Waking was a struggle akin to extricating oneself from a bog; every time he thought he had mustered the will to open his eyes, he found instead that he would sink back into unconsciousness. When he finally wrenched his eyelids apart, he was immediately struck by the unfamiliarity of his surroundings.
He lay on a narrow bed beside a small window. The curtain were drawn so he could not see outside, but the way the light filtered through them made him think it was past midday. The white blankets drawn over him were heavy soft wool, unlike the coarse brown blankets that comprised his bedroll. It was a better bed than he had slept in since leaving the castle, and for that matter, better than he had known throughout most of his life.
He struggled to piece together what had happened. He remembered the tavern and the argument with Snow, then heading to the taproom to drown his rage in drink, and inserting himself into the fight with the brute who threatened her, but after that, everything became oddly blurred. As he floated fitfully into full consciousness, he noticed that his left shoulder felt stiff and throbbed with a dull pain. The pain grew sharper as he tried to move it, and the memory of the fight, Sloane, and blade in his shoulder came flooding back. Gingerly, he used his right arm to pull back the cover and discovered two things. The first was that his shoulder had been tended to, and was now neatly poulticed and bandaged with strips of clean white linen; the second was that his shirt and indeed, much of his clothing in general, was conspicuously missing.
He cast his eyes around the room. It was narrow, and sparsely furnished, though the small space made it appear cramped nonetheless. A worn wooden worktable took up most of the wall opposite the bed, and the shelves above it were crammed with glass vials, wooden boxes, clay jars, and cloth-wrapped bundles. Bunches of dried herbs hung from the ceiling, giving the air a subtly pleasant scent. The only other furniture was a small wooden stand beside the bed, and a single spindly chair near the door. The door itself was partially open, and through it he could glimpse another room and the corner of a fieldstone fireplace with flames burning low in the grate.
He heard footsteps, and the door opened creaked open further to reveal Snow. It took him a second to reconcile the image of her, as she was dressed quite simply in her shift and a borrowed skirt of dark brown cloth. Her hair was tied back in a braid, though wisps and tendrils of hair had begun to escape its confinement. She looked weary, and was carrying a bundle of herbs in her arms, but her eyes lit up when she saw him, chasing the exhaustion away.
"You're awake!" she exclaimed, hurrying to deposit the basin on the counter. He nodded, and found that his head felt oddly heavy. "I was so worried," she breathed.
"How long was I asleep?" He made a move to sit up, but she pressed him back lightly with the flat of her hand. She smelled of lavendar and chamomile.
"It's been four days since we left the Wayfinder." She told him. "Do you… recall what happened?"
Eric nodded slowly.
"I think so. There was a fight. At the Inn. I was injured."
"You were stabbed." She clarified. "Do you remember afterwards, outside the Inn, with Kane? When he told us that Sloane poisons his weapons? And about the herb woman who we should go to for help?"
"Only vaguely," he admitted after a moment's attempt at recollection. "I suppose that's where we are now, then?" He cast his eyes around at the dried herbs again, the pieces of information beginning to click together like a puzzle. Snow nodded.
"It took us such a long time to get here in the dark, and by the time we arrived you were practically falling from the saddle. Maddie treated you, but… she was doubtful that you'd live.
"It was that bad, then?" he said, forcing amusement into his tone, but his humor died when he saw the way she looked at him, the worry in her eyes edged with fear.
"It was worse."
"Aye, well, I'm too stubborn to die," he promised her gently.
"I'm thankful for that," she told him, and he felt her fingers slide into his with a gentle squeeze. "I could not bear to lose you."
"It would take more than a lout with a rusty knife to make me leave your side," He vowed. She shook her head.
"I meant before that too. Our argument. The things that I said… I wish I could take them back. I thought so many times as you were lying here that I would recant everything I'd said that night if you would just open your eyes and be alright." Her eyes glittered with unshed tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks, but she dashed them away with the back of her hand.
"There's no need for tears, then," he protested somewhat awkwardly, but his pronouncement had little effect.
"You almost died," she whispered, her anguish now more apparent. "For days you've ben lingering at Death's door, and I've been left with the thought that the last words we'd had between us were spoken in anger. That you might never wake and I might never get to tell you how sorry I am for what I said."
