Chapter 1: Fires of Salvation
Her face flushed hot, sweat dripping from her brow. Queen Snow ran erratically through the palace, her emaciated limbs shaking with exertion. Heat from the inferno was growing intolerable; her vision blurred and her footing faltered. JonnaGold was on fire.
A loud bang resounded from deep within the palace. The ground shook beneath Queen Snow’s feet and she stumbled to the ground as stones fell around her. Curling in on herself, she trembled against the corridor.
A mob of Faye ran through the hall perpendicular to her. They were chasing the human servants. The Faye mob fought with magick and a malice that festered for years beneath her very nose. How had she never noticed it? The answers came too easily.
Maarifa encouraged the opium, she provided the ruby berries, she ordered the sleeping tonic. The more Snow took, the more eccentric her court became. The more she ensured her own demise.
Another bang echoed through the halls. Queen Snow scrambled to her feet and continued running. The ground shook, somewhere in the distance a tower crumbled to the ground.
Maarifa armed her rebellion with weapons Snow never saw in all her wars. A fine black powder that caused untold destruction. Queen Snow knew war, it was predictable and bloody, but this was beyond her reckoning. She didn’t know how to fight these unknown weapons, so she ran.
Tapestries burned and oil from the lamps spilled onto the floors, blocking her path with a wall of flames. Scrambling through the halls, she searched for a clear trail to the throne room. She had to make it there, even if it was the last thing she did.
The sweat on her palms had little to do with the heat of the fire. Her head pounded, her vision spun, and her bones shook. Her bloodshot eyes burned inside her skull. Hours passed since she left the purple haze, since the thick red syrup of the ruby berries passed her lips to give life to her pitiful existence. She needed it. Every fiber of her being screamed for it.
Another bang; bricks fell from the crumbling ceiling, littering the corridor. Queen Snow didn’t care, she didn’t even notice her beloved palace was falling to ruins around her. She could only focus on one thing.
Queen Snow let out a gasp of relief, there it was, the familiar carved wooden doors. She’d made it. Shoving her bony shoulders against the wooden structures, she forced the doors to open against the rubble.
A crisp ocean breeze wafted through a large hole in the wall where stones fell away, and windows shattered. The throne room flickered with the orange light from the nearby inferno. Sharp shadows fell across the listless faces of Queen Snow’s court.
Naked bodies of courtiers and concubines lay entangled beneath the fallen stones of JonnaGold. Whether they were alive or dead, Snow didn’t care. Her hard eyes fixed onto the object of her desires—her tormentor and her salvation.
Navigating the ruins of her throne room, her bare feet slipped in pools of fresh blood oozing from beneath boulders. Her bare feet stepped on the dead bodies, and she sprang herself forward. Gripping a silver pitcher, she brought it to her parched lips. Nothing came out. With a cry, Queen Snow tossed the empty pitcher into the rubble.
Her nimble hands dug through the remnants of her fallen court. She found only empty glasses and pitchers of water and her opium pipes lay broken beneath the stone. Her long fingers tugged at her nest of matted hair; her breath came in shallow gasps. Why were all the pipes broken, where had the ruby berries gone?
Queen Snow couldn’t focus, her vision blurred and the room spun wildly, the orange fires outside encompassed her sight. It was too bright. She swayed unsteadily, her thin legs giving way beneath her.
Where was it?
Why was it all gone?
Why weren’t the consorts giving it to her; didn’t they realize she needed it?
Why were they making her suffer?
Queen Snow gasped for breath. the room suddenly felt too small, devoid of air. The walls closed in on her, the weight of it all crushing her.
“Looking for this, mother?” Maarifa stood among the rubble, her onyx skin glowing golden in the fire light. Her Faye perfection was a beacon of beauty among the destruction—destruction that was all her doing.
Queen Snow didn’t know when Maarifa entered the room, nor did she care. Her eyes were fixed upon the crystal pitcher held in Maarifa’s hand and the thick crimson liquid within it.
