Rose Red’s Forest

            Once, there were two young girls who lived in an orphanage in a small village just on the edge of an ancient forest. From the day that the two met, an instant bond had formed between them. The two delighted in each other’s company more than they did any of the other children. Despite the thin porridge that the children were sometimes served, despite the daily hours of chores that they had to put up with, and despite the chill of winter through thin clothes and cold hearths, the two were always happy as long as they were together.

            The first was brash and bold and was happiest out in the forest with all the animals. And the animals loved her back. Both hunters and prey would come to her without hesitation, bringing her gifts from the forest, and she would do her best to see to their well-being, giving every effort that none would ever be hurt, singing soft lullabies to them. All the children of the orphanage called her Rose Red, on account of her fiery red hair.

            The second was calm and ever so polite. She was happiest in the village among all the people. She spent her free time walking through the village, greeting everyone she found, and merrily singing the day away. Even the cook, who had the foulest of temperaments couldn’t help but smile when she came around, offering her treats whenever he saw her. She always accepted politely, then brought them back to the orphanage to share. There, they called her Snow White, because of her shockingly light hair.

            As the years passed, the bond between the two girls remained as close as ever, but the people of the village started to become more distant whenever they came around. Where they had originally been bemused by the two’s closeness, now the smiles turned to frowns whenever the girls came around. Not even Snow White’s charms could cheer them up. Then the whispers started, and everyone in the village started wondering what the two of them were doing out there in the forest, where all the magical creatures dwelt, sometimes not even coming back until sunrise. The two retreated into themselves, finding their solace in the forest, as even the children of the orphanage had turned against them.

            One day, the soldiers of the Baron came and took Rose Red and Snow White away as they were returning from the forest. The villagers had gotten together with the local priest, convincing him that the wild and relatively untamed Rose Red was a sinner who had traded her soul, cavorting with the wicked spirits of the forest, striking deals with the damned. That if not separated, she would be doomed to follow down the wicked path of Rose Red, and her soul would be lost. The priest was swayed easily, always been keen to side with the loudest voices, and with such an esteemed holy man on their side, there were none who would dare oppose the plan.

            Rose Red was sent to live in the forest with the huntsman, intended to be made his wife as soon as she came of age. It was a wretched existence for her, being forced to keep house for a man who seemed to have animal instincts rather than civilized. She was even forced to assist in the butchering of her beloved creatures of the forest that the huntsman claimed. But worst of all was being separated from Snow White. Not a night went by that her tears did not greet her pillow. The creatures of the forest longed to comfort her, but none dared to approach the hut.

            Snow White was sent to be the handmaiden of the Baron’s new wife. She lived in a tower, spending her day with nobody to talk to except for the vain and pompous woman, who spent hours of each day staring into a mirror while Snow White brushed her hair. Snow White missed Rose Red dearly, but she found that she could not even cry for that loss. Her heart had gone cold in that tower, and not even the delicious food that she ate could give her pleasure. Eventually, the Baron’s gaze began to stray from his wife to Snow White, which drove the vain woman mad with envy.
            The seasons changed, and the years came and went. On one particular night, Snow White was sent to sleep in the servant’s quarters instead of the little room at the top of the tower. Just after midnight, the Baron’s wife fell from the tower. There were rumors of course. Some said that she threw herself off in shame of being unable to produce an heir for the Baron. Others said that the Baron himself had done it, having lost interest in her. Nobody had any doubt of what would happen next. The Baron must have a wife, and he only had eyes for Snow White. Nobody seemed overly concerned with her opinion.

            Being a wife changed Snow White’s life little. She still spent most of her time in the tower, only now she sat at the mirror and someone else brushed her hair. She got to leave the castle on occasion, but it was always with a group of guards that kept people away, who were led by a brute who seemed happiest when he beat people with his club, usually with no reason. But even he always smiled when they saw her, and they would stay their fists if she ordered it.

            On a cold winter night, the Baron joined his first wife in falling over the edge of the tower. He had come up to visit his Snow White, so drunk from gambling with his friends that he could only stagger up the stairs. When his brother was sent for to take over the barony, his wagon was waylaid by bandits, and there were no survivors. Snow White was named as the new Baroness. The Brute and his men made sure none would question her ascension. She had her freedom again, but her people looked at her with fear. But her heart was still cold, and she found that meant nothing to her.

            One day, news reached the castle that the village of Snow White’s youth had been attacked and destroyed. Every manner of creature had come out of the forest in a frenzy, destroying everything that they had come across. Snow White immediately arranged to travel there. The Brute and his men travelled with her, to keep her safe. They were also smart enough to realize that their easy life depended on her being the Baroness.

            For the first time since she had last stepped in the village, Snow White started to feel alive as she walked through the familiar wreckage. A smile came to her face as she retraced her old steps around the town, and she started to feel the music in her heart once again. She stopped at the cook’s kitchen; it had been destroyed, burnt to cinders. She went to the priest’s church; it had collapsed in on itself. All the buildings of those who had sent them away had been destroyed, surrounded by building that only had minor damage.

            The survivors of the village were scared, wounded, and worried about surviving the winter, but Snow White had no interest in them. Her eyes fixated on the priest, who seemed unharmed when everyone else was bloodied. They didn’t recognize her: all they saw was the authority she held over them.

