“We don’t eat the apples from the wild woods. Don’t you remember?”
Poppy rolled her eyes at her grandma. She was always taking her for walks through the woods, but she was never allowed to pluck any of the juicy, red apples. “I know the story of Snow White, Grandma. Everyone does. The evil step-mother gave her a poisonous apple and she fell into a deep sleep. It’s just a story. And anyway, the handsome prince rescued her and they lived happily ever after.”
“That’s the children’s version,” Grandma whispered.
Poppy, eyeing the delicious red fruit, cocked an eyebrow at her grandma.
“I think you’re old enough to hear the real story now,” Grandma leaned over conspiratorially. A sudden breeze whisked the leaves of the forest into an arguing frenzy. Poppy had the feeling that the whole forest was listening.
“Ok, what’s the real story?” Poppy asked, her interest piqued.
Her grandma hesitated a moment. Her eyes went to one end of the forest, then the other, checking they were alone. “Snow White was a vampire.”
Poppy snorted. She reached for the red apple and plucked it from its branch. “Now I know you’re just teasing me.”
Her grandma took the apple from her palm. “I’m serious.”
A cloud scudded over the sun. Poppy shivered. She felt as if there were eyes watching her. Maybe from the old castle ruins at her back. The stone was crumbling, almost obscured by hardy, climbing vines. Animals skittered in and out of the low shrubbery. Crows made nests in the mouldering ramparts and parapets. Anything could be hiding in there. Maybe even a ghost. “Grandma, you’re scaring me.”
“You should be scared.”
Snow White sat at the banquet table, eyeing the partiers with a certain amount of detachment. Usually, she liked a party, enjoyed the dancing and the music. But this particular party signalled a change in her life that she wasn’t entirely sure she was ready to accept. She glanced towards her father, who usually reserved a pinky-finger wave for just when she needed reassurance. He always seemed to know just when she needed him. But he was whispering into her step-mother’s ear. Her sister and her fiancé were canoodling at the table a little farther along. Their plates full, but ignored. A giant boar’s head sat before them, its mouth stuffed with an apple, the rest of it surrounded with glistening vegetables. The new couple only had eyes for each other. It was their party after all. An engagement party. Snow couldn’t remember the last time her sister had worn anything but black. Or men’s trousers. But tonight, she wore a gown of shimmering sapphire-blue and a diamond necklace at her throat. She looked dazzling.
Snow sighed, and plucked a juicy, red apple from the fruit basket in front of her, wondering when it would be her turn to find a suitable partner. Snow and Ebony had done everything else at the same time; walked, talked, lost their first tooth, ridden a horse. They’d even broken an ankle the same day; Ebony when she was thrown from her horse and Snow; attempting to jump over the moat that surrounded the castle. An entire summer spent languidly slouched on lawn chairs, reading books and watching wildlife that had previously gone unnoticed. Snow had been expecting them to fall in love at the same time too. To twins, naturally, because they were. But Prince Charming wasn’t a twin. He was a healer. A rare power. A sought after power. An enviable power. And Snow was feeling more than a little jealous.
She bit into the apple. It was sweet. Sweeter than any she’d ever tasted. Jaw-achingly sweet. She closed her mouth and savoured the taste. She took a second bite. It was even sweeter and the juice of the apple filled her mouth. This time, she opened her eyes. The party had suddenly become more dazzling. The colours of the dresses more vibrant, the swirls of the dancing couples blurry and enticing, the music from the band spine-shivering, arousing. It was all so…delicious. Snow shivered with pleasure.
Her third bite of the apple had her feeling more alive than she had in her eighteen years thus far. The blonde hair and chocolate eyes of her twin, that she had always been jealous of, dulled in comparison to Snow’s own raven-black hair and glacial blue eyes. Where Ebony was tanned and petite, Snow was fair and towering. And where Ebony favoured tight leather and black, Snow thought pastels and skirts more flattering. In that moment, she filled out every inch of her height and revelled in it, no longer feeling the need to placate men by slumping her shoulders or wearing flats. Tomorrow, she would wear a pair of her sister’s stiletto boots. In fact, she might go and put some on right now.
