Eric had had faced enough days through the fluid haze of intoxication to know that while the first drink might chase away his demons, the fifth would only multiply them. He didn't relish the idea of stumbling drunkenly up the stairs at the end of the night, nor did he desire the throbbing temples and muddled head that the morning would bring if he kept up his pace, so after the fourth whiskey, he switched to ale.
He nursed it slowly, watching as the tavern filled and the low hum of voices rose to a steady buzz that thrummed through the place. After darkness fell and the lanterns were lit, a couple of men shoved in through the door and threaded their way through the crowd to stand along the long step before the window. One waved his hand to Kane, and the broad-shouldered man returned the gesture cheerfully.
Thus encouraged, the lean, gangly man broke into a wide grin and reached into the bag he carried for a bodrahn drum. A moment later the other lads with him pulled out a tin whistle, a box fiddle, and a set of wooden bones. The drummer laid out a rolling beat and was joined a moment later by the fiddle player drawing his box over the strings. Within seconds, the taproom was filled with the wild and raucous strains of music as the men moved from the jig into a series of bawdy songs, from Three Drunken Maidens to The Lusty Young Smith.
A few of the verses differed slightly from what he was familiar with, but the tunes were the same, and the shouted choruses were similar enough that he was moved on occasion to join in the chant with the rest of the patrons. He could almost forget, in hubbub, the ale, and the music, what an unfortunate turn his relationship with the Queen had taken.
The respite was a needed one. He was tired of fighting her and fighting with her, and all that paled in comparison to how tired he was of fighting himself. A part of him wondered, not for the first time, what worth it was to uphold his moral stance. Few expected it of him, and his stubbornness on the issue was straining his relationship with Snow. Yet that strength of conviction was not something he could lightly put aside. Sick of ruminating on his woes, he turned back to the bar and ordered another tankard of ale. He watched over the rim as several patrons shoved their tables back to create room to dance, stomping feet and swinging around in time to the music. Despite himself, he felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth in response to the spectacle. It was why he didn't notice immediately that something was wrong.
Snow woke from her cramped position curled against the wardrobe to find that the room was cloaked in darkness. A very little amount of light filtered up from the braziers burning on the street below, allowing her to see the outline of the room's unfamiliar furnishings. It helped her to get her bearings, to remember where she was, and why she was alone. Why Eric was not with her.
Noise trickled up from the tavern below- the strains of music, along with chuckles of laughter and the hum of singing. There was also the fain scent of cooking food that made her stomach rumble. It had been several hours since she had last eaten. It must also have been several hours since Eric had left. She didn't know where he had gone, and she worried that he had not returned to her. Despite what she had said, and how angry it had made him, she hadn't really considered that he would abandon her. He had left his pack on the floor after all, so he intended to return. She would talk to him then, apologize for the ugly thing she had suggested and try to mend what was between them.
Unless… A horrible thought crossed her mind and sent her scrambling across the floorboards, groping in the darkness to make certain that his pack was still there, that he had not returned while she slept exhausted from tears and frustration to truly abandon her. Her fingers closed around a strap of worn leather, and the panic receded, leaving her able to attempt to think rationally again. He had not left, but he was not here, which left two possibilities. Either he was still out there, angry with her and unwilling to return, for which she could hardly blame him, or he had run into trouble of some sort and been detained. She didn't want to think too closely on what meaning "detained" could have.
She stood and straightened her tunic, then combed her hair back from her face and squared her shoulders. She was hungry, and did not relish the thought of remaining locked away in a small room at the top of a building as the night grew deeper. Quite apart from being the monarch of this realm, she needed no one's permission to make her way down to the taproom, purchase a meat pie, and listen to the music. Eric would not like the fact that she went without an escort to watch her back, but then he was the one who had left in a rage, not she, and she was not about to sit quietly in a room dependent and waiting for a man to come back and protect her. She had spent too much time waiting already.
