Forgive me, daughter, where is your heart?
Suzanne Bowditch (Deakin University, Australia)
Once, when magic still filled the air, a cottage slumped at the end of a dirt track. Feral creatures lived there, in the sagging thatch, the ancient beams. But for Rose and her father, it was home.
Rose toiled all day, to keep the cottage clean. She milked the cow, fed the chickens, swept dirt off the old stone floors. She despaired.
One day she stopped, for the sound of trumpets pierced the air, with a high-pitched tune, as befitting a King. Rose brushed herself down, twirled a red curl behind one ear before stepping outside. From the barn, her father hurried over, a look of fear on his weathered face.
‘Rose, get inside,’ he said. ‘Hide; the King’s cruelty knows no bounds.’
Too late. The horses’ hooves clipped past the old rowan tree that grew near the stoned wall. Feathers of gold and purple on their sleek heads that glimmered under a beguiling sun.
Rose held back a gasp, hoping the haughty King had not seen the tremble of her lips, or the flush to her cheeks. Her heart thumped so loudly she thought it would burst, splatter hot blood across their yard.
‘Old man, do you know who I am?’ The King asked. Rose could only imagine the malice behind that cruel mouth. His eyes swept over her, boring into her soul.
‘I do, your Highness,’ her father replied, bowing. Rose lowered herself into a curtsy.
‘So, it’s true, old man. She is the fairest maid in the land.’ He scratched his golden beard, damp with sweat and musk.
‘She is not, your Highness,’ her father protested. ‘There are fairer maidens in other Kingdoms, I know.’
‘Fool, you disobey me! This is the witch’s cottage, am I right? Your wife was a witch?’
‘My wife was a wise woman sire, not a witch,’ her father said. He glanced at Rose, then lowered his head. ‘She is gone.’
‘Enough of this!’ The King’s sword clipped the air. ‘The Old Queen has taken to her sick bed. I have chosen a new one.’
‘Please; I beg you, don’t take her,’ her father pleaded, pushing Rose behind him, into the cottage. ‘My daughter knows nothing of the cruel world.’
The King ignored him. ‘Get her!’ he ordered.
Quickly, Rose grabbed her precious things; her hunting knife, some herbs, apples, and the mirror. Her mother’s mirror. Its gilded edges glinted as she thrust it into her bag.
She kept her eyes down as they shoved her onto the King’s horse. Only once did she look back; at the cottage, a pitiful structure of sagging beams. She turned away as the first spray of blood splattered the cottage windows, sizzling red on the stoned yard as the King’s men cut her father down.
The castle came into sight as the first streak of night darkened the skies. Rose’s hair flew wildly, the King’s horse strong and muscular under her thighs.
The ramparts were brightly lit as they roared over the bridge. Flaming torches glowed at each tower. They thundered into a large courtyard.
‘We are here, my dear,’ he said, softly, all traces of arrogance gone from his eyes. He had her now; that was enough.
He lifted her down, a feather under his fingertips. ‘This is now your home.’
The King’s chambers were high ceilinged, ornate. The King laid her down on furs made up of the woodland animals; fox, deer, hare. Her heart thumped, her legs felt weak, her skin alive. She stroked the head of a fox as the King lay over her.
He took what was his, which is the truth of all Kings, their right. The fire crackled behind her, echoing the heat inside.
The fire was burnt embers when Rose glanced at her bag, at the foot of her lover’s bed. One round apple had fallen, a shiny deep blush against the wooden floor. Rose stretched her long limbs, grasping the succulent fruit to her breast.
‘Won’t you take a bite my love?’ she murmured, holding it up to the King. Soft breath against breath. ‘It’ll give you an appetite for more.’
The King viewed her from under hooded lids. She stroked his chest, no longer a child but a woman, confident of her lover’s touch. The bristly, rough hair, pliant around her fingertips; his heart strong.
‘Witch, enchantress,’ he murmured lustily, looking deep into her green eyes.
But she saw his hesitation; cool reason had returned. The aftermath of lust was now doubt in his black eyes. He knew of the foibles of women, understood their cunning, their feminine wiles. But she had been a child; untainted, pure.
‘Just this once,’ he said, gruffly, his armour down. ‘Indulge your king.’
Rose’s eyes were darkly overcast. With deft fingers she drew her hunting knife from the bag, sliced a piece of sweet flesh. She passed it to her King.
The King fell back onto the furs, his breath soft and shallow.
The King’s anger was unleashed. The roar of his voice a lion’s roar, echoing around the castle walls.
‘Treachery and betrayal!’ he cried. ‘And from a poisoned apple!’
