Once upon a time there was a mirror. . . .
So begins this dark, unusual retelling of the story of Snow White by the writer reviewers have called "the Angela Carter of the fantasy field"a whole novel based on a beloved story, turning it into a dark and sensual drama full of myth and magic.
Arpazia is the aging queen who paces the halls of a warlord's palace. Cold as winter, she has only one passionfor the mysterious hunter who courts the outlawed old gods of the woodland. Coira is the princess raised in the shadow of her mother's hatred. Avoided by both her parents and half forgotten by her father's court, she grows into womanhood alone . . . until the mirror speaks, and blood is spilled, and the forest claims her.
The tragic myth of the goddess Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, stolen by the king of the underworld, is woven together with the tale of Snow White to create a powerful story of mothers and daughters and the blood that binds them together, for good or ill. Black queen. White maid. Royal huntsman. Seven little folk who live in the forest. Come inside, sit by the fire, and listen to this fairy tale as you've never heard it told before.
Once upon a time there was a mirror, and a girl as white as snow. . . .
About the Author
Tanith Lee has won multiple World Fantasy Awards, including the 2013 World Fantasy Award Life Time Achievement Award, and she was the first woman to win the August Derleth Award, which she received for her novel Death's Master. Her books include the Tales from the Flat Earth series and The Birthgrave Trilogy for adults, and The Claidi Journals series of children's fantasy books. She has written more than 250 short stories. She lives in England.
Read an Excerpt
WHITE AS SNOW
Tam Atra Quam Ebenus Black as Ebony
The Mirror: The Maiden
ONCE UPON A TIME, IN WINTER, there was a mirror.
It had been brought from the East, where the sun rose, and the moon; that always-rising place of curiosity and brightness.
The mirror was made of glass, which, in the lands it had been brought to. was not usual. And so, to protect it (but also because those who looked in it were sometimes very startled hy the monstrous clarity of the reflections), it had a lid, which could be closed. And often then, the mirror stood shut by its silver lid, like a sleepingor a deadeye.
However, today the mirror had been opened.
What did the mirror see, looking in?
A young girl, slender, clear and bright herself with youth. She stared at the mirror, which she knew must be sorcerous, and then swiftly away.
But the mirror continued to mirror her as she went to a high window and, instead, looked out.
"What can you see?" asked the blind old nurse in her turn.
"The snow," said the girl, "and the black trees stretching up their arms to the sky. Nothing else."
The nurse sang in her cracked voice:
"Black is the wood, white is the snow, Red the roses that under it grow"
The girl paid no attention. She had observed something flickering, shifting through the avenues of the winter forestwas it a group of riders? A pack of wolves? Then nothing was there, only the wind thrusting by the trees. (War was bounding over the snow's book toward this castle, but the girl had not seen this. And the old nurse, witch enough once to have done so, was half blind too, now, in her psychic vision.)
"Black is the wood"
"Hush," said the girl, irritated. She spoke to the nurse as, seven years before, the nurse would have spoken to her.
Without protest the old woman withdrew herself, a snail, into the shell of her thoughts.
And the girl went on staring at the forest. Her name was Arpazia. Her hair was black as the woods, her pale skin better than the snow. Her eyes, though, were a light, water-gray. She was fourteen years of age. She longed for change, not knowing the change of all things was almost upon her, nor what it could mean.
Draco the war-leader, soon to be a king, led his army through the forests. In his rough way, he had studied strategy, and was well aware few battles were fought by choice in winter. So, he had chosen it.
His men no longer grumbled. They were warmed by spoils from the last three stone towns, and all the villages they had sacked.
Up there, through the trees, stood the last castle on the board. But it would be easy to take. The lordling was old, and his battalionslax. Few were left to come to his help. Draco doubted if even a spy had reached this spot with the news of an army's approach.
He had dreamed of that castle. In the dream it had been iron and obdurate, but nevertheless he smashed it like an egg. Then they all acknowledged him, gave in. He rode to the palace at Belgra Demitu, a king.
As dusk began, deer roasted on the red fires. They ate them, and drank wine. Near midnight, Draco went to the priest and prayed.
"God favors you, my son."
"I know it, Father. How else could I have come so far?"
"When you are raised high, do not forget God then."
Draco thought the priest meant he must not forget the Church and his gifts which must be made to the altar, piling on the gold. But there would be plenty, and besides he was devout.
They had dressed Arpazia in the carmine dress, braided her hair, and placed on her head a slim golden circlet with a white veil. She was being taken to see her father.
Arpazia had no memory of her mother. She had died, they told Arpazia, at the child's birth. From the beginning, too, she had not had a father, only this remote figure called a father, old to her even when she was an infant, who now and then acknowledged her, gave her some strange inimical present, like the emerald ring too big for her, or the Eastern mirror.
He sat in his library, and below, down the stair in the hall, there was a lot of noise, the clashing of the men in their mail, and sometimes women crying. ("What is it?" she had asked her maids, hearing these sounds at first distantly. "Has someone died?" The maids looked frightened. It was the old nurse who said, rocking herself slowly, half smilingbut without joy"Most will.") They were at war, it seemed. A horde marched toward them. Arpazia, too, became afraid, but only a little, for it was beyond her understanding.
The library was a small room, its stone walls hung with carpets, or else shelves and great books heaped on, some large as a three-year-old child, or long tubes of wood or metal in which lay scrolls of yellowed paper.
Arpazia's father glanced up from a map he had been studying with some difficultyhis pale eyes, too, the girl had learned, were no longer much use to him.
"Is it you, Arpazia?"
This question was not due to his eyesight, only his indifference, she suspected. He had other daughters in the castle, though none legitimate. Her own waiting-women were two of these.
"Have they informed you?"
"I expect you're fearful. It is a terrible thing." The elderly man raised his gray face and looked at everything, the room, his books, her, with a ghastly resignation. "This one who springs down on us is barbaric. And cunning. His symbol is a hlack hull sporting fire, but his name's Dracothe dragon."
