That’s how folks describe 16-year-old Snow White, who is more interested in studying insects than her own beautiful, anemic face. When her bipolar stepmother sets a price on her heart, which she’d like served with baby potatoes and Chianti, Snow White has no choice – she must outwit every studly huntsman, assassin, city guard and robber baron sent to bring her back, preferably dead, before she reaches Lapland.
20-year-old Aein is a one-winged cripple from another planet. Passionate, ridiculed, headstrong, and considered hideous in his gossamer, aerial world, he desires nothing more than to prove to his royal family that flight and beauty are overrated. He gets his one chance when he is selected to go to Earth, disguised as a ‘Crawler’ – who appears to us as a phenomenally handsome human youth. His mission: to pave our world for colonization and, later . . . annihilation.
Snow White and Aein must choose their allegiances, and fight a forbidden, growing love for each other before their worlds explosively collide. Set in the enchanted forests of the Brothers Grimm, Snow White & The Alien is a Tangled-meets-The-Day-the-Earth-Stood-Still collision of opposing personalities, cultures, armies, and ideas of what constitutes beauty.
I’m a fool, I’m a fool, I’m a fool, Snow White repeated to herself as she rode her mare, Coleoptera. A sack larger than her torso was slung across Coleoptera’s withers, filled with bug examination paraphernalia: a magnifying glass, a sketchpad, a net, and various other instruments. She should have made a run for it while she had the chance, but the thought of Wolfsbane breaking Tom’s neck paralyzed her.
Surreptitiously, she eyed Wolfbane’s large hands – hands which were equally capable of snapping a woman’s waist and pleasuring her stepmother, perhaps simultaneously. Would his palms be callused when he molded their contours around her throat? Or would he use the large hunting knife that swung in its leather sheath, tethered to his waist by a belt?
The day was breezy and the sun floated above glorious pink clouds, enough to warm the hardest of hearts. But Snow White’s heart pounded with every clop of Coleoptera’s hooves. Alone with her assassin, riding deeper into the Enchanted Forest like a lamb to the slaughter. She wanted to bang her head against the onrushing trees. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
She had started out with the best of intentions.
“Your stepmother, the Queen, has asked a boon from you,” Wolfsbane said in the stable. He was flanked by two stone-faced guards in livery. “There’s a new species of bug spotted in the Enchanted Forest by the gamekeepers. She wants you to capture one and bring it back. Perhaps, she thinks, she might make a gift of it to the King of Spain.”
Snow White and Tom exchanged glances. The expression on Wolfsbane’s unshaven face was uneasy, but his tongue rolled glibly with lies.
“Where exactly in the Enchanted Forest?” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. Tom, on the other hand, wore his terror on blanched cheeks. Wolfsbane paid him no heed. His eyes were fixed on Snow White, a cougar measuring his prey. Once again, she caught the flicker of guilt within them.
“Northwest, where the honeysuckle is thickest. Two days by horseback,” he said.
He needs two days to kill me? I must be more of a handful than I thought.
She held her head up. “Very well, but I will need my equipment. Everything’s in my lab.” Anything to get them off Tom Cherry, whose mouth was opening and closing like a bellows.
And now they were deep in the Enchanted Forest. The uppermost boughs wove a tapestry above their heads and the sun was mostly blocked out. Unseen birds darted in the foliage. Everything was suspiciously tranquil. The scent of wood and musk flooded the air, but Snow White could not see any wild beasts.
The wildest beast of them all was by her side, astride a galloping horse.
Where would he make his move? How fast exactly was his horse, Wolfstomper? Snow White was no equine specialist, but she was willing to wager his black stallion – whose vicious eyes were ringed with white – would easily catch and take a bite out of the rump of gentle Coleoptera, chosen for her specially because she kept falling off as a child.
Back to her escape plan. Or the non-existence of it.
“So,” she said conversationally, “how long have you known my stepmother?”
“About a year and a bit.” He drew his horse to a canter beside hers. He avoided her eyes.
“Do you love her?”
He pondered this before replying, “Most people don’t think so, but I do.” He shot Snow White a look that said ‘I don’t care if you believe that’. “She’s not like anyone I know. She can be a little ruthless – ”
More than a little, Snow White thought.
