Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

How to Become a Witch-Queen

1. THE COFFIN

You look at the coffin as it is lowered into the rectangular opening in the cathedral floor, that was made specifically to contain it. Inside is your husband, the man to whom you have been married for more than twenty years, you’ve forgotten exactly how many. The man with whom you have three children. The oldest, Gerhard, will inherit the throne. He will be called Gerhard IV after his grandfather, who was Gerhard III or, to his enemies, Gerhard the Drunkard. His younger brother, Wilhelm, is jealous of him, and you foresee a rivalry, perhaps even a struggle for the throne. They were such lovely little boys, you think, remembering when they wore short pants and played with toy soldiers. What happened to them? They are young men now, beyond your purview, and Gerhard in particular takes after his father, who was not a bad man, but not a particularly good one either. A typical king of these small kingdoms, which are perpetually at war with one another, obsessed with politics and power. Wilhelm, at least, is an affectionate son, but you worry that with the privileges of a prince and nothing to do, he will become dissolute, possibly a drunkard like his grandfather. And your daughter Dorothea, who takes after you—well, you worry about her as well. She is still young, only fourteen, but soon she will be old enough for the use to which princesses are usually put—a marriage to cement alliances. You don’t want her married off to a prince she barely knows, who may be cruel, or ugly, or just smell bad. Her father would have married her off without a qualm, so you are glad he is dead, although of course you can never say such a thing. The list of things queens cannot say is a long one, and you have not said them for most of your life. His death means your position at court is diminished, but you never cared for pomp and circumstance anyway. If you had been given a choice, you would have stayed in the forest with the dwarves—or the huntsman. Your father’s court taught you that prestige comes at a price. Most are willing to pay it—you, increasingly, are not.

Would Gerhard force Dorothea to marry? That is the question which has been bothering you since your husband died. He might—she is a pretty girl, although still awkward, as awkward as you were yourself at that age, when the queen your mother asked for your heart and liver and you had to leave the only home you had ever known.

So that is the dilemma in a nutshell. You have no place here anymore, not really. And there is Dorothea to consider. What should you do?

As you stand there pondering, with your black handkerchief held up to your dry eyes in mimic grief, the stone that will cover the coffin is put into place. Lying on top of it is an effigy of your husband in armor, looking as handsome as he did in life, with Harald II engraved beneath his feet. He was always an attractive man, even into his forties. Not the sort of man you would expect to die from a heart condition, but here you are, a widow. Across the cathedral, his mistress, who used to be one of your ladies-in-waiting, is sobbing into a friend’s shoulder. For him, or because with his death, she has lost her place in the court hierarchy? Gerhard has never liked her, and will probably send her packing back to her father’s damp manor house by the southern marshes. You have absolutely no pity for her. We all make our own beds, and must lie in them.

After the funeral services are over, you return to your rooms in the castle, escorted by your ladies-in-waiting. As you walk down a corridor, you pass the chamber where your own coffin, the one made of glass, is displayed. Visitors are allowed to see it Mondays through Thursdays, from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, along with other national treasures such as the crown of Gerhard I, who was crowned by the Pope himself, or the emerald necklace of Queen Sofronia, which you wore at your wedding. Someday you may lie in that coffin again—however, you have no intention of dying anytime soon. A plan is coming to you, but will Gerhard agree? How can you put it to him so that he cannot refuse? You have an idea . . .

“Your Majesty,” says Franziska, your lady’s maid, who has been waiting for you in your bedroom.

“Yes?” You turn toward her. As you do, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. For the first time in your life, you are wearing black. It suits you. Your hair is still black at a distance, although up close, with afternoon light coming through the windows, you can see strands of gray. Your face is still youthful, although there are lines under your eyes, of either age or fatigue. You are the same age as your mother when she tried to kill you, and here you are, trying to figure out how to protect your daughter. She is just as pretty as you were at her age, you think loyally, but you know it’s not true—how could she be, without the additional charm of magic? Hair as black as night, skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood—those were the words of the enchantment. Other women might be content with dyes and cosmetics, with carmine and lamp black, but your mother must have a daughter as beautiful as herself, created by magic. Of course, when that daughter turned out more beautiful . . . Well, this is no time to go over that old history.

“Yes, Franziska? What is it?”

“The king, Your Majesty. He requests permission to enter.”

