The fire was crackling low on the hearth when the crisp autumn wind carried the sound of hoof beats to the cottage door. I sprang to my feet and grabbed the poker, then crept to the window. I always kept the shutters closed so the cottage would look as uninteresting as possible, but there was a thin gap between the brick wall and the window frame. I placed my eye to the gap and peered out into the night.
At first, nothing. Just the dark of the forest, and the faint swirling October mist rising up from the damp ground.
There—a white blur in the shadows.
A pale horse trotted out of the trees and into the tiny clearing. Utterly beautiful. A small, finely-formed head, long feathers at the fetlocks, and a fire in the way she picked up her hooves. Beautiful. Then I remembered to look at the rider, and was surprised to see that he was also beautiful. Not as beautiful as the horse, obviously, but he had a straight jawline, high cheekbones, a good nose, and his hair under his red feathered cap was dark and curly. I bet that his eyes were dark as well.
He brought the beautiful horse to a halt, and for a moment he sat in the saddle and stared at the cottage. His head was tilted to the side, like a curious bird’s, and he was half-smiling. I took his puzzlement as a good sign, and ever so slightly released my death grip on the poker.
There were no saddlebags, and he didn’t appear to be armed beyond the knife at his belt. He couldn’t have come from far, and he clearly hadn’t intended to be out this late. His cloak was trimmed with ermine, but his boots were those fancy knee-high things that I remembered being in fashion when I’d escaped the castle. They were the kind of things young noblemen wore to convince ladies that they were hard-riding, hard-hunting men of the woods rather than the pampered delicate fops they appeared to be.
So, he wasn’t looking for me. That was something. But he was still here, and he didn’t look as though he were going away. I wondered whether to throw open the door and fling the contents of the chamber pot in his face.
I held my breath as he dismounted and approached the door. He didn’t immediately try the latch; instead, he lifted his fist and knocked.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to do next. Open the door? But if he wasn’t one of the Queen’s soldiers come to drag me back to the dungeons, that could only mean one thing.
He was a traveller lost in the woods, seeking a place for the night.
In other words, he was a guest.
He knocked again. Damn it. So I heaved a great sigh and opened the door.
“Good evening,” he began, “I’m terribly sorry for disturbing you, but…” He looked at me properly, and his prepared politeness dribbled away. He blinked. “Um,” he said. Then he seemed to shake himself back into propriety. “Um, yes, ah, as I was—I’m very sorry, I know how late it is, but I appear to have lost my way. Both my horse and I would be very grateful if you could share your hospitality for the night.”
He had a very pleasant voice, deep and smooth like the black syrupy liquor the Queen had imported from the Indies for her last birthday.
I said, “Alright.”
“Yes. Alright. You can stay the night.”
He smiled, and his face was very lovely, sculpted with shadows and the flickering firelight. “Thank you. I must just attend to Caselotti.”
I half-closed the door, and glanced around the cottage. I knew it would seem plain to an outsider’s eyes, to someone who hadn’t seen what it was like when I first arrived here. I had tried to make it beautiful with a spray of golden and orange autumn leaves in an empty green wine bottle on the floor by the hearth, with a string of tiny mouse skulls and soft white dove feathers hanging above my bed, and a cluster of dried rose hips pinned behind the door. But I knew the visitor’s fine dark eyes would linger on the rotting floorboards and where the ancient brickwork was crumbling into white dust at the corners.
I tossed a fallen piece of thatch onto the fire. It wasn’t my fault if he chose to focus on the dust and age.
He came in after a few minutes, taking off his cap. I could see more clearly now, how the firelight ran over the red velvet pile and golden brocade trim, how it shivered in the white plume and highlighted each barb with golden brilliance.
“Let me take your hat,” I said. He gave it to me, and I held it in my hands, feeling how heavy the expensive fabric was.
“So,” he said, looking around the room and finally coming back to me with a smile. “I’m Heinrich. Heinrich Baumer.” His smile was very wide, and there was a slight hitch in his voice that suggested he was lying.
“Heinrich,” I said.
“Yes, that’s right.”
I put my head on one side and looked at him. I expected his smile to fade and for him to look away, but instead he returned my gaze steadily, and his smile was still very friendly and very charming.
“I don’t think that’s true,” I said.
“Really?” He was teasing.
“No, you’re right,” I said, “that is a perfectly acceptable alias. Come in, sit down, grace me with your mysterious presence.”
“I’m the one with mysterious presence?” He shook his head. “You might dress like a poor cottager, but you don’t speak like one. And…” He flushed a little, though his grin didn’t waver. “You look too—healthy to have been born to this life.”
He was sharper than he looked. Sharper than I’d expected. The old fear flared up inside me, but I caught hold of it like I would a snake and held it at arm’s-length. He was not here to kill me or to take me back. That much I was certain of by now; I could tell from the outlines of his too-tight fashionable clothes that the belt-knife was the only weapon he had. And even if he did have other weapons concealed on his person, his manner was wrong. He’d just lost the element of surprise. I knew how the Queen’s spies and assassins worked, and beginning a conversation by remarking upon the strangeness of the target’s living situation was not the mark of a subtle and therefore successful killer.
