Beginning: Part 1: White As Snow
When Gina awoke, she saw that the little room she had been given, which had looked old-fashioned in the lamplight, looked doubly so in the day. The walls and floor were rough wood planks, which looked like they had been cut and sanded by hand. The ceiling was thatch. Gina shuddered as she thought of what might have crawled out of that straw while she slept. Grabbing her phone, she made to check the time, but the battery had died overnight.
At the sound of her name being called from below, she rolled off the bed — she was pretty sure the mattress was also straw — and went downstairs, pulling her blonde hair back into a ponytail. It would have to wait to be brushed. The motel had gone all out to stress the ‘rustic’ theme, with a set of antlers decorating the wall, some sort of furry hide on the floor as a rug, and a log fire burning in a stone hearth. The woman, Margaret, who Gina guessed was the owner, approached her with a warm smile. For a moment, the two stood awkwardly at the foot of the stairs, looking each other up and down. Gina, still dressed in her work clothes — a black knee-length skirt, stockings, and a white blouse — knew she looked rumpled and dishevelled, but she still didn’t look as strange as Margaret, who wore a full length dress, apron and cap, like a character from a period film.
“We have some food available, dear. If you’re hungry.”
“Oh, um, yes. Thank you.” Gina nodded and followed her to the table, which was set for five. The two young men from last night were there, and Gina supposed they were Margaret’s sons. She looked around for another face. “Uh, where’s—”
“Rolf?” Margaret finished for her, carrying a loaf of round, dark bread over. “He’s fine, dear.”
The man chose that moment to enter the common room. He looked markedly different now that he was sober, and standing. There was a small cut and bruise on one of his cheeks, and another shadow on his jaw, but other than that, he seemed to be all right. Thick dark hair sat over deep-set eyes. He was only an inch or two taller than her, and of a wiry build. Like the other two, he wore a loose shirt under a leather vest. ‘Jerkin’ was the word that came to Gina’s mind. The clothes looked hand made. Did they not have a Sears in this part of town?
“Um, excuse me. Where exactly are we?”
“Northwood, dear,” Margaret answered. She and the others were now helping themselves to the bread.
“Right. Uh. I’m not all that familiar with the area, exactly. Where’s Northwood?”
Margaret chuckled. “We’re a small town, often missed. We’re just past the Palace Keep, and east of the Dragon’s Claw.”
“Uh-huh. You know what, I’m just going to charge my phone up and see if I can get the GPS going.”
“You say some strange things, girl,” Rolf said, eyeing her with curiosity.
“I say some–?” She laughed. “Right, okay. Is my car still outside?” She worried for a moment about the Solergeni product in the back. Rob was demoing the energy panels, but the patent was still pending. No stock was supposed to leave the office unaccounted for.
“Your strange wagon is as you left it,” the older of Margaret’s sons answered. “Jonah and I tried to shift it, but the contraption would not budge but an inch.”
Gina nodded without replying, and went to the door. No new snow had fallen in the night, and yesterday’s fall had turned to slush on the sides of the roads. The air, however, was still frozen, and her breath turned to steam-puffs. Gina wrapped her arms around herself, wishing she had put her jacket on first. Her car was parked outside, with a small group of people gathered around it. They were all looking at the Corolla — now with a sizeable dent in its front bumper — as though they had never seen one before. Like Margaret and the boys, these people were dressed in strange period clothing. Was there a Renaissance fair going, or had she walked into a town of role-players?
Margaret appeared at her side, holding what was left of the bread. The group looked up eagerly at her. She handed the loaf to the nearest man, who began tearing it up, passing pieces out to the others.
Margaret closed the door again and retreated across the common room.
“Uh, what was that about?”
“The inn gets enough travellers, on their way to the Keep, to support us,” Margaret answered. “But many in this village aren’t so lucky. We share what we can.”
“Okay, no jokes. Where is this place?”
