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Snow White and the Eight Dwarf
LEX SANDS SWUNG AN AX with force and decapitated his victim. Blood spurted, and steam rose as it met the frozen winter air.
Such a savage beast I am. The Queen should be honored to have me in her army.
He looped twine around his victim’s feet and hoisted the body from a barn beam to let it bleed out.
A familiar tightness gripped his chest. He fell back against a wall, gasping, his lungs constricted at the slight exertion. Black and white dots speckled his vision.
Oh, so savage. I can’t even breathe on my own. How can I be a warrior for the Queen?
His illusions of grandeur evaporated as he fought the pain. By the time he’d regained control of his breathing, reality crashed around him. The victim he’d killed swung from the beam, its feathers still wet from when he’d chased it around the hen house. He’d fought the battle only in his mind, and the Queen would laugh if she knew of his folly.
Another boring day in the life of Lex the dwarf. Except he wasn’t a dwarf. The Dredge family had fostered him for almost twenty-one years. Though he towered over them, they still treated him as a baby. His stupid, weak lungs blocked working in the damp gold mines and shadowed his place in the family.
His lungs still tight, Lex finished his routine chores, collected the chicken carcass, and trudged toward the cottage. He might not have won on the battlefield, but he’d proven victorious in the barnyard.
While he’d been inside the barn, the winter storm had intensified. The wind howled in the surrounding trees, and sunlight paled to a dim star. As he climbed the cottage steps, he noticed footprints, too small to belong to a dwarf, on the snow-blown porch floor.
The hair on the back of his neck rose.
Who dared trespass? Treasure seekers? Strangers were rare this deep in the Enchanted Forest, but there’d been rumors of deserters from the Queen’s army.
What had interfered with the dwarfs’ magic wards, designed to repel intruders?
The cottage door stood open, snow whirling in glee as it slipped into the forbidden warmth. He dropped the chicken to the floor with a plunk. Lex withdrew a knife from its sheath and pulled a hatchet free from the woodpile.
He noted the lingering daylight. An hour remained before the dwarfs returned from the mine. He would capture the thief and prove his worth.
They’ll thank me for this.
Lex paused at the doorway, his senses alert for the thief, but he saw nothing and heard only the creak of trees as they swayed in the increasing wind.
Melted snow inside the threshold marked where the thief had stamped his feet. A wet trail marred the rug. Lex stepped across the mess and scanned the main room for the intruder.
Discarded cushions from eight chairs showed the thief’s struggle to find a comfortable position. A book lay with pages upturned, and sheet music from the piano scattered across the floor. He’d banked the fire before he’d left, but flames in the hearth sizzled and popped.
Lex straightened a fireplace screen knocked askew. He swept up the sheet music before the wind blew it near the flames and tucked the papers under an ore sample.
The thief had disturbed nothing else. He’d either hurried or lacked burglary skills.
Not a good thief, a hungry thief. Lex entered the kitchen. Someone had moved the soup pot from the back of the cookstove to the butcher block counter. A dirty bowl and overturned spoon revealed the burglar had helped himself to a meal.
Cheeky bastard. Lex’s gaze rested on a particular flagstone, under which lay a secret room where they stored their gold. It had not been disturbed.
Lex returned to the great room and followed a trail of wet footprints up flagstone steps. Did the burglar remain in the cottage?
A long corridor split the upper floor; seven bedrooms and two bathrooms divided along its length. The growing storm rattled the shutters as his gaze swept the rooms, which showed no evidence of burglary. No stranger snored in the shortened beds, which meant the burglar had left, or was in his room.
At the end of the corridor lay a tiny room that had served as his since the dwarfs found him in the woods as a baby.
He slipped the hatchet handle into his belt, the easier to grab if needed, and transferred the knife to his left hand. He tucked a length of twine into his pocket, ready to bind his victim.
Lex made no noise as he approached his room. His fingers tightened around the door handle and turned it. Weak sunlight from the lone window echoed off the wall and illuminated his prey.
A woman slept in his bed.
• • •
“MIRROR, MIRROR? ARE YOU THERE?” The request interrupted the calm of the cozy room near the castle kitchens.
“Whose turn is it?” Ethel Miller asked her twin sister. She did not look up from layering paint onto canvas, trying to duplicate the complex image in her head. She’d found a rhythm between brush and brain and could not afford to soothe Queen Sabine’s inevitable list of imagined maladies.
“It’s yours,” Azalea Miller said. Ethel doubted she’d lifted her gaze from the mosaic table top she worked on, or if she’d glanced at the schedule posted on the wall.
“Humph.” Ethel put down her paintbrush, the image fading, never to be captured again. She unbuttoned her smock. “Did you rearrange the times in the middle of the night so it’s forever my turn?”
“Nonsense. We share this dreadful task.” Azalea picked up a tiny piece of azure glass and shoved it into the design as if to emphasize her right to leisure time while her sister played nursemaid.
