Author's Note: Thanks to my lovely beta reader, For the Kingdom, ifor all her help editing this story. Also, I owe a debt of gratitude to Aromene and to my boyfriend for lending me moral support while I was writing this. Enjoy, and please don't forget to comment! And before you ask: I have no current plans to write any further chapters or sequels!
The crown was much lighter than Snow White had expected it to be. She had closed her eyes in an attempt to make this moment-this monumentally important, nerve-racking moment-feel more real, but the delicately crafted crown nestled itself so sweetly and un-imposingly on her head that the only thing she truly noticed was the warmth of the golden band where it touched her forehead. It felt like little more than a wreath of flowers, like the kind her mother used to weave for her during the midsummer festivals. Snow White, with her eyes still closed and the sound of applause ringing in her ears, was caught off guard by the sudden memory of her mother Eleanor seated under a tree outside the castle walls, her skirts spread out around her, covered in wildflowers that a five year old Snow White had happily gathered. She was smiling at her daughter, her nimble fingers twining the delicate stems of the flowers into a beautiful garland...
During her imprisonment Snow White had idled away the long, monotonous hours and staved off certain insanity by reliving as many of her childhood memories as she could. Certainly no one had impressed themselves more fully upon the memory of the young Snow White than her mother. But somehow, in the darkness and the cold, Snow White had forgotten those flower wreaths.
For an instant she felt so overwhelmed by all she had lost that the new Queen could hardly catch her breath. Her eyelids fluttered open and she glanced desperately around the crowded coronation room. However much she had longed for human contact over the years, it suddenly felt stifling to be surrounded by so many strangers. She struggled to keep her face calm while her eyes sought for a trusted face. If only she could see him, she would know that this was her reality now. That she was safe.
And there he was, standing in the back, so easily discernible amid all the splendor in his simple huntsman's garb but somehow not out of place at all. He caught her gaze, and the soft, knowing look in his bright blue eyes immediately soothed her frayed nerves. For the first time since the ceremony had begun, Snow White felt herself begin to smile.
They had done it. Somehow, she and the huntsman had saved her father's kingdom from the brink of destruction. They had brought life back to a barren land-the scepter she held was proof enough of that. Snow White knew that the glory for this transformation would fall to her. Her subjects-for they were her subjects now, as much as they had ever been the subjects of her father-would write songs and stories of the fair princess who had eaten the poisoned apple and died, only to come alive again and lead the revolution which ended the tyranny of Queen Ravenna.
But she knew the truth of the story. Snow White had not done all of those things alone; on her own, she would certainly have died or been recaptured in the Dark Forest, never to be seen again. When the poisoned apple worked its dark magic, she had believed that Ravenna's would be the last living face that she ever saw.
Her huntsman had saved her. Even before she learned to trust him, Snow White had depended on him to lead. He had fought for her and watched over her in the Dark Forest. He had left her with Anna and Lily for the same reason that he came back—to protect her. And it was his sweet, sorrowful kiss that saved her. When his lips touched hers and his tears fell upon her face, Snow White had felt the strength and the warmth of his love rush into the cold void created by Ravenna's magic, filling it with life again. Muir had told her that it was the purity of her soul which healed all the wounds and ailments in the kingdom. If that was true, then it was the huntsman who deserved to have songs sung in his honor. Because he was the one who had saved that soul.
After the coronation ceremony, Snow White led the procession of noblemen and women outside to where the common folk awaited them. An enormous cheer went up as the guards pushed open the door before her, so loud and joyous that tears sprang to her eyes. These people had endured so much suffering, yet they were still resilient enough to embrace hope. God, give me the strength to lead them. That prayer was becoming her mantra: a plea to the higher power to allow her to ease suffering wherever she found it.
