A year had passed since the fall of Ravenna, and the land was slowly healing itself after the darkness of her reign. Snow White had been up to her ears with the reclamation and rebuilding efforts. It did concern her that a few of the lords had yet to swear fealty to her, but it was a small matter next to the extensive efforts to rebuild an entire kingdom from ruin. She had sent Eric, the Huntsman as her envoy to the absent lords to see if there was anything to truly concern herself with. In truth, he had become restless in the confines of lordship, and she had become as restless in his constant presence.
She shook the thoughts of her trusted companion out of her mind. Those thoughts always twisted her heart and made her feel as if she was suffocating under the apple's spell again. She returned her focus to the council meeting again just in time for a proposal by Duke Hammond that nearly made her fall out of her throne.
"In a year we have made terrific progress to restore our Queen's magnificent kingdom. I believe all here would agree that it is time to start thinking about securing Snow White's reign with an heir. We should begin to consider marriage for our beloved queen."
Several of the lords and ladies of her council began to nod and murmur in agreement. Snow White stared in disbelief at her advisors. Marriage? She wasn't ready to share her heart or throne with anyone. Before she could voice an objection, Duke Farrenhall stood up to address the proposal.
"I suppose, Duke, that your proposal would be backed by the suggestion of your son as a consideration?"
Duke Hammond had the grace to look a bit embarrassed. "They were childhood friends; naturally I would suggest my son William."
"And prove you proposal as a foil to raise your son to the crown." Duke Farrenhall smirked.
Duke Hammond glared at him. "His would be but one name to be brought forth, for the queen to decide."
"Yes," Old Muir of the dwarves piped. "It would be up to the Queen whom she would marry. It is her duty to her kingdom to secure her lineage, there is no doubt of that… but it is up to her discretion, my Lords and Ladies."
Snow White smiled. The old dwarf had offered his service as advisor when the others had returned underground a few months ago. She was quickly learning adding him to her council was one of the best decisions she ever made. She had leaned on his wisdom all ready more times than she could count.
"What say you, my lady?" his blind eyes glittered with mirth.
She mirrored his amusement, knowing full well he was only humoring her. They both knew the council would push the issue if she declined. She decided ambiguity was the best course.
"We shall consider any list the council would like to submit for our consideration. We would encourage our council to take time to carefully select their offers, for we shall certainly be scrutinizing the elligible suitors to find one we would choose to be king."
She smiled graciously at her Lords and Ladies, settling the matter with a call for other business. Duke Hammond returned to his seat and Baroness Ofelia rose. Snow White had become fond of the Merchant's daughter over the last year. She was coy but resourceful. Her husband had been murdered leading a rebellion against the former queen, leaving the woman to raise their two young children. She was hard but fair in her household and had carried that practicality to the Kingdom's treasury along with the efforts of Lord Hall and Derringer. With those three, Snow White was confident the crown would never be found wanting.
After the Baroness concluded her monthly report of the silk trade, Snow White ended the meeting, sore from sitting so long. She longed to walk through her gardens. It was the only place in the castle where she found respite from her duties. Her body guard detail led her as far as the garden entrance, and then she bid them to leave her alone for an hour. She passed through the small cedar labyrinth into the paradise her very skilled gardeners had made for her. Sweet smelling flowers swirled into intricate designs on either side of a gravel path that led to a sparkling fountain surrounded by red roses. She sat on the stone ledge of the fountain with a sigh, letting her eyes fall shut as she listened to the running water and the light drum of bees. A nearby lark took to soothing her with its song, and for a moment, Snow White lost herself in the notes.
She took the hidden knife from her bodice and ran her hands over the simple hilt and steel blade. She wondered with mild amusement what he would think of the council's marriage proposal. She, as well as Muir and Farrenhall, knew it must be a ruse to force her to accept William's many attempts at courtship. She wasn't entirely sure what was holding her back. She'd had a crush on him as a girl, and thought of him often when she was locked in the tower… but…
Her eyes followed her hands as they traced every detail of her knife. Something in her heart had changed since then. She could not find it in herself to wed him immediately after their victory, and now thought his advances more of a nuisance than anything. She blamed the spell Ravenna wove around the poisoned apple for her indecision. If William's kiss had woke her... would she be so conflicted now?
Snow White hadn't told anyone about the second kiss. She couldn't bring herself to talk about what happened while she was frozen, afraid it would really turn out to have just been a dream. Oh, but what a sweet dream it was… it was like she was asleep yet awake, unable to move, and the huntsman had confessed his broken heart to her and seared her heart with a kiss neither chaste or demanding. Such a kiss… it tortured her. Did he not feel it? He had strutted around the castle for months, the same as always while she found his nearness intolerable and yet a moment out of his company was like being deprived oxygen. These conflicted feelings had not eased as she had hoped after she sent him away. Every day she found she pined for his return more than the last.
She took a deep breath, trying to fight her thoughts and focus on something else, anything else.
