New Flashfic: Cross the Line

Posted: June 5, 2017 by Bill Maxwell in Flash Fiction, Intersections, Personal
Tags: ,

There is an argument that video games can cause violence. I know for a fact that for many people, it brings solace. It brings relief. And there are circumstances where violence is sadly necessary.
Ω

Simply put, when drink and the night took him, that’s when she came alive.

Phosphor colored dots on a desktop screen; in that digital world she wielded great powers and a blade she found so long ago, when the dragon overtook the High Reaches and she had been sent on a quest by a desperate villager who was willing to part with the town treasure and even promise to help her learn the secrets of the fighting warrior monks of the Lost Valley who left their scrolls of martial techniques in a jar in the local tavern when they ascended to a higher plane.

She had to wipe blood off with the back of her hand. It had been a bad night.

It was hard to look out of one eye. She hadn’t checked it in a mirror, yet. She didn’t want to. Occipital fracture. That was what her face was screaming. But she didn’t know.

He said she was so stupid.

She could hear the music; she rode it to the stars in a ship that had a name like Bravery or Freedom or Star’s Reach and in that moment when the hyperspace engine hit and the universe blurred into motion, she knew there would be worlds ahead with monsters and alien artifacts and mysteries for her to crack, as pirates would come at her and rebels for her to fight or maybe join and she would level her blaster at them and demand to meet their leader.

She didn’t dare turn the volume actually up, in case he found her and took even that small mercy.

Her hands were cramping up something fierce. She tried to remember what she did about them last time. That was when she’d overcooked the pasta. He’d slammed the pot down on her hands. She was grateful it had cooled down some.

She was fairly certain she’d soaked them in milk. She’d have to do that soon.

She could smell the jungle, feel its heat, even the heat of the two guns in her hands, barely cooling down as she cut down wild animals and smugglers searching for that lost treasure because it was actually the key to an ancient civilization that had been destroyed because its power had grown too great and its ability to change the fabric of reality itself had threatened the gods so they had sunk the lands of those powerful people and relegated the whole thing to history.

Why couldn’t she stop crying?

It wasn’t so bad a life. The rent was paid on time. There was enough for food. Sometimes, it was tough to get the bills off. She had a hard time thinging. Thinking. Words could get hard. He knew she was slow.

He didn’t drink every night. He wasn’t angry every time.

The invaders were on the march again and her army was the only thing standing between them and their conquest of the kingdom and she’d been saving her mechanical legions for last, towering things of steel and steam that would lumber above the field and slaughter wide swaths of the enemy but it was sometimes hard to stop them and they’d stumble off the map and into villages and towns allied to her and when she wasn’t concentrating on leading her troops she could imagine virtual screaming of virtual children and women and innocent people.

In the end it was all her fault.

She was too dumb and too fat. Too ugly. Too tired. Too clumsy. She’d only had a couple of years at college. He’d have four. Her friends had even less education. That’s why he didn’t want her seeing them anymore. Their faces remained a thumbprint on her memories, blurred with time, connected to random names like Nancy or Jolene or Bobby.

She was lonely but it wasn’t safe for her to be alone. That’s why he was there for her.

There was a gun in her hand and she looked at it and she held it out and she blew away the driver’s face and she jumped into his car and drove away; the cops came racing after but there was another car, another driver she could take down and that led to the chase on the bridge where she got a hold of a cop car leaving the cop bleeding on the road but the best was when she got herself a tank.

He had a gun.

It was by the side of the bed, in a drawer. He’d never taken it out but he would look at the drawer sometimes. If he was truly angry. There was a phrase he’d use. “Insurance.” Against criminals. Or enemies. Or stupidity. Or clumsiness. Her best behavior would be rewarded. That was always his promise.

He let her know she was never at her best. At least around him.

The oldest game, so simple; two lines maybe an inch long, white and pure, on each side of the screen with a dashed line in the center and simple bright scores on top and a square ‘ball’ that would bounce back and forth and you’d have to concentrate, hard, not to lose it as the ball went faster and faster between the two lines, and even when she had to squint between the tears, in the end she’d always find a way to win.

She pulled the gun out.

She stood over him and she checked if it was loaded. It was. She took the gun and pointed it at his head, an inch away. The distance of a line of phosphor on a tiny screen. Her finger trembled on the trigger. She put the gun in her mouth. There was this horrible metal taste, oil like the backfire of a car. Her hand trembled with restraint. She closed her eyes. She pulled the gun out of her mouth, pointed it, put it back in, out again. It all blurred together; her, him. A single shot.

