They spend six weeks outside the castle walls together, crushed under the weight of so many titles: hunter, prey, fugitive, ally, friend, savior. They would shed these labels and adopt others, what they mean to one another molting and being re-birthed with every new day.
There are angels in your angles
There's a low moon caught in your tangles
"I spent so long alone," Snow mumbles the first night, stretched out under the stars in the dark forest, only feet away from a man sent to steal her heart, not the fairytale metaphor but the bloody beating thing that keeps her moving and warm. Her voice shakes through the haunted admission, the day's events still burning bright and terrifying in her shaking limbs and fingers, in her careful breathing too.
Silence hangs in heavy tangles through the overhead limbs of trees.
So much has changed this past day. They scramble to adapt, to piece themselves back together in a place where nothing good survives.
Eric wonders if he ought to apologize, for her time in solitude or for nearly tearing her in half only hours earlier. So many 'I'm sorry's are owed from him, before the war and after, but with his wife's death he'd run dry of them, fed each last tortured whisper of regret to her lifeless body when he'd found it, crumpled like a forgotten rag doll behind a water trough in the east stables. So tiny, fitting her in his lap had been no trouble at all, and, hands sweeping reverently over cold cheeks, he'd buried every last apology in the mud-streaked yellow of her hair. Now his moral code could be bought. Now he cleansed his missteps with strong ales.
The huntsman offers no words of comfort. After all, he is no handmaiden. It is not sympathy he boasts for hire.
Hair wind-whipped into knots, clothing heavy and caked with mud, hearts chiseling away at the inside of their bones for a hundred different reasons, it's a wonder sleep finds them at all.
There's a ticking at the sill
There's a purr of a pigeon to break the still of day
The next morning he teaches her to fight, equips her with a dagger and spars with her until the sounds of hooves break over their own heavy pants and laughter. Quick on their feet, bubbling with the vigor of battle, they find shelter in a thick of trees to wait out Ravenna's brother, and resolve to reach the end of the dark forest by sundown.
Their hiding spot lacks space. It feeds Snow into the hard warmth of Eric's chest, coaxes her into the natural curve of his body in order to remain unseen by the men sent to steal her back. Any closer and they'd be sharing the same air. It's a struggle to keep his mind on the danger lurking just outside with Snow fit tight against him. His nerves bloom in all the places she touches him, chest to thighs. Luckily, he's sober enough to keep this foreign want at bay. The huntsman's hands remain vigilant at his sides, even when Snow's arms wind cautiously around his middle so that she might lay her cheek against his breast for a moment's respite, even then he holds still, everything save the wild, rogue beating of his heart.
As on we go drowning
Down we go away
"Do you have any family, back home?" Snow asks during a tiresome walk, through the bogged marshes at the edge of the forest, gracious for his recent "re-imagining" of her soiled skirt. Crossing streams and climbing hills has been a great deal easier without the frayed length swaying in tatters between her legs.
She's only trying for shallow conversation, but the inquiry picks at festered wounds she cannot see.
"Come on, keep up. Or we won't find shelter before the wolves wake to hunt," he urges in a rough growl, pressing ahead of her, leaving her kind voice and any further questions in the mud.
He doesn't see, but a frown creases between her brows that, if seen, he would have quietly imagined smoothing out with his thumb, as she pockets her borrowed blade and clambers through the weeds after him.
And darling, we go a-drowning
Down we go away
"I have - had, I had a wife," Eric speaks that night in the dark, only to realize that Snow has gone missing.
Because they can't afford a fire with the armies so near, it takes him time to find her.
She is squatting out in a scorched clearing free of life at the bottom of a steep hill crying, trying desperately to muffle her sobs in her hands and collar by turns. He knows not the reason for her tears, but discovers, to his surprise, that he wishes he knew what might quell them. This is not sentiment, he silently promises some broken part of himself, only to hear a strange insidious whisper claim just the opposite.
She only glances up from her sorrow when his imposing silhouette blocks out a slice of moonlight. She looks tiny there in the melting snow, a tight heap of black stark against the pale that blankets the ground. Suddenly, he is reminded once more of his wife. The sobering resemblance aims to knock him off his feet, but for her sake he is able to stave his grief until she is back at camp, safe.
"Princess," he begins, looming over her in the dark, voice rough from disuse. He must look menacing, towering over her fragile form, but where there should be fear, he finds no signs of it in her face when it's upturned, lit silver by the stars. Her eyes are open and honest, burning emerald through the night, shining and swollen like her lips from being worried between her teeth. She looks startled, but unafraid.
Eric sways in unfamiliar territory for a moment then, useless, unable to comfort her, feeling somehow disarmed by the weight of her naked gaze. She feels no shame for her tears, nor does she brandish them like some guilting plea, simply watches him from her seat.
