(Author's Note: YES! I have FINALLY gotten back to this... I am so sorry... and so sorry I don't feel this chapter is very worthy of the wait, but if you'll bear with me through the this trudging part where I sort through some stuff, next chapter will be worth it!)
(Author's Note 2: there's also a couple of sketches I have that go with this Chapter... I need to get them uploaded. :D THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE!)
Eric bounded up the stairs to the castle library. In the week he'd been back, he'd only seen Snow White once since his return. He had a slight suspicion she was avoiding him for some reason, and it was beginning to annoy him. Coupled with the fact that the whole keep seemed to be preparing for some large event, he felt very left out. He'd taken it upon himself to call on Duke Farrenhall to dig up some answers. If anyone knew what was bloody going on, he would. Eric felt like the dark-haired thin rail of a noble was one of the few he'd met that was trustworthy- plus the duke drank like a Welsh-man, a likeable trait for any friend.
He found the object of his hunt bent over a pile of books in the oldest and dustiest part of the library.
"Why am I not surprised?" Eric laughed. "By God, man… if you spent as much attention on women as you do these old manuscripts, you'd be a famous womanizer by now."
"Ah." Duke Farrenhall looked up from his work, removing his spectacles with a sly smile. "Well, if that were the case I'd probably have to hire protection from my betrothed, wouldn't I?"
"You fox!" Eric exclaimed. "When did you snare some hapless girl?"
"It was the other way around, I'm afraid… and it happened rather recently, while you were away on your mission."
"You move quick, Tom." Eric chuckled, sliding into a chair. "Of course, since I haven't seen you since I got back… We haven't been able to celebrate with a drink yet! Care to join me at the Buckled Knight for a pint?"
"Actually yes. Between the delicacies of dealing with the news of the Duke of Upser and orchestrating the Queen's ball, I'm completely buggared. A drink would be a good prescription."
"Done!" with a slap on his knee, Eric bounded up and grabbed his friend. "We'll go out on the town tonight!"
He led Tom towards the door of the library, the taste of a frothy beer practically on his tongue. "Oh—did you say a ball- what kind of ball? This is the first I've heard of it."
"You must be joking."
Eric shook his head, forcing the smile to stay in place on his face while the mechanics of his brain struggled with the possible reason knowledge of such a thing escaped him all week.
"Oh, my friend…" Tom shook his head sadly. "You'll definitely need a drink first."
Snow White had just finished her evening meal when a page declared she had a visitor.
"I was just about to go to the chapel for evening prayers. Who calls?"
The page bowed. "William, son of Duke Hammond, my lady."
"Very well." She suppressed an inner groan, slipping on a white coverlet over her violet gown. "He may escort me to the chapel if he wishes an audience."
The page disappeared temporarily and returned with her friend, dressed in an intricately detailed dark blue vest and trousers.
"My queen." William bowed.
She curtsied, and let him kiss her hand. 'I was going to evening prayers. Would you care to escort me?"
"Certainly." He hastily stood, taking her arm. "We need to talk, Snow."
He led her to the main hall, down the stairs, out the foyer, and into the courtyard. "It's about this ball you're throwing… I heard from one of the court ladies that it's an excuse for you to accept suitors. It seems all pretty senseless… when you could just court me."
She stopped, glancing up into his warm hazel eyes. They were eyes that changed shades like nature changing seasons, eyes that she had memorized and dreamed of fondly for years in her imprisonment. They looked at her now in a way that made her chest clench.
"I mean it Snow. I've tried several times over the last year to express my feelings, but when I heard about this ball coming up… I decided I should just ask you bluntly. No ceremony, no frills, I just want to ask: will you have me?"
"William..." this was the moment she had been dreading since his first courtship attempt. Even now, she didn't love him in the way she knew he loved her. How could she let him down? How could she break the heart that she held as dearly in her own as the memories of her own family?
She searched his face, tracing the familiar features.
"You don't have to answer right now." He took a step forward, brushing hair from her cheek. "You can think about it. Perhaps there will be someone at this ball of yours that you will prefer over me; but keep me in mind Snow."
She watched him walk away, the breath caught in her throat. She would have to take the courage soon to sort through these feelings- things could not remain as they were. Perhaps she'd spend extra time in prayers to ask God's guidance. With an aching heart and troubled mind, she entered the Chapel.
Eric slammed down his empty stein.
Tom blinked at him with bleary eyes, swaying on his stool. "W-Which part?"
"All of it!"
"Here! Here!" Tom motioned for a wench to bring more ale. "Why should Hammond force himself on the queen with an old alliance? She'll have plenty of young men to pick from! Hell, I would take a shot myself if I was still single."
"You're not helping."
The duke turned from his murderous glare to grin at the wench coming towards them. "More ale, fine lady—my friend has a problem with competition! We must drink him out of it!"
"Competition!" Eric scoffed. "What makes you think I want anything to do with this travesty you've concocted to marry her off?"
Tom laughed as his stein was filled. "You hear that, miss? Mention marriage and he won't even say her name. I think we've broken his hard clot of a heart!"
The wench grinned a toothless smile at Eric as she poured his ale. "Aye, sirs. When a man's love is married off to another—well ain't nothing sadder, is it?"