            “Who did this?” asked Snow White, cutting off a report that their winter stores had been destroyed.

            “It was the Witch! She controls the foul beasts of the forest and wants all of us dead.”

            “And why is that?”

            All the villagers’ eyes turned to the priest. He shifted nervously, then stood to speak. “Evil only cares about harming the righteous, my Lord. She cannot have our souls, so she wishes to make do with our lives.”

            Snow White’s lips curled into a cold smile. “Then you shall guide us into the forest, and we will all have the justice that we deserve.”

            The Priest stared nervously, looking at the armed guards. “Perhaps someone else would be more suitable. My talents are best used here, tending to my flock.”

            “Your talents are best served wherever I say they are, good priest, and I believe that your prayers will aid us.”

            Terror gripped the Priest, but he realized that he had no choice. “As you wish.”

            As the group stepped foot into the forest, they began to hear the singing. It was beautiful and eerie. It seemed to come from everywhere, and nowhere at once. The normal hum of life in the first was gone. Not even the animals wanted to disturb the song. The men reacted with fear, scanning the trees for the singer, but Snow White’s heart beat with excitement, recognizing the tune. As she walked, she began to hum under her breath.

            Deeper into the forest, thick briars blocked their path. The group split up, each looking for the best path. Nobody heard the threat approaching, but there were the sudden growls of animal instinct, followed by the gnashing of teeth and the tearing of flesh. Then there were the tortured cries of man that cut short suddenly. Once they regroup, there were two less of the guards. They started to panic, but Snow White pushed them forward. There was no time to delay.

            Next, they came across a small clearing, with a hut in the center of it. There were several racks for hanging the meat and a large fire pit that sat cold. The area was silent, and only one object was hanging from the racks, blowing slowly in the wind. The soldiers relaxed at the touch of civilization within the forest, laughing away the tension.

            As the men were distracted, Snow White heard the soft ringing of a ball coming from the edge of the clearing. She turned, then watched as a small white wolf came up to her, carrying a white basket in its mouth. Its coat was pristine, detangled, and brushed. She cooed softly at the wolf, then patted its head before it dropped the basket and went back into the forest. The basket was full of white rose petals, and on the handle was tied a red ribbon with a bell attached. She pulled the ribbon off and tied it into her hair, then picked up the basket and walked towards the hut.

            The soldiers had gathered around the rack, and one of them was awkwardly trying to cut down what was hanging there. The priest stood nearby, shaking terribly, and muttering a prayer under his breath.

            “Stop that!” Snow White screamed, loud enough to make even the most hardened of soldiers jump. She’d only over seen him from a distance as a child, but she recognized the Huntsman hanging upside down by his feet, even though the scavengers had taken their share of him already. The men turned to her with shock, clearly unhappy at the command.

            “Nobody deserves to be treated like this, especially with a priest here.” the Brute said.

            Snow White shook her head. “There is no time. We must find her, make right the wrongs that have happened.”

            The singing from the forest began again, this time much closer, the words clear enough to understand.

Snow White, Snow White. A widow am I, on my wedding night.”

            Snow White took off deeper into the forest, no longer caring if the men caught up. As she walked, she began tossing the petals in her wake, and singing along.

“Rose Red, Rose Red. My husband had a great fall, and now he’s dead.”

            The soldiers and priest hurried to catch up, as scores of wolves began howling, encircling them.

“Snow White, Snow White. I still remember the promise we made.”

“Rose Red, Rose Red. Together forever, and never afraid.”

The Priest froze with horror, finally realized who Snow White was. “Not you! They said you’d never come back. We tried to save you!”

            Snow White stopped to smile at the Priest. It was a beautiful smile, but the hatred was impossible to hide. “And here is your reward. You get to feed the wolves, and the worms. Only the best for you, old friend.”

            The priest turned and ran back towards the relative safety of the village. He made it almost a minute before the wolves were upon him. His cries of agony echoed softly throughout the forest.

            The soldiers reached their breaking point. Their selfishness came out, and each turned in ran in a different direction. However, anger overwhelmed the Brute and instead, he decided to take it out on Snow White. He moved quickly, but she was faster, dodging him, then took off at a run. The Brute chased after her, screaming like a madman, no longer caring about anything else.

            The forest opened into one last clearing. At the center of it stood Rose Red, dressed in a beautiful red gown, a white ribbon tied in her hair. A bed of rose petals covered the clearing, except for a path of white where Snow White came out of the woods.

“Snow White, Snow White. Is that truly you I see?”

            Snow White smiled desperately, emptying her basked of flowers as she walked the path.

”Rose Red, Rose Red. Here I am, finally free.”

            The Brute stepped into the clearing and let out a shout. A roar more primal than any other answered him from the forest. He glanced towards from Snow White to the noise, then back again. His eyes crazed, he turned and charged towards the women. He only made it halfway there before the largest bear anyone had ever seen came from the forest and met him, devouring him in a single bite.

            Neither Rose Red nor Snow White noticed the Brute’s demise. They were lost within an embrace in which no words needed to be said. Eventually, they turned and walked into the deepest part of the woods hand in hand, never to be heard from by Man again.

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