Arpazia felt a new, more positive fear. And yet, the gale of change blew in her face and never had she sensed her life or her youth so strongly.
"What shall we do?" she cried.
"Resist," said the remote father. "Rut fail. I judge there's little hope. Presently you should go to pray. Confide in the Blessed Marusa. The priest will shrive you. Wait meekly. When the hour comes, I'll find you. I will see to it you suffer nothing at their hands."
Arpazia blinked. Was this magic he spoke of? He was very clever, she had always heard, intellectual and mentally powerful, if physically a poor specimen.
"The nurse says," she blurted, "you'll give me wings to fly away"
He laughed. It was a horrible laugh. Not cruel, but nevertheless quite pitiless. "So I shall. She spoke well, the old woman. Tell her,I'll give her wings, too. She has been faithful, and why should they have her, these brutes, to make a slave of? Tell her, Arpazia, she too shall have wings."
But as he said this, he did something at odds with the words, a piece of body theater that, without instructing the girl, yet forewarned her. He drew a long thin dagger and placed it, shining, on the table.
I must be shriven and then will be pure for Heaven. Angels and the souls of the dead have wings.
Arpazia backed a step away, but her father had already lost interest in her, taken up as he was with preparing his own self for death, and his castlethat no one should have the benefit of it after him.
When the girl had returned to her own apartment, she found her nurse still sitting at the fireside.
"He means to kill me!"
"Your father? Oh yes." The nurse was vague and dispassionate. Her abject fatalism might have bloomed for this moment. "He won't want the barbarians to get you. They'd rip you in bits with their dirty ways. It is a favor to you. None of the other girls will get any assistance, they'll have to see to it for themselves."
Shocked, Arpazia hissed, "He said he would kill you too."
"Good, good. That's kind of him."
The girl screamed. But all over the castle women were doing that, screaming and weeping, just as the men shouted and cursed and drank, and the priest kissed images of the Christ and moaned long prayers.
Arpazia ran to the window. There was a mark in the distance, above the forests, a sort of cloud. Something was burning, from the breath of the bull, from the fire of the dragon.
But she must get away.
She stood, irresolute. Nothing had ever happened to her. Unpracticed, she did not truly believe in this, and so, maybe, it would pass.
THE HORDE ARRIVED. IT WAS INCREDIBLE, awesome as any natural disaster. The woods turned black and the snow vanished beneath the darkness of many thousand men, their horses, their fighting engines. Here and there danced a flick or lash of flame, the fires of the encampment, for which they felled the forest trees, or the scarlet of the evil banners.
There was no discussion, no terms were offered or asked. Within three hours ballistas let loose huge rocks against the outer gates, and once something snorted fire. Night fell, and then they sent a rain of burning arrows across the castle parapets.
The castle began to stink, not only of fire but of wretched fear and hate.
A man guarded Arpazia's door, then, near sunrise, when the lord of the castle dispatched his force, this man, too, was gone.
The nurse slept, sitting in her chair, silent as one already dead. Arpazia marveled she had ever run to that shriveled breast for comfort, to that idiot's face for guidance.
Instead it was her second maid (the other was also gone) who crept close in the cold, diluted light.
She was the bastard daughter of the lord, but had a look not of Arpazia, or her father, but of her own mother, a narrow-boned woman with coppery hair.
"You're icy. Here's your fur. Arpaziayou won't let him murder you?"
Arpazia glanced at the girl. "Oh, Lilcawhat can I do?"
Years after, this foolish wail would haunt Arpazia, infuriating and shaming her. But by then she would have lost her patience with youth, as in youth she had no compassion for old age.
"Couldn't you run away, Arpazia? Who'd see, in the fighting? It's better to chance the snow and the forests. God says it's a sin to die, unless He allows it." Arpazia huddled in the wolf-pelt. Lilca said, "I don't want to die here. I'll go with you."
As they slipped across the room, the sound of fighting began beyond the walls and woke the blind nurse. She turned her head like a statue given dreadful life. "Where are you going, Arpazia?"
"To seewhat they do."
"Stay here. It isn't right you watch the battle."
"Just for a moment."
"Black is the wood," sang the eyeless statue, blanched stone in the deadly ghost of dawn, "white is the snowred the bloods that under it flow"
"Leave the wicked old beldame," snarled Lilca, and pulled Arpazia away through the door.
There was a narrow stair, well known. In the past it had led to a little summer garden with peaches and apple trees. The door was locked, but Lilca, revealing new talents, undid the lock with a paring knife.
Outside, the garden was piled with snow and the trees were bowed white humps beneath it. Lilca drew her through a knot of these trees, and black claws reached from under the snow to scratch them. They were pressed now against the mass of the outer wall.
"Shall we hide here?" Arpazia askedstupidly, as she ever after thought.
"There's a door," said Lilca.
It was difficult to discover, the door, hidden in bare twisted creeper and the limbs of trees. A peculiar door, very low, the height only of a childor a dwarf. Perhaps it had been guarded, too, but again the guard had vanished. Arpazia saw with dull astonishment that Lilca had, to this door, a key.
Beyond was a devious passageway, in darkness. Above it hulked a roof of earth and roots. The path stumbled down, snowless but deathly cold. It became totally black, then a faint light returned.
Lilca reached up and began pushing at some slab above. It shifted an inch. Suddenly assistance came.
To her amazement, Arpazia saw the slab, the top of some antique cistern, dragged away, and grinning men leaned through and drew her up, and Lilca up, into white daylight.
Arpazia stood now in the forest. Glancing behind her, she could see the dim towering of the castle walls. There was no movement anywhere but for the soft drifting of smoke, yet she could hear the battle, grown thick and muddy, except when sometimes a wild shriek pierced through.
Here, there were four strangers. They wore mail like her father's soldiers, and for a moment she took them for castle men.
