There was once upon a time a king who lived in squalor. He was known far and wide as Johannes Wynpenny, though most knew him simply as the Pauper King.
Presently, Johannes sat slumped on a stool in his meager hut, unable to begin to fathom what the messenger had just now told him. Simon was a dense man: dense brows, dense in the belly, dense of thought. The half-wit eyed Johannes blandly, perhaps even feeling awkward, like an interloper caught in someone else's nightmare. Johannes' brown dog Cici was giving the man's stocking leg a thorough sniff; finding nothing of interest, she resumed her nap upon the straw bed.
At last, Simon broke the silence. "I think, mayhap, you should come posthaste, me lard -- whilst the dwarves are there, at home and sober. Ere dusk, and ere the way grows thick with snow – me lard."
Johannes slowly shifted his gaze from the wood outside his window to the man darkening his doorway. He nodded once. The wind had picked up, the timbers of his hovel creaking under its cold caress. Johannes collected himself, asked his legs to carry his weight, and was half-surprised to learn that they would comply. He rose.
"Thank you, Simon. I shall."
Simon paused to regard Johannes one moment longer, then took his leave. Johannes leaned onto the bench in the hearth glow, listening to the fading thrum of hooves as they pounded at the snow-flecked earth. The silence that stayed in the messenger's wake was stifling.
After a while, Johannes closed the shutters against the chill and donned his coat. A tear escaped to get ensnared in his ragged beard; it may have been born more out of the bitter freeze than his grief, as his heart had not yet found a response to the devastating news. He did only now begin to look inward, and here he sensed some odd feeling, like a fox burrowing into his chest, hollowing it out as if preparing to hibernate. He tried to recall the last exchange he had had with his daughter. It was so long ago, possibly last winter, that the memory of it had become a spectre.
This was no way for a girl to leave this world, absent both parents. Ashamed of both parents.
Regret. That was the fox's name. Regret.
Johannes discovered the will to open his front door and step out. The burgeoning flurry enveloped him.
His journey on horseback through the forest took a considerable length of time, shy of thirty minutes. Johannes knew the way despite having not taken it for a year or more. Perhaps he'd traveled the route in his dreams since then, on a crusade wherein one quests redemption. Perhaps.
The skies were fast turning dark, heavy with foreboding, when he arrived at the cottage of the dwarves. He dismounted and tethered his horse.
Johannes could always tell when this tumbledown house was nigh. It was the stench. Seven filthy little men, unwashed and reeking of the mines, a dank mixture of elements -- sweat, rotten molars, piss, grime, stale mead. How Snow-white had endured it was a mystery. Johannes could only tolerate the stink for minutes at a time, and even that was a struggle.
He rapped lightly on their small oak door and leaned away, trying to claim as much untainted air as he could before it was lost entirely.
When no response came, he called to the unseen ears beyond the door, "'Tis Johannes Wynpenny."
There came a shuffling of feet within. Muttering. Shapes moving across the shaded window. At last, one of them -- Johannes guessed from the slurring of words it was Heynrich the perpetual drunk -- shouted back, "Ay, one mom'nt!"
Metal slid through metal, and the door creaked open an inch.
A solitary eye gleaned up at him, knee-high. It was Wernher. It was his left eye -- his only eye.
"The messenger told me about my daughter," Johannes said.
"Eigh, well, not sure you would want to come in," Wernher said, low and hoarse. "See her, I mean. In her present state."
"Would serve him right!" The agitated voice from the gloom beyond Wernher's shoulder belonged to Thadeus the pickpocket.
"I -- I..." Johannes began fitfully.
He recognized that he was not on cordial terms with the weefolk, and for good reason; the estrangement was entirely his own fault. They had never forgiven him for what they considered his abandonment of Snow-white. Still, she was his daughter, and with the burden of this entitlement upon him, he said, "Look, I cannot undo what is past. It nips at my heels every day."
"Liar!" cried Goblo, voice shrill.