He banished her to the tallest tower. Hidden in her skirts sat her herbs, her hunting knife, her mother’s precious mirror. They were hers, her power.
Every day, she saw the comings and goings of the castle servants, watched as the King rode out of the castle gates, hunting in the deep forest. Sometimes, she would catch a glimpse of a young girl with raven black hair, a ruby red mouth, taking up the rear of the hunting party. She knew it was his daughter, Snow White, although their paths had not crossed.
Every day, her bitter heart twisted. Every day she plotted.
The weeks past, the months flew by.
Then one day, a servant knocked on her locked door.
‘The King has left, my Lady, to fight his own battles,’ said her gossipy old maid. ‘You are free.’
Rose wandered around the castle corridors. Bare feet, robe trailing behind her. She saw the village, far below the castle walls. The rooms were huge, cold, unloved.
She stumbled into the kitchens. It was warmer here than the cold corridors, a place of comfort. Rose warmed her icy hands in the fire, felt the flames renew her. No one saw her; they were out in the castle gardens, gathering herbs for dinner. She was a waif, a stray, forgotten.
A cauldron sat in a dusty corner. Rose took it, hid it in her robe. She knew she was wise, like her mother before her. Like the generations of women that had weaved their magic. Witch, they said.
She looked for the child, for Snow White. She saw her in the castle gardens, playing with a nanny. No more than a dozen years. Her beauty grew each day that passed.
Rose’s twisted heart grew more bitter.
The King rode back, triumphant. Battles won; the distant Kingdom vanquished. Rose heard the galloping of his horse coming through the castle gates, gold and purple feathers on their proud equine heads.
He came to her chambers. A glassy glint to his eyes, his beard glistened with sweat.
‘You are even more beautiful than I remember,’ he said. His cloak fell onto the stone floor. ‘This castle, your home, obviously suits you.’
‘Yes, my Lord,’ she replied, lifting her chin. She knew her punishment had ended by the dark lust in his eyes.
He grabbed her close and, in the morning, she knew she was Queen.
The crown was heavy on her head. Rose frowned, feeling the gold circlet cut into her red braids. It would have to be altered.
‘Don’t fuss so,’ she told a maid. She was getting used to giving orders, to seeing others tremble before her. The feeling was intoxicating. The castle had seduced her, just like the King. Now it was hers, to do as she pleased.
The servant bowed; a mouse, like one of the feral creatures she’d once swept away, shooed out of her childhood cottage. But that was behind her.
Outside, the bells rang out. Everywhere she looked, roses of pink and red festooned the castle corridors.
‘Where is the King?’ she asked, looking to the walnut chest, her bag inside. Her herbs.
‘He’s in the kitchens, my Lady.’ The maid replied. ‘Eating with the hounds.’
‘Good,’ she said.
Left alone, she picked up the gilded mirror, her mother’s precious mirror. Were there lines, running across her forehead? Could she see age spots, underneath the white powder?
Had life in the castle aged her so?
The mantle of responsibility washed over her. A Queen, a castle, a Kingdom; what for? To grow old while the people below her laughed and danced and sang in the castle grounds?
‘Mother, can you hear me?’ she said, to the cold glass. ‘Are you watching over me?’
‘I am here, my darling Rose,’ her mother said, her reflection appearing in the mirror. ‘But beware; if you are afraid your beauty will fade; think on. You are beautiful now, but what of the future? The King’s daughter will grow; she be the fairest, most beautiful maiden in the land.’
A knot of anxiety formed in Rose’s throat: ‘Snow White’s beauty will garner her a handsome Prince,’ said the reflection. And you will be banished, to sit out your years in misery. ‘Take her lifeblood, her heart, before it’s too late.’
Everyone scurried around her; the courtiers, the Lords and Ladies of the land. Colourful peacocks, strutting here and there. They were used to the King’s strange ways; the guttering noise in his throat, the stiltedness of his Royal gait. She knew they gossiped behind their coloured fans. Let them talk.
The King had taken her body, but she had his mind. She gave him just enough of the potion to make him hers.
But each night the spell was lifted. For one hour he had his wits once more. Then, Rose led him to the tallest tower, held tight to the key of his golden cage. No one could hear his cries. How else could it be so?
‘He is such a fool,’ Rose cackled, throwing more herbs into her bubbling cauldron.
Still, she suffered. Rose looked for her reflection everywhere; in the mirrored ponds of the castle grounds; in the silver spoons that sparkled in the dining room. Weren’t there stories, from other kingdoms beyond the dark forest; of queens usurped, kingdoms falling? What if a handsome Prince passed by?