“Give it to me!” Queen Snow shrieked, her desperate voice echoing over the sounds of war outside. She rushed forward, tripping over bodies and debris.
“Stop.” Maarifa commanded. “Or I break it.”
“You wouldn’t!” Queen Snow wept; she could no longer control the trembling in her limbs.
“Kneel.” Maarifa gazed into her mother’s hollow eyes. Eyes normally clouded and glazed with lust were now frantic. Her pathetic groveling disgusted Maarifa. “Do as I say, or I break it. Kneel before me.”
Queen Snow’s bony knees fell hard to the cracked marble floor.
“I have taken your castle, destroyed it without meeting a glimmer of resistance. No longer will the Faye be subjected to your depravities, to your sickness. I am the ruler of these lands and you kneel to me now.”
Queen Snow mewled, reaching her fingers towards the pitcher. Maarifa slowly moved it away, a cruel smile spreading across her eminent face.
“I want to hear you say it mother. Your rule is over, I am the queen now.”
“You- you are.”
“I am what?”
Queen Snow sobbed; a thick string of saliva fell from her mouth running down her chin. She needed the ruby berries.
“You’re the queen.”
“Louder, I couldn’t hear you.”
“You are the queen!” Snow cried, tugging on her matted hair, and clawing at her face. She needed the berries!
“That wasn’t so hard, was it, mother?” Maarifa lifted the pitcher in her hand. “Here are your precious ruby berries.” She poured the thick liquid onto the ground in front of Snow.
Queen Snow bent forward, scooping as much liquid from the floor as her bony hands could hold. She licked the seductive juices from her fingers but her thirst did not ebb. Lowering her face down, she lapped at the ground. Her sickly form pressed against the dusty floor, and her lips were wet with juice. Kneeling among her fallen castle and dead courtiers, she sucked and lapped at every drop of ruby berries.
Maarifa watched in disgust while the skeletal creature before her licked the ground. The ruby berries mixed with the congealed blood of the dead concubines, but her mother didn’t care, she didn’t even notice.
In that moment Maarifa decided the pathetic creature at her feet whose depravities embarrassed the land and who mocked the Faye for centuries, her mother, should not continue to exist. It would be a mercy to put this excuse of a human out of her misery. It would be a mercy and a blessing.
Maarifa could use her magick to do it, it would be quick and painless. She’d done it once before. She closed her eyes and began to chant softly.
Maarifa heard a faint movement to her left. Before she could react, something blunt and hard collided with her temple.
Marcel gripped a broken brick in his hand. He hit his sister in the head again. This time she fell to the ground. Tossing the bloodied rock aside, he wrapped his arms around his mother. Pulling her up from the ground, she let out an animalistic wail of agony.
Queen Snow flung herself forward; kicking and thrashing, she fought against the force taking her away from the berries. She swung her frail limbs with a fury Marcel had not expected, and he struggled to remove her from the burning palace. Kicking and wailing, Marcel drug her down the front stairs until she fell faint in his arms.
Marcel carried his mother’s listless body to the stables. Sweat poured from his plump face and his spectacles fogged. Panting with effort, he hoisted Queen Snow onto a horse, draping her across their back. Marcel mounted his own steed. Seizing the reins of the other, he fled north, leaving the burning city of JonnaGold behind them.
Maarifa awoke lying among the bodies and rubble of the throne room. The fires were long burned out, leaving the night cold and dark. Sitting up, she felt her head. Blood was crusted down the side of her face and in her dreadlocks. Her head was pounding, but she always healed quickly, and it would subside soon enough.
Maarifa moved through the streets of JonnaGold. The normally bustling city was deserted; no clouds of opium wafted between buildings and no citizens fornicated drunkenly in the streets. For the first time in years the city felt peaceful.
