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Wicked Wiles

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“And what,” says the very supercilious young man in front of Grumpy, “may I do for you?”

He manages to bring out the word as if Grumpy was a particularly rancid specimen of squirrel-turd, and his hands instinctively twitch his magnificent flowing robes back from the edge of the step – back from Grumpy.

Grumpy looks up at him. He knows he’s contributing to the awkwardness of the situation by scowling fiercely, but the young man deserves a fierce scowl. Well, he deserves a fierce kick in the trousers, but since he isn’t wearing trousers, Grumpy will have to forgo that particular pleasure. “I’m here to see Snow White.”

He can see the young man’s indecision, whether to pretend not to hear Grumpy’s growl or to give way to his instinctive indignation at the request. Indignation wins. “Princess Snow is not at home to visitors at the moment.”

Not at home to me, you mean. Grumpy is done talking to pipsqueaks. “Heigh-ho!”

The traditional working-song yodel echoes around the cold reception room. (Grumpy would take a warm little cottage, or a glittering mine, over this empty grandeur any day.) The young man flinches back, face convulsing.

As the echoes die away, Grumpy folds his arms and waits.

“Gua—“, the young man starts, but Grumpy raises his eyebrows, and the young man falls silent.

Footsteps on the long marble staircase, skipping lightly down. “Grumpy!”

It is her voice – a little deeper, a little older, but still as bell-like and joyful as ever.

And then Snow White is jumping down the last few steps, running across the breadth of the grand reception-room, falling to her knees in front of Grumpy, and burying her face in his coat.

Grumpy feels awkward for a moment, but his desire to shock the young man wins out. He puts an arm around her shoulders. “There, there,” he mumbles, while raising a challenging eyebrow at the young man’s flabbergasted face. Shoo, he mouths.

The young man’s mouth opens and shuts.

And then he shoos.

~*~

“It’s not that I don’t love him,” Snow says contemplatively, kicking her feet, “but I do wish he was here more often. Does he have to hunt quite so much?”

Grumpy shifts on the garden bench and gives the matter some thought. He considers and discards the observation that in other countries, dwarfs are often on the hunting agenda. At least in this country, dwarfs are simply relegated to the borderlands and tolerated as long as they pay their (hefty) taxes. A dwarf-weight in diamonds per household, and they live in peace… “Hunting is what princes do.”

“It certainly seems like it,” Snow says, wrinkling her nose. “But Alexander’s brother Brian is a prince, and he doesn’t hunt.” She is thinner than Grumpy remembers, and he doesn’t like it. With all the hunting, surely they could be bothered to feed her. But then, she was just a child when Grumpy knew her; perhaps humans all grow thinner as they age. Eight years is a long time.

Snow is biting her lip, and Grumpy’s ears go up. “What is it?”

“It’s just…” She seems to be fighting to control a lip wobble. “It’s just good to see you!”

That hadn’t been what she had originally been going to say. Grumpy knows it. But he bows in the face of her forced cheerfulness, and says only, “Glad to hear it.”

“What brings you here after all this time?” Snow asks. “You said everyone was doing well – but is there anything you need? Anything I can help with?”

Grumpy makes a mental note to return to the topic later, but accepts the change of subject. “No. The mine is good, and we’re well.”

“Just wanted to see me, then?” Snow says, and smiles at him.

Grumpy finds himself fighting a blush, and hammers it down ruthlessly. “I’m on my Journey.”

Snow’s brow furrows. “Your journey?”

“Yes,” Grumpy says, but doesn’t elaborate.

Snow kicks her feet again, a thoughtful look on her face. “Well, how about pausing your journey here for a while? We could have such fun.”

Fun isn’t something Grumpy generally indulges in, but he looks at Snow’s smiling face and wonders for the first time what it might be like. “I can’t stay long. I must reach Birkenmine before winter.”

Snow jumps up from the bench, twirling in place. “Then let’s not waste time!”

~*~

The sun is warm on Grumpy’s bare head as they sit on the picnic blanket. These are the last days of summer, and he isn’t quite sure what he thinks of them; the mine is dark and warm and familiar, and the crisp clear air of a summer’s day is as foreign as the wide open fields around them.

“This is one of my favourite places,” Snow says, crumbling a piece of bread with her fingers absentmindedly. A bird flies down to coo at her and seize some of the crumbs. Of course it does.