“Someday.” Ethel sighed. Someday, they’d be free of the Queen’s demands and could create without interruption.
“Not today. Now stop grumbling and do your duty.” Azalea watched as her sister donned a sparkling purple robe and placed a pointed hat on her auburn head.
“Stomach in,” she ordered.
Ethel sucked in her not so tight tummy. Hmm. Time for a new exercise routine.
“Boobs out,” Azalea continued.
Ethel thrust out her breasts, two of her most prized possessions.
Not too bad for a woman of a “seasoned” age.
“It’s show time,” the sisters said in unison. They giggled at the old routine.
“Be serious, now,” Azalea warned, “she expects a dark and mysterious witch.”
Ethel nodded and stepped before the mirror, invisible to anyone but the sisters. She schooled her features into a somber appearance.
“I am here, o mighty Queen. What is your wish?”
Let it be something minor and manageable.
The mirror shimmered, and the Queen’s image appeared. She’d swept her fair hair into an intricate knot, now askew, and red rimmed her sapphire eyes.
“Mirror, mirror, I beg you tell me the truth.” Her voice trembled.
“As if we have a choice,” Azalea muttered in the background.
“Shh.” Then to the Queen, “If it is within my power.”
“Mirror, I am now alone.”
“Alone, my dainty right foot,” Azalea whispered. “She has dozens of servants, us, Snow, plus Dave the huntsman to warm her bed. I doubt she is alone.”
Ethel spoke out of the corner of her mouth. “Will you be quiet?”
The Queen continued. “Tell me, Mirror, when will I achieve fulfillment?”
So, nothing minor or manageable today. The Queen was on a downer.
“We carry within us the seeds of fulfillment and great wonders. Have you considered volunteering? Avoiding negative people? Not wearing black? It’s not your color. Maybe pink to bring out your rosy cheeks or blue to enhance your eyes?”
“I’m rolling mine,” Azalea commented.
Ethel made a rude gesture behind her back. “Perhaps if you looked beyond your needs, you will find what you seek.”
The Queen shook her head. “No, there is nothing but despair. Mirror, I have no one left.”
“And what of Snow White? She is worth your attention.” The sisters had agreed to accelerate their campaign to ease the friction between the two.
Sabine’s eyes flashed. “Snow White is gone.”
“What?” Azalea asked.
“What?” Ethel echoed. She closed her eyes and cast her power outward. In a flash, she saw the Queen’s action. “You ordered the huntsman to kill her?”
Sabine sniffed. “What else could I do? She is younger and far prettier than I. How will I attract another husband if she is in the way, distracting any candidates from pursuing a relationship with me?”
Marry her off first. Ethel reeled from the atrocity the Queen committed. “There are several candidates who would consider you above the child.”
“The child is eighteen and can survive on her own. Or could, but I asked Dave to make her a non-issue. I acted for the best.” The Queen gave a doleful sigh. “But now I am alone. Can you not see when my true prince will come?”
He is in your bed every night. Sabine chose not to hear the truth. Ethel shuddered. “I cannot predict the future, mighty Queen, but fate has a way of rewarding those who wait.” And punishing those who break the rules.
“That is not acceptable. I hold your contract to tell me the truth, not spout platitudes. Give me a better answer.” Sabine’s sorrow switched to anger.
“Perhaps tomorrow.” Ethel waved her left hand. The mirror shimmered, and the Queen’s image faded.
“Oh, you’re in trouble now,” Azalea said with a tsk-tsk of her tongue.
“So be it. I am tired of her selfishness and her ‘I hold your contract’ threats. Does she think I’ll forget she has us under her spell?” Ethel tore off the robe and threw it against a wall.
“Until she finds true love.”
“Which she won’t unless you count the love she has for herself.” Life had dealt several blows to Sabine; she focused on her own misfortune.
Azalea sighed. “At least, she believes we are one person, not two. There is hope one of us might escape.”
Ethel rushed to her sister and embraced her. “I won’t abandon you.”
“Nor I you.” Azalea hugged her back.
“We will deal with her together.”
Her twin pulled back and stared at Ethel. “Why lie to her? Why not tell her that Snow lives?”
Ethel shrugged. “She did not ask, and we are not obliged to volunteer information, only answer direct questions. Snow is safe and with someone who will change her life.”
“Oh, so you can predict the future?” Azalea’s right eyebrow rose.
“No, but young Lex Sands may solve multiple problems. Sister, it’s time we stopped being spectators in our lives and revive the magic that inadvertently brought us into the Queen’s bondage. Snow’s disappearance marks an opportunity for us.”
Azalea straightened and clapped her hands. “I like where this is headed. What are you saying?”
Ethel smiled. Joy spread through her, a rare occurrence since their incarceration. “I have a plan.”
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