"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.
Snow White sat against a bale of hay, a warm scratchy, woolen blanket wrapped tightly around her. She had been ready to return to her room, but it had been an hour and she had yet to move. Something inside of her could not leave him; was afraid of what would happen if she did. So she remained, keeping her vigil. Watching in the glow of the lantern. His face was relaxed in sleep, his breaths deep and heavy and even.
She prayed he would not dream tonight.
He did not. All was quiet and peaceful, the golden lantern light flickering over their forms. Her eyes began to grow heavy, and her limbs became languid and relaxed. With increasing frequency her head began to nod forward.
Then he moved and grunted.
Snow White snapped awake. She sat up and leaned forward, watching, listening. Eric shifted beneath his blankets, restless. Agitated. His breathing was no longer even, and his face pulled into hard, tense lines. For what seemed like forever she just waited, her heart breaking. She knew he was dreaming, but she had also learned from the dwarves that nothing could wake him but the morning's light. Such a sense of helplessness had rarely ever washed over her, and she slowly crawled across the dirt floor, hay pricking her hands and knees, till she was at his side. Then she hugged her knees. "Father in Heaven," she prayed, her lips barely moving as she whispered. "Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation…" She paused and swallowed. "Deliver us from evil. Amen."
'Please, Father God.' she begged silently. 'Please deliver us. Deliver him.'
An hour passed slowly. Eric shifted and grunted, flinching and reaching out to grab onto the blankets with white knuckles. Snow White rocked as she held her knees. Sometimes she hummed. Most times she prayed. Finally she couldn't resist and reached out, laying a hand gently on his shoulder. "Shh. I'm here." she whispered.
It was like she had touched him with a branding iron. The moment her hand contacted him Eric jerked back, and then he turned in the blankets and craned his head back until the muscles in his neck bulged. A terrible sound left him…and Snow White reacted instinctively. It had been her touch to cause this, but as he struggled against something unseen it became apparent that it had not hurt him…but Ravenna. She waited for a moment for the violent reaction to pass, but it didn't. It was as though the dead queen were taking it out on Eric, and she knew something had to be done.
"Eric!" She called, putting her hands on him again. That caused an immediate reaction, and she had to hold onto him tightly as he pulled in her grasp and fought with his hands. He was so strong that she was thrown from him more often than not, and she knew she would have dark bruises the next day, but still she tried, spurred on by his horrible cries. She called to him, loudly, shouting at him to wake up. The din they were making was enough to wake the dead. The horses were snorting and crying out, their eyes wide as they danced and pawed the ground. The struggle was terrible, but she could tell that something was happening…his eyes were starting to flicker even as he yelled and twisted against her. His movements were becoming less and less blind and more sure and directed. 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, and when she raised her eyes, holding her face with one hand, she saw Eric scrabbling back into the stable wall, his eyes open and wild and his chest heaving. But awake. He reached the corner and pressed into it, turning his face against the rough wood as a grimace of pain overtook his features. Shifting he groaned, and turned so that his back was partially to her. As Snow White pulled herself to her knees, ready to go to him, the stable door crashed open causing her to jump with her heart in her throat.
"What is this?" William snapped, fear and fight and fire all present in his eyes as he held up his sword. The guards behind him were similarly prepared, ready to fight whatever enemy they might chance upon.
Snow White barely heard him, relieved he was there, her attention once more on Eric. She crawled to him, gasping his name as her breath returned to her.
William looked between them and understanding dawned on his face. Dropping his sword he came forward, concern in his blue eyes, coming to his knees beside the two huddled figures. "Another dream?"
Snow White nodded mutely, and gently touched the back of Eric's shirt—newly stained and wet. Eric squeezed his eyes shut, baring his teeth with a hiss. Some of the wounds had opened.
"Ravenna." William breathed, staring at the blood.
Snow White kept her hand on Eric's arm, feeling the tremble, allowing him the moment to collect himself. "She is even here." she whispered, her jaw tight. "She won't leave him be even here!"
"What should we do?" William asked, grave.
"We should return to the castle." She said.
"It is the middle of the night."
"She is richt." Eric rasped, speaking for the first time since waking. He kept his face turned against the wood, his eyes closed, but still he spoke. He took a deep breath. "Thaur will be nae mair sleep tonicht."
Their arrival was met with a dark and troubled company. The dwarves, Duke Hammond, several of her closest and wisest council members, and Gaius. The physician took charge of Eric immediately, whisking him away to the healing room before anyone had a chance to question him. Snow White waved aside the ire, firmly stating that any questions could be asked of her and William. The new Earl of Arasgain was to be left alone, under the watchful eye of the royal physician.