It was louder than she could imagine.

New Flashfic: Trooper

Posted: June 5, 2017 by Bill Maxwell in Flash Fiction, Intersections
Tags: , ,

How do you feel if you’re on the losing side of history? A trooper from a familiar franchise comes to the only conclusion he can.

Petrichor.

VX-2068 (Vex, to his squad mates) heard that term when he was off-duty, drinking at a bar off of Kessel. The Tarkin doctrine stated that it was the rule of force (and its corollary, fear) that kept the peace. That required troopers to be aloof, separate. Not Vex’s personal belief, but what could you do about it? Rules were rules. Of course, sometimes, you just had to blow off some steam. You couldn’t help yourself. Sneak off the base, armor off, drink a little, get a little action. In Vex’s experience, for the most part, the brass looked the other way, as long as people weren’t taking too much advantage of the locals. Well… no more than the government allowed, so it kind of varied from post to post.

Petrichor was supposed to be the smell of wet soil after rain.

It’s not that he’d never done rain duty before. It’s just that most of the time it was under armor. There was this time, in this swamp, knee-deep in muck searching for some sort of insurgent leader that had been chased into hiding. Nothing came of it. Last he’d heard, the insurgent leader had been caught back on Coruscant. Or maybe had just died. He wasn’t sure. There was something about it on the news. Big celebrations.

Now… everything was different.

Head on the ground. Helmet cracked from a blow that should have killed him. An improvised local trap—a low-tech stupid indigenous improvised trap—had taken him down. Air flooding in. Dirt in his mouth. Smell of the soil after rain. Petrichor.

His blood tasted coppery and he wondered about that. There were some differences in trooper blood and others. He knew that. Did their blood taste different? Stupid thought. Sitting up was painful. Helmet came off easily and he looked up. The trees surrounding him were, by any aesthetic standard, overwhelmingly beautiful. That wasn’t why he was crying. It was the dull, intermittent booms in the sky, where debris hit the atmosphere and burned. It was the halo of an explosion in the sky, the size of a small moon.

It was seeing all hope die.

Vex was having a hard time wrapping his head around it. The galaxy had been dying 40 years ago. The dream of unity, always a distant hope at best, was breaking apart at the seams. Corporations were inflicting their will on less powerful planets and war was endemic. The Republic served as the galaxy’s policeman, not their savior. It had to reforge itself into a image more fitting for the issues at hand. For the time at hand! It had to come under sterner rule, as the rule of law and the very fabric of Republican society was coming undone.

Vex spit on the ground, dropped the helmet. Listened to the shout of victory echoing across the Valley. Locals. He hated them. He’d seen good men die, friends die, at their hands. And even as he thought that, he knew, deep down, a truth. He wasn’t going to make it off this world. He wasn’t going to make it home.

Home. What was that going to be like? Rule back in the hand of the locals? How were they fit to run anything? Vex understood that they’d evolved there, immigrated there, assimilated there, long before the Republic. But they had no idea how to deal with intergalactic affairs.

That’s what a Senate was for.

Clouds were forming, the result of the particulates from the explosion seeding the sky above. Helmet in hand, Vex headed towards the drop point. Perhaps there was a shuttle there. Perhaps not. But it would get him far enough to be out of immediate danger. Maybe there’d be others who’d made it as well. Maybe they could band together in some remote corner, make a community, live out their lives isolated from this madness. GN-4279 had been interested in gardening. JB-0037 had been studying clean water reclamation from some water farmers. Maybe over time, they could build back a semblance of order, of civilization. Reclaim their place in the universe.

Vex looked down at his helmet, angrily threw it against a tree. It wasn’t fair! It’s not like he’d lived a good life. A fancy life like the senators or governors or even the upper brass. Most people didn’t know that for every 4 soldiers who were on duty, twice that amount were working janitorial services.  A life spent hip-deep in crap or shooting at people he didn’t have a particular problem with. That’s what so many of the locals just didn’t get. It was just a job. Why couldn’t they see that?

Vex wasn’t an idiot. No, not all of the laws were just. Not everyone got fair treatment. But that was simply life. No one guaranteed it would be fair. The locals whining about how the Republicans—and later the Empire—got all of the best perks, like they would have done anything different had they held the reins of power.