"It doesn't matter. None of it matters." he assured her. "You're safe, and unharmed, and that's all that's important,". Something about her shifted subtly at this pronouncement, and she withdrew her hand from his.
"Do you truly believe that? Can you really lie there and say that your life has such little value?" she demanded incredulously. "I nearly lost you. Do you have any idea what that would do to me?"
"Do you have any idea what it would do to me if something happened to you? What would happen to the Kingdom?" he shot back, his eyes fever-bright. His head had begun to pound, and he found himself exhausted. His patience was thin as a gnat's wing. "I would gladly give my life for yours. It's your duty to accept that truth." She stared back at him, fuming.
"I see. You would give me your life, but just not your heart." She said flatly. "Despite the fact that I would hand you mine without hesitation."
"I have never asked that of you, Milady. I would have no right." He said carefully. She shook her head.
"You never needed to ask." She said, her voice sad and faraway. She turned from him then, lips pressed tightly together, and busied herself sorting the herbs that she had brought.
"I mended your shirt," she told him stiffly after a moment, and there was a distinct edge to her voice. "While I was sitting here beside you, tending to your ills and willing that you might live. I managed to get the blood out of it too. It's over there, if you want it." She brushed her hands on her skirt and gestured to the back wall. "I'll find Maddie to check on you now." And with that, she slipped out of the room, hesitating at the doorway, but never looking back.
The door opened a moment later, and he hoped that it was Snow, but the tall, physically impressive women that appeared was every bit Snow's opposite in appearance. This, he surmised, must be Maddie.
He found as they talked that despite her sometimes tough exterior, he rather liked the herb woman. He was not one to be poked and prodded and coddled, and she seemed to know it, telling him frankly that he could attempt to get out of bed the following morning, and not a moment before- and that if he disobeyed her, she would drug him and put him back to bed. She seemed satisfied with the progress of the healing in his shoulder, and the fact that his fever was nearly gone.
She allowed him to struggle into a sitting position of his own accord, deftly positioning the pillows so that he was propped against them, and forced a mug of fever tea into his hands, telling him to drink. After that, she allowed him a bit of broth and a heal of plain bread to appease the rumblings of his stomach, with the promise that she would bring him dinner when it was made.
She even sensed his curiosity and cleverly worked into their conversation how dedicated Snow had been to caring for him while he lay insensate, sitting by his bedside, feeding him broths and teas drop by drop so he did not choke, and even learning and gathering the herbs and plants that Maddie required to treat him. He was not inclined to speak of it, but he was deeply humbled by the idea of her caring for him herself. It put him to thinking of the time that he had injured his leg during a trip to the forest and had limped home to Sara, who had cared from him with such tenderness that he had fallen in love with her all over again. It never ceased to amaze him how two women, so very different from one another, could hold such sway on his heart. Not for the first time, he wished that he were able to act upon the feelings he had for Snow, that any sort for future might exist for them. It made his head hurt to think on the impossibility, and begging fatigue, he allowed himself to slip back into the oblivion of sleep.
He dreamed of her, hair loose about her face, in a mountain meadow. She was picking flowers from the field and laughing as the wind tossed her hair into her eyes. There were young children there- a blonde boy and a darker-haired girl, both with hair like silk and eyes the color of the changing sea who played beside her, their hands clasped together as they spun around and collapsed in a giggling heap. There was a cottage behind them, made entirely of stone, with a chimney that sent a stream of smoke into the air and a positively giddy red setter who came bounding through the door to join in the revelry, barking and sniffing enthusiastically at the children who reached to tangle their hands in his silky coat. The scene was pastoral, and perfect, and left a feeling of rightness in his heart. He woke later with the image graven into his mind and an overwhelming sense of sorrow that it had not been real.
Snow did not return to the work room the rest of the day. Instead, she distracted herself with the tasks Maddie had taught her to keep her hands busy and her heart from despair in the days while the Hunstman lay fighting for life in the other room. She swept the floors of the cottage, and the hearth as well, and even did the wash, scrubbing the sheets and bandages clean first in cold water and then in boiling hot water before hanging them to dry. She helped Maddie to cook a light stew, but refused to take the bowl in to Eric. At that, Maddie, who had carefully ignored the change in Snow's attentions, had raised her eyebrows and asked mildly, "Lover's spat?"