"What news?" she asked wearily but sternly, removing her riding gloves as she walked through the hall with everyone following her, William at her side with a dark and troubled expression.
"We believe we may have found Ravenna's treasure." Duke Hammond said, walking directly behind and to the side of her. "A large brass mirror was removed by a smith's apprentice who thought it a shame to waste such material and craftsmanship."
Snow White slowed down and turned, her pale green eyes wide with the hope and disbelief. "The mirror from her private chambers?" She asked. "That should have been the very first thing destroyed!"
"You know this mirror, then?" Duke Hammond frowned, concerned at her furious reaction.
"It is imbued with magical properties." Snow White exclaimed, her eyes beginning to burn. "Ravenna would speak with it whenever she sought guidance."
"I am sorry, Your Majesty." Hammond looked chagrined, and worried.
She waved his apology aside. "Don't blame yourself, hardly any knew of it. Do we have it now?"
"It is being brought in as we speak." The Duke paused. "Are we sure this is the item we have been seeking?"
Snow White nodded. "We will check with Muir once it is here. But if anything could hold her here, it is the Mirror."
It was the Mirror. Beith had brought the news to Gaius' chambers, his worn and weathered face relieved and hopeful as he told Eric and Gaius. "The forges are being fired now." he said. "And the mirror will be destroyed within a couple of hours."
Eric was sitting on a cot. He sighed, putting his hands on his knees and closing his eyes.
Beith grew solemn, and crouched down in front of the huntsman. "How are you holding, Huntsman?"
Eric groaned and rubbed a hand down his face, as though to wipe away the sleep that kept trying to pull him under. "Doan' ask."
Gaius was mixing something in a cup. It was black and thick and though it smelled extremely good it also smelled extremely strong. He blew the steam from it and handed the cup towards Eric, who wrinkled his nose and turned.
"Nae again, Gaius."
"Yes, dear boy."
"Th' first one was good, but efter four my stomach is churnin'."
"I'll add some milk to it this time." Gaius relented, his grey eyes dimming with sympathy. "And you can just sip it."
Eric rubbed his face again, then rubbed his neck, trying to stretch it out.
"What is that stuff?" Beith asked curiously, the rich aroma filling the nose.
"It's from th' far east. They caa'it 'coffee'." Eric said, his words slurring together. "It's supposed tae help keep a bodie awake."
"Does it really work?" The grizzled dwarf asked with interest.
"A little." Eric looked up, lines of weariness deep in his face. "Th' first wasnae sae bad. But now…Makes my nerves jump an' my stomach turn."
Gaius turned, and once again handed the cup to Eric, who reluctantly took it this time. The liquid was no longer so dark, but lightened from the cream. He took a small sip, and Gaius sat down next to him. "Is that better?" The aged physician asked softly.
Eric lowered the cup and nodded. "Aye."
Beith stayed with them, talking and providing a change to the company the physician and patient had kept for several hours. Eric slowly drank his fifth cup of the dark eastern brew. The beverage was helping, but it was still a losing battle. They were fighting against weeks of poor sleep, and several nights of none. Eric's eyes kept slipping shut, only to snap open with a start. Finally Gaius suggested that they walk, and soon the three of them were out walking the quiet, moonlit halls. The activity helped, though Eric's steps were uneven and sometimes he swayed as though in a drunken stupor. With the occasional help from Gaius's surprisingly strong grip, and Beith's solid support, he managed to stay upright and awake. Then, as they walked passed the great double doors to the Royal Hall he paused and looked in. Torches were gently flickering on the walls within, on their last few minutes of burning light, and while the flowers were gone the ribbons strung up for the Ceremonies were still there. He turned, and entered the open space, walking slowly as he looked around. His two companions followed behind.
"Is it true, then?" he asked, turning and looking at them. "That I am no' a Lord an' Earl?"
Beith returned his gaze with a steady one of his own. "It is." he answered.
Eric nodded, allowing his mind to wander as it wanted over that fact. An Earl. With lands and manor. With the rights of Court and nobility…and the right to court the lady of his choice. It still did not seem real to him. For one moment, during the ride here, he had been tempted to grow angry. Angry that she felt she could manipulate to get what she wanted. But he knew that was just exhausted nonsense, and had quickly thrown out the rebellious thought. He was among many who had been rewarded, and he knew that the titles and lands that the others had been given were fair and just for their acts of valor. He had not been singled out.
But it did put him in a most promising and…interesting…position.
