It was a beautiful day. The birds were singing, the wind was blowing, and -
"Did you know you've got intestine under your finger nails?"
"Do I?" Rose Red paused to investigate and pursed her lips upon finding the declaration true. "Damn." The pair, a tall boy with sandy wet hair and a lanky girl with equally wet ginger braids, continued walking.
"You're going to have to wash your hands before Wolf sees; his diet's been going so well lately." Hansel said, shoving his own hands into his pockets. Their leather boots trod on grass that had seen too much sun over the summer, and was starting to brown.
"Pfft. I don't see why the idiot wants to be a vegetarian all of a sudden anyway," Hansel's lips quirked into a smile as Rose tossed one damp braid over her shoulder. "I've already washed my hair for the sod; he's hardly going to notice the teensiest bit of blood under my nails."
"You'd be surprised. That guy's nose is impressive. Besides, you know why he's trying to stay away from meat; he's trying to impress Bo Peep. Remember what happened last time she asked him to 'watch the sheep for two minutes'?"
"Hey, in Wolf's defence, he hadn't had breakfast! Besides what's one less sheep?"
"He ate four sheep,"
"She only had five sheep at the time."
"Well it meant four less sheep for her to look after, didn't it? At least he was honest about it,"
"That's true. As I recall his honesty was the one redeeming feature that got him his place here," he mused, flicking a strand of hair from his eyes as he gestured to the looming presence of the Academy. "Or maybe your sister was just too kind-hearted to send him away?"
"Yeah, yeah I get it; my sister's the fairest of them all and the Queen and just generally perfect in everyway, and I-"
"And you, in comparison, are shapeless and freckly and ginger," had it been anyone other than Hansel talking, Rose would have punched him in the face. The two of them, however, had been best friends for years; she knew when he was teasing.
Even so, she punched him hard in the arm. He only grinned back.
"It's all right for you, you git! Being related to royalty really puts your life into perspective; this morning my sister signed a peace treaty with the Ogres. What did I do? I spent this morning slaying and gutting chickens after you managed to land me in detention!"
Hansel was still grinning.
"Well the last interesting thing my sister did was shove Grandma into the oven. I'd always suspected that child had homicidal tendencies; one winter my snowman melted and she left a suicide note where it had been. I was scarred."
Now it was Rose's turn to grin, and she linked her thin arm through his.
"Is Gretel still in the Young Offender's Institute?"
"She was supposed to be coming out next week, but then she got into a fight with a prison guard. I don't know exactly what happened; all I do know is that the fight involved Gretel's toothbrush, and now her prison guard needs a glass eye."
"I know, and to think you thought you had problems?" He was grinning again.
"It's a good job you've got such a twisted sense of humour,"
"I take it all with a pinch of salt; like my Grandma."
The wind carried her laughter towards the Academy.
After two hours of fencing which, with Grumpy as teacher, was as rigorous as always, Rose was more than ready for some well deserved lunch. She, Hansel and Wolf managed to snag a spare table in the dining hall, and she greedily slurped at her broth.
"Manners are lost on you, aren't they?" Hansel commented with his wicked grin. Her cheeks were too full of broth to reply, so she elbowed him in the ribs instead.
She loudly gulped down her lunch, and both she and Hansel glanced across the wooden table to stare at Wolf. With his sleeves rolled up, it was easy to see the wiry, dark hair on his burly forearms. Combined with the forlorn manner with which he was picking at his measly salad, he looked rather pathetic.
"Wolf, just get yourself a steak," Rose exclaimed. "You can't live on grass." Wolf's brow furrowed, and Rose followed his line of sight to another table across the hall. Bo Peep, blonde and beautiful, ate lunch with her own set of friends. The longing in Wolf's eyes was unmistakeable, and Rose sighed. "Whenever I've spoken to Bo she's seemed nice enough; you don't have to change your diet just to get her attention, you know."
"Her family have hated me since the incident with the sheep," he admitted, returning his unworthy gaze to his meagre lunch. "I just want to make a good impression."
Wolf's real trouble was that he was, in fact, a lamb in wolf's clothing. Neither Rose nor Hansel were aware of a bad bone in his body; there were things in his nature which he could not change, but he never intended any harm. Unfortunately people tended to take one look at him, assume he was a brainless brute, and run far away into the distance.
