Every night before my seventh birthday, I climbed atop the settee in my stepmother’s room, curled like a cat, and watched her prepare for bed until I drifted into sleep. Sitting in front of her mirror, whispering bits of song to herself, she uncoiled her braids and brushed them, pulling her long hair out from her body with a sleek horn comb. Every handful that dropped from the comb fell about her like a golden drape; she was this pale, high, shining thing, colored like the sparkling mead my father was so fond of drinking as we supped.
In short, she was nothing like me.
My days were tedious; Father — the servants whispered my mother’s untimely death had left him shaken at the fate of his kingdom — insisted I not only learn the womanly tasks of song, dance, embroidery, lace and language, but also the tasks to which he had long since grown accustomed. I sat beside him as the nobles paraded their so-called problems before him, having practically crawled to get into position, a pile of pillows balanced on a heavy chair next to Father. It was what he wanted. So every day, beginning before the dawn even, I poured over maps, listened to gray-faced men dictate accounts of the treasury, went for rides in the country with visiting dignitaries who thought the woods better for gossip than stuffy palace chambers, and sang, and danced, and sewed till my fingers bled, and mixed my Latin preterits with my Spanish, and…
Then I watched my beautiful young almost-mother comb her hair at her mirror, until sleep carried me — or perhaps it was one of my ladies — to my bed.
As I watched her the night after my birthday, I realized her mouth, always curved in a petulant little smile, had suddenly focused on my reflection in the glass, and turned into a snarl. Half asleep, I ran from the room.
The next day, the lessons with my father ceased. I thought I was to double up on my womanly duties; I swear my fingers cried angry tears at the thought of more embroidery, long before my eyes did. But no. My stepmother, standing at the window of our aviary, had said to me, “A princess — even an ugly one such as you--must be seen in grace and repose, not in work.” She spoke with her face to the window, on the kingdom. My father, busy with the doings of running a land, grew to be a stranger to me. By the time I was ten, I was kept from my embroidery and my dancing. Suddenly my days were empty. My father died that winter.
Then my stepmother ascended the throne as regent, while thick snow fell from the sky.
I patted the filly on her sleek neck. It was quiet, the snow muffling the scurry of the stable boys as they ran to hide from me. She was a brilliant creature, so dark a brown she was almost black, with clear black eyes —amongst all the withered gold hay she looked dull, but out in the snow she shined with dark light. Winter, I called her in my head.
I turned. My stepmother’s main huntsman stood in the stable’s doorframe.
“Yes, Hubert?” He eyed me, my hand stroking the filly’s neck, nervous at Hubert’s sudden appearance.
“Her Majesty the Regent has asked me to provide new game for her table this evening…she…is grown tired of rabbit, I fear,” he said. “Since you spend so much time roaming the woods, I wondered if you might join me, and show me where best to hunt for boar, or perhaps stag.”
I fought to keep my eyebrows from twitching. “Of course. Let me saddle the filly and we shall be gone.” Hubert nodded. Though what the huntsman really needed my help for…I shook my head, just barely, as I saddled Winter. I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it, but the set of her mouth looked grim. Political intrigues at their finest.
When we arrived at the deepest part of the woods, I drew Winter to a stop, and dropped from her back. Here, where the tree branches tangled gracefully overhead, there was only enough snow to crunch underfoot. I’d led him far from where any eyes might see — even boar or stag.
“Now, Hubert, would you be so kind,” I began, turning my face upward as I smoothed my ragged skirts into place, “as to tell me why you really asked me here?”
But Hubert was nowhere to be seen. His horse nuzzled the snow unconcernedly.
“Hubert?” I called. Nothing. My filly snorted, her breath white in the frozen air. I began walking, just to keep warm.
“Hubert? Hu--bert?!” My voice rang in the snow silence of the forest.
A twig snapped; I turned to the sudden sound.
His voice shook as he stood there. Was it tears I saw, as his eyes roamed across my face, my brown-black hair, my tight, worn bodice, his hand slowly turning the knife in his palm? I felt a trickle, an inkling.
“I can’t,” he repeated. The hand with the knife dropped. He sheathed it. “I cannot kill you, my fair princess.”
“Kill me? Kill me?” Inside, I thought fair? Perhaps the cold has addled his mind. “Who dare send you to kill their sovereign?”
And Hubert looked at me, almost with pity — I certainly saw tears now.
Ahhh, my mind breathed.
“Run,” he added. “Run and hide. Hide well, so that she may think you dead. It is the only way you will live. She will stop at nothing. Run.” He looked at me, and then his mouth twisted. “Run,” and he flapped his arms at me. I don’t know why, but that motion sent me flying.
I ran. I ran for my life, to pretend to be dead.