With her fourth bite, Snow had bitten a path around the circumference of the apple. And this fourth bite had her launching to her feet, clapping her hands, leaping to the dance floor, and swirling around with all the giddiness of a first date. She took a last bite of the apple and threw it overhead. She felt so alive. On fire. As if she could do anything. She danced all night and she drank the dark, red wine, and she allowed men to kiss her cheek and she was happy for her sister. Really.
“What about the magic mirror, Grandma?” Poppy asked. “I thought that was how is was supposed to start?”
“We’ll get to that,” Grandma replied.
That night, Snow could barely sleep. She was filled to the brim with so many emotions she couldn’t being to understand which one was keeping her from rest. She lay on her bed, staring at the moonlit night through the castle windows. The night outside was full of promise. Stars that twinkled and spoke of infinite possibilities. Snow watched them move across the sky until she was bursting with feeling. She couldn’t lie still any more than a spider could ignore a fly.
She leapt out of bed, danced across her room and flew out of her bedroom window. Her stomach rolled, her arms stretched wide and the wind rushed through her hair. It was only when she landed on the soft ground below, unharmed, that she realised something had changed. Fundamentally. She’d just jumped out of a window that was more than fifty feet high. And landed, softly, unharmed. At the very least, she should have broken an ankle. She should have died.
She began to run. Through the castle gardens, through the orchards, through the forest, with such a need. A compulsive need to…but she wasn’t quite sure what the need was. Something that came from the pit of her stomach.
She stopped abruptly when she saw a figure standing at the edge of the pond, staring at the full moon’s reflection.
“Father!” She cried. “What are you doing here?”
Her father turned. He was dressed in his bedclothes. He smiled at her. “I couldn’t sleep. The moon was so bright tonight. The air so tepid. A lovely night for a midnight…”
And then she knew. What had filled her up. What her need was. Her father was no longer her father. He became something else entirely as she sank her new, sharp teeth into the flesh of his neck. He didn’t have time to cry out.
Snow bit into him and felt the warm liquid fill her mouth. She’d never tasted anything so divine. This must be what it was like to be a god. This was her nectar.
“But vampires aren’t real!” Poppy protested.
“Not anymore,” her grandma replied. “And we don’t want them back. Which is why we don’t eat the apples.”
When Snow’s thirst was quenched, her teeth retracted and she wiped absently at her mouth. It was only when her father collapsed to the ground that she realised what she had done. She stood for a moment, staring in horror at her deed, at the body of her father lying on the ground. A crow cawed, startling her. She turned and fled, into the woods, through the evil apple orchard that had been the cruel instigator of her change.
“But it wasn’t her fault!” Poppy said, eyeing the trees around her, as if each of the fruits she could see bore minute vampires inside, waiting to break out. “Snow White isn’t evil.”
“The how or the why is unimportant,” Grandma smiled at her patiently.
Snow ran and ran, farther than she’d ever run before. She ran quicker and farther than she’d ever been capable, right out of the castle’s grounds to places she’d never been before. She passed a stream, wondering if she should stop to drink, but she knew that water was not that answer to her new thirst. Instead, she grabbed crows out of the air, darting mice from the ground, even insects that climbed the tree trunks her sister was named for, and sucked the blood from them all.
Meanwhile, at the castle grounds, morning had broken and the body of the king by the pond had been discovered. By Ebony. She fell to her knees and wept. When she had composed herself and her father’s body was taken inside, she visited him again. This time she spent time looking at his pale, fragile face. She took his stiff hand in hers and swore to avenge his death. She’d seen the teeth marks in his neck, the lack of blood at the scene. She knew the type of creature that had done this. And she avowed to avenge his death.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help,” Prince Charming said to her later.
Ebony strapped on her holster over her black leather jacket. Then she placed the five wooden stakes and the silver sword in their appropriate loops. “What use are you around here if you can’t save people?” she snapped.
But she wasn’t angry with him. Not really. High on her list of reasons to marry him had been his ability to heal and bring people back from the brink of death. But there had to be a brink. Not actual death. She’d found her father too late. She was angrier at herself. For allowing such a blood-sucking creature to get so close. She’d been slaying them for two years now. She should have felt its presence.
“Where’s the mirror?” Ebony demanded, striding into her step-mother’s room.
Her step-mother lay in bed, dressed in causal mourning clothes. Balled tissues hid most of the duvet and her eyes were almost swollen shut with tears.
