You have heard of the princess with skin white as snow. I will tell you the truth of it.
She was not born a princess, though her father was a king and her mother was a queen. She was a prisoner in rags when she was named.
Her skin was soft and dark as spring earth.
Her mother’s people were from a kingdom where summer never ended. But they had lost their war against the people of the snowy wastes, and so their queen was brought to the winter castle in chains. They made her work all sorts of menial tasks by day, scrubbing pots in the kitchens or carrying coal for the fires or even venturing into the icy thorn-woods to gather the small, bitter berries that grew there. At night she would try to hide in some dark corner, behind the flour sacks, but the king searched her out and very often he found her.
When her belly swelled she prayed for a son. She whispered to the ravens, so they could spread her prayer to the ferocious winds; and she whispered to the thorn-trees, so they could sink her prayer deep into the roots of the world. And she whispered to the fire, because all fires are one fire, and the fire remembers.
Give me a son, she prayed, a son with a heart cold as driven snow, and a tongue supple with black lies, and arms with the strength to draw red blood. Let him grow secret and strong. Let him be my vengeance.
But instead a daughter was born, with hair like the raven and lips like apples. Her skin was as deep and as glossy as her mother’s. And the queen despaired.
As the years passed, hard work and ill-treatment made the captive queen old before her time, till her back was bent and her hair white. The king no longer searched her hiding-places at night. But many eyes lingered on the daughter as she grew.
They called her Ash-puddle, they called her Donkey-skin. They called her Snow White, as a cruel joke, and Sleeping Beauty, because they worked her to exhaustion and still liked to call her lazy. Her true name was never spoken and almost forgotten, but the fire remembered, and sang it back to her sometimes as a snap of sparks in the dead winter nights.
She grew in the mirror of her mother’s eyes, until the mirror showed such beauty and love and fear that it broke her mother’s heart.
“Come with me,” the queen whispered to her daughter, “come with me tonight, for they will seek you out, and you will suffer as I have suffered.”
“But where we will go?” the princess (for by then she was a princess, though trained in secret and crowned in spite: she knew herself) whispered in return.
“I will take you into the woods,” the queen said. “I have gone deeper than any of them over the years, and I have found paths. I will take you beyond their reach.”
“But the woods are haunted and the nights are freezing cold,” the princess said. She was not truly afraid, only wondering. Though neither she nor her mother knew it, the ravens had given her cleverness, the thorn-trees had given her endurance, and the fire had given her something secret and strong.
“I would rather you lay frozen on the cold ground with your throat rent red,” the old queen said, “than to see what would be made of your life if you stay here.”
So they went hand-in-hand into the shadows of the forest, as the ice-bound trees groaned and cracked around them and the wind skirled in the snow. Thin clouds whipped over the moon. They came to a little gully in the woods that might have been a deer track or a dry creek-bed, or might have been a path made by men.
“Follow the path,” said the old queen. “I have seen lights flickering here sometimes, far in the distance.”
The girl eyed the shallow depression beneath the trees and said nothing. Her raven’s wisdom told her that it was probably a only a deer path, and that will o’ wisps made lights that lured travelers to their deaths. But her thorn-root strength told her she could survive.
“Are you not coming with me?” she asked at last.
“I am too weak and slow,” the old queen said. “You must go with all possible haste, for when they see that you have gone they will send men with dogs to track you. But I have three gifts for you.” And from beneath her cloak she drew a carved wooden comb, a long silk cord, and a spiky green thorn-apple.
The comb had two delicate prongs and a beautiful pattern of wild roses set into the grain. It set perfectly when the queen pushed it into her daughter’s thick hair. “This is from the Summer Kingdom,” she said. “It is the only thing that I was able to keep. If you go far enough, if you find our people, they will recognize it and they will know who you are.”
The silk cord she tied around her daughter’s waist. “This I wove myself,” she said, “with threads that I stole from the hems of the winter ladies’ gowns. It has a use that I will teach you.” And she did.
The thornapple she did not have to explain, for every child of the winter wastes knew that to split the spiky husk and eat the fruit within would bring delirium, then fever, then death. The princess looked at it as it lay in her hand. “If they catch me?” she asked.
“Yes,” said the queen. “Better the hot dreams from which you would never wake, then the cold and living nightmare.” She did not tell the princess, but she had another for herself. She had no intention of returning to the castle, and she knew she could not go on.
They embraced, then, and the princess walked alone into the frozen night.
When she had passed beyond her mother’s sight the queen gave a terrible cry and fumbled, through her tears, for the second thornapple.
You have heard there was a stepmother. There are no steps in motherhood. It is a leap, it is a fall, it is a plunge without end.
You have heard there was a huntsman. There were many, just as the queen had said. The hounds began to bay shortly after dawn. By noon they had found the queen’s frozen body. But the track of the princess ended a short distance farther, and the king’s men searched in vain.