She walked to the largest and oldest tree in the city center, Asha. Maarifa could feel the ancient magick pulsating through the bark. Asha drew it from the earth and radiated it through her branches and out into the air around her, feeding her city and her people. Kneeling to the ground, Maarifa placed a delicate hand to the rough bark, closing her eyes she rested her forehead against the trunk.
Maarifa called upon the ancient Faye, the long deceased, the keepers of the magick. She asked them for forgiveness for the blood shed that night, and she asked for guidance and strength to lead her people.
Albeit in a trance, Maarifa was aware of the woman who appeared behind her. She was waiting for her arrival. Maarifa was pleased her guest left her infernal wolves in the Dead Wood.
“You’ve done well, but tell me, where is your mother?”
Maarifa leisurely finished her meditation, kissing Asha’s trunk before standing and opening her eyes. The sweet orange glow of dawn was rising over the smoking buildings.
“I have liberated my people. I am now the sole ruler of the Kingdom of Apples and of the Faye. My mother is of no concern to us now.”
“So, she lives? Is she here in the city?” The witch looked hungrily at the castle.
Maarifa reluctantly moved her eyes away from the ancient tree and the small sprites within its branches. She turned to face the Red Witch. Her face was eager, glowing with blood lust.
“No,” Maarifa said. “She has fled, presumably with my brother, Marcel, to the northern palace.”
“You let her go!” The Red Witch shrieked. “You let her and your brother walk out on you?”
“No. I meant to kill my mother. While I was casting my incantation someone knocked me out. I believe it was my brother, he’s always been foolishly loyal to her. If it was Marcel, they will take refuge in Breaburn, the palace he governs in the north.”
The Red Witch screamed.
“They are of no threat to us there. Mother is pathetic and withered while Marcel is daft and soft. I have successfully liberated my people and that is all that matters.”
“No Maarifa, you’ve only just begun.”
“What do you mean? I hold JonnaGold and my mother is obsolete.”
“So long as the royals live, they pose a threat to you and your rule. As do all her successors.”
Maarifa regarded the Red Witch skeptically. Her lips pulled into a smirk that made Maarifa’s stomach churn.
“Your mother’s borne many children over the centuries, as have her children’s children. Each of them carries a piece of her within them, any one of them could claim the throne for themselves. Think of it, all of them are as depraved as Snow is; or worse! You cannot risk one of them rising to rule. They would further degrade and humiliate your people, just as your mother.”
Maarifa knitted her brow together; she would never allow her people to be subjugated again. That was the point of the rebellion—freedom.
“What must we do?”
Marcel and Queen Snow arrived at the northern palace of Breaburn ten days after fleeing JonnaGold. When she wasn’t sleeping, Snow wailed insufferably for ruby berries and her opium. Marcel stopped frequently to pick wild ruby berries for his mother. It prolonged their journey but it kept her thirst sated and the fevers at bay.
The city of Breaburn was equal in size to JonnaGold, but the society was tame in comparison. Due to the colder weather in the north the inhabitants of Breaburn wore considerably more clothing. Most wore robes made of thick, dark colored wool that wrapped around the body and tied securely, and shoes on their feet. Doors and windows secured their houses instead of thin silk curtains. The smoking of opium was not commonplace, nor was ruby berry wine.
The castle at Breaburn was large, and modest. There were no stained-glass windows, golden statues, nor silks hung from the ceilings. Instead of courtiers and concubines, the inhabitants of the palace were Queen Snow’s grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. Despite these differences, Breaburn was no less wealthy or comfortable than JonnaGold.
Queen Snow was greeted with open arms by relatives she no longer recognized. One of them draped a warm robe over her cold shoulders and she was ushered inside by unfamiliar hands.
Upon entering Breaburn Queen Snow was flooded with faces of lovers and children she never thought she’d see again. Aniebell, her long brown hair woven into braids and her bright green eyes—how Snow longed to feel the warmth of her breast again. Fredrick, Snow ached to hold his strong hands close to her heart. Gine, her sweet daughter, ran through her memory.