One of them had pushed Lilca back against a pine tree, bundling up her skirts. The others laughed, encouraged him, and as he forced her, Lilca did not struggle, only began to sob, but in a sullen, uncomplaining way. And when a second, and a third man replaced the first, still she made no protest. Obviously it was the price she had known she would have to pay in order to elude death.
The other helpful man said to Arpazia, "Don't concern yourself. That's all she's worth. We won't do you, lady. You're for a higher table."
Because Lilca had betrayed the castle, allowing Draco's army in by the secret door, Draco in fact had her hanged. He did not like faithlessness, and in those days sought always to make vivid examples of his moral stance.
But to Arpazia, seeing she had been an innocent in the matter, he subsequently gave back several of her "treasures," as he termed them, a reward for allowing him to sack the castle before her father Could burn everything. He even initially forgave her attempt to escape and curse himevidently neither had worked. He told her, her behavior was not surprising. She was a virgin and virtuous. However, all that was later, in the palace by the sea.
Arpazia knew nothing about the act a man performed with a woman, although she had sometimes heard of it. It was a sacredritual intended to invoke pregnancyor a dirty deed. Something deliciousor disgusting. So shrouded in mysteryand in mysterious, contrary chatter had it beenit meant nothing to her. It had no connection to any feeling she herself might ever have had, in dreams, or alone.
What she saw the men doing to Lilca that morning she had not understood, and through their hurry, and Lilca's acquiescence, Arpazia was not enlightened.
The castle, her home, fell in the hour after she left it.
Arpazia by then had been put into a tent of the war-camp, a makeshift leather thing that was full of baskets, bundles, and shed pieces of weaponry. They tied her hands together, and her feet; these quite loosely, at the ankles. And there were two old women there in the tent, sorting through the bundles and other stuff, who cackled at her, but nothing else. They were unlike the nurse, being sharp-eyed and lively. There was a brazier which kept them all quite warm.
The girl was afraid, of course, but aware she did not now have to face her father with his implacable murdering dagger. What did she think would happen to her? In the after years, when, again and again, all these scenes returned in abrupt harsh flashes, like bitter lightnings, she would strive with her younger self, asking her what she had expected. Something nice?
Probably nothing. The callow girl (that she would come to despise and separate from) had no imagination. Since she knew nothing, she had nothing to burn as fuel for thought. She had been taught to read and write a little but had not bothered with books, from the use of which she had been discouragedlearning was a male pursuit. Instead her head was packed with social songs of the castle, with fragmented myths, with the shadowy rhymes and chants and spells of the nurse, who had been reckoned a witch.
Arpazia fell asleep finally, sitting there in the tent, as the scavenger crones picked through the incomprehensible muddle of odds and ends.
Then mad shouting woke her, the noise of things crashing, and a wild victory paean ringing round and round.
This filled her with alarm, but also, not knowing what to do, incapable of anything, as soon as it died down she fell asleep again.
I should have chewed through the binding at my wrists. I should have done it so the women never saw. Untied the rope from my ankles. Crept away. Even if they had killed me
At last she woke and it was dusk. The hags were gone, and a man was pulling her to her feet. She found they had cut the tie at her ankles..They let her walk across the camp, through the churned snow.
Campfires and braziers burned, and the banners which also flickered like flames. She saw the emblem, the bull which blew fire.
Men dragged things, some of which were carts loaded with their spoils from her castle, or simply cartless spoilscarpets, furniture, chests, objects she had seen often, but never like this. Some men dragged the bodies of other men, she did not know why. Horses restlessly trampled at their pickets, shaking their heads. A few were running about riderless, calling. A woman went by in a necklace of gold, crying her eyes out. There was the smell of roasting meat, beer and death-kept-cold. And there was still some occasional screaming, from the surgeons' area. But generally the atmosphere was jolly.
The dusk changed from blue to steel to firelit red, as she crossed the camp. No one paid Arpazia much attention.
The man who escorted her was one of the four from earlier, the very one who had assaulted Lilca first. He said nothing.
Draco's tent was like a great golden bulb, and outside was planted the largest bull banner, fringed with silver, and next to it the image of a dragon in gilded iron, on a pole hung with crimson tassels.
The war-leader, soon to be a king, was sitting on a table, drinking wine. He was black with soot and splashed colorfully with a lot of fairly recent blood, but none of it was his own. This had been, for him, a lucky day.
They had to stand and wait some while until he noticed them. Arpazia was used to waiting, though, on the whim of men.
"Oh, Cirpozsplendid. Is that the girl?"
The soldier, Cirpoz, said, "Yes, sire."
"I'm not king yet," said Draco, coyly. (Did she hear how coy he sounded? Would she have known to recognize such a thing?) Cirpoz grinned. He was apparently talented at grinning. "Well and good, then. His legal daughter." Draco shot a look at her. He did not seem interested, and at that moment was not. She was used to that, too; possibly it was reassuring. "Don't put her with the rest of the taken women. They'll hatch some plot, like that other girl, the faithless bitch. Oh, put her in the back tent."
So Arpazia was escorted out again and put into the back tent, part of Draco's traveling apartments on campaign. Here a slave woman presently came, undid the tie on her hands, and gave her a bit of greasy half-roast meat, which Arpazia did not want, and some goat's cheese crumbled in wine, which she ate and drank. She was young, a fool, and hungry.
For three days they traveled. Arpazia was in a wagon drawn not by horses but by bullocks, though their horns were gilded.
She saw only a couple of female slaves, who attended to essentials. Sometimes she looked out between the leather flaps of the wagon, but the driver unnerved her, a big man who never spoke. There were soft rugs, and she slept a great deal. Asleep, she missed Lilca's hanging.
On the fourth evening after they had stopped, a bath was arranged in the wagon. Normally indifferent to bathing, she found it refreshing and hot. After she had dried herself, and put on again her carmine gown, someone came and took her once more across the camp.
She had seen forests as they traveled, and once, miles away, a glimpse of mountains on the white sky, which she had taken for clouds, at first. Now she saw the forests had thinned. There was avast, white-gleaming road below, which no one explained was a frozen river. She heard wolves keening in the distance. Out of doors, this would have upset her, but there were so many people here she was not afraid. The fool, the poor fool.
