"…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."
It was time for the Victory Celebration. The last minute preparations were in full swing, but Snow White abandoned them, searching for the dwarves—for Beith—her stance one of purpose and determination. When at last she found him the dwarf was with William, speaking quietly and watching the guests.
"Where is he?" Snow White asked.
Beith and William looked at her, her sudden appearance startling them out of their relaxed conversation. "Who?" William asked.
"Eric." she said. "Where is he? He still has not arrived."
"Perhaps he is retired to his chamber?" William suggested, looking troubled. "He may at last be sleeping."
"We should see." Beith said.
As they left the Royal Hall and walked the long corridor they were met by Nion and Duir. The former's eyes were shifting, avoiding the direct gaze of anyone, his stance obstinate. Duir was muttering and gesturing irately to himself, sometimes directing a comment to his companion who would respond bitterly.
"Duir, Nion." Beith barked. "Where's the Huntsman?"
"He is gone." Duir announced, stumping over darkly. "We already checked the kitchens and his room. The bed is made. His things are gone."
Snow White stared at the dwarves, trying to understand the full implication of what they had just said. Beside her, Beith was rumbling into a storm.
"How did this happen?" he asked with dangerous quiet.
"I went out to…" Duir paused and glanced at Snow White. "Er…to…"
"Yes, yes. We understand." Beith's eyes narrowed.
"When I came back, this numbskull was snoring away and the huntsman was gone. Horse 'n all."
"I don't understand." William said. "Why would he leave?"
"He's gone mad." Nion muttered. "Why else?"
"Shut up, Nion." Beith snapped. His blue eyes were crackling, and the unfortunate dwarf hunched uncomfortably under their blaze.
Snow White tightened her jaw. "Perhaps to escape from her."
"Whatever the reason, he is unwell." The grizzled dwarf said quietly to her. "He should not be alone."
She nodded. "I need to find him." And she turned to leave.
"Your Majesty, you can't." William said gravely. "Not yet. The Ceremonies…"
Snow White stopped and stared at him. Mostly it was a glare, but with a frustrated exhale of breath she knew he was right; as Queen, she had to stay to award those who were being honored. The feasting could be done without her, but not this. "Very well." she consented with consternation. "But immediately after…"
"You won't go alone." William said, coming after. "I shall come, too."
"No." She shook her head. "You don't need–"
"You don't know what's in his mind. What Ravenna may have planted there." William insisted. "You forget that I consider him a friend. I do this for his sake as much as yours."
Looking into his clear eyes, Snow White saw the concern there, and consented. "As soon as the Ceremonies are over, meet me in the stables with the smallest contingent possible as soon. I don't want to make him feel threatened or forced."
William nodded, and left to prepare.
Within an hour the small group was riding out, Snow White, William, and five of their most trusted guards. They carried with them little, to make their journey light and fast. She only hoped that they would find him before long, and she prayed that his plan worked…that with-out the castle, Ravenna could not touch him.
After what seemed an eternity of misery— forcing heavy eyes to remain open, struggling to stay straight in the saddle and not fall— he arrived at his destination. A small hut on the edge of the moors. A sigh of relief fell from him. It had been a long ride, from the previous afternoon to now. He had visited every place and person he owed and payed them with the gold in his purse, giving extra to those whom he had owed the longest—and to those he felt the sorriest for owing. An tavern keeper who had been trying to keep his family fed for years, who had graciously extended credit to him till it was no longer affordable to do so. The old lady who ran an inn, who had given him room and board whenever he stumbled in during awful hours of the night, stinking of sweat and drink. He regretted owing her the most, for her kindness was so often given and so often unappreciated.
His purse was now empty, a fact which bothered him more than he would have liked. It was not that he now had nothing, but it was a shameful testament to his conduct of the last few years. A witness to how many people he had used while he had wallowed in his grief.
Yet now he had set it to right. He had paid his debts, and now owed no man, and could begin again.
Arriving he dismounted, and led his horse to the small stable, built up against the side of the hut. It was dry and still, away from the chill breeze and the damp of the moor. With care he set his horse's tackle upon a pile of wood, and then he brushed and rubbed down the animal's coat, talking quietly all the while while the horse ate and drank contentedly.
When he was sure the horse was set for the evening, Eric stepped out of the stable and closed and latched the door. Then he made his way around to the front of the hut, and slowly opened the door, wincing at the groaning creak of the weathered hinges. The inside of the hut was a disaster, the same mess he had left after one of his drunken rages, neglected and allowed to fall to ruin during his year-long absence. With a sigh he shrugged off his cloak and coat, laying them across a chair, and dropped the provisions he had purchased beside it, and looked around. Seeing what needed to be done and prioritizing.
The heavy sound of undisguised footsteps and men's voices drew his attention outside. Who was here, he wondered, in this lonely place? It was not as if he had built his home where people tended to frequent or travel. Which meant they were there for him. Frowning, Eric stepped outside, searching for his visitors. He regretted doing so when the sharp moor wind bit through his worn blue shirt.
Five men stared back at him. All large. All dark and scarred. All grim. All armed.
And he, weak and slow and unwell.
Father God, have mercy.
"Well well well. Looks like we're in luck, lads. We woan't hae tae wait fur him efter all."
Eric turned, and looked darkly at the smiling man with the shaved head. "Fingall." he greeted, a note of warning and wariness in that name. "What brings you haur?"
The man, who resembled a skinny rat the way his nose and mouth wrinkled around his over-grown, greased mustache, tilted his head and spread his arms. "A matter…of a certain debt, Huntsman."
