she said. It had rained the previous night, and her boots and the apron she wore over her peach dress were muddy. “You’re hair’s messy. Take it.” And Snow White did, perplexed, before realizing it was a comb. “You found it in the woods?” But Els only shrugged, suddenly looking embarrassed. Snow had never seen Els embarrassed. Was this a sign of acceptance? Did she deserve acceptance, when she was part of the world that had said Els was worthless? “Bye,” said Els shortly, and went outside again. Snow White stood there, the brush in one hand, and the broom in the other. It was a simple brush, but practical, the handle smooth polished wood. Snow White set the broom aside and began to comb out her long, loose, black hair. It was messy, not that she thought anyone, much less Els, cared. She thought about Els, thought about how she might reach out to her, this warrior in the rags of an outcast. Thought about how much better Els would have been at being a princess. The brush scratched her head pleasingly. When she was finished, Snow White placed it beside her sleeping mat. She looked at it for a moment—the brush, the mat, the space—and felt that this was more a home to her than the castle had ever been. It can’t last, some part of her thought, but she pushed the feeling down. She was just finishing sweeping when her legs buckled under her and a wave of fatigue throbbed through her head. She put a hand to her head, embarrassed. She still wasn’t used to the chores she did here, doing physical work all day long and rarely sitting, but she had managed to hide that fatigue tolerably well from the others. She didn’t want to make it any more obvious that her life had been nothing like theirs. But this time the fatigue was stronger, and even sitting was difficult. She swayed, and felt pain throbbing through her head, muted by the fatigue. Before she could do more than wonder and grit her teeth against the rising fire, the world went black. This time, when she awoke, she was outside by the stream and her hair was wet. The circle of faces was the same. “It was the comb,” muttered Jakob with relief. “We washed the poison out of your hair,” explained Agnes quietly. “Did a peddler come by again?” Els asked dryly, though her eyes were worried. “No,” Snow White sputtered, swaying to a sitting position. Jakob’s hand was on her shoulder to steady her. Snow White stared at Els. “Where did you get this comb?” Agnes asked, using a cloth to hold up the wooden comb so that her hands didn’t touch it directly. “Els gave it to me.” “I didn’t,” Els denied immediately, as the eyes of Agnes and Jakob, as well as the others, swung to her. “Els has been out gathering with me all day,” said Agnes slowly. “We just got back. Was it yesterday?” Snow White shook her head. She stared at Els, the implications sinking in. Agnes understood. “The queen disguised herself as Els this time?” she asked with a frown. “She has powerful magic,” said Katherina quietly, from beside Agnes. Her large eyes were troubled. “How does she even know you’re here?” Magdalen asked from Katherina’s side. The two women with dwarfism—a couple, she now knew—clutched each other’s hands in a tight, worried grip. “Her mirror,” Snow White explained, rubbing her temples, dripping wet from her hair, and sighing. She still felt tired but not abnormally so, and the pain was gone. “She asks it who is the fairest in the country every morning, and it tells her. It always used to say her.” “And now it says you?” Els asked, raising an eyebrow. “That still doesn’t tell us how she knows where you are, only that she knows you’re alive,” said Jakob, tugging at his trimmed brown beard with a frown. “It…gives some other information when it answers,” replied Snow White. “When she came the first time, the queen repeated what the mirror had said that day: Snow White, my queen, is fairest these days; now deep in the forest, a cottage, she stays.” “So she wouldn’t have known about us the first time,” mused Els, her pale eyes sharp with thought. “You said “in the country”,” said Agnes, “that she asks who’s the fairest in the country. Why not more than that?” “It is the mirror’s magic,” replied Snow White with a shrug. “It…must be bound to this kingdom.” “So if you left the kingdom, she couldn’t find you,” said Jakob, and Agnes nodded. Leave the kingdom. She had been considering it before, but… “We’re only a couple days from the border,” offered Agnes, but there was sympathy in her eyes. “Perhaps you can go to their castle?” Jakob suggested. Snow White half-laughed, half-grimaced. “What?” Els asked. “Even if I could go there and convince them I was sent—probably for marriage—the crown prince died this year. The queen is well, but when she dies the kingdom will pass to her other son, Prince Hanns, and he’s…” She didn’t know how to explain the scandal, hushed as much as such things could be. All the neighbouring royalty knew of Hanns’ collection of dead animals, of his lack of interest in other people, much less for the people he would someday rule. “He collects dead things,” she said. Silence, blinks, frowns. “For fun?” Agnes asked slowly, thoughts swirling in her dark eyes. Snow White shrugged. “It’s all he shows an interest in, apparently.” Agnes looked at Jakob, her eyes clouded, and then shook her head. She looked down at Snow White again, her eyes clearing, a smile twitching at her chapped lips. “We’ll help you,” she said, quietly and assuredly, “with whatever you decide,” and she helped her to her feet. That night, Snow White