Through its closed lid, still the mirror watched:
"I'll find you a husband," he generously said.
She looked at him blankly. He accepted her lack of response as thrilled astoundment.
"Don't be troubled, Arpaida."
"Arpazia," she corrected him. She should not have done so, and mumbled, "Forgive me. I'm sorry." He was a man and a lord ... even she had gathered that much.
But Draco was only amused.
"Try this fried cake. It's got berry juice in it."
She was too nervous to enjoy any of the dinner. If she had been at the castle, she would have liked it. There was roast mutton, and warm bread, and roots cooked with spices. Two or three of his captains were there with Draco, and they sailed, glancing at her, knowing something she did not.
He was dressed well, a linen shirt and velvet mantle trimmed by sables. And many rings, even an earring of gold.
The captains started to talk and play a game with figures on a board. He drew her aside into his arm. Despite the clothes, he had not washed, or shaved. He was like some uncle from the past, a brother of her father's; Draco, too, looked old to her then, she fourteen, and he in his twenties.
Arpazia made no resistance. Why should she? She had been fondled by masculine relatives before, hugged, kissed. Even her father had once run his remote hands across her body, alerting her neither to excitement or unease, for she was indifferent and her father only analyticalthere had been no sinister development.
"You're young," Draco said. His voice was slurred, but she knew all that, too, the way men became silly when their breath was flavoredby alcohol. "You're a pretty little thing. Don't mind it, I'll see you safe, at Belgra. Give you a dowry, why not? You can have some of your own treasures back. Maybe not that mirror over there. I might keep that. It's a fine thing. Glass. I've heard of them but never seen one like it. They say they're magic. Best to keep the lid shut. Did you look in it and speak a spell to learn who your lover would be?"
Primly, ignorantly, Arpazia said nothing.
Half an hour later, by the water clock in the tent's folded corner, he took her into another tent, which budded off from the end of the dining area.
"You're so young," he said again. "I'll swear you never had a suitor. I tell you what, little snowdrop, I'll give you this ringdo you see?with the pearl to match your skinif you let me take a look at your breasts."
Draco meant to be canny. He had had countless willing girls, uncountable girls who were unwilling. This one he tried to woo. A woman of any age was acquisitive, so he had learned. And the Church constantly warned that laval rages of Hell smoldered between their legs.
But this one, she stared at him as if he had gone insane.
"Come on, pretty narcissus flower. Come, come on. Just a peek. You won't mind, I promise."
And when Arpazia took a step away, just as she had from her father with the knife, Draco went after her, caught her to him, and lavished on her mouth a wet drunken kiss that had a wet drunk snake-tongue in it. And as he smothered her with his face, his free hand pulled the buttons off her dress, and felt its way in over two small full soft satin things, whose central points sprang up under his touch like startled hares.
It was more than his intrusion, his maleness, which terrified Arpazia. Then again, her body had its own instincts.
She fought him, and when she did he clasped her more closely. He was huge to her slightness, he sweated and blazed with heat and she could not breathe. If she noticed the genital dagger thatpressed now, greedily, at her belly, was debatable. All of him was too big for her, too close, and too insistent. As well ask a girl not to run from an avalanche.
"Come now. Here, have a taste of this wine. I'd never want to hurt you, snowdrop. Don't make me do itbe my gentle girl?"
She nodded into his neck, and so he partly released her, and began to push the wine cup instead against her lips.
She struck the cup aside and jumped from him.
"God in Hell!"
She was away.
Arpazia rushed out through the little tent, and across the main tent, and the captains came to their feet, ribald with mirth, and then Draco came pounding after her.
"Shall we get up a hunt and run your rabbit down?"
"Stay where you are." His face was swollen with fury, and their laughter died.
"She's a dunce, Draco."
"Draco?" he said. "I'm to be your king." And then he was out of the tent.
He strode through his camp, which Arpazia bolted through.
Men and women fell back from both of them, turning from her with an oath or derisive snigger, but from him with anxious fear.
He let her run, allowing no one else to stop her. She would not get far. Let her wear herself out. He had done this before, knew it all. He put on a grim smile for those who watched, and now they began to salute him, wish him well in this latest enterprise. "There goes your fleet deer, sire!" And some girl cried, "Would it were I, Draco-king. I'd run that slow."
But she broke from the camp, Arpazia. She had darted up into the open edges of the woods.
The lights were behind him. Here the luminous white uncrushed spaces, the black columns of the trees, the indigo sky with its fretwork of cold stars.
"You little cunt, every step you've made me take you'll pay me for."
He wanted her.
The freezing air had fired him up more than the wine. His weapon hurt, and his whole groin, as it had not since he was a boy, and his first woman teased him.
But she, this one, would hurt worse.
In the end she stumbled and fell down, and then he ran. He was on her like a wolf. He flung her over and pressed her to the ground by his weight.
He tore her dress open and showed her white body to the heavenly stars. Her map was perfectly marked, and the dark forest citadel he must storm.
Holding her hands above her head on the snow, he tore her open like her dress, in three ramming thrusts. She screamed and her eyes were wide, but she stared at the sky as he plunged within her, until his body arched, he called her foul names, and burst in glory. She had by then stopped screaming.
"You little dolt. I would have been kind if you hadn't resisted. There, there. You'll live. And I'll have got you with a boy. I'd bet on it. Every woman I've had, she bears. Bears boys."
Arpazia dizzily, crazily searched the sky. What was she looking for? Some rescuing angel?
She did not even know what he had done. Only that he had damaged her. Only that this appalling event had definitely happened.
"Here." He hauled her up. "Take this ring. It's gold. The camp isn't far, you won't come to harm."
Draco was tired. He had had enough.
Arpazia turned, dropping the ring, and saw her own shape marked gravelike in the white snow, and her brilliant blood running over it from the hem of her broken dress, between the black trees.
