All was as it should be.
In th' castle, full aef life an' light, was their Queen.
She ruled with Grace an' Justice, as beautiful an' as strong as th' rose she was born fraem.
All waur happy.
Yet e'en oan th' brightest day, thaur is shadow.
It began as a nightmaur, recurrin' tae a very few. Those whose rebellion had brought down th' Black Queen, Ravenna. It was passed ower as naething mair than th' usual disturbance aef sleep natural after th' sufferings aef such horrur. Yet as th' other dreams faded, thes one remained. Watchful. Dark. Predatory. Waitin' in th' shadows, just out aef their sight. It seemed tae search for somethin' in their dreams, lookin', always lookin'. They could ne'er say when they woke what it was they had dreamed, but it left a feelin' aef dread in their hearts an' their minds.
William, th' Duke's son.
Eric, th' Huntsman.
Th' dwarves: Beith, Muir, Gort, Nion, Duir, Coll, and Quert.
Whatever it was lookin' for, it didne find.
Finally e'en these dreams faded.
"It's aggravating." Snow White said in confidence as she walked with the Dwarfen leader, Beith, through the halls on the way to a council meeting. "He has completely withdrawn from me. He doesn't speak to me as he used to…as if we were friends."
"Friends?" Beith snorted and looked at her askance, his blue eyes bright with the sunshine and the warmth. "I have never known him to speak to another as though they were friends. His words are all bite and bark."
"Exactly. And now they are neither." Snow lifted her skirts to better climb the stone stairs they had reached. "Now he is all politeness and correct speech. Never a 'princess' or 'girl' or 'gie me grief, wa don't ye?' passes his lips."
The dwarf laughed, the deep sound echoing slightly off of the stone walls in the stairwell. "Only you would take comfort in such talk."
"Whatever bite there is, isn't meant." Snow replied, but her mouth pulled into a smile as she could see the humor. "Anyway, it was how we spoke to one another. Now there is a wall between us filled with polite talk and 'your majesty' and 'my queen.'"
"Hmm." Beith grunted, turning solemn with thought. "You do know, that Eric is a man who feels keenly th' separation of class?"
Snow's face pinched, her green eyes narrowing with the sadness she felt upon that particular subject. "I know." she said, and her voice was quiet. "But I don't know what to do about it. I have some ideas, but he won't talk to me, and I am loathe to take any action without knowing his mind." She paused. "You know how he is."
"Aye." Beith nodded.
The meeting passed well. Not as much was decided as Snow White had hoped, but what was decided on were things of importance, so she was content.
As the council members, the Duke, and William left to perform other duties, Snow White sat back in her throne with a sigh, relaxing before her next round of appointments. It was the time of day, mid-afternoon, when anyone was allowed in who had a difficulty and a problem to present to her Majesty. Snow always did her best to find a solution, though once in a while…to her great consternation…one was not to be found.
Today, before the stream of elders and lords had died, someone else came in. Tall and broad and hulking, with a grave face and short words, she knew him before she could fully see his face. She smiled. Her eyes brightened. Sitting up straight she watched him battle the outward current at the door and force his way in, keeping his head low and his "Pardon me, m' lord"s quiet and mumbled. Standing, Snow White stepped forward and greeted him when he finally reached her.
He knelt down on one knee, and bent his head. "Your majesty."
"Huntsman." She inclined her head, and then looked up, smiling, ready to broach a plan she had been carefully formulating. Pulling in a deep breath, she opened her mouth…
"Your Majesty, I 'ave heard that ye wish tae make me th' Royal Huntsman."
Snow White paused. She could not tell from his neutral tone and his schooled expression if he was pleased…or, for some reason, upset. "Yes." she said. "I do."
Eric nodded. "What would be my duties, if I waur tae accept th' position?"
A heavy sigh rose up within her. It was always like this, since she had become queen. Professional. Impersonal. A queen and a subject. "You shall hunt wherever you wish." she said, allowing his answer. "What you hunt you shall bring to the palace. Whatever is not needed at the palace you may keep or sell as you please. The skins you collect throughout the year are to be brought to the palace come the ninth day of November, to be divided between myself and my attendants. The remaining you may keep or sell, as you wish. You shall have the crown's protection and immunity wherever you go. If ever there is battle you shall accompany them on the march, and with your horn sound the signal for battle." Snow finished the recital of the Duties of the Royal Huntsman, and waited, trying to judge his reaction. There was none; only dark, heavy brows as always and an inscrutable expression.
"Mm." he said at last.
"You would be given quarters here at the palace." She offered, her brows pulled together as she studied him. If only he were not so frustratingly void of reaction! Just one clue…
"I still 'ave my home oan th' edge aef th' moors." he said slowly.
Snow White spoke quickly, trying to extend a kindly gesture so that she wouldn't lose him. "You don't have to decide today." she said. "It's not something I will force on you. The decision is yours."
Eric glanced at her. An eyebrow raised.
"Take all the time you need." Snow said again, and groaned inwardly at how hopeful and pleading she sounded. He could read her better than anyone on her best days.