"My queen! My lady!" a page boy came scurrying up the path, ending her solitude.
She slipped the blade up her sleeve and turned to greet him. "Yes, what is it?"
Gasping for air, he bent over, holding his knees. "Highness! You should know, immediately. He is returned. Wants an audience."
"Easy, breathe." She encouraged the poor lad. "Take a deep breath. Yes, now tell us who has requested an audience?"
"Your huntsman, highness. He just returned from Lord Upser's. Said you'd want to know."
Her heart tripled its speed. He was back… she managed a smile for the page boy. "Thank you, let him know we shall meet him in our study immediately."
"Yes, Milady!" the boy took another deep breath before running away, skidding around the corner into the labyrinth.
Snow White slipped the knife from her sleeve, once again securing it to its secret place in her bodice. She followed the advice she'd given to calm the boy, taking several deep breaths to still the flutter in her chest. There was nothing to panic about; it was only Eric, only her huntsman. He had returned from the mission she had sent him on. She was simply going to learn what he had to say about his journey. Nothing to panic about…
He paced around the room. A hard day's ride had left him dusty and sore, but he hardly had the time to bathe and make himself presentable for her. He had hoped to bring back better news, but it was of little consideration now. He caught a quick sniff of his jerkin. Christ's balls! Maybe he should've at least dunked himself in a lake on the way back. What would she think of him? He shook his head. No reason to whine like a prissy schoolboy over a crush. There'd never be anything between them. Hell, for all he knew she'd all ready accepted William in his absence. Better for her. She was a queen; even with his new status as a Lord, he had nothing to offer her. He growled in frustration. Why did it have to be so complicated? If she had just been some girl he rescued two years ago… She was beyond beautiful, fierce, cunning, courageous... and a queen. She was completely out of his league.
The chamber door opened and he quickly stood up straight, yanking down his jerkin and smoothing his vest. Better make the best out of a bad situation. He may not be clean\, but he could look respectable. She stepped into the room, the sunlight from the window playing gold and copper over her dark hair that was tightly braided around her golden crown. She wore a crème and yellow dress accented with gold cuff sleeves and intricate lace around the square neck that hinted at the swell of cleavage beneath the heavy bodice. Her green-blue eyes stole his breath away, and he quickly bowed to hide any dumbfounded expression that might cross his features. Dear God! How is it that she had grown even more beautiful than when he left?
"Rise, my huntsman." Her voice rang through the study as the door shut behind her. He stood up again as she seated herself in a high back chair by the fireplace.
They stared at each other for a moment, the silence heavy with all the things that could be said. Finally, she smiled at him, a genuine smile that lit up her whole face and made his heart and groin clench.
"Welcome back. I'm very glad you've returned."
He wondered if she had any idea how grateful he was that she never spoke to him in queen-speak. To mask his awkwardness in her presence, he puffed up his chest and resorted to the lack wit humor he so often used. "Well, y'know you couldn't keep me away forever. Someone's gotta keep you out of trouble."
"Indeed." Her smile softened a bit. "I take it your mission went well?"
"Not exactly." He took the seat across from her and let out a resigned sigh. Better to tell her now than later. "Most of the absent Lords have vanished. Either killed or missing, reports varied. We managed to figure out two were murdered in some kind of robbery or uprising of the local village, but three are unaccounted for."
Her face grew pensive. "Muir and Duke Hammond suggested some of the Lords who have not appeared to swear fealty may have abandoned their place during Ravenna's reign."
"It's quite possible. The castles did seem like they had been deserted for a while." Eric ran his hand through his hair. "However, we found the Duke of Upser alive and well."
Her eyes read the expression on his face, and she leaned forward. "He's not in our favor?"
He took in every inch of her face. Memorized every detail before he answered. " No, my queen. He held the banner for Ravenna and profited greatly from it. He'd rather take the throne for himself than bend a knee to you. "
She jumped up from the chair, walking over the window and then pacing back. He stayed still, watching her process and think through the news, her brow furrowed and lips thin.
"Is there no hope for diplomacy? Can he not be worked upon?" she paused in her pacing to stare at him, chewing her lip.
"I'm a huntsman, not a negotiator; but if you asked me, I'd say no." he shrugged. "I spent three days in his keep while he had me under house arrest. He spent plenty of time flexing his muscle. So no, I think he means you harm and he will not be deterred."
Snow White paled. "He kept you under house arrest?"
"Oh, aye." He smirked. "But don't worry your pretty little head; it was a most comfortable dungeon. He even let me go, so I could bring you such good news."
Rage sparked in her eyes and she scowled. "He dared to imprison you? You, who were sent as my personal emissary and are one of my most dearest friends. That is insufferable!"
She marched to the door, swinging it wide open. "Call Duke Hammond and my scribe to me immediately!"
"Easy!" he grabbed her arm, pulling her back. "There's no call to run off into battle over this."