"I don't have to listen to this nonsense." Eric took a long drought from his stein as Tom and the woman shared a knowing look.
"Eric, you know I have enough of putting my nose in other's affairs as the castle coordinator… and I like you too much to interfere much in yours… but for God's sake man, I have eyes! I've seen the looks between you two. Just get over this stubborn ass-like attitude of yours before it's too late!"
"It's all ready too late!" he thunked his head on the table. "You say you have eyes… have you not seen her and William together? I am no competition…"
Tom sighed, taking the pitcher from the wench and dismissing her with a silver coin.
"Then let me ask you this." He filled the stein again. "Can you watch her say her vows to another without confessing your feelings? You'll not even try?"
With a sniff Eric took the stein. "If I didn't know better Tom, I'd say being betrothed has made a sap out of you."
Tom raised his stein. "A toast, then… To the women we love. May God reward them for putting up with us."
Snow White stared at the maple figure of Christ hanging from the cross, the candle light from the vigil at his feet casting a play of light across the Chapel altar. She had finished her prayers a while ago, but wasn't ready to leave this sanctuary. So many things lay heavily on her heart. William, Eric, the Duke of Upser… and this ridiculous ball to sate the council.
She glanced over at the nearest stain glass window. Should she refuse William? It had hurt so much to think about it, surely it was a mistake. After all, although Eric had always been kind to her there had never been a moment that she had sensed anything more towards her than mild affection. Except for a week ago… she'd played it over and over in her mind, surely he meant to kiss her. She could hardly trust her own memory. Was that really what at happened? It had agitated her so much that she had managed to avoid the huntsman all week except once at court. Again, there was nothing advancing in his attitude towards her. Perhaps she was just flattering herself that he'd think something like that of her.
Snow White sighed. Perhaps she should take up Will's offer… she was sure there would be no blue blood at the ball that would take her interest. Maybe love would come in time if she gave him a chance. A thump from the entrance caught her attention and she shot up from the pew. A figure was slumped against the doorframe of the chapel door. Her hand reflexively shot to her bodice where her knife was hidden. The tall form lurched forward, unsteady on its feet.
"Who goes there?" she demanded.
The form stumbled into candle light and she forgot to breathe.
"What are you doing here?" the huntsman leaned against a pew, pulling strands of hair from his flushed face.
"You're drunk." She turned from him. "In a church, no less."
"Oh aye, so I am. I guess I usually lack the will to pray sober."
"I thought you had decided to ease on the drinking." She plucked at a lose thread on her skirt.
"Indeed I have." She could hear her shuffling into the pew behind her. "Not that it's your concern, but I had reason to drink tonight."
"What reason?" she squared her shoulders as she sensed him near.
"The best kind." His breath warmed the back of her head. "Happy nuptials, my queen."
She tried not to shudder. "You should not be drunk in a church."
"Then command me to leave." He plopped down on the bench. "Or would you like me to climb down the grapevine to discover your intent for that as well?"
"What are you talking about?" she wheeled around, meeting his accusing glare.
"You know damn well what I'm talking about. This silly dance the whole castle's planning. Tell me, which part interests you more, the part where they dress you up to impress the lot or the parade of eligible princes who can't wait for their chance into your knickers?"
Anger flushed her cheeks. "How dare you say such a thing to me!"
"You may not want to hear it, but it's the truth!" he leapt forward. "You cannot tell me you look forward to this farce. You should bloody well marry on your own terms, not playing around with petty politics and lining up suitors like chattel."
"I am not fond of the idea, but it will make the council happy!" she spat.
"And you?" he swayed dangerously close. "You didn't answer the question. Will this make you happy?"
"You're drunk." She shied away from his piercing blue eyes.
"You said that all ready." His ale-tinged breath warmed her cheek. "But you still didn't answer me… is what you want?"
She trembled as his hand cupped her cheek, forcing her to face him. She clenched her jaw, unwilling to yield to him in this state. If she was going to confess these feelings… she glanced into his eyes and froze. Those eyes spoke to her in ways she'd dreamed of, but never dared believed would come from him. It took her back to that night he bore his heart and freed hers. For so long she'd craved that kind of affection from him… but he was clearly inebriated.
"Snow White…" his lips were just a whisper away now.
If this was real… Dear God, could he really… but not like this.
She gently pushed him away, holding him at arm's length. He blinked at her, confused. Then, something hardened in his open gaze and he turned from her.
"I'm sorry. I guess I may have overdone the booze tonight. I'll not keep you from your prayers. You'll need them."
He pulled himself up and walked out of the pews, slightly swaying but steadier than he had been a few minutes ago.
"Good night, Huntsman." She called, her voice much stronger than she felt.
"Good night." He grumbled, the baritone of his voice echoing off the stone walls.
She sighed in relief after he left, her heart resuming normal tempo. "Dear Lord, give me strength, for if this is a sign… I am surely in trouble. He is so stubborn- I don't know if I will ever discover his true feelings. Please, if he feels the same for me as I do for him… help me. Amen."
She stood up to leave the chapel, smiling as she humored the thought of serving hard liquor at the ball.