For a moment you are startled: when has your husband ever asked permission to enter? You expect him to come walking in as usual, but then you remember—he is lying under a stone effigy of himself. It is of course Gerhard, who is now king, although the coronation will not be until Sunday, in the cathedral.

“Mother,” he says, after you have nodded your permission to Franziska. He is stiff and dutiful as always. He has been like this since his days at military school, which affected Wilhelm so differently—if Willi had not been a prince, he would surely have been thrown out for his drunken capers, despite the fact that he was a surprisingly good scholar. Now he is the opposite of his brother—romantic, impulsive, a natural rebel. “I hope you are bearing up under your grief.”

“Indeed,” you say, offering him your hand to be kissed. “Thank you for your consideration, my son. As you know, I am devastated by the loss of your father, and cannot think how to console myself. After your coronation, where I shall be proud to see you crowned as his successor, I would like to withdraw to the Abbey of St. Winifred, where my mother is buried. I would prefer to mourn in private. Do I have your permission to make such a journey?” It is tiresome to ask permission, but you have had to ask permission from men all your life—your father, your husband. Only in the forest were you free.

“Of course, of course,” he says. He looks relieved that you asked—it seems he would rather have you absent from court for a while. A king newly crowned does not want the queen dowager interfering in matters of state.

“And perhaps I shall take Dorothea with me. The nuns will know how to assuage the grief of an emotional girl.”

“No doubt,” he says. Again he looks relieved to be rid, for a while, of inconvenient females. “I shall need you both here when Prince Ludwig of Hohenstein comes to negotiate the new trade pact for the Five Kingdoms, but until then . . .”

So that’s the husband he has chosen for Dorothea! Ludwig of Hohenstein is only ten years older than her, and not particularly ugly—you do not know whether he smells bad—but he is utterly and completely ordinary. A boring man. You do not want her marrying him, unless she herself wants to—if she is to marry dullness, let her choose it herself.

“Of course, Your Majesty,” you say. You curtsey, and you can see that although he raises you up and tells you that sort of thing is not necessary, not for his own mother, he is secretly pleased.

When Gerhard is gone, you smile. That was easier than you anticipated.

“Franziska,” you say. “I want you to pack for a long journey. Only black gowns.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” says the lady’s maid. It makes sense that at this delicate time, the queen dowager cannot be seen out of mourning.

But black, you think, is for more than mourning. It is the appropriate color for a witch.

II. THE FOREST

The huntsman’s house is exactly where you remember, both too far and not far enough away from the castle.

He looks at you warily, a little anxiously. He has heard, no doubt, of the king’s death. Such news travels fast.

He looks different—how could he not? He has a beard now, and there is gray in it, as well as in his hair. He has taken off his green cap with the feather and is standing respectfully, waiting for your command.

You remember the first time you saw him. He was only seventeen, with golden-red hair and the beginning of a mustache.

“Princess,” he said. “The queen your mother commanded that I lead you out into the forest to kill you. She told me to bring back your liver and heart. But I cannot do such a thing. Take my purse—it does not have much in it, but a little is better than nothing. Run and hide, at least until Her Majesty is no longer angry with you—although why she is angry, I cannot imagine. If you follow the road, you will come to a village—there you can perhaps hide yourself as long as necessary. I shall kill a young doe and take its liver and heart back to her instead.”

“My mother the queen will not get over that anger.” You remember how she looked at you the day you returned from St. Winifred’s, where you had been at school for seven years, coming home only for holidays. You remember the look in her eyes when she realized her magic had worked too well, that you were, not just as beautiful as your mother, but more beautiful. You could hear the courtiers whispering it—“More beautiful than the queen herself.”

Your father said, when he did not know you were listening, “She’s as beautiful as Elfrida—more beautiful, because younger. She’ll be easy to marry off.”

You looked up at the huntsman then, thinking, Why should I run? Let him kill me, let us get this over with. But you decided, perhaps only because it was a sunlit summer day and all the birds were singing in the trees, that you wanted to live. You took the purse, then went up on tiptoes and to his immense surprise, kissed him on the mouth. And then you turned and ran, not down the road, but into the forest.

Years later, after your mother’s death and your husband’s coronation, you said to the king, “Do you remember the huntsman who spared my life? We should reward him by giving him a position in the castle.”

“There is no use for a huntsman in a castle,” said King Harald. “But I can make him a gamekeeper in the forest. That is easy enough.”