She heard footsteps, echoing down the castle corridors as Snow White entered the Great Hall. Rose took in the luscious shine of the raven hair, the perfect red bud lips. The girl’s beauty abhorred her. Rose’s jealousy gripped at her heart like ivy, winding around an ivory tower.
Around and around it goes, she thought; youth and beauty, beauty and youth; and for what? The passing nod of a nobleman, the lustful thoughts of an old King, the love of a young prince. She plastered a grim, thin smile on her face as she glanced at the child.
Rose looked down at the King, sprawled glassy-eyed at her feet. She pushed a gold-slipper into his chest. How long could his enchantment last before she was exposed?
‘How old are you now, my stepdaughter?’ she asked, the words lodging in her throat.
‘You know how old I am, mother.’ Snow White laughed, a tinkling sound like a bubbling brook. ‘Why, I have seen four and ten years already.’
‘Well, you shall go hunting.’ Rose said. ‘Bring me a wolf’s head by morning.’
‘A wolf’s head, stepmother?’ Snow White looked alarmed. ‘Why, I don’t think there are such beasts in the forest. The huntsman can do that for you.’
‘Are you defying me, child? A huntsman may help you – that is all. Take one with you, of course.’ Rose tapped her fingers on the gold chair. ‘But you need to prove to me that you are worthy to be my daughter.’
The next morning, Rose saw Snow White run out of the castle gates, her red cloak flying behind her, blue-black hair stark against the first fluttering of snow on the ground. She listened as the ravens screeched from the trees, heralding the dawn.
She had paid a visit to the huntsman, in the middle of the night. ‘Bring me Snow White’s heart,’ she’d ordered, as the huntsman’s wife had cowered in the corner of their forest dwelling. ‘Or I will take the heart of your oldest child. Snow White is never to darken my door again.’
In her tower, she looked in the mirror. ‘You have done well, my daughter,’ her mother encouraged. ‘Now you will always be the fairest.’
‘Yes, mother,’ Rose replied, but her heart sunk, just a little. Her mother’s power was strong. Magic was older than time itself. It did no good to cross her.
Rose waited for news of the huntsman. Dawn became day, then night filled the sky. She waited. The King ran into her chambers, a sot in a jade green tunic.
‘The creatures of the forest are here,’ he cried. She saw the marks of lust on his heavy shoulders, his glassy, heavy lidded eyes. A smile crossed her face. Old magic is powerful, she thought. I have a King and a Kingdom. What more is there?
In the courtyard, the dwarfs, seven all told, had tears running down their faces. Their short, stumpy legs carried a glass coffin into the castle grounds. The mountain folk.
Inside the glass coffin, Snow White slumbered.
‘We tried to save her,’ they wailed, bowing as Rose approached. They removed their redcaps so that she saw a line of balding, withered heads.
Rose saw the husk of the poisoned apple, the blackened skin stained and weeping with the magic potion. She saw the blood, smearing Snow White’s dress. What terror had Snow White felt, left alone, in the dark forest? A place filled with thieves and robbers. Of wolves and bears and other wild beasts.
‘I want the huntsman’s head for this,’ she pleaded, looking around at the crowd. ‘His body hung on the castle ramparts.’
Back in her tower Rose reached for the gilded mirror. Hands shaking, she said: ‘Do I still have your approval, mother? Am I still the loveliest, the most powerful, in the land? I need you.’ Her words sounded weak and hollow, even to her.
‘Yes,’ was her mother’s cackled reply.
Months passed by until a stranger rode through the castle gates. He was handsome, as strangers sometimes are. He saw the glass coffin in the castle courtyard and stopped to rein in his horse. Snow White’s chest continued to rise and fall, a sleeping princess. The stranger gazed at her pure white skin, her blood red lips, and smiled.
‘I am Prince Lukos,’ he said, lifting his regal chin. He drew a bag from his horse’s saddle. ‘I have the heart of the huntsman!’ he cried, triumphantly. Blood dripped down his hairy arms. ‘So, the princess is mine.’
‘Snow White belongs to no one,’ Rose said, stepping forward. She felt a strangeness in her heart, a feeling that she thought had died long ago.
The prince ignored her, licking his lips, growling, clawing, at the glass coffin. Blood smeared its clear glass top. He drew thick scratches, ragged, down its side.
‘Leave her alone,’ cried Griff, a dwarf. ‘The spell cannot be broken unless a true, honest person fights for her.’
‘I am the true, honest person, foolish dwarf,’ Lukos replied.
A knife glinted in Griff’s stumpy hand. He plunged it straight upwards, into Lukos’ heart. Blood spurted from the prince’s chest, staining the lush grass. Lukos howled. Blood-curdling. Then he fell, a gyrating body, a beast once more. A wolf.
