A/N: Again, thank you to all the lovely readers! I can't properly express how wonderful it feels to hear from you :)) Hope you enjoy this next installment. Sorry for any grammatical errors, I was in a rush to post this!
The smell of death was overwhelming. Thick clouds of smoke filled the air, stinging Eric's eyes and blocking any possible view of the stars. He looked up in search of them anyway, hoping to find any image to replace the ones that haunted him now. Though he would never claim this battle as having been easy, he and his men had conquered the enraged villagers with little effort. As he had suspected, the men were crazed and already half-dead from starvation. They hadn't stood a chance.
In reality, they had never stood a chance. Not with the kingdom in such a state under Ravenna's rule. Some men just handled it better than these had, were stronger to withstand the maddening tyranny, the lack of work and food, the dying land, and the occasional disappearing wives and daughters. No one could hope to walk away from such a way of life unchanged. Everyone had been affected in their own way. Eric only wished that the men had had the strength to see their country rebuilt.
He closed his eyes and all he could see were the hollow, lifeless eyes of those men staring back at him. He and his men had gathered the bodies together to be burned, and each one tossed on to the mound left Eric feeling sicker.
There was once a time in his life when he lived for the fight. He charged into countless battles, became fueled by each body that crumpled at his feet. He learned early on that he was good at killing and such a talent should not be wasted. But Sarah had changed all of that. Even after her death when he returned to so many of his vices, her sweet and innocent memory prevented him from ever entering again into a world of bloodshed.
And now it was his job to do so.
He understood that it was an important task, that he had a duty to protect the crown and its people. Yet he never imagined that he'd have to protect the people from their own. It was a horrible thought, knowing that the men burning behind him were his own countrymen.
Eric surveyed what was left of the village that had been under attack when the battle began. The majority of the buildings had burned to the ground and the townspeople gathered in those that remained. Many of the women were bandaging the men who had courageously stepped in to protect the village. Thankfully, Eric and his men had arrived in time to prevent most of the devastation.
However, the village was dead all the same. He could see no life in the people's faces or actions. Snow had been right when she said that these people needed to hear from their queen, to know that they had hope for the future.
Still, the thought of her traveling to these outlying villages where so many had lost sight of their humanity made Eric physically ill with worry. Every time he imagined her within one of these towns, speaking to people like this, his stomach twisted into very uncomfortable knots. He wished more than anything for the power to dissuade her from her plans.
Though he wasn't sure he would if able. He knew it had to be done, just wished like hell it could be someone else's task.
Not for the first time in these many weeks, he pictured her face to block out all else. He found himself increasingly irritable and anxious to start their return journey. Several times on their search for the brutes, Eric had almost come to blows with one of his own men. In hindsight, he knew it was for nothing that they had done. He was just unhappy as long as he was away from her.
How had he let it get this far? He had promised himself that he would keep his feelings at bay, to give her the space she needed to figure out what her true feelings were. Eric recalled their goodbye a few weeks ago and the extreme lack of space between them as he held her in his arms. He had broken all the rules, and in the process toyed with her emotions on an unforgivable scale.
Touching her face had nearly sent him over the edge. In that moment, he almost surrendered; he very nearly kissed her right then and there, hidden in the darkness. Though it went against all propriety, he knew she would not have resisted. The fact that he knew she welcomed it was probably the only thing that gave him the strength to resist.
She deserved better. He had probably hurt her in his hasty departure, not offering anything save a simple promise to see her soon. In truth, he had wanted to say so much more. He'd liked to have explained just how uneasy it made him, knowing that he was not going to be near enough to protect her if need be. He'd wanted to tell her how much it would pain him to not see her face each day.
Eric stopped his thoughts there. He was having to train himself to be more careful with his mind, it was dangerous territory to be entering. Especially since he had convinced himself that her moving on would be the best possible thing for her. Perhaps his absence would even do her good. She'd no doubt be spending the majority of her time with William, and since Eric knew the truth of how the boy felt about her, he doubted that Snow was oblivious to his intentions.
