Eleanor had always had a terrible memory. Faces, names, places, dates, they all mixed together to create the thick paste that was her past life. However, there were a few moments she would never be able to forget: her first pair of heels, her sixteenth birthday party, and the day of her husband's death. She had been married to him for less than a year, and, despite her tears of despair on her wedding day, she had come to accept that this was her life now. Her father had been ecstatic when the king himself had proposed to his only daughter, and she had felt compelled to accept this older, unfamiliar man as her husband. That morning he was standing at the window, looking out over the city from where the castle stood on a hill, stretching its towers like claws towards the infinite sky.
There was a sound at the door, and Eleanor turned towards it to see the king's daughter from his first marriage slip into their bedroom. The girl was seven at the time, and the most gorgeous child Eleanor had ever seen. Her black hair curled around her pale face, which had given her her name: Snow. The little girl's eyes were red rimmed, as they had been every day since Eleanor's wedding. Eleanor could do nothing right in those eyes. She was the evil woman, who had stolen Daddy from Mummy, and taken him for herself. Today, there was something different in the girl's look. In her eyes, that ignored her father and settled on Eleanor, Eleanor saw determination and something else, something she could not define.
Snow did not speak, just walked up to Eleanor and grabbed her hand. 'What is it, Snow?' Eleanor asked, hoping that the child might finally be willing to accept Eleanor as part of the family.
Snow pulled, and Eleanor bent over, her face an inch away from Snow's. The girl tilted her head and said: 'You need to be gone.'
At that moment, everything happened all at once. Snow pulled back her lips to reveal two rows of shiny, razor sharp teeth, and Eleanor made a sound that was unlike anything she had ever heard before. Later, she identified it as animalistic, instinctual fear. A heavy body slammed into hers, tackling her to the ground, and Snow sunk her teeth into the flesh before her. Eleanor scrambled away, too shocked to cry, too shocked to do anything but watch. The girl had plunged her teeth deep into her father's neck and was sucking, his blood dribbling down her face. When she was satisfied, Snow pulled away and stood, wiping her face clean. Her eyes were had glazed over, but slowly cleared as she surveyed the scene before her: her father, breathing ever so slightly, lying on a crimson carpet made of his own blood, and her stepmother, bent over the king, trying desperately to stop him from bleeding to death.
Snow released a guttural scream and ran away. Eleanor could hear her cry for the guards. She wanted to stop the girl, but her husband grasped her arm with more strength than she would have expected from a dying man.
'Eleanor,' he whispered, his voice rasping. 'You need to take care of her. She doesn't… She can't….' His lack of strength prevented him from finishing the sentence. 'Please,' was all he could manage. Eleanor nodded, understanding, and the man let out his final breath. He died with hope in his eyes, hope that she would take care of his child, who despised Eleanor with every inch of her little body.
When the guards arrived, they found Eleanor, her hands dripping with her husband's blood, the front of her dress bright red. She knew she had only one tool to make them obey her: complete and utter terror. She stood up.
'The king is dead,' she proclaimed, using every bit of willpower she had to keep her voice from wavering. 'Long live the queen.'
The first ten years of Eleanor's rule were just as drenched in blood as the first five minutes of it had been. Every time a body was found in the castle, Eleanor convinced her counsellors that this person had been plotting against her, and that she had taken his or her life as a punishment. Slowly but surely, Eleanor felt a thick cloud of fear settle above the castle, no, above the entire country. It was suffocating, and the fact that she was the person others were afraid of made the queen lonelier than ever.
Even though Snow was not feared like her stepmother, she, too, spent her years alone. She refused to play with others, refused to make friends, and refused to talk to Eleanor. Sometimes, Eleanor would see the girl in the garden, chatting with a bird or a squirrel, and wonder if the creature lurking inside her had finally made Snow go completely insane. With every year that passed, the princess grew more beautiful. She was tall and elegant, and seemed to float rather than walk. Her voice was soft and sweet, and, sometimes, Eleanor would hear her sing to the animals she had picked to be her friends.
When Snow turned seventeen, the murders increased in frequency. The castle became deserted: no one dared to work in a place that killed all of its inhabitants sooner or later. Rooms were closed down, kitchens became obsolete, and when one of the towers collapsed after a heavy storm, no one bothered to repair it. When she found the second-to-last servant, the old gardener, drained of blood on the dirt path next to the roses, Eleanor realized she had to do something.
The last servant appeared in the throne room, trembling, thinking his time had come now. He was a hunter, a young man, who spend most of his time in the woods that surrounded the castle. Eleanor suspected that was the reason Snow had not gotten around to killing him yet.
'I need you to do something for me,' Eleanor declared. The hunter nodded, but made no sound. 'I need you to take the princess into the woods, and kill her.'
