AN: I appreciate everyone's reviews. Thank you so much for reading my story and taking the time to respond. I will warn you that the dagger scene in this chapter may not correlate word-for-word with the dialogue of the movie, but I have endeavored to recreate the wording as well as I could remember it. And, with that said, I give you chapter 5.
Disclaimer: I do not own any characters from Snow White and the Huntsman, but I am content to play with them.
A Beacon in the Mist
The first hints of gray were just beginning to color the dark sky when the Huntsman woke. He took stock of the camp, finding the girl still slept, the fire burned dimly, and the forest lay calm – at least as peacefully as a forsaken wood could be in the first breath of morning. He moved slowly, scanning the area for any reaction to his rising, and cautiously stretched. He was definitely sore from the previous day's excursions, but he was surprised to find the pain in his shoulder was not nearly as sharp as it should have been. He had been to war and felt blade pierce his skin enough times to know the rate at which a wound healed. The stab he had received while fighting Ravenna's brother and her men did not throb as fiercely as he knew it should. He was thankful for the reprieve but would check it all the same once he had found them food for the day. Given what he had gleaned from his companion, it would serve him better to ply his trade while she slept. He would leave a knife and his hatchet within easy reach and keep his hunt close enough to camp that he could hear if she called for help. He glanced at the stream and decided he might also try skewering some fish for breakfast. Considering yesterday's events, the Huntsman wanted to gather enough food to last them the day in case he didn't get the chance to stop and hunt along the way. Pulling out the dagger he thought the girl would feel most comfortable with, he silently approached her.
She lay on her side, his coat pulled up to her chest, with her left arm serving as a pillow and her right hand resting on the ground. The Huntsman gently placed the knife's handle beneath her palm and laid the hatchet within easy reach. He would have to teach her how to use the dagger properly should she need to defend herself. He'd have to decide which techniques she would be most comfortable with, though he doubted she would truly feel at ease with any tactic that ended in death. She would have to learn, however, for her own safety and his peace of mind. The Huntsman turned away, secured his two smaller axes to his back, and picked up his large ax before slipping off into the trees.
When he returned to camp, he had gathered several edible plants, killed and cleaned a small beaver, and speared two fish. The girl was awake and sat with his coat folded neatly across her lap. Like the morning before, she had added fuel to the fire so that it was hot enough to cook by. Unlike the previous morning, there was no wild dog scampering away from the camp. The Huntsman grimaced at the thought for, though it didn't dare come too close, he had caught sight of the poor mongrel while hunting. Against his better judgment, he had left the remainder of the beaver – what he couldn't cut into manageable pieces for the day's trek – a good hundred yards from their camp so that the dog could eat in peace. He made no mention of this to his companion, however.
Instead, he sent her to the water's edge to tend her morning needs while he cooked the beaver, prepared the fish for breakfast, and readied the rest of the meat for travel. They ate upon her return and then the Huntsman retreated to the stream's bank to check his wound. He stripped down to his shirt and pulled it up to wash away the paste from the day before. As he had thought, the skin was still an angry red around the jagged edges of the cut. It had not changed much, though it did appear a bit less swollen. Visually, the wound was healing at the rate he expected, which did not explain the significant difference in the level of pain he felt. The ache was that of a wound several days healed while, in reality, it had only been given two days to mend. The Huntsman was at a loss to explain the enigma, but a part of him whispered that he should be grateful for small blessings. So, he pushed the problem aside and focused on washing the wound before applying a fresh paste of water, herb, and clay. Having tended his shoulder, the Huntsman outfitted himself in all his gear once more and rejoined his companion.
She had cleaned up the remnants of the camp and stood waiting with his coat rolled in the manner he used for securing it to his back. The Huntsman took it from her and studied her work, noting she had copied the method without any variations. It spoke of her observant nature and the quickness with which she learned. Perhaps she would do better with some defensive training than he had originally thought. He would wait until they'd crossed the stream, which seemed more a branch of a river than a forest brook. The more distance he could place between them and the horrific sounds he had heard the night before the better. Casting one last glance about the site where they had slept, the Huntsman turned toward the water and led the girl to its edge in search of a safe crossing.
The princess lived. It meant everything and yet nothing. In the morning light, Duke Hammond stood atop his castle wall surveying the land about his keep while musing over the new information he had received the day before. All these years, they had thought Snow White was dead, for Ravenna was not one to show kindness. She defined generosity by killing a son and leaving the father alive to report the deed. Hammond suppressed a shudder. No parent wished to outlive his child. Had it been William…. He pushed the thought away and glanced out over the lands about his home, hoping to catch sight of his errant son. Once more William had left the castle and ventured out to wreak havoc on the queen's men. Hammond knew his son to be an excellent marksman. He'd taken up his first bow after Magnus' fall, changing in one night from a happy child to a young boy bent upon learning a craft in which a man could be dropped with a single arrow through the heart. William had become more than proficient with the weapon. He often drew so quickly that Hammond did not even see the arrow in his hand until he was already releasing the deadly projectile from his bow. Yet, in spite of his son's skill, the duke feared for his safety.
She killed my brave Iain with but the palm of her hand. Thomas' words haunted him much as his memories of that cursed night so long ago when the king had fallen and the queen had taken his place. So much pain and death…. It had been a nightmare ever pressing upon their heels as they flew from the castle to regroup days later in the safety of his estate. And to think, Magnus' daughter had been held by that woman all this time. William! Don't leave me! The cries of the small girl echoed across time to torment the duke. Father, we must go back! They had been but children, one captured by the queen's brother, and the other too young to understand the cost of life it would have required to save her. Hammond told himself this, yet could not deny that had they rescued the princess his son would not be the bane of Ravenna's supply wagons that he had become.
Added to this knowledge was the guilt that he had left Snow White in the queen's hands. It had plagued him since that night and spurred him into helping all that sought refuge. Thus he had honored the memory of Magnus and that of his daughter. Never had he imagined that the princess had survived. When a kingdom was taken, the royal descendants were often put to death to avoid any future uprisings. Given the queen's evil ways, Hammond had been certain she had killed Snow White when she was a child. To think she had been the queen's captive these many years only to escape and be driven into the dark forest. He was left at a quandary. He could not send men into that evil place. It would be a death sentence. Not only would they face the terrors that lurked within, but they would also encounter the queen's men sent to retrieve her prisoner. Should they meet and clash it would start a war that he had avoided since the night Ravenna came to power.
