The Fairest of Them All

Princess Gwyneth looked into the mirror over her dresser and smiled. Blond tresses fell just so around her pale face, gently touched with rouge. Her eyes were a pleasant pale green, framed by lashes that were just dark enough to be seen and admired without her needing to darken them at all. She put a small hand to the streak of freckles across her nose and her smile broadened. Her gown was a flawless white, trimmed in lace and pearls. Her feet wore the daintiest of white slippers. But foremost in her mind was not her own appearance, though she had worked very hard to make sure she looked flawless for today. Instead, her mind was on him. This was looking to be a wonderful evening, which was all she could have hoped for. Her life had led up to this moment and she couldn’t have been happier…
Gwen slammed into wakefulness and stared at the curtains hanging dark around her four-poster bed. Everything came rushing back to her in that moment and she let out an inarticulate sound of a pain so raw that it would have cut through the bones of any who heard it. If you want him back, honor our agreement. She didn’t actually hear the words that echoed through her head, though she had once upon a time. She swung her legs out of the bed and pulled the blankets around her shoulders. Empty. The room was still empty save her. Closing her eyes, the only thing she could do was steel herself against what she would have to do this day. One hand went into her nightdress and produced a small golden locket. Sad eyes gazed upon it for a moment and then she let it fall back into the silk. She slid her feet into delicate slippers and stood, heading out to face the day. But first, it was said that the perfect outfit was like armor. Perhaps that would be enough to harden her against what she had to do.
The castle was quiet as she walked the halls. It took all she had to resist the urge to run her fingers along the stones as she walked, as she had done many times as a child. These cold halls were no place for her anymore, they held nothing for her…except, perhaps. It was as though her feet had a mind of their own as Gwen made for the young women’s quarters. She knew that that was where she would find her young cousin. She could hear the place before she got there, all full of laughter and song. So unlike the rest of the castle. What could they find to be joyful about? There was no joy left in the world, at least not for Gwen. She took a deep breath, leaning against the doorway and composed herself into a light and cheerful expression. Remember, they don’t know…they don’t remember. She knocked politely and smiled at the young women.
“Snow, I was wondering if you would like to come riding with me today? Perhaps we could go pick some flowers near the woodland?”
Young Snow brightened and bowed. The young woman was perfect, dark haired and pale with a complexion many would kill for. Her figure was thin, but not delicate like so many of the other court beauties. She wore a simple dress, but made it look like a gown. It was a white underdress but the overdress was scarlet. Gwen blanched. The dark red color hurt to see, given what she had planned for the day.
“I would love to. When are we to leave?”
The huntsman would have already left for the fields. He would be in position when they arrived and Gwen had composed the tale already. The poor fellow would be tried for treason and executed, but it would be alright. The joy would be back in her life.
“As soon as you’re ready, dear. I’m going to go to the cooks to see about a picnic, so don’t plan to be back for lunch.”
Gwen walked out of the room before her voice could catch, before her heart could give her away, before the tremor in her spirit manifested. She didn’t know if she could do this, not truly. She only knew that she had to. She only hoped that she could forgive herself when she had him back in her arms. She strode purposefully towards the kitchens, doing everything in her power to project calm authority and to think about sandwiches. She’d almost given it all away for a moment there. She couldn’t do that. She had to go through with this, uphold her end of the bargain and then she would be done and safe and free. He would be back where he belonged and everything would be better.
The sky was clear, with only little puffy clouds trotting along across the sky, mirroring the two riders as they made their way out the castle gates. Gwen was a good rider, as was her young companion. Both sat atop their mounts like they belonged there. Within a short time, they could see the forest’s edge in front of them and rode towards it. The field of flowers seemed to go on forever, waving slightly in the breeze. Gwen led Snow towards the forest, talking of nothing. Her pale eyes scanned the horizon waiting for the telltale sign of her huntsman. Any minute now. And then, the horrible assassination attempt, Snow’s valiant defense of Gwen’s life at the cost of her own, the huntsman being executed for high treason. It was all planned and ready. She could see the documents she would pen in her mind’s eye, the grand reward she would present Snow’s parents with. That would make what had to happen easier…certainly not better, but perhaps easier. Gwen heard the sudden snap of a twig nearby and wheeled her mount around.
