A sunset on snow

Artemis Callaghan

Disclaimers: I’d like to stress that my Snow White is 16, which is legal in this country. I know it isn’t in other places, so I hope none of you will be offended by this. There is some pretty graphic, consensual sex, and as they say on film posters some “mild peril”. This is mostly definitely not Disney!

Synopsis: A reworking of Snow White, in which Snow is no shrinking violet, and the stepmother sends mixed messages to say the least.

If you’d like to get in touch, please feel free: ceri.lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk

A sunset on snow

Snow loved the woods. She loved how the light was never the same, shifting and changing. One time it would cut through the branches in bars that looked as if they would be warm and solid under her fingers. Another time, a mist would cloak everything, making the light diffuse, dripping from the leaves like rain drops. She loved the animals that she only glimpsed, the deer that ran white tailed as soon as they caught her scent, the squirrels that undulated the tree trunks to sit and chitter at her. If she sat still enough, for long enough, then they would start re-emerge, to hop and scurry in the undergrowth until they were bold enough to venture as far as her feet. If she held out her hand, the birds would dip down and take the seed from her palm. It had taken months of patience, but even the finches would now come to her, timid and prone to sudden flight, but still a keen pleasure. The woods were accepting her as one of their own, and at last Snow felt she was at home.

Her father’s castle had never felt like that. Even though it was huge and sprawling, it still seemed small and claustrophobic. The rooms were dark and oppressive, even the ones lit by candles and open fires. The light pooled in tiny circles, serving only to make the dark seem darker. As a little girl, Snow had been afraid of these shadowy corners, of what might be hiding in them, certain that whatever it was, it meant her no good. Her father existed more as a concept than a reality; he was rarely at home, spending his time at court or on some important business, business that kept him away from a daughter who had grown from baby to young woman without him really noticing. Her mother had died in child birth, delivering the much anticipated son and heir, who not only killed his mother but then disappointed everyone by dying himself three days later. Effectively, Snow became an orphan that day, as well as an only child. Her father never allowed himself to get over his grief; Snow looked too much like her mother to bear and her being a girl mocked him every day.

It was hard not be resentful, after all, none of it was Snow’s fault. Not her fault that her mother and brother had died, certainly not her fault that she’d been born a girl. If she could’ve been a boy, she would’ve like a shot. To have the freedom of a boy, to be about in the world with a sense of purpose, to have adventures and not rely on anyone for things as basic as the food she put in her mouth. Not just that, the freedom that a boy had in his clothes, to not be constrained by corsetry and laces, skirts that hid and hampered. She longed for the simplicity of breeches and a shirt, a stout pair of boots and a belt to tuck a knife in. But it was never going to happen in the castle. The servants were all intent on making her the perfect lady so that maybe the master would be pleased with her and stay for longer than a night.

But then one day everything changed, for better or worse, Snow couldn’t be certain. She awoke to a great commotion through the Hall, and when she looked out of the window, it had spilled out into the yard too. Grooms and footmen were running around, and if they had an objective, it wasn’t one automatically obvious to Snow. It was a wonder no one collided. When her maid, Agnes, appeared at the door, she was flushed and bright eyed, and Snow had no need to question her, the girl blurted it straight out. Master’s home and he’s not alone. Snow frowned and tried to puzzle out the girl’s words as she lifted her arms to allow Agnes to slip off her night gown, but that was all she knew. The master was home and he had someone with him. Snow sighed. She would have to patient and see for herself. She would be summoned soon enough; there was time to eat breakfast.

And there she was at the table, sipping hot chocolate from her bowl, when her father entered the room. Snow hadn’t seen him for two months, and even then it was just in passing. He was starting to look old, she thought, his hair turning from black to white, there were wrinkles at the sides of his eyes. Laughter lines, she supposed, although she couldn’t recall the last time she’d seen him laugh. She had one image of him laughing, and that was one of the few memories Snow had of her mother. All three of them were in orchard playing chase. Her father had caught her mother around the waist and had lifted her clean off her feet, both of them throwing back their heads and laughing, laughing. The sun had made a halo around her mother’s hair, her father cast a little into the shade but even so, she could see the white of his teeth. He was a handsome man, her mother a beautiful woman. She was lucky that they were her parents.