"I paid my debt." Eric said, watching and turning warily as the man walked. Fingall was fairly well-to-do in the nearby village, though little was through honest gain. He loaned money to those desperate enough to seek it from him, and then added enough interest to what was owed that often he was paid in belongings and even, for the highest debts, homes, which he then sold at a lofty price. Once in a terrible while, he would gain a slave—much to his enjoyment. Eric despised the man, and detested that he had himself, once, desperate for money of any kind, gone and put himself in the clutches of Fingall's like.
"Did ye?" Fingall put a bony finger to his mouth and thought for a moment. "Oh, aye. I seem tae recall ye stoppin' by my haem today an' leavin' some gauld."
"So we're done. What I owe you…"
"What ye owe me is my choice, Huntsman." Fingall gestured to his men, who all took a step forward. "Ye see, ye did nae pay when ye waur supposed tae, an' ye somehow managed tae evade my men when they came tae collect. Ye are well ower a year due."
Eric took a step back, looking at the men who advanced, his muscles tensing and readying to fight. Yet they trembled, and were weak, and he worried. "I paid my due, wi' interest!"
"Ye made me a laughin' stock in my business. What else did ye expect?" Fingall asked, looking annoyed and put-off.
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'?"
Five minutes later his hands were tied and held above his head, hanging from the eaves of his hut, his feet just able to touch the ground. Fingall paced leisurely behind him, fondly unrolling a short, sharp whip. Eric clenched his teeth and stared straight ahead as his shirt was pulled up and tucked over his shoulders, and his muscles bunched from the sharpness of the chill and the damp.
"Ye dae realize I take nae pleasure in thes." Fingall said, swinging the whip experimentally in the grass. "Though I am quite sure that thes will hurt ye far mair than it will me…"
"Stop your squawkin' an' take your payment, Fingall." Eric snapped, gritting his teeth for what was to come. "Then you an' I are done, an' I shall ne'er see you haur again."
Fingall paused at the harsh interruption and even harsher words, but he tipped his head, then pursed his lips and nodded. "Fair enaw."
The whip drew back.
The crack echoed across the moors.
The village was small and plain. There was obviously not much money here; but what the villagers had they cared for, and took pride in. The elderly lady at the inn blushed and curtsied, pleased as anything when Snow White entered her home and took interest in her affairs. The young queen was genuinely interested in how she fared, and the innkeeper answered honestly that while things were not as they had been fifteen years ago, they were a lot better than they had been for a long time. "E'en mair so today, Yer Majesty. Fur I've had some who stay oan credit, who hae been goin' through mair difficult times than I, an' t'day some of them hae paid back. Sae th' Lord is blessin' our village all around, thanks tae ye."
Snow White smiled and thanked her for the compliment, though inwardly she was just as embarrassed as ever to receive such praise—though it did please her that she was able to help her people in any way. Then she asked if the local Huntsman had been seen recently?
"Him?" the old lady exclaimed. "Oh, a' course! He's th' one who stopped in t'day, who paid his balance tae me, plus interest."
"He's here?" Snow White said, instantly perking at the news and her eyes widening with renewed eagerness and hope. "Eric?"
"Aye, that's his nam'." The lady nodded.
"Where is he now?"
"He's gone back tae his home, oan th' edge a' th' moors. It's a good ways from th' village, but nae bad. Nae by horse." she said, looking out of her window at the group of seven horse, six of them mounted. One of them, a young lord, was holding the reins of a white horse, waiting patiently. "You'll want tae go West. Ye cannae miss it." She paused, and a troubled look entered her kind, weathered grey eyes. "He's nae in trouble, is he, Majesty? He's a hard man, but he has a good, kin' heart. An' he's suffered these few years."
"I know." Snow White answered, swallowing. "No, he's not in trouble. Or he is…but not from me. I'm trying to help him."
"Oh…" relief lit the wrinkled, pink face, and she smiled. "Well, in th't case, God's speed wi' ye. An' I pray all is reit."
Snow White smiled a little, the corner of her mouth pulling. "Me too. Thank you."
When she returned outside, William looked at her expectantly, his eyes widening at the expression of victory on her face. "Well?" he asked.
Snow White nodded, and smiled. "We've found him." she said.
The dirt was hard and cold and rough. The grasses rustled and cracked under the footfalls of the retreating men, and then all was still and silent. Eric ached from hitting the ground so hard—from having his hands cut free viciously and without preamble—but to lay and not move was such a blessing, the coldness of the earth easing the fiery burn that covered him.
How long he let himself lay there Eric did not know; he had no place to be, no engagement, so he reveled in the freedom and did not move till a faint darkening of the air around him signaled the begin of sundown. Then with a groan he set his hands beneath him and pushed up, gasping as his torn and welted skin pulled and pained with the movement. At last he was on his feet, though he did not know how, and he stumbled his way inside. He needed water to clean his wounds, but as he looked around the darkened interior of the hut he realized that he had nothing clean to hold the water with, and that if he wished to tend to his wounds he would first have to clean the hut. At least, as much as he needed to.
His breaths came in painful inhales and quick exhales, his jaw tight as he moved. He pulled his shirt the rest of the way off; the fabric caught on the wounds and set a fire to his skin that brought water to his eyes and a moan and a hiss to his lips. Once free of the shirt he laid it with his cloak and coat, and then began setting things right. The hearth was cleaned out and a fire was made. Water was pulled from a well, and the few pots and dishes he still owned were scrubbed and washed to get the grime of dark, abandoned months from them. The largest pot he then filled with new water and set it over the fire. The shelves were washed down, and the dishes replaced, and the table was righted and also washed. He kicked the mattress from his bed and tore free the bedding, tossing them to one side against the wall, to be dealt with later. The mattress of old straw was thrown away outside, and new hay was taken from the stable and laid across the bed frame, and his bedroll was opened upon it. Then he swept clean the floor, letting his anger and the late-in-coming adrenaline fuel his actions. He could not look at his reflection in the small, polished mirror in the bedroom when he passed it.