“Gwyneth?” Snow’s voice had a quaver to it, the slightest hint of fear. “What was that?”
“I don’t know.” Gwen’s voice was hard, she took a breath and tried to feel for the fear that she should be feeling. “Perhaps we should head away from the forest?”
Snow nodded and started to turn her horse to follow Gwen back towards the field. It was then that the arrow flew. The huntsman’s aim was off and connected with the rump of Snow’s horse, startling it into flight. She could only cling to the saddle and hope as it dove and plunged headlong into the dark of the woods.
Damn, damn and double damn. Gwen turned towards where the arrow had come from and glared at the huntsman standing there. “Go after her, you fool!”
The man turned and raced into the forest, trying desperately to keep up with the frightened beast. Gwyneth sighed and stretched before taking a very small knife from her belt. She clenched her jaw and used the knife to make a small cut on her cheek. She winced but paused to clean the blade before sheathing it once again. She settled herself, trying to figure out how to manufacture the emotions she needed. Then she thought of what was actually happening in the woods at that moment and tears began to slowly escape from her eyes. She hadn’t wanted to hurt Snow, but that was what it wanted. She had said she was willing to do anything to get him back and she had proven worthy of the task given to her. As she galloped back to the castle at a fearful pace, she hoped that she could still look him in the eyes when all of this was over.
“It was terrible.” Her voice cracked and she let out a ragged sob. “I don’t understand, but…maybe it was a horrible accident?”
Gwen was inwardly proud of herself. She had never thought she was capable of such a bold faced lie, of being so deceitful. And yet, here she was, on her knees pouring out these lines like some kind of stage performer in front of the court. At the same time, she hated herself. That poor girl was dead, she had to be, she must be. And all for Gwen’s gain.
“Your Majesty,” It was the captain of the guard speaking, he was a good man. “I will send out knights to look for Lady Snow as well as this hunter. If this was anything other than an accident, I will have it out of him. And I am sure that she is safe and fine, she is an excellent rider.” He bowed deeply and turned to leave, signaling his men to come with him.
She pulled herself slowly to her feet.
“Gentle folk, I am in no state to lead you in reveling today. Gentlemen, if you would aid the guardsmen, then I pray you will do so. Ladies of the court, I beg that you stay within the walls for today in case of what may be.” She let the tears come again. Poor Snow…oh….poor…poor Snow… “I intend to sequester myself in my room until I am over the shock and can better deal with what has happened.”
The crowd bowed and parted as Gwen walked through them, touching a shoulder here, a hand there, just little gestures to let her people know she cared. She walked down the corridors and into her quarters, closing the door firmly behind her. Once she was alone, she dropped the charade of fearful frailty and ran to the mirror hanging on the wall.
“Well? I did what you told me to.”
An image slowly condensed out of the silvered depths of the glass. It could have been the warped and twisted visage of a man, but the features were so wrong as to be horrible to look upon. His eyes were a sinister red and his mouth full of fangs. Atop his head was a black mass that passed for hair, adorned with two spiny protrusions which could only be called horns. He smiled a cruel grin, all teeth and threatening. He had the sort of look that implies that when he’s done here he’ll go back to eating spit-roasted human child. Silence hung between them for far too long when he suddenly began to make a sound akin to laughter.
“You are truly the most entertaining human I have ever had the pleasure to encounter, Gwen. You honestly believe the girl is dead so easily? No, trusting fool, your huntsman may be now confessing his ‘crime’ to your court, but the girl is alive and well in the forest. Not only that, but she has allies now.”