A coldness fell over him, and a shadow over his eyes. Quickly he looked up, fully expecting to see the tapestries moving in a breeze and the torches burned out, but all was still and the torches were as bright as ever. Just as he began to wonder and feel alarm a force hit into him, throwing him back into a pillar with such force that he couldn't breathe when he fell to the floor. He heard cries from Beith and Gaius, heard the sound of bodies hitting stone, and then the doors slammed shut with a sound of thunder…
And he was alone.
Beith scrambled to his feet, his chest heaving to regain his breath. Grabbing Gaius's arm he helped the older man to his feet, and then turned away as Gaius put his hands to his knees, gasping. The dwarf stared at the closed doors, and then with a roar he ran and hit them.
They did not move.
"It is Ravenna!" Gaius declared breathlessly, alarm making his voice sharp.
Beith turned. "Go, fetch the Queen!" he said. "Bring a guard…bring anyone…hurry!"
From within there was a loud thudding of a body, and then a horrible keening filled the air, raising the hair on the dwarf's neck.
"What do ye want, Ravenna?" Eric demanded, rage giving him the strength to stand, and he turned round and round, looking for any sign of her. "Why me? If ye hate me sae much, why doan' ye jist kill me?"
There was cool air that brushed his neck, the faintest of a whisper, and then a voice in his ear.
"You destroyed me."
A force like an invisible battering ram slammed into him, throwing him back and through the air into another pillar, and then it held him there, his feet dangling several feet from the ground. It felt as though a hand were on his throat. A moment later she appeared, her cold white hand holding him, her marblesque face beautiful and terrible to behold. He tried to gain purchase on the stone pillar with his feet, to give himself some leverage, and he grabbed at her arm…but his hands went through her, the sensation like a cloud of cold mist.
"You took everything from me." she hissed, a red flame lighting in her eyes. The red light began to glow out of her fingers, and Eric felt a burning spread through his body unlike anything he had ever felt before…as if she had poured burning oil through his veins. His body tried to arch, his legs kicking, but she held him still. "Everything that would have saved me…everything I ever loved…"
"Now ye…know…how…it feels!" He somehow managed to spit the words out, and then his voice found new use when the fire erupted within him.
Ravenna leaned over him, trailing her cold fingers down his damp face. "Killing you would be so easy…" she purred dangerously. Then she brought her face to his, and her lips were like ice, her breath deadly cold as she whispered against his ear: "But I want something more from you."
He pushed out with his arms, hoping, straining to gain some hold on her, growling when his hands caught nothing but damp air. His back arched against the pillar.
"I want you to feel pain…to pay, not with your life, but with your misery." she continued to whisper. "And then I will take from you what you cherish most."
"You've already done…that!" he gasped.
The fire left, its absence so abrupt that he cried out and his body went lax with relief. He fought for breath, trying to draw on what few reserves he had, watching the storm build in her ghostly grey eyes. "Why me?" he rasped, already knowing the answer to the question he was about to ask, but trying to gain some time. "Why nae Snow White? Go efter her, an' th' entire kingdom would be at yur mercy…ye could take yur vengeance 'pon all of us…"
Her lips parted in quick, mocking laugh. "I cannot touch her." she said, her eyes glittering. "You think I did not try to first destroy HER? But I cannot…" She sneered, looking him up and down. "The kiss of True Love…" The words dripped from her lips. "I should have known."
Stone scraped his back and opened his wounds, the ground rushing further from him as she pushed him higher up the pillar. Eric ground his teeth, squeezing his eyes shut. When she stopped the room was spinning.
"But you couldn't just take my salvation." she hissed, and tears were in her eyes, her entire visage trembling with rage. "You had to take HIM!"
"Who?" Eric ground out. "Yur brother? Th' one who took women an' ruin'd them in every way possible…for his oan' pleasure? I thought ye hated men like him!" He looked at her, his eyes unrepentant and mocking. "Ye should thank me!"
Her roar of rage was enough to shatter his ears and split his skull, but it was the explosion of pain through his torso that arched him back and made his throat raw. The world span around him, and for a long few minutes he could think of nothing…nothing but kicking out at her, at struggling to hold on as she twisted him, over and over again, on whatever it was, causing new pain to steal his breath. After an eternity the shrieks and roars of her rage ended, and she simply held him there, shaking, her tear-stained face burning with wrath. It was still another minute before Eric could gain his own voice under control, and yet another to still the jerking of his limbs and for the dangerous pace of his heart to slow to a safer level. He looked, though he did not want to, and saw the glowing blue spears of a shattered stump protruding from his chest and belly.
