It is a curious thing to live long enough to hear the story of your life go from a gossipy tale told by people on the periphery to a myth that frames you both as a victim and a villain. Some truth is always mixed with the lies, but never the whole truth and never told in the right way. My stepmother was a witch. She tried to kill me. This is truth. A man saved me from the coffin she wanted me in, and we ordered her execution. This is also truth. But the story is much more complex than anything ever told. My father was not her victim. Nor mine. We conspired against him together. He killed my true mother for the crime of birthing a daughter instead of the son he wanted, and for failing to bear another child at all over the 13 years after my birth. I watched him behead her; he made sure that I did. Made sure that I knew he was king, that he would be obeyed by all, and that lives, even eternal ones, would be forfeit.
My mother sent for me the night before her death. I will not speak of what she said in detail – suffice to say she imparted such wisdom to her only child as anyone might when they know their death is imminent. She reminded me of my duties to her, kissed my cheeks, and bade me farewell for the last time. I cried a bit, I think, though I knew what lay ahead even before her summons. On the rare occasions that he deigned to speak to us, it was to remind her that I was insufficient and that eventually there would be consequences.
Two of his favorites dragged me from my bed when the time came; they held me firm and ordered me not to look away. I stared into my mother’s eyes as he forced her to her knees in front of the court, proclaimed her crimes, and took her life. I did not cry then, or scream. She would have wanted neither and I refused to give him that satisfaction.
He might have come to my bed then, demanded I give him what my mother could not, but I ran away. Disappeared into the forest at night, knowing that by the time he chose to follow me, my mother’s brother would have kept the last promise he made her. Not true vengeance, not a way to bring down my father for good. My uncle wasn’t strong enough for that. But he was strong enough to give me what my father would not.
While I ran my father stole my stepmother. It seems so strange to call her that when we were of an age to be sisters. To be twins nearly, with birthdays only a fortnight apart. Any road, he took a 13-year-old to be his wife. She was no witch. Not yet. And I was not strong enough to stay away, so I came back after she was his, allowed him to berate me and beat me until he was calm again. He left me sprawled outside her chambers, a message to her I suppose, though she was but a human and could not have withstood what I did.
She crept out slowly, a tiny frightened thing with more hate than hope behind her eyes. She was pretty for her people, thick clouds of dark hair and coppery brown skin that hid more of my father’s abuses than mine ever could. I could not give her what Uncle had given me. Most do not withstand the Gift, and I had another use for her. I wish I could say that we were friends, or at least friendly, but I was a monster to her even then. And she was little more than cattle with a purpose to me. We were my father’s victims, but neither of us were truly built for that role, so I led her to my mother’s hidden rooms.
I had brokered no deal like Mama had, bargaining away her right to fight back when Uncle betrayed the King. I might have done so on my birthday, done anything at all to save Mama, but she forbade it long before that day. Told me that she wasn’t worth my life, and that vengeance was all she would ever want from me. And in those days we obeyed our parents without fail.
Stepmother was no fool; she could look at Mama’s things and know my intent. In those days every woman old enough to bleed knew what herbs to use to stop an unwanted babe, or to sicken a man, or to kill him if it came to that. Killing my father would not be as easy as slipping him some tainted mushrooms, or brewing a cup of tea to stop his heart. He ate no food, and had no heart. She had to poison herself if she was to kill him. We bargained there in that room, promises to leave her people alone, to let that particular herd ─ I mean village ─ be, if I came to rule in his stead. It was a fool’s bargain, and I should have seen that any woman wise enough to distract me with it was wise enough to kill a man like my father and live.
I do not know what herbs she used to ward herself, or if it was true magic of the sort that was still rarely seen in those days. I do know now that she had a talent for foreseeing, that her mirror was both more and less than it seemed. It is possible she placed herself in his path, allowed herself to be hurt so that she could get close enough to save her people if not herself. Sometimes the blackest of villains start life as the greatest of heroes.
She went to him every night that week, gave herself to him without a whimper of complaint despite growing sicker and paler every time. Some thought he meant to foist the Gift on her despite her frailty, but I think my father started to love her a little. Not in the way they mean it now, no kind words or concern for her tender feelings, just the pleasure of subjugating someone who had fought him so hard. He thought she was broken and that made it all the sweeter when he weakened, though his own arrogance made him keep seeking her out.
I slipped into his chambers on the seventh night and found them laying together in what might have been a lover’s embrace if not for the way her eyes shone with hate. He tried to rise when he saw me, but his blood and sweat were so loaded with toxins I could smell them eating away at him from across the room. I used the crossbow first, lodging a bolt in his chest that pinned him to the mattress. She rolled away from him as I approached, retching out the window while I used my Uncle’s ax to separate his head from his shoulders.
I did not stop there. My father had risen to be king because he was thought to be un-killable, so I kissed him right between the eyes and cast his head down on the bed so that he could watch me chop his body into pieces and cast each out the window. He was furious, eyes rolling wildly as he mouthed imprecations that might have frightened me once, while I made sure he would never use his hands on anyone again. I brought his head to the window last so he could see Uncle and some of his other enemies feeding the pieces into a pyre. I hurled it, hurled him like I was playing a child’s game, right into the heart of the flames before I turned to deal with my stepmother’s corpse.
To my surprise she still lived, albeit much changed. She would never look 13 again, but mayhap she would have been changed by her time with father regardless. I could not bring myself to kill her, not after she had served me so well. I owed her and I believe in paying my debts. I took her back to the village where she was born and left her with money enough to start again if they would not accept her. Then I returned to my new labor as ruler.