But wait…no this wasn’t Aniebell, it was her great-great-grand daughter. Aniebell died, old and withered from time, lying in her sickbed. Fredrick fell off a stag and hit his head one-hundred and seventy-five years ago…Gine, her breath ended in a pool of blood in the birthing bed of her second child.
While looking into their faces, the decedents of people she once loved, Snow relived each of their deaths. The pain of hundreds of years of grief flooded her. She couldn’t look at the ghosts surrounding her.
Walking through the warm wooden corridor, Snow began to feel the same sickness Breaburn always gave her. Death swarmed her. She was reminded of the Great Wars and of the Brothers, the last great powers to walk these realms…why had they done this to her, why had they given the Queens immortality?
Lost in the reality of her own bitter immortality, she lingered in the void with nothing but death to comfort her—it was too much. Her stomach soured and her hands trembled, her eyes burned with centuries of sorrow.
She was led to a large room filled with tables and a roaring fire dancing in the hearth. She was given slippers and blankets and seated close to the fire.
Marcel spoke in rushed tones, recounting what happened at JonnaGold to his relatives. Queen Snow tuned them out; she reached for the wine on the table. It wasn’t made of ruby berries, but it was all she had. She drank straight from the pitcher, the red fluid ran down her pale face. The inhabitants of the room, all related to her even if distantly, were trying to speak with her. They spoke of counter moves and battle tactics, all of which Snow did not wish to hear.
War…Queen Snow’s hollow eyes faded, her mind slipped to the past. To hundreds of years ago before she was queen, when she was still a mortal. Her kingdom was the first to fall to war.
The night of her thirteenth birthday, Rumpelstiltskin infiltrated her palace. He killed her parents while his men slaughtered their armies. Snow could still hear the screams from that night echoing through her foggy memory.
She remembered Ryoke, her guard, throwing her from her bedroom window as the soldiers burst through her door. She remembered falling and screaming as Ryoke’s severed head tumbled out the window after her.
Syla, the eagle, caught her midair, helping Snow land safely to the ground. There, the leaders of the forests, her friends, were waiting for her. She climbed atop a great grizzly bear, while a proud stag fought off the warriors who came too close.
After that night, she was the one who rallied the loyalists, led the armies and won the battles. The Kingdom of Apples waged war for years before the last Realm Walkers came and the Great Wars started.
Thousands died…Everywhere she went death surrounded her. And now, after all these years, the talk of war filled her ears yet again. Would it never end?
Queen Snow drank another pitcher of wine. It was thinner than the wine at JonnaGold and the effects were dulled. She drank every pitcher in reach, until the faces began to blur and spin around her. Queen Snows eyes rolled and her stomach churned. She retched red wine onto the floor then fell face first onto the table.
“Mother is just travel worn, that’s all,” Marcel sighed. Though in his heart he knew the truth. Years of dependence and addiction left his mother highly compromised. “Take her to her chambers. Clean her up and place her in bed to rest. Ensure a fire is started and fresh fruits and nuts are available for when she wakes,” Marcel ordered, “and please, ensure at least on attendant is there at all times.”
Queen Snow stayed in the confines of her room for three weeks, refusing to speak with anyone. She gorged herself on fruits of the Faye and ordered an opium pipe brought to her. The opium was weak, but better than not.
On the fourth week she asked her guardian for the day if Breaburn held a throne room or a proper court. She did not ask her guardian her name, nor their relation to her, she simply didn’t care.
The woman reluctantly led Snow through the halls and down to the throne room. Clear yellow sun poured down from high windows onto a large wooden table. Marcel sat at the head. Beside him were important-looking humans and Faye. The party was deep in discussion over open maps and scrolls.
“The letters are clear; Maarifa has seized control of JonnaGold with an unforgiving wrath. Her followers are terminating any citizen that shows signs of resisting her.” A blue-skinned Faye spoke.
