The White Snake (One Good Turn)

To her people, the queen was a prophet. To her enemies, she was a witch. She smiled across the table at the visiting dignitaries, all of whom shifted in their seats, unwilling to meet her gaze.

“As I was saying,” one of the lords addressed his dinner plate. “Our carriages were molested during our journey, and our valuables taken. If her majesty could offer a donation, it would be immensely appreciated.”

The queen smiled, popping a glazed cherry into her mouth. “The only molesting of your carriages is that they must carry a liar. You lost your riches in the gambling houses long before coming here.”

The man blushed, sinking down in his chair. His wife turned to him with a stony expression. The queen tittered and turned her attention to the next visitor, who quailed under her gaze.

A young servant girl, whose name was Blanche, observed all this from the corner of the room, as she did every night. Once the queen and her guests were finished with their meals, Blanche collected their plates and whisked them away. When the visitors had left, and the queen was alone, she summoned Blanche back with her secret evening dish.

None of the servants knew the contents of the dish, as it was served on a silver platter, under a silver cover. Even the cook did not know. Every day, she was ordered to leave the dish on a table, with the cover beside it, and leave the room. And every day, when she returned, the cover had been placed onto the platter.

Blanche took the secret dish to the queen, bowed, and then left. When some time had passed Blanche would return to collect the dish once more. This time, as she walked away, she was so overcome with curiosity, that instead of taking the dish back to the kitchen, she took it to the servants’ quarters and hid in her room. Lifting the cover, Blanche revealed a white snake, coiled upon the platter. The snake looked at her, then lunged forward and bit Blanche on the hand.

She yelped and jumped back.

“I’m sorry I had to hurt you,” the snake said, and Blanche yelped again, for snakes could not talk.

“What are you?” she asked, when she had regained her voice.

“I am the white snake. You can understand me, because I bit you.”

“And the queen, does she understand you too?”

The snake nodded, “I have been the queen’s prisoner for many years, whispering her secrets from around the kingdom, for I can speak to the animals, and they tell me many things.”

“What sort of things?” Blanche asked, folding her legs to sit opposite the snake.

“All sorts. Like that in the next kingdom, the prince is searching for a bride. If you help me escape from here, I could help you win the prince’s hand. You could be a queen yourself.”

Blanche pictured herself with a crown and a fine dress, and servants of her own to carry her dishes.

“You would help me become a queen?”

“Yes. But one good deed deserves another, and if I help you, you must promise to set me free on the night of your wedding.”

“I promise,” Blanche said, nodding, but really her thoughts were still on all the lovely dresses and jewels she could have if she were a queen.

“We will need a horse and supplies to leave here,” the snake said. “The queen has lost her favourite ring and will give you a reward if you retrieve it. Take me to the duck pond outside.”

Blanche draped the snake around her shoulders and carried it out to the duck pond. There, the snake spoke to the ducks. One of them coughed up a ring, and Blanche collected it to take back to the queen. The queen was grateful, and granted Blanche’s request of a horse and provisions, so that she could leave the kingdom.

They had travelled only a short while, when Blanche and the snake came to a stream. Three fish were trapped in an abandoned net and struggling to break free.

“Oh good, dinner,’ Blanche said, getting off her horse.

“No, wait,” the snake said. “Don’t eat them, set them free. One good deed deserves another. Help them now, and they may one day return the favour.”

Blanche untangled the net and set the fish free. They splashed around in the stream in front of her, before slipping away into the water.

“They are very grateful,” the snake told her. Blanche was unsure, she still thought dinner sounded like a good idea.

They continued along their way, but it was not long before the snake cried out, “Stop.”

Blanche stopped the horse and looked around worriedly.

“What is it?”

“There is a colony of ants below us,” the snake said. “We are trampling them. Move the horse onto that side path instead.

Blanche obliged and the snake curled against her contentedly. “Those ants will remember you,” it said.

They travelled some distance more, and came upon three young crows struggling on the ground.

“Wait,” the snake called, as Blanche was about to ride past. “Those crows are only babies; they can’t fly yet. They’re asking for food or they’ll starve.”

Blanche nodded and dismounted. She knew what to do now, and drew her sword. “I’ll feed the crows, and then they’ll owe me a debt.” She raised her sword, about to kill her horse.

