Winifred eased herself down onto a pillowed bench. More like collapsed, she thought, biting back a gasp. She was heavily pregnant, and exhausted from being on her feet all day, wearing the heavy brocade, silk cloaks, and stiff silver crown. She had a half hour to rest, before the seven kings gathered before the Mirror, and her baby’s kicks would elect the new Underking.
She rang her a little bell, and her maids came bustling in, humming and half whispering about all the details of the encampment.
She relaxed as they pulled off her boots, soaked her feet in herbed waters, poured a cup of diluted wine, and fetched her a blanket. One maid took out her recent embroidery work, a gift meant for the new king.
For a moment, it was quiet in the tent. The kind of quiet a singer feels when a thousand surrounding eyes and bated breaths wait for a beginning.
The bronze lanterns flickered and tugged, creaking against the beech poles holding up the red canvas tent. Outside, hollow winds flexed and pulled at the walls, dancing the shadows of armed guards and campfires.
A brief lull in the daylong ceremonies meant a welcome silence from the throat humming, the ibex horns, and the ringing of hand bowls.
Winifred, queen of men, pressed her fingers to her brow, willing her headache back into darkness. She thought about the day. Here, deep in the forests at the nexus between the kingdoms, eight realms met to observe an ancient, crucial ritual.
At this moment outside, a thousand human soldiers had camped in a great circle, a hedge of steel armor scattered throughout a wilderness of knotted, black trees. Moonlight barely broke through the forest of branches, a canopy so old and dense that owls stayed away.
Winifred shuddered at the twitching weight of her baby in her belly. She shifted, hoping for an easier seat.
She knew she should be honored to be here. This event recurred every 50 years. The dwarf underkings emerged from their depths, riding under ramparts of gold and bright steel, wrapped in milky diamonds and opal-studded robes.
Once a generation, they presented themselves before the Great Glass, also known as the Magic Mirror. They observed a strange and fascinating ritual.
The baby shoved her with a strong foot. Winifred, Queen of the Midden Marches, Heir to the First Seat of the Kellingwen, Keeper of the White Crown of Binding, Lady Royal with ten thousand farms and villages to her dowry, was used to snapping her fingers and having her commands obeyed. The world bowed to her command... except the tiny little girl in her womb.
And she loved that little girl’s fire with a fierce pride that terrified her.
A maid threw back the flaps to the tent and came up to tap her arm, breaking her reverie. “Your majesty, the aurors are concerned. They sense a problem. The underkings are gearing to break their fast. They emerge in a few moments.”
Winifred snapped her fingers to have the basin removed.
“Why?” She surged to her feet, struggling for air, reaching for her First Maid’s strong arm. “What do they see?”
“Deer are running past the camp. The animals are worried. It’s like the faery kin are calling, but the scouts sense nothing.”
“What do the captains say?”
“They’ve armed the perimeters.”
“And the dwarves?”
“They’re nervous. They think the… Unknown Dark could be on the move.”
Winifred gritted her teeth. “Then let’s get this underking nominated before it arrives.”
Her maids were efficient and silent, a well-trained team with generations of practice. In a moment her boots were back on, she was freshly gloved, with a new headress for the new ceremony, and the official white robe.
Her maids bowed and pulled open the curtains. Her honor guard at the door formed an escort of red cloaks and copper shields.
For a brief moment, Winifred wished the king was here. He was used to this sort of thing: the hordes of rough soldiers, the meeting of kingdoms, the diplomacy of peoples, the bustling columns and lines of marching men in strange lands.
She felt crushed by the baby from within, and pressed down by the weight of the world from without. She felt like a thin bubble holding the worlds together.
She jutted her chin. But that was her gift. To bear up and press back against it all. To welcome the weight, to thread the difficult weaves and twists of ruling. To breathe air with kings, lords, and dragonborn.
Massaging her belly, Winifred strode ahead, her maids falling into step behind her, her escort leaning their spears forward and locking their shields into an iron avenue.
Outside the tent, the wind groaned and grimaced, hissing through the trees. The thousand torches and campfires all lashed and rippled and roared like a single being, flexing one way, and then another, casting long shadows this way and that like a single flame swinging round a cavern.
Men went dry mouthed in fear around her. they watched the trees, muttering about faekin, and the eyes in the trees.
Ahead, a vast circle had been pruned out of the forest, carefully tended, free of flowers and leaves, all grass a uniform height. The tree canopy stopped in a clear line, leaf and branch shying away from the center of the lawn. A cloud-free, midnight sky loomed overhead, black as a well.
It was a royal lawn lined with uneven, ancient stones. And it ringed a Magic Mirror. The dwarves called it the Throat of Hidden Words.
