The day had dawned with a crisp winter wind whistling outside, and Snow White looked out the window in wonder. That winter had been unusually warm, and most mornings the window showed only the dead brown landscape for a view. But it had all changed overnight, and the ground was now covered in a perfect, smooth blanket of white. Only here and there, close to the forest, was it marred with the occasional line of tracks from some deer or squirrel who had run by.
After putting the kettle on as was her routine, Snow had quickly run to wake her sister. Rose was always a lazybones on these winter mornings. It may have been the promising white expanse or simply the joy on her sister's face that convinced Rose, but regardless of cause they had soon agreed that such a day should not be wasted indoors, despite the bitter cold.
They broke their fast as usual, taking care to ensure their mother had enough tea. Their mother thought nothing of allowing her daughters to run off on their own this day. They had always proven themselves more than capable of getting along without incident, the odd scraped elbow or snagged hem aside. And winter was never her best season, far better to allow the children their freedom than make a poor old woman face the bitter cold.
And so it came to pass that they set off shortly after breakfast, bundled up warmly. Biscuits and salted meat waited wrapped in their pockets for a fine lunch when they were hungry. Bracing herself against the cold to see them off, their mother called out the usual warning to return home before dark. The odd night would bring them no harm in the summer, but winter would leave the risk of them catching their death of cold, were they not cautious.
Skipping off into the trees, Snow White and Rose Red moved quietly. Only the steady crunch of their boots in the snow broke the calm stillness of the day. Snow savored the silence, enjoying the gentle sting on her cheeks and the fresh scent the air would only take on after a snowfall. Rose, on the contrary, was rather annoyed by how quiet it had become, and laughed aloud to break it. Grinning, she turned to her sister and spoke.
"Where shall we go today, sister? The river might still be running, so we might still skip stones . . . or perhaps a visit to the groundhog we befriended, just to check and see he's still sleeping well?"
Snow White, arguably the more serious of the pair, looked up to the sky in thought. The clouds which brought the storm were breaking up, and the sun was peering warmly through a patch of blue. A smile spread across her face. "No. Today . . . I can't say why, but it feels different. Let's go exploring, find somewhere we've never been before. Perhaps to the north?" A grin, and Snow turned in the direction that no trail had ever lead.
Rose frowned slightly. She had the odd feeling that there was a very good reason that they had not gone in that direction previously. But her sister held that determined gleam in her eye, that once set in motion she would not be deterred from a given plan. "Well. If you're certain. . ."
Their exploration went quite well, and after discovering a white rabbit which had startled them, so still had it been against the snow with its white fur, Rose had forgotten entirely that she had ever had doubts about this path. It had been some hours since their departure, and it was silently agreed that the time had come to rest for lunch. They had almost finished eating their meals when a deer entered the clearing they had stopped at. It was an oddity, for the previous year had been unusually hard on the deer, and the sisters had not spotted very many on their walks, even in the summer. Snow White looked at the doe carefully, then slowly stood, stretched her arm and offered it the portion of scone that remained of her lunch. The deer ate it gratefully, lipping the last of the crumbs off her palm. Suddenly, the doe's head snapped up, and she looked over at something. Neither girl could tell precisely what, but after a twitch of its ears the doe had fled away.
"That was odd."
"Shall we follow, and see if we might assure her that we're certainly no threat?"
"She'd appreciate it. Perhaps we might even find some berries remaining on the branches for her to snack on."
With that, the girls set about following the tracks. It was no simple task, for a deer in a hurry can run at a much faster pace than two small girls bundled up for winter. After walking for some time, Rose turned to her sister. "Perhaps we should turn back. It's getting colder, and we may be scaring her further by chasing after her."
Snow frowned. "We've come this far, I just know she's close . . . just over this next hill, we'll be able to see further. If we don't spot her from there, then we can head back."
Rose nodded in agreement, and they began to scamper up the slight slope, hand in hand as always. The hill had many loose rocks near the top, and beneath the layer of snow it was difficult to determine which ones were stable. Rose discovered this the hard way, and as she tumbled back down with the large stone she dislodged, her hand was pulled out of her sister's grip. Snow had been slightly ahead, and after calling down to ensure her sister was unharmed, she stepped up to the top of the hill and got a good look at the other side. There in the snow was the doe.
It was dead, quite dead. A gentle spray of red drops speckled the snow by its neck, bright red on stark white, and more blood soaked into the snow beneath it, more still dripped from the maw of the great wolf which was stripping some of the last shreds of meat from the body. The beast caught her scent and looked up, staring her in the eye. He was large, about the size of a yearling pony she had seen on a trip some time back to a nearby farm, and the red gore was nearly invisible on his dark fur in the fading light. He licked some of the blood from his muzzle, still focused intently on her. Something in the gaze told Snow he would hunt her to the ends of the earth, if forced to.
Snow had always been the more level-headed of the pair. She turned back to her sister, who had finally pulled herself to her feet and was starting up the hill. Swallowing her fear, as it would do her no good, Snow called down, "Don't bother, Rose! I see the deer from here. She wedged her foot in a tree stump and is stuck. The other side of the hill looks to be more sturdy, and I can see a way around that goes in the direction of home. You run home and tell Mother not to worry, I'll be along shortly. I'll be able to get her out without difficulty, and we'll likely have Mother complaining about yet another animal we've found and brought home soon enough."
Rose frowned and paused where she stood. "Are you sure? Should we not return together?"
Snow prayed that the wolf would at least give her enough time for this, allow her sister to escape. "You're right -- it is getting dreadfully late, and Mother will be worried sick. And if the deer agrees, I'll be riding back. We can race -- the last one home will do all of our evening chores!" Snow gave her sister a warm smile she didn't feel.
Slightly confused at this, Rose shrugged the odd appearance of the smile as being due to getting snow and grit in her eyes in the tumble and grinned at Snow. "Well then, you had better not push the poor thing too far, if it has an injured ankle!" With that, Rose turned and sprinted off in the direction they had come, following their tracks as a sure path to the warm cabin and their mother. She didn't look back.
She didn't hear her sister's words, quietly spoken and caught away by the wind, "You and me against the world."
Tears of relief flowed down Snow White's cheeks, bright red from the cold. Her eyes shut tight as soon as her sister had run out of sight, out of range. She could smell the coppery tang of blood and feel hot breath on her neck. She did not flinch.
"Rose Red, where have you been? It's well past dark, and I had to retrieve wood from the pile myself." A pause, and she held the candle out the door to ensure her second daughter had not simply been a step behind and hurrying to warm herself by the fire. "And where is your sister?"
"Snow insisted on helping a young deer who was stuck. The poor thing hasn't had much to eat these past months, no doubt, and we couldn't simply leave her there. . . " Rose gave her best puppy-eye, please-can-we-keep-it look to her mother, feeling it best to start buttering her up now if the deer had a good chance of staying.
"All right, I shall have to set the torch back out so she can find the house, and we will leave a candle in each window so she knows we are waiting. She'll be back in no time, and wondering why we ever worried so, I've no doubt."
Snow White didn't return that night.
A sudden storm the next morning erased their tracks, and Rose found herself unable to remember which way it was that they had gone.
Her mother comforted her by saying how, perhaps, the deer had felt it unsafe to travel so late, and taken Snow back to her den to rest the night in warmth. They'd make it in, soon enough, and Snow would apologize for causing such concern.
Snow White didn't return that week.
Spring came, and Rose received a birthday present from her mother. She was eight. Rose asked why there wasn't a present for Snow, that she might have something extra to make her want to come right back.
Snow White never again returned to the warm cabin in the wood.