Somewhere I Would Call Home
Chapter 1: Encounters
They were two days' journey away from the burning Fenland, still many more days away from Duke Hammond's stronghold, when they met the ragtag band of travelers. Although Snow White was a mere novice at woodland life, couldn't ever hope to gain huntsman's silent feet or keen ears and sight, even for her ears they made enough noise to warn of their coming long before they appeared from behind the slight rise. The huntsman had ample time to grab her arm and tug her inside a nest of closely twisting small spruces.
"Stay there and be quiet," was all he said, before he turned to meet the approaching folk, his hands an inch away from his weapons. She couldn't see very well from behind the branches, was anxious to be some help if it became a fight, regardless of his warnings. She chanced to carefully move a branch, peeking through the small gap. Soon though, her thumping heart started to slow, for it became quite obvious that the travelers posed no threat. Her first clue was the minuscule movement of the huntsman's hands, not drawing away from his weapons, but relaxing nonetheless, not waiting the violent pull of steel anymore. The second was the voices drawing nearer, recognizably feminine and childlike.
The voices quieted as the group noticed the huntsman standing in their path. They stopped a good distance away from him, hesitant and distrustful. Snow could only just see the small group, the people tightly clinging to each other: an old couple, a middle-aged woman and three children of various ages, the smallest just a babe in the woman's arms. All were worn and haggard and clearly tired. It seemed they had come a long way, and had a longer way still to go.
"Good day," the huntsman greeted them with a level voice.
"Huntsman," the old man returned the greeting with an inclined head, but his whole stance was wary. Snow recognized the pose readily enough, for it seemed it was her own constant companion; it was the readiness to flee at the smallest notice.
"You are a long way from any road or village," the huntsman said.
The old man fidgeted, but before he could answer, the younger woman took a step forward, the children still clutching her skirt. "The roads are watched by all manner of thieves these days. We have barely anything, but what little we have, we'd like to keep."
"True enough," the huntsman said. "You'd best continue your journey then; the dark comes quickly in these parts."
With a growing frustration Snow watched as the pitiful travelers started to go, changing their direction to keep away from the huntsman. It didn't seem right to her that these people should leave so fearful, when they could maybe offer them some assistance, at the very least some kindness they were sorely in need of.
"Wait!" She stepped away from her hiding place, startling the small group. Ignoring the annoyed look the huntsman gave her, she continued, "Please, don't be alarmed. There's nothing to fear from us. Would you share our fire and bread tonight?"
"Thank you for your generous offer, but we must be on our way," the old man said, smiling a little. It seemed as Snow's appearance had released some of their apprehension. Their eyes, before so anxious, now rested on her curious and appraising. However, it had the opposite effect on the huntsman, whose hands gripped the hilts of his weapons, and whose whole stance was now tense and ready for violence. That didn't escape the travelers´ notice.
"Huntsman, I see we both carry something we'd hate to lose," the woman carrying the babe said. "If you are travelling to the north, you should know that the roads are not safe there. Duke Hammond's castle has been burnt and his people are dead or scattered."
"How?" It was the huntsman who spoke, for Snow's words were trapped inside her, held prisoner by the sudden and swift anguish.
"No one seems to know for sure. Some say there was a traitor, who opened the gates to queen's men and started the fire. Some say the guards all fell asleep and the soldiers took them by surprise," the woman said.
"There's talk of ravens circling the castle by hundreds, and the fire spreading unnaturally fast and hot," the old man told in a hushed voice. "They say the Duke was killed, tortured to death."
"What about William, Duke's son?" She finally got the words out of her, not wanting to hear, but needing to know.
"His fate is unknown," the woman said. "Maybe he managed to escape, maybe he was not there when it happened…Maybe he was the one who opened the gates."
"No, he –" Snow was ready to vehemently deny the accusation, but the huntsman interrupted her, saying, "Thank you for the news." His tone was courteous, but he was still clearly dismissing them.
The old man inclined his head again and without further farewell they started to continue their journey. She watched as they struggled among the rugged terrain, until finally they had disappeared from view. She felt strangely numb.
"I told you to stay out of sight," the huntsman said, clearly frustrated and angry.
"They wouldn't – couldn't do us any harm." Except it seemed their words had unintentionally turned her world around.
"No harm? What if in the next village they tell tales about a dark haired beauty travelling the woods with a huntsman?" She had no answer for him. He stood for a moment watching her intently, and then turned away, his eyes assessing their surroundings. "We have to keep moving. There are still a couple of hours left before dark."
"Where should we go?" She asked, and silently added, now that there's no-one to go to anymore.
"As far away from those people as possible. They make enough noise to wake the dead," he said and started walking. He had not answered her question, not really, and she suspected he didn't know the answer any more than she did. But she followed him nonetheless, for she did not know any other way.
Just before dark, they settled under some sheltering pines. She rested against the rough bark and watched as the shadows slowly merged into the twilight. He came to lean against another tree just an arm's length away from her. They had scarcely spoken after meeting the travelers. He had led the way determinedly, and she had stumbled after him, her head full of questions and doubts. She couldn't help but voice some of them now, the uncertainty a slow poison in her.
"I understand if you don't want – I mean, if you want to go your separate way. I can't promise you any gold now," she said, releasing him from his promise.
He was quiet so long she thought he would not answer, until finally he said, "You really think I'm doing this for the gold?"