Johannes' nose was beginning to sting from the cold. He said, "Dwarves, please. My blood is her blood. Despite our distance, that cannot be denied."
"Well then, your blood was spilt all o'er our home," Thadeus said.
"Ah, let him in, Wernher." This resigned sigh belonged to Petir, the one dwarf who would, as much as Johannes, be affected by Snow-white's demise. He was the reason why she had left the Prince after two troubled months of marriage. Snow-white's affection for the filthy dwarf was inexplicable, and his intentions had always been suspect. All in all, their entanglement was impossible for Johannes to comprehend. "Let him in. He deserves to see his daughter."
Wernher's eye bore a hole through Johannes. Still, Johannes matched his stare unblinkingly. The dwarf, expressionless, took a step backwards and let the door swing wide.
Johannes paused, steeling himself, accepting that this moment might well serve as a dividing line in his life -- between muted shock and incapacitating anguish; between the ambivalence that had numbed him this past twelvemonth and the revulsion that would haunt those days remaining; and quite possibly, between sanity and madness. With these next few footsteps, Johannes may indeed cross his Rubicon.
He set his teeth and entered, crouching, the dwarves' domain.
A shape, concealed beneath a woolen blanket, lay upon the floor. It described the vague contours of a female body. Johannes could only look at it, seized by terror, unable to move nearer. Despite the warmth of the room, his blood coursed in his veins an icy cold. The door sealed behind him with a quiet whoosh.
"You must realize the risk," Petir said. "Someone is apt to blame us for this. One of us, all of us. Few townsfolk can spare a grain of fondness for the dwarves." There was a pointedness behind this observation, a personal jab, that was not lost on Johannes. "We trust you understand that none of us was responsible for her murder."
Johannes licked his cracked lips. His voice caught in his throat at first. He cleared it. "Nay. Of course not."
"We were off in the mines," Rüppel lisped. He was the group's fat cook. "Found her when we came home this evening."
"I do not doubt it," Johannes said, for he did not.
He availed himself of his paralysis to step closer, then slowly knelt beside the body. He laid a trembling hand upon the rise of blanket that was its shoulder -- cool to his touch. A fresh shiver overcame him.
Thadeus said, "We cleaned her blood, as much as we could. It had spilt in spades."
"Unlikely she suffered much," Albrecht said between sniffles. The dwarf had an interminably runny nose and an incurable cough. Johannes supposed this was due to the daily dampness of the mines. "A pickaxe to the head felled her."
At this, Rüppel began to sob. Some of the others went to comfort him, their words whispered like wind through a barley field.
Johannes strongly considered leaving then and there. He had no inclination to regard his beautiful daughter's gore. Half of him almost did; the other half demanded he stand witness. He could call it punishment, or leastways a chance to relieve his chest -- if he could -- of that burrowing fox. Indeed, he profoundly regretted distancing himself from his Snow-white, for shunning her when she chose these greedy, dirty wee creatures over a life of opulent royalty. Alas, Johannes did deserve to see his daughter, as Petir had said; he deserved to see, in agonizing detail, what his rebuke of her had wrought.
And so, see her he would.
He grasped the blood-sodden blanket that covered her corpse and lifted it from her head. Her face was as delicate as he remembered. Still young. Still smooth and unblemished. Her pallor, however, which once resembled that of snow, had changed into a bloodless mask. All rosiness was now drained from her cheeks, replaced by a horrible sort of bluish lividity.
A dent glistened at the top of her head. On closer inspection, Johannes saw that it went deeper than a dent. It was bottomless. It was a cavern. He heard a gasp leave his lips. The pickaxe had pierced past her silky raven hair, had tunneled through her skull and its contents, and had not reappeared elsewhere. The weapon now rested inches from her corpse, its iron business-end stained crimson and ornamented with a scramble of hair, bone and pale pulp. Johannes felt a rising nausea. He battled to force it down.
"That pick belongs to none of us," Petir said. "We each had ours. The murderer brought it explicitly for one purpose."