He finds that his mouth is dry and without words, his hands are restless, working in the empty air.
"Come on, you need your rest. We've a long day tomorrow."
It's all he can think to say, comes out sounding dumb and awkward even to his own ears. Regardless, she stands, brushes at her knees and silently follows in his shadow back to the patch of grass they'd made their camp hours before.
Listening carefully to be sure that her footsteps don't taper off in another direction, he works to compose himself during the short walk back, shaken by his own response to her sorrow-sodden in the clearing.
He sinks down to the earth to lead by example and watches as she does the same, folding down to lie pin-straight and wide-eyed. Rolled onto his side, he can see her shivering in the night, trying to fight the cold, little hands shackled around her biceps, jaw clamped tight to keep from chattering. Her face is still wet, individual tracks illuminated for him to trace, but her tears are silent now, only the tremble of her lip gives her away.
This is no place for a girl, he thinks sadly, watching as she curls into herself like a small child, forehead bowed towards her knees. The sharp wind a cruel blanket in the night, and with each brutal gust, she shudders, breathing hot air into cupped hands for some illusion of warmth, appearing miserable in every sense of the word.
An idea grown from what little kindness he still possesses worms its way into his will, blooms there, secretly rooted in for weeks. Half of him recoils from it, loathe to nourish any notion that they are anything more than two strangers traveling the woods together. He's learned not to get involved, not to care, has been punished time and time again for thinking he deserves more than axes and knives for company.
But something deep down, underneath what's festered in his time without his wife, burns with the desire to keep her safe. It's this glimmer of light, sparked and climbing since they'd met, combined with the delusion that without she'd likely grow ill, that wins out in the end.
He's involved in this silent war for - he doesn't know how long -, but when, finally, he cautiously wets his lips to speak, her face is still scrunched together to fight the cold - she's awake.
His voice is hardly more than a ghost in the quiet between them.
"It's freezing out. You're going to catch a cold, just c'mere will you?"
Her face whips in his direction at the sudden break in silence. He has the childish urge to look away, but recognizing that he is, in fact, a grown man and not a bashful boy, he meets her gaze directly with an outstretched arm.
This is a terrible idea, he groans inwardly, even as she hastily wipes at her cheeks, clearing her blurred vision to appraise his expression. Finding it genuine, she glances from his thin smile to his open palm and back again, before giving a timid nod and pushing up away from the ground, to crawl over to where the huntsman lies in his leathers and knives.
Despite his command, his throat knots at the sight of Snow, damp and frail and so, so beautiful, making her way towards him.
Anticipating her, he lifts an arm, inviting, and she ducks beneath it, turning warily towards his warmth at first, and then greedily, burying her face into the expanse of his open collar.
The tip of her nose is cold as ice where it's nudged against his adam's apple.
"Thank you," she whispers into his pulse after a long moment, releasing a shaking breath as his chest depresses under her hands.
Per usual, he says nothing, tipping his chin against the top of her head and closing his eyes, dutifully ignoring the way his heart sings under her palm to sink peacefully into sleep for the first time in years.
There's a tough word on your crossword
There's a bed bug nipping a finger
From that night forward, they sleep wound together, her arms folded up between their bodies and her forehead dropped against his throat, or crowded back into the empty curve of Eric that's sized just right, safe in the heavy circle of his arms. Their nights are always chaste, without kissing or rutting or anything that might question this thing they've settled into, but sometimes, when she can't find sleep, Snow will map out the lines of her huntsman's muscles. She lets her fingertips slip through the scratch of hair under his jaw or up behind his ear, cherishing the sharp edges of his nose and the soft shape of his mouth. He's warm all over where she's been chilled for years, a private furnace built for her alone. And in sleep, when he dreams of his wife's death and whines desperate, unintelligible pleas into her hair, she doesn't make to move when he grips her more tightly and drags her in against him like some precious thing.
They are closer in the daylight too. Eric always wakes first, trained on it since he was a boy, and when he's able to retch away from the wonderful weight and warmth of Snow curled close - which, embarrassingly, often takes far longer than he'd admit - he's off to the woods to find and kill breakfast.
"Sleeping Beauty," he'll tease, shaking her awake by the shoulder, presenting her some awful thing, cooked and skewered, when she's just barely opened her eyes. "Breakfast!"
And she'll rap him on the arm or the chest and shove him out of her face to sit up. Then she'll offer him a dazzling smile and accept his meal with a honest, "Thank you," never wanting to appear ungrateful for all he's done.