Perhaps being alone with William would open her eyes to what should be.
Pain in his palm brought Eric's attention to his clenched fists. He was wrong to let himself become so angry at that possibility, especially when their union would be expected and right. Right and wrong aside, however, he still felt like hitting something.
"Captain?" Bad timing, Eric thought as he turned to face his second-in-command.
"What is it, Phillip?"
"Some of the villagers have expressed their desire to accompany us back, as you said. I told them we leave first thing in the morning."
Eric stared into the fire as it continued to grow in height, watching as the last body finally disappeared into the impressive flames. Hundreds of specks of ash rose into the sky, before their brilliant hue faded and was eventually lost in the backdrop of the dark night. He couldn't stay here a minute longer.
"Change of plans," he remarked, his voice strained by the smoke. "Tell the villagers we leave in two hours. They can take whatever they can carry, no more. If they're not ready by then, we leave without 'em."
Eric turned his back to the flames and made his way to his men. They were heading home tonight.
Eleven days later, Eric caught his first glimpse of the castle towers. They appeared on the blue horizon like a beacon would in the night and he had to resist the momentary urge to run the rest of the way.
It had been slow going with the extra men, women, and children in tow from the village, but he had been pleased to find them not all that disagreeable. In fact, there had been very little complaining by any of the villagers, save a few tired kids here and there. He was sure they would like it in their new homes, and hoped that Snow didn't mind his promising on her behalf that the crown would do everything in its power to get them on their feet in no time.
Snow. He felt as if it had been years since he'd seen her face, when in reality it had only been a few weeks. The final few days had been the worst yet. His traitor mind conjuring up all sorts of ideas about the castle walls being breached and she being forced to fight to defend herself. Not that he didn't believe that she could, she'd already proven that, but if there was going to be any fighting going on, he wanted to be by her side.
He was, after all, Captain of the Queen's Guard… that would naturally include being there to guard the queen.
As they made their way down the coastline, Eric heard the familiar sound of the portcullis lifting and it was like music to his ears. He was aware of many others greeting and clapping hands on his shoulder as he passed, but everything blurred together once he caught sight of her. She was his only focus, the center of it all, standing atop the base of the stairs just outside the main castle doors, ready to welcome them home.
And Eric felt the relief and peace that usually accompanied a homecoming. He did feel like he was home. Don't be an ass, Eric. This is not your home. Even his own internal reprimands did not do their usual job.
She wore an emerald green dress with silver and gold details etched into it. The colors immediately reminded him of her eyes. Her raven colored hair was pulled back in elegant braids and the loveliest of smiles lit up her entire face. However stupid or ridiculous that may make him, he saw home in that smile.
He approached the stair base and bowed ceremoniously, only then realizing that Duke Hammond and William were at her side. He straightened and offered them both a greeting.
"Captain, I see you've managed to bring all your men home…and then some," the Duke commented whilst his eyes roamed over the crowd before him.
"Aye. Some of the villagers thought it might be time for a change in scenery, can't say I blame them either," he answered before looking to Snow. "I hope this pleases Her Majesty."
"Yes, of course, Captain," her eyes rested on the small children of the party. "You've done well. All of you have. I owe you a great debt of gratitude!" She said raising her voice to be heard among the crowd.
"Your service to the crown will not be forgotten," Hammond added. Eric noticed Snow's eyebrows knit together at his proclamation.
"Nor your service to your country," she added before bowing her head before them all. Eric could not help but smile at her display, more proud of her than he had ever been. She was truly a magnificent queen.
"Highness, these villagers are in need of a place to sleep 'til a more suitable living situation is found. And with your permission, I'm sure my men would like to be dismissed to go greet their wives now."
"Perhaps they'd benefit from a bath first." William interjected with a grin as Eric began making his way up the stone steps.