It was not so easy sneaking out of the castle when you were the queen, especially under the watchful eyes of your ladies-in-waiting, but Franziska helped. When you came to the gamekeeper’s house for the first time, you knocked gently, then opened the door. You had not seen him in years—now he was twenty-seven, tall and handsome as he stood up, startled and a little frightened at this apparition.

“Your Majesty!” he said, bowing.

Of course he recognized you, even after all these years. Who else has hair black as night, skin white as snow, lips red as blood?

“None of that, if you please,” you told him. “I have come for something you owe me.”

“And what is that?” he asked, although you thought he already knew—he was looking at you not like a queen, but like a woman. A wave of relief washed over you—you had hoped, had thought, there was something between you, that you had not imagined it all those years ago. Some small bit of the magic we call attraction or even love, but you had been so young, and not at all certain. And now here it was in his eyes, and in his arms as you claimed back your kiss.

After that day, you visited him as often as possible, which was not often, for what you were doing had two names: adultery and treason. But you could not live your entire life behind castle walls, by the side of the king to whom you were only another affirmation of his prominence. After all, he had married the fairest in the land.

One day you told your lover that you could not come anymore. “Henrik, I am with child. I have taken precautions, but such things are not infallible.”

“Is it mine?” he asked, with a pained expression. He had never asked you if you still went to the king’s bed. He knew that queens have no choice in such a matter.

“It is,” you told him. “But it must not be. You understand, do you not, that it must be the king’s?”

He had simply nodded. If your child were not the king’s, you would be put to death, most likely by decapitation, before it could be born. He knew that as well as you.

After that day, you did not go back to his house in the forest, not once, no matter how your heart and your arms ached during the long nights.

And yet his eyes, as they look at you now, still leaf-green, harbor no resentment.

“Your Majesty,” he says.

“Gamekeeper,” you say, although you would prefer to address him by his name, but that will come later. “We are riding to the Abbey of St. Winifred. As you see, our retinue is small—myself, my daughter, our maid, and two men-at-arms.” He looks up quickly at Dorothea, but her face is hidden by her riding veil. Will he recognize himself in her, when he looks at her later? She has his eyes. “We need a man to tend to our needs—arrange for lodging, water the horses, things of that sort. Can you perform such tasks?”

He smiles. “I serve at your command, My Queen.”

“Come then,” you say. “We have a spare horse. You shall ride before us, to clear the road through the forest if necessary, or warn of thieves.”

You look at Franziska and she gives you a small smile. You know that whatever inn you stop at, she will arrange it so that for the first time in fourteen years, you will spend the night with the man you love.

III. THE COTTAGE

The dwarves greet you as they have always done, each according to his temperament. Trondor shakes his head and says, “So you’re back, are you?” but you can see that he’s smiling under his beard. Kristof and Olaf embrace you enthusiastically. Anders makes you a courtly bow, Rolf kisses your hand, Nilsen hangs back shyly until you lean down to give him a long hug. But where is Ingar?

“He found himself a wife,” says Trondor. “It won’t last. It never does.”

Once, when you were young, you saw one of the dwarf women. Unlike the sociable dwarf men, they are solitary and live deep in the forest, in small huts or the hollow trunks of trees. This one wore a dress stitched of squirrel skin. She was as small as the men, with long fair hair caught up in various places with twigs. It looked like a bird’s nest.

You saw her only for a moment, speaking with Olaf in the ancient language of dwarves, more melodious than human language. Her voice sounded like wind in the pine branches. She gave him a basket of mushrooms in exchange for some honey, then disappeared under the trees. Trondor explained to you that dwarf women seldom ventured out of the forest. Dwarf marriages are short-lived: the dwarf woman chooses a mate, then allows him to live with her for a time, often until she is with child. But she can stand the company of another only for so long. Eventually, the men return to the company of their brothers, for all male dwarves who share a home are considered part of one family, although of the seven you lived with, only Kristof and Olaf had the same mother.

You are glad to see them again, these men who took you in and treated you more kindly than your own parents—the mother who tried to kill you, the father who was concerned only with matters of state and died mysteriously while you were with the dwarves, leaving your mother regent. You have seen them only once since the day the prince found you in the glass coffin and took you away to his castle—they were invited to the wedding. When they came up to the dais on which you were sitting, in your gown of white silk with the necklace of Queen Sofronia around your neck, Trondor said, “What is this fairy story they tell of the prince waking you up with true love’s kiss?” You could see Prince Harald across the great hall, speaking with his father, already arranging for the coronation and a transfer of power.