After they've filled their bellies, they'll either train or cover ground. She's getting better, faster, more agile. He's got nicks all over his knuckles from where she'd caught him with her blade. She'll rush over to seize his hand and apologize at the barest sight of the blood, but he always shoos her coddling with a rumbled laugh, fiercely proud.
With fresh bandages, made from what remains of her skirt, that she'd insisted on applying, he'll prepare dinner and they'll talk, about their favorite foods or songs, anything they don't hold too close. She'll spook him sometimes, too curious, but he's learned to put her off with another question, or an empty jab. Somehow he's feeling less flayed about what's happened - and on nights when sleep evades him and she's breathing soft and slow in his arms, he'll wonder if it's this young thing that's to thank - but the mention of family still stings and he'd rather keep that particular cruelty from her as long as she'll let him. And she seems to understand his weariness to speak of this past, for now.
Whatever's grown between them, this unnameable thing, it's binding. He feels her in every swing of his axe now, in the animals he slays for food (more gently than before their meeting), in the sunlight and the wind when it combs through the grass. He fears he'll never shake her from where she lives under his skin, in the creases of his palm and the scars on his knuckles.
There's a swallow, there's a calm
Here's a hand to lay on your open palm today
Everything changes with the arrival of her prince.
They don't spend nights together anymore. Eric makes camp well out of the way of their rekindling. It takes him no time at all to grow bitter once more, quiet too, content to lead the others at a pace they couldn't hope to keep. Seeing the way Snow had smiled for the duke's son on first sight had been like a physical blow, but it was undeniable; he was better suited for her, deserving.
The princess prods him for conversation some mornings, when he's too tired to deny the way he feels for her, but backs down easily when he only ever supplies her with a snapped response.
Their only real interaction is during daily practices. The prince teaches her archery, but his hand-to-hand skills pale in comparison to Eric's, instilled in him as a small boy and growing ever since.
As on we go drowning
Down we go away
"Would you have really killed me?" Snow asks with fire in her eyes one afternoon, trapping Eric back against an enormous trunk. Even with a blade at his throat, he grins, allowing her to think she's bested him.
William and the others are on the prowl for game. As they near his father's castle food becomes scarce and it is still a few day's journey to the gates.
There's a mocking smile in the confession, a smile Snow does not return. He cannot fathom existence without her now, convinced right down to his bones that he will follow her anywhere, regardless of the fact that her heart belongs to another. It was never his, he'll repeat like a mantra through the night, feeling foolish for thinking he had ever a claim on such a thing.
Dagger biting into the underside of his jaw, she searches his face like the answer to some unasked question might be written right there in the wrinkles edged around his clear blue eyes.
Eric's crescent of white teeth flicker and fade into a tight-lipped grimace. She is unrelenting with the blade he'd gifted her and though he can still easily disarm her, he is even more wary now, curious as to what's brought on this mood.
"My lady?" he ventures, the fingers of one hand winding around her raised wrist, not in an act of defense, but simply an attempt to calm her. She visibly flinches, but still does not back down, crowding in close to stare vicious daggers. Their noses are mere inches apart and if it weren't for the wind, Eric thinks he might be able to hear the furious hammering of Snow's pulse.
I've never wanted to kiss you more, he thinks with a start, realizing just how terribly he coveted her warrior mouth, so dangerously red. It reminded him of battle, of fresh blood spilt in the snow; he yearned for a taste.
But before he can talk himself into or out of the task, Snow is drawing back, eyes worrying at the irritated mark she'd left for a stolen moment. Then, before he can ask her anything at all, she's sheathing her blade and darting off back towards camp.
Freed, Eric remains leant against the great tree, watching her form recede until it's swallowed up by the treeline. Only then does he feel confident that his legs will not give way.
And darling, we go a-drowning
Down we go away
"Why have you been so cold?" Snow seethes late in the night, catching Eric unaware at the edge of camp. There's hurt in her voice underneath all that venom. It snags on her breath, but does nothing to still the slap of her hands against his immovable chest. There are hot tears on her face, shining in the lips of her eyes. They cause him to stagger back and grip her wrists as he had the past afternoon.
"What's gotten into you?"
Where he'd been kind before, his hands are less than gentle now, burning imprints into the porcelain of her forearms. Anger is his only defense.
She struggles in his iron grasp, bites at his hands and kicks at his shins and only when she's breathless from fighting does she speak again. Her chest puffs with each word, her face bright red and burning.
"You promised to protect me." she spits, defeated, her mouth twisted in some emotion he doesn't dare to hope for.
"You've gone mad. I'm here, am I not, princess? I will ride with you until Queen Ravenna's blood pumps no longer."
Something in his biting tone must strike a chord because where she was just meek she is livid once again.