It sounded simple when she said it out loud, but Eleanor knew that those few words had just smashed the last promise she had made to her husband into thousands of little pieces. I have done enough for that child, she thought. I cannot let her kill any more people. What if she gets out and starts pillaging the country, leaving a trail of dead bodies in her wake?
The hunter's blue eyes were the size of saucers when he heard what she wanted. 'But your majesty,' he whispered, his protests dying on his lips when he saw the look Eleanor gave him.
'Bring me her heart,' she ordered. She did not know what kind of creature Snow was. She did not know whether the girl could be killed like a normal human, but she remembered the stories her governess had told her about those who haunted the night, feeding on the life of others. The only way to kill them was to carve out their heart and burn it.
The hunter nodded and scurried out of the room, not looking back to see Eleanor collapse in her throne. Her heart was beating quickly, her breath coming in short gasps.
'It is for the best,' she mumbled to herself. 'It is for the best.'
The hunter returned with Snow's heart two days later, and Eleanor burned it herself, watching the flesh perish in the flames. She hired three new servants, two men and a girl, and when they remained alive, more followed. She pushed away all thoughts, all memories of Snow, whose body would now be lying somewhere in the forest, half-eaten by wolves, crows picking at her decaying flesh.
Two months after Snow's death, a traveller came to the castle, bearing dark news. He sat next to the fire and told the servants, there were seven of them now, about the Jewel Cottage. This cottage stood deep in the woods and was inhabited by seven men, who worked in the mines. Eleanor knew about the cottage, and absent-mindedly touched the large ruby that hung around her neck. It had been a present from her late husband, made just for her by the men of the Jewel Cottage. However, when the traveller had passed by the cottage, he had discovered that, of the seven men, only two were still alive. They lived in their almost deserted house, accompanied by a beautiful girl. The two had told the traveller that their friends had died one by one over the past couple of weeks. As the story spread through the city, Eleanor could feel the cloud of fear returning. She knew what had happened. And she knew that she was the only person who could stop this for ever.
It took Eleanor a week to find what she was looking for in the humid, cramped library that occupied the cellars of the castle. The book she had discovered described a poison, designed specifically for creatures like Snow, in order to put them down. It would make it appear like Snow was dead, and she would be buried deep under the ground, where she could harm no one. The only thing that would wake her up was the taste of human blood.
Eleanor had always resented her bad memory, but this time, she was grateful for it. Later, she could not recall how exactly she had persuaded her step daughter to eat the poisoned apple Eleanor, disguised as an ugly old wretch, offered her. All that stayed with her was the sound of the girl's body hitting the floor and the realization that this would all be over now. She returned to the castle, whispering apologies to her late husband and his daughter, with a strong determination to unite her country now that the cause of the fear had finally been exterminated forever.
Twigs snap and leaves rustle as Nicholas makes his way through the dense forest, determined to get as far away from his father's castle as possible before sunset. The sun descending slowly through the trees marks the approaching deadline that his father set for him. Find a wife before the ending of the sixtieth day, and Nicholas would become king, as he was supposed to. Fail, and the crown went to Lucas. Stupid, perfect Lucas, with his perfect face and his perfect wife. Nicholas bites his lip until his teeth draw blood. He cannot believe it took him until this morning to realize he was going to fail, that what his brother had always told him was true: who would ever want to marry him.
He is about to lick the blood of his lips when he sees something unusual between the trees: a coffin made of glass, surrounded by flowers. Two dwarfs, or vertically challenged people, as his mother would call them, are kneeling next to it, tears streaming down their faces. Nicholas approaches the scene, careful not to startle the men. The coffin is occupied by a girl so beautiful she makes the ones his father wanted him to marry seem hideous. Her black hair stands in drastic contrast with her pale face, and her lips are so red he feels the need to kiss them, immediately. When he asks the men, they agree to let him do it.
'Maybe you'll be the prince she was always saying would come and save her,' one of them mumbles. Nicholas does not have the heart to tell this mourning man how incredibly wrong he is, and instead he carefully removes the lid of the coffin.
He leans in, and slowly presses his mouth to the girl's. His eyes fly open the moment he feels her move. Her tongue caresses his bottom lip, licking the blood that was still there. When he pulls back, she smiles at him, showing two rows of shiny, razor sharp teeth. His last sound is a wordless scream that echoes through the forest. Then it goes completely silent.
Previously published in the UKCCWS Illustrated Anthology Vol. 4 (2017) with the accompanying illustration.
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Judith, a BA history student at the University of Kent, and a lover of all things mystical and fantastical. She spent her days reading, watching way too many period dramas, and staring out into her aquarium, searching for mermaids. She does not know this yet herself, but will live happily ever after in an awesome big city, surrounded by her 12 cats.