“Is that not what happened?” you asked him. You yourself had been doubtful of the official version, as you were doubtful of the prince himself. But he would protect you from your mother, who had almost succeeded in killing you with that apple, and whom you suspected of poisoning your father for his throne.

“Of course not,” said Trondor in his gruff voice. “After he ordered us to give him the coffin and threatened us if we did not obey, one of the footman who was carrying it stepped into a rabbit hole. A corner of the coffin fell to the ground, and the piece of apple was dislodged from your throat. That’s what woke you, child. Kiss of true love indeed! And they call you White-as-Snow, as though you did not have a perfectly good name of your own. Are you happy, Ermengarde?”

“Happy enough,” you told him. Of course, that was before your mother appeared at the reception—before the incident of the red-hot iron shoes, which you would rather not think about.

“It’s good to see you again, child,” says Trondor now. Of course you are not a child any longer, but dwarves live for hundreds of years. To him you are still a mere infant. “We heard of the king’s death . . .”

“Yes,” you say. “I’m going back to my father’s castle. I have . . . certain plans. Will you help me, Trondor? You and your brothers? I will need counselors and allies.”

“Of course,” he says, looking at you through narrowed eyes. You think he already understands what you intend to do. Even when you were a little girl, he understood you better than anyone else. “Shall I bring my axe, Queen Ermengarde? It has not tasted battle for a long time.”

“Yes,” you say. “I think that would be a good idea.”

IV. THE TOWER

You stop at the Abbey of St. Winifred only briefly, to talk to the Mother Superior.

“Are you absolutely certain about this, Ermengarde?” she asks as she gives you the key to the tower. You gave it to her after the wedding and murder, for what else was it but a murder? At your own wedding, ordered by your husband. At the time, you asked her to keep it for you as long as necessary. You did not know if you would ever reclaim it from her again. But now here you are.

“Yes, I’m absolutely sure,” you say. “And will you bless me, Reverend Mother? You were, in a way, the closest thing I had to a real mother . . .” One who loved you and taught you, for once upon a time the Mother Superior was Sister Margarete, who taught you your catechism and geography in the abbey’s long, cold schoolroom.

“Perhaps I was a sort of mother to you,” she says, looking at you as acutely as she did thirty years ago. Age has not diminished her strength of will or mental acuity. “But blood is important too, Ermengarde. Her blood flows through your veins, and I worry about what you will do—”

“Don’t worry about me,” you say. “I will be absolutely fine.”

“I’m sure you will—you were always a clever girl, sometimes too clever for your own good. But what about the rest of us?” Nevertheless, she gives you the key, which is after all yours by right of blood. You are, in the end, your mother’s daughter. She blesses you, kissing you on your forehead as though you were fourteen again and not a queen.

Before you leave the abbey, you visit your mother’s grave, on which is inscribed only Elfrida and the dates of her birth and death. She’s been dead for more than twenty years, and you still can’t decide how you feel about her.

But her tower, too, is yours now. You lead your retinue to your father’s castle, which has not been used except as a hunting lodge since the kingdoms were united after your mother’s death. That was another thing the iron shoes accomplished. Did your husband force her to dance in them to revenge the way she treated you, as he said, or so he could claim your father’s kingdom? Or perhaps both, for that was the way his mind worked, after all.

Since the castle is empty, there is plenty of room for you, Dorothea, Henrik, six dwarves, two men-at-arms, and of course the indispensable Franziska.

The next day, she and Henrik accompany you to the tower. You have already made him the captain of your men-at-arms, and they obey him without question. You selected them because before the kingdoms were united, they served in your father’s household. They are older, so they can be spared from Gerhard’s forces, but also they are loyal to you—they still recognize you as their queen.

As for Henrik, he too asked you, lying back on your pillows, one arm around you, one hand stroking your long black hair, for the gray strands do not show by candlelight, “Are you sure, my love, that you want to do this?”