Johannes glanced solemnly into his daughter's half-lidded blue eyes, which had lost any trace of their former brilliance. He could stand no more. He swept the blanket back over Snow-white's head before he climbed to his feet. The dwarves must have seen him sway, tottering onto his heels and threatening to plunge backwards, for they hastened over with a stool. They helped guide him down hard onto it.
Johannes scarcely noticed this. He felt the cold clamminess along his brow, the convulsion of his guts, the slack in his spine. But his mind was otherwise somewhere else, and it took several minutes before he made his way back to this room, lit only by a central hearth, where seven dwarves contemplated him with equal measures of pity and contempt.
When some semblance of reason had returned, Johannes wiped his moist forehead with his sleeve, looked round at the faces encircling him, and spoke. He didn't intend it to be any kind of apology, though that was what he delivered:
"My wife -- Snow-white's step-mother -- was a witch. I'd had no knowledge of this. Not when I courted or wedded her, nor during our sixteen years of marriage. Nay, not till Rohesia turned on poor Snow-white. The reason why this happened, or what prompted the Queen's loathing, I still have not learned. She was vain. I never knew her to be so. But done is done. My wife is in the ground. Her torment of my daughter abruptly ended at Prince Guiscard's hand, as you know, when she was forced to dance wearing boots forged from blazing red iron, which seared hot and deep to her marrow. I suppose this was fair comeuppance. Admittedly, I did not try to interfere, though my heart ached at the public spectacle, at how the wedding guests clapped and cheered. That was my wife -- dying in agony on the marble floor -- whom I was not permitted to hold and to comfort as she drew in her final breath. My wife." Tears had begun to spill from Johannes' eyes, but he ignored them and continued, the words flooding from him as if they had been long encaged. "That cursed event was enough to plunge my days into darkness and my nights into sleepless torment. I could take some consolation though that, in spite of this horror, Snow-white would end up content with the newfound luxuries Prince Guiscard provided. It did not justify it -- any of it -- but at very least, it helped make some sense of it. That was not to last. I was dumbstruck when I learned that Snow-white had not long after fled her royal groom for this poverty -- "
"Mind your words," Heynrich growled, glaring askance at Johannes. "You speak of our home."
But Petir raised a hand to him and said, "Poverty is not entirely inaccurate." His eyes smiling gently, Petir lifted a stool and set it opposite Johannes. "Please..."
Johannes nodded his gratitude. He continued, "What followed seemed to undermine all that had been sacrificed. After my wife had met her cruel and shameful death, my daughter inexplicably surrendered her life of ease. And for what?"
"For love!" yelled Rüppel, still bawling. He blew his nose loudly. "True love."
Johannes felt himself begin to sneer, and then stopped himself. He had no retort that would not be construed as offensive by the dwarves.
"Listen. We are dwarves," Petir said with no perceivable note of resentment or bitterness. "We are quite used to being the target of ridicule -- used to being the first suspected whenever someone is robbed. Dwarves are the ones to be blamed for anything from a bad harvest to an infant's death in her crib. Suspicion runs high."
"Ay, ay, 'tis true," Goblo grumbled.
"Every time," Albrecht concurred.
"But hear me now," Petir said with a sternness that grabbed Johannes by the throat, "and do believe me. I loved Snow-white. I had for years, since she was a girl of seven, skipping and plucking buttercups on the heath. A love which I had thought paternal at first, but which evolved into something entirely else as she blossomed before me." He looked into Johannes' eyes, probably detecting boundless skepticism there. Petir leaned closer, stared deeper, as if by the force of his conviction could he change Johannes' mind. "And Snow-white loved me in kind. You no doubt think this a lie -- "
"You do not know what I think," Johannes said without consideration.
"'Tis not a lie, friend, nor is it some absurd fancy. We loved one another. It crushed me when the Prince offered his hand to her. Neither of us thought him as honorable as he portrayed himself. But there were the -- how did you put it? -- the luxuries to consider. Ay, that was something we could not ignore, neither of us. I loved her...but look around."