The mirror stood like a great doorway, a shattered pane of clear glass pieces pressed together in a thick, granite frame. A rounded piece was missing in the right corner. Legends said that piece was a hand mirror somewhere, held by a beast.
As the soldiers parted and her honor guard folded right and left, Winifred trod the soft green grass and stopped before the Mirror.
Up close, it was stranger than she’d been told.
The glass was brocaded with a still smoke, a frozen steam, or a marbled air. It moved when she did, slowly roiling as she turned away.
She looked around for the Seven.
To her left, the walls of a thousand silent men stared at her, waiting. Horsehair crests, heavy robes, and hundreds of canvas tents shivered in the soughing wind.
To her right, hordes of dwarves. All seven kingdoms represented.
Stilled, silent as boulders, short as her elbow, thick as rampart merlons, ranked like glaciers of color and stone. They stared at a simple cabin. Their lines were neat, geometric, broken by serried staffs with stiff colored banners. Full beards that nearly blinded their eyes were braided with gems and the glint of gold wire. Some shifted heavily on their feet, glancing up at the trees, or over at the waiting aurors.
Two dwarves parted near the aurors to allow a thin dwarf through. Unbearded, hairless, wrapped in undecorated white and hemp string. This mineworld monk kept his hood pulled close over his face. He carried a basket of apples, ceremonial symbols of the Third World, the Fae Realm.
Apples were the fruits of the hidden laws, the blooming of secret smithies and unseen constellations. They carried life, fed life, surprised with life. And in the underking ceremonies, a human child would call forth the voice of the mirror, and seal the new king with a gift of this fruit.
The auror slipped silently, as strangely graceful as a heavy deer, placed the basket by the queen, bowed deeply, and retreated back behind the wall of dwarves.
Everyone was silent. Watching the cabin.
Winifred studied it. A woodcutter’s hut, framed in thick, black beech, roofed with fresh straw seeded with wildflowers. A stone chimney held up one wall. There couldn’t have been more than three living areas inside, perhaps an upstairs floor. The walls were patched with a simple white daub, now grayed with age.
Dwarves did not sleep above ground. They would rather stand at their posts, lean on their spears, and grow bitter and sick with weariness than sleep under the stars.
It was not their world. Theirs was a honeycomb of earth and dragons and goldwyrms, of stone halls and catacombs rich with firelight. So this ritual the kings followed each generation was doubly strange.
The front door creaked, and swung inward, vanishing into the gloom.
Out trooped a line of common looking dwarves, deeply bearded and wrinkled, small eyes cast downward and hands folded carefully together over plump midriffs. Winifred froze her features to hide her surprise.
These were the seven underkings?
They could pass for poor woodcutters, or mere masons. They wore neatly cut leather jerkins and aprons, earth-colored woolen caps, and hand-woven clothes. No gems, no medals, no honors. Nothing to make them stand out.
And yet each was a father of a World Layer, a husband to a Hundred Cities tiered through the Hollows and Lungs of the Dragon Deeps, Guardians of the Sunken Godgems, and more.
But these seven were ritually un-dragoned.
All peoples have an unknown dark, a shadow. Dwarves strangely become dragons when hoard and honor grows too great. So, every seven times seven years plus one, the underkings left their world, unlocked the fabled gates beaten with gold and script, and marched out.
Together, in this henge of stone and glass, these kings divested their royal robes, laid aside their crowns and medallions, hefted their armor and bucklers into chests, and stepped off their warrior-borne palanquins.
Pressed into simple white and poor leather jerkins, shorn of gold and glass, they shuffled into a small home, and slept together in a small room. They warmed homebrewed beer and yeasty bread, stoked a simple fire, passed around dark beer, cracked jokes, and spent the night hours in silent, reverent prayer. In this house, they were earth brothers again, not underkings. Equals, present within the realm of the overgod, ready to submit to the decision of an unborn babe.
Winifred didn’t think she could ever isolate herself with other queens. It was just... too much.
She waited for a nod from an augur, and looked left for a flat, ivory-white pavestone pressed into the grass. This was the Dais of the Decision, the Step of the Unbreathing Oracle.
A kick at the right moment defined everything for a new lifetime.
She stepped up onto the slim stone. Hefted her womb this way and that, hoping her baby kicked on the first candidate. She wasn’t looking forward to having to bend down and select an apple from that basket…But that was the least of her worries.
The guards behind her were rank with fear. The news of the Unknown Dark had spread like a rumor of war. It was the only one never invited to these gatherings, and the air was always thick with the tension of it. Some legends stated that it was the last member, the ninth role, meant to crown the candidate. No one could figure out how or why. So they ignored it.
The seven lords padded toward her and arranged themselves in a circle around the Mirror, grateful eyes riveted on her and her womb.