"Perhaps they both can be taken care of at the same time." He jokingly punched William in the arm. Despite his warring thoughts about the plans for Snow and William, Eric could not make himself dislike the boy. He heard her giggle behind him. He turned and raised an eyebrow in her direction. Before he could say anything, however, Duke Hammond cleared his throat.
"I trust you have word on the status of these villages."
"Duke, these matters can be discussed at a later time. I am certain the Captain is in much need of rest," Snow interrupted, the corner of her mouth rising slightly. "And probably would appreciate a bath himself. I know the rest of us would." She covered her nose to further prove her point.
William laughed out loud beside him. Flashing a dangerous grin, Eric slowly stepped toward Snow until he towered over her. She looked up at him, the set of her mouth revealing how proud she was of her insult.
"The Queen is not impressed with the rugged look?" he asked, rubbing his overgrown beard. She took a step back as flecks of dirt flew off his face.
"Very charming, indeed," she said with a laugh. "I only fear for my family's portraits inside. That smell might very well peel the paint."
Eric tipped his head back and laughed loudly, already feeling better than he had in weeks. "This is the thanks I get?"
"Captain," Hammond interrupted. "After cleaning yourself up, perhaps you could join us for the evening meal. I would like to hear a brief account of the last month, at the very least."
"Very well, I s'pose that can be done." Eric turned and bowed his head toward Snow, who was still grinning wildly as he walked passed her. He was halfway to the gate when he heard her call out, "Huntsman!"
She cleared the steps and hurriedly made her way to stand before him. The smile had vanished, she fixed him with a very serious stare and he mentally prepared himself for whatever she might have to say.
"I know you might think it is enough," she began, keeping her voice low. "But whatever you feel is sufficient, I assure you it is not. Scrub yourself twice as long, and thrice as hard." He narrowed his eyes at her as he watched the smile return. She turned to walk back toward the castle doors and she could not hide the shake of her shoulders as she laughed at her own joke.
Eric rolled his eyes. The Queen had become a jester in his absence. At the stairs, he saw William watching with a concerned look upon his face.
Snow felt positively exultant as she walked into the dining hall. All those nights of worrying now seemed to her ridiculous and silly. A tranquil atmosphere filled the room along with numerous voices and laughter. She had offered the refugees rooms in the west wing tonight so they could rest soundly before finding permanent living situations. She was very pleased with the decision as she took in the smiling faces of the children, enjoying what was probably the first decent meal they'd had in a long time.
The people stood and bowed before her, but she gestured for them to continue enjoying their meal. A tug on her skirt brought her attention to the small girl standing beside her. Her dress was frayed and stained yellow in some parts, but her freckled face and strawberry blonde hair appeared freshly cleaned. She smiled warmly revealing a missing tooth. Snow kneeled down to be eye level with the girl.
"Hello there. Did you enjoy your meal?" Snow asked, already smitten by the girl's angelic face.
"Very much, thank you. You are the most prettiest queen I haved seen," she said, touching the sleeves of Snow's fine dress.
"Thank you, sweet one. But I don't think I have ever seen a prettier face than yours." The girl's entire face lit up and she ran back to sit by her mother. Snow stood and only then noticed the Huntsman's presence by her side.
"I have to agree with her. Prettiest I've ever seen, without doubt," he said this while watching the girl excitedly relay their conversation to her family. Snow looked up to the side of his face that was once again clean-shaven. The scent of pine and soap lingered on him and his still wet hair was tied back neatly.
"And exactly how many queens have you seen in your time?"
"Only the two," he answered. He looked down to smile at her and she forgot whatever response she had intended to give.
"I can actually see your face again, no dirt or hair to hide it," she said while overwhelmed with the desire to touch it. He must have seen such desire in her eyes, for he cleared his throat and gestured for them to take their seats at the table. He walked over and pulled back her chair to help her seated before taking his own at the far right corner again.
