The morning began like any other. Snow Charming was awoken by her husband kissing her on the forehead.
“Good morning, my love,” Eric murmured. "Sleep well?"
She smiled up into his blue eyes and playfully batted him back onto his side of the bed.
“As always. What time is it?” she asked.
“The cockerel crowed but four hours ago,” he replied, leaning on one elbow as he watched her sit up. “If you rise now, you will be able to avoid my mother.”
Snow laughed and pressed a quick kiss to Eric’s cheek.
“You’re too good to me,” she whispered.
“I know,” he teased.
Snow smiled but was unable to prevent the flicker of guilt that rose, unbidden, in her chest. She knew that her husband was only joking about the matter but it was not the first time such a thought had occurred to her.
Eric watched lazily as his wife slipped from the duvet and strode towards the wardrobe.
It did not take Snow long to pick out her clothes for the day. She pulled on a pair of tattered britches and a slightly dirty, tan coloured top. They looked extremely out of place amongst the vibrant dresses that hung to either side of them but she preferred the coarse material to the gowns. Anything would beat wearing a corset. Of course, the Queen had not agreed and her words still rang clear in Snow’s head.
Royalty will dress as royalty should, my dear.
Queen Esmerelda could take the “dear” out of “endearment”.
Snow plaited her platinum blonde hair and secured it in a tight bun, with practised, nimble fingers. She gathered her sleek cloak from the back of the chair. It was one of the few possessions she had owned prior to living in the castle that the Queen had not looked upon with distaste. The garment was truly beautiful. And, fortunately, due to its colouring it could not be marred by old blood stains.
Snow tightened the drawstrings of the hood so her face was well hidden and headed for the bedroom door. As she slipped out into the corridor she was careful to close it quietly behind her, cutting off the trail of Eric’s snores.
She made it out of the castle with relative ease. As ever, the guards seemed none the wiser when it came to recognising their princess under the guise of a hood.
Snow smiled fondly as she made her way past Melinda, one of the few female members of the castle guard. The woman was only a little older than herself but, despite the pleasantries they exchanged on an almost daily basis, she had yet to recognise the hooded figure as anyone but a stranger. Snow would have been suspicious had she not been so unwilling to look a gift horse in the mouth. She liked to believe in the best of fate. After all, she was married to a prince.
Snow strolled through the marketplace, making sure to keep her head bowed. It was more than a little ironic; she could count on the guards to forget her face but she knew that the townspeople could be far more perceptive. As far as they were concerned, Snow was the success story that they all wanted to learn from. She had gone from rags to riches and all it had taken was one moment of vulnerability, one terrifying moment where she had been unable to save herself.
Needless to say, it had not been Snow’s proudest moment but it was the part of her story that people tended to latch onto. Sometimes she still wondered what would have happened if she had been able to get to the axe first.
Snow bumped into a stranger and her trail of thought was cut short. She mumbled a quick apology as a pair of startled eyes settled on her face. Snow weaved through the bustle of the marketplace, trying to rid her mind of distractions as she darted towards the outskirts of the cobbled stone grounds. That had been careless. If she wanted to continue on such ventures she had to be more wary of her surroundings.
Snow stopped short when she saw Gretel forest. She really was doing a terrible job of being aware of her surroundings today. She swallowed, took a deep breath and made a ninety degree turn that allowed her to focus on following the river Hansel but she could still feel the trees watching her, looming in her periphery.
She picked up the pace and sighed. At least she could take comfort in the fact that it was no longer hunting season. Eric wasn’t going to drag her on another trip into the woods with his men, thank God. The last trip had been disastrous. Eric hadn’t seen it that way, of course.
For God’s sake Snow, there are no wolves left in this forest! I made sure to slaughter them all.
Rationally, she knew that his words were intended to be comforting. They had felt anything but.
As the forest faded into the distance behind her, Snow came to a bridge. The grey stone had arched between the two sections of land for centuries but showed no signs of wear and tear. The river which surrounded it was not particularly deep but everyone knew that it was bad luck to wade through water.
There were stories of those who’d lost their footing and been flung face first into the riverbed, never to be seen again. They were stories that Snow didn’t believe for one second. Growing up as a child of the forest meant that she and her mother had little exposure to the rumours and ghost stories of the townsfolk; she still had fond memories of playing in the river as a child. Of course, it would not do for a princess to be seen wading across water (Esmerelda would have a fit) but, in her guise, Snow possessed an entirely different reason for using the bridge.
She stepped onto the stone surface and walked slowly forwards. Sure enough, as she reached the middle of the bridge a large, gnarled hand clenched onto the rock side. A grey figure hoisted itself onto the ground in front of Snow and splayed its clawed feet out, taking up the entire width of the bridge in order to block her way. The creature's stone coloured body was covered in protruding silver spikes, sharp as a carpenter's tools except for a small area on its underbelly where the spikes were shortened and blunt.
“Who goes there?” the creature growled, squinting at her.
“Honestly Alfie, you need to get your eyes checked,” Snow teased.
Alfie’s face broke into a smile, his eyes bright and milky. Trolls weren’t particularly known for their ability to see things.
“And you need to visit your mother more often,” he huffed.
Snow grinned as he held out his palm and stroked it obligingly. It was the closest she could get to hugging him; the leathery underside of Alfie’s hands were the only part of his body that wasn’t decorated with spikes.
He turned to one side so there was space enough for Snow to accompany him across the bridge and they started to walk.
“The bridge foundations look as solid as ever,” Snow noted. “No cracks, no erosion - ”
“Of course not!” Alfie cried. “My job is -”
“It’s a compliment,” Snow added.
“Oh,” said Alfie, a little gruffly. “Thank you.”
They kept walking.
"How've you been?" Snow asked.
Alfie paused slightly before replying, giving the question what he deemed to be an appropriate amount of thinking time.
"Well," he said eventually.
They came to the end of the bridge and stopped walking.
"That's good to hear," Snow replied. "I trust you've been taking care of mother?"
Alfie snorted but there was a warm smile on his face.
"Miss White takes care of herself."
Snow nodded with a slight grin. She hadn't met many trolls asides from Alfie but she knew that they weren't normally this polite. He'd been practising his etiquette. He was far from sounding like the castle butler but he was certainly grunting less than he had the last time Snow visited. She wasn't sure whether the thought cheered or upset her.
"Well, it was good to see you," she said. "Is there anything you want me to pass on to mother?"
Alfie opened his mouth to reply but seemed to think better of it. He shook his head and the spike tips on his face darkened. Snow frowned.
"Are you sure?"
Again, Alfie paused before answering.
"The only thing of worth that I could give her is this bridge and it is not mine to give."
Snow cocked her head to one side, unsure of how to respond to that. Eventually, she settled for bidding her friend farewell and strode towards the small cottage that lay in the meadows a little further downstream.
The further she walked the higher the grass seemed to grow but Snow was familiar with the path. Soon she found herself standing in front of her mother's worn cream door. She seized the ivory encrusted knocker and made her presence known.