Her baby was suddenly restless. Punching. Squirming. as if sensing something. Winifred felt a tingling in her fingers, a prickling in her hair and ears, like the bated tension that charged the air before a thunderstorm. It was power. magic. the breath of the world.
She pressed her hands together near her heart to draw breath.
The process was simple. Each dwarf would walk to the right, standing between the Dais and the Mirror. They would pause a moment, and wait for movement from the baby. A kick was enough to decide. Then the mirror would speak.
Winifred watched as each king stepped quietly into place. Their eyes bored into her like glinting gimlets. She was used to the sight of her needle stabbing through threads of color. These were just as hard and sharp. She was sure some of them wished they could see through cloth and flesh, like the gods.
When nothing happened, the dwarf king bowed and moved right, and the next in line stepped up. The seven rotated in a ceremonial ring, moving with the precision of a clock gear.
The next dwarf smiled at her, a tense, warm smile. Even at this distance, Winifred smelled the musk of toasted oat bread, smoked wood, tanned leather, and hand-smelted iron. His stubby fingers were planted firmly together in a steeple. He glanced up at the mirror. Was he nervous about it?
And then he tilted his head, his grizzled hair falling away to reveal wide, pointy, hairy ears. They twitched. He frowned, and glanced up.
And then all the firelight slanted sideways together, as if the world tilted too. And suddenly everything alive looked up. Even the trees craned their crowns up at the sky.
A howling ghost echoed from the horizon...
The rustling, rushing, cawing and hawking of a million rooks crackled through the sky. Getting louder and clearer.
A hailstorm of hell.
Dwarves and banners and men and shields and torches and pennants scattered like waves crashing on reefs around the mirror ring. Shouting and panicked commands shattered the silence.
Winifred clutched her belly, the baby leaping like a wild horse. She felt like she was being pulled toward the mirror.
Now was the moment! Which dwarf was king? Who had been selected? She couldn’t tell.
She shook herself, gasping, staggering, and forced herself away from the pull of the Mirror. Her handmaidens and honor guard struggled to get to her, but a stampede of short, hairy, armored dwarves flooded the Mirror Ring and churned the lawn to mud, locking their shields into walls around their lords, blasting short horns and shuffling them like siege engines away into the trees.
Before anyone could get far, the thrashing of a thousand wild wings collapsed through the canopy, a whirling wall of black feathers, raucous caws and steel beaks. Claws dented and dinged off phalanxes of deepsteel. Feathered bodies burst against the pennons and spears.
The Unknown Dark wasn’t happy…
Winifred roared and held her hands before her face. In a moment her palms and brow were slashed and bleeding, her white cloak spattered with blood and torn grass and mud. Someone lurched against her, and shoved her sideways to her knees.
Gasping, yelling, beating bodies around her, she kept one arm wrapped around her skin-girt baby, and snatched up a spear with the other.
There was only one place safe and free from the chaos. The cabin. She forced herself to her feet, keeping her head down, stabbing the spearbutt into the ground like a staff to keep herself upright.
A group of her soldiers finally broke through, their shields held over their heads. The screeching and flapping was deafening.
“Get me inside!” She pointed at the cabin door. The guards went to work like millwheels, pushing and shoving and making a path in the chaos.
Before she knew it, they had reached the open door and she was inside and the door slammed. Silence.
These walls were thick. Soundproofed. The ceiling was low. The beams brushed her crown.
She blinked, and ran the back of her glove against her cheeks. She was suddenly aware of the stinging scrapes on her face, the tears in the cloak. And then realized she was sucking great, heaving breaths, dizzy, lightheaded, trying to focus.
She grabbed an overhead beam to steady herself, pressed back against the door, just for a second, and then threw herself against a lead-lined window to see what was coming.
Outside on the Mirrorlawn, the stars had disappeared. Her house was surrounded by guards, her maidens pushing through to get her.
And then came the shadow. Like a stone dropped through a well of cobwebs, gathering bodies of birds and beaks and feathers, the crows clustered into an unlit shape, a woman’s figure, encased in black armor. Floating above the ground.
Her face fused from crow bones into a pale, haunted woman, glancing around, drawing her hands together, dark hair streaming from a crown of hard light. Her lips were red. Dark red. Like blood. Her robes were stunning white, streaming from her shoulders like heavy, royal veils, etched with flakes of snow and hoarfrost.
Winifred’s heart shuddered. The Shadow Queen. The Unknown Dark. This was the first sighting in decades.
And now she was here.
Why? What would she want?
Now everything was in danger. Each underking’s throne was more than a ritual role. It was a counterweight in the world magic. Without this balance, each kingdom resting one within the other, the world stiffened, the magic died, and the skein of life cracked. Blood would sear and sour the world. It had happened before. Which is why this ritual meant everything.