Gwen’s mouth dropped open in abject horror and rage. Her fist slammed into the stones next to the mirror before she’d even realized she’d moved.
“What?! How is that even possible? You told me that if I did this, we would be done and I could have him back.”
“I told you, you could have him back when you gave me the soul of an innocent maiden.” It took all of Gwen’s self-control to keep from putting her fist through the mirror. It would be worth it to have to clean up the blood and glass to be able to shut him up, even if only for a moment, but she needed him. “I suppose this makes your course of action pretty obvious, though, Queenie.”
“I can track her down and kill her…but how?”
“Coming to me for ideas now, are you? I admit, I probably know more ways to kill a human than most anyone…Go in disguise in case she recognizes you…and use poison. You should be able to find some poisons in this old place.”
She was shaking by this point. The idea of arranging for someone else to kill Snow had been hard enough. Now she was going to have to do it herself? At least poison was clean…no blood…and she could try to make sure it was painless. How did it come to this?
Gwen lay in her bed, clothed in a black gown staring up at the ceiling. She wasn’t sure how much she could take the idiot well-wishers coming in to tell her that their prayers were with her or some such nonsense. Why couldn’t they do something useful like, say, find Liam? She heard a knock at the door and petulantly flipped the sheer black veil back over her face.
“It’s open.” She called.
Whatever she was expecting, it wasn’t this charming young stranger named Marcus. He offered a deal, and a way to get Liam back safely. Gwen’s pale eyes lit at the thought. Her dearest Liam, back safe, and all she had to do was…give him a soul? The soul of an innocent woman. Hers would suffice, she was sure of it. She would gladly trade her soul for Liam. That wasn’t even a question.
“Sign here, Your Majesty.” Even his voice had that charming smile.
She signed with gusto, with zest, with the earnest belief that her pain and loss was behind her. It wasn’t until that moment that she truly understood what she had done. She hadn’t signed away her own soul. Far from it. She had spent the weeks after that agonizing over what to do. She knew that one of the girls who lived in the palace had to die. She couldn’t bring herself to kill a child, and it had to be a maiden. That left the young ladies of the court. She had settled on her own cousin because the poor girl was betrothed to some old man, had parents who really paid no attention to her and in the grand scheme of things death was probably preferable to the future she was looking at.
Gwen shook herself from her memories and stared at the book in front of her. It had all seemed like such an easy decision back then, trading Snow for Liam wasn’t good but if it was what she had to do, she would do it gladly. Now, as she was trying to brew a horror to kill her little cousin, she could only think of all the times they had spent together, the rides through the country, the dinners, the parties, the days when Snow had come to her crying about the future. Snow believed in true love, believed that it would win in the end no matter what else happened. Gwen wished it would, wished that love could beat evil and hated herself for failing Liam, even if only in her heart.
“Three drops of nightshade…a peal of thunder?” She lifted up the old tome and walked to the window. There was a storm moving in. This just might work. “An apple to carry it and a scream from beyond?”
These ingredients are bizarre. She placed the tome on a worktop with care and left the room to fetch an apple.
“Your Majesty!” There was far too much excitement in the voice of her seneschal. He was smiling at her as he came running up. “I have wonderful news!”
She stopped, half glaring at him and snapped out her response.
“What?”
The man faltered and then paused to regain his composure. His voice was much calmer and almost reticent when he spoke again.
“The huntsman has confessed his crimes and imprisoned. And-“
“And?”
“Lady Snow has been found. The dwarves say she is injured but can return as soon as she is well.”
Dwarves? She had allied herself with the Dwarves?
“Very well.” The smile that crossed Gwen’s face was one of sheer will and conveyed no pleasure. “The huntsman is to be executed and my cousin is to return as soon as she possibly can.” She turned on her heel and strode purposefully towards the kitchens. I can bring it to her there and wear a disguise like he suggested. She’s very trusting so as long as no one has any reason to suspect me, this should be fine. She only made it a few feet before she stopped again. “The huntsman. He has a wife and children, yes?”