Come to think of it, some of those locals did hold spots of power. Just a few of them, sure, but enough of them that Vex had seen them on Senate broadcasts. Wasn’t that proof that anyone could make it if they tried? All of that was well past his pay grade, though, so no matter who bitched about it, his life wouldn’t be any different. Just a trooper, working for a government, that was now seeing his world fall apart.

It just wasn’t fair!

The armor was pressing in on him. He was tired and it was heavy. He’d been in it all of his life.

What would he be without it?

What the hell would he be if he was no longer white?

No shuttle ahead. Others though. Not sure on what side. Not really certain if it mattered anymore.

Slowly, bit by bit, Vex started removing his armor and went to join them.

Every culture on the planet has an origin story, a way they describe how things came from not-being to being. In this, they often have a mythic narrative that also discusses how the first man and woman came into existence. Equally as often these progenitors are presumed to be just like us. If you were to transport the First Ones through time, they might be surprised by the use of modern tools or new cultural taboos but they would still fundamentally be recognizable to us and even, over time, become acceptable (even revered!) in our modern culture.
For almost 1,800 years, the dominant narrative has been of only two people—an Adam and an Eve—instead of a first tribe or a pair of couples or a set of hermaphrodites separated by the gods. This formed a very distinct starting point. Before Adam & Eve, there was nothing like them and after them, nothing different was ever conceived (at least by the gods).

A mere two-hundred years ago, Charles Darwin was wandering the world and observing things (and just as often meddling with them). In contrast to the prevailing thought at the time (”God made everything. Deal with it”), he discovered that life exists as a series of discrete relationships that can change slowly over time. It wasn’t the first time folks had noticed it, but its presentation was well-timed and shook up the world at the time.

Much to Darwin’s horror, a number of people (including members of his family), choose to focus on the ‘discrete’ instead of the ‘relationship’ part of his theory. From this particularly loathsome attention came the fields of eugenics and genetic determinism. Now, people had a ‘scientific’ way to justify prejudices. Poor people? Poor genes. Criminal tendencies? Must have passed from father to son. The god-blessed positions of royalty and their sycophants? Now blessed by Reason.

The absolute experts on this became the German Reich scientists, who produced outstanding work on the different genetic branches of mankind. Time and time again, they came up with clear definitions of how the blue-eyed, blond-haired ubermen of their homeland were definitely the end-result of Darwin’s evolutionary claims. All of their work was mad nonsense, of course; the results of overwhelming confirmation bias thanks to a horrific political climate and pressure to succeed under ridiculous circumstances.

Their work, idiotic and as cleverly worded as it was, leaked into modern day. A drive for which ‘race’ started where, for where the origin of ‘humanity’ came from. Scientists, in all seriousness, argued that their findings marked the humble beginnings of the species as here or there and that this was some sort of discovery or achievement.

In essence, the scientists were looking for a myth. So wrapped up in Christian theology, they were searching for an Adam and an Eve.

Do you remember how Darwin was studying discrete relationships? Once you start focusing on the relationships part instead of the discrete, a far more realistic pattern emerges. An astonishing ‘bush’ of life instead of a tree. Species that may appear different can successfully mate if they have the chance, or not. Time and distance do change things, sometimes on the surface, sometimes underneath. The ‘missing link’ that was ‘never to be found’ a mere century has been found over and over again. Suddenly, there are dozens of different types of Genus Homo, some of which we know, definitively, that we have bred with. Those branches that vanished didn’t just vanish; they just sexed their way into what was up and around at the time. What was new based on the environmental conditions that favored them.

You might think this is avoiding the question — where did humans come from? The answer, of course, is another question. What is a human? Is it when we started walking on two legs? Fire? Tools? That was all millions of years ago. Gathering in small tribal units (still millions)? Art? A million or so. Hunting? Gathering? Funerals?

We tend to think that Genus Homo from about 3/4 – 1/2 million years ago looked pretty much like us. But like us does not mean us. Were they still having sex with Homo Neanderthalis at that time? Or the Denisovans? Or something we haven’t found yet? Culture as we like to recognize it can into play around 250-50 thousand years ago but that just means there was a lot of it shared out there. Civilizations came in about 12-10 thousand years ago. Was that ‘human’?