There was a smile on her father’s face now, or something that approximated to one. Snow wriggled on the hard chair, uncomfortable. Madeline. Her father always called her by her proper name, even though he been the first to call her by her pet name. Madeline, could you come to the library when you’ve finished your breakfast? Snow nodded her head, her mouth full of brioche. Her father turned and left the room without saying another word.

There was only one room in the castle that Snow loved and that was her father’s library. She didn’t mind the kitchen, its warmth and human bustle, but it was the people she liked more than the room itself. The library was a den, protected by shelves packed tight with leather bound books. Snow’s fingers itched to run across the embossed letters, the raised ridges on the spines; to feel the cool of the leather, the slight roughness of foxing on the pages. But Snow never dared to pull any down; they were her father’s and therefore sacrosanct. A fire was burning in the grate, and Snow moved towards it, standing in front of the hearth, her hands out stretched so she could feel the heat against her palms. When she heard to door open, she spun around and caught first sight of the woman who would cause her so much pain and confusion but also a deep, visceral joy.

The woman stood a little taller than Snow; it was hard to judge her age as she appeared so stern, but she might only have been ten years older than Snow. She had an ascetic beauty, her cheek and jaw bones sharply angled, her grey eyes chips of granite. Snow found herself throwing back her shoulders and trying to stand a little straighter, as if by doing so she could meet those eyes and not give away how intimidated she was. She had her position, the daughter of the house, and no stranger was going to usurp her.

Madeline. Her father’s voice cut through suddenly and she became aware of his presence in the room for the first time. Madeline, this is Caterina, my new wife. Your new mother. Snow frowned. She’d managed for thirteen years without a mother, without a father for that, why should she need one now? But then this woman, the new mother, Caterina smiled at her, and something happened to her face.

The stone melted into a softness that revealed how close in age the two women were. Despite herself, Snow smiled back. And then Caterina did something remarkable: she kissed Snow on the mouth, her velvet lips clinging to Snow’s, leaving her breathless and blushing. Caterina let her palm rest on Snow’s hot cheek, an enigmatic smile on her face. A sunset on snow. Her voice was rich, a little deep and hypnotic. Snow couldn’t maintain eye contact, instead she stared down at her shoes. Snow, look at me. Snow’s head jolted up, how did this woman know that name? The stone eyes gave nothing away, however, they were unreadable. Snow swallowed, her mouth inexplicably wet. The library was unbearably hot, Snow could feel the sweat pooling in the small of her back, could feel her face burning. The only cool things in the room were Caterina’s eyes and the hand still resting on Snow’s skin.

Snow’s senses were heightened but one when it came to this woman. She could see the fine hairs, like gold wire, that made up the slightly arched eye brows; could smell her scent, spicy, and beneath that something that ran dark and deep, an underground river. Snow could hear the woman’s soft rhythmic breathing and the steady thud of her heart, and she became aware of her own erratic beat and the ragged shortness of breath tearing in and out of her lungs. She let Caterina’s cadence calm her, willed the blood to seep from her face and carry on moving around her body as it should. Neither woman moved; the world carried on around them. The gilt-heavy clock ticked, a log on the fire popped and sent sparks out beyond the hearth, outside a stable boy was whistling tunelessly through his teeth. Snow was aware of it all but couldn’t find it in herself to care. She was enthralled. Caterina continued to stroke Snow’s face and then lent in to kiss her again; Snow was aware of her mouth opening slightly and for a tremulous moment felt Caterina’s tongue touch hers. You taste of chocolate. And raspberry jam. Snow pouted. You make me sound like a child. Caterina drew a finger down Snow’s jaw, that unreadable smile tightening her face. Aren’t you?

A cough broke the spell, and the two women drew apart. Snow was acutely aware of her surroundings, her father standing just behind Caterina, but she was unable to react. Everything inside was slow as honey dripped from the pot. She was warm and lethargic, wanting nothing more than to curl up in Caterina’s lap and fall asleep. Her blush intensified, but her father didn’t seem to notice. He was gazing at his new wife with an intensity that made Snow uncomfortable. His expression mirrored her own.

