Sarah Pinborough was a teacher, but now writes full-time. She is developing an original horror screenplay, Cracked, and her supernatural crime series, The Dog-Faced Gods, for TV. She lives in West London. Visit her site at http://sarahpinborough.com/
'Air and earth. Light and dark'
'She's too old for that nickname,' the queen said. She was standing at the window of the royal bedchamber and looking down at the courtyard below. Morning sun beat on the ground, but the air was still chilly. She shivered. 'She needs to start behaving like a lady. A princess.'
'She's young. There's time enough for that yet. And anyway,' the king laughed – a throaty sound that could have been born in the bowels of the earth or in the mud of the battlefield. 'You gave it to her.' He hauled himself out of bed and his footsteps were heavy. He was heavy. Getting heavier too. She'd married a glutton.
'She's not that young. Only four years younger than me,' the queen muttered. From behind her came the sound of liquid hitting ceramic and for the thousandth time she wished he'd have the good grace to at least piss in a different room. 'And it was simply a passing remark that she was pale. It wasn't a compliment. It was meant to be a joke.' Her quiet words went unheard as her husband continued noisily with his bodily functions. 'And it was a long time ago,' she whispered, bitterly.
She watched as, far below, the young woman dismounted from her horse. She wore brown breeches and rode with her long legs astride the beast like a man. Her shirt was loose but, as the light breeze touched it, it clung to her slim form, flowing over the curve of her full breasts onto her flat stomach. Her thick raven hair fell around her shoulders and as she handed the reins of her stallion to the stable boy she tossed the dark mane to one side and the sunlight shone on it. She smiled and touched the boy's arm, and they shared a joke that made her laugh out loud. Cherry red lips. Pale skin with just a touch of dusky rose on her cheeks. Sparkling violet eyes. A living swirl of clichés. So free. So carefree.
The queen's mouth tightened. 'She shouldn't ride in the forest so early. It isn't safe. And she shouldn't ride anywhere dressed like a common boy.'
'Everyone in the kingdom knows who Snow is,' the king said. 'No one would dare harm her. No one would want to. She's like her mother; everyone loves her.'
There was no reproach in his voice. The barb was unintended but it stung all the same. The saintly dead wife. The glorified beautiful daughter. The queen's mouth twisted slightly. 'She should be thinking about marriage. Finding a decent match for the kingdom.'
Below, Snow White slapped the horse affectionately on the rear as the boy led him away, and then turned to head into the castle. With the sudden awareness a mouse might get as an owl swoops above it she glanced up, her eyes meeting her step-mother's. Her smile wavered nervously for a second and then she raised her hand in a gesture of hello. The queen did not return it. Snow White dropped her hand.
How did she look from down there, the queen wondered. Did her own blonde hair shine in the sunlight? Or was she merely a resentful ghost – a shadow against the glass? She clenched her delicate jaw. The girl disappeared from view but still the queen's teeth remained gritted. They couldn't both stay in this castle for much longer. She couldn't stand it. She stayed where she was, gazing out of the window, and after a few moments the king came and stood behind her.
'It's still early,' he said, his thick body pressed hard against her back. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her closer before one hand slid between the ribbons of her nightdress, seeking out her breast. His fingers were rough against her soft skin; a soldier's touch. She let him caress her.
'We should go back to bed,' he whispered hot in her ear. 'You know I go to war again tomorrow.' He pulled her back from the window, one hand inside her clothes as the other tugged at the bows that held it together. 'Show me how much you'll miss me.'
Finally, she turned away from the window and faced him. His eyes were glazed already and that made her smile. It took so very little from her to make him this way. His dead wife might have been well-loved, but she had never had this power. She had never realised her husband was a glutton for everything, or that all men wanted more than just good food on the table and excitement on the battlefield. They wanted excitement in the bedroom too.
She pushed the king back onto the bed and then finished the work he'd started on her shift. It slipped to the floor and she stood naked efore him. She smiled and stepped forward, brushing his lips with hers, teasing him, before lowering onto her knees. She met his gaze – hers wanton and challenging, his powerless and full of need. The knot in her stomach unfurled. He was her puppet. His dead wife might have been loved more than she, but love was irrelevant. She didn't care how much he loved her, it was more important that he wanted her. And as much as his attentions were rough and coarse, she had learned how to please him beyond any other he had ever had, her dead predecessor included. He called her his water witch – because if there had ever been a lady of the Lake then she must have looked like her, his new queen who had so enchanted him. And even though he was old enough to be her father, she understood the power that gave her. Men were base. They were manageable. The king was her puppet and she would keep it that way. She hardened her heart and ran her slim fingers across his thighs so her red nails scored his skin slightly.