Let’s take a step back. We know humans succeeded because they were persistence hunters, which is basically running down animals to death. To be a successful persistence hunter you have to have a strong sense of curiosity and time. You have to be able to assemble stories. This plus this plus this means that the deer ran through here.

What does it mean to be human?

Not our genetics, not our form. If this was our sole measure of success then we would have died out in places where persistence hunting failed. Instead, our success comes from being a storied people. Instead of a genetic shift over time, a storied people relies on memetic changes and the epigenetic changes that result from those memetics.

Epigenetics, which is a relatively new field, hypothesizes that a chunk of DNA is expressed only in relation to an environmental stress or benefit. Epigenetics speaks to the physical changes that occur that allow humans to adapt to an environment, causing variation in their appearance, though they are fundamentally the same. The same… well… the same kind of being that can choose to mate with their neighbors, to build relationships and nurture them.

What does it mean to be a storied people? A people who use culture to alter themselves?

It means there is no such thing as a human race. It means there is no such thing as an “Adam” and an “Eve”. A case in point, sometime before we ‘matured’ into homo sapiens sapiens, we started hanging out with wolves. Any biologist can point out the sudden shift in ‘human’ attitude and ‘wolf’ attitude that resulted in a co-evolutionary path. The two species couldn’t mate genetically, but epigenetically and memetically, they were on-fire.

Homo lupus gave way to tribes. Tribes gave birth to an impossible variety of humans. Homo Lakota. Homo Cymmru, Homo Taino, Homo Gunwinggu. Ultimately, the cancer that is Homo Civis. It’s that which is our strength. It’s also why the ‘origin of the species’ will consistently be wrong. It’s chasing after a myth which has never been the reality of our species.

We are all Adams and Eves.

On the anniversary of Zombie Patient Zero

Posted: April 17, 2017 by Bill Maxwell in Personal

I want to offer the following suggestions:

1) If you see a zombie (patient zero), immediately and publicly declare it as risen / a messiah / a deity / a demigod.
2) Encourage people to immediately worship and/or investigate it immediately. This puts a wall of flesh between you and Zombie Patient Zero.
3) While these people serve as your living shield, take the time to isolate them all. Large walls are best but temporary fencing will do. Remember, they are more interested with what’s going on at the center of this mess and less likely to recognize what’s going on behind them. It is advisable that you have stocked up on several hundred yards worth of fence before this.
4) Light the whole thing on fire. DO NOT BOMB IT. Bombs are messy and might spread around parts that could cause secondary infections. Stay with cleansing fire.
5) Congratulations! You have successfully and safely dealt with a potential zombie epidemic. In addition, you have taken out the too-gullible or too-curious that would likely endanger you in an end-time situation.

In Ice, She Sleeps

Posted: March 12, 2017 by Bill Maxwell in Magick, Short Story, We Rise
Tags: , , , ,

So one day I’m in this discussion about how the prince in Cinderella is obviously under the effect of fairy magic and why didn’t his parents figure that out? That inspired me to look a little deeper into fairy tales and start teasing out some deeper thread. With that said, enjoy:

Ω

That day was so clear to her. It marked the beginning of an end, though she didn’t hold that idea at the time. No… instead she felt she was in the bloom of her power; the blush of spring. Hair sun-kissed, cheeks rose-red, eyes like calm pools. He called her Beauty but she was no fool. She knew that all things could be lost with time. No, she was just herself. As beautiful as a rose. As thorned as a briar. She smiled, perfect teeth concealing a perfect tongue and she laughed, wholly and delightfully. That name she would take for her own… rose-red, briar rose; Rose.

She had been with the heir to this land some time ago, not too long past, and she was still flush from their encounter. At the end of their too brief rendezvous, he had gifted her with a bouquet of unique, magnificent thorned blooms from his mother’s garden. His tribute to her name and nature. Holding them close, she found that spot by the river she remembered from her youth, down the path that led to the hill and the People that lived beneath it. Dark and strange and faithful People. Memories from a lifetime ago. But it was a good memory and, above all, safe, so she lay there, happily exhausted by the day and she let herself drift off to sleep on a patch of soft black earth within the sound of the bubbling water.

She dreamed, restless, unexpected.

Of long ago times and far thrown futures. Her hand flung out from her as she dreamed, thorn ripped, and the flowers scattered. Three drops of blood fell to the earth from a torn thumb.  And in her swollen sleep, she whispered “Skin like snow, lips like blood, hair like night.”