“It’s pretty,” Grumpy says, noncommittally. ‘Pretty’ is one of those words which females use all the time – at least the females around the palace. He’s been here for three hours now, and he’s already lost count of the number of times simpering females have come up to Snow with the words, “Oh, you look so pretty today!” (Always followed by their nostrils flaring in alarm as they catch sight of Grumpy.)

“It’s serene,” Snow corrects. She sighs. “No one comes out here – the girls are afraid of getting their dresses dirty, and Alexander and his men are always off hunting. Except for Brian, but he’s always in the library.”

The hunting again. How many dead woodland animals can one palace need? Or is this entirely for sport? Grumpy looks at Snow’s pensive profile, as the bird eats daintily out of her hand.

He chews his mouthful of cheese slowly. “Do the animals still come when you sing?”

A shadow crosses Snow’s face, so quickly he might not have seen it if he hadn’t been watching for it. “Oh, you must meet my horse! Her name is Buttercup, and she is the most wonderful horse you’ll ever meet. She tries to dance when I sing.”

Grumpy privately does not want to meet any horse, particularly a horse that tries to dance. They are large, fearsome animals, and their hooves are massive. One misstep in a waltz…

“Cheese?” he says, and offers her the tray.

~*~

“This way,” Snow says, breathlessly, reaching down to grab Grumpy’s collar and pull him down a shady corridor and through a creaking door. He would protest – he may be small, but he doesn’t like being manhandled – but he can hear the gaggle of females clatter past, and he’s too grateful to mind too much this time.

“What was that?” he says instead, adjusting his collar and brushing himself off.

Snow looks apologetic. “There’s this embroidery club, and they keep pestering me to join. I’ve been putting them off, but it looks like they came in force this week.”

“Heh,” Grumpy says. “Female wiles.”

Snow leans against the door and laughs. “Well, this female wants none of them. Embroidery’s so fussy, and I always end up pricking my finger.”

“Shhh!”

Grumpy half-turns, only to see a plump man with beetling eyebrows bearing down on them indignantly. “I beg pardon, Princess, but the Prince is reading and he mustn’t be disturbed.”

“Of course, Lachlan,” Snow says. “We’ll just be going.”

Grumpy makes a face at Lachlan, who simply blinks back a little blearily.

“Is that Snow?” A young man peers around the corner of what Grumpy privately regards as a rather shaky bookcase. No craftsmanship. “I haven’t seen you since yesterday! Where were you at lunch?”

“Now you’ve done it,” Lachlan says, under his breath. Grumpy is perhaps the only one near enough to hear.

“I’ve had a visitor,” Snow says, beaming at the newcomer. “Brian, this is Grumpy, one of my friends from the forest. Grumpy, this is Prince Brian, Alexander’s younger brother.”

Prince Brian reminds Grumpy a little bit of Dopey, with his wide eyes and eager expression. He rounds the corner of the rickety bookcase and comes bounding over to them. “A dwarf? A real, live dwarf!”

Grumpy rears back, ready to direct his most fearsome scowl at this bumbling idiot, but the bumbling idiot grins down at him and sticks his hand out. “I’m so very pleased to meet you! I’ve never met a dwarf before, I’ve only read about them, we have the best collection of dwarf literature in the whole kingdom! Has Snow showed it to you yet? I can translate it for you if you don’t speak all the dialects, I speak almost all of them, well, I read them, you know how it is, I’ve never met a dwarf to speak to, this is such a great honour!”

On second thought, Grumpy entirely retracts the comparison to Dopey.

He warily grips the outstretched hand, being sure to squeeze it hard. Tears spring to the boy’s eyes, but he doesn’t wince, and Grumpy notes it with approval.

Snow is giggling. “We haven’t made it to the library yet. We’ve been mostly outdoors – I didn’t think Grumpy would be interested in books.”

Grumpy feels an irrational surge of annoyance. How should Snow know whether he’d be interested in books? She stayed with them for two days, then was in a coma, and then she was carried off to be married to a Prince. “Show me,” he says to Brian.

Brian’s smile gets even wider, if that’s possible, and then he’s bounding off again. Grumpy follows, then pauses to look back over his shoulder at Snow. “Your horse must miss you.”

Snow blinks. “Yes,” she says slowly. “I should go for a ride.” She’s feeling out the words, and Grumpy feels a little regret, but this is personal. This isn’t something he wants to share with Snow; she has her own secrets, he sees them shade her eyes. She can give him this space.

“I’ll be in the garden later,” she says now, uncertainly.

Grumpy nods curtly, and turns to follow Brian.