“ – but she has layers. She’s a mystery I haven’t wrapped my mind around yet, and I thought I’d seen them all.” He paused before adding, “It’s complicated. I don’t expect you to understand.”
Oh, so she’s a murderess wanting to make you a murderer, so she’s complicated. Snow White fumed.
Midday came and she still hadn’t thought of a plan. It didn’t occur to her that other girls could only dream of having her face and figure, and she could well use her feminine wiles to lure Wolfsbane away from his mission. But Snow White didn’t have any feminine wiles. Her mind ran in different circles: the scientific, the strange, the obscure, the complicated. It would have shocked her if anyone were to suggest she turn alluring eyes to Wolfsbane and barter her virginity for escape. Snow White was not prudish – growing up, she was used to seeing Tom Cherry and his brothers semi-unclothed – but the very fact that men could find her irresistible was as outlandish to her as wearing a dress made of insects.
“Do you know how my father died?” she suddenly blurted out.
“You mean the King? It’s common knowledge. He was leading the chase for a particularly huge wild boar, one that was terrorizing a poor village. His horse stumbled and fell off a cliff.”
“That’s the gossip parchment version. My father died from eating a bad apple.”
Wolfsbane raised his eyebrows. “A bad apple?”
“A particularly bad one,” she said, turning clear eyes towards him. “I was two at the time. No one knows how it got into his breakfast basket, but there it is. You never know who’s going to knife you in the back.”
“It might have been an accident,” he said, clearly troubled.
“There are no accidents where royals are concerned,” she declared.
They stopped for the horses to be watered. As he firmly took Coleoptera, which he insisted on calling Cleopatra, to graze, Snow White saw something alight on a quivering leaf.
It was a bristling, yellow and black insect.
Slowly, she drew her gaze to the boughs of the juniper tree above. She hurriedly threw a look over her shoulder. Wolfsbane was tethering Coleoptera to a stake in the ground. Snow White took note of his dark brown leather jerkin and charcoal grey pants, a contrast to her white tunic and light brown coat.
Her heart pattering wildly, she swung round again, and held out her hand to the insect. It ignored her. Her hopes sank. Those in her conservatory had been nurtured by her, and it took many days of close contact to get them to that level of trust. But insects in the wild would take precious time to bond to. Time that she didn’t have.
A faint cry pierced the air. “Snow White!”
She froze. Tom Cherry’s voice! It came from the trees south to them, and was carried by the wind. He was looking for her! Possibly on horseback, and possibly backed by his brothers. She flashed a look at Wolfsbane, and saw – from the look of consternation on his face – that he heard it too.
“I – ” she began, but with several loping strides, Wolfsbane reached her side. She cried out as he caught her around the waist and wrestled her to the ground. Her elbows flared with pain as they struck the patchy grass.
“Why is he here?” he demanded, pinning her down.
“Because he thinks you’re going to kill me!” She jerked up her knee to smash him between his legs. Wolfsbane cried out. He rolled off her, groaning.
“No,” he gasped, “you misunderstand me, I’m trying to protect – ”
She jumped up and grabbed a small rock with her right fist. His eyes widened. But she did not bring it down on his skull.
Instead, she flung it at a large conical structure that hung from the juniper tree above. The structure was cream-colored and patterned with whorls that looked like the compacted fleece of sheep. Several insects hummed softly around it.
Please, she pleaded.
The stone struck the wasps’ nest dead center.
“Wha – ” he began.
Snow White ran, her shoes slapping the ground, and dove into an untidy thicket. The hum of wasps behind her reached an unholy frenzy. She heard Wolfsbane cry out. She didn’t stop or look back. When provoked, she knew that wasps attacked dark-colored objects, including people wearing dark-colored clothes. She ran and ran, the bushes and brambles clawing at her arms and legs, ripping the fabric of her sleeves and pants. A twig struck her forehead just above her eye. Panic made her ignore all pain.
She ran until her lungs gave and her legs were on fire. She gulped in huge breaths that caused her to wheeze like an old woman. It was only then she stopped, her body doubling over, and listened out for the wasps.
When no hum came, she waited for a long while, debating whether to call out for Tom Cherry. She decided against it for fear of the wasps attacking her rescue party.