The ones that live under the ground and in the trees and in the water and in the good clean earth heard her. They blessed her and the words she had spoken.

Rose found herself that day with child.

‡ ‡ ‡

She had decided the child would be born alone, as was the old way, out deep in the forest, where the roots of life itself ran deep and her grunts and sounds could not be heard by her people. In customs of ancient times, her family would be waiting a short ways off to aid her after the birth and protect her should anything go wrong. But her father had died young and her mother… she didn’t talk about her mother anymore. Rose believed in herself, in her strength, in the knowledge of the forest because of her time with the people under the Hill, her cousins and aunts and uncle not by birth but by need.

So here she was, her and her swollen belly and the child inside her straining to be released, to come into the world.

The child’s head crowned as a great cat appeared at the edge of the glen. It scented the blood and, in the way that cat-kind can do, it allowed its pleasure to be known. Food was near. The cat’s opinion, of course. The child’s mother had another notion. Rose snarled, both in pain and in frustration. She saw the cat fully, knew its intent. She would not give up, this close to bringing her daughter in the world. And then she laughed. That laugh that only the mad truly understand. She howled, much to the cat’s irritation.

Her howl was answered.

A pack of wolves drawn by blood and curiosity came to see what the fuss was about. At first they challenged the cat. A meal was to be had. This meal would be theirs. Or not, if the risk was too much. Snarls were met with ears bared back, a warning hiss, and teeth bared. The great cat was not here to play with some feral things. She wanted her food and she wanted it now. Rose howled again and the first among the pack came out, old and experienced. He sniffed the air again. He growled but it was different this time. This person he recognized. She was not a meal. She was kin. She was birthing.

She would be protected.

The pack charged across the glen, meeting the cat halfway. Its heft was more than them; it was older and more powerful. But they were determined and tenacious to the point of stupidity. Back and forth, so close, at times a hair’s width away from the cat’s prey. The next moment, almost back to the forest.  Rose sobbed with effort. Her cries grew louder until they overwhelmed even the sound of the fight. Then a new sound burst through the air. Young, robust, vibrant. Skin like snow, hair like the night. Her child in the world.

The first among the pack watched as a strange claw the color of his stormy eyes flew through the air and embedded itself in the cat’s neck. Surprised, the cat stumbled back and then forward, slumping down for the final time. The youngest ones in the pack, still jumpy from the fight, nipped at the corpse, ripping at the fur looking for meat or a fight.  The first looked to Rose and there she was, baby on her breast, fingers frozen in the same place as when they’d thrown the knife. The two stared at each other for a while, then the first chuffed, and signaled for the pack to leave. They left her in peace, dragging the meat towards the woods. The loss of the knife was worth it.

Snow White had been born.

Rose felt it swell in her and tears fell. She was a Lady now. The land accepted her as kin and blood and her lord waited for her, impatiently, at home.

She left joyfully, her daughter sleeping close to her heart.

‡ ‡ ‡

Something was wrong.

There was a chill in the air, in a land where in living memory people only remembered summer.

Rose’s child had grown to be a wonder, a dream made flesh. She had an impact on all who knew her but none more than her father, the crowned lord of the land, and her mother, the lady of the land. There were gifts in abundance at her home, for Snow White’s birthright, for her mother to commemorate her trials, for her father in exchange for a promise to keep and protect them until Snow came of age.

Among the gifts provided were ones from the Children of the River. Tall and fair and as enchanting as a summer sunset, they had given several to the lady Rose, among them a comb that would tease out bad thoughts, a set of leather lacings that tied themselves, a set of charms that would bring only beauty to the eye, and finally Rose’s favorite gift: the silver bowl. The bowl was, more often than not, her constant companion. In quiet times it would show her reflection. In others, the spirits of the land talked to her. So many of them were ones she was familiar with, from her youth. Robust and full of life and whimsy. It took her more than a week to find one that embodied the chill that lurked at the edges.

“Lonely spirit, mirrored there, is the world not full and fair?” she asked.

“Lovely lady, kind and cruel, as your troth fades, so fails the world.”

The tones in which it delivered the news was heartbreaking. Her troth—her loyalty and her fidelity—was the core of her very being. It was reflected in her face, in her looks. Her looks… She gazed at her reflection in the bowl.

Didn’t she look tired?