“Finally!” Poppy exclaimed.
“Hush now,” Grandma said. “It’s not what you think.”
The queen gestured weakly to the dressing room. Ebony marched into the large alcove. Above a vanity desk laden with perfume bottles, sat a small, gilded mirror.
“Who killed my father?” She demanded of the magical mirror.
The mirror remained stubbornly blank. Neither scene nor face appeared to reveal the answer to her most desperate question.
“It doesn’t work like that,” the queen said, coming to stand behind her. She leant on the vanity table for support.
“Well, how does it work?” Ebony snapped.
“It will only reveal to you, your heart’s greatest desire,” the queen replied.
“Well, that will be easy then,” Ebony retorted. “My greatest desire is to know who killed my father.” She turned and faced the mirror.
“As long as you’re sure,” the queen said, retreating from the alcove.
Ebony waited. All she saw was her own harried face staring back at her. Her eyes angry, her skin flushed with emotion. “What is my greatest desire?” She whispered to the mirror.
The surface of the mirror began to ripple, like when a pebble is skipped along water. The room behind her and her face were replaced with a different scene. In the mirror, it was as though she were a flying bird, skimming and zooming fast over snow-covered trees until she reached a point deep in the forest she had never seen before. The entrance to a cave appeared. Within the cave, she could make out seven sets of unnatural eyes. They shone red with the centuries of blood they’d caused. For all the vampires Ebony had returned to the earth during the last two years, she’d never found their source, or their nest. Perhaps, this cave, with its seven sets of traitorous eyes, was what she had always been looking for.
“What about Snow White?” Poppy asked.
“While Ebony began her journey to the woods, Snow was coming to grips with her thirst.”
The rising of the sun came as a surprise to Snow. As dawn broke through the horizon, she felt a tightness in her chest and a prickling sensation on her skin. The sun was so bright, as if it were in the noon sky already. She looked around the woods for shelter. Lifting her skirts to trudge through the snow that had fallen during the night, she noticed that both her clothes and the snow around were stained red with blood and animal carcasses. A moment of guilt washed over her as she remembered her father, and then the thirst and the alive feeling running through her veins, dulled the worst of her shame.
The sun rose higher. Snow began to sweat. She felt as if she might be Hansel or Gretal shoved in the witch’s oven. How could it be so hot where there was so much snow on the ground?
“I suppose you better come in here, love. Before the sun fries you to a crisp.”
The voice came from behind. Snow turned to see a man standing in the entrance to a cave. His figure was a stooping shadow. The cave looked no more than a hollowed out space.
Snow’s skin began to sizzle and turn red.
“I’d hurry, if I were you,” the voice said.
Snow dashed for the entrance, ran past the man until she was hidden in the shadows of the cave. Now she could see the cave was larger than she’d thought. A long, narrow tunnel extended indefinitely backwards. Snow recognised the flicker of torch light.
“Who are you?” Snow said to the man, her throat feeling hoarse. She’d expected him to tower over her, his shadow had given that impression. But as he stepped towards her she realised he only came up to her shoulder. But he was long and lean and the hat he wore on his head made him seem taller than her.
He sighed. “Most people call me Grumpy. Although I’m not too partial to the nickname myself.”
“A dwarf,” Snow gasped. She’d only ever heard about them in the legends of her childhood. “You’re supposed to mine diamonds,” she remembered.
Grumpy smirked. “Ran out of diamonds years ago. Now we trade in other materials. Materials I think you’ll be having a need for. Hope you brought some money with you.”
Snow checked her pockets. She wasn’t even wearing shoes. There were no personal possessions or money on her person.
“Ah, well. There are other ways to pay for things,” he plucked a torch from the wall and began walking down the tunnel, stooping to avoid hitting his head on the low ceiling.
Smouldering with anger, Snow looked to the entrance of the cave. The sun shone brightly and crept into the mouth. She couldn’t go out there. Swallowing her indignation and making silent promises, she followed Grumpy along the tunnel.
“’Suppose you should meet the rest of the crew. Doc can set you up with something to eat.”
“I’m not hungry,” Snow snapped.
“I wasn’t talking about food, food.”
“What are you talking about?” She asked.
Grumpy turned and appraised her with an amused look. “Don’t you know what you are?”