Instead, she made her unsteady way back to where she left Wolfsbane, the guilt rising to her throat. Her pulse clomped to a staccato beat when she reached the clearing. She wondered if she had the stomach for this.
Wiping away the hot tears that sprang to her eyes, she took a deep breath and stepped out. The wasp nest was barely dented. A few wasps still circled around it, their anger apparently satiated. The horses and Wolfsbane were nowhere to be seen. Two stakes and two broken tethers lay on the ground.
Cold fingers of dread crept through Snow White. She had counted on the horses and supplies to navigate out of the Enchanted Forest. She wasn’t going to return home, no way. Now she was stuck in a hostile forest, with wild beasts and unresponsive insects and goodness knows what.
A low groan a little way off behind a clump of trees alerted her. She was immediately wary. Should she run? If the horses weren’t here, there was no point in sticking around. But the groan was repeated, and it sounded so much like a death rattle that she could not help but pad through the trees. She wrapped her neck fearfully around a trunk.
A plump man lay on the ground, immobile. His face and neck were swollen and pink. It took Snow White a while to recognize from his ripped clothes that it was Wolfsbane.
Shock turned her stomach.
Oh my God.
He wheezed, and her chest clenched to see this once magnificent man reduced to a bloated mass. His face turned painfully at her approach. She held her ground, slightly afraid.
“You,” he rasped hoarsely. Even his voice was strangled beyond recognition. “I was . . . going to let you . . . go.”
A hard lump came to her throat.
“Queen,” he went on, clearly on his last breath, “wants you dead. Far north are Laplands. Go. Make your . . . home . . . ”
And he breathed not another word. His glassy eyes stared at her like a final rebuke.
For a long while, she did not move. The sweet scent of flowers came to her on the wind, but she did not heed them.
“But I didn’t mean to kill you.” Her voice came out puny and frightened. “Does it still make me guilty . . . if I didn’t mean to?”
She slid down to her haunches. Her knees trembled. She rocked herself back and forth. I’m a killer, a killer, a killer, her momentum seemed to say. I murder people who are trying to help me. I’m no better than she is.
Dark thoughts chased one another, along with darker images. She saw herself in a different tapestry of the Enchanted Forest. The handsome horned devil was in the center once again, amid wild beasts that wore the faces of Tom Cherry and his brothers. She was woven into the scene with silver thread, a scarlet dash for her lips. Her feet were doused in flames.
She remained in this position for a long while, until a realization struck and she looked up, as if awakened from a trance. Another type of buzzing tugged at the air. Flies were beginning to settle on the body.
A large vulture floated down from the sky to land on a branch.
She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” she said to Wolfsbane’s corpse. Her voice cracked.
Gathering her courage, she crept to the body and wrested the hunting knife from his side. She could feel the skeins of steel vibrating within the wooden handle. Then she turned abruptly and ran from the place, never to set foot upon it again.
In the center of the Hive, the Wormhole flared crimson and orange and blue and green. A rainbow tongue, not unlike a solar flare, leaped to where Aein stood on the gallery, his heart in his throat.
Find the Blue Planet guilty, no matter what. Thulrika’s request echoed in his ears. This went against everything he had been taught. Everything a Knight of the Redwood Table stood for.
The irony of it. To save Spora, he would have to betray her holiest values.
Mechanical golden beetles swarmed around him and the Blue Planet carapace he would occupy. He gazed at it in its open chrysalis. Its alien form was staggering. And to think that his flesh, his very soul, would be sucked into it and fused; his DNA molded into a moist, molecular soup. The actual metamorphosis would take months, and yet all this would be accelerated in the distorted time of the Wormhole.
He would be in the Blue Planet before he knew it.
He was suddenly floored by the enormity of it all.
On a dais, his mother, the Hive Queen, sat on a makeshift throne. Six feelers squirmed from her head to imbibe the air. She too was malformed. She no longer walked or flew. She had to be carried on a luxurious golden litter strewn with precious leaves and scented twigs. But her disability stemmed from copious childbirth, not genetics. She had born whole and pure, and fed with a special brew to make her Queen. Now, her distended abdomen hung around her in pendulous folds.