He was humiliated.
Eric did not think much of himself. His words to Snow White, when she had lain cold and pale upon her funeral bed, were true. He wasn't worth saving, for sure; he was too used up, drowned in too much ale, broken into too many pieces. Yet he still had his pride—such as it was—the pride of a man, and that had been flailed within an inch of its life today. The burn on his back and shoulders and arms and ribs was rivaled by the burn in his heart, and he swallowed the sudden taste of sickly bile.
How could he ever face his Queen now?
She could never know; of that he was certain. If she knew that he had been strung up and whipped…
…and he had let them…
A harsh hiss and spatter broke the silence of his brooding thoughts, and he turned, and saw that the water boiled. Stiffly he set aside the broom, and walked to the hearth, and pulled the pot free of the fire with an iron hook. He had some things in his pack. Not much, but a few clean cloths, and a small jar of salve left over from his chest wound. That at last had healed, no thanks to the following struggles and then the battle he had ended up in, all for the sake of her.
It would have to do.
The sound of horses caught his attention. Now what? Eric frowned, going to the door and looking out.
Father in Heaven, why?
Eric turned, his heart pounding almost painfully in his sore chest, and he looked around the hut for a moment in a panic. They could not know; that was the only coherent thought in his mind. To that end he tossed aside his shirt, which had blood on it and several tears where the whip had caught it, and then he threw open his pack and rummaged through it for his spare. He found it, and in his hurry pulled it on too roughly and cried out through clenched teeth. Every mark made itself known, unappreciative of the rough fabric that now rubbed on his raw skin. Eric grimaced, and held very still, trying to let the throbbing die down.
Hopefully he would not have to deal with it for long.
Horses snorted and neighed as their heavy, thundering footfalls came to a stop outside of his hut. Eric opened the door, keeping his stance straight and stiff and his expression neutral as he looked upon the faces of five guards, William, and her.
She pulled her horse up and called his name, her eyes shining so brightly they hurt him with their glow, her relief at having found him like a physical blow. To his surprise William also seemed pleased and relieved to see him, some pinched lines around his young eyes lessening now that he was before the huntsman's door.
"Your Majesty. My Lord." Eric greeted them, leaning very, very carefully against the doorframe. "Tae what do I owe th' pleasure?"
"Huntsman." William exclaimed, his horse prancing beneath him. "You are a difficult man to track."
The corner of his mouth lifted in a wry smile. "It is part aef my job."
The young duke grinned.
Snow White dismounted. "Huntsman!" She handed a guard her reins, and then walked with hurried steps forward. At last she was before him, and she paused, staring up at his face. "You left."
Those simple words said more than an entire lecture. "Aye." Eric confirmed.
"I thought it was time tae be home." Eric pointedly looked away, turning his gaze instead to survey the group before him. Seven more mouths to feed. He desperately wanted to be alone; needed to be alone, but he could not turn away guests. Especially not her and him. Still… "I would've thought my leavin' was as good a sign as any that I want tae be alone."
Snow White's mouth tightened, and her green, sharp eyes studied him intensely. Eric felt uncomfortable. "We've come a long way." she finally said. "Can you at least invite us in for a rest?"
Common courtesy and hospitality. He could not deny them that, even as the pain returned with a dull throbbing ache, reminding him of what he now would need to put off until much, much later. His heart fell. He just did not have the strength today. "Aef course…yu'r welcome tae shaur my supper. Such as it is." he mumbled, and turned and went inside.
He should have taken their horses. At least her and William's horses. He should have invited them in with more proper language. He just did not have the ability to care, or the capacity to realize until after the fact what it was he should have done. Weariness plagued his limbs, and pain made him irritable. Still he took the boiling water, with great reluctance, and added to it some dried barley and some onion and herbs. He wished he had some meat, any meat—he was a huntsman, after all—but there was none to be had. Not today.
The door opened behind him, and he heard the soft footsteps of his Queen. His shoulders hunched, and he did not turn.
"Can I help?"
He grunted a dismissal, but when he started to move, to rise from his crouched position, his muscles ached and shook in protest.
He prayed for sleep tonight.
"Dishes are oan th' shelf." he said, staying where he was.
She went to it, and took down the few dishes there were, and began to lay the table. Watching her move about his hut, setting out plates and knives, pulling out bread from her own pack and setting it in the center of the table and cutting it, made his heart ache. Eric had forgotten just how badly he missed the soft company of a companion. The gentle presence, working side by side with him. A partner, to care for and be cared by. Soothing him by just being there. He had been so alone for so long…
"It smells good."
Eric snorted. "It's nothin' special. If I'd known I was goin' tae 'ave guests…"
She knelt beside him, startling him with her nearness. She didn't say anything for a moment, staring at him with those piercing green eyes of hers. "Why did you leave?" she finally asked.
He sighed, stirring the coals and adding another small piece of wood. He would have to get some peat to burn, if he wanted to keep a fire all night to ward the cold away. "I thought…it micht be th' castle." he mumbled, and poked at the fire. "If I could jist get away…whaur she could nae reach…"
Snow White pressed her lips together. "I'm surprised you didn't go to the Dark Forest." she quipped. "I mean, she had no powers there."
Eric finally looked at her, and saw her fair face turned upon him with a mixture of amusement and worry and…something else. Then the ridiculousness of her words hit him, hit him far harder than they should have, but his exhaustion amplified his reaction and he began to laugh, hearty and heavily. Go to the Dark Forest for a good night's rest…
His amusement and muttered words lifted her spirits. It was not often that she could roust a smile from him, especially a genuine one, and even rarer to get him to laugh. A part of her worry melted, and she smiled.
