Beginning: Part 1: White As Snow
Gina and Lord Boden stood, facing each other, across the table in the court meeting chamber.
“Well, perhaps if the Lady Dragonkeeper spent less time catering to the whims of peasants, and more time scouring the woods beyond the palace, we would have found the princess already.”
“And perhaps, if Lord Boden hadn’t lost more than half his estate to his compulsive gambling, he wouldn’t be so concerned with marrying her and claiming this kingdom’s wealth.”
Lord Boden’s face turned beet red and he drew back, jaw clenched and fists balling. Gina smiled smugly. Her hidden cameras had provided her with a window into the gentry’s secret conversations, and, even more valuable, the conversations of their servants.
“Lies!” Boden spat. “This witch knows nothing. She spouts false truths and empty promises.”
Gina crossed her arms, cocking an eyebrow. “Maybe I am lying about your debts, Boden, maybe I don’t know anything. I certainly don’t know who you’d rather spend your nights with, if not the princess.” As she spoke, Gina let her gaze wander to Boden’s young manservant, standing against the far wall, along with the other attendants.
Boden’s face paled and he sank back into his chair. “I trust My Lady will find her with every haste,” he said flatly, his eyes on the table.
Gina inclined her head. “Your confidence is appreciated, My Lord.”
Sweeping around the table, Gina strode for the doors, which opened for her without a word. Lyall hobbled along behind, but Gina did not pause for him to catch up. She went directly to her chambers, instructing Lyall to dismiss the villagers waiting to see her. As usual, Rolf was waiting in her room. Lounging in one of the armchairs, he held her tablet, turning it over in his hands. The screen was off, but it continued to play music softly through the wireless speakers set up around her room.
“Your musicians play very strange songs,” he said.
“They’re called the Beatles.”
“How very unfortunate.” Rolf laid the tablet down on a side table, as she took the chair next to him. “You’re back early.”
“The villagers can wait.”
“They come to you for help.”
“They come for a show,” Gina countered. “They want me to shoot fire and tell them their fortunes. The gentry are no better. Except their fortunes are a little clearer.”
Rolf’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve been spying on them again.”
Gina turned away, moving over to the window instead. “They think I did it. I’ve heard them talking. They think I killed the king and banished Snow, so I could take the throne.” Her eyes grew hot and her throat became suddenly tight. “And the worst part is, they’re actually right.”
“No,” Rolf said, suddenly at her side. “No they aren’t.” He turned Gina to face him. “We did this together, remember? To help the people. Snow isn’t banished, and you had nothing to do with the king.”
“Didn’t I?” Gina sighed and leaned against the window frame. “In the story, the king was already dead before Snow was sent away. It was my idea to take Snow, I made that happen. What if it had some kind of roll-on effect? Like the story was compensating somehow? The king didn’t die when he was meant to, so the story sent someone else to kill him. Just like it sent me to kidnap Snow.”
“It will all work out, though, right? That’s what you keep saying, that all of this was meant to happen, and it will all come right in the end. Who cares what the nobles think?” Rolf positioned himself in front of her, so she had no choice but to look at him. “The Gina I met wouldn’t have been put off by them. My Gina is strong, and she knows what she wants, and nothing’s going to stop her getting it.”
Gina tried to smile, but the expression faded. “This isn’t a dream,” she said quietly.
“I’ve been here for a month now, and I remember all of it; there’s no jumps or gaps. I stubbed my toe last night, and now I have a bruise. You don’t get bruises in dreams, Rolf. This is real.”
“Of course it’s real. Look at me, Gina. I’m real.” He grabbed her hand and placed it against his chest. She could feel his heartbeat under her palm.
“But if it’s real, what happens to me? Say we set the story straight; I’m not in the story. I don’t know if I’ll get sucked back, or just left to rot in the dungeons. Maybe they’ll just hang me.”
“I won’t let that happen,” Rolf said, his tone suddenly fierce. “I promise you, Gina. I won’t let this destroy you. We’ll run away together, if we have to.”
Gina looked up at him. “Together?”
“Well, I mean…if you want to, that is–”
Gina chuckled. “It’s meant to be me who’s lost for words.”
“Then help me find them.” Rolf leaned forward and kissed her. Gina’s hands, still against his chest, moved to his neck, and his arms wrapped around her waist.
Gina pulled away first, turning slightly to hide the flush in her cheeks.
“You should, uh, probably go and check on Snow. She hasn’t been back at the house all morning.”
“Snow.” Rolf turned away, his voice touched with a hint of bitterness. “Of course.” Grabbing his cloak off the back of the chair, he swept from the room.
* * *
Rolf remained in the saddle for several minutes after his horse came to a halt in front of the Cutters’ house. He had visited the cottage in the woods nearly every day for the last month, bringing reports back to Gina of the things her faraway-eyes couldn’t tell her.
He remembered the look of surprise on her face when he kissed her. She had not pushed him away, but nor had she responded quite the way he had hoped. Gina may not have given much thought to the future, but he had. He had thought about it every day. For the last month, his mind had been almost entirely occupied with the strange young woman who stumbled into his life, tripping over both her feet and her tongue, completely unaware that she was beautiful, and always looking slightly shocked when anyone spoke to her, as though surprised they would take the time to pay her any attention.
The realisation that, all this time, she had believed herself in a dream, stunned him. Was he not real enough for her? Did she view all they had done together as no more than a product of imagination?
Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Rolf turned his attention towards the house, only then noticing that it was indeed empty. Gina had been right, no one was home. Guessing they must have taken Snow to the markets in nearby Furrowbrook, Rolf spurred his horse back into the trees.