"We're not lovers." Snow said in a voice as dark as her own hair, thunking the ladle into the pot with such force that stew threatened to slosh over the sides.
"Shows what you know," Maddie murmured just loud enough for her to hear as she headed toward the work room door.
Snow retired early, and tossed and turned fitfully throughout the night, her mind churning with thoughts and affording her little rest. She was angry, to be sure. Angry at him for his stubbornness, and angry at herself for holding out such hope even when she knew it to be foolish.
The thing was though, that she knew he loved her, and loved her as more than a subject adores his queen- he had shown her, in their most unguarded moments, that he loved her- coveted her- as a man loves a woman.
If only she could convince him that such a thing was acceptable. But it was foolish, she knew. The court would not readily accept him a suitor, and to act as freely as she desired would cause problems in the future. She had always read in in her little-girl stories that when two people loved one another, they confessed it, and married each other, and lived happily ever after. Yet marriage was far from a realistic hope for them. That much she was forced to concede. She was the Queen, but she had little power to decide who she would wed. That decision would be made by her council, and she would be expected to accept the decision with dignity and grace. A future between her and the Huntsman was, indeed, impossible; though that fact did nothing to ease the anguish in her heart.
Surely, her mind teased her, there must be some other solution than to pretend that there was nothing between them but monarchical devotion. The pretense was as false as any lie, and was tearing them both apart.
It was shocking to realize what an impact four days of unconsciousness had wreaked upon his body. Eric felt slow, clumsy, and undeniably weak in the morning when he dragged himself out of the bed. His muscles protested against the sudden effort, but he ignored them and took a few steps, finding his balance even as he kept his injured arm hugged tight to his side. It took a moment, but he was soon pacing back and forth across the room without much difficulty, though the exertion took a toll. When Maddie entered the room, she seemed both pleased and perturbed to see him standing on his own feet.
"Sit." She directed, pointing him to the chair and trying to look severe. He grinned and obliged, allowing her to remove the dressing and check his stitches, wincing occasionally as she pressed her fingers to his skin and hummed a sound of approval. "It's healing well." She declared. "How are you feeling?"
"Like a wobbly kitten." He admitted grudgingly. "But that will pass."
"You speak from experience." Maddie observed, her dark eyes flashing to his other scars.
"It's not my first knife fight, no." he said wryly. "I'll be fine. Though I wouldn't mind the chance to bathe."
"I'll haggle with you." Maddie offered. "I'll haul and heat enough water for a bath if you promise to rest for at least an hour afterward.
"Sold." He agreed, offering his good hand out to shake. It was more than a fair deal- he could already feel the weariness tugging at him dragging him into exhaustion. It was too good a deal, really. He told Maddie as much, and she broke into a rare grin.
"Having you bathe, Hunstman, is an act for the public good, and I come out ahead. You need a wash, but I am not fond of giving sponge baths- not even for fine specimens of masculinity such as yourself."
"You wound me, Maddie." He told her with mock seriousness. She snorted with amusement.
"It's a good thing I can stitch you up again then isn't it?" she queried, ducking through doorway with a final flash of her grin.
He spent the time that it took to bring the water stretching and forcing his muscles into wakefulness. The heat of the water then was welcome, and by the time he was truly clean, he felt nearly his old self again. His shoulder was the exception- it was a painful struggle to drag his shirt over the wounded arm, but he managed well enough, gritting his teeth against the pain. Once he was clothed, he fastened the length of cloth that Maddie had left into a sling for his arm, then settled back into his bed and closed his eyes for a much needed rest. An hour nap turned into two hours, and then three, but he awoke feeling refreshed and almost restless.
The wooziness that had plagued him earlier was gone, and though he knew better than to do anything too strenuous, he craved activity. He found Snow in the main room of the cottage, feeding split logs into the fire. The surprise of seeing him showed in her eyes, though her expression was otherwise perfectly arranged. She had her Queenly face on, and few would have noted the flash of uncertainty that greeted him. There was great potential for the moment to stretch out into stilted discomfort, which he desired to avoid. To that end, he spoke quickly, disrupting the silence.