He shook his head, lifted a spoon and stirred the bubbling contents of the pot. "I doan' 'ave much room," he said, returning to his low rumbling tone. "But th' floor is clean, an' thaur is a bed for you, newly made…"
"I don't want to put you out."
The sideways look he gave her was disdainful. "What kind aef man would turn his guest away, or put his Queen oan th' floor an' take th' bed for himself?"
She didn't answer, and sat back on the floor to watch while he bent over the pot, muttering darkly to himself about fools and cads. She took no offense, and was in fact warmed; she listened to the low, gritty tones of his voice and let them sooth her. And she watched him. He was exhausted, that much was plain. His skin was pale beneath its weathered tan, and lined with weariness, his eyes half-lidded and dull. There was also a tightness to their corners, and a stiff way he held himself, but from the way his hands faintly trembled she listed it as more symptoms of his poor sleep.
"We were worried." she said quietly.
He did not turn to her, but she could tell he was listening from the faint turning of his head.
"No one knew you had gone." she looked down at her hands in her lap, and then looked again at him. "We searched for you. There were awards to those who had aided in the battle. We waited for you before the Ceremonies, but you never arrived, and then we discovered you had gone. No one knew why. Nion blames himself."
His face dropped. His voice was a mumble. "I'm sorry."
"Why didn't you tell anyone?"
"Do you know how scared we were…I was?" She leaned forward, wanting him to understand. "I thought…with your dreams, and Ravenna…I thought something had happened."
Eric blew out a slow, defeated breath, and looked at her. Apologetic. "I'm sorry." he said. "Th' nicht before, th' dreams…they waur so bad. I couldnae do it anymore. Leaving was th' only thing I could think aef."
"I understand." She really, truly did. "But you should have told us. You should have told me."
"I thought I would be stopped."
Now it was her turn to take offense. "Why? What kind of Queen would stop you from doing something that could help?"
He looked shamed, and his blue eyes gazed at her pleadingly. "I'm sorry."
Snow White opened her mouth to say something, then closed it and sighed, staring into his face. She had begun to grow angry, her hurt and worry for him coming out, but how could she stay angry with him when he was in such a state? Too tired to be truly rational or logical, and desperate enough to rush into any action that offered hope. She knew what exhaustion could do to a person. So instead she reached out, and gently brushed a loose, tangled lock of hair out of his face. "I forgive you. This time." she said, and gave him one of her gentle, sideways smiles.
He relaxed, but the misery stayed, and he returned his attention to the thickening stew.
The door opened, a gust of chill, damp wind blew in for a moment, and then the door closed. William and one of the guards stood behind them, and they rubbed their arms and hands in the warmth of the hut. "It smells good." William said appreciatively, eyeing the steaming pot. Then he indicated the guard. "Lieutenant Gérard will finish making the meal."
Eric didn't comment, but stood, slowly, stiffly, till he had reached his full, broad height—seeming to fill the hut with his size—and he turned to them. "I'll get water for washin'." he said, and carefully slipped between them and went out, closing the door.
Supper was good, simple though it was. William and the guards talked and chatted and laughed, drawing Eric into their midst easily and without a second thought, and the guards addressed him as "M'lord". His friendship with the Queen and with the young Duke made it easy to forget that he was not actually of noble status—or hadn't been, till recently—a fact which pleased Snow White immensely. For it was further proof that the man was truly noble at heart, good, solid, strong, and worthy. A good leader, whose men would follow and love him. She smiled, watching him converse with William as an equal, telling the younger man stories of the Wars. It was the first time he had ever spoken of those times. Leaning upon the table, Snow White listened closely, and slowly began to see him as something other than her Huntsman. He had been a soldier, a good one, and had even led his own small contingent. There were things he had seen and things he had done that amazed her. She had seen him in the battle against Ravenna, but she had been so focused on her goal—killing the Dark Queen—that she had not been able to spare the attention to how well he carried himself. Though it had not escaped her that it had been he, with William, who led the small force into the castle to protect her.
The light outside grew red and golden, and then it faded to a deep purple. As the purple faded to black William and the guards stood to go outside. Eric rose quickly, grimacing and quickly setting a hand to the table as he did so. "Th' stables are cold," he said. "In haur is warm, an' thaur is room enough."
"Thank you," William said gratefully. "But I truly think it would be best if we did not intrude too much upon your hospitality."
As much as he craved the privacy, wished for it with all of his heart, to tend to his wounds and rest in solitary quiet, Eric could not in good faith allow guests of his to sleep in the cold. To sleep with the animals. While he slept in close to the hearth, warm and comfortable.
He shook himself. "Yu'r my guests." he insisted in his low tones. "An' haur is a warm fire, an' a soft floor." Nodding at them, he then turned to Snow White. "I will make th' fire in th' bedroom." And he left the hut once more, to gather enough peat for two fires, to keep them burning warm and well throughout the night and into the next day.
William turned to Snow White, who was watching the huntsman go with a worried expression on her face, and he shook his head. "He is stubborn, isn't he?"
She glanced at her friend, and the corner of her mouth lifted. Then it fell, and she returned to her worried thoughts.
When Eric returned the table had been moved to one side, and the bedrolls were stacked in a neat and waiting pile against the wall. Snow White had removed his bedroll from the bed, and laid hers out, and rolled his up carefully and set it with the others in the main room. When he saw it he balked and protested. But she was firm. "You shouldn't sleep out in the cold either." she said.
