"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.
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.
Now if she only knew one final answer:
How was her Eric?
At last Gaius came out of the room adjoining his public healing room. That other room was smaller, private, with only one of the several beds made and full. Gaius quietly closed the door behind him, wiped his clean hands dry on a towel, and rubbed his weary eyes.
Snow White unfolded herself and stood up from the bench, pushing tangled hair from her face. "Well?"
Gaius looked at her, and took a deep, relaxing breath. Then he smiled. "He is sleeping." he said. "Finally, and truly. I do not know what aches or pains he may feel when he wakes, but there is no harm done to his body. Besides the painful bruise here and there. And the…lashes…upon his back."
A great tightness released itself from her chest, and Snow White reached back for the bench and sat down, suddenly finding her lungs able to take in air and doing so, greedily. It made her head swim.
He was all right.
Eric was all right.
"He will be fine, then?" she asked, her voice shaking as she looked up for final confirmation to her hope.
Gaius nodded, sitting on a small wooden chair. "I believe so. With plenty of rest, he should be as well as he ever was."
Snow White nodded and looked down, suddenly finding the emotion welling up within her too much to bear his kindly gaze. 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. "It is over. It is over, and all is well."
The firelight was soft and warm, dancing along the walls quietly, playing hide and seek with the pale shadows. The covers were thick and layered, and the feather pillow and mattress a gentle cushion. He slept quietly. For the first time in as long as she had known him the lines were gone from his face. His features were completely relaxed with rest and peace, his lashes dark against skin that was ruddy once more, his cheeks flushed with warmth.
She sat on a chair, leaning against the side of the mattress, listening to the soft sound of his breathing. It had been hours since she had come in, and still she sat completely still, watching. Fascinated with the newness of his face, so used was she to his frowns and lines of trouble and care. The smooth skin and openness was mesmerizing, and she began to feel all of the tension seeping out of her and dissipating into the air. Reaching out she gently caught some clean, brown hair around her fingers and she pulled it back, smoothing it from his face and back across the pillow. He shifted at the touch, a contented movement; his hand, holding the covers, tucked beneath his chin. Snow White smiled.
Long, dark eyelashes fluttered against smooth skin. He burrowed deeper into his pillow, trying to hold on to the warm remnants of rest that surrounded him. He couldn't remember a sleep more deep, or more sweet and full. His thoughts were slow. They floated, and he was content.
"My Lord?" A low voice spoke, coaxing his thoughts to awareness; they latched onto the voice and the words and pulled him further into wakefulness. Eric turned his face into his pillow, sighing.
"My Lord? Eric." The voice coaxed again.
There was no returning. Eric exhaled in resignation, and slowly his eyes opened, blinking as they adjusted to the golden firelight. The grey haired physician was looking down at him, his kindly face relaxed and pleased.
"There you are, my boy." Gaius said, a smile on his face and a twinkle in his grey eyes. "How are you feeling?"
Eric shifted, and felt an uncomfortable pull across his back and shoulders that started an ache throughout his entire body. He stilled, and briefly closed his eyes.
Gaius frowned and leaned over him. "What is it? Are you in pain?"
He swallowed, trying to gain some moisture in his dry mouth, and when he spoke his voice was slightly rough from disuse. "Some."
"Is there sharp pain anywhere?"
Eric was quiet, taking stock. "My back." he whispered hoarsely. "Everythin' else…feels bruised."
The physician's look was piercing and yet gentle. "Can you move?"
Taking a deep breath, Eric braced himself with his arms and pushed, turning and lifting himself onto his elbow. His muscles bunched and ached in protest, but it was a burning, healing ache. They were stiff. That was to be expected, though he was surprised at how weak he felt. Gaius, however, beamed at him, his strong hands helping Eric to sit and turn to lean back against the pillows. "Good. Good." He said. "Don't worry," he said when Eric's arms trembled and the man grimaced in frustration. "You have been asleep for a full night and nearly a full day. Some good food and more rest and you'll be as well as ever."
Eric rested back against the pillows, sighing in relief. Idly he watched as Gaius puttered around the small room, talking about this and that, going to the fire and filling a bowl with something that smelled good, filling a cup with hot water and tea leaves. He truly did feel better. His back was sore, and his limbs ached, but it was the good kind of ache. He was healing, and he felt rested and clear for the first time in…he tried to think, but his mind did not care to do the work of calculating, so he let it go. It had been a long time. That was enough.
Gaius was arranging things on a small wooden tray. "Gone. The mirror is melted, and she is finally gone."