A finch, flashing gold, darted into Snow’s out stretched palm, but was too shy to stay, and fluttered away after a couple of seconds. Snow sighed and brushed the rest of the seed from her hands before leaning back, letting the warm sun fall directly on her face. There was no one to scold her about ruining her perfect complexion. As far as she was concerned, the sun could burn and line her until she turned into a walnut. A wrinkled old crone before she was even twenty. She shut her eyes and watched the lids turn pink.

Caterina’s arrival at the castle brought mixed emotions. Joy at the master’s return was tempered by uneasiness about the new mistress. Snow’s mother had been adored, she charmed everyone with her warm disposition and easy smile, leaving the house to run itself. Caterina couldn’t be more different. They considered her cold, calculating and untrustworthy. Within the first couple of days she had insisted on seeing the household accounts. According to Agnes, madam had not only upset the housekeeper and butler, but also the steward. It would appear her interests lay further than the day to day running of the castle, she wanted to know everything. Snow’s father was oblivious to any of this; it was evident that he was besotted with his beautiful young wife, and let her have her head and a free hand.

Snow didn’t know what to make of her. There had been no repeat of the intimacy of that first morning. She’d been distant, aloof, leaving Snow confused. She would sit with Caterina and her father at meal times, the three of them in virtual silence. Occasionally her father would remark on the food, Caterina would make a brief reply, and Snow would push it around her plate, not daring to look at either of them. As quickly as she thought decent, she would ask to be excused and would run to the safety of her own room where she would throw herself onto the bed, burying her face in the pillows. Alternatively, she would walk for hours around the gardens until she was forced in by the cold. Some days she couldn’t bear the thought of sitting through another tortuous dinner and so begged exemption; stung by her father’s easy acquiescence and Caterina’s ambivalence, she would sit staring at the small fire in her room and eat her bread and cheese, tasting nothing.

Then came the night of the storm. It was three months after Caterina had moved in, and the first time since then that Snow’s father had been called away. He’d wanted Caterina to go with him but she had declined saying it was too early, her place was here at the castle. The disappointment was transparent as he bent from his saddle to kiss her, admonishing Snow to take care of her in his absence. Snow had smiled weakly. Caterina didn’t need looking after, certainly not by a gauche and gangling sixteen year old girl. The longing to be a boy had never been stronger. In the days that followed, the two women fell into a routine. Meal times were even more of an ordeal, only the sound of cutlery on plate broke the silence, and Snow hated every second but couldn’t bring herself to let Caterina eat alone. Not that her stepmother would’ve noticed. She ate and drank with an economy of energy that Snow found truly impressive; she was in a bubble of self containment that Snow soon gave up trying to penetrate. It was impervious. So Snow endeavoured to emulate her, making the movement of her knife precise, taking the food from her spoon and chewing it as discreetly as possible. Inside, she wanted the meat so rare it was raw, to tear it with her bare hands, letting the bloody juice drip from her chin. But she knew that Caterina would be disgusted with her, and so she ate dainty bites of bland chicken and root vegetables. As soon as she’d finished eating, Caterina would dab her mouth with her napkin, smile tersely at Snow before going into the library, shutting the door firmly behind her.

The night of the storm, Snow was lying in bed, hands tucked behind her head, staring up at the canopy. The day had been like every other one that had preceded it. In the two weeks her father had been away, she’d exchanged all of twenty words with Caterina. Some days they said nothing at all. Snow turned her head and watched the fire. The flames were bending and flickering. Snow noticed that the wind had picked up and was gusting down the chimney. Rain spattered against the window. Snow pulled the covers up closer when a flash of lightning coloured the wall opposite, and counted the wait. Fifteen seconds, fifteen miles. The thunder was a gentle rumble still, bouncing off the rim of the neighbouring mountains, the tree tops in the dark woods. Nothing to worry about, the walls of the castle were four feet thick. The Crack of Doom wouldn’t breach them. With a strange contentment, she curled up and listened to the storm build and move closer. Less than thirty minutes, it was directly overhead.