For emphasis, Petir raised a hand as he regarded the room. Johannes did not have to. He was already well aware of the dirt caked thickly on the unkempt bedsheets, of the refuse tossed about, of the grown dwarves staring at him as they must have stared slobberingly at his nubile young daughter whilst she slumbered. Johannes did not need Petir to point any of this out to him. Here was no place for a girl of pure heart such as Snow-white.
"I loved her, but a better life awaited her," Petir said. "I urged -- insisted -- that she marry the Prince. So whilst you speak of sacrifice, prithee do understand, m'lord, that I have made sacrifices of my own. We both had."
Johannes reflected on Petir's words. Their stares returned to the lump of crimson blanket at their feet. Johannes was not yet willing to accept the circumstances of Snow-white's life here in the cottage of the weefolk, but as for Petir's intentions, he was beginning to accept them as benevolent -- a massive leap of faith for him.
Johannes put his head in his hands and tried to clear away these equivocal thoughts. What lingered was a strong desire for justice.
"Do you suspect anyone?" he asked Petir. "I would find it hard to believe that Snow-white had any enemies."
Petir gave another sigh of surrender. "Nay. As you said, she had none. She was well liked by all who met her. This was an entirely random act. Our home was not burgled. She was not violated. The murderer did his dirty work and fled. Our neighbours keep to themselves, but nobody we asked saw or heard anything amiss today." He shrugged. "I am as perplexed as you, m'lord."
Johannes saw movement with the tail of his eye. Rüppel was standing by the fire, where a large black pot hung. He scooped something out and spooned it into a small bowl, then handed it to Johannes.
"Pottage," Rüppel said. "'Tis blackbird. If yer hungry."
Out of courtesy, Johannes took it and smiled wanly at the cook. He could not eat. His nose had not grown accustomed to the smell of the quarters, but this aside, what he had just seen had indefinitely destroyed any trace of appetite.
"Why did she leave the Prince?" Johannes asked, resting the bowl in his lap.
Petir gave a humorless laugh. "Those great luxuries came at too great a price. He became demanding of her. I won't trouble you with details, but to put it tactfully as I can, he tried to lay claim over her youthful body. My sweet Snow-white was a giving person, but she drew the line there."
Johannes did not need to be told the details. His mind could complete the picture. He grimaced, staring down into his bowl. Then he said, "I shall assume not, but did our murderer leave behind any clues?"
"Clues?" Heynrich said through a snarl. "Not 'less you consid'r this vand'lism a clue!"
He gestured at a smear on the wall which Johannes had not heretofore noticed. It seemed black at first, until it captured the glimmer of firelight, revealing it to be a deep crimson.
Thadeus smote the wall and shouted, "As if 'twere not vile enough that someone should invade our home and kill our beloved Snow-white, he should then choose to blemish our wall with her blood!"
Johannes had a hard look at the stain, brow furrowed. The murderer had left behind two long, intersecting marks. "Is that a cross?"
"It matters not," Goblo said.
"How odd." Johannes stared a moment longer before shrugging.
Petir turned to Albrecht. "See if our neighbour can craft another glass coffin. The Princess will begin lying in state tomorrow."
"I will go to him tonight," Albrecht said.
Heynrich handed Johannes a cup of ale, and this he did willingly take.
"We have mourned her death so often, I almost believed her to be immortal," Petir told Johannes.
"We were lucky those times," Johannes said, recalling how his wife had thrice failed to kill the Princess -- once with a suffocating bodice, once with a cursed comb, and finally with that damned poisoned apple. He glared at the most recent murder tool, lying several feet away as if in mockery. "This axe has finally and irrevocably done the job that no magic or bane could."
Petir reached across and patted Johannes' thigh. "Alas, m'lord. Alas."
Johannes drained his cup, wiped his mouth and stood.