He flinched. She leaned forward and teased the tip of him with her tongue.
'You are so beautiful,' the king murmured.
Yes, the queen thought. Yes, I am. Snow White's face rose unbidden in her mind, and she pushed it angrily away as she took him in her mouth.
* * *
The king and his men left the next day in a glorious parade of pomp and ceremony. The queen watched from the battlements as he went off to wage his war against the neighbouring kingdoms. Although it was summer rain fell in a fine mist. Courtiers said that the sky was crying to see their king leave and risk his life for their safety and their kingdom's strength. Lilith, the queen, his water witch, knew better. Rain was just rain, and the king fought for his own ambition, not for his kingdom. It was the one quality she liked about him. The one she could understand.
As the gates opened, he turned and waved up at her and she nodded her farewell, the eyes of the city beyond straining to see her. They waited for her to cry, to show some emotion from behind her icy beauty, but she would not oblige them. She was a queen. She did not perform for the populace. They did not matter to her; they weren't her people.
A cheer went up, and the crowd turned their collective gaze from her as if she had been but a momentary distraction. The king's horse stopped as a figure ran towards it; a girl in blue, holding up her dress so the hems didn't get ruined, but still running with the joy of a child who has yet to be corseted instead of cosseted. Snow White. Of course. Above them all the grey sky broke and a shaft of sunlight struck the castle and its grounds. Where the common people had looked at Lilith with wary fascination, they looked upon the father and daughter – especially the daughter – with fondness and love.
The queen kept her chin high. Her spine was straight from the tight stays that bound her, but it stiffened further at the crude display of emotion taking place below. Snow White reached up on her tip toes as her father leaned forward and she threw her arm around his neck, before handing him something she’d held behind her back. An apple. A bright red, perfect apple, the waxy skin catching the sudden light. The crowd cheered again as the king took the fruit, his face splitting into an enormous grin. Snow White stepped back and then curtseyed, her head bowed; once again the dutiful daughter and princess. The people went wild. Snow White, the queen of their hearts. The girl who could wow them all with something as simple as an apple. Everything was so easy for beautiful, loveable, perfect Snow White.
Lilith did not wait for the gates to close behind her husband, but turned and stormed haughtily back into the castle. The king was gone. The last time he had gone to war she had been a young bride, but now she was a woman. A queen. She was in charge and this time she'd make sure her presence was felt.
The drizzle developed into a storm and the whole castle was enveloped in a gloomy hush. The queen did not go to the formal banqueting room for dinner, but instead had a small supper sent to her room. She waited until the last minute, knowing that the cooks would have prepared several roasted meats and delicacies for her to choose from, before she sent a servant to fetch only bread and cheese and wine. The cooks would moan about the waste in a way they never would if the king did the same, but none would do it to her face and that was all that mattered. The king would be gone a long time and the sooner they learned to do as they were told the better. She had been forced to this kingdom and her marriage much against her will but she was learning to make the best of it. Her life could have been much worse.
Waiting for her bath to be filled, she gazed out at the rain and the distant glow of the foundries and the mines where the dwarves laboured. Each team worked long shifts and the fires never went out. This was a hardy land and the dwarves were the hardiest of its peoples. She wondered sometimes if they were hardy simply from years spent breaking their backs at the rock face, but when she'd mentioned it to the king he'd grown angry. He'd said that the dwarves enjoyed their work. Hadn't she heard them singing? Her words had stung him – he didn't like to be seen as unkind, even by her.
In its way the king's reaction, however, had amused her. What was this need to be seen as benevolent? If you were going to be cruel, then admit it. Embrace it. Anything else was just self-delusion and weakness.
The clatter of horse's hooves sung out above the rain and she opened the window to peer out into the evening. The rain was cold on her face and she squinted against it. The slim, cloaked figure on the horse was holding a heavily laden basket, and a wisp of dark hair was blowing free in the wind.
* * *
(C) Sarah Pinborough 2013
© Paul Kane 2003-2018. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.