As White as Snow
Derik's mother hadn't meant to be cruel when she denied the world the knowledge of him as her son when she became Queen. A child's future was merely out of the question for a witch of her esteem, he knew.
The princess, his new step sister, had been beautiful even as a child. Their first meetings had been purely accident, for his mother hardly encouraged his playing with any other children, let alone the princess. Unlike his own stark white hair, she had jet black hair and full, flushed lips. However, her skin—which whiteness had given her the name of Snow White—was just as pale as his, except smooth and flushed with each smile that lit up her face. When Snow White didn't flee or seemed abashed by his cursed red eyes, he couldn't help but respond to her friendly prodding.
"Wanna play ball?" she held up to him the soft golden orb she had brought out with her that day.
He mumbled a reply, almost withering in the pain of his immense shyness.
"What did you say? Please, won't you play with me? I almost never have anyone to play with me. Father doesn't let me out much."
"Mother doesn't let me out much either." He almost whispered. She snatched on to his weak reply.
"Why is that? Father won't let me out because he's afraid of me catching that sickness my mother caught. You know, that plague that was about a while ago?"
His stomach twisted. Oh yes, he knew that plague all right. The image of his mother singing over the cauldron on the hilltop forced its way into his mind. He shoved it back down, feeling worms wriggle in his stomach.
"It's because I'm…strange." He said.
"My…my eyes…my hair." How could she not see?
"Oh, well, yes, they are a funny color. I've only seen old men with hair as white as yours. But why would that be a reason?"
"Because people are judgmental and vile," he said, reciting his mother's motto, "and kill anything that is familiar enough to be different enough to kill."
Snow White then had just blinked in confusion. Feeling himself grow warm, he shrugged. "Whatever that means."
And she had handed him the ball with a smile. From that point on, Derik would always know that Snow White simply was not a part of the people.
! ##^$ #%$
Snow White had become his sister through his mother's careful planning over many years, starting with the plague.
That particular spell had taken months to organize. Derik had been sent out each morning for weeks in search of a mushroom called Angel's Food, which sure looked angelic with its fluffy white roundness, but in true nature was far from it. His fingers would be numb at the end of each day from handling the deadly fungi, and his mother would make him a warm bowl of honey and forget-me-nots to sooth the pain as feeling slowly returned.
While he was away, his mother would be off as well to where, he knew not. But finally, after much toil towards some unknown purpose, a day came when he was not sent out for Angel Food. He was rather sent to work helping her drag her great potions cauldron to the top of a nearby hill that viewed the whole kingdom below. Being only seven, he wasn't much help, but she demanded it nonetheless. She then told him to sit down and hold still, which he did with usual obedience.
The night stood out like an old nightmare as the spell she cast turned out to be particularly horrible. The sky had filled with dark storm clouds of blackish green, almost giving a night like hue to the world. Lightning flashed. He could hear his mother's wavering voice sing of terrible things-things he could hardly understand as she dropped unseen objects one by one into the cauldron. Now and then he thought he saw a flash of his Angel Food, but felt too apprehensive to be excited that he had been of use, as all little children hope to be.
In the morning, the country below had begun to wail. He didn't know it then, but the plague had arrived.
She waited. Derik was not allowed to leave the cottage all the time she waited, and he quickly grew irritable. He belonged in the woods, not cooped up inside. Now and then she'd leave to the village in disguise, always locking the door with a spell to keep him in until she returned.
The waiting ended when she returned, cackling.
"The Queen has died. Quick, child, fetch me some roses."
"Roses? In the forest?"
"Yes, the most beautiful one's you can find. Quickly now!" and she opened the door to him, bursting into fits of laughter as he left.
The next spell had not been nearly as terrifying and yet remarkably complex.
"Beauty," she had murmured to him as she stirred, "is the results of many factors and has always taken sacrifice to achieve. Beauty enough to enchant love is even more difficult to achieve."
When his mother left the next morning she left as a beautiful maiden that would put even Venus to shame, completely changed from the hunched, haggard, hooked nose form that he had grown use to. A few days later she returned a Queen.
"Derik, what are you working on?"
Snow White tipped onto her palms, peering into his fingers. They sat in the quiet, private courtyard of early spring, surrounded by roses. Pinched in his fingers was a tiny wooden statue, a knife in his other hand.
"I…don't know yet."
"You always say silly stuff like that. Don't you ever plan anything?"
He smiled coyly. "I plan some things, sister. I just don't know how they're going to happen."