They ate their dinner in relative silence, though the Huntsman had a harder time controlling the sounds escaping his mouth as he devoured his meal. She discreetly motioned to a servant to bring him another plate. She knew it would not go to waste. Snow stifled a smile as the plate was set before him and he didn't even look up from his potatoes.
"So Captain," Duke Hammond began, wiping his mouth with the cloth napkin. "What news from the north?"
The Huntsman paused in chewing the mouthful of bread, his eyes darting back and forth between the Duke and herself. Snow shifted uncomfortably, fully aware that the Huntsman was irritated by Hammond's question. Custom dictated that conversation at the dinner table would not begin until the Queen initiated it, and that usually did not occur until she had finished her meal. Of course, Snow was not one to enforce such trivial rules, especially since it normally took her twice as long to finish the plate before her. She had spent too many years hungry and was not likely to rush through any second of a meal. She wondered if the Huntsman was aware of this custom though, or if he was just perturbed by the interruption of his meal.
"The people are 'bout as well off as you'd suspect," he answered, not bothering to finishing chewing his food before. "We passed through four villages, all more or less the same. There's not enough food or honest work. The men are desperate, and the women and children are hungry. The land is healing, but it's still far from what it once was."
He paused, washing down his food with a quick drink before pointing his glass to the Duke. "Here's a wild thought for ya, Duke. You really want to know how bad off these people are, why don't you ask 'em yourself." The Huntsman looked to the villagers at the other tables.
"We are all aware of the unfortunate conditions of the land, thus far," Hammond answering, ignoring the Huntsman's attempt. "But as you stated, it is healing. We have only to wait. It is the desperate men, as you call them, whom I am concerned with. It is no time for the Queen, or any lady for that matter, to travel."
"We've been through this, sir," Snow answered. "There is no danger in traveling when with my guards who are specially trained and equipped to protect me."
"I do not doubt their capabilities, my lady. I only wish to make you understand the needless risk you will be taking."
"Needless?" The Huntsman's voice echoed through the room. "Which part of what I've said made you decide it was needless? They need hope, Hammond."
"I do not think he meant needless in that sense, Captain." William interjected.
"Try to understand-" a voice said from the table, though Snow was not quick enough to determine who the source was.
"The people need help! She's the queen, she wants to help; where exactly is the issue here?" The Huntsman was getting angry now, she could see. Snow opened her mouth to speak but Hammond was faster.
"I realize that you are new to matters of government, Huntsman, but understand that it is not as simple as that. Queen Snow is the most important figure in our kingdom – more than a leader, she's our symbol of rebirth. We cannot risk her safety by putting her through another perilous journey."
Snow heard agreements and disagreements among the table as the discussion lost all organization. She tried but failed to follow the conversation as voices shouted over each other. She saw the Huntsman and Lord Wellington stand up to make their points in what appeared to be two different matters. Twice she called out to gain their attention.
Exasperated, she snatched a roll from her plate and slouched back into her seat. She tore pieces away and threw them into her mouth in a very unladylike fashion, not that anyone would notice now anyway. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed one of the villagers approach. He looked to be a young man, though the dirt-covered face and matted hair made it difficult for Snow to know definitively how old he might be. The expression on his face made her uneasy: his eyes were dark and brow furrowed, but a small smile was on his lips. Something about the misplaced smile was the reason for her discomfort, but she immediately felt guilty for feeling that way toward a man who had probably been through too much in recent years.
She straightened in her chair and smiled his way. He bowed stiffly before taking her hand and kissing it. "I wanted to thank the Queen for welcoming us into your grand castle, and letting us eat your bountiful food. You are too kind," the smile vanished as he finished and Snow removed her hand from his tight grip.
Before she could comprehend what was happening, or see if anyone else amongst her table was aware, the villager pulled a long knife from his trousers and raised it above his head. The blade stared her in the eye as he used his full force to bring it down to her. Without thinking, she raised her forearm to block the blow. She saw his other hand reaching for her and quickly brought her knees up and planted her feet at the edge of the table, kicking hard to tip her entire chair back.