“No, stop!” the snake cried. “Don’t kill the horse to spare the crows.”

Blanche sighed. “But I thought I was supposed to help them.”

“You are, but not by harming another. Look around, you may find something else to give the crows.”

Grumbling, Blanche marched off into the woods. With the snake’s help, she was able to locate a dead rabbit. Picking it up by one ear, and carrying it at arm’s length, Blanche brought it back to the crows.

“They are most grateful for your efforts,” the snake informed her. Blanche huffed in response, trying to wipe dead rabbit off her fingers.

At long last, they reached the kingdom, and Blanche saw, for the first time, the young prince who was looking for a bride. Many girls had turned out to ask for his hand, and so the prince had devised a series of challenges for the women, determining that only the smartest, strongest, and most diligent would succeed.

For their first challenge, Blanche and the other girls were taken down to the lake side. There, the prince tossed a gold ring into the water and told the girls to retrieve it.

“The first to come back with the ring shall win this challenge,” the prince declared. “If you all should fail, you will be thrown back in again and again until you find it.”

“I can’t swim,” Blanche lamented, seeing nervous looks from the other girls.

“Don’t worry,” the snake whispered, slithering down from her shoulders and disappearing into the reeds.

A short while later, a silvery fish bobbed to the surface of the lake and swam over to Blanche. She recognised the fish she had saved from the net in the stream. The fish carried in its mouth the gold ring, which it gave to Blanche. With the snake back at her side, she presented the ring to the prince.

The prince was not impressed, declaring that Blanche must have cheated. Instead, he took the girls to a large field and distributed the contents of ten grain sacks over the dirt. One sack for each girl.

“Every grain must be retrieved from your sack by morning,” the prince ordered.

Blanche stared out over the field and the thousands of tiny grains that she had to find.

“Never fear,” the snake said, disappearing once more.

When Blanche returned at sunrise, she saw the entire sack of grain had been piled up neatly. The ants had come during the night, at the behest of the white snake, and had gathered up every grain.

Blanche felt certain she had won this time, as the other girls had half the number of grains, and a lot of broken fingernails, to show the prince. But, the prince was not convinced, and so he set for Blanche, one more challenge.

“Bring me an apple from the tree of life. If you do this, you will be my queen.”

Blanche sighed. She had no clue where to find the tree of life, nor did she know whom to ask. When three crows flew overhead, the snake called out to them. The crows came down and the snake spoke to them, before they flew away again.

“Those were the crows you rescued, now strong enough to fly. They know of the tree, and will bring you an apple, just as you brought them a rabbit.”

Blanche was overjoyed when, true to their word, the crows returned with a golden apple. She offered this to the prince, and he accepted the gift, declaring that their wedding would take place that night.

Following the ceremony, in which Blanche and the prince shared the apple she had given him, Blanche stepped outside to talk to the snake.

“I have helped you get that which you desire,” the snake said. “Now you must fulfil your promise, and set me free.”

“Actually,” Blanche said, “I was thinking it might be better if you stayed here. You’re ever so helpful at getting favours, and you could tell me secrets from all around the kingdom. A queen needs to know what’s happening in her land, after all.”

The snake reared up. “But you promised,” it spat. “I upheld my end of the deal and gave you everything you wanted. You have to honor your word.”

“No,” Blanche said, grabbing the snake and lifting it off the ground. “I don’t think I shall.”

“You will regret this,” she snake warned. “Betray me, and it will be the last thing you do.”

“There’s no one left who owes us a debt,” Blanche said. “Who will you ask for help?”

“There is one who owes me.” The snake bit Blanche’s hand, forcing her to drop it, then slithered away before she could catch it.

“Drat,” Blanche cursed, then returned to the party. When she and her new husband retired to the palace, they were cornered outside by Blanche’s horse. The white snake was wrapped around its neck.

“You would have killed this horse, but I spared her. Now she will kill you.”

Blanche tried to run, but the horse kicked her, then trampled both her and the prince to death. The white snake thanked the horse for her help, and the two left the kingdom together, never to be seen again.

 

—– This story was written in response to a prompt to retell one of Grimm’s fairy tales with the genders of the main characters reversed, along with any other changes you see fit.


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