Chapter 1: Greta
Her mother's name is Hulda, and her father's name was once Gert.
(They had held out hope for so long that he wasn't dead, just not yet home, but Greta's been here at the castle for days enough that if she should have found him - unless he doesn't want to be found, in which case he's as good as dead to her.)
Her brother's name is also Gert, and she is Greta. She was born in a village miles from Tabor's castle, and if she'd always meant to travel far from it and grow to greater things, this wasn't how she'd meant to do it. Not through being dragged from home to here when she tried to run and save herself, not through the weeks of being a curled ghost in the tower in pain and weakness, knowing she would soon die, and not now, being . . . whatever she is.
But if this wasn't her plan, she isn't going to let the opportunity pass her by. Once she might have aimed high enough to be a maid in a place like this, but now she'll aim higher. A lady's maid is one thing; a lady-in-waiting another, and there are estates enough going wanting in this land. The bad, dead queen had been no more shy of killing a noble who angered her, or stealing their daughters, than she had been with common folk.
Greta has a mother to care for and a little brother to feed. A mother and a brother who were turned out of their home for her crime of not wanting to give her soul to feed Ravenna's beauty. Once she might have been happy to do well-enough, but not now. Now she'll do as well as she can.
Servants need orders, and there's blessed few here now who can give them. Ravenna's every whim had been waited on, but everyone knows the Duke at Tarval keeps a rough house, the bare number of servants kept to keep the fires lit and the halls clean, as it were. The way things are in the castle now, with a new queen and the Duke giving what orders there are to give so far, there are whole regiments of men and women, it seems, who don't know what they should be doing.
The queen's maids are among them, and so that's where Greta starts.
The worry that haunts her - that they'll see her for what she is, and resent her for trying to give orders she has no right to, for being a village-girl acting a lady - evaporates in moments. These are not strong women, this bevy that washed Ravenna's feet and combed her hair, filled her baths with milk and cleaned or replaced her outrageous garments. They are quiet and wary-eyed. If there were any among them before who had any spine, then they must have been among the corpses found thrown out on the spoil, women drained further even than Greta had been and left to die of it, shrivelled and alone, just as the new Queen's army reached the ridge.
So there's no one to protest when Greta gives the orders she can, and nobody looks down at her when the orders are instead crisp questions. She'll have to learn names in the days to come, but for now she thinks of the maids by some distinguishing feature, for all that they're dressed alike.
Every last one of them is as plain as a board. That, she thinks, must have saved their lives.
And so when their new queen wakes, Greta is already there, and has ordered clothing that is appropriate but isn't one of the grotesque, gaudy horrors that Ravenna kept in her wardrobes, and there is food and warm drink and someone appointed to do the work of a queen's hair. There are shoes that fit and orders for others that will fit better.
And there is something like an order to the day. "The Duke of Tarval wishes to speak with you after you've broken fast, Majesty," Greta says, "and His Holiness after. I have given the Duke three hours and His Holiness one," and she doesn't add, because he's a prancing, mewling sycophant who let the witch trample over him and everyone else, and I don't think he deserves your time, and right now I can keep him from having much of it "and then given time before the evening meal - " for you to brace yourself, Greta doesn't add aloud, "- for some respite and consideration of what your Majesty might want to do with the evening."
That had been about as far as Greta could stretch her assumed authority, and she had felt uncomfortable at the knowing look the Duke's man had given her when he'd agreed to the time. But the queen just looks blankly at her for a moment, something like panic around her eyes. Greta doesn't think anyone but she herself, who's standing so close and paying such close attention, could possibly see that. But then the queen takes a deep breath and then pulls herself up and together and says, "Yes," and "thank you," and "that's very well done."
Greta remembers the girl in the tower, pale-faced and dark-eyed, who asked who she was and couldn't speak when Greta asked what are they going to do with me? but answered anyway with the closing in her face and the silence of her tongue. And if Greta isn't really a lady, then in some ways she thinks that Snow White isn't really a queen - except that she has no choice, and must be.
She can see the terror of that, in her queen's eyes, and in the way that Snow White grasps so tightly to the spars of order that Greta hammers out of memory and half-training to be the one taking the orders that this time she gives. It's better, Greta thinks, than nothing. The queen knows Greta's face and voice, and there's nothing here to lose.
Chapter 2: Anna and Lily
Anna has buried two children and a husband, kept one daughter alive through the bad times and then dragged the whole village with her, even after the fire. Grace of God, too, she sometimes thinks, there's youth left in her face under the scars and the scars aren't so bad: another man might come and help her make a new life in this new world - but even if not, she supposes she's done enough in this one.
And now Lily has new clothes, gifts of the new Queen, and so does Anna. If their village is still ash, well, most of its people live and can work and build; there will be a new village. With men coming home from the wars and the armies, there might even be enough husbands for all the women who want them, because it's a cruel thing to work alone in this world.
There'll be hard days to come, true enough. But the kingdom revives instead of withering, and that, Anna knows, is what matters. They have weathered hard times before. The important thing now is that there is hope that the hard times might end.
She finds Lily in the garden with the Queen. Their Queen, who only such a little time ago was such a determined, frightened girl, who made her own way out of her tower and most of the way through the Dark Forest, who Anna knew at once, seeing her mother in her.
And now rules where she ought, and brought the darkness to its end. Anna's glad to have had even a small part in that.