Maybe that’s what the Shadow wanted. A broken world with more clefts to hide in, more darkness and rage.
Winifred shuddered. She could feel the mirror inhaling. Feel the magic tensing, like a river building up against a dam, looking for cracks, building pressure. And now… she could feel the Unknown.
She could almost taste the empty, swallowing darkness. The edge of it, like where a light wasn’t. An aftertaste of memory. The way sunlight speared a cave, dividing shade and bright into their own kingdoms. A sucking coldness in her being, threading her arms and skin, also appeared as frost on the window.
She tried to feel deeper. To feel the magic beneath the titanic power of the hellstorm outside. And her gut lurched. Both her baby and her own heart shuddered. Flakes of snow stilled out of the sky, and the air chilled.
The Shadow Queen reached out a hand and flexed her fingers toward the Mirror. It warped. It bent and shivered. Then drew taught with a groan, and snapped out of its henge. The pieces shattered, glittered in the air, held by unseen power, like a cloud of arrow heads.
Winifred struggled to understand. This meant… it couldn’t be…
She wrenched open the door and shoved her spearbutt between the wall of bodies. The soldiers jumped and turned, eyes wide in their helms, the air loud and heavy with rooks screeching.
Winifred held up her hands and screamed “Stop!” Her breath burst in steam against the freezing wind.
No one listened. No one could hear her. She forced her way through the crowd back toward the Mirrorlawn. Her soldiers stumbled over each other and the dwarves nearby, who raged back up at them.
Winifred staggered out on the lawn and threw down the spear. She raised both her hands, fighting every urge to wrap them around her belly.
The Unknown Dark turned her head to stare at Winifred. Her fingers closed into a fist, and the mirror shards fused together into a solid sheet.
A storm spun inside the mirror. An inhale of magic begged to be exhaled, to give voice to the name of the new first king.
Winifred waved frantically, trying to keep her attention. The whirling wall of crows and snow fell silent like a grave, like a coffin on the edge of a waterfall, a spinning eddy of feathers and bodies, making no sound but rushing wind.
Winifred’s ears ached and popped at the sudden silence.
“You are the snow,” she yelled. “The snow on the mountainside. The ice of the storm. You are the white of death, the edge of the light.” Her breath steamed around her face.
The two queens stared at each other, angry, fingers tense and throbbing with power.
Keeping her hands up, Winifred trudged over to the basket of apples. She sucked in her breath and her gut, snatched up an apple, and held it out.
What she thought she felt before, she felt even more strongly now.
“Your magic is the same as the mirror. Which means we all need you, the way life needs death. you are the Shadow that makes light seen. You are… the queen of snow.”
She held up the apple. “Your magic is my magic. We are a bond of life under the gods. Let the white queen, and the snow queen, break fruit this day.”
The Shadow Queen kept staring. Suddenly Winifred realized how beautiful she was. Pale and powerful, a mixture of harsh contrasts, black hair and blood red lips. Her features twisted, as if holding back harsh, flooding feelings.
Winifred’s heart felt an ache. And she realized it wasn’t her own ache. It came from the other.
“Please accept this, as a sign of welcome.” She took a step forward, and offered the apple.
For a second, she could feel the magic of existence, the entire world, holding its breath, hinging on this tiny henge under silent stars.
And then the basket of apples exploded. Each apple burst into chunks of juice and red skin. Swiftly freezing into spears and clots of ice.
The apple in her hand tensed, and burst, splattering across her face and cloak. Froze into a mask.
She didn’t budge, staring at the Shadow. She’d taken a gamble. Had she lost?
The Shadow Queen turned slowly, keeping her eyes on Winifred.
Then she lifted into the air, taking the mirror with her like a slab of hardened starlight. She gathered her crows to her, and wrapping herself in her horde of snow and steelclawed, greybeaked beasts, pulled away from the lawn and into the midnight.
Silence held on the lawn.
All eyes turned to the gap-toothed henge, the empty frame. Their minds blanked at the thought of a world without the Dragonglass.
Winifred sank to her knees, dimly aware of her handmaidens surging to her side, and the sudden ring of her honor guard gathering around her. She tasted the sweet apple on her lips, blinked it from her eyes.
it was clear to her. The Unknown Dark was not a problem to be solved. Storms and anger and death were not problems to be fixed.
“We’ve been wrong. So very wrong…” she managed.
Her maidens hovered desperately, waiting for her cue to lift her up. Her prime handmaid dropped to all fours before her, staring into her eyes. “With what, your majesty?”
Winifred pressed a hand to her hidden baby.
“This changes now. I name my child to be a promise and a pledge to a new path. We begin again today, to understand the world anew.”
“What name, majesty?”
“We didn’t come here to name a dwarf king. We came to name this child.
“She shall be… Snow White.”