Snow was nearly lulled into sleep when she became aware of a figure standing in the doorway. A sudden burst of light cut across Caterina’s face, casting it into sharp black and white contrast. Her eyes were huge. The thunder was close on the lightning’s tail, and Caterina flinched and moved quickly over to Snow’s bed. Snow propped herself up on her elbows and looked at Caterina. Her golden hair was loose and fell about the shoulders of her plain white nightgown; it softened her face, combined with the distress she was trying to cover, it made her look young and vulnerable, and Snow felt herself melt a little. She gave Caterina a gentle smile. Can’t sleep? Caterina shook her head. It’s hard without – without your father here. Snow didn’t miss the catch in her voice. Her smile became sardonic. You get used to it. There was another flash, and Caterina cried out, twisting her hands together. Snow forgot the last three months and took pity on her. She lifted the covers and moved over, encouraging Caterina to join her, which she did, curling up beside Snow. Snow could feel her trembling and anxious as a cat; she reached out a hand to stroke her back, delighted when Caterina pushed into her touch. Why are you so scared? Caterina’s voice was a low whisper, when I was a child our house was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Snow let her hand stray into hair silkier than she’d imagined, she let it play through her fingers, feeling warm and indolent. The walls here are so thick the lightning would just bounce off it. You’re perfectly safe.

Their faces were so close, Caterina’s breath puffed against Snow’s lips. It was hot and smelled slightly of wine, honey and almonds, making Snow hungry. A need to sate that hunger, if only briefly, overcame her, and she pressed her lips against Caterina’s. A flare of energy surged down to her belly when Caterina pressed back, settled between her legs when Caterina opened her mouth and drew Snow’s tongue in. The ionised air crackled around them; Snow could feel it in her hair, on her skin, every time Caterina touched her. Their breathing was ragged and raspy, as if they’d run hard and fast, but Snow didn’t care. She was lost in the warm softness of Caterina, so different from the hard woman she had come to expect.

Caterina broke the kiss and leant back to look at Snow. Her eyelids were heavy, lips full and red. She trailed finger tips down Snow’s cheek. Even though the storm still battered the castle, rattling the window in its frame, howling in the grate, Caterina no longer seemed frightened. She drew closer to Snow, burying her face in Snow’s neck, the girl gasped as she felt the nip of teeth against her skin. Snow – it was the first time since that morning in the library that Caterina had called her anything other than Madeline – Snow, have you ever let a boy touch you? Snow laughed and shook her head. The only men of her age at the castle were grooms, footmen and gardeners. Even if she’d wanted them to touch her, they wouldn’t have dared. They were a frustratingly subservient lot and knew what they considered to be their place no matter how much Snow might disagree. Have you ever let a girl touch you? A blush heated Snow’s face. She remembered Agnes removing her chemise, work roughened fingers casually brushing the underside of Snow’s breast, remembered how she had shivered, her nipple tightening. Are you cold, miss? Agnes’s innocence evident in her question. Snow nodded, even though her blood sang with heat. Agnes had slipped the fire warmed night gown over Snow’s head and that was that. No more touching. Snow had brushed her own hair, tugging harder than was absolutely necessary. You have, haven’t you? One of Caterina’s eyebrows arched. Snow couldn’t tell if the expression was one of disapproval, but then Caterina smiled. If only your father was to know. Before Snow could reply, her breath was stolen first by a kiss and then by a hand sliding under the hem of her night gown.

Caterina’s hand was nothing Agnes’s. Caterina’s felt as if it had never done an honest day’s work in its life. It was satin smooth, warm and soft. It also knew exactly what it was doing and the effect it was having. It was practiced, and the thought of who else’s skin it had touched made Snow stiffen and grip her bottom lip between her teeth so tightly, she almost drew blood. If Caterina noticed, she said nothing, and didn’t stop touching, skimming up the outside of Snow’s thigh, stopping momentarily at her hip to stroke, as if gentling a timid animal, and before long Snow had relaxed into her touch.