So much for not revealing just how badly she wanted him to stay.
His face grew contemplative, and at last he nodded. "I will think oan it." he said.
She smiled, exhaling in relief. Then she noticed something, and looked closer, studying the shadows around his eyes and the weariness in the lines upon his face. "Eric," she said, stepping down from the dais. "Are you well?"
Eric frowned. "Aye, your majesty."
"Are you sure?" She stepped closer, and it did not escape her notice that he stood at her approach and waited stiffly, his face once more growing stiff and expressionless. "You look exhausted, Eric."
"Thaur is much work that 'as occupied my time aef late, My Queen." he replied. "But I can assure your Majesty that I'm quite well."
She recognized the dismissal in his answer, and thought wryly that wasn't it she who was supposed to do the dismissing? She dropped her gaze, and stepped back. "I wish we could talk as we once did." she whispered. "I miss my friend, who used to think me such burden and told me as much—and yet never left my side."
Eric bowed his head. "Aye." he murmured at last, and when he looked up there was a fond sadness in his blue eyes. "And whaur 'as that wayward girl gone no', who used tae give me so much grief? She 'as grown intae a queen. She nae longer needs an embittered blooter'd tae keep her company."
There was a breath of silence as Snow felt tears rise up in her eyes, looking upon him with such denial that it almost hurt, and desperately she began to piece together a response in her mind and opened her mouth to utter it. Yet in the space of those few seconds he had taken her silence as her dismissal, and with a small, soft smile that did not reach his eyes, he bowed and left.
That night he prepared for bed in his simple room, and then Eric sat down upon the edge of his bed and began to pull the covers over. He paused, leaving them in a disheveled heap in his lap, and sighed. At last he looked up. "God in heaven," he prayed. "Please give me th' strength. Let me love her as I aught, an' not as I wish, tae protect her an' watch over her."
He received no answer, but as always when he prayed a sense of calm entered his heart…a reassurance that all would be well. Somehow, all would be well.
Laying down he pulled the covers up and drew them under his chin, sighing as the chill of the night air disappeared and the warmth of the bedding began to soak into his limbs. His eyes grew heavy, and then they closed. His breathing grew slow and even.
It was silent.
For almost an hour there was naught to disturb the night air. Then his brows pulled together in a frown, and his head turned slightly on the pillow. He settled, and seemed to once more be at peace. A few moments later he frowned again, and shifted, and grew tense. At one point his hand opened and then clutched the blankets, so hard that they shook, the knuckles growing white. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his face strained, horribly and painfully. A gasp escaped his lips, and then a low, quiet moan. The moment ended, and his sleep calmed for a while more, before he grew disturbed once again.
Yet he never woke.
The next day dawned, and with it arrived a disheveled and distracted member to the dining hall. The dwarves saw him coming as they stood in line and dished up their food, and while they all noticed the pallor of his face and the darkness in his eyes, it was Beith who spoke. "A good morning to you, Huntsman."
"Mm." Was the grunted reply. Eric did not look at them, his mouth pressed closed as he nabbed a hard bread bowl and looked over the morning's offerings.
"No." Eric said, dishing up some some porridge and cheese. "I retired early."
"Did you now?" Beith mused. "Then you must have had some work to tend to early this morning?"
The huntsman gave him a questioning and incredulous look. "No." he scoffed.
"Hmm." Beith hummed quietly, nodding, his blue eyes thoughtful.
"Why th' questions, Beith?" Eric asked, pouring a cup of watered ale. His voice rose above its tired mumble, exasperation and resignation in his tone. "What's oan your mind?"
"Not much." Beith said. "Except that you look mighty down an' grey for a man who's had a full night's rest."
Eric sighed, and turned his eyes on the dwarf, holding his bowl and cup. "I'm fine."
Beith watched him walk away, and his eyes narrowed. "No you're not." he muttered. He followed, sitting down at the same table as the huntsman, who fell to his food with lack-luster passion, like a man who eats because he's hungry but does not taste his food. "I've known you a good many years, Huntsman." Beith said, beginning on his own nourishment. "One could never say you've ever been 'cheerful', but there's a shadow on you this morning."
Pausing in his consumption, Eric closed his eyes and sighed. "You're nae gonnae let this go."
Beith set his elbows on the table, adjusted his seat, and stilled, waiting.
Eric studied his porridge. "I've been dreamin'." he said, his voice low to avoid any chance of being overheard. "Every nicht for three days."
Beith nodded, tipping his head. He pursed his lips. "Well, most have had dreams. 'Tis not uncommon."
Eric dropped his spoon down and looked at Beith. "I know." he said. "You think I doan' know anythin' about bad dreams?"
"I know you were in the wars." Beith agreed calmly. "An' I know about your wife."
He ignored the mention of Sara. "These are…different." he mumbled. "I doan' know…"
The dwarf looked at the huntsman, and his brows drew down. He knew the man; Eric was as tough as the Black Forest itself, and full of spit and fire and bite. He would grow grave, he would grow irritable, and he would grow dark and bad-tempered, but he rarely grew afraid. Certainly not over a bad dream. Yet the signs before the dwarf now were of worry; uncertainty; a troubled mind.