Eric nodded, hiding his relief behind a slow blink. "And the Queen?" he whispered.
The physician turned. His grey eyes looked knowingly at Eric, his pulled and thin mouth obviously trying not to smile. "She is well, My Lord." he said. "She sat with you all these long hours. I finally sent her for food and a refreshing bath." He walked to the bed, carrying the tray. "She should be back soon." he finished, setting the tray in Eric's lap. On it was a bowl of soup…a dish of rich, smooth broth, savory chunks of vegetables, and beef. There was also a piece of bread, and a cup of softly steaming tea.
The aromas and the sight reminded Eric of how long it had been since he had eaten, and his stomach awoke with a vengeance. He ate, eagerly and at his leisure, finding true enjoyment in the delicious flavors for the first time in a long time. Gaius sat and talked while he ate, chatting about this and that and everything, and Eric found the easy conversation and the company most welcome, and when he had finished he leaned back in the pillows and listened, sipping on his tea.
He was warm, and full, and his limbs began to grow languid once more. As his eyes grew heavy Gaius's voice began to blur, the words blending together.
The last thing he remembered before slipping into sleep once more was Gaius removing the tray, and then pulling the blankets up around him, saying: "Sleep now, my boy. I will tell her Majesty you are well."
When next he woke it was only briefly. The light was dimmed, and all was quiet, but as his eyes opened a small shape moved beside the bed and then the mattress dipped, and fair green eyes smiled at him. Silk-soft fingers laid on his cheek, gently and slowly running across his beard and stroking the line of his jaw.
"My Queen." He breathed, his eyes blinking slowly.
Her mouth lifted. "My Lord." she whispered.
She gently brushed the hair from his forehead. He closed his eyes at the touch, relishing it as she repeated the motion in a leisurely manner, a cool finger brushing his ear as his hair was stroked back. He felt warmth spread through him from her touch, like a slow, gentle light, and he sighed.
"Is that a smile I see?" Snow White said.
He opened his eyes and looked at her, half-lidded, and the corner of his mouth lifted. Teasing. Slightly mocking. Amused. "Doan' flatter yurself." he mumbled, and was rewarded with a small laugh from her.
"You should sleep." She said.
He grunted and allowed his eyes to slip shut. "I thought I was."
There was silence. He opened his eyes again, to see her gazing down on him with a strange expression. It was so full of emotion he couldn't decipher it, but there were lines around her eyes, and they had narrowed slightly, faintly shimmering in the firelight. "I'm sorry." She whispered, strained. "It was because of me…" She stopped, as if trying to banish what she had seen when the doors had finally broken open, and on her face he could see the helplessness she had felt.
He shook his head. "Shh." he said, his low, gravelly voice causing her to close her eyes. He reached up and gently held the side of her head, feeling the silkiness of her hair against his palm, the softness of her cheek as he stroked it with his thumb.
"She tried to rip out your heart…" She caught her breath.
"She could 'ave it, for you." he whispered, and Snow White's eyes snapped open and stared at him in horror. "But it seems some fool girl gave hers intae my keepin'. Doan' know wh't she was thinkin'." He settled back in his pillow, looking at her with a furrowed brow. "If I had any sense I'd get away from 'er. She's trouble, that's wh't she is."
She dropped her eyes, a chagrined and amused smile replacing the guilt and self-reproach. "I did make you a promise." she said, looking back up.
He turned his head on the pillow, looking at her curiously.
She leaned on her elbows, drawing close to his face. "Someday I will succeed, and I will finally drive you mad."
He laughed. Deep and rich and free; it felt good, and it felt even better to watch her eyes light up and her rose-colored lips curve in response. He remembered riding with her, and mist on the ground, and sunlight shining across the land and in her eyes. The memory filled him even as the warmth of the blankets and the calm of her presence beckoned him back into sleep. His eyes must have slipped shut, because he felt rather than saw her press her soft lips to his forehead, and then her gentle voice whispered in his ear: "Sleep, Eric." There was a pause, and then so quietly he could hardly hear it she whispered: "I love you."
And this time when he dreamed, it was that voice, those eyes, and those words that filled his sleep.
It had been a year. A full, long year of waiting. A month after the Mirror had been destroyed, when Eric was well and healthy and accepted as a lord by the court—though somewhat doubtfully, by most—he had told her of his intentions to leave. She had protested, but he had looked calmly down at her, tall and broad and dressed now in blue instead of leather, and said: "I'm an Earl no', wi' lands. I must go an' see tae it, an' tae th' people. I must prove myself worthy aef wh't you've given me." He had gently touched her face, and looked at her as he had when he'd first shown her how to defend herself. "A good hunter knows that tae claim 'is prize, he must use patience."
