* * *
You become aware of the miller’s daughter when you are nine and she is eleven. Mother says millers always have enough to eat, so you’re surprised to see her cross the snow-covered road on bare feet.
The sight of the freezing girl stays with you all evening. You’re still only boasting whenever you call yourself a huntsman, but you are the local huntsman’s only son and well on the way to becoming a skilled tracker in your own right. The tiny bow your father gives you nearly always hits its mark.
You sneak out of bed with your knife and bow and leave two rabbit skins on the miller’s doorstep. Your parents are still asleep when you slip back under the covers. A few days later, you catch a glimpse of her feet in a pair of soft, new shoes.
You never intended her to find out where the skins came from, but by the way she lifts her head and looks at you over her father’s shoulder she already knows.
It’s the start of a – well, it can’t quite be called a friendship. Still, the times you are seen together make your parents talk about the two of you as a possible match.
* * *
Shortly after your fourteenth birthday, the young queen dies in childbirth. You feel sorry for the king and the little Snow White that is left behind, but you forget all about them when your father doesn’t come home for three days and returns with scratches all over his body and a shaken and distraught Red Riding Hood. The girl comes to live at your house, but she is only twelve and starts screaming whenever you suggest a trip into the woods.
You think, and have heard others say the same, that the miller’s daughter is the most beautiful girl in all the land, but even more than her face you want to spend hours watching her hands as she handles her rock. “Straw to gold,” the miller boasts. Mother starts hinting that you should make an effort if you want her to look at you.
You give her the heart of every animal you shoot. She never wants for fresh meet or warm clothes. You’re not quite sure what else you’re supposed to do.
Besides, it is not a secret that the miller has set his sights higher than a simple huntsman’s son. He respects you and your contributions to his family’s meals well enough, but he also keeps visiting the Nameless Man and repeating well within your earshot that the king remains an unmarried widower.
On market days, the gossip centers around the lack of suitable princesses. Everyone is relieved that there are no alliances the kingdom needs to forge or renew.
* * *
At twenty, you are quickly becoming the best huntsman in the realm and the miller’s daughter is the queen. The king addresses you as “my friend” and you suppose it is as true a statement as it can be from someone who has never hunted out of necessity. It is your tracking skill he relies on when he wants to entertain other noblemen, and it is you he relies on when he has a special request for a feast.
Red still lives at your house, but she has gotten over her fear and spends most of her time hunting wolves. The only real regret you have about your bachelor life is that you have no one to teach your skills to.
The king gives his queen a mirror that talks, “So you’ll have someone to tell you how beautiful you are when I’m away on matters of state.” She shows it to you when you bring her the hearts of snow grouses that she so likes to eat. “The fairest of the fair in all the lands,” it calls her. You laugh with her and don’t tell her that she could have just asked you if she needed to be reassured.
One day, the little princess asks for permission to accompany you. The queen and Red both think it’s far too dangerous, but the king, back from a journey and in want of uninterrupted time with his wife, allows it. You show Snow White how to shoot a bow and give her the one your father made for Red a long time ago. The two of you spend a few days tracking animals and finding out which plants are edible and which are not.
Not long after, Snow bounces up to you and happily declares she is to become a big sister.
* * *
Something… happens. Not even Red can tell you what it was. You return with the stag for the christening and the king is dead and the queen’s infant son is gone.
The Nameless Man, you think, but the queen and the miller both insist the imp is not to blame. What else can you do but believe them?
The Queen and Snow White cling to each other in grief. Red cautiously suggests that in a year or so you might take your chance, but you could never compete with the king when he was alive and you won’t insult your almost-friendship now by trying.
The whole kingdom grieves with its grieving queen. The whole kingdom loves its grieving queen.
“She can never have another child,” Snow tells you, her tiny face ugly from tears.
The full extent of the queen’s heartache remains confined to her bed chamber. She is always collected and beautiful, the fairest of the fair at every appearance. As long as she is beautiful, you think, no one can see her grief and if it remains unseen it cannot touch her. As long as she is beautiful it will be alright. As long as she is the most beautiful woman in all the land.
The kingdom becomes more enchanted with its beautiful queen with every passing year. Slowly but steadily the people forget their buried king. The miller’s daughter is the fairest of the fair and her subjects would do anything for her.
Snow White is growing up and becoming every bit as beautiful as the mother that birthed her.
* * *
Bring me her heart echoes around and around in your ears. If you love me at all, bring me her heart so I can be happy again.
Yes, my queen, you said, but you’d rather give her your own and all your entrails besides.
Laying a hand on the princess would be a greater sin than you could ever hope to put into words.
When you return to court with a deer’s heart in your palm, it doesn’t occur to her to do more than glance at it before making her father throw it into a pan with onions and apples.
She trusts you. You have been her almost-friend for most of her life and she has known since the first pair of rabbit skins how devoted you are.
You love her. And more than any of her subjects you would do anything for her, even betray her to stall her – as you now fear – unstoppable descent into darkness.
* * *