Yet all he wanted was to be alone! He hurt all over, and his body ached with weariness, and he just wanted to nurse his wounds and sleep in peace. His face darkened. "I will sleep in th' stable."
"Eric." she said softly, and he stopped. Stepping closer, she gently touched his forearm. "Don't be noble."
There was nothing noble in it.
"It'll be too crowded. Thes will be better."
"What'll be better? You freezing?" She retorted, and then she reigned in her frustration, and quieted her voice. "Please, Eric. Don't do us the disservice of sacrificing your health for our comfort."
He blinked, eyes widening, but he did not question or comment on her words. He simply bent down to make the fire. As he lifted peat into the small hearth he winced and grimaced, pausing in the motion, and then he continued more carefully.
Snow White took her bag and stepped out quietly, to ready for bed. She bit her bottom lip, undecided if she appreciated his silence. Was he allowing that she was right? Or did he not agree, but did not know how to tell her, and was therefore letting it go?
The men's bedrolls were laid out on the floor, and the men themselves sat about the room, some against the wall, some at the set-aside table, talking quietly. They quickly rose when she passed, tipping their heads and bowing. Snow White smiled at them, ducking her head as she went out of the door.
When she returned some ten minutes later they rose and bowed to her the same, and William took her hand and smiled. "Goodnight, You Majesty." he said. Then he leaned closer, his voice a concerned whisper. "If aid is needed during the night…"
"We are all here." She said in an answering whisper. "Pray all will be well."
William nodded. "I will."
She smiled thankfully. "Goodnight, William."
She entered the small bedroom, and closed the door behind her, and turned. Alone she studied the room; there was a bed, and some hooks on the wall, and a small table just big enough for a pitcher of water and a bowl, and there was a small, polished metal mirror. Stepping to it Snow White touched it. It was not big; barely large enough to see her full face, and she wondered how long he had saved to purchase it for his wife. A pang of sadness pinched her heart, and Snow White frowned.
Leaving the mirror she deposited her bag beside the bed, and quickly removed her coat and outer cloak. The room was warm enough for her to take off her outer dress, as well, but she paused, wondering if it were seeming. Then she decided that she would leave her plain shifts on over her chemise, and that would be all right.
When she had done so, hanging up her coat and overdress on some hooks, there was a soft knock at the door. "Come in." she said.
Eric hesitantly opened the door, and entered, looking uncomfortable and quiet. He paused by the door, holding a bucket of water, his feet shuffling slightly. He opened his mouth to ask a question, then stopped, unsure how to ask it. "Are you retirin' now, my queen?" he finally asked in a low voice.
Snow White nodded. "Yes." she said, stepping to the bed and sitting down. He still did not move. Only when she inclined her head did he dare take a step in towards the small table. He poured the water into the small clay pitcher, and then he stepped back again towards the door.
She lay down, and pulled the blanket up close, tucking it under her chin.
"Sleep, Huntsman." Snow White whispered, her hands tucked beneath her cheek as she watched him.
He did not answer.
He blinked, and looked at her. His expression was wary.
She wasn't sure why she said that, as if it would give him the assurance he needed to be able to rest, but to her surprise and pleasure his face did relax a fraction. "I will, queen." he whispered back. "Soon." He looked around the room. "This is th' first I've been back in…a long time."
She understood, and nodded. "Goodnight, Eric."
His blue eyes were bright as they looked at her. His voice soft. "Goodnicht, my queen."
Snow White closed her eyes, and settled against the soft hay that made the bed, crackling faintly under the bedding. Her breathing slowed, her body relaxed, and her thoughts quieted, but her ears listened. They waited to hear the rustling of a blanket in the other room, to indicate his laying down. They waited to hear his breaths grow long and slow and deep and even. Instead there was silence.
After a good ten minutes he decided it was safe enough; and he could wait no longer. Sleep pulled too consistently, and he had to do something about his lashes—at least the ones he could reach. He hadn't lied earlier when he said it was the first time he had been in his home in a long while; but it was not why he did not lay down. Such a motion he preferred to do only once; it would not be easy, and he did not relish it.
He had set against the stable wall, beside the stack of hay, a bucket of water. Enough to clean himself at least a little. He had hoped to use hot water, but cold would have to do now.
At least he had the salve, and the few cloths in his bag.
The air was cool, but the warmth from eight horses kept most of the cold at bay, and the golden light from the lamp cast a warm glow over everything. Eric shifted, sitting on his bedroll, and turned to reach for his bag. The stiffened and dried stripes pulled and cracked, and he stopped the motion with a sharp hiss, grimacing and freezing, waiting for the throbbing to die down a bit before he tried again.
"Perhaps you should have the bed."
He started sharply, her voice, so quiet, breaking the silence abruptly. His furrowed brow was dark as he threw a frown her direction. "You should be asleep." he growled.
"So should you." she retorted, opening the stable door the rest of the way and stepping in, her dark hair falling about her face.
"I'll sleep when I wish."
"Better to sleep when you need." She closed the door behind her, and looked at him. "You are exhausted. Do you not see yourself? You will drive yourself ill."
"Perhaps I micht sleep better if my home waur nae invaded th' first nicht I'm in it." he spat.
She drooped faintly, some of the fight leaving her as she seemed to accept the truth of that statement. "I am sorry." she whispered. "That was not our intention."
He snorted, but it was at himself. She had never done anything to harm him; why did he lash out at her like that? She couldn't know why his temper had grown irritable and raw.
"We did offer to sleep elsewhere."
"No; you expected me tae turn guests away. Royalty an' nobility, no less. What kind aef offer is that?"
"You should still sleep." Snow White said. "Inside."
He shook his head. Instantly regretting it as one of the lashes, which had hit his neck, pulled. "You should go back tae your room." he muttered. "This is'nae right." He pushed himself to his feet, grunting with the effort.