“Aein, my son!” she exclaimed, her eyes reflecting his image a thousand-fold. Her voice was thick with emotion. “You have a final chance to change your mind. I found a clause in the legal letter. If you have only one wing and you have a ready successor like Dimynedon, you can walk away from this.”
“No, it’s my birthright to be a Judge.” Aein refused to let his mother faze him. He spent most of his life letting her voice stream through his senses and out his other pores. She was always telling him what he couldn’t and shouldn’t do, which of course made him all the more determined to prove her wrong.
Beside his mother, Thulrika remained unperturbed. The Supreme General’s wings were folded behind her back as she perched beside the litter. As Aein entered the chrysalis, a look passed between them.
Don’t fail Spora, Thulrika’s face said.
Aein’s expression betrayed nothing.
The Queen fanned herself with a scarlet leaf that must have been worth half the Hive. “I can’t bear to look,” she said weakly.
“Oh mother, spare me the histrionics.” Aein forced a note of false cheer into his voice. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
They both knew it might not be true. Despite months of studied preparation, immersing himself in the language, the would-be environment, and as much of the inhabitants’ culture as the golden beetle scouts could transmit, Aein knew the quest would be dangerous.
“By Fytenach the Fair,” he proclaimed, as was the custom, “I swear by all that is holy to uphold justice and fairness.” His voice cracked at the final word because Thulrika was watching every twitch of his facial muscles.
The Chief Biologist made to seal the chrysalis. Aein could smell its alien scent of musk and meat as he allowed himself to fuse with the plush wetness of its interior.
“The navigation crystal?” he inquired.
“It’s embedded within the chrysalis walls for safety,” the Chief Biologist said. “It has everything you need – map, communicator, compass, pulse stick. Do not lose it. No one here can help you otherwise.”
Aein peered at the brownish crystal within a wall pocket. It seemed fairly sturdy. “Thank you.”
He lay back and grimaced. This was his greatest chance to prove himself he was every bit as good as Dimynedon and the others.
Snow White’s stomach rumbled. She continued to walk through the forest, stopping every hundred feet or so to rest. Her constant fatigue would be the death of her, she decided, if she didn’t trip into any more wasp nests. Birds sang and flitted through the boughs, rustling leaves.
What are you so happy about? she thought grumpily.
Her leather shoes, which were becoming worn, popped dry twigs. At least she was still alive to pop twigs.
Every now and again, she listened for the galloping of hooves and Tom Cherry’s voice. But they were lost from each other. Her spiral of extremely bad luck was continuing. Now and again, she raised her voice – tinny in its extremely parched throat – to call “Tom!” But there was only the whoo-whoo of the wind through the trees.
Between deep breaths, she muttered:
“Damn, damn, damn, damn.”
“What a stupid situation this is. Of all the stupid, stupid – oh, I’m so angry I can eat hobnails right now.”
Forlornly: “I’m hungry enough to eat hobnails right now.”
“The Queen wants to kill me over some devil pact. OK, I get that it has something to do with her aging. Immortality is overrated anyway. What’s the big deal about aging?”
“OK, so it has something to do with me being beautiful. So I’ll hit my face repeatedly against a tree and I won’t be beautiful anymore. So there!”
After an hour or so, she said angrily: “Why do I have to bang up my nose to spite her face?”
Then over and over, until her muttering became so furious that her mouth felt like the inside of a shoe left out in the midday sun. She fell silent, but her dark thoughts clomped through her boots. Night came. The smell of water in the wind made her press on, her heart swelling for the first time in a long while. The path widened, and suddenly she was at the edge of a pond – calm, glacial and reflecting the round ball of the moon. The scene was so tranquil that her breath caught in her throat.
“Salvation,” she whispered, not wanting to shatter the peace around her as fireflies swooped everywhere in a merry dance. She knelt and drank her fill, wishing she had a pouch or pitcher. Who knew when she would next find water?
The next morning, she rose, unrefreshed from her sleep. Now burning vapors cored a hole into her stomach. She was tempted to stay by the water, but decided she had a mission more important than dying of thirst. That’s right. I have to get to Lapland.
She trotted resolutely north, leaving the security of the pond behind her. The farther she got from the water, the more uncertain her steps became.