"Go on now," he said. "And expect a boy."
When she saw her blood, this moment was when the rape occurred to her. She felt it, for it was not the pain or the fear. It was some other thing. It turned her inside out, and she fell again, andkneeling in the snow, and the blood, she cried, in a voice she heard and which was not her own: "May it be bloody on you as that blood, and black on you as the wood. May it be cold white as snow."
Draco paled. He signed himself with the cross.
"You little cunt. Shut your slit. I can have you hanged, like the other dross. What are you, some witch?"
She did not know what she had said.
She did not know where she was, or who she was.
"Black as the wood, white as the snow," she shrilled, her face white, her eyes all black, "red as your blood that under it flow"
"You filthy bitch, shut your row." He slapped her hard across her raised face, bent and retrieved his ring, and turning, walked off toward his camp. "Stay there and let the wolves have you."
Her nurse's rhymes, heard all her years, writhed like tangled weaving in her head. But also cautionary tales of the forestswolves. This idea must have been what eventually drew her from the ground and sent her down to safety, such as it was.
Try as she sometimes, perversely, would, she never after recalled her return journey to the camp. Only the words ringing round and round, her curse on him which came back instead to her, black as wood, white as snow, red as blood.
SHE KNEW THE CURSE HAD MISSED him and struck her when her belly began to grow hard and round. Despite never having had the act of reproduction detailed to her, she had often seen its result. She was terrified, of course. Yet again, ridiculously, she did not believe in this. At every waking, she would examine herself in frantic, hopeful fear, thinking the affliction must have gone.
By then, actually from the moment she found herself once morein Draco's victorious war-camp, Arpazia was no longer being cosseted.
Through the winter daylight she walked with other women. Not those from the castle, it was true, who were all by then either dead or slaves. These free females were the followers of Draco's army. They, with their men, had trudged for half a year up and down the land, through the thick forests, over wild grasslands, even in mountain country among the boulders and the ice. They were hardened women, and Arpazia unhardened. They chivvied and mocked her, but not much else. Nor did any of the men molest her. Some edict had apparently remained concerning her, the sole legal daughter of a castle lord.
Her cloth shoes wore through in a day. Her feet were blistered and bleeding when she sat down dazedly on a prone tree trunk. A woman came and handed her, wordlessly, a pair of ugly boots that were too big and had been stuffed with straw. Now and then she was given a ride on a cart, among the loot, and among women temporarily weakenedfor a day or soby childbirth. At these Arpazia, as her own condition became known to her, gazed in morose, disbelieving horror. Those sucking things clinging to their breasts, like parasitic grubs
The landscape altered. The forests spread away. The mountains curved, a motionless cumulus which had dropped from the sky and frozen into granite.
The opaque frozen rivers came and went.
Sometimes there were towns and villages where Draco had established his garrisons, crow's-nest fortresses or long houses built of logs. Here his army was welcomed. There would be large meals, much drinking, the camp at play, and dancing with clapped hands. At one of these stops they celebrated Midwinter-Mass. Everyone was happy, except for their captives. That night, Arpazia caught sight of Draco in the distance. It was the only time she saw him during the remainder of the march.
Probably the shock of what had happened to her kept Arpaziain her trance. Just as she could never after remember her return to the camp, she remembered this victory march to Belgra Demitu and the sea, only in weird, isolated fragments.
Had she never thought again to attempt flight? If ever she had tried, they would have prevented it, since she was always in the midst of Draco's own people, and they seemingly highly aware of her. Conversely, the lands here were all under his banner. Even the crude inn signs had been garishly changedthere a black bull snorting sparks, there a white bull galloping through a field of flowers.
Otherwise the land was winter's. King Death, in his night palace underground, would be less kind even than Draco.
Mirrors taught: Perhaps there were always at least two sorts of reality, what you credited, and what was true.
Arpazia lived in a limbo where none of this was possible. And she lived the reality, where each day and dark she was among the army, and her belly swelled with a child only fourteen years her junior.
Did she ever consider her fatherher nursecoppery Lilca, who had betrayed her and died, for even if Arpazia had not witnessed the hanging, the camp women had carefully described the event. To Arpazia, these people, though dead, were alive still. And unimportant. They could not assist her; they never had.
In the same way, even Draco, instigator of this nightmare, became mislaid. She recalled only his heat and beard and smell and mantle, as if a violent hairy suit of clothes had raped her.
The thaw was beginning when the march reached a country above the sea, and looking down beheld the great town and the mystic ruins and palace of Belgra Demitu.
Here, it was said, at time's start, the earth had opened, and a young goddess was snatched into it in. one volcanic moment, from which drama the seasons had begun. Though many other places boasted this same spot, Belgra Demitu was named for it, and for the goddess-mother of the abducted maiden.
Arpazia knew the legend, but not well. It had come to her outside its classical framework, some untidy tale of the castle.
In the wet mist of that morning, she saw the land dropping in wide steps, and bare woods, and the always distant mountains, and a gap which held, as the sun shed the mirage of its new light, a filled void. The sea? All around her, shouts confirmed: The sea.
The town sprawled on and on, and on the terraces rising from it, was a temple built in another dawn, and the ancient palace, its columns and olive trees scorched by winter. The second palace grew out of its toppled stones.
A thin smoke rose from the town, and from one place on the terracesthere it was, the arcane Oracle of long ago, still fuming up to tell its riddles. A woman tended the Oracle, although the Christ had his church nearby. There was, too, a sacred spring. It had been the goddess Demetra's once, or her daughter's, having leapt from the soil at her clutching hands, when she was dragged underground. Now, the spring was sacred to Christ's Mother, the Virgin Marusa.
Climbing the hill, the women crossed themselves, all at once demure and pliant, wanting God to like them.
Arpazia did not notice the spring.