"You're mistaken." She glared at him defiantly. "An attack on a King's messenger is as good as an attack on the King. You say there is no room for negotiation with this man, and I believe you. However, treason cannot be ignored and I cannot allow Upser to bring anymore death or destruction to this land. My people deserve peace, and I must do what I have to in order to give it to them."
He released her arm, a swell of pride in his heart for this fierce yet kind woman. "My apologies then. You certainly sound like a queen now; I won't forget my place again."
She blushed furiously, and she glanced away. "No, I am a queen, but I could never think that way. I owe everything to you, and I will always value you."
"Aye." He brushed the tips of his fingers against her cheek. "I believe you."
He swallowed, drowning in her nearness. If there was ever a God, now would be the time to invoke him. He weighed his next words very, very carefully. If he said too much it would destroy everything, but if he didn't say anything, he felt like he would die keeping this turmoil to himself. He cleared his throat.
She searched his face, not backing away from his touch, her hands lying against his chest. "Eric…"
His strength left him at the sound of his name on those lips. All resolve was lost. He pulled her face up, tangling his fingers into her hair and whispered her name as his lips moved towards hers.
A squat man burst through the door, with an exclamation, arms full of writing supplies. Eric quickly stepped back away from Snow White as the man shuffled to the desk, murmuring apologies and nonsense, completely oblivious (or purposefully ignoring) what he had just walked in on.
And what had he just intruded on? Snow White stole a glance at Eric, her heart still pounding. His features had hardened once again into a smirk, but for a moment, she thought… surely, it was… His blue eyes drifted from the wheezing scribe to her, and she felt like they pierced straight through her heart. It couldn't just be her imagination, something definitely was about to happen. He wasn't really as cold to her as he seemed. The moment was past, though, so she would have to focus on the task at hand until she could confront him about it. If he evenly remotely felt like she did…
"My queen." Duke Hammond walked into the room and bowed. "What is this urgent matter you called me for?"
She cleared her throat, regaining her composure and banishing the thought of Eric being so close from her mind. "Rise Duke; our huntsman has returned with grievous news. The Duke of Upser has proclaimed himself a traitor to our crown and wishes to march and take it for himself. We cannot allow this."
The Duke glanced from Snow White to the Huntsman. "Surely there can be a peaceful way to resolve this issue?"
"We would deeply wish that there were, but the man has all ready committed treason by wrongfully imprisoning our envoy and declaring war against his queen."
Duke Hammond sunk into one of the chairs, running his hand over his face. "This is truly grievous. Certainly, such a thing cannot go unpunished… but we cannot afford to plunge this country into war. The rebuilding efforts would be squandered and our people have seen so much of death all ready…"
"You echo our thoughts, dear Duke." Snow White paced from the window to the fireplace, glancing at the scribe. "We would like to hear your thoughts on a letter we would send Upser in regards to this message."
"We would send to the Duke of Upser," she signaled the scribe to begin writing. "That we thank him for the hospitality he offered the messenger who spoke in our name, and we would invite him to the courtesy of the same treatment if he would lower his arms against the crown. Furthermore, all rights and retainers to his lands shall be passed to his rightful heir in his absence. If he refuses our invitation, we shall persecute him for treason."
Duke Hammond sat pensively for a long time before answering.
"It is a far fairer deal than he deserves, my Queen. Any sensible man would take it… however, seeing as the Duke is a fierce and proud man who has willingly denied the true heir to the throne; I would say he is not in his right wits. Such men, I'm afraid, cannot be expected to behave honorably. I would suggest tempering your diplomacy with espionage."
"Spies?" the Huntsman frowned. "The Duke isn't hiding anything. The three days I was there he took every opportunity to escort me from my cell and show me his armory, supplies, and soldiers."
"Even so, he may be counting on an element of surprise or piece of knowledge we are lacking that makes him think he can succeed. A man does not take on a reagent when he has no allies unless he thinks he can win."
"Or, as you said," the huntsman spat. "If he's out of his mind."
Snow White nodded. "Both may be true. Gentleman, we would like this situation to be over with as little damage as possible. We would know my enemy as well as we could. We have never met this Duke, and we know nothing of his ambitions. It would be best, then, to send out scouts to learn what we can in case it comes to battle. Duke Hammond, pick four good men you trust. We would like them to leave on the morrow."
She turned and addressed the scribe, instructing him to have a full version of her letter finished by the next night for her to sign and seal. Then, she instructed the Huntsman to bathe and rest and bid them all ado. After the door closed behind them and she was once again alone, she sank to the floor in front of the fireplace. Her crown seemed heavy, so she removed it, setting it on the cushion of the chair. She slowly unbraided her hair, letting it fall lose around her shoulders. She stared blankly into the flames, her mind wandering over the years and possibilities, her burdens and her triumphs. Eventually a servant entered to add logs to the fire and ask if she would like supper. She declined, but did move to a chair, staring at the crackling blaze, lost in her thoughts, until her eyes fell shut.