"What is it you dream of?" Beith asked, lowering his voice.
Eric's lips drew back in a silent baring of teeth, and then then he shook his head and took a long drink of his ale, grimacing at the weakness of it.
"Eric." the dwarf used his name. "What do you dream of?"
Reluctantly, the huntsman looked at Beith. "Her." he said.
Beith frowned. "Her majesty?"
"No." Eric growled irritably. His gaze intensified. "Th' witch. Ravenna."
There was a pausing; the dwarf sat up straight, staring, his expression carefully neutral. "Her cruelty was terrible." he murmured. "No small wonder you dream of her."
"I doan' dream aef what she did." Eric bit out. And then it seemed to tumble from him. "They are… I doan' know what they are… I cannae remember them when I wake. But I doan' sleep as I should, an' I ache, as though I 'ave just been in battle an' suffered grievously. I can feel her eyes oan me, an' search my room—as though someone micht be hidin' there."
The elder dwarf gazed at him, listening closely. "Those be dark dreams." he agreed, his eyes unblinking as they watched the man's agitation. "Let us hope…they fade soon."
Eric snorted, and resumed his eating.
Beith's eyebrows furrowed.
For the next few days the dwarf kept an eye on the tall man, who had since accepted the job of Royal Huntsman and moved into quarters more befitting of his new position. The room was more spacious, with a tapestry on the wall and a rug on the floor, and a small hearth. It was in the same hall as the dwarves' quarters, which was an agreeable situation for everyone.
Beith was especially glad, for it afforded him the chance to keep an eye on Eric. As the days passed his concern grew, for the huntsman grew more grim in the face and, for those who knew what to look for, more weary. A shadow was upon him. A darkness that brooded, and it filled the dwarf's heart with warning.
But of what, he wasn't yet sure.
Snow White pulled on her leather gloves, walking briskly down the halls, the skirts of her riding habit swishing in a heavy, delightful way around her legs. A ride was just what she needed today; it had been a long week, and she found herself tiring easily, bogged down with the endless decisions to be made with all that needed fixing after Ravenna's rule, and trying to learn all that she had missed learning during her years in the tower. The ways of court; how to move, how to act, what to say. Decorum. Politics. She knew she would never be the polished, perfect Queen, in word and manner, that most courts had. There would always be just a hint of roughness to her, a bluntness that would come out and catch people off guard, but she accepted that and did not fret. No one else seemed to mind.
A great shape moved towards her, filling the hall with his strides. Snow White paused and looked at him. Clean now, with the dirt and wear washed from his skin, his hair no longer in a tangled mess but smoothly pulled back with leather ties, he looked so very different. Eric, always, but she thought he now reflected in his appearance the beauty of his heart.
Then her rose-colored musings were brought to an end, and she saw the grey shadows upon his face, and the lines around his eyes, and the grim set to his mouth. His heavy-booted stride seemed to carry a great weight with it, and when his fair blue eyes rose and met hers, they were subdued and somber.
Yet upon seeing her a small spark of light entered their depths, and she thought she saw the promise of a smile touch one corner of his mouth.
"Majesty." he greeted, stopping before her and bowing.
She tipped her head. "Huntsman." Then she looked up at him again, feeling as though there was more she wanted to say, but she wasn't sure anymore what that might be.
His brows drew together, and he looked her up and down appraisingly. "Yu'r strangely dress'd for a council meetin'."
A laugh escaped her, and she touched the folds of the leather riding coat. "No. I rescheduled." She said. "I needed a break from it all, so I cleared the day."
Eric nodded. "Yu'r goin' ridin', then?"
"Yes." Snow White swallowed, wondering, and then she went with her impulse and asked: "Would you like to come?"
He shifted, thumbs hooking his belt, surprised at her query. His mouth pursed to answer, but nothing came out.
"I need an escort anyway." She hastened to add, hoping to draw him into saying yes. "Apparently the elders and lords hate it when I go riding alone."
"Well, yu'r queen no'. I can understand that."
"So you'll come?"
He looked into her hopeful green eyes, and nodded. "Aye. As you wish," he murmured. "My queen."
Her face broke into a smile.
With her hand on his proffered arm, they walked through the halls and out to the courtyard, and thence to the stables. Her horse was being readied, and a stablehand quickly went to prepare a horse for the Huntsman as well. They rode out from the main gate, past the curious eyes of the people. Her cloak flowed out behind her, and upon Eric's back his choicest of axes and knives were strapped. Just in case.
They rode far and they rode wide, burning their energy in wild galloping that set their hearts to pounding and their breath to panting. It felt good to be so mad; Snow White turned her face into the sun and reveled in its warmth, so contrasting to the cool, misty air that surrounded them. To be out, to be free, with nothing surrounding her or hindering her, was a glorious state of being that she never tired of. Her horse pranced beneath her, huffing and tossing his head, and she opened her eyes and turned to look at her companion. He watched her, a quiet fondness in his gaze and a touch of amusement on his lips. She laughed, and threw him a challenge, spurring her horse on in a mad race.