"I regret that it took the death of my daughter to thaw the ice between us," he told the watching faces. "Like many, I was haste to judge. You are rough round the edges, you dwarves, but you are decent."
Petir laughed at this. "Decent is not the word I would choose. Goblo is a pervert, Thadeus will rob you blind, and I cannot remember the last time I have seen Heynrich sober. We are dwarves. Our reputation looms over us, but that is not to say 'tis not partly deserved. I do appreciate your kind words, though, m'lord. I wish these past years may have played out differently than they had."
"Bygones," Johannes said, setting down his bowl and cup. "I shall return in the morrow before noon. Good-evening, sirs."
The dwarves somberly nodded as Johannes took his leave. By then, the world outside had become drenched in nightfall.
A snowstorm was battering Johannes' shack when he returned. He secured his horse and hurried inside. Cici greeted him with a bark.
"Come'ere, girl," he said. The dog rushed to his feet. He bent to pet her matted fur before doffing his coat and shoes.
His appetite had steadily returned. He found half a rat-gnawed loaf of rye bread, a chunk of cheese which had started to turn, and a dozen nuts. It would have to do. Johannes sat at his bench and chewed mindlessly on these objects, taking care to avoid the unsavoury parts, listening to the wind whistle through the reeds of his hut. He washed these down with sour ale.
Johannes' mind drifted to his hazy memories of Snow-white, as it often had since last winter. He had given his daughter dwindling thought over the years between her disappearance in the forest -- presumed to have been an abduction -- and her sudden reappearance accompanying the proclamation of her engagement six years hence. Johannes had grieved daily for the first year, and as King, had ordered searches far and wide to retrieve her, sending messengers to every town and hamlet under his dominion. But her whereabouts remained unknown despite all his efforts and the handsome reward being offered. His wife, the Queen, acted equally distraught; little had he known of her treacherous plotting to destroy the girl.
Two, three, four years followed her disappearance, and Johannes at last surrendered to the notion he would never again see his daughter. The populace had mourned and had seemingly moved on; it was time for him to do the same.
And then, the announcement: Prince Guiscard Le Drapir had asked for a beautiful young maiden's hand, having saved her from a poisonous apple lodged inside her throat. Her hair was as black as her skin was pale. 'Twas Snow-white. She had accepted his proposal. The wedding was to take place at his palace.
Johannes and the Queen had only just arrived at the celebration when the Prince's guards seized her, explaining to all those in attendance how Queen Rohesia Wynpenny was a witch, how she'd attempted over and over and over again to murder the young Princess. There was no trial for her on that day. That day, there was only retribution.
Shamed, Johannes fled the palace. He returned to his own castle on the hill, where he remained in solitude, not receiving visitors, like a prisoner in a tower. So disturbed was he that he vowed to leave public life altogether. Within days, he had proclaimed his abdication to his son, Prince Godwyn, who reluctantly ascended to the throne.
Johannes' self-imposed exile had commenced four years heretofore. He turned his back on his rule, with all its responsibilities and its opulence, to become a hermit in the wilderness. Here, he surrendered to the long, vacant days which stretched interminably forward. Here, he hoped the world would forget about him -- would forget about his shameful past.
And forget about him it might, if not for a pick wielded as a weapon.
Johannes mindlessly pushed aside the crumbs on his bench. He slid his stool back, rose with a heavy sigh, then lay down upon his straw bed. He rested his head on the log that served as his pillow as he called to his dog.
The brown mongrel curled up beside him, providing much-needed warmth in the cold hutch.
The fallen King thought of his daughter's face, though it was the girl of seven who he saw now, the one who had run off giggling on that cool autumn day so many years past. He tried to recall the last thing he had said to her, or her to him, but it was beyond reach. As with so many moments in life, the weight of its importance could only be appreciated on retrospect. At the time, it must have seemed utterly insignificant.
Still, Johannes reached for those words...
...and seeing her happy face...
...still could not hear them...
...so instead, he slept.