He had her trapped.
The girl huddled in the protective curve of an exposed tree root, knees under chin and barely anchored by her spindly, trembling arms. She didn’t say anything when he raised his bow, and he paused. She looked at him, her eyes large and shadowed and reminding him of a fawn.
He steadied his aim, marked her position in his sight window, and pulled back the string. His hand trembled uncharacteristically as she continued her wide-eyed silent stare. He closed his own eyes as he let the arrow fly and was relieved there were no subsequent anguished sounds of suffering.
He opened his eyes. The girl was pinned to the same spot. He moved toward her and grimaced as he pulled himself up onto the tree root above her head and moved into the forest beyond.
A deer lay on the ground, the hunter’s arrow jutting from its neck. He stooped to confirm the animal was dead, then pulled out a knife and went to work. Many minutes later he jumped back into the cove where the girl still sat. He cradled the deer’s heart in his hand.
“Little Snow-White, I will take this to the queen as proof of your death,” he said, raising the bloody organ for her to see. “You must leave this place and never return, or things will go badly for both of us. Do you understand?”
The girl nodded and stood and smoothed out her dress. The huntsman’s own heart ached at the sight of her tiny form and the creatures he knew lurked all around them. She gave a quick curtsy and before he could say anything or think to do more, she was gone.
She thought she’d die from too much love.
Her hand reached toward the baby for the fifth time in as many minutes, but she settled for gently rocking the cradle as the newborn slept.
“You need to sleep, too,” reminded the prince as he came up behind her. He kissed the nape of her neck and wrapped his arms around her waist as they both looked down at their daughter.
“She’s so small and vulnerable,” she said.
“And we will guard her from all beasts, be they flesh or fur or scaled or any manner yet unknown,” vowed the prince.
Snow-White smiled a shadowed smile. She was tired beyond belief, but she was also reluctant to sleep. The nightmares had started shortly after her daughter’s birth and she’d tried every remedy she could to rid herself of them.
Each night she went to bed the wife of a loving and beloved prince and the mother of a beautiful baby princess. But in her dreams, she was alone, nameless, and endlessly pursued.
She knew her stepmother was no threat; she’d watched the woman dance herself to death in hot iron shoes. There was something else, then, that chased her and demanded resolution. If only she could remember the details. If only she knew why she felt terror, then relief, yet woke up anxious and unsettled.
The heavy tread of footsteps coming up from the shop below promised little in the way of joy.
“Any customers today?” The woman looked up hopefully from the broth she was stirring on the stove. The liquid was thickened with flour and dotted with vegetables but no meat, just as there hadn’t been for some weeks now.
The man shook his head as he crossed the kitchen and slumped into the wobbly dining chair. It had been a depressing routine for more days than he liked to remember. His life was simple—had always been simple—but after more than a decade of good fortune, things had slowly soured over the past couple of years.
Customers with means just bought new shoes instead of bringing old ones in for repair. Customers without means paid in trade. But with no funds to travel, the man had become hopelessly out of touch with the latest fashions, so his original commissions had dried up.
“How can I be a shoemaker with no shoes to make?” he’d complained to his wife the previous week.
She assured him she could take in more mending work to ease the stress, but felt her own strain growing. As she placed the bowls on the table now, he smiled and thanked her. She warmed with love for his good nature. The meager repast might work for the two of them for a while longer, but she knew it would not do for the child she was carrying.
She had not told him yet. They had tried for so long without success that she hadn’t believed the signs. But soon she wouldn’t be able to hide her condition. And even though she felt that miracles and magic were not gone from the world, she wondered if something or someone would come to their aid before it was too late.
The seven men stared at the princess in complete astonishment.
“She really doesn’t remember?” they asked each other in several rounds amongst themselves before coming back to focus on her.
“Remember what?” she asked.
Six men turned to look at the eldest of them. He sighed and stroked his salt-and-pepper chin whiskers and sighed again.
“When you first came to us, you wouldn’t speak of what happened to you,” he began. “We agreed to take you in if you’d keep house for us and we figured your story was yours to hold for as long as you wanted. But then…”
“Then the nightmares started.”
There was a loud knock on the door, and everyone jumped. A woman bustled into the study and set up tea service. She curtsied and fumbled and curtsied again before leaving, and Snow-White was amazed that after so many years in her acquaintance the wives of all her dear friends were still nervous in her presence.
“You were saying, about the nightmares?” she prompted.
“After a couple of weeks of none of us getting much sleep, we sat you down and asked you to tell us your story in your own way and maybe that would help.”
“In my own way?”
“Well, you were still a child, and lacking a vocabulary in evil. So, you told us parts and drew other parts and acted out much until we could put all of the pieces together.”
“And the nightmares stopped?”
“And the nightmares stopped. Just like what you’ve described; they were mostly about that sense of being hunted and all alone. But you told us about the huntsman who spared you and—”
And suddenly the princess remembered. Cold, scared and cowering under a giant tree in an endless forest. Broken branches under heavy feet and the fear of everything ending. Then an unexpected kindness and the fear of a new unknown until she found herself here, at the compound of the men who would take her in and raise her to womanhood and become the unlikeliest of best friends.
The huntsman. He was the missing piece of the puzzle. He was the one who had risked himself to protect a vulnerable girl from an evil queen. And now she had her own little vulnerable girl, and she knew she couldn’t rest until she knew what fate had befallen the man who had spared her life.
