Mirror Mirage

From Sarah Rose Serena

a Once Upon a Time story

"Red as Blood"

"I do not wish your future. I do not wish your past. One bright moment is all I ask."

: : :

Fairest of them all was she. Majestic like snow. Brave as barren hope. Risen from ashes of a scorned kingdom. Foretold to bleed when tragic light strikes the land. Never to find home again. All for the vain despair of an evil queen. Though no realm could hide how fair and kind such a princess came to be. Fallen for salvation. A pardon or a prison? For it shall be her destiny to sway under the sycamore trees until the righteous man accepts the truth beneath her tongued deceit. In the end, what be left cannot be known. Only one universal matter will uphold. Fairest of them all she ever be, a girl born below the glow.

Oh, how Snow White despised such a claim.

Long ago, before the death of the good queen, her mother would sit by the little girl's bedside and tell a sweet tale of how she had come to be, of how the queen had wished for such a precious gift, sitting at her windowsill one lonely winter afternoon, dreaming up a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony. A child would soon come to be that was kind and strong and knew the importance of beauty, both internal and external, but also knew the worth of more intangible things, such as loyalty and love. A child born of gloried king and queen would grow more lovely by the passing day, mind and soul, whom would prove so much more than the queen had dared to dream for. Or so her mother had insisted.

But all of that fluffy fairytale life had crumbled to ruin upon the slightest pressure.

However, prior to her untroubled life shattering before her youthful innocent eyes, Snow remembers a boy from a neighboring kingdom. A boy with a disarming smile and piercing blue eyes. A boy who refused to pull his punches, as commoners were apt to do, instead forcing her to resort to clever outsmarting or hard practiced skill if she wished to win at any game they came up with. This intractable boy was the first instance in her life that the princess came upon opposition.

An unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

That knowledge of how to strive, of where to find an untapped surplus of stubborn determination inside of her able to fuel whatever circumstance demanded of her, became ultimately an invaluable lesson for Snow White.

At the time, though, there was no way to know it. There was merely a young one and an infuriated sense of challenge.

"What are you doing out there, Snow?"

Throwing her head back with a breathy laugh, cheeks flushed rosy, she hooked an arm around the corded rope and tossed him a look over her shoulder. "Conquering the highest crest in the realm! I told you I wouldn't let your last victory stand."

"That's absurd!" the boy yelled in return, sidling along the jagged edge of the cliff.

Scoffing at the chiding anxiety in his voice, she twisted her grip upward, teetering like a weevil as she fearlessly traversed the abandoned bridge. Since such a decrepit bond was still the only connection from their side of the river up the most treacherous willow peak of SĂ­dhe's mountain, going plank to rotted plank, hanging on to frayed ropes as she went was the only available passage. And she had to do this.

"Snow!" he called after her again, booted toes kicking loose rocks over the cliffside as he searched for a more stable route, his every cell urging him forward. "Come back!"

"Why?" Stretching her little body taut, she managed just barely to get her fingers into a makeshift handhold from an overhanging nest of branches in time to keep her up when the board beneath her feet splintered asunder. Rapids rushed hundreds of yards below. The drop was staggering. Which was why she steadfastly avoided looking down.

The boy hesitated, heart stopped at her close call, before he retorted, "Because you are going to get yourself killed."

Another breathy laugh escaped her then. "Don't be such a scaredy cat."

The mist coating the early morning air in such elevated terrain made her skin slippery with excess moisture. Combined with the moss crawling across the dilapidated bridge, she was left at a precarious disadvantage, despite her famed agility. But she was nearly to the end, almost in reach of the base of the willow peak, from which the girl was confident she could scale rock to the very top, and then there would be nothing Prince James could do to outshine her. She would be the verified best. Simply imagining the pride that would gleam in her father's eye when she returned, accomplishment in hand, brought a smile to vivid red lips, faint but rich.

Except the snap of damp branch resounded in her ears, failing under her weight, chasing said smile away in an instant. As she came down hard, her soles slid over the end of a bowed plank, legs tangling in roped rail, and the girl scrabbled in panic, desperate for some unlikely purchase.

Before a scream had time to burst from her lungs even, a clammy hand clasped hers, fingers wrapped harshly in their hurry around her wrist, yanking arm nearly from socket as her momentum cut short and she found herself hauled skyward. In a swinging blur of haphazard motion, they went spinning sideways. Rope tore apart at tattered seams and their backs smacked against stone hard enough to seize their lungs.

Eyes popping open in shock, after squeezing them shut in horror a millisecond earlier, Snow puffed out a happy breath at finding herself on the other side of the river, poised on a narrow ledge of the willow peak base. Adrenaline had her heart racing ridiculously and in extension blood pumping furiously through her veins, leaving her feeling lightheaded and exhilarated enough to fly, masking the brief flare of terror that had afflicted her from the moment of seemingly assured demise.

Failure rode her hard, pricking sharper than the thorns from the nest that protruded her fragile skin. How could a girl so intrepid be encased in such temperamental tissue?

Instead of immense gratitude, once she became aware of the arm cinching her waist, of the body pressed flush aside her own, she felt disappointment swell, irritation as well, and wasn't interested in deciphering whatever strange warm tingly sensation in her chest that mingled with those more unpleasant emotions.

Panting in a very unladylike fashion, Snow felt her cheeks flame and her mouth purse. "James. You weren't supposed to follow me."

The boy shot the indomitable princess an arch look through narrowed crystalline eyes, clutching her tighter in one hand and the sturdy vine they'd pinioned over on in the other when she began to wriggle away. In a quietly stormy voice that belied frazzled features, genuine and puzzled, he countered, "How could I not?"

That warm tingly sensation unfurled further inside of Snow White. It made her even more irritable than she had been.

"This doesn't count," she lamented tersely, gaze fixed on her feet as she inched them experimentally across the ledge, testing the support. "I could have made it."

Ignoring her protest, he reeled her back into him and corralled the vine between them before she could try to stray from relative safety. "Look what you've gotten us into now. The bridge broke. What's your plan to get back to the other side?"

"Who said I planned on going backward?" she retorted, chin upturning. As his gaze skated up the towering heights of the willow peak after her own, a daring smirk flickered across her mouth. "We've come this far. Might as well keep going."

"Brilliant," he muttered below his breath, bad idea after bad idea of hers embroiling him beyond evasion. He watched her deceptively delicate hands wander in examination over the rugged surface of stone, coming off with wads of moss. He started to try to talk her out of it, searching for better options, only to be distracted in the next heartbeat by a trickle of blood that smeared the cuff of his white shirt, warm and sticky, and it belonged to the princess. "Snow."

"Yes, I know," she replied, dismissive and preoccupied, as he caught her injured wrist between his hands and stroked a thumb over the seeping wound.

Rueful exasperation spread, noticing all the cuts marring her fingers and forearms, and he suddenly needed to know, "Why is this so important to you?"

"You aren't the only one that has to prove yourself," she told him, answering with one of her reluctant sighs after a moment of silent deliberation. "For me . . . it's not so easy."

With a brief but telling squeeze, he released her, drawing emerald eyes up to his own. "I don't believe you." A breathless beat of tension arced like energy between the children at his layered words, his steady stare burning into her, stripping down her armor. But if he had intended to pursue it, her vulnerable discomfort dissuaded him, melding into a ruffled demeanor that looked more natural on the unruly princess. Turning to the stone, he roughened his tone and urged lightly, "Well, then. Let's get to it."

If there was anything worthwhile her early childhood taught Snow White, it was that to be fair was not as beneficial as to be fierce.