She sat back, smiling, then returned to her scrubbing. He watched for a few moments more, remarking on her extraordinary beauty. Her skin's fairness stood out like silk despite her ragged dress. Long, thick lashes batted against rounded cheeks that held that same, flushed red mouth that so attracted him. Even her short black hair, which had been shorn by command of his mother in attempts to quell her blooming beauty, only added to her by framing the kind, pale face. In a way, it reminded him of the Angel's Food mushrooms he had collected so long ago as a little child, but he didn't know what that meant.
By command of his mother, she scrubbed the empty fountain, pulled in by the strange power of the Queen to command obedience that he knew too well. The usual uneasiness in his chest grew to a twisting pain. His mother's efforts weren't working to quell her beauty.
Or, it was more his mother's efforts weren't working to quell his abominable affections. She, his sister and princess, and him, a quiet, albino hunter. If Snow White were to know her position was because of him…all of it, for he had always meant to tell her of that terrible night of lightning and nightmares, but somehow it could never pull free from his grinding fear.
He stood up, folding his carving knife away. Snow White looked up. It wasn't her beauty that had drawn him, he knew. Why didn't his mother know? Was love all about beauty? Then what was it he felt?
"Derik? You have that look again. Are you all right?"
"I…Snow…" his best friend. He could tell her anything, and yet nothing at all.
She dropped her brush and moved to stand.
"No, don't get up. It's nothing. I just remembered that the guys are waiting for me. We were planning on seeing if we can catch a fox. We've already got its mate, so it should…" he should stop talking. She didn't like him talking about animals like that. He excused himself and left her, eyes a bit too knowing for his comfort.
The 'guys' had come to be his companions really because of Snow White. By befriending him and playing with him, she had taught him what he could've never learned from his untrusting witch of a mother: to love, to allow, and that his fellow mankind wasn't just 'the people'. They had originally been her cousins, sons of Dukes and Earls that frequently came over to play, but which avoided her on precept that she was a gentle sort of girl who couldn't possibly understand their boyish activities of torturing kittens and burning ants. Derik, on the other hand, being raised by a witch who required him to help her skin whole cats for potions, had no inhibitions. With Snow White's gentle coaxing through his shyness, he soon learned how to play Robin Hood, hunters, and all sorts of make believe games. As they grew older into their teen years, he joined them in the hunts on their father's property. Through this, his talent of maneuvering through the forest earned him the name of the lead Huntsman among his fellow friends. No one could kill as efficiently as he. They sometimes joked it had to do with his unnaturally blood red eyes.
"They can just see it," they said, "the blood in other creatures through the underbrush."
Of course, they were just joking.
It wasn't that he liked killing things. There was a quiet still to the woods that reminded him of something otherworldly in the back of his mind. The gathering of trees were beautiful and sheltering. And in that moment, hidden into their folds, his stark whiteness finally disappeared and he could see into the dark, fathomless eyes he sought. It was a world where no questions plagued him, and where he was no longer powerless and colorless.
It was here, with the fresh reminder of his traitorous cruelty to his step-sister that he wished to flee. Foxes were but avatars of his pursuing wounds.
He came on a late spring day: the man who'd finally take Snow White away from there, from his mother, from him. Derik was lost as to where he came from or as to why he seemed to be seeking for her. The man had to be everything Derik wasn't—with dark hair, creamy tan skin like light cinnamon, and brown eyes—and Derik, instantly tense at the sight, had rushed down the stairwell, heart pounding. Thoughts of malice, harassment, and rape pricked at his mind like angry ravens. Snow White, at a ripe, beautiful sixteen, was too beautiful to not call too much attraction for her own good.
A growl in his throat, he had whirled about the corner to the courtyard just to see the man kneel at her feet, a gentle smile on his face. He paused, staring, waiting. Then, in a flurry of embarrassment, she had realized her dress and state and, clutching her hands to her chest, fled the place with a squeal. He stood as if to stop her. Derik reached her, his arms outstretched. But she passed him, pale face flushed and distressed.
"I'm disgraceful." She moaned to him later.
"Why?" he asked in his usual quiet way.
"He—well—just look at me!"
Her dress was particularly haggard that day. She had worn it since she was thirteen and it had become several inches too short for her in that time. The original cloth had almost disappeared amongst the patches and stitches. He understood even more than she.
"I don't know why I let her do this to me!" she cried, "I'm a princess! Where is my dignity! Just because Father died doesn't let her…" she trailed off, painful memories arising. Derik flinched as well into memories.
"Snow, don't…my mother, she…she has more to her than you think. It's not your fault."
"There you go again. Let me guess, you can't explain can you?"
Just her mentioning that gave him a raging urge to break the hold over his tongue once more. But like a clash of metal, a cracking headache burst across his head as his mother's words echoed through his head: you shall never tell anyone of what I am, what I do, and what I've done, Derik Aspen.