The seneschal stopped, looking slightly confused and maybe even a little afraid.
“Y-your Majesty? I mean…he does, yes, Your Majesty.”
“He served well, despite this latest blot on his record. Let it be known that his service will not go unrecognized. I want a fund set aside so that his family will want for nothing and I want his children apprenticed to appropriate trades.”
A basket of bright red apples sat on the table and she grabbed it. It was absolutely perfect. An apple peddler who just happens to bring tainted goods. But she would make sure only one of the apples was poisoned, after all, she wouldn’t want anyone else to get hurt. Glancing down at the basket, she would have sworn she saw Liam’s reflection in the sheen. She nearly flung the basket down in her terror but managed to keep a grip on it. One red fruit rolled to the floor and she stared at it in horror. She could definitely see him reflected in the fruit, staring at her with his bright hazel eyes and the smile that she loved so much. She picked it up and gazed into it. She would drop that one off in her room before she went back to the workshop. This apple was not for eating.
Gwen knew she should look impassive, but the tears poured down her face. This was the man who had taught her to ride, to handle a bow, to use a knife. He was also the only person who remembered. She knew in her heart that she was taking care of everything, but it still hurt more than anyone could ever know.

Garth bowed formally to his queen, but the smile on his face showed he was addressing the little girl who had so often snuck out of the castle to run in the woods like a wild creature.
“You called for me, Your Majesty?”
His voice was deep, with a mountain burr that years of living in the palace hadn’t erased. She looked up at the big man sadly and gestured for him to sit. All she could do at this point was hope that whatever magic was preventing the rest of her court from remembering dear Liam could have somehow missed Garth. She took the small sketch from her nightstand and held it in her hands, back to him.
“Garth, I need your help…for…Liam.”
The man’s breath caught and he came up behind the queen, taking the picture from her hands.
“Anything, I’ll do it. Just tell me how I can help.”
Gwen turned and sobbed into her old friend’s shirt. It took some time, but she managed to explain the deal, the whole thing.
“And what it all comes down to is that I need to give him the soul of an innocent woman and…well…”
He took her hand in his and looked into her pale eyes.
“I’ll do it, I promise. Anything for you, My Queen.” He paused for a moment and gulped. “Just…my wife, my children.”
“They’ll be cared for, I promise. They shan’t ever want for anything.”
Tears shone in her eyes as he left her to plan how this would play out.

And as the axe fell, she turned away. She didn’t want to see the warm red spray any more than she wanted to see his head resting in the basket. She knew she wasn’t the only one upset at this turn of events, but at least everyone else thought he was actually a traitor.
It took days to figure out the full recipe. The small cut on her cheek had healed without a scar by the time she had the poisoned apple ready to go. She planned to don a ratty old cape over a plain dress she’d filched from the servants, but that wouldn’t hide her face. Now all she needed was to disguise her face. It couldn’t be anything permanent and it had to be good enough to fool her own kin. After a few hours of pacing and experimenting with face paints, she went back to her workroom and started flipping through the tome again. Why she had had a book of dark magic in the castle, she would never know, but it had proven remarkably useful. There was a disguise spell in here, she was sure of it. And it didn’t look like it took that much. The most odious ingredient was her blood, but she supposed that was so she would turn back properly. It was a pretty fast brew as well. She mixed everything carefully in the cauldron that had been down there when she’d found the old room and watched as it turned a fluorescent green. No such color existed in nature, she was sure of it.
“And now, I guess I’m supposed to drink this.” She muttered, less than thrilled with the prospect. “Perhaps I should just bottle some and go for a ride. That seems wiser.”