Her resolve faltered somewhat when she reached the top of the final set of stairs. The noise level had grown to a dull roar of conversation, music, and singing. There were more people her than she had anticipated, and she slowed her pace, surveying the room as she made her way down the steps. Men were crowded into nearly every available corner, filling all the tables and standing in bunches in them corners and leaning against the walls. Most clutched tankards in their hands. She paused on the bottom step where she still had enough of a vantage point to see above the crowd and scanned the sea of faces on the chance that Eric's might be among them, but none looked familiar. That did not mean that none looked with familiarly, however. A table of rather rough-looking men beside her had noticed her presence, and were nudging each other and nodding at her, making comments that she was thankful she could not hear. The swarthiest of them was looking at her in a way that suggested he was envisioning her without her clothing, and she squirmed a bit. There was a distinct difference between the hint of that desire in her Huntsman's eyes, where it was often mixed with reverence, and the forward, insistent gaze of this stranger. She tried to tell herself that he was her subject, and she should not feel this twist of unease that bordered on revulsion, but she was still eager to move away and distance herself in the crowd.
She turned, but her path was blocked by the press of bodies, and she found that she had nowhere to move. At the same moment, she felt a hand clamp down on her shoulder.
"Well what do we have here?" a rough voice ground out as a wash of stale breath assaulted her nostrils. "Where are you off to in such a hurry, little lady? Stay and have a drink with us." She found herself hauled back into the man's grasp. She stumbled, and he took the opportunity to drag her into his lap, trapping her against him with one bear-like arm. This close, he smelled even worse, as though he'd neglected to bathe for a month. She struggled to pull away from him, but he just laughed and tightened his hold.
"She don't look much like a lady, Sloan." put in the pimply-faced young man across the table. "She looks like she forgot she's a girl and got dressed like a man instead." Snow glared at the smirking man, which only caused his grin to widen.
"Oh, she's a girl, alright." Sloan answered. He brought his hand up to her chest and squeezed. "She ain't got much in the way of tits, but she does got 'em!" he declared. Her stomach twisted in revulsion even as she felt her heart begin to pound as rapidly as a rabbit's. She fought harder, trying to twist away from the burly bulk of her captor, but it only made Sloan chortle. "I think she likes me too!" he boasted, "wriggling all over like a little tease." He grabbed her hand, forcing it behind her back and down to press against his trousers. "See what you do to me, girl." he growled in her ear. "You're a right vixen, you are. But you'll learn your place by the time I'm done with you." With that he stood, dragging her with him and muttering something under hid breath about privacy.
Snow could feel a scream building in her throat. Desperately, she tried to come up with a plan, but all she could think to do was get away. Bracing herself for the unpleasantness, she opened her mouth and bit down hard on Sloan's arm. She heard him yell in surprise and tasted the coppery tang of blood even as he pulled his arm back. She took advantage of his surprise to wrench free of him, spinning out of his grasp. Her hip collided with the table, causing the tankards of ale to slosh alarmingly. The other men shouted out in indignation, but it gave her an idea. She snatched the nearest tankard and whipped it at Sloan's head. The tankard collided with his chin, splashing ale into his eyes and down his torso, soaking his beard and tunic. He swore, and his eyes took on a murderous gleam.
"You're going to regret that, bitch." he promised, advancing toward her. "I'm going to make you pay." Snow searched frantically for an escape route, a place to duck through the crowd and make it to safety, but they had drawn the attention of the tavern's patrons, and between Sloan's friends attempting to box her in and the way the crowd had gathered around to see what the commotion was about, she was trapped in a circle of human bodies with nowhere to turn.
Eric wasn't sure what it was, but something was troubling him. Some shift in the crowd, some change in tone too subtle to be immediately recognized set his senses on alert and had him setting his drink down on the worn and polished bar. He scanned the room, trying to figure out what it was that seemed off. There was some sort of commotion brewing across the room, near the stairs. A patron getting too handsy with a kitchen girl, most like. Still, he squinted around the press of bodies, oddly disquieted. He saw a tankard go flying, colliding with a witless brute of a man and dousing him with ale, then a flash of long black hair. He was off his stool and shouldering his way through the crowd before he even had time to realize what he was doing. The only thought on his mind was Snow, never mind that she should still be safely ensconced in the room where he had left her.