Cool hands were around his wrists. He had unconsciously clutched his head without noticing. Snow White's eyes met his as he looked up, her ivory fingers wrapping themselves through his fingers. They were dark and deep and fathomless, like the deer. He didn't like killing.
"I'm sorry, Derik. You were in real pain that time, weren't you?"
He shook his head wearily. It was better this way. Even without the enchantment, he wasn't sure he could drag up the courage to tell her everything. Perhaps he really was a demon. One day he could leave, hide amongst the leaves of his forest, forget, and vanish. Oh the relief to be swallowed by a whispering canopy.
"He was very handsome though, wasn't he?" Snow White was saying. "He looked like a prince of some sort. Say, Derik, do you think he'll come by again?"
A warm flush came to her cheeks. Watching her face, taking in each fair curve once more, he answered while he still wasn't sure if he wanted to speak at all.
After having left Snow White in the courtyard for the forest, Derik stood unsure in the woodlands, watching the diamond sunlight absentmindedly. The prince had indeed return since that day. Three times, in fact. Derik knew he had no chance against such a handsome, royal man. Even if his mother had allowed him to be recognized as the prince he had become, he was still the brother, step or not. The white haired, demonic eyed brother, at that. He shouldn't be capable of loving and wanting her as he did in the first place. However, that wasn't what he was most afraid of.
Sighing, he sat upon a patch of thick grass, bringing his bow about to sit across his knees. Its polished ebony wood glimmered in the shifting light. No, he had accepted that he may very well never have Snow White to himself. What he feared was his mother, who had grown more greedy and jealous than ever in her beauty and power. The concoction of beauty she had drank that fateful evening had poisoned her as well as uplift her. As Queen she had surrounded herself with mirrors, fascinated by her work. No woman could be as beautiful as she, the witch with no name. Handsome and rich nobles and courtiers from around the land had come in attempts to win her heart for her majestic and mysterious beauty, as well as her empty, powerful throne besides her, with no known male heir to take the throne. Unfortunately for them, she had no heart to speak of, let alone have to be stolen. But she had used them. Yes, she wasn't going to let a chance like that slip by. Derik knew she had, through jewels and his knowledge of her lusting, hungry nature.
To lie with a witch is a wicked thing.
The more Snow White's fawning boy came, the more fearful Derik grew. His distrust of him had faded enough that he now kept a look out for his mother as they talked and courted in the courtyard. If his mother should know, rags were the least of Snow's worries, for the prince was handsome, and she, Snow, fully grown and youthful, was the fairest of them all.
Derik stood abruptly, bringing his bow up. He could almost smell the musky trail of the fox he sought.
"Oh, Snow," he whispered to himself out loud, "you don't know what curse has come upon your kingdom; upon your family."
Branches reached out to embrace him as he slid into the forest, red eyes intense, bosom on fire. Whispers drew him into the underbrush. The aroma of pregnant, mother earth wrapped about him, comforting, protecting. His fingers flexed upon the smooth wood of his bow, like lions paws.
With an exhale of breath, a life flew back from whence it came.
His mother was waiting for him at the entrance of the castle when he returned, the black fox dangling over his shoulder.
"Derik," she said sharply. The hairs on his neck stood on end.
"I need you to see something. Come."
Commanding. Sharp as steel. To the point. She had to be in a deadly mood.
Derik's heart fell as she led him back into the castle and through its stone corridors. Sentinels and servants bowed and pressed themselves into the walls as she passed. She gave no notice to them that they existed, and Derik didn't either, afraid to meet their eyes. His heart dropped even lower, burning with slowly approaching dread, as he recognized them nearing the section of the castle with windows that looked out over the southernmost courtyard. She waited for him by a window, still as stone.
"Tell me," she said, tone like silk, "what do you see?"
He came to the window, already knowing what he would see. Down below, in the gathering sunlight, Snow White and the Prince ran below, playing and laughing as all young lovers do. His cape laid forgotten across the fountain's ledge, half of it dipped into the water. Never was there a more beautiful couple.
Derik inwardly groaned. He thought he had told that man to be more inconspicuous or leave and rot. He had shaken him. God damn it, he had threatened him with his hunting knife to his throat, so close that he had drawn a thin line of blood. And now Snow White—
"How long have you known of this?"
Derik looked up at her, making his face confused as possible.
"Don't give me that stupid look, filthy bastard. I know how you dote on her. Now answer my question—no lies!"
That same commanding force. Truth was being torn out of him by some unseen iron fist down his throat, tearing them forth from his belly.
"About…geh… a month, now."
"A month? An entire month and you never told me?"
