The dusk had begun to gather by the time they circled back to the herb woman's cottage. The shadows were deeper under the trees, and yet even the encroaching dark could not hide the flush of exhilaration on Snow's cheeks, nor could it disguise tousled hair and kiss-swollen lips. It would be apparent to anyone with half a brain what activity they had been engaged in, and Maddie was an astute woman to begin with. She was unlikely to say anything directly, he supposed, but a raised eyebrow and a knowing smirk were likely inevitable. And yet, he marveled, what difference would it make? She wasn't aware of Snow's true identity. What harm was it if they appeared as two young people in love? Hell, what harm was it if he allowed himself to believe the illusion until they returned to their lives.
The thought was driven from his mind a second later when he felt a prickling down his spine. He'd learned long ago to trust what his senses told him. Something was amiss.
He halted immediately, drawing Snow behind him to shield her as he scanned the cottage yard. It seemed just as they had left it, but his hackles were raised. He spotted the cause on his second scan. There was a horse in the stable that had not been there when they left. It most likely belonged to another patient of Maddie's, and was no true threat to them, yet he was not one to believe that there was such a thing as being too careful. He eased his hunting knife from his belt.
"Stay behind me until we're inside." He instructed in a low, steady voice. She nodded her assent, and they began to move across the yard. They paused in the doorway as he inched the heavy door open, trying to determine who might be within. He smelled chicken roasting, and heard the murmur of voices, but struggled to determine who was within. He inched the crack wider with his knee, the fingers of his good arm flexing around the knife hilt.
Through the larger crack, he could see the shoulder of someone sitting near the fire, and a shock of unmistakable red hair. Kane. His trepidation eased a bit and he slid the knife back into the sheath on his belt. The innkeeper had proven to be a friend to them both in an hour of need, and he had as much trust in the man as it was possible to trust a near stranger. He swung the door open fully, affecting a relaxed air, though in truth his hand never strayed far from the knife hilt.
"Eric." Kane greeted him, climbing to his feet with a grin. "You're looking a bit better than the last time I saw you."
"I suppose I must, as I was in the process of destroying your bar and bleeding all over your inn yard." Eric responded wryly as he accepted Kane's cheerful embrace.
"Thank you for helping us." Snow put in from behind his shoulder. Kane bowed his head to her deferentially.
"My lady. I'm happy to have been of service. But I fear that the danger has not entirely passed."
"That can wait." Maddie interrupted in her even, no-nonsense tone, reaching for the spit with a towel-covered hand, the firelight burnishing her chestnut skin as she leaned toward the crackling glow. "Come in, wash up, and we'll talk about it over our meal."
Dutifully, Snow shut the door behind them, her brow furrowed with concern. As she stepped past him, Eric let his hand rest briefly at the small of her back, offering her reassurance despite his own unease. She led him through the cottage to the room where he had first awakened.
She reached for the pitcher, pouring water into the bowl. As she did so, Eric attempted to lift the sling from about his neck but found himself wincing sharply at the motion. Snow reached to help almost instantly, and he let her, though it irked him not to be able to accomplish such a simple task without aid.
"Something's wrong." Snow whispered, sliding her hands into the chilled water.
"Aye." He murmured, eyeing Kane and Maddie warily through the open doorway. "Something's amiss. We'll know about it soon enough though." He took his turn at the basin, washing perfunctorily and drying his hands on the rough cloth. Snow nodded distractedly, her gaze troubled and fixed on the table where roasted chicken, root vegetables, and a half-loaf of leftover bread had been set out.
"Hey." He said gently, setting his hand on her waist and turning her to face him. Even despite his growing unease in the face of whatever unknown storm was brewing ahead of them, he took a second to appreciate the fact that he could reach for her this way without chastising himself for acting on the urge to comfort her. "It will be alright." He promised. It was a foolish thing to vow, given that the guarantee was not one he could genuinely make, yet it was worth it to see a hint of tension fall from her shoulders and watch her lips curl into a wan smile.
"Well if you say it shall be, it must be so." She mocked him gently, and he was struck again by how she was no mere girl, or sheltered royal. She knew well enough that there was little one man could do to circumvent trouble if it desired to follow them, but she honored his attempt to reassure here even as she derided it. He could not help but shake his head in wonderment as he followed her to the table.
Eric waited until they had all been seated and food was being doled out onto sturdy wooden trenchers before he broached the subject of what lay on all their minds.
"So what is this phantom danger that Maddie is reluctant to have us discuss?" He asked before he filled his mouth with a piece of savory chicken, still steaming from the roasting spit.