She found a bottle and filled it halfway, plugging it with a stopper and then tucking it into her pocket. It was a matter of minutes to ride out of the castle and make for the forest. She could guess where the dwarves lived, that wasn’t too hard. She had a trading envoy that met with them every so often and knew from whence the envoys came, at least. She left her horse with his reins trailing where he could graze in peace. She stroked his nose for a moment to reassure herself and then downed the potion in one gulp. It burned through her very core as though she’d consumed the very essence of fire. She fell to her knees, biting her tongue to keep from screaming. It seemed like she lay in the grass for hours waiting to see if she was going to die. She almost wished that she would, it would be easier that way…for everyone. But no, the darkness cleared and soon she could see the sky above her. She stood slowly and was startled when her own hands were gnarled and wrinkled. She put her hand to her face and felt the same thin, wrinkled skin. It was perfect. There was no way that Snow would recognize her now. All she had to do was deliver the apple and she could have her Liam back.
The walk through the woods was a trying one as Gwen rehearsed possible lines in her mind. Soon the little cottage was in front of her and she paused, unable to go forward. Was this really worth it? It had to be. She just had to keep telling herself that this was worth it. Hadn’t she said she would do anything for Liam? She took a deep breath and started forward, manufacturing a limp as she went. There she was, dear cousin Snow with a few bandages telling the tale of her wayward horseback adventure. It looked like the young woman was just putting a pie in the window of the house. Gwen suppressed the urge to turn, to warn her cousin, anything.
“Hello, miss, I couldn’t help but notice the lovely pie you made. What sort is it?”
Snow seemed started to see her there, almost defensive.
“It’s a berry pie….” She trailed off for a moment and then looked Gwen over again. “Can I help you with something?”
“I’m just a wandering fruit seller come to see if anyone here would like to buy some apples. Fine fruit, perfect for pies. Would you like to try a sample?”
The young woman perked up at that and Gwen felt awful, she knew how much her cousin loved apples. Despite that, Gwen held out the poisoned apple in one gnarled hand. Snow took it gratefully.
“It looks lovely, so bright and ripe.”
“I hope you like it.” Gwen held out the basket, “There are more where that comes from.”
Snow took a bite, only one, no more and no less, and then collapsed, eyes rolling up in her head. That was too much. Gwen dropped the basket and knelt to carefully position her cousin in a way that looked more comfortable, fighting back tears the whole time. She put the basket by her cousin’s hand and turned to leave.
“I’m sorry, Snow…I’m so, so sorry.”
Disguise faded, Gwen marched into her room with the air of the triumphant general. Her victory was assured and she would have the spoils of war. She let the door slam shut and whirled on her mirror, a smile on her face that was almost harsh.
“Well, Marcus?” Her voice was cold. “I did it.”
As that dark visage appeared in the mirror once again, she felt a stirring of hope. Soon this would all be over. That was when he started to laugh and her mood dropped.
“You pretty little idiot. You didn’t pay attention to what you were mixing up, did you?” He vanished from the mirror and the charming Marcus appeared in the room, a mere foot away from her. He reached out to stroke her cheek. “True love’s first kiss, my dear Gwyneth. That will free her.” He hand shot to her throat suddenly and tightened. “And has. You failed me again.”
He flung her to the ground like an abandoned rag doll and laughed.
“But…what…how?! I did what you told me to! Everything! Please…just give me Liam back…please…”
“You beg so prettily. Perhaps I shall give him to you…but you have yet to fulfill our contract. Would you be willing to alter the deal?”
She was back on her feet suddenly, pressed against the cold stone walls. She felt his tongue run along her neck and shuddered involuntarily. Marcus snarled and let her drop to the stones again.
“No! I…I mean…please…”
“Pathetic.” He looked up suddenly, eyes flashing with glee. “On the plus side, perhaps you will be more useful to me the next time around…”
With that cryptic phrase, Marcus vanished. It was only a moment later that the door was flung open and the guards appeared, along with the dwarves and that idiot prince from the next kingdom over. It only took a few moments for them to storm in. They rattled off her crimes, how they knew them she would never know. Gwen died there staring up at the picture of her only child, her little Liam, crying into a pool of her own blood.

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