“I’m sorry,” he said apologetically, losing some of the teasing confidence of a flirtatious noble and instead apparently trying for sincerity. “It’s none of my business. I can’t barge into your house in the middle of the night and quiz you on your life story. I’m terrible sorry, it was frightfully ill-mannered of me.” He gestured toward the fire, at the chair I’d made from fallen tree branches. “Please, sit down. I don’t want to disturb you from your normal routine.”
I sat down slowly, waiting to see what he would do. He sat down on the hearthstones and crossed his legs like a child waiting for a bedtime story. He held out his hands to the flames. His spread fingers cut shadows out of the leaping firelight, painting his face black and gold.
I turned his cap in my hands, stroking the soft white feather. “Your horse is called Caselotti,” I said.
“Yes, she is.”
“She looks like one of the Araby horses.”
“Her sire had Araby blood.” He sounded pleased. “Are you interested in horses?”
“They’re beautiful,” I said. The thought of the lovely mare outside warmed me with a quiet happiness.
“But you don’t own one. Not out here.”
“Did you have one somewhere else?”
I fixed him with a hard stare. “You’re asking a lot of questions.”
He grinned. “I know. Sorry. But I’m curious. You’re curious.”
If I asked why, it would sound like an invitation to continue. I stayed silent. But he told me anyway, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, smiling up at me through the golden firelight. “A beautiful girl out here all alone in the middle of the forest. You intrigue me.”
He waited for me to say something.
Eventually I said, “Sometimes I think the worst thing a man can do is compliment a woman on her beauty. It creates an obligation.”
“What do you mean?”
“When a man tells a woman she’s beautiful, he sees it as him paying her the highest compliment a man can give. And so he expects similar favours in return.”
“You’ve never heard of compliments just for compliments’ sake?”
“Very rarely.” Make that never.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I hadn’t thought of it that way before.”
“Why would you? It’s not like it affects you at all.”
He half-laughs. “I am sorry, though. I’ve barged in here, pried into your private affairs, and made you uncomfortable.”
“And all that under a false name,” I agreed.
He winced. “Yes. That.”
“So? What is your name?”
“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours. A secret for a secret, how about that?”
I grinned. “Done.” I slid off the chair onto the floor and linked my hands around my knees. “You first, then.”
“Alright. My name is actually Christophe Reizand. My father is the current Baron Reizand.”
I had seen his father at court a few times, a very tall, broad man with a booming laugh. I could see the likeness in his son’s hooded eyes and thick dark hair. A flash of exhilaration seared through me at having this man here in front of me. A link to the past, bringing it so close I could reach out and touch it.
“Now you,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Snow,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Snow?” He looked at my long black hair. “Did you have light hair when you were younger?”
“No, it’s always been dark. Maybe it was my mother’s way of wishing she had a golden-haired daughter, like in the fairy tales.”
“I like dark hair,” he said quickly.
“Well, you would,” I said, and gestured towards him.
He touched his black curls, grinning ruefully. “Oh yes. I didn’t mean that, though.”
“I know you didn’t,” I said. “You meant it as a compliment.”
“Well, yes. Sorry. But just as a compliment. Not an obligation.”
I stood up and went to the cupboard on the far wall, where I took out the bottle of apple and todberry cordial.
“No, it’s fine,” he said as I returned to the hearth with two cups. “I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“It’s no trouble,” I said. I poured out a thin dark stream of the cordial into the cups and handed him one. “Be careful, it’s very strong. But it’s warming.”
He took a careful sip, then raised his eyebrows. He coughed. “That is strong.”
“I brewed it myself,” I said.
He took another sip. “Mm. Did you carve these cups as well?”
“They were here when I arrived.”
“When was that?”
“A while ago.”
He grinned. “Do I have to tell you another secret?”
“Yes.” I smiled back at him, dipping my head a little so I could see the firelight on my eyelashes. “I like secrets.”
“Alright, then.” He thought for a bit. “The worst thing I ever did was when I was fifteen. I was in our castle, late at night with some friends, and we all thought it would be hilarious to take a piss in the ornamental fishpond. We all took turns, and the next morning all the fish were dead.”
“That’s horrible,” I said indignantly.
“I know! That’s why I said it was the worst thing I’d ever done. I felt awful about it for ages. I still feel awful about it.”
“That’s good,” I said. “Those poor fish.”
He held up his hands in mock-surrender. “I know, I know. So come on, then. What’s the worst thing you ever did?”
I didn’t have to think very hard. “When I was six, I had a governess to teach me my lessons. She was really clever. She seemed to know everything about everything. I remember thinking so clearly, If only I knew everything she did, my lessons would be so much easier. So one night I crept into her room and broke open her skull with the candlestick to eat her brain.”
His eyes grew very wide. After a long mute moment, he gave a shaky attempt at a laugh. “I was not expecting you to say that.”
“My stepmother was so angry. I think she cried as well. She put the body in the castle sewers, and no one ever found out. But that was the worst thing I ever did, because after that she kept on watching me. She never left me alone, and I was always constantly supervised.”
“How dreadful,” he said faintly, and swallowed another mouthful of the cordial with a quick, nervous bob of his head.
