The roses leaned in the summer breeze, carrying pink and red petals over the fountains and flagstone paths. She reached forward and snatched one soft red flake from the wind and held it against her cheek. When she turned, she heard her mother’s gentle chuckle and saw her wide smile. Her father stood at her mother’s back. The tall king and the beaming queen, both so handsome and so full of pregnant smiles.
“Make a wish,” her mother whispered. “Blow it back into the breeze, and your wish will come true the moment it hits the water.”
She looked to her father, and he nodded. She sucked in a warm breath and blew her wish beneath the wings of the petal. Its soft veins rolled among each other as they whisked into the breeze, and the petal floated as though the air had become water. The girl smiled and clasped her hands, and her parents took her shoulders with their soft, loving hands.
The petal rose higher and higher, far above the others in their gentle stream. The girl felt her stomach rise as she, too, became lifted in the air. She looked to her smiling parents, but their smiles became grins, and they looked upon her with such sadness. She turned again to the petal, but it was beyond the stone gates beyond the rose garden then. It twirled above the ponds and the white geese.
“Momma,” she whimpered, but the air in her belly was too light for words.
The aroma of roses grew stronger as the girl felt more airy. Her feet could barely feel the grass beneath her slippers, and her hair lifted in the gusts. She turned to grasp her father’s hand, but it was naught but powder when she touched it. The sun blew up in the sky and swallowed the world in its brilliance. All that remained was the aroma in the wind.
She felt deadening cold shivers in her spine, her hips, her shoulders, and her cheeks. The sun was still a blinding white explosion behind her eyelids, but fear muted its strength. She breathed, but the air was wet and hurt her lungs. Her legs and arms were numb.
When her eyes focused, she first saw the azure sky. Then she looked at her bed around and saw that it was of wilted roses. Untamed bushes of teacup buds, all white and pink, poked up around her. The girl – nay, a woman in this strange world – lifted herself onto an arm and looked upon the wooded world around her.
A young man lay in the roses beside her. She looked upon his aquiline nose and his smooth jaw, all twisted and torn with rose thorns. His velvet tunic and cape were ripped and muddied. The woman reached to touch him, but her body was still numb. To her other side were shards of glass strewn about the roses and an epitaph: Lady Snow, the Fairest Maiden. The words were strange and ate at her tired head.
Is that my name? she wondered.
The words brought warmth to her fist, her knees, her neck, all the way to her breath. She pushed herself from the bed of roses and held the young man in her arms. His chest was still and his eyes marble. He had found his sleep a long time ago. The woman touched his lips, but there was no breath. She kissed him and combed the wilted petals from his soft hair.
There were others, she remembered. The woman felt her heart pound hard against her chest as she remembered that there were others – twelve of them – and she needed to find them. She ached to stay with this strange man, but there was nothing she could do for him. She lifted his knees and his magnificent shoulders and carried him to her bed of death. The glass was gone, but he would be safe her in his eternal peace. With one last touch of his pale cheek, she ran toward from the brilliant sun into the quiet woods. In her waking mind, she knew the way.
Squirrels and chipmunks dashed from her path as birds fussed in the oaks and maple branches. She slipped on a bed of shattered walnut shells and leaves but caught her step. The long funeral dress wavered at her feet and caught in the brush until it was naught but a tattered web of gossamer. The slippers squished with mud and rainwater, but she would not stumble again, for beyond the hill and under the elm was the home of men that had risked their lives to shelter her.
She crested the hill, but the cottage was naught but ash. Her eyes caught the cindered bodies in her periphery, but she clenched them shut. The birds had already come to clean up the destruction with beaks filled with food and golden trinkets. The woman ran and waved her arms against the birds, and once they were gone, she fell to her knees between two of the petite men. They held rakes and pick axes even in death with firm grips, and as she gazed upon their fat knuckles, she remembered how soft they’d felt against a young woman’s tears of terror.
Who would do this? She shook her head, for as soon as she thought the question, she’d remembered. It was that jealous, power-hungry tyrant. The queen of the realm who’d seduced and murdered her way into the throne and could drill her way through a broken heart a thousand times without a wince or a pity. Her step-mother, the witch from the dark forest, had been here with her army of bewitched soldiers. Their butchery was as clear as day.
One by one, she dragged the corpses to the funeral garden. She dug twelve graves and wove ivy vines and oak branches for markers. Each was buried with his weapon, a rose, and a kiss to his cheek. When she’d finished, the moon had risen high into the air, and Lady Snow was black with grave dirt. The forest was quiet save a distant howl from a lone wolf, but when the leaves were still and the wolf was quiet, all was silent save her angry, beating heart.
She unwrapped the young man’s belt from his stiff waist and tied it around her own. His sword in its leather sheath was light, and the cloth wallet was still heavy. If she traveled by the goat path and river bank, she could reach the outskirts by noon. There she could meet with the rebels and the Good King’s spies to finally defeat the wicked tyrant – the woman who’d taken everything from her. And if a fool highwayman or bandit ambush her on the way, heaven help his soul.
Snow tore a weak white blossom from the bush and left it on the young man’s hands. Its white stem soaked with the blood by his heart until it was brown. “When this flower blooms, this will be a new world,” she promised quietly. “I can never thank you enough for what you’ve done. Goodbye.”
With her promise and her spite, she started east.