Ravenna barred her teeth, fighting for control. "Now you know…" she gasped. "How it felt! Now you know how you ripped out my heart!"
From the corner of his eye and the edge of his awareness Eric saw the doors burst open with splinters of wood, and armed guards poured in with the dwarves and William and Hammond…and Snow White. He saw this, but didn't comprehend it. He heard Snow White cry out at the sight, but it was just background noise to him. It was taking all of his strength not to fade into the blackness that surrounded his vision.
Ravenna's rage disappeared from her face, and it became like a marble statue once more. Impenetrable. Unmoved. Emotionless. Mocking. "So. The rabble has arrived." she said, the corner of her mouth lifting. She let Eric drop, the blue stump disappearing, and he fell to the ground with terrible force. He blacked out for a moment, awareness coming back in eddies until he could hear the voice in his head that said 'Run'. Groaning he turned over, and one hand moved in front of the other, pressed to the solid stone floor, moving. Slowly moving forward. Away. Sounds washed over him in muted tones. There were cries and shouts, but…to some distant corner of his mind…they sounded frustrated, raging, and desperate. Not doomed.
As he crawled his awareness sharpened, and he was able to move faster. His body ached, but that too was muted, and so he crawled with the greatest speed possible. Until an immovable hand pushed him down upon the hard stone floor, pressing his face against its cold, gritty surface.
"Now you will give it to me." Ravenna whispered in his ear.
"I ha'e nothin'!" Eric gritted, struggling against the force that held him down, putting his hands to the floor and trying to push up.
"Yes you do. It is the greatest reason I chose you." she said, her voice eerily gentle. "I searched for her heart; but she no longer has it. She gave it to someone else."
Eric froze, the meaning of her words widening his eyes and quickening his pulse.
"I searched everyone…till you." One cold hand stroked his hair back from his face. She leaned down, and gently pressed a kiss to his cheek, like a brush of snow. "And now, Huntsman…" she breathed. "Give me your heart!"
Ice stabbed into him, deep, deep into his body. Through his back and up. Eric's hands slapped to the floor and dug in, his mouth open in a desperate breath, his eyes wide with shock. He could feel her fingers reaching and clawing within him, enough to bring the blackness once more. But he fought. With renewed strength he fought, rage and love growing like a tide within him. His voice rose in fury:
"Ye cannae 'ave her heart!"
Her cry of frustration filled his ears, and her fingers clawed violently…but they could get no closer to the warm pulse of his heart as it beat wildly within him, as though an impenetrable shield protected it.
"Give me you heart, Huntsman!" She screamed, and in the next moment he was sure death had come upon him as blades of ice filled his body…
And then it was gone. His breath left him, and he lay. Unmoving.
Horrific screams sounded above him, and flames licked up her writhing form to engulf her. And then she melted away into a glowing, golden pool, spilling to the floor and disappearing in a hiss and cloud of steam.
It was silent.
Eric floated; the hard floor beneath him, pressing into his hands and cheek with its grit, was the only thing that gave him any solidity…and even that swayed back and forth, as though on ocean waves. His body was both consumed by an overwhelming ache and a complete numbness that made nothing seem real. His vision greyed, torchlight flickering on the edge.
It was still.
Hands grabbed him. They held his shoulders and back and arms and head; solid hands, warm, and real. They rolled him onto his back and began to touch him everywhere, voices creating a confusing haze of noise all around him. It was too much, all at once. He pushed against them, turning the little he could, and he must have made a noise because his raw throat began to burn from the use of it, and then there was one voice…only one…a low voice, strong and stern, sending the others away. One set of hands touched him now, feeling his forehead, laying a hand on his chest to feel his heart.
A second voice spoke. Quiet, fair, sweet…the voice of an angel…
And then it was blessedly dark.
Chapter 4: Preview:
Snow White sat on the hard bench, her feet pulled up onto it, her body curled and leaning against the wall. Her face was pale and drawn, her eyes red. Duke Hammond and William had taken it upon themselves to hold a meeting with the council, and then to address the court, on her behalf. Explanations had been demanded of her, but the Duke and his son had wisely seen that for now she was unfit to address anyone. According to William, who had visited briefly not too long ago, the story had been told and everyone's concerns and worries put at rest. Their Queen, they were told, was well and safe and resting. Ravenna was at long last completely defeated. The Mirror was destroyed, and the material disposed of, never to be used to make anything ever again…
…She gave a sharp intake of breath, and covered her mouth.
"There." Gaius was suddenly beside her, and his still strong arms pulled her close and enveloped her in warmth, smelling like herbs and oil. "There." he whispered as she began to shake…