Tell me who touched you. Caterina’s voice was a breath in Snow’s ear, the girl shock her head. Did she touch you here? Finger tips brushed across her stomach, making the muscles ripple. Caterina flipped her hand over and pulled the back of it the other way, Snow moaned at the scrape of her nails against sensitive skin. What about here? The fingers crept up Snow’s belly and splayed over her breast. The noise that escaped Snow was the closest she’d ever come to a sob without actually crying. Her eyelids flickered; she heard Caterina’s throaty chuckle as the woman gently squeezed. Did she do that, you naughty girl? Snow coughed and found her voice. No-one – no-one’s touched me like that. Just me then? Yes. Just you.

Caterina growled deep in her chest and rolled on top of Snow, pinning the girl to the bed. Snow couldn’t help it: her knees fell open, she wrapped her arms and legs around the other woman and pulled her tight against her body. Her hands fumbled trying to tug up Caterina’s night gown to get to her skin, desperate to feel it. Caterina pulled away slightly, allowing Snow the room to do it before pushing herself back down. Snow sobbed as wiry hair pushed into her own. She covered her eyes with her hands, breath spurting in and out of her lungs as Caterina rocked her hips against her. Fingers gripped her wrists and pulled her hands away from her face, amused grey eyes looked down at her. That’s better, let me see those beautiful blue eyes. Snow locked her gaze onto Caterina’s and couldn’t look away.

Caterina’s pupils widened and darkened, and Snow felt herself fall in. The other woman’s breathing was deep and steady. Snow reached up and wound her fingers into Caterina’s hair and drew into an intense kiss, letting her tongue run over the smooth enamel of Caterina’s teeth, gasping when Caterina sucked on it. There was a swift shift in pressure as Caterina lifted herself off, Snow whimpered her disappointment but Caterina put a finger to her own lips and then traced the curve of Snow’s bottom lip. She quickly replaced her fingers with her lips and the tip of her tongue; Snow’s lip was caught between Caterina’s teeth and pulled. A jolt of pain-pleasure sizzled straight to Snow’s groin, triggering a burst of wetness.

Please. Snow had never begged for anything in her life, but then she’d never wanted anything like she wanted, needed, Caterina to touch her. Please what, Snow? Please, Caterina, please touch me. Caterina’s eyebrow almost reached her hair line. You can tell you were brought up properly, you ask so prettily. Caterina’s hand slid down Snow’s chest. What a good girl you are. The hand reached the apex of her thighs, and Snow let her legs drop open, felt her heat reflected off Caterina’s palm as it hovered above her hair, teasing. You’re so hot, I can feel it from here. I bet you’re wet, aren’t you? Snow had no voice to reply; she’d lost the power of sensible speech the second Caterina’s index and middle fingers had touched her clitoris and started to stroke it. Snow heard a loud groan but didn’t know if it came from Caterina or from her. It didn’t much matter either way; if she hadn’t made the noise then she certainly wanted to. You feel wonderful, let me go inside you. O god, yes. Yes.

O god, yes. A finger, then two, slipped inside; it was an almost unbearable pressure, on the verge of begging Caterina to stop but not wanting her to, Snow couldn’t lie still. Her hips were thrust of their own volition, driving Caterina’s relentless fingers in deeper and harder. O girl, Caterina murmured, o girl. Snow was on fire, no single part of her body was free of immolation, intense liquid heat flowed from the roots of her hair to the tips of the toes that fought to gain purchase on the bed sheets beneath them. Everything was melting, she could feel herself becoming loose and easy. Caterina insinuated another finger and met with no resistance. Snow opened herself to take her in as if she could never get enough.

O god, yes. Something was building in Snow, she could feel it in the distance as she had the storm in the mountains. Counting between heartbeats, she waited for the lightning to strike. When it struck, it hit with such force Snow arched off the bed, hips thrusting up, shoulders pressed into the pillow. Transfixed, her body held itself rigid and still for what seemed an endless moment before slamming back into the feather mattress, sweating and panting. Slowly, Caterina withdrew her fingers, looking at them and then at Snow. She held her glistening fingers up. No blood. Snow blushed. Horse riding. Caterina gave her a slight smile then slipped her fingers into her mouth and sucked them.

An early sun shone onto Snow’s face, yellow on her eyes, and woke her. Her body felt tight, sore but different, grown up. She stretched and turned over. The fire in the grate had died down to ash and she was alone. Caterina had gone.