“We know she’s already killed dozens who sympathize with Queen Snow, who know how many more will meet that fate,” a human woman said.
“Not to mention the countless humans slaughtered during the uprising,” a human man said.
“But why?” a young man spoke, his voice not yet settled into that of a man. “Faye and human have lived together peacefully in these lands for centuries. Why now have they decided to fight?”
The blue Faye laughed. “How innocent you are, young one. You do not yet understand the depravities suffered by the Faye at the hands of-“
“Mother!” Marcel leapt from his seat, opening his arms wide. His sheer robes of JonnaGold had been replaced with a thick wool-dyed evergreen.
“So good to see you up and about. How are you feeling?”
Queen Snow gave no answer. She scrutinized the hall, empty of concubines and pipes. It felt foreign to her.
“Come, please let me introduce you to our council at Breaburn,” Marcel placed a gentle hand on Snow’s shoulder, leading her to the table.
“This strapping young lad is Biorn Sabir, my nephew and ward.” A young boy with freckles beamed up at Snow.
“And my cousins, Xenia Nakosi and her older brother Zor Nakosi.” The siblings had dark ochre skin and matching burgundy robes. The man, a strong jaw and the woman a halo of tight black curls framing her young face.
“The twins, Agnes and Agnae Ivey, more cousins.” Identical women with red ringlets streaked grey with brilliant green irises.
“This is Cenia, of the Faye family Yoron.” A small pixie with dark brown skin that glittered green sat atop the table.
“And you know this is Leor Willisonshire—as the mortals call him.” A blue Faye stood extending his upturned palms, his skin shimmering silver as he moved. “You recall his family? The most loyal of the Faye who have lived in Breaburn since before this palace was built.”
“My Queen, it seems only yesterday I was attending your coronation and your first marriage. Happier times, I’m afraid,” Leor said, his palms still upturned, awaiting Queen Snow to place her hands atop them in recognition.
“And what is wrong with these times? Why should they not be happy?”
“My Queen, are you not aware of what has happened?” Leor asked.
The twins exchanged worried glances, speaking without words. Xenia and Zor watched Snow carefully.
“Maarifa has taken JonnaGold from you. She burned the city, killed hundreds of your citizens. She tried to kill you as well, my Queen.” Leor said.
“Perhaps your times would be happier if this were a proper throne room.” Snow said. “Frankly, I am ashamed of you, Marcel. Where are the concubines, the pipes? Pitchers of ruby berries should be pouring plentifully through this room.”
“Yes, it is true we do things differently here.” Marcel wiped his glasses on the lining of his robe. “But I assure you Breaburn is the same as JonnaGold. You just-”
“Nothing about this is the same! How can you even breathe this air? It’s so, so-“
“Clean?” Leor said.
The pixie laughed hysterically. Clutching her sides, she rolled around on the table. Xenia looked at Cenia in astonishment. The twins hid smiles behind their hands and Zor turned his laugh into a cough.
“I am the Queen! And I will not stand for this,” Snow shook. “I am the Queen. Me. I am the Queen, and this is my palace, no one else’s.”
“As the Queen, what do you propose we do about the threat of Maarifa’s armies?” Zor asked.
“This is my kingdom, and I am the Queen. There is no war in my kingdom!” Snow shrieked. “You have disgraced my palace. This is my palace and I will rule it as I see fit.”
“You cannot ignore war because you do not wish it to happen.” Xenia said.
“All of you get out.”
“Mother please, let us talk about this.” Marcel pleaded.
“Get out! Get out! Out!” Snow screamed. She threw the contents of the table into the air, ripping maps and scrolls in the process. She knocked over the chairs and threw pitchers and cups of water at the fleeing council members.
Leor hung in the doorway watching Snow until she stopped screaming.
“Many things have changed since last we met, and none of them for the better; my Queen.”