Four pairs of eyes stared back at her, as though concerned she might be mad. Gina went to the window and looked out across the white-dusted town. All the buildings were the same as the motel, although none were as large. All were made from wood, with thatched roofs, and smoke coming from stone chimneys. Rising up behind the village, was a large hill, and atop it, an elaborate castle, the likes of which she had only seen in storybooks and European travel brochures.
“Is that a real castle?”
“Aye,” Rolf said, rising from the table and moving to her side. “The Palace Keep. Home of King Alaric, and Princess Snow.”
“Princess Snow?” Gina scoffed. “What, like the fairy tale?”
Rolf raised an eyebrow at her. “I’m afraid there are no fairies here.”
“No, I mean the story. Snow White. The Princess with skin as white as snow, lips red as blood, hair black as a raven’s wings…” She looked at him expectantly, waiting for a sign of recognition.
“Aye, that’s her. But you forgot the most important part. It wasn’t her skin, the princess was named for, but her heart. A heart as cold as ice.”
Gina laughed. “Uh, no, I think you’ve mixed that up with the queen. Snow White is beautiful and kind. I used to love that story; I remember it all.”
“Then your memory has failed you. For Snow White is as callous as she is fair.”
“Rolf, be careful,” Margaret warned as a group of armed soldiers, wearing leather breastplates and red cloaks, and carrying spears, strode past.
Rolf ignored them and turned back to Gina. “And there is no queen.”
“No, there has to be…Hang on, this is nuts. It’s a game, right? You’re role-playing. Snow White doesn’t live in the castle.”
“I assure you, strange maiden, she does.”
“Uh, no, don’t call me that, thank you.” Gina raised a hand to her forehead, feeling a bruise right on her hairline. She must have hit her head harder than she thought. Either this was an elaborate joke — although, she couldn’t think of a single person who would go to so much effort for her — or it was a dream.
“All right.” She turned back to Rolf. “All right. Well, if that’s Snow White’s castle, I want to see it. I want to see her. Because there are some serious flaws in your story. Can you get me in there?”
“You risk a great deal.”
“Yeah, well, if I’m dreaming, there’s no risk, and if I’m not, I think there are bigger things to worry about. Can you help me, or not?” She could see they still weren’t convinced. “Look, I’ll ask her about the village. Maybe the palace can throw a few sacks of grain your way. How does that sound?”
Rolf considered her for a moment. “You aided me last night. I will assist you wherever I can.”
“Great. I’ll grab my coat.”
* * *
Getting Rolf into the car had proved even more difficult than the previous night. Now that he was sober, he seemed to be even more suspicious of it. And when the engine spluttered to life, everyone in the village ran for their homes. She let Rolf guide her along the roads, lumpy with dents from wagon wheels and horses’ hooves, towards the hill that held the Palace Keep. They passed more people on the roads. Many dressed like peasants, others like guards. Most ran from Gina’s car, as it trundled past. Others stopped to stare, slack jawed, at the vehicle. Gina hunched low behind the steering wheel, wondering if Margaret’s offer of a horse had been a better idea.
As they approached the castle, Rolf directed her off the main road and along a narrow side alley, with a cobbled floor and stone walls either side. Gina left the car there, and they approached a wooden door, set into an alcove in the wall. Rolf knocked five times and a small flap lifted at eye height. Dark beady eyes stared back.
“Rolf. ‘Ere to trade?”
“Not today, Martin. The girl seeks work in the servant’s quarters.” He jerked his chin at Gina, who bristled and tried to interject, but was cut off.
“Can’t guarantee they’ll ‘ave anything for a skinny thing like ‘er.”
“At least let her try.”
The gatekeeper grumbled in agreement and opened the door to them. Gina followed close behind Rolf, into a dark stone tunnel, lit only by widely spaced torches.
“Um, what exactly do you do?” Gina asked, as Rolf led her to a large industrial kitchen, filled with woven baskets of vegetables, flame ovens, wooden chopping tables, and women in dark blue dresses and aprons moving about in a strange, perfectly timed dance.