You turned to look at him and said, “Do you think Gerhard would allow me to live the life I want, or our daughter either? If he found out about us, you and I would be condemned to death, and Dorothea would be imprisoned or exiled. And if he did not find out, things would continue as they are. He would want her to marry Prince Ludwig, and he would want me to remain a queen dowager—silent, respectable, so desiccated that eventually I would dry up and blow away like a leaf in autumn. Believe me, my love, if there were another way for the three of us to have a life together, I would take it. However, I am not only Ermengarde, the woman who loves you, but White-as-Snow. Twenty years ago I became the main character in a fairy tale, and it spread throughout the land. If Gerhard announced that I was missing, had perhaps been kidnapped by an equally missing gamekeeper, I would be searched for, watched for, in this kingdom and others. There would be no place for us to hide. So you see, I must use what I have, including the name I was given, the tale that was told about me—I must use these things to write my own story.”

He nodded, then pulled you closer and kissed you. Now, he dismounts and takes the horses’ reins. Then he waits by the foot of the tower while you open the wooden door with your mother’s key, and you and Franziska enter.

The tower is not tall, only two stories of ancient stone with a crenelated turret, surrounded by oak trees. Once, it was used to store weapons, and a couple of men-at-arms would sleep there on folding cots. Inside, the windows are small—arrow slits more than windows. It is darker than you expected.

On the second floor, after you have climbed up the stone staircase that circles the inside of the tower, Franziska raises her lantern.

There are all your mother’s magical implements, scattered about as though she had left them just yesterday: the cauldron, the table of alchemical equipment whose purposes you do not yet understand, the shelves of bottles filled with powders and other ingredients—dried eye of newt and toe of frog? Are those the sorts of things witches keep, as housewives keep pickles? The shelves also hold large books in leather covers, presumably filled with formulas and spells.

On the far side of the table is an ornate wooden stand with the mirror whose pronouncements caused so much trouble.

V. THE MIRROR

How does one address a magical mirror?

The problem, of course, is that your mother never taught you witchcraft. Would she have, if her spell had not worked so well? If she had not thought of you as a rival? You would have given up your black hair and white skin and red lips without a second thought, simply for a kind word from her.

“Mirror, mirror, I believe, is how she usually started,” says Franziska. She too was chosen for her history with your family as well as her loyalty to you—her mother was your mother’s maid, her father drove your father’s own carriage.

All right, then. “Mirror, mirror.”

The mirror, which reflected you a moment ago, grows misty, as though filled with fog, and then the fog swirls as though blown here and there by a wind inside the mirror itself. Out of that fog comes a voice.

“Well, well. Look who’s back. Little White-as-Snow, all grown up. Welcome to your mother’s chamber of secrets and spells, Ermengarde.”

Is it a man’s voice? A woman’s? You cannot quite tell. It is, undeniably, a cynical, sarcastic voice. It sounds bitter.

“Do you, too, want to know who’s the fairest in the land?” it asks.

“Not particularly,” you say. “I assume it’s not me any longer.”

“You’re right about that,” says the mirror. “You’ve aged out of that particular position. What is it you want, then?”

“I want you to teach me my mother’s magic,” you say, trying to see something in the swirling smoke. The mirror has no discernable face. “She once called you her familiar. You would know how to use all these books, this equipment.” You gesture around at the contents of the tower.

“And why do you want to learn magic?” asks the mirror, as the fog swirls more quickly. “Do you, too, want to kill your daughter?”

“No, to save her,” you say. “I want to become queen—not queen consort, not queen dowager, but queen in my own right. That’s the only way I will have some measure of power over her life, and mine.”

“I see,” says the mirror, sounding surprised. Clearly, it has not expected this. “I will teach you if you do two things.”

“And what are they?” you ask, wondering if you will need to sacrifice something, or sign somewhere in blood. You do not relish the thought.

“First, you must pledge yourself to Hecate. That is merely standard procedure. Second, you must allow me to return to my true form.”

“Your true form?” You look at the mirror, astonished. “Is this not your true form?” The mirror has been a mirror as long as you have known that your mother was a witch. You remember seeing it on its ornate stand the only time she brought you to this tower, before you were sent away to the Abbey of St. Winifred. She stood you in front of it, showed you your own reflection, and said, “Look, Ermie, at what a pretty girl you are. Someday, you’ll look just like me!”

“No,” says the mirror. “Your mother ordered me to become a mirror so I could show her whatever she wished to see—chiefly herself. I have been trapped in this form ever since. You are my mistress now. Allow me to return to my true form—simply say the words—and I will teach you.”