When the sun was midway in its downward arc they paused for rest beside a clear stream. The horses grazed upon the new green grass, and Snow White sat in the roots of a gnarled tree that was, for the first time in years, dressed in thick green finery. She ate her bread and cheese, and drank from her canteen of water, and breathed in the fresh air.
Eric hung back a little, watching her, holding his leather-skin (filled with water this time) loosely in his hand. She could feel his eyes on her, and turned to glance at him, her mouth pulled into the small half-smile that was so classically her, that half-smile that seemed to mean either a wonderful secret or mischief.
"Isn't life grand?" she declared, turning and looking out across the golden-lit landscape.
There was a quick burst of laughter, heavy and rolling. She loved his laugh. It made her feel warm, and full, and safe. "I doan' know," he said, walking forward to stand beside her seated form. "I suppose."
Her eyes squinted in the light as she look up at him. Looked up, up, up… "What is that supposed to mean?" she challenged good-naturedly.
"Well…" he cast about for a way to explain. "Parts aef life are grand, I'll gie ye that. A lot isn'."
"Yes. But THIS is." she gestured to all that surrounded them.
His expression grew contemplative, his eyes looking around at the trees and the grass and the stream, the mist lifting from the wet ground and rising up from the scrub and the bushes. The golden light of the afternoon sun cast everything in a rich glow. Even the air seemed to glisten, the moisture sparkling in the light. "Aye." he whispered.
She wrapped her arms around her knees and leaned back against the tree. "You look terrible." she finally said.
That earned her a fiery-blue glare. "I didn't realize my looks waur a' concern tae you." he retorted. "I'm sorry my appearance displeases you, yur majesty."
"That's not what I meant. You know that." she chastised. "And don't call me that." He glanced at her, questioning.
"Your majesty." she shook her head, and her eyes flickered down to her hands where they clasped around her knees. "We're friends. In the palace… I understand. But out here?"
His face was inscrutable. Finally he looked away, a muscle working in his jaw, and he took a drink of water. "Wouldnae be proper."
"Why not? It's just a name." she said. "Snow White. Try it."
He dropped his head, staring hard at the leather-skin he held.
She scoffed incredulously, and shrugged. "Fine. Call me princess then." she said. "You used to call me that all the time."
"Yu'r nae a princess anymore."
"So? It'll make me feel normal." She watched his hard outline, and finally blurted: "Eric!"
He turned sharply at the use of his name.
"Please?" This time she did not mind the pleading note to her voice. "I thought we were friends."
His face could be so hard to read at times! He stared at her, studying, and whatever was going on in his mind was hidden behind those brilliant blue eyes. "Yu'r gonnae drive me mad," he finally muttered. "Princess."
A slow smile spread across her face. "I'll try my best." she teased.
The day had been surprisingly good; better than many of her previous days. Snow White walked the stairs to the royal wing, removing her gloves with an abstracted expression, her cheeks flushed and a smile touching her face with a fond remembrance of the afternoon.
"You look brilliantly refreshed." William said, appearing on the stairs ahead of her, coming down. His eyes twinkled, clasping his hands behind his back.
"I am." Snow White said, continuing up. "A ride was just what I needed."
"I am glad to hear it." William smiled, tipping his head as he met her on the same stair and then turned, to accompany her up. There was a pause. "The company was also everything to be desired, I hear."
Her step paused a moment, and her breath faltered, though it was hardly noticeable. She looked down, her expression now sombre with thought. "William…" she began quietly.
"Snow," William stopped on the top step and turned to her, catching her elbow gently. There was no anger on his face, no reproach, only wistful, wise understanding. "It's all right. I know you care for me as a friend."
She looked up, apology in her green eyes. "I didn't know how to tell you…"
"Well, I haven't made it easy for you, have I?" His smile was quick and boyish, the same smile she remembered from her childhood. Then it was gone, and his blue eyes grew subdued. "I had hoped. Perhaps, if all these years had been different…but they were not, and this is where we are."
Her mouth pressed together, her brows tight. She had known he loved her, and had tried—desperately—to love him back, but for all that he still remained as a friend and a brother to her. "I'm sorry." she whispered. "Will you be all right?"
"No. I shall never love another; I shall live alone, to serve you only."
Snow White gaped, horrified.
William threw back his head and laughed, the wonderful, rich, playful sound relieving and filling her with new warmth and gladness. "I expect I shall be." he said when his mirth had subsided. His blue eyes twinkled brightly at her. "Perhaps, if you had led me on, and coaxed the small seed in my heart into full bloom, it would be a different story. But you didn't, and it didn't, so I shall save it. Perhaps I shall find a maiden at the victory celebrations in a week."
Her heart suddenly felt so light within her she could hardly believe it; she hadn't realized how much her fear of wounding him had weighed it down. She smiled and laughed. "I hope so." she said, holding his hand. Her glance was fond. "I love you."
William's shoulders rolled in pleasure. "I know." Then once again his face grew subdued, though this time with thought. "He is a good man for you."