This is what happened to the princess:
After she had gone a little ways she began to see the lights. First it was one, a pallid glint in the trees. Then two, then three. They flickered wanly, always a little beyond her, and she became certain they were will o’ wisps. Lost souls who had frozen to death, it was said they lured travelers deep into the woods to suck away the heat of their breath.
“Come to me, then,” the princess called. “I am summer’s daughter and I don’t fear you. Come and be warmed.”
So the will o’ wisps crept closer. At last there were seven of them: faint, wavering things, weaving and bobbing before her. She leaned toward them and parted her lips, and her breath streamed warm and strong in the night. She kissed them each, one by one, and each time she felt a little colder and the cloud of her breath weakened and thinned.
But there was more fire in her heart than there was ice in theirs, and after she kissed them the seven will o’ wisps changed from pale gas to fierce gold lights. The shadows they cast fell over the princess’s footprints in the snow, and when the shadows shifted her track had vanished.
She walked on with her were-lights, and as she walked the sky lightened, painting itself with color and fire. She gathered a handful of the bitter berries and ate them slowly as she went.
So that was how she came to them, the wild men of the woods: ringed with light and heralded by the dawn. They were just emerging from the tunnels they had burrowed beneath the tree-roots. They were hard men, lost men, outlaws and exiles and runaways who lived by poaching in the haunted woods. Some of them were dark-skinned and grizzled, veterans of summer’s defeat. Their eyes lingered on the princess, and on the comb in her beautiful hair, but they said nothing.
The leader of the outlaws was an archer they called Dead-eye, for two reasons: because he killed with every shot he took, and because he had lost all joy in life. He looked on the princess and felt his long-frozen heart begin to thaw. “This girl is something precious,” he said.
But others had lived in the snows too long, eating bitterness and shame, and when they looked on the princess they saw only her rags and the marks of ill-use. “This girl is nothing but a runaway prisoner,” they said. “We’ll return her to the king and perhaps he will pardon us of our crimes.”
As they spoke, the princess began to untie the silken cord at her waist. And as soon as they had done speaking, the men who saw the comb and knew what it meant drew their weapons, and turned against those who would betray her.
There was a battle then, beneath the thorn-trees at dawn, and the snows were stained red with blood. Dead-eye loosed a dozen arrows and killed a dozen of the men who had once followed him. The lost men of summer killed a dozen more. And the princess herself threw her silken cord around the neck of one warrior who came too close, pulling it tighter and tighter just as her mother had shown her, until he fell breathless and white.
When the battle had done the ravens swooped down. They folded their black wings and perched among the thorns, eyeing the red stains in the snow. Dead-eye sank before the princess and laid his bow across his knee. “I am yours if you will have me,” he said, and the men that still lived knelt behind him.
“You are mine and I am yours,” said the princess, and her were-lights crowned them both in gold.
The sun was high as the princess led her outlaw band back through the icy woods. The ravens took wing above them, cawing in celebration and warning. The king’s men and dogs were scattered through the woods, and if the ravens had not been so loud perhaps one of them might have managed to warn the others: but one by one they were found and felled, and left for the black birds in the snow.
The castle was all but undefended when the princess returned to it at dusk. Those that remained–the king and his retainers, old men mostly–hurried to pull the iron gates shut as the princess-in-rags and her wild army emerged from the woods.
Then the gift that the fire had given her blazed forth. She strode before the gates and she spoke her own secret name, and the sound of it was like a crack of lightning, or the cry of the queen when she gave her daughter to the snow.
And the gates split and fell.
The ravens feasted well that night, but the princess had no care for it. She marked it, distantly, when Dead-eye’s arrow took the king. But she was looking for her mother. “Pull down the walls,” she said, “and empty the dungeons–pull down every stone and free every captive. Find your queen.”
So they did. They found her in the kennels, where her cold and withered body had been thrown to the bitches and pups. But the old queen had slept with those dogs many a night, and they knew and loved her, so instead of gnawing on her bones they had licked her face and warmed her with their fur.
The princess bent over her mother and wept. Her tears washed over the old woman’s face. She kissed her on the forehead, on the cheek, on the lips, on the ears, on the shoulders and neck and chin. With each kiss, one of the seven were-lights flickered and faded: but each time the queen grew warmer. And with the seventh kiss she shuddered and opened her eyes.
Dead-eye (who was known by another name after that day) and his men went through the castle, smashing every chain. The prisoners and servants joined in, and all those that survived the sack of the castle danced as the walls came down. The princess danced with her mother the queen, and with the valiant archer who would someday be her prince, and when the midnight fires were lit she danced alone.
You have heard that there were iron shoes, and that they burned red-hot, but I tell you: all the iron was cold, and those women shattered it. What blazed the brightest were their exultant spirits, there in the fallen stones where they danced: there where you and all the daughters that followed are dancing still.
Shannon Phillips lives in Oakland, where she keeps chickens, a dog, three boys, and a husband. She is the author of The Millennial Sword, an urban fantasy novel about a young woman who unexpectedly becomes the modern-day Lady of the Lake.
The remixed photo is a detail from the Palace of the Grand Masters of Rhodes by Bernard Gagnon and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.