The nobles spread out behind her, filling up the circular pavilion with the apple tree at its center. Snow White followed the gray slate path across the open space and stopped at the head of the low stairs which led to the wider square where the common folk had gathered. William and Duke Hammond were there on her right side in the place of honor they had earned. Only she and the duke would be able to tell from the way he squared his jaw that William was holding back his emotions, surely feeling the relief of this moment as keenly as she felt it. Snow White felt a wave of tenderness towards William. When they were children he had worn the same expression every time he fell and skinned his knee but was too proud to let her see him cry. She caught his eye and smiled, and in response he reached out and brushed the back of her hand with his, a quick and innocent touch meant only to say, 'I'm here for you.'
Snow White searched instinctively for the huntsman and quickly spotted him. He was standing beside the dwarfs, near the stairs which separated the nobles and the common folk. He appeared less solemn than he had minutes ago. This time he met her eye with a cocked eyebrow and a teasing grin, no doubt expressing his 'admiration' for her ornate red and gold gown, so proper—and constricting, Snow White admitted ruefully to herself. She was no longer used to the elaborate trappings that seemed to be an integral part of being a royal. If she had her way about it—and she intended to—there would be some changes of convenience made to the royal wardrobe. Although this time, Snow White thought with a smile, she would leave the alterations up to her tailors and not the practicality of her ax-wielding huntsman.
"Perhaps now would be an ideal time for your Majesty to address the people?" suggested Duke Hammond quietly, interrupting her thoughts.
"Yes, of course," Snow White whispered, feeling a blush creeping up her neck. William and the Duke had sat with her most of the night, writing the speech that she was about to give. It was an enormous task, trying to find the words to soothe and inspire a land as wearied as this. Her hands had shaken that morning at the mere thought of this speech. Now, however, seeing her people gathered before her with the huntsman close at hand, Snow White felt only calm determination.
Snow White raised her hand, gently conducting the cheers down to silence. She drew a deep breath and searched once more for the huntsman's gaze. He folded his arms across his chest and winked reassuringly at her, giving her all the confidence she needed.
"Everyone here has suffered. It pains me to know what you, my people, have gone through. But I promise on this day that the darkness is over. I ask you to remember the days of my father, King Magnus." For the second time that day Snow White felt the sharp pain of loss in her heart. She shook away the sadness and continued in the strongest voice she could muster, "The happiness and the peace that you knew then will be yours again. As your queen it is my sworn duty and my destiny to bring peace back to this land, and I will not rest until I see my duty done. There is only one thing that I ask of you in return: embrace your neighbors. Set aside old grudges and douse the flames of anger and hatred that flourished in the darkness. If we can join together as one land once more, I believe that my father can finally rest easy in the afterlife." Snow White fell silent for a moment as the crowd murmured. She recognized the sounds of an ancient blessing meant to comfort the dead.
"There are so many who deserve to be recognized for their courage. Each and every one of you who stand before me today, I thank you. The nobles who smuggled in food and supplies for the people at the risk of their own lives—I thank you. Duke Hammond—" Smiling, she fell silent once more as a robust cheer burst forth. Except perhaps Snow White herself, there was no one more beloved in the kingdom than the Duke. "Duke Hammond and his son William led many brave men in the enduring fight against our enemy. Never did he falter! Duke Hammond, William Hammond, I thank you.
"I owe an enormous amount of gratitude to my friends the dwarfs and to Eric the Huntsman. Without them, I could not have survived long enough to defeat Ravenna. In recognition of my personal debt to these courageous men, I call them forward to receive the honor of knighthood."
Out of the corner of her eye, Snow White saw the look of surprise that William gave her. She dared not turn to meet his eye, though she knew he would not disagree with her sudden decision. Her thoughts in the coronation room had inspired her, and she had spoken the words before she even realized her intent.
There was a mix of emotions on the huntsman's face as he led the dwarfs up the short flight of stairs separating them from the Queen. He looked slightly amused and not a little chagrined. Snow White knew that despite his bravery, the huntsman would not gladly stand as a hero before the villagers who still knew him as the drunken widower he had been only a week ago. She smiled apologetically at him when he was close enough that no one else would be able to see it, and leaned closer still to whisper, "Hold your head high, Eric. You are a hero in my eyes; you deserve to be one in theirs, as well."