Snow fell to the cold marble floor, burying her face in her hands, she sobbed. She didn’t want to believe it was happening again. She couldn’t go through more wars like that last ones, she wouldn’t survive them, not again.
Queen Snow didn’t know how long she stayed alone on the floor. Looking up from her hands, she stared into the emptiness, consumed by shadows. The room grew dark and cold—she couldn’t handle it.
“Hello?” she whispered, “is anyone out there, am I truly alone in the darkness…”
Servants filed into the room. Small orbs of light danced from their oil lamps across the emptiness, leaving flickers of warmth in their wake.
“My Queen?” they said, regarding her with apprehension.
“Bring me a proper throne to sit upon. And find a Faye who knows how to brew ruby berry wine and opium. I require both in plenty.”
“Yes, my Queen,” The servants bowed.
“And please, please find someone, anyone, to fill the throne room. Courtiers, concubines, prisoners—I don’t care! I cannot stand being alone any longer, I feel as I’ve been alone for eternity…”
The servants shifted uncomfortably, exchanging glances with each other.
“Now!” Snow shrieked at them. Jumping in fright, the servant scurried off, leaving Snow alone in the darkness.
Two servants came back, carrying a large wooden chair. It was simple dark wood with golden branches decorating it, a large golden apple carved at the crown of the seat back. They placed it at the far end of the room, overlooking the council table. Other servants came in after them, placing a table at its side and adorning it with wine, water, and fruits.
Snow waited until they left, crawling across the floor to the throne. She hadn’t the capacity to stand on her own and she didn’t wish for anyone to see her in such a pitiful state. She gripped the heavy wood of the throne, pulling herself up. Her skeletal frame was swallowed by its size.
Reaching for the wine, her shaking hand knocked the pitcher to the ground. Feeling the urge to throw herself to the ground and drink, she wept. Clutching her sides, she curled in on herself. She was once a great and noble Queen, when had she let this happen to herself? When had she fallen so far under the influence?
What was happening to her and why were the lands spiraling into war again?
Her mind rang with overheard whispers. Maarifa’s army was growing. Rumored sightings of the Red Witch in JonnaGold were creating incessant speculation that Maarifa was working with the Red Witch. The Red Witch, the name was familiar to her…The Red Witch.
Was she the one the Realm Walker tried to warn her about so very long ago?
The Realm Walker…
Warnings from the Realm Walker and the Breaburn council echoed through Snow’s mottled memory. Yes, the Realm Walker came to her at JonnaGold, pleading with her to join an army to defeat the growing threat. People in her kingdom were dying because of the Red Witch, and Snow refused to believe it, she refused to accept war into her lands again. But it came regardless of her wishes, and now her people were in danger. They needed their Queen.
Her mind was made up, she knew what she needed to do. Getting up from her throne, Snow walked through the emptiness to the doors. Forcing them open, she left the comfort of her old self behind.
Once in her room, she drank a pitcher of water before throwing the ruby berries and opium pipes from the window. She rummaged through the grooming drawers until she found what she needed.
Shedding her silken robe, Snow stood naked in front of the standing mirror. For the first time in a hundred years, she looked at herself; she was repulsed and terrified. Staring back at her was naught but a hollow spirit, her body nothing but an empty shell of who she used to be. How did she allow herself to slip so far?
She held the razor tight in her hand; her palms were clammy, but she did not tremble. Raising the blade high, she hacked at her hair. Gripping it tight, she pulled it away from her scalp, and sawed at the roots. Years of matted filth and neglect fell from her body.
It all felt like a dream; she knew what she was doing, but her senses were muffled, and she couldn’t help the feeling that she was watching herself from the ceiling.
For four days her body was wracked with unfathomable fevers and cold sweats. Then on the fifth day, came the hallucinations and the anger. But she did not yield. Snow would never again allow her body to be tainted or controlled by her desires. No, there was work to be done if she were to save her kingdom.