Furrowbrook, a town not much larger than Northwood, had once been the home of many farmers. However, the last few winters had brought wolves down from the mountains to pick off the livestock, and year after year of failed crops had seen a once thriving town become a wreck. Many of the houses Rolf passed had holes in their roofs, where the thatch had been eaten away, and couldn’t be replaced. Most of the stables were empty of livestock, or showed signs of having been taken over by vagrants. Rolf sighed. Gina’s gift of added food had given the villagers back some of their colour, and taken the peaked, unhealthy look from the children, but it hadn’t helped to mend their homes or restore their farms.
Rolf rode through the main street, looking about for the people who usually wandered it. He saw no one, nor did he hear any voices. It was nearing midday, and even those at the markets would have begun pouring back into the rest of the town by now.
A small child ran past, bare feet slapping the cold mud.
“Boy,” Rolf called out. The child stopped and looked back. “Where is everyone?”
“In the square, for the speech.” He turned and ran off before Rolf could ask anything further.
Nudging his horse on, Rolf came to the town square. Entering the square was impossible; it was completely packed with people, and they spilled out onto the surrounding streets. Many clung to the balconies of the buildings around the square, or leaned out windows. A few of the more agile children had even climbed onto the rooftops to watch. There were more people than Furrowbrook held, many of them men — the heads of their households, Rolf guessed — whose clothes marked them as out of towners. He saw men from Northwood, Brackenridge, Timbergrove, Lakesend, and even Thunderfalls. His hand went to his knife, but the Thunderfalls folk weren’t armed.
Although he couldn’t get close, from the saddle, Rolf could see over most of the crowd. They were all turned towards the raised platform at the head of the square. Usually reserved for the town representative, the platform now held a young woman. In a row behind her, were seven stout men.
Snow had left her hair down, and it billowed out about her like a midnight cloak in the tugging of the breeze. Her eyes shone bright, and her lips were dark against the pale moon of her face.
“You are given scraps,” Snow called, her voice rising high and clear over the crowd, “like swine. But you are not swine. You are people.” There were shouts of encouragement from the square. “People of the land, and of the lake. People of this kingdom.” Her voice rose. “And I say you deserve better!”
The crowd erupted into cheers, and Rolf’s horse whickered, pawing the ground uncomfortably. Rolf stared at the princess, stunned; the only still person in a sea of movement. He and Gina had been waiting for Snow to connect with her people. Perhaps this was the sign they needed.
“The false queen has denied you shelter, and medicine, and tools” Snow continued. “She has denied to even see you; instead, forcing you to your homes with fear of her dragon. No more, I say.” There were more cheers. “Go back to your homes, to your families, and ask yourself this; is this a kingdom to be proud of? For I say that it is not! A ruler who denies the hearts of her people is no ruler at all.”
Shouts of agreement rose up and Rolf’s stomach began to sink. This was not what they had planned for. Gina was not the queen. The lie was one he had fed Snow, to keep her from returning to the palace. He had never intended for it to go so far.
He knew Snow had every reason to hate Gina. Lacking any knowledge of their plan, how could she do anything less? But he had expected that anger to become fuel for her transformation, and to dissolve once all was over. He had never believed she would stand before the villagers and turn them against Gina. And he had never believed they would listen.
“Join me,” Snow called. “Join me, and together, we can take back our kingdom from the false queen. And I promise you, my people, that we will once again have a homeland to be proud of.”
The statement was met with the loudest cheer of all. Men, women and children all took up the cry, their voices a clamouring mess of noise, but through it, Rolf was able to discern two words, repeated over and over: Snow White.
The chant broke, and with it, Rolf’s frozen state. The crowd began to disperse; men running to their horses, or simply taking off on foot, back to their own villages, to spread the word. The revolution was coming.
Kicking his horse’s sides, Rolf forced himself through the oncoming mass, towards the stage. Snow had already left, deep in conversation with the master blacksmiths. The Cutters followed in a winding trail behind her. Rolf pulled his horse to a halt, swinging down in the same motion, and placed a hand on John Cutter’s shoulder, pulling the shorter man back.
“What is this?” he growled, keeping his voice low so the others wouldn’t hear.
John looked unsurprised to see him. “Snow wanted to do it. I couldn’t have stopped her.”
“You could have tried.”
“By telling her what? ‘No, Princess, don’t worry, the queen was doing all this for your own good’?”
“If you had to.”
“She’s been talking with the other villagers about taking back the throne all week. If Snow wasn’t at their head, someone else would be. No one’s forgotten what Thunderfalls tried to do, and there’re a lot of folks who thought they had the right idea.”
“Less than half of the Thunderfalls attackers made it home, remember? Waging war on the palace is madness.”
“There’s no part of this that isn’t mad,” John argued. “At least this way, they’re with Snow, not against her. You listen to me, Huntsman. That girl’s worked harder than anyone I’ve seen in the last month. You saw what she was like before. Look at her now; she genuinely wants to help these people. She cares about them. Snow White is going to save this kingdom.”
“We all want to help, John. That’s why we’re doing this; you, me, Gina.”
“Aye. You always said you and your lady intended for Snow to take back the crown when she was ready. Well, you can put her on the throne, but it isn’t going to mean a damn thing, unless these people want to follow her. And now they do.”
John was about to turn away, but Rolf tightened his grip on the man’s shoulder, pulling him back.
“What about Gina? If they find her, they’ll kill her.”
“Then I suggest you take this opportunity to get far away from here.”
Rolf’s jaw clenched, but he didn’t retort. Climbing back into the saddle, he kicked his horse into a gallop, and rode as fast as he could for the palace.
Continue: Part 7: Sweet As Poison