"Not reluctant." She corrected, sparing him only the briefest of glances. "Pragmatic. I'll remind you that you're still my patient, no matter how poorly you attempt to execute the role. You require rest to make a full recovery." She fixed him now with a stern glance. He didn't precisely quail from it, but neither did he think it wise to argue, as no test was necessary to prove to him that he was not in peak fighting condition.
"What is this news, then, that will rob us of rest?" Snow asked, worry etched faintly into the lines of her brow. Kane sighed.
"Well, the good news is that Sloan is fully recovered from the brawl you two had and is walking about. You might also consider that the beginning of the bad news."
"What meaning do you have by that?" Eric frowned.
"The friend of his, the one that held the lady here hostage- you remember him?" Kane hefted his mug of Maddie's homemade wine. Eric nodded that he did. It wasn't an image he thought he'd soon forget. "He succumbed to his wounds this morning. Infection, I'm told. In any case, Sloane's out for blood. It turns out that that boy made it into his inner circle because he was courting Sloane's girl-cousin. Sloane has now declared that he's going to kill you or die in the attempt, and he's assembling his entire entourage of disgruntled, feckless blackguards to track you both down and bring you to him. He's reasoning that since he injured you with his poison knife, you won't have gone far, if you're even still alive." Kane nodded at Eric. "But you, my lady, he holds just as accountable, and wants to see you pay. He's been…rather imaginative with his thoughts on the matter- enough so that no small part of his reputation now hinges on finding you and turning his boasts into fact. It would be wise for you to be on your way as soon as possible. The mood he's in, you'll not have even the harsh benefit of the Queen's justice if he catches you. Sloane is out for blood, and he'll take it himself if he gets the chance."
"We could be on our way tonight." Eric offered, though his body silently protested the idea.
"You're an idiot enough if you think you'll be fine to set out in the dark." Maddie put in sternly. "You need rest, and plenty of it. Tomorrow will have to be sufficient, and even then you're a damned fool to go gallivanting off across the countryside with a half-healed wound and barely a step beyond Death's door, but there's no help for that."
"Ah, Maddie." Eric grinned, "Careful now, or I might begin to think you genuinely like me."
"It is somewhat poor advertising if I heal you only to have you turn around and ride yourself to death." Maddie said dryly.
"Oh yes," Kane snorted. "She clearly has a soft spot for you, Eric. A man might be stirred to jealousy."
Eric's eyes darted between the innkeeper and the healer as bemused realization dawned. It became suddenly clear why Kane's name had secured them Maddie's assistance, and why Kane had ridden here to warn them of the brewing storm. A glance to his left indicated that Snow had reached the same conclusion. Love, it seemed, struck in the most unexpected of places. And yet, there was no disguising the patient adoration in Kane's gaze when he looked at the dangerously beautiful women whose home they had been welcomed into, or the softening of Maddie's proud features when she met the broad-shouldered man's gaze.
"That is, if it weren't apparent that you and the young lady here have eyes only for each other." Kane amended. Eric found himself hoping that his cheeks weren't flushed as red as Kane's hair. Pink spots of color had arisen on Snow's cheeks, but they only served to enhance the glow of her remarkably pale skin. His unease must have been apparent, because Kane gave a broad, easy grin.
"Relax, friend. I'll admit that I never bought the story you tried to sell about escorting the lovely Snow here to her uncle's estate. You protect her rightly enough, but if you're just doing it for money, I'll eat my shoe. I've no interest in prying into your affairs, though. It's clear that she's not traveling with you against her will, and that's enough for me. I get a good sense from you both, and I feel an obligation to help you out of the bind that started in my establishment. You have nothing to worry about from me- I'll swear it to you."
"I believe you." Eric said solemnly. But he was disquieted nonetheless. Kane seemed more astute than the average man, it was true, but clever people were to be found in every crowd. If the cover story he had concocted were seen through too easily, then it was only a matter of time before someone would figure out who Snow really was. Once word began to circulate that the Queen of the realm was travelling alone through the kingdom with only a single guard for protection- and a wounded one at that, there was no chance of predicting what danger they could find themselves in.
"Good." Kane nodded. "We'll leave in the morning then, after everyone's had at least one more night's sleep. Since you're not native to the area, the main roads and trails will be where Sloane and his idiots will most likely be looking for you. I'd propose that it's best to avoid them entirely and take the less popular trail through the Smoke Mountains. It's slow going- probably a week or more over rough terrain and dense forest trails that twist and wind, but it's unlikely that the lazy oafs will bother with that trail. I can lead you at least part of the way."
"Won't that look suspicious?" Snow wondered. "You disappearing for several days at a time."
Kane shook his head.