“You did ask,” I say, a little resentfully.
“Yes, yes, I know I did. I just really was not expecting you to say something like that.”
“What did you expect? A tale of the day I put on a blue gown instead of a pink one and completely threw off a party’s colour scheme? The time I bounced a ball too high and smashed a priceless antique vase?”
“I did all those things too,” I reassured him. “But those aren’t the worst things I’ve done.”
“No. Clearly not.” He put the cup down on the floor next to him and rubbed his eyes. “I suppose that’s what I get for prying.”
“Tell me what the best thing you ever did was,” I said.
He avoided eye contact. “Um. I don’t know.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “You’re not playing the game properly.”
“Sorry. I think I’m tired.”
“Why is your horse called Caselotti?”
“It’s just a nice name,” he said. His voice sounded thick.
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you should always take care before you name something,” I said. “When you name something, you make it real. There’s magic in names.”
“I’m sorry—pardon?” He blinked and rubbed his face. His hands were slow and clumsy. “Sorry. Sorry…”
I reached over and picked up the cup. I carefully poured the rest of the cordial back into the bottle so not to waste any. He watched with his big dark eyes.
“Your eyes remind me of a cow’s,” I said to him. “That’s not an insult. Cows are beautiful.”
“What…” he slurred. He made an ungainly movement forward, as though trying to grab the bottle.
“It’s apple,” I said to him. “And todberry.”
His expression of sleepy confusion changed to one of pure horror. He tried to stand up, but fell back in a sprawl of long limbs. One of his fashionable high boots almost kicked the log out of the fire. He tried to crawl away across the floor, dragging himself on his hands.
I put the cork back in the bottle of cordial. I stepped over him and went back to the cupboard and replaced the bottle. I would have to wash the cup and leave it outside for three days and nights so the elements could cleanse it.
He was moaning, low, deep, without words. But todberry works quickly. He hadn’t even reached the door before his strength gave out. I knelt down before him, and saw his pretty dark eyes staring blindly up at me. “Don’t worry about Caselotti,” I said. “I’ll take good care of her.”
His body gave one sudden spasm. His heels and his skull thudded against the floor. Then he lay still.
I dragged him outside. A barn owl called close by, and a vixen shrieked into the wind. I took a moment to catch my breath, and then fetched the axe. He had tied Caselotti around the other side, where a rusty trough collected rainwater. I was glad; I didn’t want her to see this.
I hauled him away from the cottage and further into the woods. I arranged him on his back, his arms and legs spread out like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and his head tipped back so his blind eyes stared at the sky and the bright rising moon.
I took a deep breath. “Christophe,” I said into the cold night. The name froze in the air, chilled and silver with my breath, and curled away into the darkness. My skin prickled with anticipation. I welcomed it, felt the power flutter like butterflies in my stomach. I had missed this.
“Christophe Reizant.” I hefted the axe, and brought it down on his upturned throat. The shock of it jarred all the way up my arms and down my spine. His blood was black and listless, and it stained the leaf litter like thick paint. His neck bones splintered easily. I brought the axe down again, then again until his head was free.
“Christophe Reizant,” I said, sending his name up into the air and down into the ground where his blood gleamed like melting obsidian.
I freed his legs and his arms, and divided his torso into two pieces. With each stroke of the axe, I named him and captured his essence, binding him with the dark naming magic that had sent me to my stepmother’s dungeons.
Seven pieces, lying amongst the leaves, catching the ground’s winter chill.
I struck the axe into the ground a few times to clean it, then went back and fetched the spade. I dug seven holes in the ground, placed each part carefully inside, and then covered them over with the dirt and bloody leaves.
Christophe Reizant. Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live.
By the time I finished, the sun rising.
I washed off in the water trough. Caselotti snorted when she smelled the blood, and pranced back, pulling at her tether.
“Ssh,” I soothed. I extended my hand, and after a few moments of eye rolling and snorting, she warily sniffed my palm. I stroked her mane and the curve of her jaw, and she unbent enough to nibble my hair. I smiled and found her a carrot from the root cellar that she crunched happily.
The cottage was cold but I was too tired to relight the fire, so I simply wrapped myself up in the blankets and went to sleep. My dreams weren’t often peaceful, but they were that night, with a faint murmur like a drumbeat hovering behind my sleeping thoughts, and a whisper that might have been the trees chanting the name into the ground.
Christophe Reizant. Christophe Reizant. Christophe Reizant.
I slept all through the day. When I woke, it was dark, past midnight. My face was very cold, so I burrowed down in the bed and closed my eyes again.
I slept for a little while longer before I was woken by a knock at the door. I lay still for a few moments, preparing myself, before I got out of bed and padded to the door.
Outside were seven small men. They were naked, but caked with dirt and orange and yellow and black-spotted leaves. Their eyes gleamed very white in their muddy faces.
I smiled at them all. “Hello.”
“Snow White,” one of them said. His voice was rich and deep, and his hair, like all the others’, was thick and dark and curly.
“Do you want to come in?” I said, and held the door open as they marched, single-file, into the cottage.
© 2016 A.S. Olivier
A.S. Olivier is a freelance editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.