~*~

When he enters the garden, he can hear Snow’s voice, up ahead near the pond. She’s not alone. He can hear the male voice with her, and he hesitates. But he has nowhere to go – Brian is doing “research”, and the room Snow has found for him is cold and bare.

He rounds the corner, and finds Snow sitting on a bench, with a familiar figure beside her. They look up.

“Grumpy,” Snow says, and she sounds strained – or is that his imagination? “This is Alexander.”

Alexander’s mouth tightens, but his voice is polite enough. “We met, didn’t we, dear? When I rescued you from your evil stepmother’s curse.”

“Yes,” Snow says.

An awkward silence falls over the three of them. Grumpy knows that human norms would require him to participate in the conversation or leave the garden. But Grumpy is not human, and he scoffs at their rules. Snow looks unhappy, and he’s determined to get to the bottom of this particular diamond vein.

“Well,” Alexander says at last, dropping Snow’s hand and brushing invisible dust off his knees. “I promised Trevor I’d talk to him about the hounds before dinner. I’ll see you there.”

He brushes past Grumpy with a swirl of his fancy cape, and Grumpy scowls at his back.

As the Prince disappears into the distance, Grumpy’s scowl is disrupted by a soft sound behind him, and he turns to find Snow with her head in her hands, her shoulders shaking.

The moment of panic is entirely justified, he thinks. Tears are not something he’s comfortable with, or wishes to be.

He masters himself with an effort. “Can I help,” he mutters, forcing the words out.

Snow shakes her head mutely, her hair tumbling about her face and hiding it from view.

Grumpy turns to go.

“Wait,” Snow says, and her voice is thick. “Sit with me.”

He does.

~*~

With Alexander back from the hunt, dinner can no longer be something Snow rustles from the kitchen, as they’d planned (the cooks all love her), eaten with laughter in the garden (Snow’s laughter, Grumpy’s small hidden smile). Instead, they are at the head of a table full of staring people in the state dining room. Grumpy pokes at the food on his plate; he can’t quite tell, under the rich sauce, but he thinks it might have once been a partridge.

It is a quiet meal at first. Grumpy would have expected Brian to carry the conversation, after the afternoon’s excited torrents of words, but Brian is withdrawn and nearly as taciturn as Grumpy himself, staring across the table with far-away eyes.

One of the young simpering embroidery females is sitting next to Grumpy. Her eyelashes blink nervously as she leans around him to chatter to Alexander. Grumpy ignores her as best he can. She has nothing to say that he cares to hear.

On his other side, Snow is hardly touching her food.

In a strange fit that he will struggle to explain later, Grumpy slips his hand under the table and touches it to the side of Snow’s, which is hanging limply at her side.

Snow’s fingers curl around his.

“What do you think?” the female next to him asks, her voice trembling with mingled excitement and daring.

“What do I think about what?” he snaps. He is one of the centres of attention in a room of staring people, and he has never been more aware of his curiousity status. Snow is upset, and he’s beginning to be more than a little upset himself. He is in no mood to be polite.

She blinks rapidly, her ridiculously lengthened eyelashes bobbing. “I was just asking Sasha what he thought about having an autumn ball. Would you like that?”

A ball. A ball. She is indeed mocking him, then. He would let her know exactly what he thought about a ball, but Snow’s fingers are trembling against his; he gives the female his best glare instead, and turns back to his plate.

“What do you think, dear?” Alexander – or Sasha, apparently – asks Snow. “Shall we have a ball to celebrate the harvest?”

“That would be lovely,” Snow says.

Her words are as dead as a tree planted in rock, but she is smiling. She looks radiant, her simple evening gown and royal jewelry making her the fairest in the land, but her hand trembles against Grumpy’s; he finds himself gripping it more tightly, giving her something to hold on to, in this world which he does not understand.

“Wonderful,” Alexander says, smiling back at her. “What do you all say?” he calls down the table. “Shall we have a ball to celebrate the harvest?”

A chorus of affirmative chatter and excited blathering echoes back down at him, and Grumpy watches him bask in the attention, preening like Doc at the finding of an especially enormous diamond.

“We’ll ride out to Southland tomorrow,” Alexander says decisively. “We’ll have to lay in enough hart and boar for a proper feast, if we’re to invite the right people.”

“Perhaps it could just be a small ball,” Brian says. Grumpy sees him throwing the odd worried glance at Snow. He is not the only one who’s noticed something, then.