Her malediction had not reached him, but perhaps he felt it draw close, then turn aside. As they approached the palace by the sea, Draco began to think about the girl. He remembered forcing her, and that aroused him. Then he thought of her blood on the snow and was perturbed. He did not know why, for he had seen plenty of blood, some quantities of which were female.
Bad dreams hovered over Draco. He could not recollect them on waking, but he kept their feel, like a low sound in the ear. There was no menace to them, no compunction even, it was simply that they did not go away. He decided he had offended his own high codes. He should have taken more care of her. She had been gently reared, was royal, with the same watered royalty that ran throughhis own veins. But then, he did not bother to seek her out, and contrasting with this laziness, his sense of wrongness waxed. Was she a witch? Had she somehow affected him? Best go to God then, take God like the bath he would have at Belgra Demitu, to scour off the muck of campaign.
Draco stood before the priest, looking angry, and the worse for a night's banqueting and drinking; miserable.
These powerful men were like little boys, the priest thought, partly to leaven his own unease. But one must be cautious.
"FatherI require a penance."
"My lord Draco, you are to have your coronation here in a month. There will need to be many cleansings"
"No, Father." Impatient. The priest waited, covering himself with a calm skin against Draco's potential for rage. "Waris only war. I took the land for God. And I was assisted by Heaven. How else did I do so much?"
"God wills that you be king, Draco, my son."
"Yes. I believe that, Father. But something gnaws at me."
The priest still waited.
Draco walked about. A man of action, unwilling ever to be much at rest. The mind was the same. It strode from idea to idea, but the ideas of a little boy ... A proud and brash little bully, who had been first treated harshly, then rottenly spoiled by fate.
"Let me have confession," demanded Draco.
He kneeled down, and they began.
When Draco had finished, the priest saw that his future king was now wrung-out, like a woman after tears, and malleable. You might take a certain pleasure in rubbing a king's nose in his own mess.
"She was of royal blood. Naturally what you did affects your honor. You, the king. Andshe's with child by your deed, you say?"
"So they tell me. They always are, if I have them."
"Then, my lord, the teaching of the Church is clear." It was. "You must marry her."
Despite everything, the priest anticipated a vile mouthful in response. Nothing came at first. Then the kneeling bully said, quietly, "You're in the right. That's my penance then. I'll wed the girl."
She had been lying sick, the baby in her womb making her puke, when they came to tell her. The insanity of it was only at one with all the rest.
Arpazia went to the altar of the church at Belgra Demitu in her fourth month. She wore a gown of sky blue, Marusa's color, heavily embroidered with gold. Her rounding belly scarcely showed, but where it was noted, they took it for a benign omen. The naive among them even reckoned that it was only her proper womanly shape, the correct contour of a maiden made to conceive and carry to term.
The ceremonies resembled, for Arpazia, certain festivals at the castle, when she had sat crowned by a garland beside her father. She experienced the same slight nervousness, boredom, if none of the excitement she had felt as a child. The priests did put a small garland on her headnot blossom, a crownand a dark ring on her middle finger. Bells rang, which roared inside her skull. A crowd was cheering. She wished it would end quickly. That she was getting married did not impress itself upon her, for she was in an unusual state of mind and body. She passed across the rituals and left the feast early to throw up in a bowl held by her new waiting-women.
He arrived much later.
"You're ill. I won't tax you. Do you understand you're a queen? There, little queen, you're safe. Sleep well."
He was blind drunk, and meant the sentimental words. He had realized, after all, she was only a woman and could not be much trouble to him.
So Arpazia lay alone in the wide marriage bed, with its strewing of asphodel and hyacinths, the early flowers that had been just in time. And she wondered why she had a knife, used to pare the nails, still in her hand. She let it slide out on the floor.
It reminded her of Lilca, however. So dreaming, she had to watch Lilca, dangling from a rope, her heels kicking as if in one of the clapping dances of the war-camp.
DRACO RETURNED TO VISIT HER about twenty days later.
"Are you well, at last?" he courteously, impatiently asked.
Arpazia was afraid, trembling, and did not know why. Could not recall why. Then she recalled. He had torn her open in order to stuff her belly with his devilish seed, this "son" the women promised her, and the physician too, as if a son were something she longed for, like a precious toy.
"No, I'm sick, still," Draco's queen muttered.
"What? Ah, come, no need to be nervous of me. We're as we should be, now, aren't we, little queen. Sinless in God's sight."
He was alight with lust, as before.
To Draco, this lust was his virtue. There were a hundred women he could have had, including the one he liked most often in his bed, a girl of the hills, unroyal and besotted by himand barren.
Arpazia, for her part, had discovered she had again picked up a small knife from her cosmetics table. It was currently used to grind kohl she did not need to darken brows and lashes.
Draco had not seen. Arpazia dropped the knife in dismay. She had no notion of how to kill him, and besides incoherently knew that to kill him might only harm her worse. And she might have cut herself.
(She was of course still asleep at this time, entering the fifth month of her pregnancy, tranced. If she had not been so, probably she would have stuck the knife in him at once.)
Some supper was served them, and Draco sat graciously talking to her, telling her about the fresh fighting he would have to have, trying to pretend it irked him although in fact he had grown restless at his palace.
While theyheate, some gifts were brought in for her. There was a necklace, bracelets, and other such things. Then they brought her own mirror..In her trance, Arpazia had forgotten the mirror. Very likely she would have forgotten it anyway. She stared at it, thinking, What is it?
"You must have this frippery back," he announced. "It's no use to me. Mirrorswomen's nonsense. And they're afraid of it. A witch's glass."
Arpazia got up and drifted over to the mirror, as if she mustmen always gave orders, even inadvertently. She undid the clasp of the lid, and opened it out, and when she looked into the glass, did not see herself, gazed straight past herself, at the room beyond, its painted walls and long narrow windows, her bed, the carved chair with King Draco in it.
She saw Draco, the dragon-bull, as if for the first time, in the mirror. He was almost faceless, a suit of flesh with hot appetites.
