The sun hung low in the sky as they walked the rows of the orchard. The hazy, orange light warmed their backs, their shadows stretching ever further before them. The leaves had just started to turn, but the trees were still heavy with fruit. The branches sagged as though trying to tempt those below with their succulent delights.
The hunter reached up and took the perfectly red apple in his hand. He twisted, snapping the stem, then turned the fruit this way and that. Not a single blemish. He rubbed the apple against his shirt, buffing it until he could almost see his reflection in the skin. Looking up, he realised that his companion for this walk had not slowed. He jogged to catch back up.
“Here,” he said, “This one looked good.”
She barely gave it a glance as he placed it in her basket. She kept walking.
“What about these ones?” he asked, pointing out a particularly good looking tree.
“The tree we are looking for is further,” she said.
“How much further?”
“The end of the orchard.”
The hunter looked into the distance and shuddered. He could not see the far end of the orchard clearly. A strange fog seemed to cover it, though it was not cold. It looked darker there. She sensed his reluctance and sighed.
“How did it come to this?” she wondered aloud.
The Queen regent ran her hand across the bark of the apple trees as she walked. It was still too early for picking. The small, green fruit looked shiny and appetising, but the flesh would be sour and sickening. She put one foot in front of the other, putting no thought into where she was headed.
She could hear laughter in the distance. The ground keeper’s daughters, running and playing. They wore crowns woven from flowers upon their heads amd smiled as they pretended to be princesses. If only the reality of royalty was as happy, she mused.
Her position was a precarious one. The King was ailing. She was a second wife and a foreigner to this land, ruling in the place of a man who was much loved by all. It would not be long before she would have to bury him, and what then? If he died...
When, she reminded herself. When he dies, as though telling herself often would make it hurt any less when it happened. The kingdom had not seen him for months, which was just as well. He was not a pretty sight to behold. There was very little of the man she had fallen in love with left. The attack had finished him, body and soul.
He would know what to do. She was doing her best to rule as well as he would have done. If she could do that, the people would not question her. She could not allow the Kingdom to appear weak, lest the vultures of the neighbouring lands descend. She had come to love this land and its people and she would not see them lost to war. She had to be wise, her rule just and righteous, firm but fair. Let there be no one in the kingdom more worthy to be called ruler than she. That was the aim. She had taken the tools of her past trade and fashioned a seeing glass to guide the way forwards.
Was she a good ruler? Did the people approve of her reign? She had asked the seeing glass the question that kept her awake at night, but the answer had seemed wrong. That would teach her for wording her questions so loosely. Fair had too many meanings.
The girl. That was the problem. She was not fit to rule. The Queen had spent years trying to change her and her efforts had come to nought. The girl could not be allowed to come to the throne as she surely would if the Queen did not act fast.
It was time to take matters into her own hands.
Blossom hung thick in the orchard. It’s sweet yet earthy smell filled the air. The King walked back from the far end, hands clasped behind his back. He was so deep in thought that he didn’t notice the woman slip out from behind a tree and fall into step beside him.
“I thought I would find you here,” she said.
That snapped him back to the present. Looking across and seeing her was enough to make him smile again. He reached out and took her hand. They walked in comfortable silence together.
“I had to ask her something,” he said after a while.
“Did you get an answer?” she asked.
“I think so.”
He stopped and faced her, taking her other hand. Before he had a chance to continue, she had spotted the bandage on his wrist. She fussed with it, tutting to herself.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Just a nip,” he assured her, “Nothing serious. She didn’t mean it.”
“I thought she was getting better.”
“And she is. You have done so much for her. You care for her as if she were your own, and... well...”
He lowered himself to one knee. He watched her eyes widen, her jaw drop open slightly.
“Here?” she asked, squirming slightly, “In her place? Elenora’s orchard?”
“I can’t wait any longer,” he told her, “Elenora is gone. She would want me to be happy. I want us to be a family. Together we have been through the darkest times. Together, we can face anything.”
“What have you done!” yelled the King.
He ran to the figure collapsed in the orchard. There was blood on the ground, a gash in her hand.
His wife looked up at him, her smile wide and terrifying. Her eyes were unrecognisable to him in that moment.
“I wished for a child,” she told him, “We shall have our child. At any cost.”
They buried her beneath the furthest tree.
It was a quiet affair. Closed casket. Seeing Elenora’s body after the birth had been terrible enough. The King did not want to see it again. So pale... Too pale. Like the child.