Snow White stared at him in frustration. "What isn't right?" she exclaimed in a hushed voice. "I'm worried about you."
"It's nae proper, you comin' haur alone."
"Will you stop with the proper!" She was growing angry. "You should be resting where you are warm and dry, not make yourself worse by sitting in the cold and wet. Now stop behaving like a child and come inside!"
That was the last straw. Suddenly he was in her space, his chest almost touching her, his dark and stormy face looming over hers. "Doan' tell me what tae do." he rumbled.
If she knew what was good for her, she would leave it be.
She swallowed, but didn't back down. "I'll make it an order if I must."
He snarled. "Do you cause this much grief tae ev'ry subject you wish tae help?"
"No." she answered immediately.
He studied her face, and saw no shame or embarrassment or falseness in it. Her pure desire to help him touched his prickly heart, and made it ashamed. He shook his head, pulling back. "You shouldnae care so much for me." he whispered.
"Why? Because you don't feel the same for me?"
There it was. She had actually spoken it aloud, or at least posed the question, and he closed his eyes. His heart burned within him, but he couldn't. There was too much going on inside his head. Just…too much, and he was too weary to try.
"I am nae worth th' attention aef a queen." he said slowly, trying to get her to understand without having to say too much.
"You are worth everything." her statement was sure and absolute.
"I'm just a huntsman."
"Your status—a title—it does not make a man." She bit out, conviction pouring from her in waves. Her eyes burned with the same fire he had seen when she rallied the Duke and his army to battle. It exhilarated and frightened him. "Honour. Courage. Heart. These things are what make a man noble, what make him worthy."
His face darkened, and grew grim. "Then you giv' your attention tae th' wrong man." he mumbled, and turned to leave.
Snow White stared at him in disbelief as he stepped determinedly to the door, and then she stalked forward and grabbed him. Closing her fingers tightly over his shoulder. "Eric…!"
His bit off exclamation stunned and froze her where she stood, staring as he pulled harshly away, his face twisting as turned from her, holding his arm. It throbbed sharply where she had grabbed him, and he cursed.
"Eric," she breathed, stepping forward and reaching for him. "What happened?"
He froze, and then he closed his eyes when her fingers touched his skin, brushing over the angry, welted, scabbed line that cut up the back of his neck. It had been hidden by his shirt and his hair all this time, but now she had pulled his shirt low when she caught hold of him, and with his hair fallen to one side she could see it well.
Her fingers brushed his shoulder, in a gesture that asked her silent question—what other wounds could she not see? For the line on his neck was obviously a whip mark. "What happened?" she demanded.
He pulled away from her hand, avoiding her touch like the plague. He didn't dare let her touch him again, or study him too closely. Even though a small voice in the back of his head told him all was lost. "Nothin'. I'm fine."
"Don't lie to me!" she pleaded, following, not allowing him to get away. "Who did this to you?"
"Why doan' you mind yu'r own business." he snapped, breathing heavily.
She had followed him to the wall where he could go no further, trapping him with no escape, and she stood her ground, her fair face lifted to his and unrelenting. "Tell me!"
"Fine!" He broke jaggedly, his voice the hushed version of a shout, his dark face furious. "You want tae know what I'm worth?! Thes is what I'm worth!" He tore the collar of his shirt down, revealing the welts and dark, bloody lines that ran over his shoulder and disappeared under the fabric. Snow White stared, aghast.
"Eric…" she whispered, her voice trembling.
"You talk aef honour an' bein' worthy." he crowded her with his looming form and walking her back, looking down at her with an expression of absolute fury. "Well I'm neither. I'm a bile-filled drunk, filled wi' anger an' bitterness, who owed everyone everythin' an' paid naethin'. I took money fro'a man I knew better aef, an' t'day he collected." The burst of strength gained from his rage dissipated quickly; his weariness and pain sapped any ability or desire to fight, leaving him defeated and stinging with shame. He set his face like stone, his jaw clenched and hard.
But Snow White looked into his eyes, and could see the love and despair he tried so hard to hide. She put a hand upon him, laying it open upon the hard warmth of his chest. "You did not deserve it, Eric." she said, and when he all but rolled his eyes and looked away she moved so that he had to look at her, never breaking the connection of her hand. "You didn't." she hissed with conviction. "Look at me. Eric," she all but pleaded. "Look at me."
He did so at last. He could feel wetness on his lashes, but nowhere else yet, and the muscle in his jaw worked tensely as he determined to keep it that way.
Please, my queen. Do not be so kind.
It will destroy me.
She reached up and held his cheek, rigid beneath her touch, and she kept her eyes connected to his: "Whatever you have suffered, whatever darkness held you, it is past. I know who you are; in here." She moved her hand to lay over his heart, and its steady resonance beat against her palm. "Your honour led you to stay by my side and protect me, whatever your cost. Your nobility led men in battle, to follow you wherever you led."
Eric shook his head, a single breath coming out ragged before he controlled himself, and he tried to look away, but she would not let him.
"You have given so much. Risked so much."
He stared at her, wanting to believe. Wanting to believe so badly. But the shadow was still there, the doubt and defeat clinging.
She pressed her mouth thin, and then took practical matters in hand. "Sit down." she said, and let her hands drop for a moment, giving him space. "Let me tend you."
Eric looked away, trying to collect his scattered and agitated thoughts. Grateful that she allowed him that. "You doan' need to." he murmured thickly.
"Yes." she touched his face again, and he could not help closing his eyes and sucking in a breath at the touch. Whatever it was he mumbled must have sounded like complete foolishness to her, because she dropped her hand and shook her head at the words.