There was something to be said for living out in the woods with seven little men who seemed to want nothing from her. As long as she kept the house clean and had their dinner on the table when they came home from work they were considerate, kept themselves to themselves and never tried anything on. She admired them, the way they had banded together and carved a life for themselves from the woods and hard, diamond rich rock of the mountains. She didn’t know how long they’d been together but she guessed it must be a long time. They often spoke their own coded language, some times they didn’t need language at all to communicate; but they tried their hardest not to exclude her. Their speech was formal, rusty through lack of use, gravelly as the spoil they picked through every day. In response, she was polite and respectful, grateful. There was a lot to be grateful for, she knew. Even now, the terror was barely beneath the surface and she would wake crying out into the dark, her heart thundering and the breath tearing out of her lungs. An anxious face would appear at the side of her bed, a calloused hand would rest on her arm. Art tha’ vexed, miss? She would steady her breathing. Just a dream, sir, a bad dream, that’s all.

She saw the dull glint of a wickedly sharp knife, felt the tight grip on her wrist of a determined man who meant her no good. But when it came to it, he hesitated, his grip loosened momentarily, just enough for Snow to wriggle free and start to run. Vicious branches lashed at her face and body but Snow was oblivious to the pain. Adrenalin surged through her, sending blood and oxygen to muscles that knew nothing more than the need to push her body on and away from danger. The huntsman was close behind her, she could hear his breath, smell his sweat and his panic. Snow stretched her pace as much as she could; for a glorious moment she experienced the pure animal joy of running, of her body working as it should, propelling her forward. She was uncatchable, breaking for the sun.

But then pain tore at her ankle and then twisted at her knee and she was falling, falling. No. No! She shouldered the ground with a thud and the world tilted again and again. All the air was knocked out of her as she skidded and tumbled down the sharp slope until, with an explosion of light and pain, she crashed to the ravine floor and everything went black.

When she woke up, she didn’t know if she was alive or dead but didn’t have it in her to make a decision either way. Eventually, she realised she must be alive because there wasn’t a part of her that didn’t hurt. She tried to move but the pain was excruciating; unconsciousness reclaimed her. Fragments haunted her, later she wouldn’t know if they were dreams or memories. She felt the branches, the heart stalling plunge. She saw the face of the man she’d known all her life and had no reason not to trust. She saw a face that caused her heart to stutter for other reasons: Caterina. Caterina distant and aloof, Caterina suddenly ugly and twisted with fury, and Caterina above her, eyelids heavy as she thrust her fingers into Snow. Much as she hated to remember it, much as she dreaded and despised Caterina and wished her cold and dead and under the hard ground, she could not rid herself of that image. Something in Snow had shifted, a cog had jumped gear and was running out of sync, on and on despite itself. It couldn’t be fixed, even after the twisted and torn ligaments, the fractured bones and concussion had been, Snow’s heart still misfired and bang banged in her bruised ribcage when she thought of the woman she knew without a doubt had planned her murder.

The air had turned chill now that the sun was dipping behind the mountains, the shadows between the trees lengthened. Snow roused herself, it was later than she’d meant to stay out, and wouldn’t be long before the men were home. Although they would never chastise her for not having dinner ready, she felt a twist of guilt. She’d been wasting time dreaming when she should’ve been skinning rabbits and peeling potatoes. She sighed and stretched, feeling the pull of recently healed and newly exercised muscles, and ran a hand through her hair. When she’d been drifting in and out of consciousness, delirious and distraught, she’d wept at the ache of the weight of her hair, and had pleaded with the men to cut it off until one of them took pity on her and complied. She’d caught her reflection in the darkened window and didn’t recognise herself, a white faced ghost with deep hollows where her eyes should be, framed by ragged black hair shorn with a knife that had been a cool relief on the back of her neck.

Snow buried her hands in the pockets of her breeches, feeling the natural length of her stride unhampered by petticoats and stays, took in a deep full breath, her chest unrestricted by the bones and laces of corsets and bodices. She had the freedom she’d always dreamed of. It was a cliché, but that freedom had come at a cost. Sometimes she wondered if it hadn’t been too high a price to pay. She’d lost everything she’d ever known, had almost died and spent hours wishing she had. But was there anything from her past she truly missed? She had no real memories of her mother and her father had always been defined by his absence. All that had stretched ahead of her was other people’s expectations of her. No doubt a young man would’ve been found for her to marry. He’d be probably been found already but no one had thought to consult with Snow. And she would’ve gone through with it, what else could she have done? It was about duty; love didn’t come into it.

