Once there was a girl who wandered through the forest. She was pale and, in the twelfth winter of her life, at the bloom of her womanhood. Near to her cottage, warm and familied, she searched through the frozen ground for fallen nuts. Suddenly, the girl came to a clearing empty of snow, perfumed with an air heavy with the scent of flowers. There she found a white hart, its leg twisted in some brambles. The girl, brave and kind, knelt beside it and untangled its limb, mindless of the pricking of the brambles and the blood on her palm.
She is ethereal. Her hair is black as the breast of a raven, her skin pale. A latticework of blue veins composes her only blush. Her lips, pursed and still with death, are as red as a polished apple, as red as a ruby's shadow, as red as blood itself. She lays in the glass coffin, smothered by flowers in all states of decay. Like a fallen angel, like a marble statue carved by one of the masters, she is in repose. She seduces him with her silence, his privileged eyes are rapacious over her, and he kisses her deeply, so that he can taste the rot of her. He is as surprised as the dwarfs when she sucks in a steep breath, her lashes shuddering over her moist eyes, and looks up at him. Her lips twist into a smile and she presses her hand, bloated and yellowed with the lifeblood of flowers, to his chest.
They marry within the week. Their story is odd, but there are odder in this ancient land; beasts turned human, humans turned beast, long matted hair interwoven with stones; people hardly notice when the Prince weds a corpse. She is all gaiety in her laugh and her song: all blessing and bliss, intuited with the animals and the vines. She is a good Princess, kind with her wealth, and the people embrace her. The Prince embraces her deeply, so that he can feel the rot of her, on the night of their betrothal. She is willing to him, laughing and touching and tonguing as is expected. He drifts off blissfully, the taste of mead still upon his mouth. She watches him sleep with dark, eating eyes.
The hart, once released, bowed its head to the maiden and licked her fingers until they were pale again. It raised its head, its horns glorious and fractal in the light, and the girl knew that the hart was a faery, and was justly afraid. Yet the creature bowed again, and opened its mouth so that the girl could see all three rows of its sharp yellow teeth, and coughed a single stone into her lap. Satisfied, it bound away from the clearing, and the girl stared at the wicked object in her lap, a brilliant ruby the size of her fist. She picked it up. It was warm and covered in a thin mucous, she could see her face inside of it. The girl was dearly frightened, but her family was humble of means, and visions of thick rabbit stews and soft bread moistened her palate, so she slipped the stone into her pocket and made off for home.
Their marriage is gay and vigorous in spirit, her love willful and passioned. They are happy, with a lush garden and a menagerie with all forms of beasts, all of which lay subservient to the Princess. Their kingdom is bordered to the Witch-Queen's, and slowly they absorb it into their own. They shift the marks in the trees, rewrite the maps. It will be a very profitable land, and the Princess often looks through her thin window and gazes to the treetops of her domain. The King and Queen smile upon the marriage. Both hold the girl dearly, but the Queen most of all spends many nights joined in embroidery with her.
“You remind me of myself.” The queen sighs as she stitches the fine flank of a bent hart, a tableau from a story told to her long ago. “I was wed young. At times it was a misery, but now it is a fine life.” Her eyes turn distant, her smile is weak now. “A fine life.” The Princess watches her with kindness, her own needlework of a sparrow in triumphant flight.
“Indeed it is Mother.”
For three days the girl walked through the forest. Unfamiliar trees at her sides, the north star flitting all across the sky like a flirtatious mayfly, she was lost. For three days she grew hungry, and cold, and lonesome. Each hour she picked the ruby from her pocket and wished to throw it away, but she saw her own reflection in it, staring back at her without pity, and she put it back into her skirts. She did not sleep for fear of the faery hart. She heard birdsong, but could not see plumage in the trees. She began to stare into the ruby long and with desperation, finding narrow things at the edge of it's facets. She began to weaken.
The Queen falls ill in spring: an unusual time for sickness, but nonetheless a time when sickness is available to humanity. She dies in her bed, low with anemia, and the tapestry she began at the eve of her son's marriage is yet unfinished. The hart and the girl are fully realized at the first, but as time passed they faded and jumbled until only the ruby shone with purpose and form. The King did not have the strength to deny her her needlework in her last days; not when she worked at it with such fury, such purpose, as if on the edge of discovery. On the day of her death the Prince sits upon a stool and stares long and low at it: the perfect ruby, delicately stitched and red as if burning, calls to him. There is a weight upon his shoulder, and he looks into the face of his wife, serene and distant, as she stands behind him.
“We must burn the tapestry.” She pronounces. “It has her sickness upon it.” The Prince looks up at her, and though he is pained he is grateful for her strength, a strength of coldness he does not possess. She rubs her hand upon his chest. Slowly.
