The Mirror: The Maiden I. ONCE UPON A TIME, IN WINTER, there was a mirror. It had been brought from the East, where the sun rose, and the moon; that always-rising place of curiosity and brightness. The mirror was made of glass, which, in the lands it had been brought to, was not usual. And so, to protect it (but also because those who looked in it were sometimes very startled by the monstrous clarity of the reflections), it had a lid, which could be closed. And often then, the mirror stood shut by its silver lid, like a sleeping--or a dead--eye. However, today the mirror had been opened. What did the mirror see, looking in? A young girl, slender, clear and bright herself with youth. She stared at the mirror, which she knew must be sorcerous, and then swiftly away. But the mirror continued to mirror her as she went to a high window and, instead, looked out. "What can you see?" asked the blind old nurse in her turn. "The snow," said the girl, "and the black trees stretching up their arms to the sky. Nothing else." The nurse sang in her cracked voice: * * * " Black is the wood, white is the snow , Red the roses that under it grow --" * * * The girl paid no attention. She had observed something flickering, shifting through the avenues of the winter forest--was it a group of riders? A pack of wolves? Then nothing was there, only the wind thrusting by the trees. (War was bounding over the snow's book toward this castle, but the girl had not seen this. And the old nurse, witch enough once to have done so, was half blind too, now, in her psychic vision.) " Black is the wood --" "Hush," said the girl, irritated. She spoke to the nurse as, seven years before, the nurse would have spoken to her. Without protest the old woman withdrew herself, a snail, into the shell of her thoughts. And the girl went on staring at the forest. Her name was Arpazia. Her hair was black as the woods, her pale skin better than the snow. Her eyes, though, were a light, water-gray. She was fourteen years of age. She longed for change, not knowing the change of all things was almost upon her, nor what it could mean. * * * Draco the war-leader, soon to be a king, led his army through the forests. In his rough way, he had studied strategy, and was well aware few battles were fought by choice in winter. So, he had chosen it. His men no longer grumbled. They were warmed by spoils from the last three stone towns, and all the villages they had sacked. Up there, through the trees, stood the last castle on the board. But it would be easy to take. The lordling was old, and his battalions lax. Few were left to come to his help. Draco doubted if even a spy had reached this spot with the news of an army's approach. He had dreamed of that castle. In the dream it had been iron and obdurate, but nevertheless he smashed it like an egg. Then they all acknowledged him, gave in. He rode to the palace at Belgra Demitu, a king. As dusk began, deer roasted on the red fires. They ate them, and drank wine. Near midnight, Draco went to the priest and prayed. "God favors you, my son." "I know it, Father. How else could I have come so far?" "When you are raised high, do not forget God then." Draco thought the priest meant he must not forget the Church and his gifts which must be made to the altar, piling on the gold. But there would be plenty, and besides he was devout. "Amen, Father." * * * They had dressed Arpazia in the carmine dress, braided her hair, and placed on her head a slim golden circlet with a white veil. She was being taken to see her father. Arpazia had no memory of her mother. She had died, they told Arpazia, at the child's birth. From the beginning, too, she had not had a father, only this remote figure called a father, old to her even when she was an infant, who now and then acknowledged her, gave her some strange inimical present, like the emerald ring too big for her, or the Eastern mirror. He sat in his library, and below, down the stair in the hall, there was a lot of noise, the clashing of the men in their mail, and sometimes women crying. ("What is it?" she had asked her maids, hearing these sounds at first distantly. "Has someone died?" The maids looked frightened. It was the old nurse who said, rocking herself slowly, half smiling--but without joy--"Most will.") They were at war, it seemed. A horde marched toward them. Arpazia, too, became afraid, but only a little, for it was beyond her understanding. The library was a small room, its stone walls hung with carpets, or else shelves and great books heaped on, some large as a three-year-old child, or long tubes of wood or metal in which lay scrolls of yellowed paper. Arpazia's father glanced up from a map he had been studying with some difficulty--his pale eyes, too, the girl had learned, were no longer much use to him. "Is it you, Arpazia?" "Yes, Father." This question was not due to his eyesight, only his indifference, she suspected. He had other daughters in the castle, though none legitimate. Her own waiting-women were two of these. "Have they informed you?" "Yes, Father." "I expect you're fearful. It is a terrible thing." The elderly man raised his gray face and looked at everything, the room, his books, her, with a ghastly resignation. "This one who springs down on us is barbaric. And cunning. His symbol is a black bull snorting fire, but his name's Draco--the dragon." Arpazia felt a new, more positive fear. And yet, the gale of change blew in her face and never had she sensed her life or her youth so strongly. "What shall we do?" she cried. "Resist," said the remote father. "But fail. I judge there's little hope. Presently you should go to pray. Confide in the Blessed Marusa. The priest will shrive you. Wait meekly. When the hour comes, I'll find you. I will see to it you suffer nothing at their hands." Arpazia blinked. Was this magic he spoke of? He was very clever, she had always heard, intellectual and mentally powerful, if physically a poor specimen. "The nurse says," she blurted, "you'll give me wings to fly away--" He laughed. It was a horrible laugh. Not cruel, but nevertheless quite pitiless. "So I shall. She spoke well, the old woman. Tell her, I'll give her wings, too. She has been faithful, and why should they have her, these brutes, to make a slave of? Tell her, Arpazia, she too shall have wings." But as he said this, he did something at odds with the words, a piece of bodily theater that, without instructing the girl, yet fore-warned her. He drew a long thin dagger and placed it, shining, on the table. I must be shriven and then will be pure for Heaven. Angels and the souls of the dead have wings . Arpazia backed a step away, but her father had already lost interest in her, taken up as he was with preparing his own self for death, and his castle--that no one should have the benefit of it after him. When the girl had returned to her own apartment, she found her nurse still sitting at the fireside. "He means to kill me!" "Your father? Oh yes." The nurse was vague and dispassionate. Her abject fatalism might have bloomed for this moment. "He won't want the barbarians to get you. They'd rip you in bits with their dirty ways. It is a favor to you. None of the other girls will get any assistance, they'll have to see to it for themselves." Shocked, Arpazia hissed, "He said he would kill you too." "Good, good. That's kind of him." The girl screamed. But all over the castle women were doing that, screaming and weeping, just as the men shouted and cursed and drank, and the priest kissed images of the Christ and moaned long prayers. Arpazia ran to the window. There was a mark in the distance, above the forests, a sort of cloud. Something was burning, from the breath of the bull, from the fire of the dragon. But she must get away. She stood, irresolute. Nothing had ever happened to her. Un-practiced, she did not truly believe in this, and so, maybe, it would pass. Copyright (c) 2000 by Tanith Lee Excerpted from White As Snow by Tanith Lee, Tanith Lee All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.