He wanted to be wrong, but he was far from surprised that he wasn't. He could see her as he got closer, backing away from the ale-dripping oaf, her expression as fierce as a hell-cat's even as she found herself trapped between the man and his friends who were about to join the fray. The big man was growling out a promise to make her pay and charging toward her. Eric reacted without thinking, shoving his way past the bystanders and placing himself between the Queen and her attacker. He caught the man's chest with his shoulder, checking his advance and turning his attentions away from Snow. The oaf's lip curled in disbelief that gave way to anger.
"Out of my way!" he roared. Eric stood his ground, raising his eyebrows skeptically.
"So you can pound the lady to a pulp with your bare fists?" he challenged.
"She attacked me!" the oaf protested.
"Aye, I'm sure that's the way of it." Eric said easily, in a tone that suggested that he did not in fact agree at all. "The wee little thing there attacked you out of the blue without the slightest provocation, and you're just about to defend yourself against her, is that it?" The oaf's eyes narrowed. He seemed to suspect that he was being mocked, but was not entirely certain. Determining that the assessment of the situation was requiring too much thought for an inebriated mind, the larger man gave up the struggle and simply swung one meaty fist in a wide arc toward Eric's head. The Huntsman ducked aside, avoiding the blow with ease- though not as much as he would have liked. His mind focused as usual with the prospect of a fight, but he found his reaction time to be considerably dulled by the spirits he had consumed.
He blocked the next punch with his forearm, spinning his opponent off balance and into a nearby table. The man went down, taking the table with him. The watching crowd broke into a chorus of laughter, and Eric watched as the man's face grew redder and redder. He scrambled to his feet, flustered and clearly ignoring any voice of reason that might be suggesting he ought to back away and not continue to pick a fight with a more skilled and sober opponent. Eric shook his head slowly, bracing himself for the combat even as he welcomed it. Fighting was simple- clear, direct, and reliable- everything that his life had ceased to be in recent months. His opponent lunged toward him again, and the contest was on.
They traded blows back and forth, Eric landing far more than he received, although every smash of the bulky man's fist was like being battered by tree trunks. He tasted blood in his mouth where his teeth had cut into his lip when he took a hit to the jaw, and one fist to his midsection had forced him to stumble back for a few seconds, gasping for the air that had been knocked out of his lungs, but he was still clearly going to emerge the victor. The other man had a swollen eye, a split lip, and a cut on his brow that was dripping blood into his other eye, causing him to blink frantically; He was also staggering and weaving, barely able to muster himself for another blow. They regarded each other warily across the circle of cleared floor, circling hesitantly. The man's friends were cheering and egging him on with cries of "Pummel him, Sloane!" and " Break his pretty face!" Eric surmised that his opponent was, in fact, Sloane, and decided to test the theory.
"Give it up, Sloane," he warned, "Let it rest, apologize to the lady, and I'll buy you a pint. Don't, and you'll find yourself regretting it." He hoped to appeal to the man's sense of reason, but it was clearly the wrong thing to suggest. Sloane, still glowering spit contemptuously on the floorboards and took a staggering step forward. Behind his shoulder, Eric could see Snow watching earnestly, worrying her bottom lip and trying to ease her way back toward the staircase without attracting unnecessary attention. As he watched, however, another man-probably one of Sloane's party if his sooty, slovenly dress was any indication- snatched her by the wrist, halting her escape.
"Not so fast, girlie." The pimply young man said, although he was probably not even a day over sixteen himself, "You're not going anywhere." Snow's eyes flashed, and Eric couldn't help but pity the boy for what was coming. It was not some helpless, simpering maiden that he had caught, but a warrior queen. While she might not have been able to overtake a hulking brute like Sloane, she was more than enough of a match for the sleight, malnourished inebriate.