He longed to snarl, to snap that why should he ever tell her anything, but he remained silent. He must control his temper for Snow now. Only he stood any chance to protect her now.
The witch's enchanted face was curled into a beastly grimace of anger. The black fox had made that same look the split second before his knife had found its throat. But now he was the creature with the knife prone to kill.
Next thing he knew he was kneeling before her in her chambers, crushed to the floor by her command and jaw clenched in pain from the effort. She prowled about him, long auburn hair swishing with the wave of her round hips.
"You wretch of a son," she was murmuring, more deadly than ever in her sudden quiet after the screaming, "I should have left you to die in the rain that night, abandoned, homeless, sick, and white."
"Then why didn't you?" he said.
"Because you were pathetic, and as you know what I am, my kind cannot have children. We thirst for them, however. But it was because of me that you lived, and this is how you repay me? By hiding that whore's disgrace upon my name?"
"They haven't done anything wrong!" he cried. "She's sixteen! I would think with that great hatred of yours, you'd want her to be taken by some man. Then she'd be out of your sight!"
"You understand nothing, boy. If I want her gone, I'd…" she paused, struck by an idea. Terror flooded him. He didn't like that smirk. She turned, chuckling softly in her lithe voice. Behind her, he spotted a great, gold gilded mirror. From it, Snow White's face showed, more beautiful than ever. Her hair had grown long again into a thick, curling main of ebony hair. Her skin, like porcelain, complimented the blood red lips that smiled and caught onto straying strands of black hair. For a moment, he was taken away, enraptured by her beauty.
"I have a task for you that may redeem you yet in my sight, my son."
He snapped back to reality with an uncomfortable snap. Snow…that stupid prince.
"That girl will learn once and for all that no woman should ever dare to reach for my status. And you are going to deliver that punishment." She turned, a finely carved pine box that fit nicely into her two hands. "I want you to take her into the forest—you like the forest, don't you? Think of it as a date." She laughed shrilly at this. "Yes yes, a date! Have her given a nice, pretty little dress and all. Then, when you are far away from any witness, in the darkest shadow of the forest, I want you to cut out her heart," she brought up the little box, "and put it in this."
A great agony had wrung his insides so swift and strong that it knocked the wind out from him the moment he felt the touch of her commanding magic. He collapsed onto his hands and knees, breathless.
"You will bring it back to me without another word so that I may consume that beautiful little heart of hers. And then I shall love you forever."
The shrieking cackle followed him all the way back to his own chambers. The black fox carcass that she had shoved back into his hand fell with a soft flump on his hearth, tongue lolling out. Its black eyes looked back at him, hollow and dull.
Snow White had once kissed him, many years before when they were just children. They had been beneath a peach tree, rolling that golden ball back and forth to each other as they munched on mushy, overripe peaches. She had been chatting away to him in that animated excitement she use to always have before the rags and painful repression. It had come quite suddenly and innocent. He couldn't even remember what it was she had been talking about that had led to her leaning forward with those red lips of hers, even at seven. But he remembered the kiss itself sharply: soft, wet, sticky with peach juice, and very, very warm.
He clung to that memory as he led her by the hand up the hill of summer wildflowers. A soft pink dress fit for a princess at play hugged her perfect figure, lighting her face with wondrous joy at her luck. She skipped and chatted, picking flowers any flowers who dared to catch her fancy.
"Oh, gracious! Derik, what did you ever say to mother to get her to give me this dress? And a whole day off to do what I please? I've always wanted to see the flowers out here again. They're so different from the castle's gardens, you know? If only he could see me now!" she giggled at the thought, hugging herself with her free arm. She had yet to notice Derik's unnatural silence and stony face. Perhaps it was because he was usually so quiet in the first place that there was hardly any difference from unnatural and natural silence. Yet, in reality, he warred so strongly within himself he scarcely had the spare thought and feeling to respond to Snow White's excitement. Each step had been a hidden battle since that morning when his mother had shooed him out of the door, grinning.
Eventually she grew bored of being towed and freed herself from his grip, frolicking across the prairie. Flowers in all colors found their way into her hands as she sung. The nearby trees rustled. The breeze then ran through her hair, spreading the tattered strands behind her. The image of Snow White's face in the mirror haunted him.
I must not, I must not, he thought furiously, head throbbing to the point of bursting. He could hardly see which impeded his task even more, causing more pain.
"Derik!" she cried, "Will you let me make a crown of flowers for you? You deserve it after all, my brother, my prince." she laughed merrily, dancing back to him with handfuls of bright, poppy red flowers. "I think I might find some blue one's too. God only knows you need more color to you besides those brown clothes you wear all the time."