"You can't properly reach the wounds on your back." She answered, mumbling as well, and she turned. "I will be back." She left the stable, closing the door carefully behind her.
Eric stood still, his one arm hanging at his side, still holding it with his other hand, his eyes downcast as he warred within himself. He burned at the thought of her seeing him in his weakness. His degradation. Yet he found that he craved her touch, her gentleness, so much. Too much. For her to so willingly care for him, for the first time in so long, was as unfair as putting a feast before a starving man.
Snow White returned in a little while, with a small pot of faintly steaming water, a clay mug, and a small pack of her own. "I had been warming some for tea." she said, indicating the small pot. "A blessing there's more water here than one cup can hold." Sitting down beside his bedroll and the glowing lantern, she dipped the mug into the warmed water and then opened her pack and pulled out a small parcel of dried leaves. She put some into the mug, and stirred them into the water.
She didn't say anything more. She just busied herself, pulling things from the pack and getting them ready.
Finally he swallowed and stepped, dragging his feet till he had reached the glow of the lantern. Then he sat down. Slowly. Stiffly. Till he was before her, his face lax, his eyes unable to look at her.
Snow White had brought out the supplies from her bag, as well as the cloths and salve from his bag. She waited for him, patiently. "Take off your shirt." She said, her voice quiet.
Eric closed his eyes, her simple request making his stomach clench, but he obeyed. Or tried to. It seemed no matter how he tried the shirt stuck to his back, and lifting and moving his arms in such a manner pulled on the wounds and brought a stinging to his eyes. When he groaned in embarrassed frustration he heard her moving, and then felt her small hands taking hold of the cloth at his back.
"Here." she murmured. "Let me help you."
Gently, carefully, she pulled the fabric free in small increments, apologizing when he winced. With painful slowness they managed to lift his shirt up his back, and then he somehow got his arms raised high enough to pull them from the sleeves, though his face twisted and he hissed. At last she pulled the shirt over his head, and tossed it aside, and then she held the back of his neck gently, apologizing while he sighed in relief.
"Here." she pulled out the used, soggy leaves, and gave him the mug. It was not hot, but still warm. "Drink this."
The taste was bitter and strong. Eric drank it quickly, in four swallows, and then he set the cup down. A few moments later a faint buzzing began, a heady sensation causing him to blink. It did not take away the pain, but it was enough to dull the sharp edge of it.
The warmth from the lantern felt good on his bared skin. She moved the lantern so that most of its light was upon him, so she could see to do her work. From the corner of his eye he saw her expression when she finally could see, in the flickering light, the full damage done to him. The long swollen, red welts that ran from his neck to his waist. Most of them were bloody and split, the edges of the broken skin angry and irritated. The blood had dried, in rivulets where it had run, and in splotches where the shirt had soaked in it and then dried. Dirt stained his one side where he had lain on the ground.
The wounds were not just on his back. They were along the edges of his ribs, and upon his shoulders, running down onto his arms.
He must look a wretched sight.
He could not look at her. He dropped his head, resting it on his one raised knee, closing his eyes so he would not have to see her face.
The first touch of water was unexpected, and he jerked from the sting. The water was warm, which was soothing, and her touch as gentle as it could be as she washed away the grime and the dirt and the blood. Still it hurt, and he clenched his teeth. At times the wet cloth would run over a particularly tender spot, and he would shudder, and then a quiet sound would escape. After a while it seemed that every wound was on fire, and still the warm cloth ran over his skin.
"I'm sorry." she whispered at times when he groaned. "I'm sorry."
At last the washing ended. Eric pressed his forehead to his knee, breathing deeply and evenly. He waited, not knowing what was next, his muscles tensing in dreaded anticipation.
It was warm. And soothing. It softened the crusted stripes and the edges of broken skin, the smell of warm oil and herbs filling his nostrils. Her movements were slow, gentle, caressing. Over and over again she wiped his back and shoulders and neck with the soft cloth, pausing only to add more oil. Her motions were so relaxed and unhurried that some of the tension from the last few days began to drain away, and with it the rigid control he had over himself. She tended to his wounds with the care of an angel, and brushed his hair tenderly from his neck, stroking it over and over again even when the last strand had been brushed aside. He had rarely been cared for in such a manner in his life. The first had been his mother, who had been lost to him at the beginning of Ravenna's reign. The second, and last, person to care for him had been Sarah.
He had not been worth the attention; not for a long, long time. When Sarah had seen fit to love him anyway, to give him the affection and respect he so desperately craved and did not deserve, he had clung to it. With the loss of her he had believed that his one chance to have such love and care had been lost forever.
Yet here she was.
Snow White. His Queen among the angels.
A strange grief rose up in him. It filled him, rising so that he had to swallow it back, rising to his eyes and finding release there.
A small voice in his head said that it was his weariness, the days without sleep, that affected him so, and nothing more. And he supposed that it was partially true.
But not completely.
He must have made a small sound, or perhaps a shudder had run through his shoulders, betraying him. For she paused in her ministrations, and gently brushed his hair with her hand. "What?" she asked. "What's wrong?"
He shook his head; he could not answer.
She paused, then gently brushed her hand over his hair again. "Eric?"
She moved, coming around, and he lifted and turned his head away from her and towards the fire-lit lantern in an attempt to hide himself from her. He wiped his hand down his face.
She was now before him, and she took his face with her hands even as he closed his eyes. Her thumb brushed his skin, spreading the wetness across his cheek.
"Doan'." he whispered. He swallowed, trying to be rid of the thickness in his throat.
Her fair eyes looked upon him, distressed and warm. "Eric."
"Please." he begged.