The effect startled her and she took time to contemplate it. The lines she hadn’t noticed before. The shadows underneath her eyes. Her hair, losing its color. The frown at the corner of her mouth. When had she lost faith in the world?

She did not feel like a cruel person. How could she be seen as cruel?

No. She had never lost her faith in the world. She understood that now.

Her faith had been taken from her.

There was something she never told anyone about her daughter. She loved her fiercely, as any mother, but the truth was–and it was a truth she turned over and over each night—quite often she didn’t like her daughter.

They were opposite in composition. Rose was always full of exuberance, opening her home to revels and celebrations, fiercely dedicated to the health of the people of her lands. Snow, on the other hand was quiet and focused. Her eyes were sharp and clear and incisive and a single word could cut the conversation to the bone. It was not pleasant arguing with Snow, and Snow’s sporadic blustery angers were already the things of legend.

Snow was not a bad person. She was simply different. And there was nothing her mother could do about it. Often Rose prayed it was a phase Snow would outgrow. But she also understand that might never be the case. It was frustrating but not important.

Until now.

Those who took care of the land reflected the land and the land reflected them. If the family was divided… the land could die.

Rose’s attention to the problem grew with a deadly focus. It did not take long for her to confirm what the spirit had touched upon. As her daughter grew in vigor, her own strength failed. Her husband, her lord, would not listen to her, even when the leaves themselves began to change color from brilliant green to other less savory hues.

When his health began to fail, she knew what she would have to do.

She resisted it for so long. She combed her hair with the magic comb, removing the thoughts time and again until the comb itself dripped with poisonous intentions. It made no difference.

She couldn’t see that she had a choice.

Snow White had to die.

‡ ‡ ‡

It had been some time since she bled on her own, so she took a knife to her palm and raised it to the wind. The moon was a silent sliver overhead. She had shed her clothing at the edge of the glen to let the world know she was there.

She howled.

And they answered.

She was shocked to see him at the edge of the forest. When she’d last seen him, at the birth of her child, he was old, first among his pack. But now he was younger, an adult full in his years. Somewhere in that time, he had adopted two legs and the body of a man. A horned mask covered his face but his stormy eyes and his pack-mates, now older, gave him away.

She made her demands. He did not approve and he made it known.

But she was Briar Rose. She was the lady of the lands. She would not let her words go unanswered.

For the land to live, Snow White must be taken to the far part of the forest, where life was rooted deepest and she must die.

She heard a deep snarl come from his chest but she silenced it. With tears, she showed that the burden of this rested on her just as heavily as on him. And in the end, he gave in. She let him go.

The deed would be done.

‡ ‡ ‡

Her daughter disappeared the next day.

On her bed the next night, the Huntsman left a gift to remind her of what she had done.

A heart. Snow’s heart.

It reminded her of an innocent doe.

She cried for a week and none could staunch her pain. And then she was done with tears forever.

‡ ‡ ‡

Her husband was dying.

The world was dying.

Despite her sacrifice, nothing had changed.

Finally, she returned to the bowl. It had been an age since she’d used it and her friends, those spirits who had filled her with laughter and humor, were gone or hidden or lost.

The answer they gave to her queries was the same. It led her to only one conclusion. Snow White was still alive. Whether the Huntsman had betrayed Rose or not made no difference. Somehow, Snow had made her way to the People Under the Hill, her relatives and her aunts and uncles.

It was… frustrating, to say the least, that those same relatives had not bothered to mention this to Rose.

Snow was living currently with the dun men, who mined and crafted and worked metals and jewels for the people. It seemed to be a comfortable arrangement but it was obvious that with her still alive, her influence on the land was still spreading. The dun men, by tradition, would not interfere.

The leaves were falling, and Rose was prepared to sacrifice anything to save them. An exchange of years off her life for the land could likely bring summer again. Giving up her time wasn’t quite enough, though. She had to fool her daughter and for that, she needed to change her appearance. Rose used simple mummer’s art to disguise herself and her voice. Playing the part of the wandering trader, she gifted her daughter with the magical laces.  Her hands shaking—what a relief and a horror to see her daughter so strong, so vigorous—she helped lace her daughter into a new vest… and then quietly commanded the laces to bind her. She fled as her daughter reached out for help, death swiftly approaching.

It would have worked. It should have worked. But later Rose found out that the dun men had been driven from their mine. Knockers pounding on the walls, making it unsafe. So they came home early for lunch and they found Snow not breathing. They cut the laces with a fish boning knife and brought her back.