lay awake on her mat for hours thinking and listening to the quiet sounds of the others breathing around her like the lullaby of a parent she’d never had. When the huntsmen had come to take her life that day, she had given it to them, in all but one way. She had hoped that giving up her name and her title would be enough for her stepmother, and had hardly given a thought to the responsibility and opportunity that Irmel had once spoken of that came with that power. There hadn’t been a point, before, to fighting to keep it. Now, surrounded by the broken outcasts of her father’s kingdom, there was. Appearance matters, Irmel had reprimanded her more than once as a child, when she’d hated being dressed like a lady. And she’d been right. Appearance did matter, if for all the wrong reasons. Appearance mattered because her mother had died young to give beauty to her daughter. It mattered because it was why the queen was set on killing her. It mattered because appearance, as foolish and superficial as it might be, was why the dear, ordinary people around her were hiding from the world in the depths of the forest, ridiculed, exploited, and—in the case of Anna—killed for their differences. She thought of Prince Hanns, and what she’d heard. How he collected dead insects and animals, and killed them too, some whispered. How at his brother’s funeral, his mother had had to hold him tight to her side, to keep him from the body. And she thought of herself: a princess, given the gift and the power of beauty, birthed in blood and promise, her life in her own hands, ready to be used or wasted. It didn’t matter who Prince Hanns was, Snow White realized. All that mattered was that he was a prince, and she was a princess. That night, when she finally fell asleep, Snow White had half-formed a plan. It was the queen, however, who acted first.
Snow White woke to the feeling of a bruised belly and ribs and a raw throat, and heard the sound of wind brushing gently through the treetops above her. Her eyelids were heavy when she opened them to find that she lay in an open area of the forest that she didn’t know, tall pines stretching above her up toward a bright blue sky. She wiggled her fingers. They could only move slowly; beneath her she felt the familiar fabric of her sleeping mat from the cabin. Why was she here? What had happened? Why did she feel so awful? Snow White turned her head to the side, and it pounded strongly enough to blind her for a moment. When her vision cleared, she saw Jakob standing beside a tree, half-camouflaged in his black tunic and brown hat, not too far away. He waved at her, and her heart warmed as he grinned and took a step forward, but then he stopped. His brows lowered in concern and he placed a finger to his lips before stepping behind the tree and vanishing. Snow White turned her head the other way, and saw something move in the distance, approaching. Closer, she heard the creak of saddle leather, the steady footfalls of a horse being led. She turned her head to face the sky again, and closed her eyes, listening. Her heartbeat sped up. Apples. She remembered apples. They had been picking them: her and Els and Albrecht. “So, are you going to marry him?” Els had asked suddenly. Snow White had blinked in surprise, trying to remember if she had said anything about what she was planning. “You were lost in thought,” Els explained, glancing over at her from the next tree. They were in an overgrown orchard that had long since been abandoned to the forest, picking the first apples of the season. “Yes,” Snow White answered. “Why?” “Because I can,” Snow White said, looking into Els’ pale, intelligent eyes. She thought the other woman understood. Els had seen it that first day, after all: that Snow White had the privilege of birth and looks and an able body, and she would never truly belong at the cabin. “I’m sorry you’re leaving,” said Els. Their eyes caught, and there was something in Els’ that Snow White hadn’t seen before. Vulnerability, perhaps. Care, maybe. Els, Snow White realized, was only a few years older than herself, despite the scars that had shaped her like a huntsman’s axe. Els tossed her an apple and turned back to the tree, ending the moment. Snow watched her for a few heartbeats, sadness and gratitude welling up within her for a moment, before she took a bite of the apple. Let them stay with her, she thought, to give her strength like the apple she ate, to remain in her memories, a reminder of her purpose, her goal, her choice. The first bite tasted sweet, the second bitter. She began to pick again, one handed. And that was the last thing she remembered. A crackle of sticks nearby. Snow White kept her eyes softly closed. She should have run, she decided belatedly, before whoever it was had seen her. Her body felt stronger again—she thought she might be able to, now. And Jakob was nearby; she should be safe. But why was he hiding? Snow White opened her eyes just enough to see through them, but not enough that it would look like her eyes were open. She saw the hazy form of a man above her, dressed in red and black. He stood there for a moment. What must he think? She thought. She must look like a corpse. Then the man bent, slowly, his head coming toward her face. Was he going to kiss her? Snow White wondered with alarm. She wasn’t sure which was more horrifying—the idea that a strange man might think kissing a sleeping girl romantic, or that he might think anything good of kissing a corpse. A moment before his lips brushed