"I was about to go for a walk." He offered. "Would you care to join me?" For a second, he thought she meant to decline; she in fact turned her head as though to refuse, but she hesitated, then nodded instead.
"Of course." She agreed courteously, dusting her hands on her skirt and turning toward the door.
Outside, the sky was overcast, and the air had taken on a chill. Bathing in a woodland pool would have little appeal on a day like today. Still, to be outdoors and feel the air in his lungs was a welcome change. He appreciated the coziness of a well built home, and even the grandeur of the royal palace, but he had never been one to suffer being cooped up well. It made him feel more grounded and more himself to be out in nature, hearing the susurration of the wind whispering in the trees and the sound of distant bird calls.
There was a clearing around the cottage, which allowed for light even on a cloudy day, and forest around them was new- growth of less than forty years, he judged absently. It made sense, of much of the timber in this part of the kingdom had been felled to build ships for the Royal Navy during King Rowland's War.
A think blanket of fallen leaves covered the ground, rustling as they walked. For long moments, it was the only sound between them. Several times, Eric opened his mouth to speak and shut it again, unable to find the right words to say. Finally, he settled on an expression of gratitude.
"Thank you," he said. "For all that you did to care for me. Maddie has told me how close a thing it truly was."
"There is no need for thanks," Snow replied honestly. "I would gladly do it all again and more if it meant that your life would be saved. My actions were purely selfish. I do not know how I would live in this world without you."
"I am grateful nonetheless." He told her gravely. "It is no small thing for a Queen to act a nursemaid, a task so unquestionably below your station. I am much indebted to you."
"It is never below a Queen to care for her subjects." Snow commented sharply. They walked in silence then for a moment, letting the sound of the leaves crunching beneath their feet fill the void. He did not know what he could say, or what he could do that would put them on firmer ground. He wished he knew what words she needed to hear Without warning, Snow stepped out in front of him and turned, bringing them both to a halt.
"It will always be between us, won't it?" She demanded. "The fact of my monarchy. Even when we stand alone together in a room, it will always be the third presence, won't it?"
"I don't see how it can be otherwise," he admitted after a second's pause, choosing not to pretend that he did not take her meaning. And that was the crux of it. Though it was not something spoken of explicitly, they had reached a point where duty and honor stood in the way of happiness. He felt that he no longer knew his own mind, so torn was he between the conflicting forces of his heart and his honor. "It is not a thing that we can just ignore. It will always loom before us, the fact that you are the Queen, and I am your loyal and humble servant, even raised from the rank of Peasant to that of Lord. Our feelings do not enter into it. There will never be a time when we are free to act without the scrutiny of the Court and the Kingdom, when we are able to explore what mere devotion might have a chance to become between us."
"There is now." She offered matter-of-factly. "There is no Court or Council to scrutinize us on this journey."
The world seemed to halt in the space of a breath. He searched her green eyes, earnest and eager, wide with the audacity of what she proposed. His heart leapt, but forced himself to project an air of calm.
"Could you do that?" he pressed her. "Could you be content with stolen moments on the road that could never lead to any future, that could not continue once we returned to the Castle? Are you truly able to take that risk, only to return to what we have been in a few short days or weeks?"
She met his gaze levelly.
"Do you recall what you said to me the night you were stabbed, just before you slipped into unconsciousness?" He shook his head warily. "You told me that you would never leave me. And that you loved me. Did you mean it then?"
"Heaven help me, I did." He confessed with resignation. "Though I do not recall uttering the words, I cannot deny the truth of them." Snow nodded.
"Then hear this. I would rather know love for even so brief a time as we might have than live without it and always wonder what it would have been to have had it. I would steal whatever moments I can with you, and treasure them, because I cannot bear the thought of never knowing."
He did not know if he could bear the thought of knowing and then losing her again, but he did not voice this. He was weary of refusing, tired of denying the truth of his heart. He was willing, just this once, to be selfish. And so, as the moment stretched between them, he did not caution her further. And when she stepped toward him, her intent clear in her expression, he did not halt her or protest.