What am I?
Tears brimmed in her eyes. She blinked them away.
Grumpy sighed and continued walking. “We’ll get Happy to sort you out. He makes everyone feel better.”
Ebony mounted her black stallion and kicked her heels into its flanks.
“Wait!” Prince Charming called after her.
She ignored him. There was nothing he could do now. If he’d been there before, right when it all happened…she shook her head. She couldn’t dwell on the what-if’s.
The horse charged off at a gallop, over the rolling fields of wildflowers that surrounded the castle, leaping over the wooden fence that marked their boarders and into the thick forest beyond. The horse slowed to a walk. Ebony had to navigate through dense undergrowth and low-hanging branches. The wildflowers disappeared. A low, winter sun hung in the sky. She shivered and zipped up her jacket. She held the reins of her horse in one hand, a stake in the other. Even though vampires sequestered themselves from the sun during the day, she’d come across one before during the daylight hours, hiding in the shadows, pinned into a small, dark gap. They were just as feisty and dangerous during the daytime. As long as they stuck to the shade.
They walked on. Ebony eyed the shadows warily. Pockets of snow began to appear on the ground, until, after another hour or so, the entire forest was blanketed in its whiteness. She was getting close. She could feel it.
She gripped the stake in her hand. The moment to use it would be upon her soon.
“A newbie!” Happy declared. The end of the tunnel had led to a cavernous chamber. Several dwarves sat around in groups. Some eating bread and cheese, other’s playing games, and others pouring red liquid into plastic bags. “Always happy to meet a newbie. Not quite as set in their ways.” He held out his hand to Snow. After a moment’s hesitation, she shook it. After all, he was everything that Grumpy wasn’t; rotund, short and he possessed an amiable disposition.
“Newbie?” She questioned.
“A newbie vampire. Can tell them by the aura. They’re always green. Like yours.”
“A newbie…vampire?” Snow could barely get her mouth around the word. The word that had been banned from the castle walls for years. The very word that was the cause of her birth mother’s death. And now she was one? But she already knew that. She had killed her father. It was the power of the vampire that was easing her guilt and fogging her thoughts.
“Not what you wanted?” Happy’s face fell. “Then why are you here?”
“She was stranded by the sun outside the cave,” Grumpy chimed in.
“Oh dear,” another dwarf said. He was as short as Happy but thinner, and his shapeless clothes hung off him like flesh on a skeleton. He held one of the baggies of red liquid in his hands. He offered it to her. “You’ll be needing this. Especially if you were caught in the sun. First one’s a freebie.”
Snow appraised the baggie for a moment. And then the smell reached her nose. She knew it was what she needed. She snatched the baggie from his hand and tore into it with her teeth, drinking the viscous liquid down, not caring that it coated her lips and cheeks. Immortality pulsed through her veins. She looked over the new dwarf, wondering if she could have more, if she could tear him apart, if he would sate her thirst.
He backed away from her, with his hands held high. “Doc!” He called over his shoulder.
A fourth dwarf stood from the group packing blood. “You have a choice to make,” Doc said. In one hand, he held a vibrant green apple, in the other, a syringe. “Eating the green apple will return you to your human form. Otherwise you can remain a vampire. But we don’t give blood for free. And we don’t like to be feasted upon. You’ll find a dwarf’s blood will kill you. So, I wouldn’t even risk it. This syringe is made from my blood. You need to back off.”
Snow didn’t move. She could smell the blood in the hundreds of baggies such a short distance in front of her. She wanted to tear through them all to get to them. But there were dozens of them and only one of her. Dwarfs, despite their appearance, were known for their strength.
She looked at the apple. As juicy and delicious as the red one she’d eaten last night. And it would return her to her human form. Everything could be forgotten. She would go back home, be a bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding. Except, she couldn’t go home, she had killed her own father and couldn’t ever show her face at the castle again.
Snow took a step back and flashed the dwarves a smile.
“Thank god,” another dwarf exclaimed, sneezing loudly. “Why do I have to work in a profession I’m allergic to? Vampires give me the sneezes,” he complained, sneezing again.
“What is this place?” Snow asked.
“You mentioned the diamonds,” Grumpy huffed. “Well, now we harvest blood. Human blood. For the vampires.”