"Who cares what her family thinks? It's not her family you want," Hansel said, taking a bite out of an apple.
"That's easy for you to say, there's nobody you want," Wolf sighed, resting his stubbly cheek on his fist.
Hansel looked as though he was about to say something, but instead settled for:
"Hey, isn't that Grumpy?" Rose lifted her head from her bowl just in time to see the bearded dwarf, gnarled walking stick in hand, heading towards their table.
"Oh, bloody hell. What does he want now?"
Considering he barely reached past her hips, he managed to locate her quickly enough and stop beside their table. With a nod of his head and a gruff grunt from the depths of his throat, his greetings were said and done; Grumpy wasn't really known for his social skills. Why her sister adored him so much, Rose would never know.
"If this is about my lateness to your class this morning, I already told you that I-"
"I learned of your punctuality deficiency long ago," Grumpy cut in, grinding his teeth. Rose had a feeling Hansel was grinning behind her. "I'm simply here as a messenger. The Queen requires your services in the palace," he said in a low voice, mindful of the other ears in the hall. "There's a problem with the Ogres."
Walking through the pristine halls of the palace towards Snow White's throne room always put Rose in a bad mood. Everything was spacious and spotless and no matter how clean her boots were, Rose always felt as though she was scuffing the floor. Grumpy's company was hardly a mood lightener, either.
They stopped in front of two large, familiar doors and Grumpy tapped the red wood with the end of his walking stick. Moments later two doormen, dressed in the royal colours of white and red, opened the doors for them, and Grumpy ushered Rose inside.
She strode purposefully forwards and knelt before the throne on one knee, head respectfully bowed. She could just see the tips of Snow's little shoes peeking out from beneath the skirt of her dress.
"Your majesty. You summoned me,"
"Sister, please rise," Snow kindly replied, smiling the sweet smile that she saved just for her.
Rose often wondered why her sister cared for her so much; they weren't what people would describe as close. When Rose was just a child, Snow was chased into the wilderness by their stepmother and her huntsman, and it was years before the sisters saw each other again.
Living at court with that woman for a surrogate mother had been difficult. She was never unkind towards Rose, she simply didn't acknowledge her. Somehow that was worse. Her stepmother had never even seen her as a threat; she was just Snow's plainer, simpler, insignificant little sister.
She rose to her full, lanky height and let her arms awkwardly hang by her sides. Snow looked as beautiful as she always did; her hair white blonde and her skin as white as snow. Her eyes were still as icy blue as Rose's were warm brown.
"How may I be of service to you?"
"There has been something of an issue with Princess Acedia's visit," the Queen began.
"She decided to bring her son, Prince Samson, with her, and I'm afraid he has gone missing."
Acedia had long been an ally of Snow's; she was an equally kind young woman, the daughter of a Lord, whose cruel stepmother had her prick her finger at the age of sixteen and fall into a deep sleep. For a hundred years the sleeping beauty lay in an immortal slumber until, at long last, a sweet Prince woke her with true love's kiss.
Her Prince's stepmother, who had been incapable of having children of her own, was Queen of the Ogres. It was these, often misunderstood, people that Acedia would one day rule. They were diplomatic creatures, but they were equally capable of violence; violence which they would no doubt stoop to if they believed Snow had had their young Prince murdered.
"It is essential that he be found safe and well, and I know I can trust you to complete this task," she finished, looking hopefully at her younger sister. "You may take some companions whom you trust to accompany you if you wish, but this terrible incident must not become public knowledge. If any criminals were to find out that a young Prince is roaming our kingdom unguarded then the poor child could be in terrible danger."
"I understand, sister. I will find the Prince and return him safely." Rose replied, bowing to the Queen once more.
After speaking with Acedia, who was hysterical with worry, and a much calmer Snow, Rose had a description of the missing Prince with which she could search. Practically yanking Hansel from his lesson by his collar had been easy, and he had known her long enough to simply go along with it when she pulled him this way and that.