A green-and-blue dragonfly swooped by her nose.
“Well,” she resigned herself to saying, “if I don’t talk, I’ll go mad. But if I talk too much, I’ll be thirsty. It’s a no-win situation. I hope you and your friends can lead me to a nice trencher of lamb marinated in garlic sauce.”
She had zero survival instincts and she knew it. She was equally skilled to trap a rabbit as she was to stand on top of a horse. She looked for fruit trees, but the pines and junipers were disappointingly barren of apples and pears. There were rabbits, but she only saw the flash of their tails as they bobbed away, unafraid, from her incompetent grasp.
She saw her doom written in the laughing barks of the trees. The irony. To escape from the Queen’s clutches only to meet starvation and thirst.
Just ahead, where a clump of trees blocked the path, she thought she glimpsed something to interrupt the monotony of bough and smirking rabbit. She couldn’t be sure at this distance, but the crimson glint came again, like light reflecting off a red mirror. Snow White hesitated. She had already experienced a lifetime of children’s nightmares. Her stomach growled again.
The dragonfly sped ahead.
“Yes, sure, run away when the going’s good. Leave me all to my lonesome self.”
She steeled herself to approach the anomaly. When she drew nearer, she saw that it was the mouth to an underground cave. A light pulsed within its depths as though a great colony of fireflies glowed in unison inside.
The dragonfly spiraled into the mouth of the cave, as did entire colonies of insects – ants, grasshoppers, beetles, flies. They trooped inside and out again in orderly lines. Snow White observed that the exiting ants carried tiny yellow crystals between their mandibles.
“It’s some sort of food for you folks, isn’t it? I’m not sure I can eat it, but I’m hungry enough to try.”
She stooped to enter the cave, whose entrance was shorter than her by a head. Her right foot slipped against crumbing rocks and she had to grab the wall to steady herself. The light pulsed. She saw a large and long object on the cave floor a little distance away. It was amber in color. When it glowed, its center was like burning coal upon a hearth. Large chunks of the amber exterior had broken off. Insects massed and flew all round it, picking up the crumbling matter and carrying it away in work lines. The object smelt of honey, and for a moment, Snow White wondered if it were a new sort of hive.
“A new species of bee?” she said excitedly.
But wait, she was supposed to be a fugitive, running for her life. And yet, here she was, the scientific part of her as curious as ever. Perhaps this was meant to happen. Perhaps her banishment was a prelude to the greatest discovery ever known to man!
Without fear, she approached the object. Up close, its texture was woven like a cocoon. She ventured a questing hand to touch it. It was warm and very alive.
“Wow,” she said. Then she remembered her sack of instruments, lost forever with Coleoptera. A pang fleeted through her when she thought of her horse and her lost life. Back in the castle, she hardly rode Coleoptera and never gave a second thought to the vast number of instruments in her lab, her every whim catered to. But now everything was gone. She had nothing to document this wonderful discovery.
“It’s all right,” she consoled herself, “I have superior intellect, if nothing else. I’ll collect samples.”
Before she could take this significant step for mankind, the cocoon emitted the brightest light she’d seen so far. She had to shield her eyes. For the first time, doubt crept into her. She had never been harmed by insects before, but this was an uncharted species, possibly cranky and dangerous.
From the cocoon came the sound of crackling, as though many sticks were simultaneously snapped. The smell of honey was stronger than ever. The insects ran wildly from the disintegrating structure. Snow White wondered if she should do the same, but her curiosity – the very one that made her venture into the garden barefoot to look for glow worms at three in the morning – stayed her feet.
Cracks snaked all over the cocoon. Tufts of matter fell off. To Snow White’s amazement, a human hand struck out from the top.
It was pale and perfectly formed.
“Oh no, someone’s trapped in there,” she exclaimed.
With renewed vigor, she clawed at the cocoon. The material came away like pieces of a dry cake. The hand was encrusted in a light gold dust. As the cocoon was destroyed from inside and out, more of it emerged – a forearm, then an arm – and before Snow White could bemoan the need for documentation, a man covered in bits and pieces of the amber sediment clambered slowly out.
He was completely naked.
He stared at Snow White, whose jaw dropped to the floor of the cave.
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