“How do you…why would you?” So many questions tumbled through her mind.
“Not all vampires like to kill savagely every night. Not because they have a conscience, but because it takes effort, and if they leave a trail behind, the hunters will be after them,” Doc explained.
“This way,” a new dwarf said, one with his eyes half closed, almost asleep on his feet. “I was heading to bed. I can show you around first.”
“Another nap?” Grumpy huffed.
Snow followed Sleepy to the other side of the cavernous chamber. They walked through another tunnel, this one much shorter. When they emerged into a new room, there were rows of beds along both sides of the room. Hundreds of them. In each bed was a body, connected to an IV and a monitor, like they had in hospitals.
“Vampires?” Snow asked, already knowing she was wrong. She could smell the temptation of human blood.
Sleepy slowly shook his head. “Humans. The vampires pluck the homeless and unwanted from the streets. The injured and the near dead. We keep them here, care for them, feed them though their IVs.”
“And collect their blood,” Snow observed.
“That’s right,” Doc confirmed, coming from the corridor behind them. He began to move between the beds, checking on the patients’ vitals.
“And what do you get in return?” Snow asked, walking close to a patient’s bed. It was a young girl. No older than eight or nine. Her eyes fluttered in a half sleep and her lips moved in silent prayer. Snow didn’t see the innocent features or the white hair of childhood. Nor did she imagine the wide blue eyes of the child if she had opened them. All she saw was the blood running through her veins. All she saw was red.
“Money,” Doc answered. “And treasure. The vampires bring gold and silver in exchange for the blood.”
Snow went closer to the girl. There was a needle in her arm. Attached to the needle was a thin line filled with blood. The girl’s blood was draining into a vat next to her bed. She could just…
“Best you come back with me,” Doc said, interrupting her thoughts. He led her back to the original chamber where the other dwarves were still gathered.
“You can shelter here for the day,” Grumpy said. “But after that you’re on your own. No coming back without some cash.”
Snow narrowed her eyes at the tallest dwarf. She didn’t like him one bit. He would be the first to die. Even if she couldn’t drink his blood.
“But Snow doesn’t kill people,” Poppy protested. She could not get her head around this new version of Snow White. She sensed her Grandma might still be pulling her leg. “I thought she would return to the castle, remorseful, and be forgiven.”
“Come child, let’s move away from the orchard. Night will be here soon,” Grandma said.
The forest became so entangled with thick branches and prickly thorns that Ebony had to dismount her horse and continue on foot. Alone. The sun was melting into the horizon. Night would be upon her. Soon. She held fast to the stake in her hand, feeling nerves for the first time in months. She sensed she was almost upon something. Something dark. Something innately evil.
She spun when an owl hooted prematurely behind her. And again when a rabbit scurried into a burrow near her feet. And a third time when she heard a distant shriek carried on the wind. But it wasn’t a shriek. It was laughter. Arrogant, self-satisfied laughter. The sun dipped below the horizon and the night became alive with inhuman creatures.
Snow stood at the mouth of the cave. It had been hours since they’d given her that one, lone baggie of blood. It hadn’t been enough. Not nearly. She needed more. She watched the sun angle down to the ground, waiting for her moment.
When the light winked out, and the cave was thrown into darkness, save for the odd torch light that she could extinguish between two fingers, she opened her mouth and roared with need, then laughed because she knew she would be fully sated in only moments. She stormed into the chamber, eyeing the few dwarves that hadn’t retired for the night, and promptly tore their heads off their shoulders. The fountains and arcs of blood were tempting, but she heeded Doc’s warning, and didn’t drink the poison. When they were all dead, she half-marched and half-flew through the tunnels, seeking out any who might stop her. Grumpy she saw first. She set upon him and ripped his arms from their shoulder sockets. His eyes goggled at her in surprise as he spouted twin leaks onto the ground. When his blood ran dry, he toppled over, dead.
She killed and slaughtered, maimed and disfigured, all those that she came across, until she was drenched in their blood. When she was sure that no more dwarves existed, she made her way to the sleeping humans. One by one, she disconnected their tubes and drained their blood until they ran dry.
Now she felt sated. Finally. Now she felt strong. Invincible. Immortal. The urge to fly was unquashable. She ran through the tunnels, out to the open, and came to an abrupt stop. Her sister, Ebony, was standing before her, equally clad in blood.