Hammond worked to keep those within his walls safe, and he had managed to pull many from the queen's deadly clutches. But, should it come to open war, the duke had no doubts that all his work would come to naught. She cannot be killed, Thomas had reported. How could he send men into battle against a foe that would not be slain? He could not, and he would not risk all when the princess may already be dead. So few who entered that black wood ever returned. Could a girl locked away most of her life fare any better? It was doubtful, and the duke dreaded imparting this new knowledge to William. It would be like losing her all over again. Though he may wish to keep this information from his son, however, Hammond knew such a task would be impossible. Already the word was spreading about the keep that the princess lived. William would hear the tidings upon his arrival one way or another. The duke was determined to be the bearer. And so, as the morning broke over the mountain, Hammond stood atop his castle wall awaiting the first sign of his son's return.
Snow White ducked beneath the limb the Huntsman held aloft for her. As usual, they had traveled most of the morning in silence with not one word spoken between them after fording the stream. Her guide released the branch once she had safely dodged the wooden claws that were continuously reaching for her hair and clothing. He took the lead, and Snow found herself once more wondering about his wound. She had seen him retreat to the stream to clean it, but he'd been at too far a distance for her to judge its condition. Knowing he would only brush her query aside, she refrained from asking about his shoulder. She did, however, decided to mention the whispers of violence that had plagued her sleep the night before.
"Did you sleep well, Huntsman?" The sudden question caused him to pause and glance back at her with a contemplative frown playing across his brow.
"Aye," he said. Then, with his eyes back on the trees, he added, "As well as this foul wood allows." He pulled out his wineskin and took a sip. He offered it to her, which she declined, and returned it to his belt before moving forward. Snow followed but did not let the conversation drop.
"While I slept such frightening sounds encased my dreams that I feared they might be real." She watched the ground as she spoke; carefully following his every step across a patch of ground littered with the dreaded mushrooms which she had no desire to disturb. "It lasted only a short time, but the cries were so overwhelming they almost seemed tangible."
Looking up, she found he had come to a stop and waited for her on the other side of a swath of mushrooms that lay between them. It was wide enough that she dare not attempt to cross it in one step. The Huntsman was much taller and had a longer stride, but Snow knew she would lose her balance. A nightmare inducing fog was the last thing they needed. Sensing her hesitancy, the Huntsman reached his hand out to her. She took it and jumped, trusting him to steady her should she fumble upon landing. She did not anticipate, however, the he would pull her forward. The added momentum not only brought her across the dreaded patch of mushrooms but sent her crashing into his chest. The Huntsman wrapped his arms about her, steadying them both lest they fall. Her gaze shot to his as she sought to apologize but the words died on her lips at the vivid blue of his eyes so close to hers. For half a breath, neither moved until a snap of a twig brought the Huntsman's attention once more to their surroundings. He loosened his hold and turned to see a wild hare dart for cover a few yards away. Snow White moved away from him and searched her memory for what she had been saying before the interruption.
"It was not a dream," the Huntsman said, snapping her attention back to him. He noticed her confusion and added, "The noises you heard, they were real."
"What were they?"
"I do not know," he replied, "not for sure. But they came from the direction of those bedeviled trees we passed through yesterday." Snow shuddered at the thought, remembering their tense passage beneath those sinister branches.
"Have you seen them before? When you were here last?" Though he had not mentioned any previous travels through the dark forest, something about his demeanor told her that he had traversed these woods before.
"No," he said sweeping his gaze about the area. "I did not seem them then." He turned away and continued picking his way through the dense mushroom population. "But I saw enough." His last words were spoken so solemnly that Snow decided to follow in silence.
The Huntsman was thankful the girl questioned him no further. His memories of this place were dark and not all of them stemmed from the accursed mushroom at his feet. On his first trip, he had not seen the monster or the demonic trees they'd encountered yesterday, but there were other dangers that lurked here, threatening to rob a man of his sanity. He had chased a deer into these black woods and had staggered back out, a man barely in his right mind, several days later. Only after he had returned to his cottage did he realize the horrors he had seen in the forest were nothing compared to what awaited him at home. Sara…. He pushed away the memories of the carnage he'd found and the grave he'd dug to inter her remains. Instead, he recalled the smile she'd graced him with the morning he had left for the hunt. It had been the last one he would ever see, given with a farewell kiss that would forever haunt his dreams.
His tormented thoughts brought him to a halt, and the Huntsman took a drink of mead to drown his sorrows. He noted with a bitter growl that the wineskin was growing light and would likely be empty by nightfall. He put it away and focused on the wood ahead. They trudged on in silence ducking beneath low hanging boughs, climbing over rugged rocky terrain, and skirting the ever present mushroom patches until noon. At least the Huntsman judged it to be noon. He had not seen the sun since stepping into this forest, but the brightest section of gray sky now resided directly above them. In addition, the sounds of the wood resembled that of a normal forest at midday. These reasons aside, it was time to stop for his body needed rest and nourishment. One look at the girl told him she felt the same.
Thankfully, the one thing this forest seemed to have in abundance was water. The wood stretched up into the mountains, and from those rugged peaks flowed hundreds of tributaries ranging in size from almost river width streams, like the one they'd crossed that morning, to small brooks that bubbled through the overgrown wood oblivious to the evil lands through which they traversed. He brought them to a stop at one of the latter, a channel narrow enough he could cross it in two strides. The girl moved to its bank and dipped her hand beneath the surface, bringing a cupped handful of water to her lips while he pulled out the meat he had prepared that morning. A fallen log lay nearby, and the Huntsman made use of it as a makeshift chair. He lowered himself onto the log and was mildly surprised when the girl joined him, sitting so that she faced the opposite direction. He placed the cloth bundle between them and unwrapped it to allow her access to the meat within. He waited until she'd taken a small piece before getting his own, and they ate in companionable silence, listening to the discordant chatter of the brook rushing by. His thoughts turned to teaching her how to use a blade. She was small and attempting an offensive move with her lack of experience would be foolish. Defensive training was a more suitable course of action. He would teach her how to deflect an attack and give her a chance to strike back at her opponent.
"Are all hunters so violent?" Her sudden question startled him, bringing his gaze colliding with hers so abruptly that she was compelled to add, "You faced Finn and four of his men the other day. Then, yesterday, you went into battle with a monster the likes of which I've never seen. I was just wondering – " here her voice faltered a bit " – if all huntsmen fight as you do." She glanced back down at the food she still held in her hand, apparently surprised at her own pluck in posing the question. He tried not to grin at the fact she'd as good as called him a brawler. Two days ago she had reproved his drinking habits and now she admonished his violent tendencies. The amusement tugging at the corners of his mouth turned caustic. She was much more perceptive than he'd first imagined. In little over two and a half days she had come to recognize the dual aspects that currently summed up the majority of his existence. Drinking and fighting, the two main staples that remained in his life when all else was ripped away. He had returned to them upon losing Sara just as he had first turned to them when he had lost his family. Quickly, he clamped the lid back down on the dark shadows of his past and turned his attention back to the girl.
"Most hunters only kill wild game," he said in answer to her quandary. "I learned to fight when I went away to war." This brought her gaze to rest on him once more.
"Did you fight in the king's name?" There was a hesitancy about the words. The unspoken, or did you fight for the queen, hung between them.
"I fought in the name of my village," he answered. It came out in a near growl, and he softened his tone as he continued, "We were attacked along with several hamlets nearby. Those of us who survived banded together and marched off to find justice."
"Did you find what you sought, Huntsman?" Her green eyes were searching now, probing into his blue as though she could penetrate his very soul.
"Aye, of a sort." The discussion conjured visions rife with suffering and loss. "We found plenty of blood and death as well." Some of the horrors he had seen in battle must have shown in his gaze, for he saw her expression soften with a gentle sympathy that was difficult to bear. Again he was reminded of Sara's sweet spirit in the kindness she showed by not condemning his violent past but accepting it with a compassion he did not deserve. Unable to endure her scrutiny any longer, the Huntsman looked away and took another drink of the mead. He could feel her watching him a moment longer before turning her attention back to her food. Neither spoke again as they finished the noon meal in silence while the rambling brook continued its capricious melody, disappearing into the tangled branches and forbidding woods.
The castle throne room echoed with the faint sound of clattering metal as Ravenna stared at the armored soldier Finn had sent to deliver his report. The man had lived long enough to know she did not take bad news well but was too young to control his nerves. Even were he not shaking enough to make his plate mail rattle, his gaunt expression declared his fear to any observing him. He had reason to be afraid, for the news he imparted was far from welcome. The only reason he still stood breathing was that Ravenna knew too much power would be required for her to kill him as she wished. Oh how she longed to feel his erratic heartbeat pounding beneath her fingertips as the blood rushed through his body, ripping the life from his veins with such ferocity that his heart would explode from the pressure! The expense, however, was too great for her to indulge and so she gave him a regal command instead, "To your knees harbinger." The messenger obediently complied, and Ravenna motioned to the guard at her left.
"Give this man his reward," she ordered in a frigid tone the guard understood well. He bowed, as her station demanded, then moved from his post. A moment later his sword was drawn and Finn's messenger lay dead, his head severed from his body. Ravenna stared down into the lifeless eyes of the soldier, wishing they were the eyes of a certain drunkard instead. Without a word, she rose from her throne and left the great hall, heading for the tower which no one dared enter without a summons. The fire pit in the center of the room danced with flame, casting wild shadows about the room and bathing the mirror in a fiery glow. She paced the room, longing for someone to release her anger upon.
Three days! It had been three days since Snow White fled the castle, and it had been two days since Finn set out with the Huntsman to find the king's daughter. With each sunrise, Ravenna felt her powers wane a bit more. And then today Finn's man had come before her to say that the cocky inebriated fool she had ordered to track Snow White had attacked her brother instead, helping the girl escape further into the black forest. The little snipe had turned him against his queen! It was a pity he was already a widower with no other family, else Ravenna would have enjoyed punishing his loved ones for his crimes. She could not even burn his home and claim his lands, for the man merely found his lodgings in whichever tavern would house him. The room echoed with her frustrated scream. She had sent this man to find Snow White that Finn might bring her back, yet he found her and – most likely – was helping the wretched girl navigate the black wood. This was Snow White's doing, her power over others granted by the purity of her heart.
Ravenna had always known the king's daughter held sway over those about her, but she had never known the basis of the skill until the mirror named it. The girl's ability to manipulate the mind into favoring her cause was the reason Ravenna had kept her brother out of the princess' cell all these years. She had never had any true fondness for the king's daughter and could have cared less what befell her at the hands of Finn or his men. But Ravenna did care about her brother's loyalty. He had sworn to protect her, and he was the only one she trusted to do what was necessary to keep her in power. She could not risk losing Finn's affection, and so she had forbid him to enter Snow White's cell lest the princess lead him to betrayal.
Theirs was a partnership born of their long years spent together. They had killed the first king who took them from their mother, and they had overthrown so many kings since. Men fell to her beauty and their kingdoms fell to her power. She allowed Finn his recreation with the wives of each new domain, and he brought her the fairest fruits of every village. Thus, she kept her youthful beauty and the power that sustained them both. Yet, in spite of the healing powers with which he had been endued, that vile Huntsman had bested her brother and his men. Finn would be forced to search for Snow White – who now, no doubt, had the protection of an, apparently, experienced fighter – without the aid of a skilled tracker. Another frustrated cry burst from Ravenna's lips before she turned in her pacing and was confronted with her own angry reflection. Such power! She had command of a strong magic she did not even fully comprehend, but she still could not penetrate the dark forest. She could not even send one of her ravens to spy on Snow White and the Huntsman, for the black wood severed all connection she had with the creature once it entered the tangle of trees.
A sound overhead drew her attention, and Ravenna looked up to find several of her birds ringed the circular vent in the center of the domed roof. She studied them before tilting her head to the side as a new thought took root. All was not lost. Her ravens could not penetrate the dark forest, but they could scout its perimeter. Once the princess and her guide stepped from those tangled branches, her pets would be waiting. A calculating smile emerged as Ravenna extended a regal hand toward the opening, beckoning the ravens to enter. They dove to meet her, swooping into the tower to circle their mistress. The only sound louder than the beating of their wings was Ravenna's cold laughter echoing in the shadows beneath the mirror's watchful gaze.
When the large shadow later appeared over the castle, many were surprised to see a monstrous bird flying overhead. Some swore its eyes glowed red, all recognized it to be a raven, and none drew a weapon; for ravens were favored by the queen. The immense creature soared past the fortress walls and out over the barren lands beyond. It flew over the village and continued on until the dark forest lay far beneath it. When the bird reached a point in the sky directly above the heart of the black wood, it rose higher into the gray clouds until coming to a halt at the invisible zenith of its destination. With a monstrous cry, the bird burst into hundreds of smaller ravens. They scattered in every direction, heading for their posts along the dark forest's edge, finding their perches, and awaiting the first glimpse of the queen's prey.
They had just struggled through yet another thicket of snarled limbs when the Huntsman paused for a drink. There was little left and he drained it before angrily tossing the empty wineskin to the ground. The air of the oppressive wood mixed with memories stirred back at the brook were weighing in on him. He had drunk more frequently than was prudent to push them away. Now, with the mead gone, he needed another distraction and decided a lesson in defense might provide the diversion he sought. Pulling the blade she had first grabbed from him two days ago, the Huntsman turned to his companion.
"Here, I want to show you something." She took the offered knife and looked at him questioningly as he sized her up, deciding the best approach. "Now, which is yer lead foot?" The girl gave a slight shrug indicating that she had no idea what he meant. He in turn made a quick, almost menacing, move towards her and watched her body respond. Her right foot moved back, shielding that side of her body, while leaving her left angled toward him to bear the brunt of his attack. "Alright, if someone comes at you," he said taking her left arm and positioning it in the air. "You raise yer arm like this and use their strength against them." He placed his right forearm against hers to show her how to parry his imaginary blow. "Now yer small, so you want to wait till they're close." He moved in as he spoke, wrapping his free hand about her right and strengthening her grasp on the knife's handle. He moved the blade to its intended target before adding, "Then you thrust it into their heart." She dropped her left arm as though to pull away but, he kept his hand on her shoulder, holding her in place. "You look in their eyes, and you don't pull it out until you see their soul." The girl's eyes darted to the side for but a moment before moving back to his.
"I don't think that I could do that," she softly stated. A part of him hoped she never needed to, but he knew better than anyone that death never favored the innocent. His eyes went to the hands he had placed around both of hers before flicking back to her gaze.
"You may not have a choice," he replied. Then, releasing her, he turned to resume their journey. She did not say a word, and the next hour passed in silence. They were in the process of crossing a hollow too long to skirt about the edge when the girl stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
"Huntsman!" She spoke with an urgency that immediately gained his attention. He turned to see her motioning at the embankments that surrounded them. There a heavy mist gathered, so dense that everything behind it disappeared. This, he had seen before, and he swore at its arrival, drawing the girl's perceptive gaze. "You know what it is?"
"Aye," he acknowledged then darkly added, "Satan's breath." It had yet to cross before them, and he motioned for the girl to hurry. "Come on." They moved quickly, heading for the rise directly ahead. Behind them, he could feel the fog bearing down on them like the scorching exhale of Lucifer himself. He had encountered it the last time he traversed these black woods, and he had no longing to endure its effects again. They topped the small rise and came to a halt as he swore once more. The same impenetrable mist waited for them on the other side of the gentle slope. The small knoll on which they stood was surrounded with a fog that slowly crawled toward them.
"Can Satan's breath hurt you?" He didn't blame the girl for asking since they could not escape it.
"It will play tricks on yer mind," he answered.
"Like the mushrooms?"
"No, worse," he said while watching the dreaded mist draw closer. "They show you monsters and nightmares." He glanced back at the girl to see she watched the encroaching fog as well. "This conjures demons."
"Demons?" She repeated the word as her eyes sought his for assurance.
"Aye," he acknowledged, "the demons of yer past." She drew in a deep breath as though to steady herself, and the Huntsman found himself wishing he could spare her what was to come. Instead, he cautioned, "Stay close. Yer likely to see all manner of people both living and dead. Do not listen to them. They are not real." She nodded in response, and he turned to face the approaching mists. A few minutes later they were engulfed by a fog so dense he just could make out the features of the nearest tree. He moved forward slowly with the girl close behind. They had inched along for nearly half an hour before he felt a tug on his sleeve.
"Huntsman look," his companion whispered, motioning to their right. He followed her gaze and saw a child. Her blonde hair fell free as always, whipping about her young face and occasionally catching at the corners of her blue eyes. Her homespun dress was old but neatly patched, coming to a stop just above her bare feet. She looked exactly as she had the last time he saw her and the Huntsman new a stab of pain at the memory. "Who is she?" The hushed query of the girl beside him drew the answer from his lips before he could stop himself.
"Cara," he murmured. Feeling her questioning stare, he met her green gaze and added, "She was my sister."
"The men came," the apparition spoke, startling them both. They glanced back at the child, but her frightened blue eyes were focused solely on him. "You did not save me!" Her young voice rose to a pleading wale. "You promised!"
"I…." He began to reply then shook his head to clear it. "Yer not real." Almost hoarsely he added, "Yer dead." Turning away he could sense his companion's horrified gaze boring into his back as he started to move away.
No matter what she thought of this ghost haunting him, the girl followed as the child behind them began screaming, "You said you would look out for me! You promised! Why did you not save me?" The cries echoed behind them until they were swallowed by the fog. The silence that followed was a relief but almost deafening given the memories hovering like a blanket poised to smother them at any moment.
"I'm sorry," the girl's voice floated over his shoulder, "about your sister."
"It was a long time ago," he murmured in response.
"What happened to her?" The simple question tore at the barriers he had built around the memories of that black day. Perhaps the better question was what had not happened?
"Raiders," was the only reply he gave, but the one word was not nearly descriptive enough. He had been young, living a happy – if simple – life with his parents, nine-year-old Cara, and his new baby brother Bran. Apprenticed to a crotchety old woodcutter named Torin, he had been out gathering wood per his master's orders when his village had been attacked. He could still remember seeing the billowing smoke on the horizon, dropping everything but his ax in his hurry to return home, and dashing through the forest as though the devil himself were in pursuit only to meet Satan face-to-face in the massacre he beheld upon breaking from the woods. Death, blood, and fire had ridden through his village that day, destroying all in their wake and spawning havoc in the form of men that drove livestock from the pins, chased women down the streets, and slaughtered the defenseless where they stood. Entering the fray, he had ceased to be a woodcutter with the first strike of his ax, his blade no longer seeking wood but flesh instead as he cut through one marauder after another. He had been inexperienced and young, but what he lacked in fighting prowess was compensated by his resolve to protect those he loved.
Only after the raiders had gone did he learn it had all been for naught. He found the charred remains of his mother clutching Bran in the ashy remnants of his childhood home that his father had died defending. The bear of a man, whom he had thought too stubborn to die, he had found out in the yard riddled with arrows and felled by the fatal blow of a sword to his chest. And little Cara…. She had been run down in the road, her small body trampled and broken beneath the hooves of maniacal men bent upon death and destruction. In one day he had lost his home, his family, and most of his neighbors. He had joined with the remaining men of his village and gone to find the monsters responsible only to return from the wars a monster himself. He could only hope that none of the wretches he had killed would surface in this heartless mist. What would the girl think of him then? The thought brought him to the sudden realization that he no longer sensed her presence. Turning around, he swore at the wall of white fog that greeted him. The girl was gone.
"Huntsman?" Snow White called into the blinding mists. "Huntsman!" There was no answer. She had paused only for a moment when her sleeve snagged on a branch. But it had been long enough for her guide to be swallowed by the fog and disappear from her view. The haze grabbed her words and cast them back as though she had yelled down a well and was receiving but an echo in response. She took a few tentative steps forward and paused. She could neither see any sign of the Huntsman nor hear any sounds that indicated which direction he might be moving. This Satan's breath, as he had called it, seemed to slither over everything, covering her surroundings in a thick blanket of whitish gray her senses could not penetrate. The only thing she knew to do was press forward one cautious step at a time. And so she did, moving slowly to avoid tripping over roots, stepping on a dreaded mushroom, or walking into a low hanging limb.
She had painstakingly covered half a dozen yards when a branch to her left moved. Snow glanced up to find a boy swinging down from it to land a few feet away. She would recognize the eleven-year-old anywhere. His brown hair and eyes set against the blue finery of his clothing brought a flood of memories as he studied her with feigned innocence. She watched as he drew near and extended his hand. "Here, I've picked you an apple."
She glanced at the proffered fruit, but the only word that passed her lips was, "William." The boy's face lit with an impish smile as he jerked the apple away and took a bite of it himself. With a laugh, he dropped the fruit and motioned for her to follow.
"Come on Snow," he called before turning to scamper off into the mists.
"No, wait! William…." She hurried after the retreating figure but found he had vanished. "William!" She could still make out his laughter in the distance and followed the sound until it too faded into silence. "Don't leave me." The words issued from her in a whisper, mere echoes of the last time she had spoken them while watching him ride away on the back of his father's horse. She knew he had only been a vision, an apparition conjured from what she remembered of him, but the feeling of abandonment was the same. Once again, she was alone. Snow White fought the despair as only she knew how. She countered the claims of desertion with logic. They had only been children with Ravenna's men and a metal gate between them. It had been a terrible night wrought with battle and death. William could not be held responsible for something he'd had no control over, just as the Huntsman could not be blamed for his gruff exterior when he had apparently been through many hardships. Snow White turned to go back the way she had come but froze as she was met with the gentle loveliness of her mother.
"You've a rare beauty, my love," her mother stated before extending her fingers to rest over Snow's heart, "in here. Never lose it." Her mother's feather light touch was gone as soon as it had come, and Snow White stared as the regal woman smiled before gathering her skirts and stepping into the fog. So stunned was she by the encounter that Snow could find no words but stumbled after the retreating apparition until it too vanished. Only when she was once more alone did she realize that tears streamed down her face. She wiped them away and took several deep breaths to steady her ragged breathing. Satan's breath indeed! She could only wonder what ghosts might haunt the Huntsman as he staggered through this blinding haze.
For the hundredth time, the Huntsman wished he had a drink as he stumbled through the tangle of limbs barely visible in the blanketing fog. He had called to the girl repeatedly but received no answer save the jeers of dead comrades and those he had slain in battle. They rose to taunt him of his failures, reminding him of all those he had failed in the past. For the most part, he ignored them while he searched for the girl. But, as time wore on, his wounded shoulder began to ache more, and he found it difficult to discount their accusations. He was grateful for the silence when it finally came. Given no interaction, the ghosts had eventually faded, leaving him to the grayish white curtain and his fruitless search.
"Ye've done it again, boy." The voice came from behind, but the Huntsman recognized Torin, his old woodcutting master, nonetheless. He glanced back to see the grizzled old man stroking his reddish-gray beard in thought. "Went and lost another one, haven't ye?"
"Shut up," he growled at the apparition while scanning his surroundings.
"Ah now! All grown are ye? Ye've not learned a thing have ye?" Torin's nagging was just as annoying as it had been when he was still the man's apprentice. The Huntsman was not in the mood for a berating by the old woodcutter, and he turned away from the ghost of his memory.
"Yer dead," he stated dismissively. He focused on the ground. He had been retracing his steps, but he had yet to find a sign of the girl. If he could find where he had lost her, he could pick up her trail. The only problem was the denseness of the fog. It pressed in so closely that he had to move slowly lest he miss her altogether.
"Of course I'm dead," Torin called over his shoulder. The Huntsman stifled a groan at the realization that this apparition seemed bent on following him. Undaunted by his silence, the old man continued, "It was my fate the moment I took ye as my apprentice, now wasn't it?" The comment brought him to a halt, and he glanced back.
"What are you talking about?"
"Still too dense to see, are ye? Yer cursed boy," Torin replied. "The ones yer close to, they all die."
He glared at the woodcutter but shook off his words with another, "Shut up." Turning back to the area of ground he had been searching, the Huntsman found evidence of one of his previous footfalls and continued backtracking. Ignoring his grumbled retort, Torin followed.
"It's true boy. Yer father, yer mother, wee Cara, Bran who was just a babe…. Did ye really think sweet Sara would fare any better?"
"I said shut up!" He turned on his old mentor with a look that would have given a living man pause. Torin, however, had died on that black day so long ago and did not fear his pupil's wrath.
"What of this girl? Ye going to get her killed too boy?" The challenge lay between them like a gauntlet cast amongst knights. "Or will ye walk away before it's too late?" The Huntsman had no answer for the woodcutter. The man had a point. Everyone he had ever cared about was gone. Was he putting the girl in greater danger by his mere company? The thought was troubling, but he pushed it aside as he realized his old master had faded into the mists. Cursed or not, he could not leave her in a blanket of Satan's breath. Besides, he had made a bargain, promising to see her though the dark forest. It was true that he did not always pay his debts, but something about this girl made him want to see this through. So, he pushed his doubts away and returned to retracing his steps. Finally, he picked up her trail and began tracking her through the tangled limbs and dense fog. The path she had made was chaotic, much as it had been when he'd first followed her into the black forest. Those tracks had been made by a frightened girl running from nightmarish visions, however, while this trail seemed to indicate she had been following someone instead. The question was, who?
"Watch yer head," the Huntsman warned as he ducked beneath a low limb. Snow White followed, thankful he had found her again. She had stumbled about for what seemed an hour fending off the ghosts of old servants, tutors, and even a vision of her deceased father before her guide had appeared from seemingly nowhere to lead her out of this white blanket of torment. The Huntsman had been right. The Satan's breath was much worse than the mushrooms. Those visions had terrified her, but this conjured those she had lost, ripping open old wounds she had long thought healed. Whatever her companion had seen, he did not speak of it and she did not pry. She was just grateful he had found her, and she was no longer alone. Not sure of which direction they were going, she kept her eyes trained on the Huntsman's back as he moved with surprising speed through the fog. She would have thought he would be more cautious, but she had to hurry to keep up.
After another hour, she could no longer maintain the pace and asked for a break. They stopped to rest by what appeared to be a snarled thicket of limbs outlined in the thick fog. Snow bent forward, resting her hands on her legs as she caught her breath. The mist at her feet moved in and out showing her glimpses of a familiar object lying nearby. Reaching down, she retrieved the Huntsman's discarded wineskin. They must have gotten turned about in this disorienting blanket of gray, for they were back where he had given her the dagger. With a sigh, she turned to inform her guide of their predicament and froze. The Huntsman stood drinking from his wineskin, the very one she held empty in her hand. Snow glanced at his waist and found the dagger he had given her still resided there as well.
"No…." The whispered plea gained a frown form the apparition, but Snow was too disheartened by the realization she had been following a ghost to say any more. Then, suddenly, out of the mists stepped a figure more frightening than any of the others had been, causing her to drop the wineskin.
"Well done Huntsman." Finn's leering smile and hungry eyes drove all sense from her tired mind. "Hand her over." She did not wait to hear more but dove into the surrounding fog and ran heedless of the branches as Finn's voice echoed in the distance, "Fear not princess, I will find you."
"I want my money Huntsman!" He spared Broch a mere glance before turning his attention back to the crushed leaves and snapped twig that showed where the girl had been. Of all the ghosts that had risen to plague him, the Huntsman found this one the easiest to ignore. It was almost second nature. Unlike the large brute from the tavern, he could afford to turn his back on the man's apparition. Following his companion's trail, he could see that she had no idea which way she should go. Her footfalls spontaneously turned from one direction to another. She wasn't travelling in circles, but she might as well have been for what little progress she was making.
"Where's my money?" Broch's demand irritated him more than he should have allowed it to, but he was growing weary of this cursed fog.
"It watered a bush on my way to see the queen," he caustically threw over his shoulder.
"Is that so? Well, you better find a way to pay me back before I find the girl." Broch's threat brought him to a halt. He had heard warnings, insults, and curses from these apparitions before, but they had all been directed at him. The Huntsman turned to study the man and wondered. Was this connotation of the Satan's breath actually threatening to find the girl before he could? Broch glowered down at him with the faintest hint of a smug grin lifting the corners of his mouth.
"What do you mean?" He kept his tone steady as he asked the question but tightened his grip on his ax.
"Think you're the only one the queen can hire? As soon as that brother of hers makes it out of this forest, he's gonna' be looking for more men to search for the prisoner. You know I never turn down a good purse. I'll be out there hunting her, and you, in no time." The Huntsman relaxed for Broch's answer meant there was no immediate danger. The apparition wasn't warning of capturing the girl in the mists but of helping to hunt her for a promised price. He loosened his hold on the ax, berating himself for being foolish. For a moment, he had feared the ghost might search out the girl to ransom for money he did not have. Normally, he would dismiss such a notion as farfetched at the least. However, he was standing in a pocket of Satan's breath within the black forest. After the things he had seen the day before, the Huntsman doubted anything would surprise him at this point. He turned back to his pursuit as Broch called, "You're not the only one who can track Huntsman. Be careful where you step!"
He left the apparition behind but pondered its words as he went. Broch could follow a trail, and he knew the man would have no qualms with being amongst Finn's men. They wouldn't risk another venture into the dark forest but would probably skirt around the edges until they reached the other side of the black wood. He would have to be cautious when he led the girl from this cursed forest to cover their trail and make Broch truly work to earn his keep. Of course, he first had to find the girl.
An hour later he found where his quarry had finally stopped for a rest. His foot bumped against an unnatural formation lurking in the mists and he bent down to retrieve it, grumbling as his fingers wrapped about his empty wineskin and he realized just how much ground they had lost. Instead of tossing it aside, however, he reattached the wineskin to his belt. He could fill it with water when next they found a stream. That was, assuming he could catch up to the girl before dark. Though he could barely make out anything through the dense fog, he could tell that the grayish white blanket was growing darker as the hour grew later. He needed to find her soon. Being lost at night in a normal wood was dangerous; being lost in the black forest could be fatal. He searched about for the next sign of her movements but froze at the sound of a feminine voice floating over his shoulder.
"Eric?" No. Not her. Anyone but her. "You didn't help me." Slowly he turned his tortured gaze to rest on the newest arrival to accuse him of his sins. "I needed you, Eric. Why weren't you there?" Sara….
Snow White wrapped her arms about herself as she sank down to rest on the small boulder she had just stumbled over. She was lost. The mists continued to press in upon her. She was tired, growing hungry, and she had no idea what direction she should take. She needed the Huntsman, even longed for his growling disposition. Who would have thought she could wish for the company of a man she had feared just two days before? He might have a tough exterior – he had already proven his aptitude for violence – but her heart compelled her to look deeper. It whispered reminders of his bravery and strength, suggesting she trust that he would see her through. If only she could find him, but she did not know where to begin. She was startled from her contemplations by the cold laughter that suddenly surrounded her. Looking up, Snow stared in fear at the appearance of the queen.
"How pathetic," Ravenna spoke with disdain. She moved fluidly about Snow White's perch as though circling meat on the butcher's block. "You place your hope in a drunkard." Snow cautiously rose to her feet, facing her father's murderer in the smothering gloom. "Do you truly believe he can save you?" She stared into Ravenna's frigid gaze uncertain if she should answer. A part of her knew this wasn't really the queen, but she still feared the apparition nonetheless. "Poor, poor Snow White. To have come all this way and for nothing."
She took a deep breath, reminding herself that Ravenna was but a vision. "You can't hurt me. You're not real."
"I am many things," the queen answered with a flash of her eyes. "I have powers you cannot fathom at my disposal. What have you to command? Your Huntsman?" Ravenna's challenge stirred something within her, urging her to defend her guide.
"He will see me through this forest," Snow countered, unaware that she had moved into a defensive position angling her body away from the queen. "He will lead me to safety." The cold smile that spread over Ravenna's lips was followed by an even colder laugh.
"He is a man," she stated. "He will lead you to ruin." She moved forward one slow step at a time while she spoke. "It's what they do. Men use women then toss them aside."
"Is that not what you do?" The question spilled from her before she realized what she was saying. The accusation caused Ravenna to stop. She tilted her head to the side, her gaze daring Snow White to continue. In spite of the queen's unnerving glare, she pressed on. "I saw what became of Greta."
"I saved her," Ravenna calmly countered, drawing a frown from Snow. "She will never know the heartbreak wrought by men." Again she moved forward. "Come; let me save you from the disappointment this Huntsman is sure to bring." Snow White backed away as Ravenna reached a hand toward her. "We are bound, you and I." She pointed at Snow, her claw tipped finger stopping inches from Snow's chest. "I feel it there, in your heart." They were the words Ravenna had spoken the day she killed Snow White's father. With them, she conjured all the memories of fear and death from that terrible night, bringing unbidden tears to Snow's eyes. "Shhhh…" Ravenna murmured. "Do no weep child. Soon you will know no more pain."
She stumbled away from the advancing queen. Apparition or not, Snow White turned and ran with Ravenna's mirthless laughter echoing after her. She dashed through the fog, heedless of the branches that grabbed at her clothes and hair. She had no idea how far or how long she staggered through the mists, but she finally came to a stop when she tripped on a root that sent her sprawling to the ground. Sitting up, she found herself at the base of a large tree. Sore from her fall, Snow crawled over to rest against the trunk. Pulling her knees to her chest, she folded her arms atop them and cradled her forehead there. She was frightened and completely lost. The day was growing short, for the blinding mist grew darker as time wore on. Reluctantly, she admitted to herself that she didn't know what to do or where to go. What if she could not find the Huntsman? What if she could not get out of these mists? Panic began to set in at the thought of never escaping the Satan's breath. She felt trapped, lost in a dark hollow of fog and death. The valley of the shadow of death. The sporadic thought brought another. I will fear no evil. Taking deep breaths to calm her anxious heart, Snow White recalled the twenty-third Psalm and began reciting it in her mind as a silent prayer to the heavens.
Gradually, she began to relax as her heartbeat slowed and her breathing eased into a steady pattern. For a few minutes, she merely sat there collecting her thoughts when she became aware of a faint birdsong drifting down from the misty skies to land gently on her ears in sweet melodious wonder. She slowly raised her head to glance about. She had not heard a birdsong since entering the dark forest, but this one was like none she had ever heard before. Something about the tune was almost peaceful. The sound came from above, and Snow White glanced up to see a soft glow of light float down toward her. As it drew near, she recognized the outline of a bird. It alighted on the branch closest to her, singing its calming melody while studying her from its perch. Slowly Snow rose to her feet to study the creature, for she had never seen a bird like it before. It had the body of a dove but the long split-tapered tail of a swallow. If the bird's shape were not odd enough, the creature's feathers emanated a soft light. Iridescent, they lit the base of the tree with a dancing rainbow of color. Mesmerized by the bird, she gingerly raised her hand toward it and watched as it left the tree and came to rest there, wrapping its talons gently about her fingers.
They silently studied one another and, though she could not decide the color of the bird's eyes, Snow saw peace and hope within their depths. The bird released its peculiar musical call before taking flight and moving from beneath the tree. Snow watched as it paused in the air and turned to hover a few feet away as though waiting for her to follow. She moved forward with tentative steps and saw that the glowing bird tarried until she reached the spot beneath it before moving forward again. It was leading her, she realized as it paused ahead, awaiting her arrival. It was guiding her through the mists. Snow had no doubts that it was real, for the Huntsman had told her that the Satan's breath only showed those form one's past. She could not recall seeing or hearing anything like this bird in all of her days. It was not a creature she would have forgotten.
And so, she followed her new guide though the jumble of limbs blanketed in an ever dulling gray fog without questioning its sense of direction. She lost track of time as they travelled, weaving in and out of tangled thickets, but eventually the bird brought her to a stop beside a large boulder. It alighted on a nearby limb, and Snow White glanced about to study what she could see of their surroundings. She suddenly realized that the glow from the bird's feathers seemed to penetrate some of the mist, dispelling it from her in a larger area of visibility than she had been granted before. Instead of the fog reducing her visibility to half a dozen feet, the soft luminous glow held the mists back nearly twice that distance.
She seemed to be on a rocky slope with the boulder acting as some type of sentinel to a murky grayness beyond. Curious, she started to edge around it only to be stopped by the warning cry of the bird as it flew down to perch on the large rock. The light of its feathers showed her a drop that extended farther than the glow could reveal. Snow carefully backed away from the rocky ledge and wondered why the bird had brought her to this cliff. It returned to its perch in the tree and simply gazed into the mists as though waiting. She was not sure for what, but she found a smaller rock and took a seat to wait as well. Perhaps the bird merely needed to a rest. She could not deny they had been travelling for a long time, and she welcomed the moment of respite. They sat in silence. The bird did not sing, and she did not speak but listened to the eerie quiet of the smothered wood. Then, suddenly, a woman appeared, backing out of the mists. She wore peasant's garb with her long hair braided down her back and a gentle smile gracing her lovely face. She beckoned to someone within the fog, and Snow White came to her feet as the Huntsman appeared. She studied him closely to ensure he was not another apparition, but the sadness of his expression was too potent to not be genuine.
"Come, my husband," the woman said. She kept just out of his reach as she moved toward the rocky rise. My husband? Snow White thought back to the morning the Huntsman had first caught her. Where's my wife? His demand had brought a cold response from Finn. My sister has many powers. She can take life and sustain it. But she can't bring your wife back from the dead, you fool. The words had been the catalyst that sent the Huntsman into action. I want her back!
Now, as Snow White watched, the Huntsman blindly followed the apparition of the smiling woman. "You could not be there before," she was saying. "Come, save me now." They were headed for the cliff and Snow moved forward as she realized the danger.
"Huntsman," she called while reaching for him. Her hand came to rest on his upper arm. "She's not real. She's just a vision." He shook her off, never drawing his eyes from the woman who had moved to an impossible position. She stood on what Snow knew to be only air, but she doubted the Huntsman could see the lack of ground for the fog and his desire to reach his wife. He took another step forward, drawing precariously close to the edge. He was too strong for her to pull him away and so she moved in front of him, placing herself between the Huntsman and the apparition that tortured him so. "She's not there. It's the mist. The Satan's breath has conjured her." Snow saw the darkening of his gaze and knew a moment of fear as she remembered his reaction when Finn had said the return of his wife was impossible.
"Get out of my way," he growled the warning at her, but Snow knew what awaited him if she did. Instead, she shook her head indicting she did not plan to move.
"No." The girl's refusal was but a single word, yet the Huntsman could hear the determination in her voice. It angered him in a way he did not fully understand. Why would she not do as he said? Sara stood only a few feet beyond her, beckoning him to draw near, but this stubborn girl refused to budge. Knowing her aversion to any movement that brought them into sudden proximity, he decided to persuade her to retreat and took a menacing step forward. As he expected, she in turn moved back. What happened next, however, he did not expect. He heard loose rocks give way and the girl gasped as she began to slip from view.
Instinctively, he reached for her, wrapping his hands about her arms and jerking her back to him. She grabbed at the cloth of his shirt, clinging to him as he stumbled back a few steps and came to a stop with the girl trembling in his arms. His eyes swept past her shoulder and he saw, for the first time, the edge of the cliff he had been walking toward. Sara hovered above the drop with a sad expression that pierced his soul, but finally allowed him to acknowledge his only chance of reuniting with her would be in death. Perhaps it was what the Satan's breath wanted or it might merely be the mist playing on the buried desires of his own heart. Had he not asked the queen to kill him? You wish to be reunited with your beloved. Though Ravenna's cold words had angered him, they had not been far from the truth. He watched as the vision of Sara slowly faded into the fog before looking down at the girl who now pulled away from him.
"I'm sorry," he attempted to apologize, but she stopped him with a sympathetic gaze.
"You saved me," she stated in reply, indicating he was forgiven, as she stepped away from him. He motioned toward the cliff's edge.
"I think it was you who saved me," he countered, earning a slight shrug and a soft grin in response. "How did you find me?" She started to answer but was interrupted by a gentle melody that seemed to fall from above like an unnamable instrument being played in Heaven. The girl motioned to a limb overhead and he looked up to see a glowing bird singing down to them. Its iridescent feathers shed light so pure the Satan's breath could not engulf it, causing him to reverently murmur, "The harz bird."
"You've seen it before?" Her question brought his gaze back to the girl at his side.
"No," he replied, "but I've heard stories. It is said that the harz bird is a beacon for those who travel. Its feathers glow so brightly that they light the way. Was this yer guide?" When she nodded, he added, "Where did you find it?"
"It found me," the girl responded, "and it brought me here to wait for you."
"Perhaps it will lead us out of this tormenting fog." No sooner had the words left his mouth than the harz bird released a melodic chirp and rose into the air. It hovered, waiting as he retrieved the ax he had dropped when grabbing for the girl, then gave a flap of its wings before gliding off away from the cliff's edge. He and the girl followed, trailing after the harz bird in the mists which grew ever darker as daylight slipped into the night. They followed it for nearly an hour then paused at a small stream where the Huntsman filled his wineskin with water, and they rested for a few minutes before the harz bird took flight once more. He lost count of the time that passed but, as the darkness fell, pushing the grayish mist in about them, he felt the girl move in closer. Eventually her hand came to rest on the coat still strapped to his back, but the Huntsman did not complain. He would rather endure the occasional tug at the strap across his chest than lose her to the Satan's breath again. It had been difficult enough to follow her tracks through the fog in the hazy gray light of day. He would never find her in this darkness.
Oblivious to his thoughts, the harz bird continued its flight, sometimes hovering as it waited for them and sometimes gliding ahead with a graceful beat of its wings. Finally, when he felt he could go no further, the bird came to a stop and alighted on a limb that hung beside what appeared to be the side of a tall rock bluff. The Huntsman saw that a tree grew beside the rock wall, its limbs climbing up along the stone surface to disappear overhead into the black mist. The limb where the harz bird perched rested next to a recess in the cliff. Located a few feet above his head, the opening seemed large enough to be a small cave. The bird hopped along its limb, calling to them as it neared the opening. He glanced back at the girl and received a shrug in silent response to the question he had not voiced. Moving to the base of the tree, the Huntsman grabbed the trunk and began climbing up to the limb where the harz bird waited. He motioned for the girl to stay put and inched his way over to the hole in the cliff. The bird's glow illuminated a small recess in the bluff that was deep enough they could both fit inside comfortably. If an animal had once occupied the space, he could see no sign of it now. It was clean and would provide them shelter from the elements. Deciding the small cave would suffice, he moved back to the trunk and reached down to help the girl climb up and join him on the sturdy branch. They cautiously moved back to the opening where he helped her clamber in first then handed her his ax before hoisting himself in as well. The harz bird moved to the mouth, serving as a light to the occupants within and a barrier to the Satan's breath without.
They were both exhausted from the day's events and did not speak as they each found a comfortable spot. The girl sat a few inches from him, leaning back against the rock wall as he removed the coat at his back and found the food he had packed away earlier that morning. Without a word, he handed her his coat, which she laid over her lap, and a few strips of meat. They ate in silence, passing the wineskin between them to wash down the food with water from the stream. When their meal was done, the girl spread his coat over her legs and arms before leaning her head back against the cave wall and drifting off to sleep. Too tired to even think of sharpening his blades, the Huntsman leaned back against the stone as well. His mind drifted over the day from the memories conjured in the evil mists to his hunt earlier that morning. He wondered if the wild dog still followed them or if it had skirted the Satan's breath altogether.
Thinking of the animal reminded him of the quandary he had faced with his wound. When staggering about in that cursed fog, his shoulder had begun to throb with the normal amount of pain he would expect. Now, however, as he leaned against a hard stone wall – after walking for an indiscernible amount of time, climbing a tree, and pulling up his companion – the Huntsman was surprised to find that the ache in his shoulder was once more duller than he knew it should be. He frowned slightly at the observation but felt his curiosity slip away as his weariness crowded in to take its place. With one last glance at their glowing sentinel, the Huntsman let his eyes slide shut as he fell into a deep sleep. He awoke much later to the sound of drizzling rain and slowly opened his eyes. The girl had slid down the wall in her sleep and now leaned against his arm with her head resting on his shoulder. He studied her in peaceful repose and then glanced toward the mouth of the cave. The harz bird was nowhere to be seen and the soft haze of morning light filtered in despite the gentle rain. More importantly, he realized as he gazed outside, the Satan's breath was gone. Feeling as though a weight had been lifted, the Huntsman was content to remain where he was and let his eyes slide closed once more while he listened to the sounds of a dawning day and the gentle patter of falling rain.
The harz bird, also known as a hercinia or an ercinea bird, was considered in medieval mythology to be a beacon to travelers because its feathers glowed so brightly they could light the path even in the darkness. The Satan's breath is of my own creation, though I am sure other renditions of it exist in other fantasy realms. I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Please let me know what you thought.