Snow White opened her eyes. She pushed at the casket lid. Shards of glass flew everywhere, flying off into a thousand, glittering pieces.
Rose lifted her skirts and headed to the tower.
Rose held up the gilded mirror. A mound of herbs lay scattered on the table, a cauldron bubbled over a fire. A glass globe, its contents hazy, sat on top of the walnut chest. The stench of old magic filled the air.
Rose spun around as footsteps clattered up the tower. Snow White the huntress was near; she had no doubt. The feral scent had filled her nostrils and carried up the tower steps.
Rose pulled her cloak closer, hid the glass globe inside its depths.
Snow White appeared in the doorway. The armour she wore shone dully in the dim light.
‘Oh no, you don’t, step-mother,’ she said, her voice deep and guttural. A sword glinted in her hand. ‘There’s nowhere to hide.’
Rose saw the red weals, scarring her pale white throat. A wolf’s mark.
‘I can smell your evil,’ said her stepdaughter. ‘You sent me into the forest, sat back as I tried to live out there, among the wild beasts. Thought I’d fall down and die?’
The mirror clattered onto the stone floor. ‘Why my heart?’ Snow White asked, her mouth a stain of red. Her movements were stilted, shaky. ‘Why?’
‘I am no match for your beauty, your youth,’ Rose replied. ‘It has always been so.’
Then Snow White was upon her, slashing wildly, matted hair streaming around her shoulders, as black as the ravens at first light. She was a warrior, a soldier, a feral creature.
Rose shrieked and fell backwards, into the fireplace. Her cloak caught alight and the flames shot upwards, engulfing her. The tower filled with a thick black smoke as the embers licked the air.
Old magic is strong.
A spire of smoke drifted towards the tower window. Snow White picked up the gilded mirror and threw it, clear outside. There was calm in the air once more. A stillness.
In the rounded corner, the King took one last mortal breath.
The cottage slumped at the end of a dirt lane. A ramshackle heap of thatch and ancient timbers.
Rose sat next to the scarred table. Her dress was charred, her hair the same. A wild crown around her scorched face. The gilded mirror sat in her blackened fingers.
The reflection cleared and there was Snow White, in full armour, galloping on a silver steed, past snowy topped mountains, over bubbling streams. She was searching, high and low, in every crevice of the land, in every bend of the river.
Rose saw Snow White’s distraught face. Her pure white complexion, as pure as the first snow that lay on the ground. Her hair, as black as the blackest raven; her deathly crowning glory. And her lips, blood red, a stain on the ghost-white visage.
She knew what was coming, as sure as the stars in the sky. The ancient magic could be used for good, or evil. She saw the red caps, riding alongside their mistress. Loyal in death.
Rose turned to the figure by the window. The light had faded her as the power of the old magic disintegrated.
‘You have done well, my daughter,’ her mother said, her voice a fading whisper. ‘The King has paid the price for what he did to us; now his daughter suffers also.’
‘Have I done well though, mother?’ Rose asked. She glanced outside. The graves were still there; rotted by storms, worn by the wind. The old stories. Her grandmother had burned as a witch. Her mother too.
Struck down, all of them. By judgement and superstition. By evil deeds and fear.
‘The time has come, change is afoot,’ Rose whispered. ‘The King has paid for what he has done.’ She paused, then said: ‘Don’t the ancient stories tell us that our strength lies in the bonds we make? In our sisterhood? Together we are stronger.’
A single tear ran down her mother’s pale cheek. Rose reached out to touch the droplet. It sat on her finger, a perfect globe. She opened a locket at her neck and placed it there.
‘Have your peace mother, and I shall have mine,’ she cried. ‘Snow White’s youth is her strength, but I have a wiser, older strength, borne from all that came before me. The wise women.’
Rose looked up as the vague outline of her mother disappeared. A wisp of something drifted in the air, floated around the graves. Then it was gone.
The glass globe sat on the table. Inside its murky depths, Snow White’s heart continued beating, slowly and steadily. Her life force, her life blood.
Rose raised her head at the sound of hooves, galloping down the lane. In the mirror, she watched as Snow White egged her horse onwards, down the dirt lane to the cottage.
The heart pulsated from its glass confines; rich red, throbbing, alive.
Rose closed her eyes as she listened to the pounding of her own heart.
Suzanne Bowditch is a Welsh/Australian writer of historical fiction, short stories and cozy mysteries. She has had stories published in Silver Apples Magazine and with the Geelong Writers anthology. Having recently graduated with a masters in Writing and Literature at Deakin University, she is currently working on a historical novel about a witch.