The dun men were no fools. They knew something unseemly had happened and foul magic had deliberately entered their home. They hunted the forest for the wandering traveler but could not find her. Rose had covered her tracks well. They did not tell Snow that the actions of the lacing was intentional. Life went on, for Snow at least. The world was still dying.

‡ ‡ ‡

The next time, Rose waited until Snow went to market. While the dun men protecting Snow were distracted by apples ripe for the cidering, she appealed to Snow’s vanity and presented her with a comb, the same comb that the Lady filled with her poisonous intentions. Stunned by its lethal beauty, Snow traded for it and walked off with it in her hair. She barely made the edge of the market before the tines of the comb pierced her scalp and the poison sank deep into her.

The dun men returned her to their home as quick as they could. They pulled the comb from her head and treated her feverish state with unusual mushrooms, herbs and hot stones. Some returned to the market, suspicious, but they found no vendors selling combs.

This time they prepared. They gifted Snow with charms to protect her from magical attack. In their foolish pride, as hosts, they didn’t tell her how close she’d come to death. They were confident in their skills. That proved to be a mistake.

‡ ‡ ‡

Snow was out walking the forest when she heard unmistakable sounds of delight. Then she saw the old woman, basket full of apples, coming through the forest. The two talked and Snow was surprised how much she liked this grandmother, how much they shared in common. As the two conversed, the old woman wound a bracelet of holly and lavender and marigold around Snow’s wrist. A gift, the grandmother said, for such a fine young lady. The grandmother told Snow in the most convincing terms that she had found a branch on a tree in the forest that, for this season and this season only, produced sweet apples. It was a rare find and such a gift this late in the year! A gift she was also willing to share…

Snow knew that the charms given to her by the dun men saved her from hostile magic. She had faith in their skills and their protection. So, she picked an apple from the old woman’s basket and she bit into it with relish.

The moment the soured apple, picked from the courtyard of her dying father, hit Snow’s throat, she began to die.

The charms Rose had wound around Snow were old ones, a gift from Snow’s birth set to only allow its user to recognize beauty. Not hostile magic at all. Rose stared at her daughter’s last moments with a deep regret. She had won.

Snow White was dead.

The world was saved, wasn’t it?

‡ ‡ ‡

In a silent castle, in a silent land, a lonely woman sat on a throne of stone.

In her courtyard were the mourners for her husband’s funeral.

In her forest lay the corpse of her daughter. As was their custom, the dun men gave Snow White’s body to the river.

The lord was dead.

The world was dead.

Snow White lay silent in shallow, translucent ice as the waters froze over.

Rose’s white-haired howl of grief was enough to shake the world. Nothing grew. The forest floor was covered in a crust of snow that nothing could penetrate.

The dun men finally sought out who had broken tradition, who had come to kill their beloved Snow White, their adopted cousin. They found Rose, all alone.

When they came for her, she offered no resistance and followed them into the lands under the Hill into the Dark.

‡ ‡ ‡

The howls of his brothers and their various complaints were loud. At times like this, the Huntsman regretted giving up his fur for his current form. In his defense, it was a useful body and it was taking years off his age. He was supposed to be hunting for food for his people but the land was stubborn. Honestly, he wasn’t searching for food so much as absolution.

He had been party to a murder and the stain had never left his heart.

The sun was rising on a fruitless, bitter night when he came across the river.  And much to his shock, there she was.  The thorn that had turned inside him. Snow White, frozen and gone. His knees failed him and he found himself by her side, above her, weeping.

The mask—that crown he so proudly wore—he couldn’t bear it any more. He removed it and let hot tears spill like years onto the ice. And under that gentle, heartfelt pain, the ice melted. When he saw her forehead, unburdened by ice, he understood he was younger than he once was and that the mantle of the land had passed to him. Its responsibilities he shouldered and accepted gladly, in her name.

In gratitude, he placed one sun-touched kiss upon her forehead. And she awoke. Transformed… hair sun-kissed, cheeks rose-red, eyes like calm pools. She looked out and she saw him as she rose, slowly, from the water into a new life.

As spring to summer. As fall to winter.

“Beautiful.” He said. The word rolled over her. It was important but not the whole of the story.

Her love had come. The world would live again.

She would live again.

She smiled. The day was becoming so clear to her.

It marked the end of a beginning.