The King does not wish that the tapestry be burned, and though the Prince speaks to him in a firm voice his decision is immovable as a mountain. He carries it into his chamber, sleeping beneath it and weeping so to bring shame upon his masculinity. The Prince is humiliated and exhausted, but the Princess is there, strong of nerve, beside him.
“I will speak to Father.” She is firm, he is in agreement. She has a way with living creatures. There are vines now on every tower, and fawn wandering through the courtyards. She will speak to the King. She will heal what ails him sorely. The Prince is sure of this. When she comes back to bed in the night, her feet naked and cold, she reassures him. She tells him that the King will soon come around. She rubs her hand into his chest. Slowly.
In the morning the King is dead. It is the sickness of his wife. The tapestry is burnt far from the castle grounds.
On the fourth morning the girl, mad with hunger and cold, seized the ruby in her hand and stared deep into it. Her own face stared back with identical alarm before very slowly, so slowly even that it could have been a trick of the mind or of the stone's facets, breaking into a smile. The girl shuddered all over, and wept, and in desperation she brought the wicked object to her lips and bit down upon it. She chewed again and again, the shattering of her teeth could be heard over the birds, and blood flowed down her chin. She sobbed and gnashed with desperation, not certain herself if she wished to destroy the ruby or to imprison it deep inside of her, to make it a part of her intimate body. The stone did not break, did not scratch. Eventually, weeping, she swallowed it, along with the loose shrapnel of her own teeth, and collapsed into the snow.
The Princess becomes the Queen, and the Prince the King, at the edge of summer. As the crown lowers unto her temple, the new Queen swells with pride. Her face is the shape for a crown, the Prince remarks to her as they dance at the coronation feast. She laughs, it is as the playful tittering of a bird.
“And to you as well my King.” she remarks, smiling softly “After all, you are bred for it.” The feast lasts for two days: it it heady with mead and the meat of courtyard fawns, juicy and fat with their easy life. Yet it does not last forever, and soon there are duties to consider. The kingdom expects a heir. Quietly, politely, but with a solid persistence. There is laughing and grabbing and tongues on skin, but nothing comes of it, and the King begins to fret. The Queen is not so anxious. If anything it amuses her: that the kingdom would think she needed a child when already she had all of the deer in the world to keep by her side, marbled with delicious fat.
“You know.” The Queen muses “I have been told by my mother that she was given me by a faery.” She turns to her husband, her breasts firm against the morning air, her flawless skin glowing with it. “What thinks you of that, my King?” Her husband laughs, at first tentatively and then unabashed, at the foolishness of common folk.
“Perhaps, as a last resort, we can find ourselves a faery,” he shakes his head, arranges the furs over his body “, for we do dearly need a heir.”
“Oh why, my King, is this need of yours so deep?” Her smile is beatific, generous, her wet eyes so kind.
“If not for a heir, and in the tragedy of my death, who would rule the kingdom?” the King laughs “It would fall to you my darling, and it is not in the stars for one as mild as you to rule.” The Queen's expression does not flicker. Not a hair, not a muscle is in disobedience to her. She moves her hand up to his chest, a fourth and final time. Her eyes are steady, oh so steady, as an archer's they are.
“My King.” She whispers “Such a fool you are.”
As the girl lay in the snow, tiny and pale and still grinding desperately at the shards of her teeth, the hart returned, and it bowed its head a third and final time. And it feasted upon her.
The Queen's coronation is not as grand as the one held the previous summer, but there is venison and mead and such merriment, even in the face of such sadness as the King's death. It is a tragedy, yet not one unexpected. The kingdom is prospering, now fully consuming that of the Witch-Queen's, and it is full of flowers and beasts in bloom. It is not unexpected that an assassin; something with a wicked, cutting knife and an eye for cruelty; would attempt to dispatch him in the night. A headless kingdom would be prey for other, stronger, nobles, but the people were so wise as to crown their Queen as King instead. They granted to her all power therein, all riches and love, all wealth of all nations under her hand. She accepts it with strength and nobility, upon her the crown does look glorious, and her face is serene and ethereal on the day of her full realization. All look upon her with awe, this girlchild sitting upon the throne with her chin held high and her steady eyes to the horizon of her kingdom, to the borders of the neighbor's.
And all know that her reign will be one long and mantled with blood.
And this; the story of The Hart, The Girl, and The Ruby; as many parents over many civilizations whispered to their children by the hearthlight, as the first Queen was told by her own mother, is why you do not accept gifts from faery. No matter how beautiful they be. Yet Snow White's mother was an orphan, without hearth to be murmured to by, and she did not know this. She asked for a girl with frigid skin and bloody lips, her eyes and hair the swallowing black of a starless midnight, and she was given a gift beautiful indeed. More beautiful yet than the fabled ruby.
And crueler yet than the fabled hart.