Sure enough, she twisted her arm free like he'd shown her, then surprised the boy by stepping closer and driving her elbow into his gut. He doubled over in a mixture of pain and shock, giving her the opportunity to ram her knee between his legs. He fell to the floor, and she stepped neatly away from him. Her gaze snagged upon his as she glanced around, and he nodded his approval. A smile flickered at the corner of her lips, then shifted to an expression of horror.
Belatedly, he realized that he had not been paying close enough attention to Sloane. He looked back now and saw that the man had not only collected himself, but was nearly upon him. He caught a flash of light glinting off dull metal, and even as he dodged aside, he understood the fear that he had seen in Snow's eyes- Sloane had changed the stakes and drawn a knife. In the second that he made the realization, he felt the cold shock of pain piercing his shoulder that let him know he had not dodged fast or far enough to avoid the blade. The shooting pain came a second later, lancing through his body like a strike of lightning. Eric clutched at the wound reflexively before forcing himself to focus. His hand came away red with blood, which did not bode well.
Sloane might not have been the most skilled in hand to hand combat, but someone had taught him to wield a blade. More likely than not, he had served as a foot soldier in the wars. If that was the case, the fact that he had returned alive bespoke his skill. Normally, Eric would still have had the advantage, but injured, with his left arm growing more useless by the second, Sloane obviously had the upper hand. The predatory grin that split the Sloane's face showed the big man knew it as well.
Thinking quickly despite the fog of pain, Eric reached surreptitiously for one of his own knives and pulled it free of its sheath, holding himself on his knee to try and make himself appear more incapacitated than he was, biding his time and letting Sloane draw closer. When he was less than a pace away, Eric sprang up into him, taking him by surprise and knocking the knife out of his grasp. It skittered across the floorboards, safely out of reach. Sloane cursed and swung his fist again, aiming for the side that Eric could not block effectively. The blow glanced across his jaw, causing him to stumble and wince. He stayed upright, however, and wheeled to face his attacker. He blocked the next blow with his good arm and spun, laying his blade along Sloane's throat.
"We end this. Now." He growled, and after a long moment, Sloane gave a grudging, almost imperceptible nod. Eric was about to lower the knife and step back when a shaky voice called out,
"Back away, and nobody gets hurt." Eric cast his eyes around, looking for where the call had come from. When he located the speaker, his heart sank. The other of Sloane's friends stood with his arm wrapped tightly around Snow, pinning her arms to her sides. The knife in his other hand, which looked to be the blade he had forced away from Sloane, was laid across the pale column of Snow's throat, its blade depressing her pale skin. Her chin was tilted up in an effort to avoid the sting of the blade, and she remained otherwise utterly still. It did little good, however. The man's hand was trembling slightly, and Eric could see the blade biting deeper, slicing open her skin and causing bright red blood to well against the silver knife blade and trickle down her slender neck.
It set his own blood boiling. He could afford to be cautious no longer. His Queen was in imminent danger, and he was wounded and already less able to defend her than he should have been. He had been derelict in his duty, had left her alone to drown his own sorrows, and now she was in danger, at risk of being killed by some run-of-the-mill thug who had no idea the prize he had pinned in his arms.
He forced own pain and muddled head away and swung his fist at Sloane's temple, clocking him solidly with the added weight of the knife hilt. The big man's eyes rolled back and he slid to the floor. Eric honestly didn't care if the blow had rendered him unconscious or dead. He focused instead on the man restraining Snow. This one had probably never been a soldier- his trembling hand aside, he left too much of his body exposed beyond his human shield to have been trained in this. Hardly pausing, Eric balanced the knife in his fingers, sighted, and flung it at Snow's captor, praying that he would not miss. The sharp, sudden movement sent a searing pain through his injured arm, and for a second his vision clouded black. As it cleared again, he saw that his aim had been true, and that his knife had buried itself just below the man's collar bone. He lay gasping on the floor, clutching feebly at it, and Snow was free of him. In typical fashion, she then dropped to her knees beside him, pulling the blade from his body and pressing the handkerchief he'd been wearing around his wrist to the wound to staunch the bleeding. The wound bled, but not profusely. Eric's knife had missed the major arteries, and he would probably live, though he was unlikely to enjoy the next several days. Eric had difficulty mustering any pity for him though.