But behind Draco, one door stood open, and Arpazia and the mirror saw into a part of the old palace, an ancient colonnade of pillars which ran through under a high-walled terrace, like the defile of a mountain. Antique oil-lamps hung and lit the walk, and here and there a bay tree stood in a pot. The view was an orderly compendium of dark and light, but suddenly something seemed to shift and separate.
Arpazia startedand her trance, like a pane of glasslike the glass pane of the mirror itselfseemed also for one second to tilt.
A child darted along the colonnade, on which the paint was firm and new. Her corn-colored hair streamed backif it was able to ...Her eyesif they had been realwere like new-minted coins
Arpazia was aware the almost-child, rushing through the mirror, must not reach her. So she clapped the lid shut.
"Gently," reproved ungentle Draco. "That's a costly possession. You should be careful of it."
Then he sent the servants out and led Arpazia to the bed.
She did not struggle now, or even tremble, she was too heavy and weary, too lost, adrift, tranced. Draco had her quickly. The wall candles burned down behind his head, consumed by the minute of his panting fire. He hurt her, but not as much as before. "There," he said.
Then he got up and shook himself free of what he had spent. She was nothing to him, this sulky doll. Was she unhinged? She looked asleep. It occurred to him that one day he might wish to be rid of her, and if she was mad, that would be much easier.
Asleep ... Of course, she did not slumber, physically, throughout all those next five or more months. Yet she did sleep a great deal, both day and night, whenever she could. It seemed she had only to let go of her body, to float miles out, to be gone. There were few dreams that she remembered, and those she recalled were mild, pleasing: childish.
Otherwise, she got up, and let herself be tended. Clothes were put on her, and her hair combed with essences and twined with ornaments. She would sometimes eat and drink, move about, along the colonnade, for example, the pillars of which were faded and pocked, to a walled garden, from where it was possible to look out at the sea.
Day would come down the hills, and the shadows of clouds. Then summer came down them.
Blushes of bronzy green over the woods, green veils, shimmering webs that wrapped the olive trees. Soon leaves thick as clustersof grapes, and the grass banded with wild flowers, lilac, milk-blue, the ruby powder of poppies, quivering with bees and the chorus of crickets. By then the mountains had blurred, losing their hard edges of white. Next the green fields were split with yellow. A tarnish of mellowness. The sea was like an Eastern turquoise.
It became the birth month of King Draco's queen. The month which belonged to the Virgin Marusa, the Virgo.
Draco was unaware of this birthday element, and anyway there had been disturbances among some of his conquered towns. He had left to skirmish through the summer, and would not return until the leaves again were gone.
"Into her eleventh month, and no sign. Is it dead inside her, do you think?"
She heard them whispering, the unkind, soulless waiting-women, as if she were deaf, or rather as if they noticed the trance she was in, and thought it made her deaf, which it had not.
The mirror watched, through its lid, which also reflected somewhat, like an ordinary inferior mirror of polished metal. It caught the late summer glow of sky and hills and the black ripple of a crow that sailed above the orange groves.
Draco's queen woke and sat up in her bed. She had been asleep for over ten monthsalmost like a girl in one of the stories her nurse had told her.
It was her fifteenth birthday. She did not know it.
Yesterday the physicians had examined Arpazia. She let them. It was never so bad as what Draco had twice done. The medicine, though, was sour, so she did not swallow it. She would do little, unless coerced, and none of these dared to force her to anything, now.
Today Arpazia was puzzled. Nothing seemed different in this day, but she had woken up, and why?
The room was softly hot; it smelled of honey and fruit. This, with the occasional whiff of sulfur from the Oracle, was the summer smell of Belgra Demitu. Even asleep, the girl had learned that. She had learned everything, asleep. And, also, that she was queen, and now the women whispered: "The physician brought her a draught to hurry the childbut she threw the draught out through the window."
The girl looked down at the round hard moon of her belly. It would never alter. Then she looked across at the mirror with its closed lid.
Leaving the bed, she walked to the mirror. Perhaps she had not undone the clasp since that last night with Draco.
The lid folded away. On the glass, the backdrop, a window of sky and flying crow ...
But who was this?
No longer a girl or a maiden. Now a woman, a taut white moon fruit, juicily swollen to ripeness.
Arpazia stared at her belly through the thin shift. As she saw in through the linen, she saw in next through her own body
Inside her belly was a black bowl, and in the bowl a red apple, but the heart of the apple was white. The flesh of the apple was a white serpent lying coiled there. Like herself, though taking sustenance and sometimes moving, it had been asleep. Now Arpazia saw it had woken, and this in turn had woken her
Her first scream was of terror. Only the second scream demonstrated pain.
Then her blood poured out of her again, and as the mirror watched, with its strange, apparently callous, crystal eye, Draco's queen entered the house of agony called childbirth.
"See, lady. It lives"
Kill it, she shrieked in her mind, kill it as it kills me
But the pain had drawn off, all across the room, which now wasdark and lamplit. Pain sat in the corner, folding up the instruments of the pain-trade, putting them lovingly away.
"Ah, but madam, alas"
Arpazia opened her eyes. Is it dead after all? She would have killed it herself, if she could, as she had begged them to dohad she done so?
"Not a son, lady. And after such dreadful labor."
"A poor little girl. But she's perfect, madam. Here she is."
They put something against her heart. The mother did not take hold of it, and it rolled from her. The women caught it at once.
"She's too weak to embrace her child."
"Too daft. Look at her!"
From the shadows, the faces peering and leering, like masks worn in the old pagan worship Arpazia had, maybe, heard sometimes went on here. Animal masks at that, unfriendly and savage.
"I don't want it," she must have said. Something mewed, insubstantial and far off. "Take it away."
Arpazia thought, They will thrown it in a brazier, to burn it. But that will only strengthen the thing. It was nothing to her, it belonged to pain.
Yet pain, no longer involved, had crept out of the door, and there in the mirror, which throughout the flurry no one had closed, an amber flame seemed to stand upright, almost in the shape of a gleaming woman. But this was a trick of the lamplight.