With the first shriek of the night, Ebony turned, just as the vampire came flying at her and severed its head with her silver sword. She didn’t have time for pause after that. They came thick and fast and kept her dancing on her feet, lunging with her stakes and swinging her sword. Once or twice they got a little close, trying to sink teeth into her flesh. But she splashed holy water and stabbed with her stakes until the night was silent once again.
Something came out of the mouth of the cave. Something inhuman. Something covered in blood.
“Sister!” Snow shouted. “How nice of you to visit.”
“Snow?” Ebony questioned, taking a step forward. Not understanding why her dear sister would be covered in blood. The same sister who couldn’t stamp on an ant or swat a fly. “Are you hurt?”
Snow laughed. A laugh that Ebony didn’t recognize and sent tiny, scurrying feet racing down her spine. She tightened the grip on her sword.
“You can’t drag me back to the castle. Not after what I did. Besides, I like it here,” Snow spread her arms wide and tilted her face to the sky.
“What you did?” Ebony repeated, the truth just beginning to dawn on her. “You killed father!”
Snow chuckled into the snowy air. “And I’d do it again. To be free. To be…this!”
Ebony raised her sword. For the first time she hesitated. Could she kill her sister? Then she noticed the shadow behind Snow. One of the good-for-nothing-dwarves who kept the vampires alive. His eyes were dancing with duplicitous intent. She could definitely kill him.
But he stepped up to Snow, glasses askew, a needle raised high and plunged it into Snow’s shoulder. She didn’t even scream, she just crumpled to the ground. Dead?
“Thank you,” Ebony said to the dwarf.
“It wasn’t enough to kill her,” he said. “Just enough to keep her down.” And then he fell over, dead. When he landed on his face, Ebony saw the deep wound on his back. Scratch marks. Vampire claws. Snow’s claws.
Ebony heard hooves in the distance. There wasn’t anything anyone could do now. It was all over. She’d lost a father and a sister. As she knelt by her sister’s side, Prince Charming came to a halt behind her.
“Am I too late? I don’t want to be too late again,” he said, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“I don’t know,” Ebony replied, wiping her forehead with a bloodied sleeve. “She killed all those people. All the dwarves. And now she’s in a coma. I just don’t know.”
“Dwarf’s blood?” he asked.
“Only true love’s kiss can cure her.”
“How can a vampire love?” Ebony asked.
“The kiss will seek what was in her heart before, and return her to that state.”
“But who is her true love?” Ebony sighed.
Prince Charming didn’t reply. He stood there next to her, his hand on her shoulder getting cold and hard. Ebony shuffled to her feet and turned a hard stare on him. “Prince Charming? Does she have a true love?”
He opened his mouth to speak. Then closed it again. A flash of guilt travelled across his face.
“Prince Charming?” Ebony demanded, feeling a flush heat her own face. But it wasn’t guilt, it was humiliation.
“Nothing ever happened and I don’t think she knows and I started developing feelings for her when we were together and I didn’t know what to do so I just hoped it would all go away.” He finished lamely.
“What a hypocrite. You two deserve each other,” Ebony yelled, but she couldn’t quite turn away. She stood there as Prince Charming, her Prince Charming, knelt down to Snow and kissed her ruby, red lips. A thousand daggers pierced her heart.
Snow’s eyes fluttered open. She sat up. Prince Charming lifted her in her arms. Snow looked down at herself and saw all the blood.
“Don’t worry about that now,” Prince Charming said to her.
“What happened?” Snow asked.
“You ruined my life,” Ebony replied. “And don’t either one of you think about returning to the castle. You won’t be welcome.”
And with that, Ebony leapt onto Prince Charming’s horse and fled through the woods. The fact that all the vampires in the country had been extinguished was of little comfort. There was only one thought in her mind. Of the magic, gilded mirror. How she could harness its power and make them pay.
Poppy kicked at the rotten apple at her feet. A long, brown worm wriggled out of the core. Then she plucked the fresh one from her Grandma’s hand and threw it as far as she could. “I’m never eating apples again.”
Her Grandma laughed. A whole hearted, belling-grabbing laugh that didn’t sound entirely natural.