He watched her coronation from the back of the hall. He had considered not even attending, had planted himself resolutely in on the edge of the narrow bed in the tiny chamber they had given him, and settled in to sharpen his knives. Again. He had is pride. It was foolish, and he knew it. He couldn't pull himself away from her. God forgive him, she had become the bright point of the sun that his world revolved around. She had lain there cold on the stone, several hours dead and he had still been moved to press his lips to her sweet, innocent ones and leave her cheeks wet with his tears. There was nothing he wouldn't do for her. He would die for her, had willingly risked his life half a hundred times for her in the past weeks, and would do so again. And he would go to his grave with the secret that it was his kiss that had woken her from the Queen's deathly spell.
He had loved two women in his life. The first he had lost to a cruel death, and the other he was lost to him before he ever had a hope of having her
She deserved to be happy, to live, and love, and choose for herself someone befitting her station. Someone noble, and good, who would protect her and support her and help her to lead her kingdom. Someone like William, who had known her since childhood, and carried her in his heart for many years. He couldn't begrudge them their inevitable happiness, but neither could he claim that it didn't pain him like an arrow pierced through his own heart.
The horns were sounding joyously somewhere below him. She would be walking in to the Great Hall at any moment now, to sit on the throne her father had ruled from and be crowned with the crown her mother had worn. With a muttered curse, he stood, crossed to the washbasin across the room in half a stride, and began scrubbing his face with the cloth. A halfhearted struggle with the comb, and he judged himself presentable enough.
He stood in the back, trying not to call attention to himself. He saw her looking out over the crowd, scanning the faces, and his damnable pride got the better of him. He stepped to the edge of the crowd, and then beyond. She saw him- he watched her face change when she met his gaze and held it, a smile curving across her lips. There was no doubt that her smile was intended for him, and even as his heart leapt, he felt it clench as well. This was a torture beyond what he thought he could endure.
A grand feast followed the coronation, but he didn't stay long- only enough time to eat some food and drink some ale before returning to his chamber. Once there he packed his few possessions methodically, making sure that everything was in order. He would leave, he had decided. Within the next day or two. The princess- the Queen had no more need of him, and he had no need to sit around a castle nursing a wounded heart when the local taverns had ale and spirits enough for even a man so thirsty as himself.
Time passed, but he found he had nothing to do. His weapons were all clean and honed to a razor's edge, he had nothing to read, and no desire to sleep. Eventually he just reclined on the bed fully clothed, crossed his arms behind his head and got lost in his own memories. The castle grew quiet around him as the celebrations drew to a close and guests either scattered back to their homes or retired to their own chambers. His candle burned low in its silver holder, but he hardly noticed. A knock on the door finally roused him from his reverie.
He pulled the door open, expecting to see a servant or perhaps a messenger. He was absolutely not expecting to see her.
"Your Majesty." He breathed. She smiled shyly.
"May I come in?" she asked. He pulled the door open wider in response. "Thank you" she breathed as she brushed past him. Her skirt was wide enough that it filled nearly all the empty space in the room.
"May I ask what brings you here, Your Highness?"
"I've hardly seen you since the battle."
"It's been a busy couple of days."
"So it has." She paused for a moment. "It's the nights that are more concerning to me, however."
"Your Majesty?" He asked, wary of her meaning. She took a deep breath.
"Since I was ten years old, every night has been a nightmare. Shivering in the cold, never warm enough even when I did manage to get a fire going, and never knowing when the Queen's brother would come crawling through the shadows to the door of my prison to watch me sleep. When I escaped, there was a terrifying night spent hallucinating in the forest, and the night I woke surrounded by smoke and flames when the Queen's men burned the lake village. The only nights that I've felt safe at all in the last ten years were the nights you lay nearby." She lapsed into silence, worrying her lower lip between her teeth. It had a dangerous effect on him. He was half-torn between folding her into his arms and rocking her like the innocent child she was, and crushing his lips to hers to kiss all her doubts and fears away. Neither was his place. She took a deep breath. " I wondered if, perhaps, I could spend the night here. With you."
"I'm not certain that would be a good idea," he said roughly, "Given the circumstances."
"Circumstances?" A light flared in her eyes, reminding him that despite her innocence, she was neither fragile nor naïve. "What are the circumstances of which you speak?"
"My Lady, you are the Queen of our realm. You have a great many expectations upon you. I… I am no one. A lowly huntsman." His voice deepened with self-disgust. "A drunkard, who still mourns his murdered wife. It would not seem…appropriate for us to pass the night together."
"Sara." She whispered. He stilled.
"What did you say?" he breathed.
"Your wife. Her name was Sara."
"How did you know that? I never spoke her name."
"You said I remind you of her."
"And then you kissed me. I wiped your tears from my cheeks when I awoke."
" Don't you understand? The queen's curse could only be undone by a force she could not comprehend and could not defend against. True, unselfish love. True Love's kiss was the only thing that could break her curse." She raised a slender, trembling hand to cup his cheek. "Your kiss returned me from the land of the dead. It proved that you love me."