The earth was cold in his fist. It hit the coffin lid, hard and heavy. He stared downwards, unable to move. An arm took his and gently led him away. It was the woman. The one he had sent for. The one they had told him could fix such things. She had come bearing strange tools and spoken words in a language that had scared the midwife, but it had been too late.
“There was nothing to be done,” she told him, “It wasn’t your fault.”
“I know,” he said, “But the child-“
“Shall be cared for,” she interrupted him, “I will do all I can to help her.”
Snow crunched underfoot as they made their way back to the castle grounds. Beyond the garden walls, the kingdom grieved.
“It came to this because of me,” the huntsman said, “This is my fault, your highness. If I had done as you said...”
The Queen stopped then. She placed a hand on his arm gingerly, as though out of practice at comforting others.
“No,” she said softly, “I asked too much. Whatever else she is, the girl looks human. You may be a hunter, but you are no monster.”
“I shot her,” he said, “My aim was off, but I still did it. I missed her heart, but the bolt went through her even so. I saw it. She should have died.”
“Like I said,” the Queen said, “She looks human.”
They continued onwards. The sky was growing darker. A fine mist had started to gather around their feet.
“Did you bring the axe?”
“Of course, your highness,” he said uneasily, “Why do we need it?”
“It has been some time since I have ventured this far,” the Queen said, “Things may have grown restless. Some... pruning may be required.”
The hunter saw it then- the furthest tree in the orchard. It was bare of leaves with bark as black as tar. The claw-like, gnarled branches seemed to move in a way that had very little to do with the wind. It looked dead and yet there was a single apple growing from the lowest branch. The skin was crimson and shone temptingly, but it looked almost as though something was moving within it, stretching the apple’s surface as it writhed. The only juice within an apple like that would be poison.
The hunter made the mistake of looking into the shadows around the tree and regretted it. He gripped the axe tighter. They needed that apple. The King’s death would be avenged.
Years passed. The Queen walked the orchard less and less, not wanting to think about the crime she had committed. No one could know what she had saved them from. They would not have believed her if she tried to tell them. What she had done was for the greater good. She would be forgiven in time. She told herself this frequently, but it did nothing to stop the nightmares. The war she had feared did not come. No one dared face her. Infamy, it seemed, would be her armour.
Winter arrived once more, along with an invitation from a neighbouring prince. A wedding. It bored her to attend such things, but she could not refuse. It was trivial, but a duty nonetheless.
The church was as cold as the freshly fallen sheet of snow outside. The prince looked resplendent in his finery, practically glowing with joy. His mother and father too looked overjoyed, but the bride seemed to have no family of her own. The queen recognised many of the faces around her, though they would not meet her eyes. She tried to ignore the whispers, the empty space that seemed to radiate from around her, pushing those she had once called allies away. They would understand, she told herself, if only they knew the truth.
The band began to play. As one, the audience turned to look at the bride.
The Queen's breath stuck in her throat.
The girl walked down the aisle, teeth showing through her smile, her skin pale, hair dark, lips apple red. Her eyes never left her stepmother.
The ceremony was a blur. The Queen felt faint and her body began to shake visibly. Her neighbours broke their silence in concern, but she could not explain it to them.
Afterwards there was dancing. The band led them outside and there was much laughter as they formed a circle in the snow and began to whirl around, everyone dancing with each other. The Queen joined in, knowing that there would be no true escape in excusing herself. Everyone she came face to face with was smiling. Let them be happy, she told herself. Let this not be the end.
The moment came. The dance carried them towards one another and suddenly they were face to face, hand in hand. The girls grip hardened around the Queen’s hands, the nails digging in. Drawing blood.
The blood welled, blooming from the Queen’s veins like apples growing on a tree. The droplet fell, a crimson tear struck the snow.
Blood on snow...
That's how it all started. The Queen mused, staring her demise in the face. How fitting that it should end the same.
How I wish that I had a daughter that had skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as ebony.
But at what cost? Only a monster could have survived the fruit from that tree. Only a corpse cursed beyond all recognition could have created such a thing.
The girl smiled, exposing oddly pointed teeth. She was the fairest, the Queen realised, but not because of the unnatural paleness of her skin. All were equal in the eyes of a monster. Death was indiscriminate.
The wedding party danced. They danced until the laughter turned to screams, until the snow turned red with blood.
They danced until they died.