Anna isn't sure Lily really understands what it means, that Snow White is Queen. The only queen Lily's ever known is Ravenna, a far-away demon woman who would steal Lily's life in a heartbeat if she had the chance. But there have been no men in the village for such a long time, and Anna's own dead Berd the last of them, that Lily is by far the youngest child there, with no others to play with and the older girls always deep in work.
To her, Anna is certain, Snow White is only the girl who came out of the forest, who sat with Lily and helped her to make a doll, and helped Anna with what Anna asked help for. As far from a monster queen as can be, and so as far from the idea of queen, maybe.
Just now they sit together with a lapful of flowers, Lily teaching Snow White how to tell her future in the fall of the stems where you drop a handful, and the patterns of the petals and where they go and stay. It's a young girl's game, silly and harmless. There's no real magic in it, except that of the mind and desire.
Which isn't such a little thing, Anna supposes.
"And that," says Lily, pointing to the spray of hearts-blood, "means you'll marry your own-true-love." She says the words like they've always been said, in stories and songs she learned: all together, as if they were one thought.
Snow White laughs. It's a restful sound, and joyful. "I'm not sure I have one of those," she says, smoothing back the frizz of Lily's hair.
"You will," says Lily, with all the confidence of the young child. "And that," she points to the fireweed with two flowers fallen off, "means that your house will never burn down and that," and there she points to the bind-flower with its shrivelled core, "means you won't be very good at fishing, but since you are a queen, you can probably get other people to fish for you so it doesn't matter, and that," she points at last to the wild rose with its pink flush, "means . . . .means . . . "
Anna steps forward out of the shade of the apple-tree and says, gently, "It means it's time to stop bothering her Majesty and come with your mother." And when Snow
White looks up, Anna curtseys. "Majesty," she says.
"You don't have to do that," Snow White protests. "Truly. Not here, there's no one around and I don't . . . "
"I haven't finished telling her fortune," Lily protests, scowling at her mother, and Anna smiles at both of them.
"We have a long way to go, my heart, and Snow White much to do," she says. Snow White smiles, a little twisted.
"Greta makes certain I have some few hours to myself every day," she says. "I think she fears I'll run away if she doesn't, or maybe keel over sobbing. And - " she bites her lip, the motion that of the girl she is, not the queen she must be. She sighs. "I wanted to ask you something. Would - would you sit?"
She seems to realize that they were sitting on the grass and for a moment she looks torn, but then to decide, and rightly, that if a queen can sit on the grass then so can Anna, and a queen can sit wherever she likes.
Anna settles herself onto the ground and holds out her arms to Lily, who comes to Anna's lap. "What would you like to ask?"
Not that she really needs telling, because Anna thinks she might know, but one can never be certain of anything in this world until it's happened, and then only if you see it yourself.
"I want to ask you to stay," Snow White says, sitting straighter. She says it simple, but a little too fast, as if she's frightened of the words. "I've thought of - " she stops herself and says instead, "Elspeth and Rena know how to lead your village, and I have help I can send them."
Anna almost smiles at that, in approval of the thought that her Queen put into it. Snow White isn't finished, though. "Lily will have more chances here," she says, "and I can give you title and living and - " she waves a hand. "And. . . I need you."
She doesn't look away, thought Anna thinks she would like to. She's learning, though maybe that's not right - she thinks Snow White has always know, most likely, that a queen can't afford to flinch. . "I - " She sighs. "I have William and I have Eric. And Greta. But -"
Anna can hear the words she doesn't say. I have no mother. I have no sister. You were kind to me when I was lost. I felt at home. The child will be surrounded by her barons and earls, Anna knows. More of them flood the court every day, and some of them come with wives or daughters they managed to hide from Ravenna, ready and willing to be ladies-in-waiting, flocking like doves around a swan.
And ready to advance their father's plans, or their husband's, these strangers that Snow White won't know whether or not to trust. There's Greta, but Greta is only one alone, and she is young, with little authority but what she manages to carve out herself. Anna isn't sure she could find more - but she isn't sure she couldn't, either. Those women, those noble women, they would have been locked away, hidden from their otherwise certain death; Anna had been no such thing, and all it had taken was the slash of a brand down her cheeks.
Such a little thing, to give so much freedom. It says so much, Anna often thinks, that none but a few peasant villages ever tried it - and most of those fisherfolk, like hers.
Snow White is still struggling for words, and Anna speaks out of some compassion. "You want me to be your chamberlain," she says, quietly, and Snow White opens her mouth only to close it again. She licks her lips, bites the lower one and takes a breath.
"Yes?" she says, uncertain. "Maybe. I don't know the right words for the things I mean, or the titles. I only remember pieces from when my mother lived. I remember that she had ladies who did things behind her, who made decisions, like Greta does now. I know my father had something close to the same. I don't remember what they're called, or who I have to appease with them." The edge to that tells Anna that the new queen has already discovered the touchy way of some of her nobility. "I just want you to stay. I want to know there's someone I can trust, and - " and here she smiles at Lily, and in that smile, there's nothing but affection and happiness, "someone I can sit with and tell fortunes by flowers."
Lily doesn't say anything, but looks up into Anna's face; she knows, by now, that her mother must make decisions sometimes that she does not understand, and cannot dispute, even if she doesn't like the end: her cheeks are also scarred. Snow White only waits, her face pale but composed, only the movement of her finger on her skirt showing her worry.
She could command this, but she is who she is, and so she won't. Anna thinks of what it will mean, and thinks that possible starvation or not, going back to her village might well be easier, and could easily be safer.
But she says, "Yes. I'll stay," and watches her Queen breathe again.