The emotion she saw on his face resonated deep within her own heart, and it was all she could do not to reach up and lay her hand against his cheek.
"William," Snow White said with a sudden playfulness, straightening again and turning to her friend, "might I borrow your sword? It seems that I was not entirely prepared for my speech after all."
"I thought you added a bit here and there," William answered, drawing his sword and pressing the hilt of it into her hand. He gave her a meaningful look. "This sword has always been yours, my queen."
She turned the sword over in her hand and inspected it. It was a plain sword, functional and unornamented except for one small inscription on the blade near the hilt: Snow White. A lump rose up in her throat to see her own name carved in steel. A reminder of what William thought he had lost. "You are a true friend, William."
His only answer was a warm smile and a bow meant to direct her attention back to her motley collection of heroes. Snow White gripped the hilt of the sword in her right hand and balanced the flat of the blade on her left palm, holding it in front of her body like an offering. She swallowed to clear the tightness in her throat and called for the leader of the dwarfs. Beith hurried forward to kneel before his queen.
"Beith, for the service you have done your kingdom and your crown, I knight thee," Snow White intoned, reciting the lines as she remembered them from watching her father so many years ago. For a moment she had the panicked thought that she was not performing the ceremony correctly, but let the thought go again quickly. These were her knights, to be knighted in the manner that she chose. "Rise, Sir Beith."
The dark-haired dwarf stood with a solemn expression and bowed deeply to the new queen. He returned to stand among his comrades, and Snow White called fondly for Muir.
"Muir, for the service you have done your kingdom and your crown, I knight thee," she proclaimed, her love for the blind dwarf ringing clearly in her voice. He beamed with happiness as she carefully raised the dully-gleaming sword to tap him once on each of his shoulders. "Rise, Sir Muir."
Each in their turn, the five remaining dwarfs came forward to be knighted: Quert, Coll, Duir, Gort and Nion. With tears in her voice she honored the fallen Gus.
"I wish with all my heart that my dear friend Gus was here among us today, to be honored as he deserves. He was a man of kindness and bravery, and it is only because of that bravery that I stand before you today. Gus gave his life to save mine. He believed in me." Snow White fell silent a moment. "Rest in peace, Sir Gus."
And then it was time to knight the dearest of her protectors, the huntsman himself. When she spoke his name he strode forward and knelt with quiet dignity, and it wasn't until that moment that Snow White realized how much he had changed since their first encounter. It was most noticeable to her in the way that he held his shoulders; they were straight and sure, no longer hunched beneath the unbearable weight of his grief. She hoped with all her heart that Muir was right. She wanted to believe that it was she who had given the huntsman peace.
There was so much that she needed to tell him. Suddenly, desperately, she wished that they were alone. When Snow White awoke from her death-like slumber, alone in the church, she had been possessed of a sudden clarity over how to rally the Duke and his men, how to breach the castle and how to defeat Ravenna. That was everything that she could handle. After years of living in solitude and fear, Snow White had to become a leader and killer. She simply had not had any energy left over to figure out how her life had been irrevocably altered by a simple farewell kiss.
Now, however, the battle was over and they had won. Eric deserved to know what he had done for her. She longed to tell him how much she needed him. She yearned to tell him that if she knew anything at all it was that she could no longer be Snow White, let alone a queen, without him at her side. She did not know what was in his heart. Snow White knew that he loved her, but there were many kinds of love and he still mourned for his wife. But Snow White was not looking to replace the woman he had lost. She herself knew little of love, only what she could remember of her mother and father. Whatever the huntsman felt she would accept, as long as it meant that he would remain by her side.
Please don't leave me.
For now Snow White and the huntsman were not alone. The time for them to talk would come. In this moment she must be a queen, not a lonely little girl. And so Snow White looked deep into her huntsman's eyes and willed him to hear in her words everything that she truly wished to say:
"Eric the Huntsman, for the service you have done your kingdom and your crown, I knight thee. Rise, Sir Eric."