She landed with a resounding thud on her back and used her attacker's momentary surprise to kick him as hard as she could between the legs. He cried out and did not have time to raise his knife again before being tackled to the ground by William. She was all at once surrounded by the men of her counsel, being helped to her feet by Hammond and another Lord.
Her view of the attacker was blocked, but she heard the unmistakable sound of flesh pounding against flesh as he shouted out curses. She winced as another pained groan sounded through the room, but took some comfort in the fact that it had been William subduing the man and not the Huntsman. At least William would not inflict mortal injuries.
Where was the Huntsman, anyway? Both her arms were being gripped and she heard numerous inquiries as to her well-being, but her eyes searched through the commotion for him.
Then she saw her attacker raised above the crowd of men before being slammed on to his back on the table. Dishes and food flew everywhere as the man desperately tried freeing himself from the deathly grip on his neck. Snow winced as the Huntsman's voice roared above all else.
"WHO ARE YOU? WHY ARE YOU HERE?"
One of the man's hands remained gripping at the Huntsman's hold, while the other searched frantically for something to defend himself with. The Huntsman quickly trapped the other with a knife through his palm. Snow let out a shriek of terror as the man's screams filled the room.
"Speak now and I will make your death a quick one." He must have loosened the grip on his neck, for the man gasped and coughed violently. "How did you get in here?" The Huntsman hissed.
"I was invited in! Waltzed right in with the rest of the hungry!" Snow glanced over at the tables where the villagers had been seated. They all now stood with similar looks of horror on their faces. Could there be more assassins among them? Her eyes rested on the girl with the angel's face and shivered at the thought.
"You had been with the other men? The ones terrorizing the villages?" William asked a little breathlessly.
"The ones you slaughtered! What did you want us to do, lie down and die? A man's got to fight to survive! 'Course there weren't much fight in us, hunger'll do that to ya. Didn't stop your men from rippin' us apart, did it?"
"Do not expect sympathy from us. You and your men were attacking women and children!" William shouted back.
"Not going to explain myself to the likes of you. How could you know? Living here in your warm castle and having your fill of food. Bet there's food left'n your plate, too," the man turned his head and spit toward the scattered food. The Huntsman twisted the knife, causing him to cry out.
"I had to see for myself, this queen who's been likened to our savior. S'posed to worship her, they say! Trading one evil for another is what I said all along. I knew it, too! She's got no idea what's going on behind these walls… people are starving while her lover gets second helpings!"
Snow felt as if she'd had the breath knocked out of her. The Huntsman pulled the knife from the man's palm and yanked him from the table. "Get 'im to a cell. And see to it that the gallows is prepared," he ordered, shoving the bleeding man toward three of the guards who stood nearby.
She watched as the man fought against the men who escorted him out of the room, laughing after each blow he received. Her eyes filled with unshed tears as she watched them go. "Just like her! She's just like her!" The man's shouts echoed down the hall.
The Huntsman stood with his back to her, his knuckles turning white in the hand that gripped the knife. Snow could hear his heavy breathing slowly getting back to normal before he turned to face her. She could not look him in the eye, or meet any of the other stares that she felt fixed on her at that moment.
She felt cold, as if ice were running through her veins as she stared at the wasted remains of their meal scattered about the table. She blinked away the moisture in her eyes and took a deep breath.
"Whatever plans you need to make to give you some sort of peace of mind, do them. In one week from tonight, I will leave to visit as many villages possible. I care not whether any of you think it is a wise decision or not. We will meet every night until then to map out the journey.
Good night, gentlemen."
And with that she made her way out of the room, feeling every eye on her back as she did so. She could still hear the man shouting as she made her way to her chambers, though she was unsure as to whether it echoed in the castle or within her own mind.
She's just like her!