Unfortunately, Wolf could not be spared from his own lesson as it was integral to his final exam. This was nothing short of a pain, since Rose could have used his nose to help them find the missing Prince. Nevertheless, she could still successfully complete her mission with Hansel's help. They often joked, but this was business.
"How long has he been missing for?" Hansel inquired as the two of them strode across the Academy's grounds towards the stables.
"Nearly two hours now. He could be absolutely anywhere; I'm just hoping he hasn't been taken," she replied, tossing one of her braids over her shoulder as they pushed open the stable doors.
The familiar smell of hay assailed her nostrils and she felt a little more at ease with the world. She could still remember the first time she had walked between these wooden stalls; each one with a firm door and a decorative bronze name plate of the horse that stood behind it.
Whenever a newcomer joined the Academy and proved that they were a capable rider, they were allowed to go to the stables and choose a horse for themselves. The horse they chose would know no other rider, and would become their most loyal companion.
This was no different for Rose. She came to the Academy three years ago, when she was just twelve years old, and already had plenty of experience riding horses. Her tutors at the palace had tried and tried to get her to ride side saddle, but Rose was having none of it; if men could ride their noble steeds with one leg on either side then so could she. Besides, there was nothing ladylike about being so unsteady on your horse that your arse bruised like a peach.
Wesley was her stallion. Like her, he was tall, ginger and liked to have his say. Rose was reminded of this when he gave a loud snort as she opened the door to his stall, and affectionately thrust his muzzle against her freckled cheek.
"Hi Wesley," she laughed, scratching the space between his dark eyes. Maybe it was her imagination, but she could have sworn he was smiling.
She saddled and bridled him, just as Hansel did in the next stall; his own stallion was a tall, proud and white creature that went by the name of Gunpowder. He had won various awards in several competitions.
Rose still thought Wesley was better.
"Ready?" Hansel said once the two of them had mounted their steeds.
The two followed the river which ran alongside the Academy and its neighbouring farm, where the two had suffered through their poultry punishment that same morning. They searched the bustling farmyard, leaving Rose with something a little more pungent than intestine under her fingernails, and continued to follow the river when they failed to find the young Prince among the livestock.
Once the pair reached the bridge, they hurriedly galloped across the stone so as to avoid the Troll which lived beneath it and his strange toll prices; the last time they had crossed he'd wanted Hansel's toenails. Thankfully they had managed to bribe the woeful creature with a piece of silver, and Hansel's toes were left intact.
The townspeople in the marketplace parted for the two of them, and after an hour or so of searching each nook and cranny they still could not find the missing Prince. Tall trees loomed nearby, and Rose and Hansel made for them.
As they entered the woodland, just beyond the town, the two split up. An hour later they met in the middle, after Hansel had a peculiar run in with an amorous porcupine, and still found themselves Prince-less.
"Bugger," Rose sighed, chewing on her lip. The two stilled their horses, and Rose petted Wesley's neck as she thought.
"Let's just assume for now that he's run off on his own accord, and nobody's snatched him," Hansel suggested.
"If you were a child who had run away from your parents," he said, "where would you go?"
And just like that, they knew.
They returned to the palace and left Wesley and Gunpowder in the care of Bashful, whom Snow had assigned to the stables due to his love of animals. Once on foot, the pair ran towards the bushes separating the grounds from the rolling hills beyond, and slipped through a slim gap in the greenery.
While Snow's gardens were kept trim and neat, with ordered flowers in rows of blocked colour, Rose adored the landscape beyond the palace; the grass was long and uneven, and the simple flowers daisies, poppies, buttercups, dandelions, bluebells and daffodils were dotted about without a care in the world.
There was a gentle ascension of the ground and the grass thinned into a soft, makeshift pathway that the two of them had been walking along for years. At the top of this ascension was a thick cluster of luscious trees, beyond which was a peacefully quiet clearing.
Rose had first discovered the clearing eight years ago, when she was just seven years old. A week beforehand her young, healthy father had passed away while he slept; she later discovered her stepmother had smothered him with his pillow. Days later, Snow, just fourteen, had disappeared because she was simply too pretty for their stepmother's liking.
Rose was left without a friend in the world.
Then one Tuesday afternoon, when she managed to escape from her tutors, Rose ran from the palace, past the bushes, through the wild flowers and the luscious trees and found herself in the clearing.