Snow White's eyes flickered to the floor, her brow pulled with frustration and unhappiness. "Yes, he is." she agreed. "But there are rules to a Queen's marriage which I MUST abide by. I understand why," she quickly added. "But still…it breaks my heart."
He nodded seriously. "I know." he whispered. And then he took her hand and set it within the bend of his arm, holding it there so that she was drawn in close as he began to lead them down the hall, leaning close to speak in her ear. "And I have an idea about that…"
At dinner Eric joined his dwarfen friends at their table and was welcomed into their conversation. He entered into it readily, speaking and laughing with ease. Knowing looks were shared among the dwarves, but they kept their comments to themselves.
It was later than had been usual of late, but Eric, despite his weariness, felt well. Tonight's sleep he was sure would be deep and undisturbed, deserved and well earned. He entered his room and closed the door, dressed for bed, and slipped beneath the covers. The mattress felt especially good, the blankets warm and comfortable, and without any embarrassment he burrowed in deep, as he had when he was a boy, and closed his eyes.
It was late when he began to dream. It was a pleasant dream; he was walking carefully across the moor, fresh rabbits slung over his shoulder, breathing deep the fresh air which was damp and filled with the scents of the wild, and then there before him was his home. Carefully built, well-kept, a serene line of smoke rising and drifting from the chimney. As he strode quickly towards the small hut the door opened, and a thin figure came briskly out, carrying a water bucket. Her mouse-blond hair was pulled untidily back, and her apron was already well-stained from a hard day's work. As she made her way towards their well she saw him, and she smiled and lifted her hand. Eric's heart swelled with pride and warmth as he looked upon his wife's beaming face, and he broke into a jog, scooping her into his arms…
It went dark. He spun; where was the voice?
Rich and honey golden to his ears. But it couldn't be.
A swirl of blackness, like raven's wings spinning him into oblivion, and then he was gone for an eternity…
He woke with a scream this time. His heart hammered painfully in his chest, his breaths harsh and freezing, a cold sweat chilling him to the bone despite the horrific burning that lingered from just a moment before. He threw off his blankets, their tangled folds feeling too much like the restraints that had held him. Stumbling to his feet Eric looked madly around his room, searching the shadowed corners, his eyes seeing movement just beyond the edge of sight. 'It cannot be,' his mind tried to tell him, but every instinct told him otherwise and continued to search for her.
A heavy pounding on the door jolted him into movement, jumping back and pulling away from the door as it opened, raising a metal candlestick with a fury that did not bode well for his intruders.
"Huntsman?" Beith burst in, staring at Eric even as he quickly looked around the room, holding his sword high and ready to strike. Seeing there was no enemy he relaxed, but only a fraction, for his wise blue eyes saw the Huntsman's state and knew that something was very, very wrong. His voice was deep and gritty when he spoke: "What has happened?"
Eric stared, and realized he was shaking—and that he still held the candlestick high, paused in its movement to strike. Beith's question struck him as odd, but only because he could think of no answer. Not yet. The words were too jumbled in his still-wild mind, his breath too quick.
His silence darkened the dwarf's face to a dangerous level. "Eric," he barked sharply, "What happened?"
The air cleared enough for him to breathe, and the light pouring in from the hall chased away the dark shadows that had seemed to move and surround him. Eric felt suddenly very weak, and he dropped his arm as he leaned back against the wall and slid down to the floor, no longer trusting his legs. The clattering of the candlestick was loud in the silence, and then thick dwarfen hands were on his shoulders, forcing him to look up.
"Eric," Beith asked, quietly this time. "What…"
"She was haur." Eric rasped, pushing his damp hair from his eyes. "It was her, th' witch…"
"She is dead."
"You think I doan' know that, Beith?!" Eric shouted, his vision clouding for a moment. He pressed his hands to his eyes, and felt the weight of the dwarf's hands.
"I doan' know…" he groaned. "I doan' know…"
"Eric," Beith's voice was low. "You're bleeding."
Snow White woke with a startle; it was still dark, too early to be waking, though she could hear the beginnings of the morning birds outside of her window. Then she heard the insistent rap on her door, again, and she sat up. "A moment." she called as she slid from bed and hastily pulled on a robe. "Come in." she said, tying the sash.
A wide-eyed servant, breathless from running, opened the door and stepped in. "Forgive me for disturbing you, your majesty…" he stammered. "But the royal physician and Beith, the dwarf, require your presence immediately in the healing room."
Her breath caught; what had happened? "Thank you." she said, and nodded, and followed.
The short trip down to the physician's healing room seemed to take forever, and her mind rushed through possible things that could have happened. Beith was there. Had he or one of the dwarves taken seriously ill? Was Muir dying? She lifted her robe enough to walk faster, forcing the servant to hurry to keep up.
Beith was standing within the partially open door, obviously waiting for her, watching what was happening within the lit room. He turned at her approach, and immediately straightened and bowed. "Your majesty."
"What has happened Beith?" she asked, even as he opened the door and led her inside.