"No, you are not!" she all but screams, surging forwards against his hands like shackles. "You won't say two words to me. Why? What have I done to deserve such cruelty?"
His sour mood stumbles, footing lost in her cries. He shifts to trap her wrists with a single hand and smoothes back a tangle of hair from her face, palm curving around the heart shape of her jaw after, gentle where his grip of her is not.
"You misunderstand," he starts gruffly, voice careful and even as he tries hopelessly to piece what he wants to say together, to extract any ounce of feeling from his words. "Your William has returned. He - "
"This is about Will?"
His hastily planned speech is shattered by her voice, disbelieving and harsh. She gapes at him, incredulous, and Eric falters, wets his lips and shakes his head to remember where he'd been.
"What? Of course. It wouldn't do for a princess to be seen in the company of a man such as myself with her prince nearby."
It comes out all wrong, saturated with everything he's felt these past weeks, sounding wounded, broken even.
Eyes screwed shut, cursing himself, he feels more than sees her droop forward to rest her forehead against his sternum. Her little body is shaking with laughs.
"You're an idiot," she smiles into his leathers, blind to the indignant look he throws. "A complete and utter idiot."
Lost, anger sparking at the idea that she might be poking fun, Eric releases her hands in a huff to cross both arms defensively over his chest.
The next moment he is on the ground, bowled over by her surprisingly ample strength, and she's crawled over him, straddling his middle in nothing but a nightgown brought for her by Prince William.
"An idiot," she stresses, says for the nth time, but her voice holds nothing no menace as she winds a fist into the loose hairs at the back of her huntsman's head and wretches his face upwards to meet her for a kiss. The surprise aside, he is spurred into action at the first brush of their lips, hers soft and pliant beneath his own chapped mouth. It's like something from a dream. The wanting that has mounted and mounted during his time spent at her side, his secret desire, kept even from himself at first, bursts all at once and he is overwhelmed, working on instinct alone.
His palms, roughened by years of work, clasp over her sharp little hips. He can fit her entire waist in the oval of his hands. He is reminded of the toy dolls his sisters had as children, dolls he was barred from holding, for fear that he might break them.
Mouths working feverishly against one another, Eric pushes Snow down his groin, forcing her to stretch and flatten out over him, their bodies humming some silent hymn where they touch, melding together.
At her consent, he licks into her mouth with fierce purpose, a groan bleeding out into their kiss at the way her fingers fist into his hair. You will not break me, he thinks, and at some point she must have wormed inside his mind too, for she yanks his head back then to expose the column of his throat and lowers her lips, teeth, and tongue to the rasp of hair beneath his chin.
She sucks marks ovaled like her mouth into the tanned skin of his neck, visible just barely but blooming already when she lifts up, and he presses bruises like fingerprints into her sides. When she begins rolling against him in subtle swells, he loses what chivalry he still possessed and gathers up the edge of her gown to slip beneath it and discover her thighs.
But his hands stop then, startled.
"Princess," he says, his rough voice low with want, but hard-edged. The tip of a finger brushes over the crease of her thigh, and, finding her naked below the thick shift is like being thrown into freezing waters. She's so young, pure, nothing like you, that cruel voice scolds, and all over again he feels undeserving, realizes that this cannot be, that if, in her and William's inevitable wedding consummation, he finds her without her maidenhead, she could lose everything.
The next moment he's pushing her violently from his lap, struggling to sit and hold her at an arm's length. Breathing hard, fighting himself, Eric begs for Snow's eyes. What he receives is a snarl, face turned, only the green of her eyes on him, darkened by blown pupils and brimming with his rejection.
"You should get some rest."
His dismissal wounds her, but if she thinks she's the only one that bleeds from this loss, she's mistaken. Even after Snow has shot to her feet and run back to camp with a wet face, Eric remains where he lies, slamming his skull back against the dirt to keep from chasing after her. You don't deserve her, he reminds himself, hands clawed into fists at his sides until sleep covers him at last.
There are angels in your angles
There's a low moon caught in your tangles
He wakes hours later, just as the sky yawns blue for a new day, and wishes instantly to apologize.
But it is not the princess he finds, all smiles, and brimming with life. Before he's even to his feet, William is begging him to come, to help. He blunders after the boy blindly, shaking the sleep from his limbs as the young prince leads him back into a small circle of trees.
Something broken in him shatters, irreparable.
There, fallen in the snow, next to a bitten apple, is a young girl, dead.
She's got hair of black and lips of red, but her skin is shades too white and she's far too still.
It isn't her.
It couldn't be.
A/N: I wrote this just to try and get a feel for Snow and Eric's characters, but i thought I'd share it with you all since you've been so great about 'Shelter.'
Thanks for reading!
I might sequel it if I find time. c: