A/N: AHH! Please forgive me, I know it took me forever to finally update! I've worked on this chapter soon after I updated the previous one, but found myself changing it a couple of times...and was stuck. I left it alone, hoping it would come to me. BUT after buying the DVD, I finally found my inspiration to continue and eventually finish this story. I initially wanted to do 10 chapters, so there will one more after this one, and I promise it will be much longer. Again, THANK YOU for the reviews and alerts! R&R. Enjoy.

Chapter 9

The sky was awash with tinges of pinks, opal and aqua blues woven seamlessly together as only Mother Nature knew how. It was a clear, crisp evening as Snow White stood in the balcony of her chambers, completely lost in her own troubled thoughts as the wind gently whipped against her shivering form. It has been a few hours since she had last spoken to the Huntsman and she could feel the discomfort lurking in the pit of her stomach the more time she spent away from him. It wasn't long ago when they returned to the castle from the nearest village only to be separated by Duke Hammond who wished to speak with the Huntsman alone. As the dreadful minutes turned into agonizing hours, she feared that the Duke may have already convinced him to leave, and the thought of life without him—the one man she declared her love for not too long ago— was too unbearable to manage. Realizing how much he meant the world to her, she wasn't going to lose him...not now, not ever.

The wait has been excruciating and she did not want to suffer another second of it as she finally left her place in the balcony and gracefully motioned towards the tall double wooden doors to find him. She slightly opened it; just enough to stick her head out and see that the dim corridor was surprisingly clear from guards. As she stepped out onto the cold concrete floor, careful to not make the faintest of sounds, she turned at the direction of a familiar voice that resonated audibly through the marbled walls. It didn't take her very long to recognize the voice belonged to Duke Hammond, and the second one was none other than her Huntsman— his voice so recognizably deep and rough in the edges as he spoke, but yet soothing to her ears. She felt her heart flutter as though the heavy burden has finally been lifted from her shoulders, replacing any doubt of him ever leaving her again.

Drawn by the conversation that lurked beyond the walls as it stirred her curiosity much more than anticipated, she took a few tentative steps forward and noticed the door to the room adjacent to her chambers was slightly open. She looked through the small opening and immediately saw him; his face hard and concentrated on the elder man who stood before him as the light from the burning flames flickered in the depths of his piercing blue eyes. She watched as the Huntsman stood still while the Duke paced back and forth idly in the room, seemingly trying to gather his thoughts together. She looked on and listened attentively as she drew in a deep, nervous breath.

"You are a fine young man, Eric." The Duke spoke genuinely as he stopped in front of his male companion and peered at him with intense concentration. "But you must understand that you and the Queen will never work. You are a commoner and she is born royal with all the riches this world has to offer. The people will never accept it; this courtship you have with the Queen. And if you truly care for her...love her at all…you would let her go."

Eric downcast his eyes to conceal the hurt and anger that soon clouded his features. His eyes hardened as he shifted his gaze from the Duke to the fire that seemed to burn along with him. He instinctively clenched his fists on either side as though emulating the fire and waiting to burst in flames with it. But he held it together, suppressing the mixed emotions that overwhelmed his thoughts as his lips pressed into a thin line. "That is for the Queen to decide." He spoke carefully, trying so hard to not let his words offend the Duke. He respected the elder man too much, and did not wish to argue with him nor lose his dignity. "I will go as she pleases. But if it is I being a commoner is what's troubling you, then I would be more than happy to accept the Queen's proposal as head captain and general of her army."

The Duke's eyes suddenly sprung open, making it perfectly clear he had no knowledge of this. She could feel her breath suddenly go ragged, recalling the moment when he rejected the titles just so he can move on in peace from the haunting memories of war that still lingered in every waking moment. And now he has changed his mind completely; challenging the Duke the way he knew how, and sacrificing a much preferred life of normalcy for a life with her...but anything to be with her. She understood now more than ever how much she meant to him—how much he genuinely loves her as it made her insides clenched with desire.

"She has never informed me about this." The Duke muttered disapprovingly; his face evidently marked with years of agony and distress under Ravenna's wrath. The elder man was roughly young in his mid-forties, but the stress and fear that went along with years of torment aged him considerably.

"I'm sure she wanted to know my decision before addressing it to you and the rest of the counsel." Eric replied coolly as the Duke looked up at him and frowned. He found the arrangement quite absurd, and though he stood completely against it, he couldn't help but admire the Huntsman's strength and determination. It was as though he was staring at a younger version of himself.

"So you have decided then?"

The Huntsman simply nodded as he held his gaze. "Yes, sir."

The elder man sighed deeply. His disappointment was very clear from the beginning, but Eric knew deep down his disapproval only reflected his desire to protect his son and his interests. He could only respect his opinion and nothing else. "Very well. I will arrange a meeting with the counsel and inform them." He stood there motionless, carefully studying the Duke through narrowed eyes as silence lingered between them. From the grave tone of his voice and his hard expression, the Huntsman knew the Duke was not at all pleased by the revelation. But he wasn't going to allow his intimidation get in the way of his heart.

"Eric?" He spoke after what felt like an eternity of silence as he peeled his eyes from off the ground and looked back at him.

"Sir?" He grunted, managing to clear the lump he suddenly felt in his throat.

The Duke clasped his hands together behind his back as he idly began circling the Huntsman. "I admire your loyalty towards our beloved Snow White. You...you had no idea who she was…and yet you took her under your protection…risking your life through it all."

Eric uncomfortably shifted his weight on his legs before nodding. "It was the right thing to do."

"You must be enchanted by her the moment you saw her." It was more of a statement rather than a question as the Huntsman furrowed his eyebrows, unsure of where the Duke was going with this.

"Any man would be blind if they weren't."

Duke Hammond smiled knowingly. "Ah yes, so let me ask you this, Eric. Would you have offered her to Ravenna if she truly had the power to bring your wife back?"

The Huntsman visibly flinched as though the question has caught him off guard. He shook his head from the painful memories of Snow White's terrified emerald gaze as he remembered it when he pulled her out from her hiding spot beneath the lifeless trees of the Dark Forest. It killed him every day to know he was about to give up an innocent, adolescent girl for the life of his dead wife. "At the time…yes." He admitted regretfully as the thought pained him with each fiber of his soul. He knew he was that selfish and did not have any regard for others but his own. He hated to be that man. "I would have done anything to get my wife back." He confessed as he lowered his solemn eyes shamefully. "But I wouldn't dare risk anyone else's life."

"And now?" The Duke asked, trying to read through him as he folded his arms across his chest—curiosity now clouding his aged features. "If your wife was alive right now...and you were to choose between your wife and Snow White, who would you want to spend the rest of your life with?"

A muscle in his jaw clenched as he ran the tips of his fingers through his disheveled hair. He opened his mouth to respond but closed it quickly, fidgeting uncomfortably from where he stood. The topic of his wife was still a sore spot for him as he tried to not let it show, but failed miserably to keep his emotions at bay.

"I...I never thought in my lifetime that I would fall in love with someone else. My wife was everything to me." His lips curved into a sweet smile as the memories of her began to occupy his thoughts. "I loved her more than anything…or anyone in this world. I thought it would be impossible to ever love again…until Snow White." There was a sad note in his tone as he heaved a rumbling sigh. "I truly love Snow White…but she can never replace my wife."

She swallowed thickly as she slowly stepped backwards, away from the door—her trembling hand making her way over to her chest to somehow ease her quick breathing. She had heard enough and wished more than anything to disappear and to never look back again. She never thought that it would be this hard—this painful to know he will never love her the same way he loved his wife. She quickly moved out of the way, his face growing distant with each step as she turned around and returned to her chambers, carefully shutting the wooden doors behind. Her heart ached in agony as she soon felt hot tears streaming down her face.

"I...I will not be her replacement." She whispered through clenched teeth, struggling to find the words but soon found her voice once again as she drew in a deep breath, "And he will not have me..."

A/N: I hope you guys enjoyed that. *crosses fingers* I am a sucker for angst. =) Anyway, one more chapter left! Will Snow and Eric end up together?Stay tuned! Please don't forget to leave a review!