"No," she told him the truth. She didn't believe that, not anymore, not after he had come back to burning Fenland and then promised to take her to Duke Hammond. But it was a different thing to guide her to a definite place, where he could leave her, than to drag her with him with no sanctuary in sight, the queen's bloodhounds hot on their heels. She told him so.
"Aye, there's a difference," he snorted. "But not as big as you think. The bloodhounds will follow us wherever we go; they would have howled outside the Duke's gates and found a way in. The queen is a hunter and knows that when your quarry goes to ground, you leave it no ground to go to."
"So I brought this on him – and all those people in his care and service." She felt sick.
"Listen to me," his voice was intense as he bent towards her. "The Duke defied her a long time, fought against her – he brought this on himself and his people. It was only a matter of time; she tolerates no opposition." She grudgingly accepted his words, but even as they eased her guilt, the dull ache of sorrow remained.
"If only we could find William…" she wished aloud, even as she knew it was impossible with no hint of his whereabouts. They would have to go their own way. "So where do we go from here?" She asked.
"We cannot go to the north anymore, it's too big a risk, nor can we go back to the east. The valleys in the south are too exposed, so there is only one direction left to go; towards the mountains in the west. They know it too, but perhaps we can still lose them in the rocky terrain," he mused. "So what do you say?"
She didn't have to think long for her answer, "To the west then."
"Alright, princess," he offered her his hand and she took it, and unlike the last time they shook hands, she knew he would guide her true. "Just Snow," she corrected him almost shyly.
"Alright, Snow," she thought she could see his smile despite the darkness as he said, "Call me Eric."
They were up at the first peek of the sun. The huntsman stretched his long limbs, took his pack from the ground and started walking. Snow forced her stiff and aching legs to follow and tried to ignore the ache of her empty stomach. She knew they would have their breakfast on the road, like every other morning. Sure enough, they had not travelled far, when he took the water bottle and the remaining bread from his pack and passed them to her, walking all the while.
She drank deep, the tepid water heavenly to her parched throat. When she had drunk her fill, she gave the bottle back to him and examined the loaf of bread. Its size had diminished alarmingly during their journey.
"Eat up," Eric urged her.
"Is this all we have left?"
"We have some dried meat for tonight, but soon I'll have to hunt," he said and then added dryly, "Or we'll have to find someone to rob." She could only hope he was joking.
As she ate, she thought of how useless she was to him even in such a simple matter as foraging them more food. Her berry gathering the day before yesterday had nearly ended in a catastrophe; luckily he had prevented her from eating them just in time, for the poisonous berries would have made her agonizingly sick. Once more, she resolved to learn.
Slowly the sun climbed higher. They walked silently, and the monotonous and automatic laboring onwards left her thoughts to drift and turn to unexpected directions as in a sleep. Snow caught herself admiring Eric's broad shoulders and strong body as she walked behind him and was glad he could not see her blush.
Her thoughts were halted, when the huntsman stopped suddenly. It all seemed to happen in the blink of an eye: one moment she was ready to inquire to the reason of the abrupt stop, the next she was being unceremoniously shoved to the ground. A clang of steel rang close to her ear, and as she turned, she saw Eric's axe blocking a sword just inches from her face. Then the huntsman pushed and drove the other man away from her, leaving her stunned on the ground.
Luckily her wits returned to her quickly, and Snow backed away hurriedly and took in the scene, her heart thumping fast and hard. They had been found, but her wildly searching eyes could only see the one man fighting with Eric, not any others.
The two men were locked in a furious combat. Weapons clashing, movements so fast they almost melted into a single blur of motion, Eric and the other man fought violently. Every thrust of sword and axe, every savage blow and kick, was meant to kill.
She watched helplessly from the sidelines, not knowing how to help best, when the fight was over as quickly and unexpectedly as it had begun. The huntsman released a quick thundering strike of his axe that the man couldn't block, then all movement ceased. The man was dead on the ground, and Eric was standing over him, breathing heavily.
"Are you hurt?" He turned towards her, his eyes raking over her figure.
"No," she met his gaze with her own worried eyes. "Are you?"
"No," he said and broke the eye contact, turning back to the body on the ground. "We don't have much time. They have probably sent other scouts to scour the terrain, and as soon as this one fails to return in time they'll know which way to go." He kneeled beside the dead man and drew a dangerous looking knife from the man's belt. He handed it to her. "This will suit you better than the sword." The knife had a long blade, as long as her forearm. She gripped the wooden hilt, trying to imagine using the weapon on someone and failing.
"Here, take this," Eric had taken of the man's belt and now offered it to her. She took it, numb, and watched as he continued to strip the corpse. He seemed to deem the water bottle, pack of food, a small leather pouch and a rolled up blanket good enough to take, and then paused to consider. "Do you want the boots?" She shook her head quickly.
"They would be too big on you anyway," Eric looked appraisingly at her feet and then started to take off the man's long black coat.
"I don't want anything," she said, and couldn't turn her eyes away from the dead man's waxen face.
"Well, nonetheless, you are going to need this," he said, tugging and pulling until the coat was free of the body. "It's colder on the mountains."
Snow couldn't fault his logic, and so she girded the knife to her new belt and then put on the coat. It wasn't overly big on her, for the man had been stocky but short. Without further ado, the huntsman continued their journey, and once again she couldn't do anything else but follow. And as they hurried further and further away from the corpse, she couldn't help but think that they had ended up robbing someone after all.