“All right, then,” you say with some trepidation. “Return to your true form.” What will you see? A serpent? A dragon? A demon with horns and a forked tail?

The smoke in the mirror swirls faster and faster, until it looks like a gray whirlpool, and suddenly sitting in front of you is not a mirror in a frame but a wolf with fur the color of smoke.

It stares at you with yellow eyes and says, “Thank you, mistress. Shall we begin the first lesson?”

VI. THE CAULDRON

It takes Gerhard longer than you expected to realize that you are not at the Abbey of St. Winifred. When his army comes marching over what used to be the border between two kingdoms, you are ready. You have had three months to learn magic from Grimm, which turns out to be the name of your familiar. You hope you have learned enough.

You stand outside the portcullis of the castle, which is on a hillside. You are dressed all in black, like a widow or a witch. To one side of you stands Henrik beside his horse, ready to lead the charge on your command. He is now the general of a small but dedicated army of your father’s men-at-arms, who have returned to serve you, and the sons they have brought with them, as well as some men from the village who wish to defend White-as-Snow against a distant king they do not trust. Your legend has served you well—they are proud to follow a queen out of a fairy tale. The strongest of them are standing, waiting armed and armored, on either side of the hilltop for the command to attack. The rest are in the castle behind the portcullis, waiting at arrow slits and on turrets, crossbows cocked.

On the other side of you is Grimm, who is sometimes a mirror, sometimes an owl, and sometimes a wisp of smoke. Today he is a great gray wolf surveying the landscape before him. Scattered around you are seven dwarves, for Ingar has returned. His wife is with child. He will likely not see it until it is several years old, and then only if it is male, for the dwarf women keep their girl children in the forest. You think this may be a very good system.

Behind you is Dorothea, dressed in black as well. Two months ago, you told her the truth about her father. To your relief, she kissed you on the cheek and said, “I always blamed myself for not being able to love Papa—I mean King Harald. But now I don’t think it was my fault. Perhaps in some way, I could always tell he was not really my father.” She is stirring the cauldron, which is set over a fire and has started to bubble fiercely. Franziska is adding the necessary ingredients from baskets and glass bottles. You will need to pay attention to the cauldron in a moment, but right now, you are waiting for a parley.

Three men are riding across the field beneath Gerhard’s standard. Of course Gerhard would not come himself, but as they ride closer, you see that the one in the middle is Wilhelm, between two men-at-arms. Your younger son is as handsome as always, and you cannot help feeling proud of him, even though he is currently your enemy.

“Hello, Mother,” he says when he has dismounted and walked up the hillside toward you. “Hello, Dorothea. It’s good to see you again.” He waves at his sister. His escorts remain mounted, and behind. “Mother, Gerhard wants you to know that if you surrender now and return with him, all will be forgiven. If you do not, he will take this castle by force.” He glances around the top of the hill, and then up at the castle. “I must say, you don’t have a lot of men, unless you’re hiding some of them where I can’t see. The castle is strong, so you could hold on for a while if you have stores, but eventually Gerhard would starve you out if he simply waited long enough. I did learn military strategy at school, you know. That and German poetry, which is considerably less useful except when impressing aristocratic young women. Anyway, I hate to agree with anything Gerhard says—you know what an irritating bore my older brother can be. But I think you’d better surrender. I don’t want you or Dorothea to end up in a dungeon.”

“Hello, Willi,” you say. “You need a haircut. Your hair is falling into your eyes again.” You brush it aside affectionately.

“Oh, Mother!” he says, as though exasperated, but he takes your hand and kisses it—son to mother, and to queen. The two of you have always had a good relationship.

“All the arguments you make are sensible ones,” you say. “But there’s something Gerhard does not know. You see, I’ve been practicing witchcraft.”

“Have you really?” he asks, a look of interest and admiration in his eyes. “You mean like grandmother?” Then, for the first time, he notices your companions. “Are those dwarves? Are they the dwarves, from ‘White-as-Snow and the Seven Dwarves’? There are seven of them, aren’t there?” He counts. “And is that a wolf?” He looks at Grimm with alarm.

“That is my familiar. You know all witches have one. Sometimes he is a wolf, and sometimes he is something else altogether.” You smile at Wilhelm and pat him on the cheek. “Willi, would you like to be king after I defeat Gerhard’s army? I will give you his kingdom and keep this one for my own, but you must conclude a treaty with me, on my terms. Which include pledging fealty.”