"I'm right here." she whispered, echoing her promise from before. She stroked his cheek, her green eyes tender. "I'm right here." she whispered again, and again. "I'm right here."
Eric's thoughts were spinning like a storm, and his tongue followed them, his tether on it long gone. He shook his head, his voice thick and miserable. "I ne'er wanted you tae see me like thes."
"It's all right." she reassured, so close that he could smell her, her scent warm like cedar wood and filling his senses with its calm.
"No." he pulled in a breath, and his voice was low and filled with gravel. "I am nae worthy aef you. I am nae worthy…"
"Yes you are." she said, her voice still a soft whisper. Her clear, green eyes trying to understand.
"No…" he could not think straight, too exhausted to try. His body was past wanting to lie down; his tongue kept on, mirroring his thoughts. The shame burned within him, hot and consuming. "They whipped me." he confessed hoarsely, and he opened his eyes and looked at her. Hot with despair. "They whipped me like an animal. An' I let them."
"You did not deserve it."
"I should 'ave fought. I did nae."
"If you had, you would be dead." Snow White said. "Your choice was to be whipped and keep your life, or fight and lose it." She fingered his hair, cradling his head within her hands. "You are not a lesser man because of it. What they did to you…it is on their heads, your blood on their hands. Not yours."
That much he could believe. How could he not? Snow White said it was so, and she never lied. Not to him. Something let loose inside, the shame that had held him, and he felt some small measure of relief. With it came a surge of something else. Something that filled him and made him want beyond anything.
And it was a love he could not, should not, have. Not for her. As much, as badly, as he wanted it, she was beyond his reach. Even though she loved him back—for by now he was sure she did, though he ignored it and pretended otherwise—she was Queen and he was a village huntsman.
He could not stand to reach for her, hoping and believing, only to have her taken from him in marriage to another. As sure a loss as her death.
He closed his eyes again, squeezing them shut, and he reached up and covered her hands with his, to pull them from his face. "Doan'." he rasped.
She was confused. Distressed.
"You shouldnae love me." He hissed adamantly. Wishing she wouldn't hold him so tenderly.
"I shall give my heart to whomever I choose." Despite her clipped tone her eyes did not blink, welling and glistening.
"Do you nae understand, girl?!" His harshness paled her, and his blue eyes burned as he looked at her. "I mourned my wife. I 'ave once mourned you. I do nae 'ave enough heart tae break a third time." He released her arms, and his enormous, calloused hand cradled her cheek, feeling its softness and the silken texture of her hair as it caught in his fingers. She tilted her face into his touch, her eyes never leaving his.
She understood. She licked her dry lips, and shook her head. "No." she said hoarsely. "Hope is not gone."
He groaned, closing his eyes. "Girl…"
"Two nights ago I awarded you lands, and with those lands a title." she rushed, not letting him interrupt her. She paused when he opened his eyes to stare at her, frozen as his over-tired mind tried to understand what she was telling him. "At the celebration," she explained. "All those who aided in the war were rewarded, you among them. For all that you have done. You are now the Earl of Arasgain, Lord and Noble."
The lines around his eyes pinched; did he understand her correctly? Was she truly saying what he believed her to be saying, or was his tired mind hearing things? But no, she was watching him earnestly, waiting for his reaction, a light in her eyes and the hesitant beginnings of a smile upon her lips, urging him to believe her and rejoice.
"You are of noble title." she said again. And pulled herself closer, so that he could see every fleck of gold in her eyes. His heart clenched within him, the enormity of what she had just said overwhelming him, heavying his breaths. "There is nothing that stands between us now. No one can speak against it." she was but a breath away. "We are free, Huntsman. Free to love, to be together." She shifted, uncertain, hoping. "If you still want me."
He closed his eyes, and he shook his head. "But…I'm…"
"Shh." Holding his cheeks, she drew close, and tenderly kissed his eye. "I love you, Eric." she said, and kissed his other eye. "I love you with all of my heart." She kissed his strong cheeks and tasted wetness and salt, and then she kissed his jaw. His beard was surprisingly soft. His eyes remained closed, and his lips were parted, his breath silent and deep as she loved him. "You are for sure worth saving." she whispered.
A choked sound left him then as his own words were echoed back to him. She knew…she had heard him that night…he hadn't known, had never guessed.
"I am not out of reach, Huntsman. Reach for me. I'm right here."
Somehow those words released him, and he caught her with his strong hands and pressed his mouth to hers, kissing her, pulling in her lips and tasting her warmth. It was as if Heaven had finally given him that which he had been craving all these years, and he drank from her mouth as a dying man drinks water. She healed him and warmed him, soothing the places within that had ached hollowly for an eternity, filling him with her presence till he overflowed. He whispered to her, quietly, quickly, the words of his native tongue spilling from his lips, his breath warm against her skin.
At last the hunger receded, and Snow White sat back and looked up at him, her eyes bright and glowing as they beheld his countenance. His love for her was unmistakeable now, shining from his weary eyes without any barrier.
He swayed where he sat, and she placed a final kiss to his forehead.
She finished tending to his wounds. Salve was applied, and bandages laid across and tied into place.
Then she helped him to put his shirt back on, and coaxed him to lay down, and in his weariness he allowed her, unable to think of anything but her warmth and safety—and of sleep.
He laid—slowly and stiffly—face down upon the soft bed of straw and blankets, with her soft hands pulling the blankets around him and stroking his hair, whispering "I love you, Eric" in his ear.
Within moments of settling he fell asleep.
Chapter 3: Preview:
…Snow White pulled in a great lungful of air, and then she bellowed as loudly as she could:
A blow caught her face, and she was thrown back, dazed and her head ringing. Vaguely she could hear frantic movement and heavy breaths…