Time passed, I cannot say how much, and we carried on much as we always had. I left her village alone; there were more than enough cattle on my lands to feed my people in lean times, and our humans had long since been taught to give us our due without complaint. I demanded none of their children as my father had, and encouraged them to wage wars so that they could sacrifice their enemies to us. Truly it brought us a greater variety than any we had under my father’s reign, and I was lauded for my wisdom.
During my time in the forest I had met a company of small men, who now wanted to mine the hills for gold and other metals that we did not use. They had been kind to me while I hunted for Uncle, and so I was kind to them in return. Besides, the gems they paid to me for the right to mine were an easy way to reward my favorites for their services. Times were good, though I grew slowly and met none who I would make my king. I was young enough that none of my people had yet seen fit to complain aloud, but I saw the looks they cast each other when visitors came and went without so much as a flicker of interest on my part. It is rare for women to rule among our kind, though not unheard of; and rarer still for a woman to rule alone without so much as a child to follow her.
When war came to our lands, it was a welcome distraction from the question of whether or not I would have an heir any time soon. We had played at slaughter with armed humans in the past, always winning handily while they cowered in fear. But these humans were different. They fought us with fire, with weapons trimmed in silver and dipped in the few things that can harm us. More than once as I walked among our wounded I caught a whiff of something horribly familiar. Prisoners we captured welcomed death over confession. It took our spies some time to ferret out the truth from the few cracks in this new threat’s defenses, but a rat may go where others cannot and so they found the truth of it.
I suppose my stepmother’s village could not quite accept her nor bring themselves to reject her. The money was welcome with winter so close and food so expensive. But she wasn’t. She had the nerve to survive what no one else had, and come back changed, but not into one of us. Something they either couldn’t fight, or were afraid to challenge for reasons of their own. So they sent her to a neighboring kingdom to tell her tale, and perhaps find help. Or her death. I do not know what kind of king ruled there, he wasn’t one of us and we paid little attention to human rulers. Whoever he might have been, he was dead not long after he wed my stepmother, and she had an army that dared not disobey her. Perhaps they truly believed her tales of our monstrosity; they certainly acted like believers when they sought death so eagerly rather than betray her. Then again, she had learned much by then, witchcraft beyond any I would have ever expected; perhaps they were more terrified by her anger than our hunger. Wave after wave of well-armed humans came down on us, and my people insisted I should retreat into the forest well away from the worst of the danger. I went to my small men then, lived among them while she deluded herself into thinking me defeated. My kind play a long game, and it was no great hardship to let her move her people into the trap we set.
When the old woman came to the mine bearing gifts I almost laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Having seen her move once I would never be fooled by the guiles of magic, no matter how well done her disguise. She came often, each time pleading fealty and offering nourishment such as might help me in this time of need. The stories make it sound like she used apples, but her gifts were not fruit. They were babes stolen from some poor woman or another. I gave each what help I could and then sent its withered corpse with one of the small men to return to someone who might recognize it.
I do not know who carried a heart to her, and claimed it was mine ─ there were no huntsmen in my kingdom, though Uncle might have sent some idiot to pretend to be such a person as part of his plan. He was the one who decided that it would not be enough to defeat her. That we needed to make her the villain of the piece in the eyes of her people, and ours so that none would try this again. So she became a cruel stepmother who wanted her husband’s child dead so that she could rule in peace. My father became a hapless fool ensorcelled by a wicked woman, and I became the plucky innocent foolish enough to eat poison and land in a glass coffin.
There were diamonds that festooned the place where I slept while we waited for reinforcements, in the days after my stepmother’s people poured into the killing fields. I was lying among the gems, playing with the light, when Uncle led the man who would be my husband to meet me. His army was greater even than my stepmother’s, and I liked what I saw when he spoke of ways to get close enough to destroy her. He was not handsome, but he was Gifted like me, and he was not cruel like my father. He did not speak of violence as though it was something to celebrate; instead he saw it much as I did: a necessary tool when peace would not suffice.
We did not speak of love, or even a permanent alliance, but it was clear that we were both interested, and I could see my people casting knowing looks at his followers. It was just a business deal that day. He wanted some of the stones that my small men gifted to me, and I wanted my stepmother and her followers erased. I gave him the diamonds I had been playing with, and he gave me my stepmother’s death. It was not as cruel as people paint it, roasting her alive or burning her at the stake. No, I distracted her at a key moment, and he cut her down so quickly I’m not even sure she felt the sword pierce her heart.
We did burn her body. That is the way of our people, and also it was a small measure of reassurance that she would not rise. I did not marry him for some time afterward ─ war is a terrible time for courting, and there were still her lands to conquer. We could have split them, but it made more sense to join three kingdoms than to maintain one and a half apiece. That is the truth of it. She was both hero and villain, and I suppose I am too. My husband was never charming, merely shrewd, and not unpleasant to look upon in an age when many men were beasts. Uncle re-framed the story once, a panacea for the masses to avoid further bloodshed, and I went along with it because being a savior is better than being a conqueror. We did have children eventually, but their stories are their own and I will not tell them here.
They called me Snow White in the stories they told of me, though that was not my name, it was barely a nickname. Another way to render me the innocent in need of a prince’s succor, and my stepmother the villain who deserved to die so that our reign would be long and loved by the humans. I have forgotten… let me not lie now after all this truth… I have hidden my true name for so long I cannot bring myself to reveal it now. Nor will I reveal stepmother’s. She might hear it spoken and find her way back to me. She owes me a death, and I am not ready for her to collect.
Someday I will speak it, and we will see what happens next.