“We’ve no need for game, today, woodsman,” a matronly woman said, stopping in front of them, and wiping her hands on her apron. “Princess wants lamb.”
“I’m not here to sell, Martha. This here’s Gina. Give her a uniform and let her take the princess her breakfast.”
“I can’t just let any old girl in here, Rolf.”
“For me, Martha?”
The woman stared at him, lips pursed for several seconds before letting out her breath and shaking her head. “Only for you, woodsman.” She grabbed a blue dress of a pile of laundered clothes, and tossed it to Gina.
“Uh, where should I…?” She looked around for a changing room, but none was apparent. The serving women continued to hurry past, sparing little thought for her, and soon she was bundled into a corner. Gina gave up on privacy, and pulled the dress on over her other clothes. The sleeves were too short, and it showed her shoes and stockinged feet, but there was nothing to be done about that.
“So, you’re a woodsman?” Gina prompted, trying to tie the apron on behind her back.
“Aye, I hunt game and sell it to the villagers, and sometimes the palace.”
“So, you’re a huntsman? Of course you are. All we need now are some dwarfs.”
Rolf gave her another strange look, before leading her to another small door. Martha appeared at their side again and placed a silver tray into Gina’s hands. On it were a covered dish, a cut crystal goblet filled with wine, and a single red rose.
“Up the stairs, turn left at the first corridor, then three rights and to the end of the hall. Knock twice and wait to be invited. Don’t make eye contact.”
Gina nodded, trying to remember the instructions. Martha spun her around and propelled her into the hallway. Gina stumbled forwards and started up the narrow staircase. Other girls, coming back down, pressed their backs to the walls to let her pass. Gina muttered thanks, but the girls didn’t pause in their errands.
She emerged from behind a tapestry, into a high ceilinged hallway. Gilt framed paintings decorated the walls, and floor-length velvet drapes hung either side of the windows, tied back with gold cords. Crystal chandeliers, adorned with candles, hung high above, and the white marble floor was so glossy, it reflected everything back again. Gina was momentarily stunned at the opulence. She shook her head and started walking, following Martha’s directions until she arrived at a pair of massive doors, inlaid with gold filament in the pattern of a forest and woodland animals.
Shifting the weight of the tray, Gina knocked twice. Shortly after, a voice called back, “Enter.”
The room was draped entirely in velvet and silk. It covered the walls and ceiling. Another chandelier hung in the centre of the room, above a massive curtained bed. Along one whole side of the room, stood gold framed mirrors. At a carved dresser, in front of them, sat the most beautiful young woman Gina had ever seen. She looked like an image from a magazine. Her skin was flawless, her eyes bright, and rimmed with dark lashes. Her full lips formed a perfect pout, above a slender jaw. Long hair, blacker than midnight, hung over her shoulder in a glossy sheet.
Placing down the brush she had been holding, Snow White flicked her hair over her back and turned to face Gina. Her eyes narrowed and her lips turned down.
“How dare you stare at me so, servant.”
“Uh, sorry.” Gina lowered her eyes. “It’s just, you’re even prettier than the stories say.”
Snow smiled. “And what do the stories say?”
“Uh, that you’re the fairest in the land?” Gina wasn’t sure why it came out sounding like a question.
“I should think so. Put that down and brush my hair.”
Gina placed the tray in front of the princess and picked up the brush, running it through the black tresses. They were soft and silky, and Gina thought sadly of her own dishevelled ponytail.
“You have fair hair,” the princess observed. “Be it unkempt. Usually the fair ones wait on my father. The king likes gold in all manners. Why did they send you to me?”
“I, uh, I asked to see you, your, uh, highness. I wanted to ask if you’d been down into the villages lately?” Gina began, as Snow lifted the cover from her dish and popped a fresh strawberry into her mouth.
“Of course not. What reason would I have to leave the palace? I have everything I need here.”
“Well, yeah. I mean, your room is really lovely, but you know, fresh air is always good–”
“You talk a lot, servant.”