“Of course, Mother,” he says, looking down at you with amusement. “But how do you intend to defeat Gerhard? He has a real army, whereas you have a rag-tag collection of old men and young boys dressed in armor. Some of it rather old armor, visibly patched. I take it this is your general.” He looks at Henrik. “He at least appears competent and well-armed, but one strong man is not enough.”

“Watch,” you say, smiling. Then you step back toward the cauldron, which Dorothea has brought to a rolling boil. “Grimm,” you say, “are you ready? Trondor?”

The wolf and dwarf both nod. Trondor mounts on the wolf’s back and raises his battle axe, which is as large as his head.

“All right, then. Franziska, add the final ingredient.” She shakes red powder out of a large box labeled, in ornate calligraphy, Feoderovsky and Sons Magical Supplies. Powdered dragon’s blood is expensive, even if you order it in bulk, but this is too important for inferior ingredients.

The cauldron bubbles, and a gray smoke rises. You intone the magical words, which are in Latin, of course—it’s a good thing you received an excellent classical education at St. Winifred. Franziska and Dorothea fall back as the first wolf rises from the cauldron, gray and gaunt and snarling.

“Olaf,” you say, and the dwarf mounts his wolf. Then Nilsen and Anders, Rolf and Ingar, and finally Kristof. They are armed with axes like Trondor’s, or battle maces. They are wearing leather armor. There is a fierce light in their eyes, which surprises you—are these the mild, gentle dwarves who took you in and raised you, when your mother was trying to kill you and your father was oblivious to the situation? You could not have had better parents. And yet, there are tales of dwarf warriors in the history books. They are said to be fiercer than eagles.

“Trondor, lead the way,” you tell him. He throws back his head and shouts something in the ancient dwarf language that is no doubt some sort of battle cry. Then Grimm lopes down the hillside and the other wolves follow, with the dwarves mounted on them. Wolves stream out of the cauldron, each with a fierce dwarf warrior on its back. They look like running smoke, through which you can see the glint of weapons in the sunlight. Only the first wolf is real, only the seven dwarves can draw blood—it is mostly illusion, and yet it looks real enough.

“Henrik, it’s time,” you say. Henrik mounts his horse, then rides to one side of the hilltop and then the other, commanding the men to charge. They move in formation down the hill on either side of the dwarf army, with Henrik and a few mounted men in the rear, the cavalry following the infantry.

Reality and illusion: enchantment held together by force of will, a few magical powders, and words in a dead language. You have only had three months to learn, and you hope to goodness that your plan will succeed. But you have always been clever, as the Mother Superior knows. You have always attended to your lessons. And you are, quite simply, done. Done with listening to men who tell you what to do, whether the father who ignored you, or the husband who turned you into a fairy tale, or now a son. You are done with being rescued, done with obedience and gratitude.

Gerhard’s forces stand fast for a moment, and then break. You can hear it even from here, his footmen shouting with fear and surprise, stumbling backward from the ghostly wolves and dwarf warriors. They run into the mounted knights behind, who urge them forward until their horses smell wolf and panic under them. Then all of Gerhard’s soldiers are retreating, and it is a great chaos of men and magic, a complete rout.

“Well done, Mother,” says Wilhelm beside you. “Shall I ride down and deliver the coup de grâce? By which I mean telling Gerhard to surrender. I would not, of course, commit fratricide.”

“Yes, I think that would be for the best,” you say. “Tell him I’m not going to execute him, just send him into exile.”

“Will do,” he says, nodding. Then he leaves you on the hillside, alone with Franziska and Dorothea, the cauldron still smoking between you. The three of you, standing there, resemble the three Fates.

“Well done, Your Majesty,” says Franziska, whom you intend to make a countess for her service and loyalty. She will have a lady’s maid of her own.

“Mother, that was awesome,” says Dorothea. “Will you teach me witchcraft?”

“Of course,” you say. “After all, you will be the queen of this kingdom after me. It’s much easier to be a queen when you’re also a witch.”

VII. THE APPLE

“Is that right?” asks Dorothea. She holds up the apple, which is red on one side and white on the other.

“Quite right,” you say. “Now, can you make the red side not poisonous? It’s much more important knowing how not to be poisoned than knowing how to poison people. And harder.”