Instead, he bent toward her so she could press her lips to his. This was not a fleeting kiss, nor a chaste, accidental meeting of lips. This was a full commitment. There was controlled desperation between them, and passion which clouded judgment and built as the embrace lasted. He could feel the warmth of it suffuse his limbs. Her hand was on his chest, burning him with the awareness of where her fingers twisted in the cloth of his shirt, and his good arm was wound round her waist, drawing her toward him, pressing their bodies together.
He felt as though he were drowning- drowning in her, but he doubted that a drowning man had ever welcomed his fate as he welcomed this. For the first time, he truly let himself be free to taste her and savor her. He was not fighting his inner voice of reason, or making the most of a moment that was sure to end the second he got his wits about him. When their lips parted and came together again, there was no thought that they must stop before someone saw them or before they carried it too far. There was only the extraordinary bliss of kissing her.
Desperation gave way to exploration, and the discovery that if he kissed her slowly, languidly, drawing the moment out, she melted against him, and that if he pressed her harder again, she responded with increased urgency that sent a thrill through his veins.
It was perfection to forget, just for a moment, that this was forbidden, that it could never be allowed to last. He could pretend that this was simple, just standing here in the woods while the tree sparrows scolded overhead, kissing the girl he had given his heart to entirely, feeling the solidness of her body against his, the realness of her that proved this was not another dream.
He brought his hand up to trace the silky softness of her cheek and tangle in the raven tresses of her hair. He felt her breath catch and his lips stretched into a grin, even as he bent to kiss her again. He never wanted to stop kissing her, which was why, when she wound her arm around his neck, he ignored the painful tug on his shoulder and poured himself deeper into the embrace.
He was not the only one who wished the moment would not end. Every time they pulled themselves back from one another they continued to seek contact; resting their foreheads together and meeting each other eyes, which always seemed to lead to another kiss, and another after that.
"I love you." She whispered him, and he, recklessly emboldened, responded with the same. He cursed the sling that held his injured arm, because it prevented him from cupping her delicate face in his hands and kissing her so thoroughly that she could not doubt the truth of his adoration. He had to settle for showing her with the soft pressure of his lips and the slow sweep of his tongue that he would do anything for her, give anything for her. All but one thing. It sobered him to realize that they must speak of it, and he drew the moment out to avoid the discussion, as intoxicated by her kisses as he had once been with wine.
"There is a limit to this." He told her when had managed to force himself to regain a modicum of reason, though not so much that he was able to make himself step from their embrace. "There must be." He bowed his head, resting it against hers, breathing the same air she breathed.
"I know," she conceded, letting her eyes drift shut as though to shut out the reality that threatened to creep back in. "I know what line it is you will not cross."
"Understand that I do not refuse for lack of desire," He breathed. "The barest hint of your touch sets my blood afire. You undo me utterly." He brushed a strand of hair back from her cheek, tucking it behind her ear, noting how his fingers shook with the gesture. "But there are things which cannot be, no matter how much we might wish for them. I will not concede to bringing shame upon you in the eyes of your Court."
"I know better now than to ask it of you." She vowed. "I hope, though, that you will not hold yourself back from what is between us." She brought her hand up to curl around his wrist. The softness of her skin was like a brand upon his own.
"Shamed though I am to admit it, Milady, I do not think myself capable of refusing you. I have always been yours to command. It is only doubly true now."
Her lips spread in a slow smile, and a hit of mischief sparked in her eye.
"Good." She murmured, tugging him forward by the lacing of his shirt. "Then I command you to kiss me."
"And I find myself utterly incapable of refusing." He replied, even as he bent to capture her lips once more, marveling at the audacity of the action. It was an impossible thing, a commoner loving a Queen, and yet the perfection of this moment was such that he could not question it, nor would he look ahead to the future, and its limit upon their happiness. For now, for as long as possible, they would live the borrowed life they had found. Heaven help them when their time expired, but that was not a thought that he was willing to entertain today. Today, it was enough to be in love, however impossible it seemed.