"Forgive me." He whispered. She smiled.
"Don't you see? It could not have worked if I did not love you as well."
His throat felt suddenly dry. She stepped toward him, so close that the stiff leather of his vest brushed the velvet bodice of her gown as with every breath she took. She looked up at him even as she drew him down to her. He was powerless against her. Her lips pressed against his then, warm and supple, and not at all like the last time he had felt them. That time they had been cool and unyielding and had set his heart to grieving. Now, they set his soul afire.
He wanted to take her in his arms, to crush her slender body to his, tilt her head back and ravish her. He wanted to kiss her until she was breathless, and then kiss her again slowly, thoroughly , until her green eyes went unfocused and she clung to him in desperation. But along with his damnable pride he also possessed some honor, and so he returned her kiss only briefly and then withdrew.
"We should not." He murmured. She looked at him with eyes as guileless as a child's, her gaze clouded with confusion.
"What's wrong?" she asked. "Why do you not wish to kiss me, Huntsman? Is it that the memory of your wife is still too raw?"
She had thrown him a life raft to cling to, an excuse to hold between them, and one that was not without some shred of merit. But he would not lie to her, or hide behind false rationalizations. She deserved his honesty at least.
"My Queen," he said roughly, "I would worship you. I would gladly take you in my arms, and hold you safe, and honor every part of your body. I would devote myself to you and to your pleasure. And I would be your man completely, I would deny you nothing. But I fear that if I were ever to allow myself to do so, I might not stop. And I do not believe that such things are truly what you desire of me this night."
She shook her head at that. "Yet would you deny me a sound night's sleep with the man I trust to protect me by my side?" she asked archly.
She had him there.
"No, Milady. If you truly wish to pass the night here, I would not refuse you."
"Good." She said decidedly, with a hint of a smile. "Then would you help me with my gown?" She turned so he could access the elaborate network of laces that held the heavy fabric in place. He attempted to set aside his misgivings and reached to do as he was bid, loosening the laces enough that the gown would eventually slip down her slender frame and pool at her feet. His knuckles brushed against her sides with every pull, and in his hyperaware state, he could feel the heat that radiated from her body even through the thick velvet. With gentle hands, he pushed the gown off her shoulders, palms grazing the sharp bones through her shift.
She turned to face him, and was the one who was left breathless. The garment was undeniably modest-she was still covered from shoulder to ankle, and the fabric was not sheer by any means. The first time he had undressed Sara, on their wedding night, she had worn a shift so thin he could see her nipples through it. This garment was not designed in such a way as to be provocative. Nonetheless, he found himself aroused as he had been on his wedding night. Seeing her even like this was an intimacy which he would never have dreamed of being allowed. She reached for the metal hooks that fasten his vest. Beneath the it, the top three buttons of his shirt were left undone. She laid her fingers against his bare skin. He felt them burn like a brand.
"You are wise, Huntsman, to know that my wish tonight is only for a restful night's sleep. Yet know this also- there will be a time when I will hold you to everything that you have promised, and you need not fear stopping because I will not ask it of you."
He searched her eyes for a moment. She meant it, that much was plain. Although she has little notion of what it is she promised, she meant to have him some day. If he has as much honor as he thinks he does, he will be long gone by the time that day arrives.
"It is late." He said, shucking off his vest and carefully not responding to her remark. "We should sleep."
He steered her toward the bed, not bothering to undress further. Although he did not typically sleep in his breeches unless he was out hunting and tracking in the woods, it seemed prudent to leave them on tonight.
He was glad of that decision a few moments later, when she made it clear that she intended for them to share his bed. It was a tortuous pleasure to lay there with her in front of him, her back nestled against his chest, her body pressed to his from head to toe. He pulled the coverlet over them both and prayed that she did not shift too much during the night. His control had its limits. He blew out the candle, plunging them into darkness. Several minutes passed, and then she spoke.
"You plan on leaving, don't you?" she asked him softly. He waited a long moment before answering.
"I thought so. All of your belongings are packed."
"I don't need much, and I travel frequently. I am rarely unpacked," he said wryly.
"But you still mean to leave. Why is that?"
"What is there for me here, Princess? I have served my purpose. I returned you to your people, I have ridden at your side and fought to return you to your kingdom and your throne. What further need could you have of me? My usefulness to you seems at and end, and I have never been one for idle contentment. If I do not fill a purpose in one place, I move on to seek it in another."
"Would you stay?" she asked quietly. "If I had need of you? Now that I am Queen, I will require many people on my Council to advise me in the matters of my kingdom. There are all manner of loyal lords and political advisors. But there are precious few that I know and trust. Would you stay, and be a counselor to me? My loyal Huntsman?"
He hesitated uncomfortably. "If you will it of me, Milady." He felt her shake her head upon the pillow.
"I would have you will it of yourself."
"Then I do not know if I can promise it."
"That is fair, Huntsman" she said sleepily. "I will honor whatever decision you make."