Eric was sitting upon the raised table, obscured from sight by Gaius, who was speaking quietly back and forth with him. The huntsman silenced when he saw her, and noticing the change the elderly physician turned and looked at her. His grey eyes, old and wise and kindly, were now grave. He turned fully towards her, and bowed his head, his grey hair untidy from sleep. "Your majesty."
"Gaius." she clasped his hand, and he returned the gesture with a small smile. While he respected her as his queen, he also treated her as though she were his own daughter, which pleased her to no end.
"Majesty." he said. "Something has happened of grave concern to us all."
"What is it?" she asked, feeling her throat tighten in fear of what he would say.
Instead he glanced at Beith, who in turn directed his words to the huntsman. "Shall you tell her, or shall I?"
Snow White turned and looked at Eric, waiting. He was drawn, pale, with great dark shadows around and within his eyes. He looked back at her without flinching, and gave a breath that was almost a sigh. Resigning himself, she thought. "I've been dreamin'." he said, his voice low and hoarse. "Every nicht, about Ravenna."
In hushed tones he explained what had been happening for the past two weeks. The young queen's eyes grew wide with shock and fear.
"But…" Snow White looked from face to face. "She is dead! I killed her."
"She is dead." Muir's voice came from a corner, where she had not seen him. The aged, blind dwarf sat on a stool, his face abnormally somber. "But still, she is here."
Gaius looked weary, and concerned. "There is something you should see, Majesty." He said, and turned to the huntsman. A glance was shared between them, and Eric averted his eyes, looking down. Gently Gaius lifted the bottom of his shirt, till the entirety of Eric's torso was revealed. Snow White stared in horror. He was scratched, from chest to hip; groups of four parallel lines. "They are only skin deep." Gaius said. "They will heal quickly."
She hardly thought that was the concern for the moment, though she was glad to hear it. The fact that there was physical harm at all…Snow White shook her head as she wrapped her mind around it. "She is…Her spirit is still here?" she said.
"Yes." Muir stated quietly.
"But why is she attacking Eric?" Snow White demanded, emotion making her tone sharper than she intended. "Why not me? I'm the one who killed her!"
"I doan' know." Eric murmured, pulling his shirt back down and settling with bowed shoulders. "But yu'r nae th' only one she's angry at."
Snow White turned to him. "But…" Then she paused, and thought back. "You were supposed to deliver me. Instead you helped me escape."
"And he killed her brother." Beith added.
"Well…what can we do?" She asked, her mind already working through different courses of action. "How can we stop her?"
"First we must discover how she is here." Muir said from his corner. "Something must be holding her here."
"But we emptied the castle of her things." Snow White said. Then she looked at Eric, and the blood staining the front of his shirt, and the haunted look in his eyes. "Never mind." she muttered, determination hardening her green eyes. "We'll go through everything again. No matter how long it takes." Turning around she found the servant who had woken her. "Go to Duke Hammond and his son, William. I want a meeting with them come first light."
The servant nodded and turned, scampering off to do her bidding.
Snow White did not move; she remained standing, staring at the huntsman, her face unreadable. Beith and Gaius shared a look, and nodded to one another. "Come, Muir." Beith said, gently taking the older dwarf by the arm. "Let's go find some breakfast before this meeting."
The two dwarves left, stepping carefully as Muir followed Beith's guiding arm. Gaius paused by the door. "If you need anything," he said quietly. "I shall also be in the kitchens."
The door closed with a soft sound. Finally Eric looked at her, his strong jaw set, his eyes like chips of blue ice against the tan of his face, and she was able to take unhindered stock of him. The shadows of weariness and the lines that marred his face from too many nights of…Her lips parted in a breath. What HAD Ravenna been doing to him? She knew too well what that woman had been capable of, of the many varied things she had done to prisoners to obtain information or to punish them for 'crimes'. Snow White's green eyes squinted, focusing on his face, searching for the details that might give her answers.
Those blue chips of ice narrowed beneath her scrutiny, glaring back as his jaw squared itself. "Quit yur starin', girl. I'm nae a paintin'."
His voice was hoarse, as from a harsh cough or from too much yelling, and she knew that her distress was now written clearly on her face. She stepped quickly to him and softly touched his face, his scruff softly rough against her hand, too full of emotion to notice the faint stiffening of his posture at her familiarity towards him. "Eric," she said, still searching his appearance. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Eric huffed. "Tell you I was havin' nightmares? I'd sound a proper fool."
"You're not a fool, and they're not just nightmares!" She had thought it was finally over. She had thought that the queen would never harm another loved one, ever.
"I didnae know that before, did I?"
Snow White shook her head, squeezing her eyes closed, her hands fisted and shaking on his face and shoulder with the strength of her fear and sudden, roaring fury. She heard him release an uncomfortable breath, shift beneath her touch, but still she could not look up without the danger of losing herself. The tide of emotion was still too much. Large, hard, warm hands firmly yet hesitantly covered her arms. She looked up, knowing her cheeks were flushed and that the remnants of unshed tears were in her eyes. The glare was gone from his eyes, replaced with concern.
"Haur," he whispered.
She opened her mouth to speak and her voice shook, much to her chagrin. "She's hurting you." She clenched her teeth. "I'm so tired of her hurting people…!"
"Hey, hey," he shushed her, and she wondered why it wasn't her reassuring him. "We'll figure this out. You beat her last time, wi' all her powers an' her armies. You can beat a bitter auld ghos'."
Her mouth became a grim line, her green eyes searching. "How bad is it?"
Eric swallowed. He shifted his position on the table, shrugging his shirt. "I've had worse."
She knew he was lying. Her voice was clipped. "Eric."
He sighed and looked at her.
"I need to know. How are you lasting? How much longer?"
He didn't answer at first. He just looked at her, with his unblinking, unreadable blue eyes. Finally he looked down at her hands, which had lowered to his arm, and he covered them with long callused fingers and looked up into her eyes again. "As long as you need." he whispered. "My Queen."
"This is of great concern." Duke Hammond said darkly, almost under his breath. He stood from his chair and paced Snow White's office, his hands clasped tightly behind his back. "This is of terrible concern."
"And she's only going after the Huntsman?" William asked, his fair face pulled into a frown. The news had disturbed him greatly. "Not any of us? Not you?"
Snow White shook her head.
"I don't know." she admitted. "Perhaps my defeat of her made her…powerless against me?" she shrugged, unsure of her suggestion.
William nodded, accepting it. "But why not us?" he asked again, and then he sat up in his chair, his expression changing as if a connection had been made. "She fell because of him!"
"Really, William." His father protested, and gestured at Snow White. "I think our Queen…"
"No—if he had not turned against Finn in the Dark Forest Snow White would have been taken back to the castle, and that would have been the end, before anything had even begun." William said, sure he was onto something. "And if he had not killed Finn in the Sanctuary, Ravenna would not have lost her brother…and you," he said, nodding to Snow White. "Most likely would have been captured by Finn."
'And if not for Eric, I never would've woken up.' Snow White added in her thoughts.
"The two sides of the coin." William finished.
"All right." Duke Hammond conceded with a sigh. He leaned his hands on the edge of the desk. "Now where does that leave us? You say that Muir, the dwarf, believes that something is holding her here. What?"
Snow White crossed her arms before her on the desk, pensive and brooding. "I don't know." she said. "We destroyed everything of hers."
"Are we so sure it is a thing?" William pointed out, looking troubled to be doing so. "Could it not be her own anger and hate that has brought her?"
"I hope not." Snow White said, frowning. "If it is, then she'll only be gone when she gets what she wants. Revenge." She pulled in a deep breath. "In the meantime," she sat up straight. "I want a full search of the castle. Every corner, every shadow, every cupboard and closet. If there is anything that was overlooked, I want it found and destroyed."
The next few days were filled with anxious tension. Snow White rescheduled as many of her council meetings and other duties as she safely and wisely could, and put her energy into trying to discover a solution. This was more than just an attack on one man; if Ravenna's spirit had found a way to stay, the entire kingdom was threatened. She spent what time she could with Eric, concerned that he was sleeping less and less. Not that she could blame him. He was strong, and possible the most stubborn person she had EVER met, but by the end of the week Gaius came to her with great concern over the huntsman's well-being.
"Is it really that bad?" she asked worriedly.
The aged physician nodded. "In seven days he has slept five, and that sleep, as you well know, is FAR from restful. Last night he refused to sleep at all, and I had to slip a sleeping draught into his tea. I fear he will try the same tonight."
"And it does no good to sleep during the day?"
Gaius shook his head. "It is through sleep itself, no matter the time, that she has him."
Snow White rubbed her face; the helplessness she felt made her clench her jaw. "He looks so…"
"He is unraveling." Gaius agreed, reaching back to feel for a seat on his bench and then sitting with a sigh. "The longer one goes without rest, proper rest, the more damage is done. A sense of insanity pervades; the mind cannot trust itself, and emotion grows strong and uncontrolled."
"Do…does he need to be under guard?" she asked, hating herself for uttering the words and yet instantly concerned for his safety.
"The dwarves are seeing to it." Gaius answered gently. "Two of them are with him at all times, in shifts. They will let no harm come to him."
She nodded, and leaned back in her chair, her elbow on the armrest, her chin held by her fingers, her green eyes narrowed and dark with thought.
"Has anything been found?" He asked hesitantly.
"No." Snow White rubbed her forehead and pushed her hair back behind her ear. "I do not understand. Muir is more and more sure that it is a thing that allows her to stay; he has been all over the castle with the servants, feeling for…for anything. But there is nothing."
"Perhaps it has been taken?" Gaius suggested. "After the battle, during the frenzy of purging the castle, could someone not have taken something?"
"Looting?" Snow White mused, chewing on her bottom lip. "It is possible." She finally agreed, her brows drawn together. She did not like that idea, though it did offer some meagre hope. If someone had looted, how were they to be discovered?
"I would search for those who served in the castle during her reign." Gaius said, resting his arms on his knees. "Those who served Ravenna herself; ask them what she had in her quarters. For it must be something that had been close to her, some private possession, for it to have such power."
As she walked from her morning meeting a short while later she pondered the physician's words. She had already sent out guards to search and question, making clear that she was after information only. No one was to be harmed. She did not wish to bring charges to any who had served Ravenna; she sought their help.
She paused by a railing and looked down at the flurry of activity below. The victory celebrations were tonight. And those lords who had fought beside her, especially those men—those brave soldiers—who had followed her into Ravenna's quarters and fought against her obsidian creatures, were to be rewarded. There were medals for some, land for others, titles for most (complete with the appropriate raise in station and salary). Men who had known nothing but the starving life of a rebellion soldier would have homes of their own, and land to tend and care for. There was too much land right now, floundering and wild, that with good husbandry could become rich and fruitful again.
Duke Hammond would receive a royal medal and gold. William would be given a royal medal, honours, and some land (that adjoined his father's) to call his own, and so would become a Duke in his own right. He had done so much—venturing out on his own with nothing more than a rumor, a hope, and a prayer that she was alive. Bringing her back to his father's hold. Following her into the castle, to do what he could to protect his Queen.
She could not ask for a better counselor, advisor, help-meet, or friend.
For the first time in days the hint of a smile touched her face. He was shrewd, William was, and wise to the workings and intricacies of court. The idea he had suggested in regards to the huntsman was perfect in its simplicity, and her heart warmed with gratitude towards him. A gratitude she knew she could never repay. For, if Eric felt as she prayed he felt, this idea would remove the only hindrance to her heart's greatest desire.
Eric wiped a hand across his sweating brow, and then ran that same hand down the side of his horse. The horse's skin shivered under his touch, and a quiet, rumbling whicker answered him. "Thaur, boy." Eric said, ruffling the thick, dark mane. He ran the brush over the glistening coat again. "How's that?"
Nion and Duir were with him, sitting on bales of hay. Duir was whittling a small piece of wood, Nion was drinking with a leather flask, and they were talking quietly to each other. From one or two sideways glances, Eric knew they were talking about him. Their tones were too hushed to make out words. Their looks wary and concerned. Eric deliberately ignored them, keeping his back mostly to them, focusing on brushing his horse. A muscle worked in his jaw, but he supposed he couldn't blame them…not after last night. It had been Gort and Quert staying with him, keeping watch over his restless sleep. They had tried waking him, to no avail, and had finally settled on a close and wary vigil. Even then the force of his waking had startled them. He had come up from the bed with the force of a storm, hand automatically reaching for a weapon but finding nothing (everything had been removed several days ago after an unfortunate incident). It had taken his longer than usual to come back to himself, to not see her shadow everywhere. By the time he had the other dwarves had arrived, and Quert was ready by the door to go for Gaius.
The physician had still come to see him, at Beith's insistence. Some warmed liniment for his aching joints, and a cup of lemon balm tea went a long way, but still Gaius had looked at him with a sober eye. Especially when Eric had privately said something about not sleeping until this was over. Gaius had pressed his mouth thin in understanding, but had reminded him of his growing exhaustion and that he would drive himself ill…but Eric's response of silence was absolute in his stubbornness. And the older man did not press.
Eric came back to himself, realizing he had ceased brushing the sleek brown coat for an unknown amount of time. He rolled his shoulders, taking in a deep breath, doing his best to banish the memories of the previous night. That was a trap to a dark, terrible place that he did not want to revisit.
Duir grunted and shifted, setting down the partially carved wood and putting his knife back in his belt. He stood. "Got to go." he mumbled, adjusting his belt.
"Back in a minute?" Nion said, lowering his leather flask.
"Course." Duir glanced hesitantly at Eric, and then he shambled out of the stables.
Eric waited. Nion had not had much sleep of late, disturbed by the idea of Ravenna's ghost wandering the halls, and he had been slowly drinking from the flask all morning. Without the stimulation of conversation Eric did not have to wait long. The moment soft snores began emanating from the slumped dwarf he moved into action. Quickly he saddled his horse, and grabbed the pack and traveling cloak he had secreted into the stables. He secured the cloak over his shoulders and the pack to the saddle, and then he was mounted and riding out.
Within moments, the stable was silent.
Chapter 2: Preview:
The men shot forward, and Eric jumped, swinging his arm back and then driving it forward, taking out the first man to reach him. But the others were upon him in the same second, and even as he drew back and kicked and swung and roared his anger they pulled him down. In a few chaotic moments it was over. He gasped for breath, held painfully down against the rough wall of his hut, the splinters digging into his back. They held his arms and legs, hands upon his shoulders. He could not move. His cheek throbbed, and his mouth bled. One eye ached.
"Nae a one gits away with it. Nae e'en ye, Huntsman." Fingall said, sauntering forward in his warm, animal skin cloak that was all soft fur. Furs that Eric himself had sold to a shop in the village. "Ye embarrassed me. Now ye owe me th' debt fur that embarrassment."
Eric spat some blood, and then sighed. He did not have the strength to fight anymore, physically or in his heart, and resigned himself to whatever was in store for him. "An' how will you be collectin'?"