It is my great sin. Not that I killed her, but that I might have saved her.
I knew those woods were haunted by the dancing dead, and yet I left her there with her chest cut open. Because my queen asked for her heart. Yet, instead of slaughtering a lamb or the boar that furrowed in the meadow beside our resting place, instead of freeing her to flee alone and alive, I pressed her throat into the hard ground and slid my dagger in.
My last sight of her, splayed between twisted roots, fear a bright stain across her tiny face, remained with me. When I kissed my queen at night I saw the princess’s thin ribs jutting out of all that gore. They’d called her Snow White, but she was the white of naked bones.
My brothers and I prowled for death-catchers, and instead found a child bleeding all over our woods. We encircled her, chanted songs to the earth so that the trees bent to whisper in our ears what had happened.
She was pale and beautiful, even with blood splattered over her lips. I sank my fingers into the ground and lifted a smooth stone that glittered with veins of gold. We each breathed on it, seven words from seven mouths, that her life might return, and I placed it in her empty breast. Her flesh folded back over the wound until her white skin was unblemished and shone in the moonlight.
Her eyes opened, the color of violets, and she did not shrink away. “Who are you?” she asked, with a voice sweet as a songbird’s.
“We are sons of Ymir,” I said, “who crawled forth from the bowls of his corpse at the beginning of the world.”
“We are crafters of stone,” said one of my brothers.
Another added, “We walk in the night.”
“We are cousins to trees and the hot breath of dragons.”
“We flee the sunlight, and dance with the elves.”
My sixth brother smiled. “We are collectors of children.”
And the seventh bent down and lifted her up. “We have given you new life and you will serve us.”
From his long arms, the girl studied us. “You are pale and black both, as am I, as is my mother.”
“The blood of the Underhill washes through your veins.” I stood so that she might touch the milky, taut skin of my cheek.
I miss my mama.
I miss the softness of her raven hair, the gentle warmth of her snow-white skin, her smiling cherry lips. Even in the kindness of the dvergar I cannot stop thinking of her, longing for her, wanting to see her again and kiss her.
During the day, when the dvergar sleep, I curl among their bodies in the cottage made of stone and roots, and I dream of my mama. I visit her on clouds and gusts of wind, watch her combing her hair in the gilded looking-glass she so cherished, follow her as she paces with her ladies in the garden, run my fingers along her cheek as she listens to the harpist and applauds.
Sometimes, she shivers and glances my way. Never quite seeing me, but I know in those moments that she misses me, too.
The eldest dvergr is called Gryttr, and he is so kind. I prefer to lie beside him as dawn approaches and listen to his stories of alfr princes and death-dealing blades. He promises at the Long Night he will take me, along with his brothers, to the feast-hall of Nithavellir, the Dark Fields, where the dead dance with the shadow-walkers and all the food tastes of honey and heaven.
At night, my dvergar venture into the woods and often leave me with the cottage. I tend the flowers and coax robins and blackbirds closer to sing for me. They never come too near. I gather mushrooms and berries and create feasts for the dvergar as I did for my dolls at home. I brew tea and Gryttr is teaching me to make wine from the honey the bees make behind our cottage. On full moons we pour the honey-wine into the earth for the trees to lap up. We drink ourselves and dance so that our skin glows with the moon and our hair spreads out like black wings behind us.
I love my dvergar. I miss my mama.
No one of us expected the queen to know magic.
We returned one dawn to find our pretty-maid, our death-girl, our honey-keeper, sprawled on the soft, grassy floor of the cottage, much as we had first discovered her.
Her lungs and liver were missing.
I lifted a hand into a tree and pulled down a broad leaf, damp with dew. We breathed on it, seven words from seven mouths, that her spirit might return, and the leaf fluttered. I placed it in her empty chest. She breathed again, and the gold veins in her heart flashed.
My youngest brother Askr ran into the woods and returned with a blood-red apple. We breathed on it, seven words from seven mouths that her desire might return, and I put it into her empty chest. She did not wake.
But we dvergar know little of desire.
It is strange to see the dvergar mourn. They are such wise creatures, so staid in their actions and ways, we do not think that they might cry. Nor that their tears would be made of glass.
But when the seven brothers of the Overhill Wood processed into my palace, dripping beads of misshapen mirrors from their cheeks, all the feasting halted.
The tallest of them stepped forward. His long black hair slid against my polished floor and his shadow-rags hung off pearly, thin shoulders. “Oh, prince of the darkening meadow,” he said.
I liked his look, the twist of his lips, and was fascinated by the reflecting rainbows in his crystal tears. I stood down, off of my throne, and walked through the mass of ghouls and svartalfar watching us with unblinking black eyes. “Tell me your wish.”
“We have a child, dead and dead again, in need of your kiss. She is the victim of a foul witch, her own mother, who attacked her in our home.” His voice grated on my skin like pestle against mortar. “The child’s heart is of the earth, her breath of tree leaves, and her blood runs with the magic and beauty of Underhill. But we cannot put desire into her body.”
“Bring me the witch who has done this thing, and I shall recreate your child.” I held out my arms. “Take me to her.”
The eldest dvergr led me out of the earth and through the forest while his brethren hunted the witch. In a glade made lush with night-blooming flowers was a small, narrow coffin of pressed-dvergar-tears. The glass canopy protected a girl of such beauty I knelt by her side and lifted away the shield. Her black lashes cut across her cheeks like naked branches against a snowy field. She might have been my own sister, or kin to the dvergar. Skin like bones, like perfect ice, hair black as our nighttime halls, and lips stained with her own blood.
In death, her magic had blossomed, and she would soon dance in my feast-hall and sit at my side. I knew, with a slick satisfaction, what I would discover when the dvergar brought me the witch, her mother.
And when they threw the witch at my feet she gazed up at me with black eyes and with the same telltale beauty of all my people. A lost, vain huldrabarn, given to men by one of my cousins, or even maybe myself, in return for a human babe. “Strip her,” I said. They did, and when her flesh was bare to all eyes, we saw the proof of a thin tail ending in a tuff of coarse black hair.
She shrieked and cursed. But her words were nothing to a prince such as myself. “Hold her quiet,” I said, ignoring her cries for pity. “If she would so like to be seen, loved, give her a pair of hot iron boots and she shall dance for us tonight.” I turned again to the girl. “What have you to replace her desire?”
“An apple.” The eldest dvergr offered me a small one, bright and red.
I kissed its skin and put the red against my cheek. Eyes closed, I thought of the girl, of her ripening, as the apple was ripe. I knelt and placed the apple behind her womb. “Wake up,” I said into her mouth.