At that moment, Kane came bursting through the circle of bystanders, calling out in a commanding tone for the fighting to come to a halt.
"You," he said brusquely, seizing Eric by his uninjured shoulder, "and you." He gestured to Snow, "Out. Let's go." Snow cast one troubled look back at the men on the floor as she complied. Kane propelled them through the crowd and toward the back of the tavern, shouldering open the wooden door at the end of the bar and forcing them out into the chill of the night. He slammed the door behind them. As soon as it closed, his fierce scowl dropped.
"I'm sorry for that," He told them, releasing his grip in Eric's shirt, "And sorrier still for what I'm about to tell you." He shook his head. "You can't stay here. With the hysteria that'll be brewing in there, it won't be safe, for one. Sloane and his gang aren't well liked in this town, but they're not without their allies- and some of those allies are part of the town guard. It's a fair bet that somebody's already gone running for them." He paused. "For another thing, you're injured, and you'll be needing to have that looked at." He gestured to Eric's arm, which was already soaked red with blood.
"I'll be fine." Eric protested reflexively, although he privately acknowledged that something felt off. He was too woozy and his arm was too numb for the amount of blood that he had lost, even when factoring in the amount of ale and spirits he had consumed. Kane just quirked an eyebrow.
"Sloane was never a kind man, but he came back from the wars far more twisted than when he left. At least so I'm told." Kane offered. "I only came here after the wars ended, of course, but he's often spoken of. He's been known to coat his hunting arrows with a substance that keeps the blood from coagulating and causes the animal to become weak and sick as he tracks it through the forest. He kills for sport and for pelts, and rarely for food. I heard it rumored that he uses the same substance on his hunting blades. If he does, and that was the blade he cut you with, you won't likely be conscious much longer."
"It's possible." Eric acknowledged, and Kane nodded. Snow looked at him, and the worry and fear that writ across her face twisted in his gut as painfully as the wound in his shoulder.
"Right, then." Kane agreed. "You can't go to the apothecary- he'll be called to see to the men you've left bloodied in my tavern, and if you try to see him too, you'll be taken in for questioning, like as not. Being as you're strangers here, that's not likely to go well for you. You need to find Maddie. She's an herb woman who lives on the outskirts of the village, and she'll likely be able to fix him up. She's wary, but tell her I sent you, and she won't turn you away. Barth is bringing your horses around, and he or I will bring your belongings by as soon as it's quieted down enough to slip away. Now here's what you need to do…"
Eric realized in sort of an academic way that Kane had ceased talking to him, and was addressing Snow almost exclusively. He felt like that should bother him in some capacity, but he couldn't for the life of him figure out why that should be. He was tired, he realized, so tired that he was leaning against the wall for support. Maybe that was why he wasn't concerned. He was too tired to be per…perter…worried.
He blinked, and Bast appeared with their horses. He mounted his at Kane's urging, and not without some effort, forcing himself to remember why they needed to be riding horses at all when they had paid for nice, warm beds upstairs. He glanced down at his arm, and the blood there, and realization jolted through him. He was injured. They were seeking out the witch-woman. Herb woman. But, he thought muddily, he didn't need to see her because his arm didn't hurt- not badly, at least. It throbbed steadily, but the pain was numbed, muffled, almost, and he'd rather sleep than go riding in the dead of night.
He saw Snow mount up ahead of him, and gathered the reins in his nerveless fingers. It didn't matter what he would prefer. She was riding, and so he had to stay with her, had to protect her. He forced his eyes open and nudged the horse with his heels, setting off after her into the night.