Alexander laughs. “You have much to learn, brother, if you’re going to be my steward. We’re a small kingdom, we have to make important friends and keep our alliances open. The best way to do that is to have the best food and the best dancing in all the seven seas.” He catches Snow’s eye. “And the most beautiful women, of course,” he adds, raising his wine-glass in a small salute.

Snow smiles at him. Her lips are blood-red, standing out against her snow-white skin.

Alexander drinks from his glass, then sets it back down with a clunk. “Who knows,” he says expansively, “perhaps you will even come on the hunt with us this time. We could use a rider like you.”

Snow’s smile slips, minutely. “I would rather not.”

“Alice hunts, don’t you, Alice?” Alexander says. The female to Grumpy’s left nods manically. “And so does Charlotte, and Rosie, and Victoria…”

“Please excuse me,” Snow says abruptly, standing. Her hands rest on the edge of the table. “I feel unwell.”

Alexander’s face is surprised. “Of course, darling. Brian, will you see Snow up to her room and have the doctor called?”

Grumpy knows that he cannot go with her, not now. Not in front of the entire court, which is already gawping at her like his pipe organ when all the mouths get stuck open. He digs grimly into his mystery animal carcase in front of him, refusing to watch as Brian supports Snow out of the room. He must not look overly concerned; he must not give these imbeciles an inch of room to use against him until he figures out what the hell is going on here.

That is a conversation that he must have with Snow.

~*~

Grumpy stumps up the last steps of the grand staircase, to where Brian sits in front of Snow’s door. His nose is, as usual, buried in a book.

“How is she?” Grumpy is pleased to find that his voice sounds as gruffly normal as ever.

Brian startles, nearly dropping his book. “She’ll...she’ll be fine.” He looks around them. “You shouldn’t be here.”

Grumpy snorts. “That’s what everyone thinks.”

“No, I mean,” Brian says, and hesitates. “This is the family wing. You shouldn’t be here.”

This afternoon, in the library, Grumpy had thought Brian had some intelligence, for a human. He’d never met a human who understood the Journey before, or who seemed as genuinely fascinated by dwarf culture. Now, however, he is quickly revising his opinion of Brian’s intelligence. “I’m Snow’s friend. Maybe her only friend. Let me in.”

Brian looks slightly wretched. Even though he is twice Grumpy’s height, the boy is gangly and bookish; Grumpy knows he could take him down with barely any effort at all. But that would bring guards, and change the tenor of the situation quite dramatically. He can’t afford that. “You know I mean her no harm,” he adds, stiffly.

“But...you’re...” Brian stutters.

“You know what I am,” Grumpy says. “Open the door.”

Brian swallows, and does.

~*~

Snow is not in bed. She’s sitting in her window seat, her legs drawn up underneath her. Her head rests against the window, her hands huddling in the folds of her gown.

Grumpy stays by the door. “Are you having a child?”

Snow laughs, a small exhausted sound. She does not turn her head. “Now that would truly be a miracle, after eight years.” One of the rings on her fingers catches the light and glints, like a diamond to be brought out of the earth. “What made you think that?”

“You’re ill and upset,” Grumpy says. “And one of the females whispered it to one of the other ones.”

Snow’s head jerks slightly against the glass. “I wish you wouldn’t call us that. You sound like you hate us.”

“You aren’t a female,” Grumpy says, raising his eyebrows. “Not like that. You’re honest, and hard-working, and strong.”

She turns to face him, and at least that’s a start. “I don’t feel very strong right now.”

“Well, you are,” Grumpy says, shortly.

She tries to smile. “And I don’t have wicked wiles?”

“No.” When the smile threatens to slip off her face, as if she can’t summon the strength to hold it up any longer, he tries to explain further. He’s never been very good at explaining. “There are females and males and dwarfs. Females and males are humans. They have wiles and weakness and evil. They hunt us and take from us and lie to us.” He clears his throat. Too many words. “I can call them humans instead of females if it will make you happy. They are much the same thing.”

Snow’s smile has twisted into something bitter. Grumpy’s fingers clench on air; even in the dark days when Snow had been chased into their cottage by her evil stepmother, she had never been bitter. What have they done to her, in this gilded prison? “What am I, then, Grumpy? Am I an honorary dwarf?”

She has tried for lightness, but failed. Grumpy considers the matter. “You are Snow,” he says, finally. “You are a friend.”

Snow turns away from him again, resting her forehead on the windowpane, and he can see her shoulders begin to shake again. He takes a step toward her. “Does he beat you?”

“What?” Her voice is shocked. “Alexander? No!”

“You were crying in the garden,” Grumpy says, and tries to quiet his voice, tries to make it more comforting. “And you’re crying now.”

“He doesn’t beat me,” Snow says, and there’s the bitterness again, and a touch of anger, and Grumpy knows this reaction. He has felt it far too many times: most recently, perhaps, in July, when the taxman came and took nearly their entire diamond haul for the year, and laughed in their faces when they protested. He’d been savage to his family for a week, even though he knew all the while that they didn’t deserve it. Let Snow be savage to him now. He can handle it.

“How could you think that he beat me?” Snow says, and she’s on her feet now, and her beautiful face is convulsed with pain. “You’re just a dwarf, you can’t understand! You grumpy old man, you don’t understand what it’s like to be young, or to be married, or to love someone who thinks that you’re a beautiful butterfly to be shown off and petted and put in a cage! You don’t understand what it’s like to watch him ride off to the hunt, where he kills my friends and brings their dead bodies home and serves them on my table! You asked me whether the animals still come when I sing?” She’s weeping openly now, and not trying to hide it. “They don’t! They don’t, Grumpy!”

“Have you tried to stop it?” Grumpy asks, into the face of her grief.

“Yes!” Snow says, and steps closer to him, balling her fists. “Yes, of course I have. But what can I do? I’m the Princess, I’m the beautiful rescued orphaned Princess, I have no real power here! Brian’s tried to help, but Alexander thinks he’s only fit to be a steward. He doesn’t listen to either of us!” She breaks off on a sob, trying to catch her breath. “You just don’t understand, you can’t.”

“I may not understand everything,” Grumpy says, watching her sink down on the bed and put her face in her hands. “But I think you don’t understand me, either.”

She hiccoughs into her hands. “What is there to understand, Grumpy?” The force of her grief has broken, and she’s winding down into the bitterness again. “You’re an old, grumpy, kind dwarf.”

“I’m a young dwarf,” Grumpy says, quietly.

She lifts her face. Tears have streaked it; she is still the most beautiful being Grumpy has ever seen.

Now that he has begun, Grumpy finds it easier to continue. “Brian knows about dwarfs. Has he told you?”

She shakes her head. “I thought...I thought there wasn’t much to know.”

“Yes,” Grumpy says, and closes his eyes for a moment. “Most humans think that. We mine. Humans take what we mine, by blood or taxation, and make it into the jewellery you wear. What more is there to know?”

“Tell me,” Snow says.

So Grumpy does.

He tells her what Brian knew: about the large mines and the family mines dotted across the seven kingdoms; about the clans and the families; about the taxation and devastation wrought by humans; about growing up as a dwarf child and a dwarf teenager; about coming of age and setting out for one of the great dwarf capitals, Birkenmine, on the Journey; about the Journey’s purpose, to find a life-mate and bring him home to the family mine.

He tells her what Brian was helping him to find: the best route to Birkenmine from the castle - for the family guide-map told only of the route from the mine to Birkenmine, but he, the first dwarf to make the Journey since Snow had been taken from them, had been unable to resist the urge to detour from the mapped route to see her.

When even the halting words he can muster have run out, he falls silent and watches Snow.

“I didn’t know,” Snow says at last.

“No,” Grumpy says, simply.

“I thought you were all little old men,” Snow says.

Grumpy shakes his head. “Doc and Happy are my parents. Sleepy is Doc’s brother; he lost his partner in a landslide when I was small. Bashful and Dopey are my brothers. Bashful made the Journey and brought Sneezy to us the year before you came.”

“And now it’s your turn,” Snow says, and her voice is full of wonder.

Grumpy scratches at his head. “Yes.”

They stare at each other for a long moment, caught in that strange closeness that comes after the explosion of secrets.

“What changed today?” Grumpy says, finally. “When I came, you weren’t happy, but you weren’t unhappy. Now you are.”

Snow sighs, but it isn’t directed at him. “I could live with the hunting. I could live with being a beautiful doll. I could live with my husband treating me like my mind was no better than a child’s.” She plays with the lace edging on a pillow. “Brian said I should fight, that I should make Alexander see who I really was.” Her voice takes on a defensive tone. “But I’ve survived so much in the past, I thought I could live with this, and I thought it would get better.”

“But it didn’t,” Grumpy prompts, when she falls silent.

“He’s sleeping with half the kingdom,” she says, all in a rush, and there it is, the secret she’s been holding back. “I suspected...but I didn’t know...and then he admitted it to me today, and then at the dinner table, I just couldn’t sit there any longer, with all of their eyes on me, knowing what he is, what he was.”

“Come away with me,” Grumpy finds himself saying, and being impulsive is so unlike him, he takes a step back inside his head and regards himself with astonishment. “Come away from him and all of them. Come back with me.”

“To Birkenmine? To the cottage?” Snow says, already shaking her head. “He’d find me, and he’d hurt all of you. He’s not a bad man, but he’s a jealous man. If I betrayed him, he wouldn’t be kind.”

Grumpy’s voice slides firmly into growl territory. “You can’t stay here.”

“No, you can’t stay here,” Snow says, swiping briskly at her eyes. “If Alexander finds out you were in my room, there’ll be hell to pay. He doesn’t like you already.”

Grumpy snorts. “Heh. I don’t like him.”

“Yes. Well, neither do I at the moment, “ Snow says patiently, “but it’s in neither of our interests for him to find a man in my room tonight.”

“I’m not a man,” Grumpy objects.

Snow rolls her eyes. “All right, a male dwarf, then.”

“I explained males and females earlier,” Grumpy says, feeling a bit put out. Words are so hard to marshal correctly, and what’s the use if humans don’t even listen? “They’re human things.”

Snow makes a helpless sort of gesture. “Well, you have to...who has the babies?”

Grumpy blinks hard. “That’s personal.”

Snow begins to laugh, tired strung-out laughter. Grumpy recognises it as the beginning of hysterics, from that same July taxman visit; Happy had had to slap Doc to bring him out of it. “You’re going on your coming-of-age Journey to find a mate, but ‘it’s personal’ what gender you are?”

“Yes,” Grumpy says. “We’re all dwarfs. That’s what matters.”

But she looks so exhausted, and so sad, curled on her grand bed, that he finds that he wants to give her this, here at the end. “If I was human,” he says, reluctantly, “I would be...like you.”

Snow sits up. “You’re... a girl?”

“I’m a dwarf,” Grumpy says again, bristling. “But...yes.”

She stares at him.

He seizes the chance, in her sudden silence. If this is to be his last opportunity, he has to take it, even if human words are failing his tired brain. “I Journey to find a partner. You have a partner, who treats you like a thing to have and keep. You are not a thing. You’re Snow, and you should have a life that isn’t caged.”

Snow bites her lip, and for a moment he feels a rush of a strange emotion that might almost be called hope; but then she is shaking her head. “I can’t leave him. I can’t put you all in danger, and you would be, even if I went somewhere else. He’s seen you here, and he would know that you had something to do with it.” She stands, brushing off her robe with long slender fingers. “Now go, before he finds you here.”

Grumpy turns to go, but looks back at the door. “We would protect you.”

“I know you would,” Snow says, and her smile is beautiful, for all that it’s sad. “In another world, if things were different, I would let you.”

~*~

It takes two months more to reach Birkenmine. By the time Grumpy is safely inside its gates, the snow outside is half his height. A lesser dwarf would have taken to his bed with a cold, but Grumpy buys additional clothing to ward against the chill and plunges into mine social life.

Bashful has always told stories of his own Journey: how he and Sneezy met each other’s eyes across a crowded beer hall, how Sneezy bought him a beer and then (with an ill-timed sneeze) spilt it all over him, how an expedition so Sneezy could buy Bashful new trousers ended up with Sneezy and Bashful finding quarters together for the night.

The stories used to make Grumpy blush, when he was younger. Then they had made him thoughtful, wondering whether such partnership was in store for him. The best partners work together in tandem, developing almost sixth senses for each other’s patterns in the close confines of the mine. Sneezy and Bashful work together beautifully; they also make each other laugh, create endlessly amusing jokes at each other’s expenses, and have a bower in the woods whose existence they think no one suspects.

If Grumpy had ever hoped for such a partnership for himself, that hope has faded in the grimness with which he faces the prospect now.

He finds a favourite Birkenmine beer hall, and spends most of his days loitering in the corner, nursing a tankard. He knows he should be more aggressive, should be out there looking for a partner. Somehow, however, he can’t bring himself to join in the darts game, or the hand wrestling, or the body wrestling. He doesn’t play chess, he doesn’t want to learn how to dance, and there is no pipe organ here.

One dwarf does approach him, midway through his second week in Birkenmine. His beard is strangely short, however, and Grumpy thinks he even sees earrings. “Hello,” the dwarf says, smiling. “I’m Gabby. I’m a bar-dwarf at the Seven Diamonds next door – you should come by some evening.”

“I’m Grumpy,” Grumpy says, bemused. “Are you...wearing earrings?” His courting skills lack finesse, he knows, but he simply doesn’t care.

“Yes,” Gabby says cheerfully, perching on the edge of the table. “I’m a member of the Birkenmine chapter of the Girls Unite! action group. And earrings are pretty, don’t you think?” He – she? The pronoun is entirely un-dwarfish, but surely it is the only one applicable, if she chooses to assert her gender in such a public fashion? – turns her head so he can see. “I mined the diamonds myself.”

They are pretty.

She smiles at him, and in the dim light of the beer hall, surrounded by his people, Grumpy almost smiles back.

For a moment, he almost thinks –

A face flashes into his mind.

“Excuse me,” Grumpy says abruptly, and goes straight back to his small rented room to pack.

~*~

In the winter, it takes him three months to retrace his steps. All in all, it is nearly six months after he left when he reaches Snow’s castle for the second time.

The castle seems quieter than it was the last time he was here, but he hardly notices, as he takes the steps two at a time. He brushes past the supercilious young man he vaguely remembers from that first day, and feels mildly triumphant when the young man doesn’t bother to call the guards.

Snow isn’t in her room. The curtains blow out from the open window, letting in the spring breeze – and the sound of Snow’s laughter.

Grumpy goes to the window and pushes aside the curtain.

Snow is in the garden below. Brian is with her, his scholar’s face open and happy as he swings her around in a dance.

Snow is heavily pregnant.

~*~

Grumpy clears his throat as he enters the garden, to let them know of his presence. “Snow.”

Snow’s face is as beautiful as ever, or even more so, now that it is no longer pinched and drawn. “Grumpy! Oh, Grumpy!” She runs to him, pulls him into her arms. “I’m so happy to see you!”

“Things have happened,” Grumpy says when she lets him go, looking pointedly at her abdomen.

“Yes,” she says, and the smile on her face turns suddenly sober. “Both good and bad. Which should I tell you first?”

There is never any choice to make in such a situation. “Bad.” Always bad first. The good doesn’t matter, if the bad is bad enough.

“There was a hunting accident,” Snow says, and her lips turn down, splash of colour in white face. “Alexander was racing Lady Anna, and his horse spooked and threw him over a cliff’s edge. He didn’t survive.”

“Alexander was never careful,” Brian adds, from behind Snow. “Racing horses in the winter is terribly dangerous.”

Grumpy has always said horses were dangerous. “Indeed.”

“The good news, though,” Snow says, forcing a smile back on to her face, “is that before Alexander died, he and I...well...we were going to have a baby.”

“Congratulations,” Grumpy says, in the expectant silence which follows her announcement. “What happens now?”

Brian looks taken aback at his bluntness, but Snow just laughs, the bell-like sound echoing over the garden. A rabbit pops his head around a bush, and a bird flutters down to land on her shoulder. “The baby will be the new ruler of the kingdom, when it grows up. Meanwhile,” and her smile turns playful, “poor Brian has to run things.”

“Not you?” Grumpy asks.

Snow extends a hand for the bird to hop on. “No, not me. I’m hopeless with things like that. Brian will do a much better job, won’t you?”

Brian blushes. “I hope to prove satisfactory.”

“But I am being incredibly rude!” Snow says, turning with mock horror back to Grumpy. “How did the Journey go? Have you brought your partner to meet us?”

Now that Grumpy listens, the garden is full of birds singing. “The Journey is personal.” At Snow’s moue of discontent, he hurries on. “But I hope you will be happy, and that the baby will be healthy and well.”

“Thank you,” Snow says, a little uncertainly. “But you sound like you’re saying goodbye! You simply must stay for dinner. For as long as you like!”

“I can’t,” Grumpy says. “My family needs me.” He nods to Brian. “Goodbye, Snow.”

Snow’s hand has slipped down to rest on the swell of her dress. “Goodbye,” she says, sounding forlorn. “Will I see you again?”

Grumpy adjusts the rucksack on his back. “Perhaps.”

He turns at the entrance to the garden. “Have you abolished hunting, then?”

A smile breaks like dawn across Snow’s face. “Yes, entirely.”

Grumpy reminds himself to smile. “I’m happy for you.”

“And we’ve lowered the tax on diamonds and precious stones,” Snow says, hurriedly, as if she’s afraid Grumpy will run away before she finishes. “It’s now at what Brian says is quite a reasonable rate.”

“Thank you,” Grumpy says, and means it.

The last things he sees before he rounds the hedge and begins the long walk home again are Snow’s beautiful face, mouth turning down in sadness, and Brian’s comforting hand on her elbow.

~*~

Grumpy hardly speaks for the first month after he returns home. He has used all of his words; he finds voice instead in the swing of his pick-axe and the yodel of the working song.

His family gives him the space he needs, wordlessly understanding and quietly supporting. If he thunders on the pipe organ more than he used to, they look the other way.

When a second month begins, it’s Happy who brings him a tankard of home brew.

“Did you get your heart broken, then?” he asks.

Grumpy takes a long draught of the brew.

“I know you might not want to talk yet,” Happy says, “but I’m your mother, so I’m entitled to push. When you’re ready, you come to me, you hear?”

He gets up to leave, but Grumpy puts out a hand to grab his sleeve. “Yes.”

“Yes what?” Happy asks, with infinite patience.

“Yes, I got my heart broken,” Grumpy says sullenly, after checking to make sure the room is empty except for them.

Happy covers his hand with his own. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yes, well, so am I,” Grumpy says.

They sit together while Grumpy finishes his tankard.

“Well,” Happy says finally, “this may not be something you want to hear now, but there’s always next year.”

Grumpy stares at him. “I failed my Journey. I didn’t find a partner.”

“Did you learn about the world? Did you learn about yourself?” Happy asks, raising his eyebrows. At Grumpy’s reluctant nod, he continues, “Then you haven’t failed the Journey. You just have to go again this year.”

“Can we...”

“With the lowered taxes, we can certainly afford it,” Happy says, cheerfully. “Besides, you know the route now, so you’ll go faster, and somehow I don’t think you’ll be making a detour this time around.”

“You knew about that,” Grumpy says, kicking his foot at the table.

Happy pats his hand and takes his tankard to refill it. “Of course we knew about that. You were both teenagers when she came – we saw how you looked at her. A little harmless flirtation, that was all, but we thought you might go to see her on the Journey. And right that you should.”

“She wouldn’t come,” Grumpy says. It’s the nearest he’s come to saying Snow’s name, or starting the story he never will tell. “She won’t come.”

“I fell in love on my first Journey,” Happy says, bringing him the refilled tankard. “He was beautiful. We were snowed in on Bennant Mountain together, and then there was a rockslide, and it was two months before we were able to fight our way out.” He traces a line on the table, eyes far away. “But it wasn’t meant to be. His father would never have allowed it – my father had a feud over a border mine with his father, and the two of them hated each other.”

“Did you ever meet him again?” Grumpy asks.

Happy looks up, and smiles. “He married a nice dwarf he met in Dorchenmine. I think they’re very happy together. And I met your father the next year in Birkenmine, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Grumpy drinks, and considers.

“Life isn’t always simple,” Happy says, comfortably. “My great-uncle fell in love with an elf.”

Grumpy spits beer everywhere. “An elf? What happened?”

Happy laughs, steepling his fingers under his chin. “Oh, his father and mother were very angry. But great-uncle and his elf were stubborn, and they stayed together anyway. In fact,” he adds thoughtfully, “I believe one of the great epic poems of the elves is about them.”

“I am not marrying an elf,” Grumpy says, quite decisively.

Happy regards him. “No, I would imagine not.” He points at Grumpy’s tankard. “Now, wash your mug.”

Grumpy rolls his eyes, but takes his tankard obediently to the sink. If Snow left one practical legacy, it’s his family’s fondness for cleanliness.

When the tankard is halfway clean, he has a thought.

“Happy?” he says, over his shoulder.

The sound of the broom sweeping stops. “Yes?”

Grumpy thinks about his words carefully before he says them. “If I went on a second Journey, and I found a partner – and I’m not saying I would, I’m saying if I did - and he was a... a she-dwarf, would that be something...” He trails off in frustration.

“I hesitate to enlighten you, but you and I are she-dwarfs, dear,” Happy says.

“I know,” Grumpy says, turning his tankard upside-down to dry. “I mean...I met someone, and he – she – wears earrings.”

“Were they well-cut?” Happy asks, with interest.

Grumpy turns to face him – and, with a certain detached surprise, finds a smile pulling at his mouth.

Perhaps, after all that has happened, he will be all right after all.

“Yes,” he says, and smiles at his mother. “Yes, I do believe they were.”