He bowed his head automatically to receive the crown. After placing it, she danced off again. The sun was nearing the horizon in the west, fattening and reddening as it went. He found the same iron fist that had brought forth truth once again ripping words out of his mouth.
"Snow! You want to check out the forest before we go? You know, see where I am all the time?"
From within a bushel of forget-me-nots and daisies she straitened, her nose wrinkled.
"Why would I ever want to go into that dreary place?"
"It's actually quite beautiful," he said, "and there are some purple flowers in there. Don't worry, we won't go too deep."
It was but a sign of her meekness and innocence that she stood and followed him, arms full of flowers, into the wavering arms of the forest. All the while she kept her eyes peeled for the purple flowers he spoke of. Sweat dripped down his hands. The pain in his head had spread to his shoulders by now. Within, he screamed and wailed for release, crashing against the walls of his prison.
Not Snow! He had begged of his mother, weeping and moaning. Not Snow! Please, take me instead! Kill me! Torture me! Burn me!
Kill you? She had simpered. And what would that do for me? You are ugly, unnatural, and pathetic. Your heart would only damage my own grace, not add to it. Besides, you deserve this, dirty creature. It will cleanse you of your incest.
Snow White gasped, pointing to a bush happily in the changing light of sunset. The purple lips of the flowers were tinged gold now.
"You were right! They're beautiful! I haven't seen anything like them!" she suddenly stopped, curling her hand back. Her doe like eyes had widened, and even her lips had started to pale. "Brother, why are you holding a knife?"
He hadn't noticed his hand reach down into his satchel, so entrenched in his own struggles he had been. Panicking, he took a step back. His limbs shook furiously, but the spell refused their crumbling.
"It's nothing, Snow," he heard his lips say, "I was just going to help you cut the flowers."
With a soft breath she smiled wearily. Could she not see his struggle upon his face? Could she not see his torment? This couldn't be happening. It just couldn't be. He wailed, he screamed, his soul and mind tore at his flesh with intangible fingers, he shrieked for God in desperate, agonizing pleas. Let him die! Let him die! Lightning! Any God there be! Strike him now before he—
Snow White turned her back to him, looking about the bush for the perfect bloom. Evening light bathed the forest in darkening red, bleaching all the flowers that she had dropped brown. His body moved forward more swiftly than he was ready for, and the knife rose up. No! This couldn't be!
He loved her.
With more defiance and fury than he had ever felt in his life, Derik burst through, experiencing more fierce pain than could be fathomed. His skull split, his skin tore, his flesh must've melted from his pores. When his voice finally reached his ears, he found that he was roaring himself hoarse.
But his body hadn't imploded on himself. Drenched in sweat and quivering on hands and knees, he gasped for breath, watching as droplets blood from his mouth dribbled down his lip and onto the silvery blade on the grass. Looking up weakly he saw Snow White standing stunned and trembling only feet away. Those dark eyes were terrified.
"Snow," he tried to say, but coughed on his hoarse throat.
"Derik, what happened? What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing…anymore." Indeed this was true. He felt…free. Freer than he ever had before. Some great weight had been thrown off his shoulders.
"You need to run."
"The Queen—my mother—she wants you dead. She sent me to kill you. Snow, she's a witch. That's why you've never been able to disobey her, even though you've wanted to."
"What do you mean? Derik…you're scaring me. You…you must be ill. Another one of your headaches." She moved to him, frightened, but concerned.
"No! No, Snow, I mean it. I haven't been able to tell you all this time because of her. She's the reason your parents are dead and why she dressed you in rags. I was there when she cast the spell—I was there when she was plotting to murder your father and then when she ordered me to kill you."
Derik had never seen her mouth so pale, her skin so grey.
"You…you killed Father?"
"No! No! Oh Snow, please…she ordered me to kill you as punishment for not telling her about the prince. I…I would never harm you. I could never…" he coughed, spraying more blood across his gauntlet. He must've bitten his tongue. "But you need to run, Snow. Run into the forest as fast as you can, it will protect you. She could be watching us right now."
"But, Derik, I can't go in there alo-"
"Take this knife then."
"But, I don't even know how to use it."
"Don't you get it! Run! Run!" he roared, forcing himself to his feet. "It's not safe here! It never was! Run, damn it!"
She had taken off before he had even finished his sentence, leaping away like a startled deer, pale dress flickering out of sight long before he turned his eyes away. Pulling off the bow from his pack, he proceeded to string it as he wiped more blood from his mouth. Snow White's fallen flowers lay forlornly in the dying light.
Now, to do what he did best. The beast of a Queen would be expecting her heart tonight.