“That was your mother’s spell, wasn’t it?” says Dorothea. She intones a few words in Latin while passing her hands over a bowl of red liquid that turns milky white, then dips the apple back into it. Her Latin is coming along well, as is her knowledge of various potions and their ingredients. You are proud of the fact that she is as good a student as you were.

Grimm, who is lying at her feet in wolf form, whimpers softly in his dreams. A few days ago you asked him, out of curiosity, “Who is the fairest, anyway? The fairest in the land?”

“At the moment? Anthea, the blacksmith’s daughter in Mallor, a village high on the slopes of Mount Gotteringen. She is admired intensely by the goats she’s herding. But last week she had the flu, so the fairest was Sister Maria-Josef, cloistered at the nunnery of Saint Edelweis in the port city of South Fardo. You were the fairest for a very long time, if that’s any consolation. Usually it changes at least once a month.”

You and Dorothea are both in the tower for her daily magic lesson. A week ago you married your true love and were crowned queen. Henrik is now your prince consort. You are no longer dressed in black, but in crimson velvet edged with ermine, which is suitable for a queen as well as a witch. Wilhelm has pledged fealty to you and is establishing his rule over your late husband’s kingdom. Gerhard is in Hohenstein, plotting an invasion with Prince Ludwig, but Ludwig’s father, King Frederik IV, also known as the Rotund, is not at all sure that war with a neighboring kingdom is in his best interests and has so far refused them funding. If Gerhard does manage to raise an army, it will take a while, and by then you will have something even more effective to greet him with than wolves made of smoke. The dwarves have decided to stay with you in the castle, and you are glad to have your seven fathers with you, to counsel and advise. This is the closest you’ve ever come to having a family.

“Yes, that was her spell,” you say. “Her third and final spell. The one that killed me, at least for a while. And now you know the antidote.”

Dorothea looks down at the apple for a moment, then says, “Mama, why did you keep letting the peddler woman in? Rolf says they warned you, over and over again, not to let anyone in at all.”

“They did,” you say. “But you see, she was my mother. Oh, I know she was in disguise, but a child could have seen through that trick. I mean, what sort of peddler woman tries to sell stay laces in the middle of a forest? Who does she expect to sell them to? No, I knew who she was the moment I saw her. I let her in because she was my mother. I had not seen her in so long . . . And I wanted her to lace me up, to comb my hair. I knew there was something wrong with that apple, but the dwarves had saved me twice already. Why not a third time? And I wanted to share it with her, to take a bite right next to the one she had taken. When I woke up in the glass coffin, I realized that I could have died, truly died that time. I married Prince Harald because I thought he could keep me safe. She wouldn’t try to kill the queen of a neighboring kingdom, would she? But then Harald invited her to the wedding and had iron shoes heated on a fire . . . I still remember her screams. I never forgave him for that.”

You are silent for a while. The only sounds in the tower are Grimm, who is evidently chasing a dream rabbit, and Dorothea munching her apple while she pages through a leather-bound volume of magical botany.

“I’m glad you’re not that sort of mother,” she says, looking up at you from a page on Agrimony. “When I grow up, I want to be just like you, Mama.”

She won’t be, of course. She won’t have a father who ignores her or a mother who tries to poison her, because Henrik is positively doting and you are not that sort of mother, as Dorothea said. But she won’t have a cottage of dwarves to raise her either, although you hope Trondor and the others will teach her some of the things they taught you, about the forest, and kindness, and home. You sincerely hope she won’t have a prince to rescue her, because princes are not to be trusted and their services come at a high price. You will teach her to rescue herself, and you hope she will be better, smarter, stronger than you were.

You smile at her across the table, with its bowls of potion, its magical powders, its leather-bound books. Your beautiful, talented Dorothea. This is how you became a witch-queen. She will have to find her own path, as you are certain she shall.

Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss is the World Fantasy, Locus, and Mythopoeic Award-winning author of the short story and poetry collections In the Forest of Forgetting (2006), Songs for Ophelia (2014), and Snow White Learns Witchcraft (2019), as well as novella The Thorn and the Blossom (2012), debut novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017), and sequels European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018) and The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (2019). She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and Shirley Jackson Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List. Her work has been translated into fifteen languages. She teaches literature and writing at Boston University and in the Stonecoast MFA Program. Visit her at theodoragoss.com.