hers, she jerked her head to the side. She sat up quickly, as the man leapt away, and now, eyes wide open and head only faintly pounding, she understood. “I’m sorry,” said Snow White with an apologetic smile, one hand to her head, her thoughts whirring furiously behind a mask of friendly cluelessness. “I must have fallen asleep.” She recognized Prince Hanns from the last time he had visited the palace, four years before. She recognized him just as much from his actions. His brown beard and moustache were trimmed perfectly by his servants, his collar flared out into the ruffles of the upper class. His shoes ended at the ankles rather than stretching to his knees, and there was a feather in his cap. Apart from the mud on his boots and the sticks and forest debris on his clothing, he could have been dressed for the court rather than the forest. “Sorry,” he mumbled, his dark brown eyes on the ground, his body now half turned away from her. His face was red, through from the coolness of the air or a blush, she wasn’t sure. Could he, Snow White wondered suddenly, be one of them? Be someone who could belong at the cabin? “Prince Hanns,” Snow White murmured, extending her hand to him as if they were in the palace. “So nice to see you again.” He eyed her hand the way someone else might eye a dying animal—with sadness and fear and resignation—and Snow White withdrew it quickly, and patted the mat beside her. “Sit,” she urged. She had been lying on something of a makeshift bed formed out of a low block of freshly packed dirt seemingly created to display her. She felt Jakob watching. Watching in case she needed help, Snow knew. They must have made her vomit up her stepmother’s apple—had she been hiding in the trees?—which explained her bruised belly and ribs and the rawness in the back of her throat, but had they even known for sure that she would wake? They must also have moved her across the border, she realized: somewhere where waking from the poison wouldn’t result in the queen knowing she still lived. And someone must have told the prince that there was a dead woman lying in the woods. She wouldn’t dwell on that last one. “Were you out collecting?” Snow White asked Hanns, who was looking off into the trees as if he were desperate to escape. He was older than her—early to mid-twenties perhaps—but his eyes didn’t show the intelligence of that age. “For your collection, I mean?” she asked. “I’ve heard you have an amazing collection of insects and creatures.” Hanns’ eyes flicked to hers. “Mmm,” he murmured, but now he was looking at his hands clasped tightly in his lap rather than at the forest. His brown mare stood placidly near them, well-trained enough to stand still with its reins lying on the ground. “Have you found anything recently?” Snow White persisted, hiding her own anxiety. “A fox,” Hanns mumbled, glancing at her and down at his hands again. Snow White pushed away an image of Hannus and smiled. “A skeleton, or…?” “No, with the fur and everything,” Hanns said. Again, the flick of his eyes. Were his hands clenched less tightly? “How do you preserve it?” she asked with a genuine, if somewhat disturbed, curiosity. “I put in some chemicals,” he said. A smile twitched at his lips. “I mix them. The eyes don’t last though,” he said sadly. “You have to put in fake ones.” “Do you have other foxes?” Snow White asked. She was desperately trying to understand Hanns as fast as she could. He wasn’t who she had thought he was, she had realized already, and this might be her only chance to get through to him: her only chance for the future she needed if she was to ever help the people she cared for. “Oh, yes,” Hanns said, nodding adamantly. His gaze rested on hers longer this time. He was, in fact, handsome, though the knowledge sat bitterly with her. “Three,” he said. She kept prodding him, asking details about his collection until he was talking to her as happily as a child. There was a kindness to him, Snow White realized, and an innocent sort of simplicity. “They’re just so beautiful,” he said after a while, “when they’re dead. You know, we’ll all die, and they just went first. We’re all the same.” “Yes, we are,” Snow White murmured, but she was thinking of Anna, and how she had died for how her face looked. “Can I,” she began, and then hesitated as if uncertain. “May I…come see your collection? I’ve never met anyone with so many animals. Could I?” Hanns smiled, biting his lower lip with happy nervousness, and then stood and offered her his hand. She took it. “Oh,” she said, as if only just realizing it. “I don’t have my horse with me. May I ride with you?” “Okay,” said Hanns guilelessly. He mounted first and she climbed up awkwardly behind him, her legs to one side in her dress. As Hanns turned the horse around, she looked back for Jakob. She saw him, there between the trees. She waved, but feeling drowned her, and she was suddenly holding back tears. She pressed her fingers to her lips and then to her heart, and then, too soon, the horse was walking away from them all. “I’m Snow White,” she said, turning back to Hanns. “Snow White,” Hanns repeated shyly, and she nodded, even though he couldn’t see her. She held the cabin in her thoughts, the twelve outcasts in her heart. She hoped for Agnes’ sharp mind, for Els’ steely spine, for Albrecht’s kindness, for Linhart’s love. She thought of Irmel, and her lessons so many years ago, and Snow White’s chin lifted as she rode, hands wrapped around the warm torso of the man she was determined to marry.