Milk was pressing from Arpazia's breasts like tears. She saw this, repelled. And then, despite what she had said, they thrust the thing again into her arms and somehow now she did hold it. It sucked on her, hurting her. A thread was drawn through her breast into its mouth, this tiny, milking grub.
She had no more stamina to resist. Oh, let it murder her then. That was all it wanted to do. To eviscerate and drain her. She could see what it was, plainly enough: The curse that she had conjured. White, with one delicate crimson silk of blood left unwiped, and the one black curl of hair on its head.
Arpazia dreamed she was wandering in a cavern. her only illumination a torch held high in her right hand.
Before her, a staircase of volcanic rock descended into blackness. And something tugged a thread out through her heart.
I am searching, but for what? For myself, for the child I was.
But these thoughts, which in later years would comeif without languageto overlay the dream, were not then considered. Only the awful grief of the dream, its desolate sense of robbery, and loss.
Copyright © 2000 by Tanith Lee
Table of Contents
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another fairy tale retelling, this time Snow White. Very Tanith Lee: elegant, lush, sexual and spatters of red as dark as blood. But it didn't make a very great impression on me, nothing left at the end of the book to chew on. And much as I love her style I do wish she'd stop using so many sentence fragments. They grate.
I read this book for a college course on fairy tales and folklore. I have read some of Lee's other novels, most notably Black Unicorn, Red Unicorn, and the Secret Books of Paradyse, and was excited to read her retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. On the whole, this book was good. Lee attempts to give more insight into the central female characters, especially the Queen. Lee actually gives the queen a name and a personality, and not a wholly unsympathetic one at that. Coira, a.k.a. Snow White, however, still seems quite flat as a character. Even in Lee's retelling, Snow White lacks agency and seems incapable of taking action. She remains a passive character who allows things to be done to her continually. The one real exception is taking the dwarf Hephaestion as a lover. Which brings me to perhaps the largest issue I have with Lee's book. She adds to the snow white fairy tale the greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, as well as a host of other random greek mythological characters/story lines, such as Hephaestion. The result is rather convoluted and messy, which ultimately takes away more than it adds. That said, Lee's writing is as good as ever, and the book is enjoyable and interesting on a surface level (I secretly enjoyed those "ah ha!" moments when I recognized various myths etc.). I appreciate the project that Lee and other female fantasy writers have undertaken with books such as this, and I have read some of the other fairy tale retellings published by Tor. I just wish this had turned out better and that Lee's Snow White was a character I could care about. If you are looking for a strong female lead in a fantasy book, you'd do best to look elsewhere.
Absolutely gorgeous. Lee takes the dark tones of the original Snow White myth, pulls them together with the story of Demeter and Persephone, and wraps it all together in a world still reeling from the struggle between Greek paganism and Christianity. Queen Arpazia is written lyrically and sympathetically up until the bitter end, and Princess Coira is a strong and deftly-written young woman. Totally recommended.
I'm a fan of Tanith Lee's work and her collection of fairy tales in Red as Bood is among my particular favorites, but I couldn't get in to this novel at all. It seems so... bloated... to me, far away from the cutting brilliance of Lee's other fairy-tale retellings. I'm not surprised that the Fairy Tale Series published no other volumes after this work, and I strongly recommend Windling and Datlow's anthologies of fairy tales in short-story form over this novel-length series of Windling's.Jane Yolen's incredible Briar Rose is still my favorite of this series.My favorite retellings of the Snow White fairy tale are still Yolen's "Snow in Summer" and Neil Gaiman's "Snow, Glass, Apples."I suspect if I really want to read the Snow White fairy tale from the dwarves' point of view, I'll need to write the story myself.
I love retold fairy tales, but this one was a disappointment. Too often I am finding that modern retellers try to make fairy tales culturally relevent to adults with the addition of gratuitious adult situations that do not futher the story.
I guess the author's goal was to make a "realistic" story. But realism can be taken too far. This story makes the Brother's Grimm fairy tales, which have their share of carnage, seem like a Disney fairy tale. This story borders on the ridiculous and includes rape, orgies, sodomy, murder, incest. It was a "page turner", but captured my interest more in the same way a train wreck captures my interest. The Queen is depressed and forgotten, as is Snow White. The "handsom prince" is made out to be a narcicistic sex fiend and a maniacal overlord. The king, SW's father, is portrayed as a polygamist and a first rate jerk. The queen, who he raped when she was a young girl, refuses to have sex with him, and instead ties herself to the "good huntsman", who also happens to be the king of the forest orgys. Snow White is neglected emotionally by not only the king and queen, but by her nanny's, who are more interested in their own love lives. The book seems to be a rewrite of Snow White, with the emphasis being on sex of every type, with everyone possible. I'm so very disappointed in it, and cannot myself see the book's value, unless it was the author's goal to thumb a nose at virtue.
its an awesome book. i can't even begin to explain just how much my outlook on the fairytale of snow white has changed! at first, i thought every fairytale was disney-like, but i found this dark side of snow white much more captivating. white as snow has definitely become one of my favorite books.
This retelling of Snow white is absolutley beautiful. Tanith Lee is such a gifted story teller; she makes Coira's world come alive, but doesn't let us know too much about it at the same time. She makes it very easy to hate certain characters, and be intrigued by others. This is everything a fairy tale should be. I am looking forward to reading more in the series.
It is so good it's become one of my favorite books. It can be savored, I loved and enjoyed it. It has a wider perspective, it contains life and fertility, love and sexuality, and it is better, in my opinion, than stories that have just clear cut good and bad guys- the reality is not so and this shows that. The title makes clearest and best sense when you've finished the book because of something said at the end. It was wonderful, because of this Lee is now one of my favorite authors.
I loved the book. Beautiful language, intreguing story. Fairy tales are often a beautified version of a much colder, crueler reality. This book reverts the process and gives an interestingly possible origin of the snow white story. Definitely worth a read!