I didn’t miss the little house in the woods until it was gone—its stools carved to fit my stunted legs and its eaves lowered for my unnatural arms to fetch the dried apples down on a winter’s night.
Our king has lost his queen. He has ordered his forests cleared. His grief has become my own.
The village is too large for me. Its stairs are too high, and the villagers are long limbed and smooth-faced.
“Hideous,” the milkmaids call me.
“Dwarf woman,” the tavern-keep says.
“Rose Red,” I tell them again and again. “My name is Rose Red.”
My mother and I huddle in our filthy room, paid for in the potions she is teaching me to make. Her twisted arms hold me tight. Our reflection in the mirror, the only thing my mother brought from the little house, is kind and good.
“You’re beautiful,” she says. I believe her.
The king and his little daughter will pass through our village in three days’ time. My mother and I will beg him for our little house in the woods.
The tavern-keep wants an enchanted barrel that will never run dry. His slick, leather boots reach as high as my chest when he bargains with my mother. He brings his daughter, a green-eyed beauty with red lips that frown at the sight of me.
His daughter wants a love potion to serve the king. She would be the new queen.
My mother shakes her head. “Magic for self always ends poorly,” she tells them both.
The tavern-keep will not accept this. He threatens and stomps his enormous feet. But my mother doesn’t tremble.
He spits on us.
His daughter hesitates.
I stare at the gob of spit on my mother’s skirt.
I beg her to make the barrel and potion. Perhaps the tavern-keep’s daughter will become queen and grant us our little house.
The tavern-keep rants. His daughter tells tales of the monstrous dwarves—half-male, half-female ghouls who steal love from the unwitting and spin it into foul magic.
My mother sends me to collect marigolds for a tonic. The baker’s boy and his friends chase me down an alley. The tavern-keep’s daughter watches from the window above. She turns away when they beat me with a stick.
“Monster!” the baker’s boy says.
“Die!” his friends say.
I cover my oversized head.
“Rose Red,” I say. “My name is Rose Red.”
When I stagger home, my mother is not there to comfort me. The mirror lies cracked on the floor. I collapse in our pallet of rags, pretending I hear her voice reminding me that I am beautiful. My shattered reflection shows me a bloodied dwarf with a torn face.
My mother does not come home. Not that day, nor the next, nor any day after.
The tavern-keep laughs when I work up the courage to ask him. He sizes me up like huntsman his prey. “Better dead than like you.”
As I leave, his daughter whispers the foul things the village boys will do to my deformed corpse. “Like your mother,” she says.
I flee, but my bandy legs are not fast enough and my gait is a waddle instead of a run.
Cracks slash my reflection in the broken mirror. I am not beautiful, no matter what my mother said.
But I am Rose Red.
My mother has taught me well. And our larder of ingredients is well stocked. But the enchantment is difficult. I curl up on the floor and rest, mirror clutched against my chest, for a night and a day, before I am strong enough to go on.
“You are beautiful,” I tell the mirror.
My face contorts into a withered mask, but the cracked glass heals. The mirror takes on the faintest sheen. My joints ache.
I force one foot in front of the other. My back is crooked now, and my fingers curled into claws. I clutch the mirror to my chest.
Dust on the horizon and flaring trumpets announce that the king and his little daughter are nearing our village.
I shuffle to the tavern. The tavern-keep’s daughter doesn’t recognize me. She cringes from my toothless smile.
“Go away, old crone,” she says.
“A gift for the future queen.” With shaking arms, I hold out the mirror.
The reflection of her glowing skin and red lips entrances her and draws her forward.
The king’s carriage rattles into sight. His little daughter sits upon his lap—hair black as coal, skin white as snow. She is a beautiful child.
The tavern-keep’s daughter lifts her eyes to the king’s as he passes.
“Mirror, mirror,” I whisper as I pass the mirror into the keeping of my enemy, “who’s the fairest of them all?”
“I am,” the tavern-keep’s daughter says.
The king’s carriage draws to a stop.
“Yes, my Queen,” the mirror answers.
“For now,” I whisper. The child truly is beautiful.
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