Love. Snow stumbled. It sounded like self pity, but Snow had never really known love, neither receiving nor giving. No one had ever moved her beyond an affection born of familiarity. No one until Caterina. Snow kicked at a small rock and sent it flying into the undergrowth. She was beyond stupid, beyond being a love sick girl, she was beyond categorisation. But the truth was that much as she hated Caterina, she missed her. More than that, she yearned for her. She’d curl in her hard narrow bed in the kitchen listening to the night time noises: the heavy breathing of the men, the bark of a fox, the sweep of an owl and the quick, cut off shriek of a rabbit. The night with Caterina had been unique. The next day, Snow was back to receiving Caterina’s cold shoulder, intense disappointment squeezing her tender heart, but she refused to show it. Two could play that game; she ignored Caterina at breakfast and again at lunchtime. When dinnertime came, she found herself eating alone. Every mouthful was tasteless and dry as sawdust, claggy and sticking to the roof of Snow’s mouth, but she kept on mechanically cutting everything into respectable bite sized pieces even though Caterina wasn’t there to see. So ladylike, she snorted at her changed behaviour, flinging down her spoon so it clattered against the plate. She picked up a piece of chicken and tore it apart with her teeth, defiantly sucking the juice from her fingertips. Nothing had ever tasted so good.

But it was a small and short lived victory. By bedtime the memories of the night before crowded her, making her weak and fretty. Lacking the energy to pace, she simply lay on the bed, hoping that Caterina would visit but knowing that such hope was in vain. Caterina couldn’t care less about her, that much was perfectly clear. Hot, sticky tears were dribbling down her cheeks, she brushed them away roughly, hating herself for acting like the pathetic heroine in the stories she despised. One night, that was all it had been, one night and one unsettling kiss.

Snow tore off a sapling branch and whipped at a patch of stinging nettles. She’d longed for adventure, something that would make her feel alive. She’d thought that given the chance she would a daredevil, reckless with her own safety; truly believing that only when it was in danger would her life have meaning. But she’d been naïve, childish. Danger didn’t give life piquancy; it made you see how fragile and precarious it was. How easily it could be snuffed out, and how the snuffing was invariably out of one’s control. Anything less than complete avoidance of danger was tantamount to attempting suicide. And yet, here she was wandering around the woods on her own. The woods: home to any number of potential hazards as Snow already knew to her cost, but she could no more stay indoors than she could stop drawing breath. A fierce slash of her switch beheaded a row of nettles. Up until now Snow had been lucky, but it was only a matter of time before serious harm befell her. She threw the switch into the mutilated nettles.

There in the next clearing was the cottage, a four square little house built of rocks the men had hauled from the quarry and fitted together in a stone jigsaw puzzle. The roof was made of wood, split and proofed with tree pitch. Like the men themselves, it hunkered down against fair weather and foul, squat and sturdy and reliably ugly, and as with the men, Snow had come to love it for the uncomplicated shelter and security it offered. She was reluctant to call it home, as she knew how easily that could be taken from her, but it was somewhere to sleep and sit by the fire that kept out the rain, the cold and things that might mean her harm. A thin skein of smoke crept from the chimney stack; good, at least the fire hadn’t gone out in her absence. She could bank it up and get a good slow burn going with little effort.

As she drew near the cottage, Snow noticed a figure standing near the door. Too tall to be one of the men, Snow was puzzled. The clearing was too deep in the woods for casual by passers. Anyone who came to the cottage door would’ve come with a purpose, and in all the months Snow had been there, that had never happened. She had seen no other humans but the men. Snow shoved her hands in her pockets and frowned slightly. There was something familiar about the figure, even from this distance. When she got close enough to see the person, she froze. The rest of the world might see a cowled old woman with a basket of shiny red apples, but Snow knew better. And despite herself, she smiled. Hello Caterina. Hello Snow.


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