It was then and there that she met Hansel, who had also fled from his farmhouse in the hills to escape the malicious nature of his little sister. She continued to meet him there on an almost daily basis.
It was their little secret, and Rose found she wasn't so alone anymore.
"I wonder why we didn't think of this before," Hansel said, reaching out a hand to grab Rose's elbow when she caught her foot on a rock.
"Because it's us. The words 'we' and 'think' rarely go in the same sentence," she replied, throwing him a grateful smile as she regained her footing.
They wound their lithe bodies through the wild branches, and Rose gave a happy sigh at the sight of the little boy sitting in the sunshine. His tousled hair, such a joyous shade of gold, looked so out of place when compared with the heavy scowl beneath it.
Rose's eyes flitted to his miniature waistcoat, which was such a terrible shade of lilac that Rose would have sulked too if she'd had to wear it, and affirmed her belief that this was the Prince they had been searching for when the emblem of a rising sun shone back at her.
"Hello Samson," she greeted, smiling as the child eyed them suspiciously. "My name's Rose, and this is my friend Hansel; we've been looking everywhere for you. Your mother's very worried."
Guilt briefly flashed across Samson's face, before he drew his knees up to his chest and rested his chin on them. Rose felt even sorrier for him when his breeches proved to be lilac too.
"I don't care," he muttered. "I'm not going back and you can't make me."
Hansel raised an eyebrow in Rose's direction, and she gave an impatient huff. This kid hadn't just wasted her afternoon, he'd also made her miss the latter half of her lunch; he'd be going back to his mother if she had to drag him there by his ears.
If Rose wanted to return him to his family without being charged with GBH, however, then she'd have to be diplomatic about it.
"What's the matter, Samson?" She softly asked, as she and Hansel tentatively sat either side of him on the grass. The eight year old sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve, still scowling.
"I heard them talking."
"Heard who talking?" Hansel said, flicking a strand of sandy hair from his eyes.
"Mother. Mother and the Queen," he replied, bottom lip jutting out into a pout. "They said that if the Queen has a daughter one day then I can marry her. I don't want to marry a stupid Princess! I don't want to marry anyone!"
Ah. So that was the issue, Rose thought, grinning despite herself. She knew exactly what it was like to have something expected of you which you had no interest in.
"Samson, just because you're a Prince doesn't mean you have to do everything that other people want you to do," she said. "The Queen is my big sister, and she doesn't mind at all that I'm training to be a knight and not a lady."
Samson sniffed again.
"Really," she said, "your mother loves you, and she won't force you into anything you don't want to do. When you're older you never have to go near a girl if you don't want to. Now," she stood up and offered the young boy her hand. "Everyone's very worried about you. Why don't you come back with me?"
Acedia was no less hysterical when Rose and Hansel brought her son to her in Snow's throne room. Once Samson, in all his lilac glory, had been cuddled and smothered with his mother's kisses, the sniffling lady embraced his two rescuers under the Queen's kind gaze.
"I really don't know how to thank you enough! I was so worried!" She blubbered. Rose had to resist the urge to peel the princess off her.
"It's nothing. Really."
"Yeah," Hansel agreed, hiding his smile at Rose's expense. "It's all part of our job."
"Besides, I think Samson's just pleased he doesn't have to get married just yet."
Acedia turned to face her son with wide eyes, and Rose shared a soft smile with her sister.
"Is that what this is all about?"
"I don't want to get married," the little boy shrugged after a moment's silence, shyly glancing at Rose. "But I guess if I have to get married, I wouldn't mind marrying a knight; then she could rescue me instead of the other way round."
"You know the kid had a point," Rose mused once she and Hansel were outside, linking her thin arm through his as they headed for the stables.
"Oh? How so?" Hansel replied, quirking an eyebrow at her.
"Well I sure don't intend to wait around for somebody to come and save me; if some old hag locked me in a tower I'd just abseil down the side of it."
"I think everyone knows you're more than capable of looking after yourself," he laughed, "but let me give you some advice anyway."
"What's that then?"
stay away from apples." He grinned.
Rose punched him in the arm, and laughed.