“This is ridiculous and insulting.”
Several of the other men nodded in agreement with their friend’s assertion. The oldest of them hushed everyone and guided them into a ladder formation so they could reach and enter the high windows in the back of the shoemaker’s shop.
They clambered inside, one by one, until the last few were pulled in by the others. They looked around at the empty display shelves and several large scraps of high-quality but uninspired leather.
“We are dwarves, not elves. Elves make shoes. We mine for treasure. There’s certainly no treasure here,” said the man who had previously complained.
“Without this shoemaker we would never have known one of the greatest treasures of our lives,” the eldest admonished.
The others looked chagrined. The youngest, who was the most adventurous among them, had recently returned from a trip to other lands. He began to draw the fine and exotic shoes he saw there, and together the men took elements from this pair and that pair and designed an entirely new kind of shoe.
The ones who were not so creatively inclined set to work drawing patterns, cutting out shapes, and beginning to sew. All together they created six pairs of shoes like no one had ever seen. They had unique curves and surprising shapes. Some, the men left with the natural beauty of the soft leather. And others they painted or decorated with bows or feathers found in corners of the shop.
The sun was rising by the time they arranged the shoes on the center workbench and left the sketches on a shelf below. They heard stirring in the rooms above, signaling that the couple was also awake. Soon someone would make their way down to the formerly forlorn shop and the dwarves didn’t want to be discovered.
They quickly gathered up any scraps or other signs of their labor. Then they filed quietly out the front door, pleased with themselves and eager to return to their own kingdom to tell Snow-White of their success. Only time would tell if it was enough to save the shoemaker.
It was the most spectacular ball anyone had ever seen.
Some might have claimed differently just to be contrary, but when pressed, even they had to admit it was certainly the most grandiose coming-out ball. (And it topped even the coronation and wedding balls for the girl’s own parents.)
The first guests to arrive were the young princess’s godparents—the seven dwarves and their seven wives. Fittingly, their party finery shown as bright as their troves of gold and silver. A multitude of other festively turned-out guests flitted into the castle until the ballroom looked like an explosion of flowers from the world’s most beautiful garden.
Then the trumpeters lifted their gleaming horns and the herald formally introduced Her Royal Highness to the audience of royalty and nobility from all the surrounding lands. The princess descended the rose-bedecked palace stairs in a gown that glittered like the stars. Dozens of snowy doves were released as she stepped onto the floor, and music began to play as guests walked the receiving line and then wandered among peacocks and swans to marvel at the serving stations of food and drink ringing the room.
“Excuse me, your Majesty?”
The Queen turned. A richly dressed older man bowed deeply. When he stood and looked at her, she smiled at the familiar kindness in his eyes.
“You came,” Snow-White said to him. “I am pleased.”
“I am honored that you know me, and I am grateful for the invitation,” he replied.
“You are the celebrated cordwainer to nobility in three lands. It would be difficult to overlook that, of course,” she acknowledged.
“But yes, I do know you. Without your brave act of kindness some three decades past, I would not be here. My daughter, our guest of honor, would not be here. And so, for that alone, I am eternally grateful.”
She guided the man to a balcony overlooking a river valley. There was far less noise, far fewer distractions, and far fewer people to overhear their conversation.
“For a long time, I had forgotten what happened to me that day, and the days that followed,” she continued. “I am thankful for the many years my friends took care of me and the prince who saved me from the queen’s final trickery and these many years at his side. And it all comes back to you.”
“How quickly time has flown away from us!” the man exclaimed. “I myself tried to forget that day. I worried I had abandoned you to a worse fate in that forest. After delivering the false heart to the queen, I fled. I never picked up a bow again and I created a new life for myself.
“Imagine my surprise to deliver shoes on a strange and urgent commission and to see you (you did not see me, I’m sure, it was in passing)—that young, frightened girl from the woods now a young woman newly wed to a prince.”
“You were the one who made those iron shoes for my stepmother’s final dance?”
“And you, I suspect, had something to do with my renewed success so many years ago?”
The Queen glanced inside and across the ballroom floor at the dancing dwarves. She smiled but said nothing.
“My wife was pregnant when we received that miracle,” he said. “Then that gift was followed by another—we had twin girls.”
“Oh, how wonderful!” the Queen exclaimed. “They are close in age, then, to my own dear daughter?”
“Indeed. And…” the man dropped his eyes shyly and paused, unsure of how his message would be received. “We named one of our daughters after you.”
The man pointed to another corner of the ballroom where a handsome older woman stood, flanked by her beautiful progeny.
“There…is Snow-White. And there is her sister, Rose-Red,” the proud father beamed.
“They are both quite lovely, and I am honored by the eponymic gesture,” she assured him. “Come, let us go inside so that I may meet them.”
The huntsman-turned-shoemaker offered his arm and the girl-turned-princess-turned-Queen accepted. She shared greetings and laughter with his family and gathered hers to meet them in turn—her daughter the princess and her husband the King and the dwarves who had helped guide everyone’s fates down brighter paths.
And they ate and drank and danced late into the night. And the young ladies became fast friends and wrote to each other every day. And once a year the Queen made a special trip to see the shoemaker for a few new pairs of royal slippers.
And everyone lived happily ever after.