“Oh, well I just thought that maybe you’d like someone to talk to. Don’t you get lonely?”
“A princess is never lonely. I have my mirrors, they provide the only companions worthy of my company.”
“But they only show you yourself.”
“Precisely. Who else would I want to be surrounded with. Do you deny that I am beautiful?”
“And if I am beautiful, should I not enjoy it? Is it not my right to look upon such beauty? Why, if I were to surround myself with lesser people, they would benefit from my presence, and I would only get to look at their unsightly features. Much like I am now.”
Gina withdrew, a look of indignation crossing her face. Snow had to have seen it in the mirror, but she did not press the comment further. Gina clenched her jaw and lowered her eyes, lifting the brush again to drag it through Snow’s silky hair. There was something else she had to ask before she could leave, but her hopes for a good response were dwindling.
“Your highness, I just came from Northwood–”
“Northwood?” she scoffed. “Where’s that?”
“Uh, east of the Dragon’s Claw? Anyway, the people there are a bit hard-pressed, and I thought that maybe you’d want to help–”
“Why are you telling me this, servant? Do you wish to ruin my morning meal with talk of peasants?”
“No. It’s just, I thought that you–”
“You thought that I’d what? Out with it. What did you think.”
“Well, I thought you’d care.”
Snow stared at Gina in the mirror for a few seconds, then burst into laughter. “Why should I care about dirty, ugly peasants? My father sees to it that the gentry are well cared for, what else matters?”
“But, they’re your people.”
“Don’t be foolish. They’re smelly and stupid. I could never associate myself with something so unsightly.”
Snow turned on her stool to face Gina. “I am Snow White. The stars themselves weep at my beauty. Do you honestly believe, that the bellies of peasants are within the realm of my concern?”
Gina took a hesitant step back. Snow’s eyes narrowed at her venomously. Gina offered a quick bow and hurried from the room. She stopped in the hallway, so stunned from the events, that she did not notice the man approaching her.
“Lost, my child?”
Gina jumped and spun to face him. Her eyes bulged when she took in the elaborately embroidered doublet and fur lined cloak about his shoulders. His eyes widened too, as he took her in.
“My mistake. You are not a child at all. Has my daughter banished you from her presence?”
“Your dau–? No, I mean, yes, uh, sire, sir.” Gina attempted another clumsy courtesy.
The king chuckled. “My, you are a delicate thing.” He raised a hand to brush Gina’s jaw. She froze, like a rabbit in the sights of a hawk. “Your name?”
“Maid Gina, I find myself in need of a new attendant. This evening, you will bring me my meals. I trust you will find my company more engaging than my daughter’s.”
Gina stood motionless for several seconds, all words having left her.
A woman’s voice interrupted them. “Gina! Back to the kitchens.” Martha appeared. “So sorry, your majesty.” She dropped into a low courtesy, grabbed Gina’s elbow, and towed her away, back to the servant’s passage.
“Don’t let the king be staring at you,” Martha whispered as they hurried back into the bowels of the castle. “You’re not the first serving girl he’s taken a liking to. You won’t be the last.”
Rolf was waiting in the kitchen. Gina hurried to him and they returned to the car.
“I can’t believe it,” she said, as they drove back to Northwood. “I wake up in the tale of Snow White, and it’s all wrong. She’s awful.”
“I warned you,” Rolf said.
“I just don’t understand. She’s meant to be so sweet and kind. After her stepmother came…That’s it. Her stepmother, the Queen, she made Snow a servant. That’s how she learnt to be humble and kind.”
“I told you, there is no Queen. Not since the King’s wife passed while birthing the princess.”
“I know, that’s the problem. The King’s been too busy chasing chambermaids to choose a new wife, and he’s broken the story somehow.”
“You keep speaking of stories, and things that should be. How do you know these things? Where are you from?”
“I promise I’ll tell you, huntsman. But you have to make me a promise too. I’ll tell you the whole story, but only if you help me set it right.”
Continue: Part 3: Red As Blood