So she had waited, and waited. And waited. William went to Arasgain once to visit for a time, and to offer any assistance that might be needed. When he returned he brought with him a hopeful report. It had been too late in the season, when Eric had been named Earl and gone to his new home, to begin any proper farming. What little had been done was doing poorly due to the weak soil. Eric had spent the time getting to know his land and the people living on it, and on hunting like crazy with a personally chosen hunting party and then distributing what was brought back. He spoke with those who farmed and worked with them on fertilizing the soil so that the next year would be fruitful. When the harvest came, seed was carefully saved. He took what little he had and shrewdly bartered with it to get enough food—plain though it was—to supplement the game they had hunted and the little harvest. In the end, William had said, the land was not rich and the manor was poorly fared as far as an Earl's manor went; but in sacrificing the regular comforts of a lord, Eric had ensured that his people were warm and fed for the entire winter and that they were prepared for planting in the spring.
Spring had come and passed into summer. An official report had arrived from Arasgain, with favorable news regarding the extent of fields planted and the state of the crops growing. Some trades had been established among those who, long ago, had known a trade; and now they were training the younger generation. Fishing had been established along the banks of the great river and along the far, northern shore of the sea. Animals were not plentiful in the forests, but they were returning. In the end things were not as good as they would someday be, but they were fair and well. A start, a hope, and for the first time for many in Arasgain…a good life.
The harvest came and went. A feast of joy and thanks was planned at the palace, to celebrate the peace and bounty that the land was at last enjoying. The news went out, and in every village and town festivities were prepared for the same day.
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 straight, with a strong face and few 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 up and his "Pardon me, m' lord"s quiet and murmured. Standing, Snow White stepped forward, and greeted him when he finally reached her.
He knelt down on one knee before her, and bent his head. "Your Majesty."
"My Lord, Earl." She inclined her head, and then looked up. Smiling. She pulled in a deep breath, as though to speak. But she waited.
When he raised his fair blue eyes to her they were clear, life and light shining in them. They were intense as they held her countenance. And then he smiled.
Snow White grabbed her skirts and ran down the steps, knowing the doors would not open till she called that she was ready, not caring if someone saw her anyway. He stood and caught her arms as she reached him, breathless and bright eyed, reaching up to touch the soft, trimmed beard, her fingers holding and playing with the edge of his cloak helplessly—wanting to embrace him, wanting to fling herself in his arms, knowing it was not proper.
His mouth pulled to the side, looking down at her appraisingly. "Haur you are." he said, looking her up and down. "All dressed up an ready tae gie me more grief."
Snow White laughed. She'd missed that…his gruff way of talking. His gentle bite and bark. That mischievous, teasing light in his eye that refused to take her too seriously. "I've missed you." she breathed, looking up at his face. Strong and beautiful as ever.
"An' I you." Eric said, his hands still upon her arms, holding her firmly yet gently. "I was tae die fro' boredom without yur frustrations an' yur wit."
She pulled in a breath, staring up at him. Did she dare? Was it too soon? She let her hands open upon his chest, her fingers nervous as they stilled.
Her silence brought a frown and quirk to his mouth. Then a large, callused hand cupped her cheek and brought her gaze to his face, and his blue eyes were gentle and wistful. "Haur," he said softly. "Whaur is my wayward queen gone, th' one who used tae gie me sae much grief? Does she nae longer need a rough, bitter auld soldier tae keep 'er company?"
A strange emotion welled up within her, and as she blinked glistening eyes her face broke into an all encompassing smile. "I need him." she said, her voice thick. She knew her heart was in her eyes. "I need him more than ever."
He began to smile.
A laugh was in her voice, and hope in her countenance. "Forever, if he'll have me…"
She barely got the last word out before being enveloped in warmth and strength and the rich, spicy smell of the forest, his lips on hers, so incredibly soft and yet strong and firm in their claim. Wrapping her arms around his neck she responded in kind. Her eyes slid closed, and she savored him. Drank in his love and his strength till she was heady from it.
When at last her feet were set on the floor her heart seemed to encompass all of her body, for she could feel its beat everywhere. She looked up into his eyes, so brightly blue and as deep as twin oceans. His face was flushed, and his breath was steady…but deep, and heavy.
His smile was quick and sure.
"You 'ave a deal."
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