"My brother's widow Zil lives up in the mountains. Sweet girl, but more stubborn than an entire team of mules. I seem to surround myself with that type." He remarked dryly, studiously ignoring Maddie's arched eyebrow. "She insists on living out there in the wild, instead of moving even a little closer to town now that Liem is gone. I go out there a few times a year to check on her and my nephew, and leave Barth in charge of the Inn. It's been awhile since my last visit, so it shouldn't seem unusual for me to be leaving again. There's the added benefit that Zil might be willing to let you rest there a night or two with a roof over your head instead of starlight and rain. We get a bit of the damp around here this time of year."
"Alright then," Eric agreed, draining the last of the redcurrant wine from mug. "We'll leave at first light."
"There's no help for it." Maddie agreed. "You men can clear the table. Snow and I will see to putting together supplies to tend to your shoulder." She whisked away, and with a brief touch to his wrist, Snow hastened after her.
Left alone at the table, Kane gestured at the leftover food with his mug of beer.
"Women's work, some would call it." He said, drinking down the last swallow. "Clearing the plates and whatnot. Hear it more than enough from drunken louts in my taproom. More fools, they."
"Aye. Though few are fool enough to suggest such in front of their wives," Eric grinned.
"That's the truth of it. And I suspect most fools who think less of a woman's effort haven't had much success earning the love of any woman, let alone a woman as strong and certain of her own mind as either of that pair in the other room. Whatever else we've done in our lives, we are lucky bastards, my friend. Fortunate beyond knowing." The red-headed man's eyes had gone soft and fond as he looked into the room beyond, watching Maddie and Snow at work. Eric turned to follow that gaze, struck by the competence and efficiency with which they worked, Snow handing Maddie everything she gestured to, and following her directions to prepare and pack the medicines.
"That we are. That we are indeed." He murmured, allowing himself to be transfixed just a few seconds more before reaching for the nearest platter and getting to work himself.
With the promise of an early start to a long day before them, retiring as soon as preparations were made seemed the wisest decision. Despite the wisdom in it, Eric found himself restless. His shoulder ached, and he felt chilled despite the blankets, which only served to increase his discomfort. His mind churned as well, mulling over a constant set of worries that only seemed to grow with each passing day.
Finally, he pulled himself up and slipped from the bed, cursing beneath his breath at the pain that radiated from his shoulder. The door to the main room stood open, and he stood in the doorway, looking out to the fire banked low for the night and the pallet where Snow lay to sleep. It gave him some peace of mind to know that Snow was safe, eased the discomfort he felt when he wasn't by her side.
She shifted beneath the blanket, propped herself up with an elbow, and he realized that she was awake after all.
"Couldn't sleep either?" she asked softly. He shook his head.
"Sleep eludes me tonight."
"Is it your arm?" she asked, concerned.
"Among other things."
"Any that I can aid with?"
"None that I should ask you to."
"I don't care." She declared, pulling the blanket back in invitation. "Come here."
"I'm not sure it's the wisest course of action." He said mildly, but he was already crossing the room.
"It's been too long since I slept beside you." She said as he knelt beside her. "I miss it. I still don't sleep well without you by my side."
"Nor do I, anymore." He confessed.
It was a new sensation. Sara had been a restless sleeper, constantly shifting beside him and kicking him awake in the night. Not that it had been entirely a hardship; there were things between a man and wife that were easy to resort to when both were awake in the silent, languid hours before dawn which served a pleasant purpose and had the fortunate effect of tiring oneself enough to sleep again. But such thoughts did not serve much of any purpose now but that of frustration.
The truth was, pleasurable though it was even to lay beside the young queen, deeply aware of every point of contact between their bodies, there was a peace that still eluded him. He could not deceive himself by pretending his heart was not full to bursting- not even the knowledge that they were being pursued and threatened by a thug of a man such as Sloane, without the protection of the phalanx of guards the Queen should have at her disposal could quell his happiness. And yet, though he willed himself not to think so far ahead, to merely focus on the wonders and woes of the moment, he could not successfully put the thought of their eventual return to the castle from his mind, and how they must immediately return to propriety.
Despite his happiness, he knew that each liberty taken, each stolen moment of affection and intimacy pilfered in the coming days would make it that much harder to return to normalcy when the time came, like trying to force a cork back into the bottle it once sealed with no trace the wine had been drunk. And yet, it would have to be done because the alternative- to turn away, to refuse the taste of the wine, to not embrace what was between them or treasure the few improbable moments they had- the only ones they would ever likely get- was simply unthinkable. If he were going to be damned anyway, for all the things he'd done in life, he'd prefer to be damned for loving Snow than for anything else… even if that damnation began while he was still alive, the moment they returned. That was a price he would willingly pay.
Having made this peace with himself once again, he found that the combined warmth of the fire and Snow's body beside him was enough to allow his body to succumb to exhaustion, and the refuge of sleep.