CHAPTER 9 – BIRTHDAY

Recommended for mature audiences only. Some content is not suitable for young readers.

(Updated for errors & minor context - 02-Feb-2018)

Snow woke without opening her eyes. Remembering what day it was, she groaned and squeezed her eyes shut even harder. The morning sun bathed her naked back as she stretched her arm across the bed, searching for him. As she suspected, her bed was empty, just as it always was in the mornings.

Not wanting to dwell on the day ahead, Snow buried her face in her feather pillow and grinned at her memories from the previous night. His roaming hands and his perfect mouth, claiming every part of her, trailing down every inch of her quivering body. The taunting memories made her squirm and the sweet ache between her thighsmade itself known. Her breath hitched, and she rolled onto her back, breathless, forcing her eyes open for the first time. How did he make her feel so alive? Just thinking about him awakened all kinds of feelings in her.

Pull yourself together, Snow told herself. Shaking her head clear, she sat up, and in the corner of her eye she spotted a blood-red rose resting on the pillow beside her. With it was a small note. Smiling, Snow picked up the rose and smelt it. Its sweet perfume filled her, and she reached for the small piece of parchment. Small words written with a quick hand sprawled across it.

Happy birthday, princess.

Snow found herself beaming. Taking the rose and the note, Snow got out of bed, put on her silk robe and sat at her vanity table. Looking at the face before her, Snow wondered if she looked any older than the day before. Dismissing the thought at once, she was slightly annoyed at herself for worrying about her complexion when Mary came bounding through the door.

"Your Majesty! Happy Birthday, my dear!" Mary curtsied when she saw the young Queen.

"Thank you, Mary." Snow smiled appreciatively, twirling the rose with her fingers.

"How are you feeling?"

"I feel wonderful," Snow replied, and it couldn't be truer. Her injury had almost completely healed; all that remained was a nasty red scar that would hopefully fade over time. She felt strong, thanks to all her training, and not just physically. She was truly happy, and it showed in everything she did.

Mary quickly tossed the bed sheets back over the bed and smoothed them out. Snow bit her lip, annoyed that Mary had gotten to it first. The kind maid was always one step ahead of her, no matter how hard Snow tried to do things for herself.

"What would you like to wear, dear?" Mary said as she finished the bed and wandered over to the large cupboard. Snow wasn't training today; Eric had kindly given her the day to rest before the Ball later that night.

"Oh, something plain, I think." Seeing Mary's confused face, Snow quickly added, "Just until I have to change for the Ball. I don't want to be prancing around all day like a peacock showing off its feathers."

"Of course, my dear," Mary laughed.

After she was dressed in a simple green frock, Snow went down to the kitchens to eat as she usually did, only this time Eric wasn't there to meet her. Assuming he was busy on guard duty because of the celebration, Snow sat and spoke with Greta as she ate.

"I am so excited, your Majesty! Are you going to dance with all the men? You will look so beautiful!" Greta was her usual cheerful self, but today she was beaming from ear to ear. She sat opposite Snow with her chin resting in her hands.

"I'm sure you will look just as wonderful, Greta." Snow smiled at the young girl, whose eye's suddenly saddened.

"Oh, I won't be going. Well I will be there, but not as a guest. There is too much to be done!"

Snow frowned. She had been looking forward to spending time with her female companion. "Well that simply won't do, Greta. I am inviting you as my personal guest. You have been so kind to me, it is the least I can do."

Greta's eyes widened and shook her head, her long braids swinging around her shoulders. "Oh, no! No, your Majesty, I couldn't. I… I have to work."

Snow reached forward and put her hand over Greta's. "Please, Greta. Let me do this for you? I'll see to it that you still get paid for your time, and we can have fun together. I simply can't take no for an answer."

"Oh, thank you!" Greta's large smile returned, and she threw her arms around the Queen, taking Snow by surprise. Collecting herself, Greta quickly pulled back and turned pink. "Oh, I'm sorry, your Majesty. I forgot myself."

Snow laughed and squeezed Greta's hand. "Don't be sorry. I am glad you are excited. Promise me one thing though, Greta?"

Greta nodded enthusiastically, "Yes, anything your Majesty!"

"I want you to find your Aunt Mary and have her show you to my gowns. You may choose any one you wish. You shall look like a princess, Greta, and you shall dance with every nobleman at the Ball! What a lovely time we shall have!"

Leaving Greta in a state of shock, Snow left the kitchens just as they were getting busy in preparation for her birthday. On her way back to the Royal Apartments, Snow walked past the Grand Ballroom and William emerged looking flustered. He had been busy preparing things for the celebration, and Snow wasn't allowed in there because he wanted her to be surprised.

"Snow!" he exclaimed when he saw her. "I mean- your Majesty. Happy birthday." He bowed and gently kissed Snow on the hand.

"Thank you, William. You look a little flustered, is everything okay?" Snow tried to hide her amusement at his expression.

Running his hand through his hair, William sighed. "Yes, I'm fine. Very busy, but fine. Everything is coming along nicely, I think you will be pleased."

"I'm sure I will, you are very kind to do this for me. Thank you."

"It's my pleasure. I was wondering, I know that Eric is on duty tonight, so would you like me to accompany you?"

Snow's heart sank. Was William really going to try this again? They had got along so well these past weeks.

Seeing her face, William added, "I don't mean anything by it, your Majesty. I just thought you'd like someone to walk in with. I know how much you hate crowds. And dancing."

Immediately feeling guilty, Snow smiled. "Thank you, William. That would be very kind of you." He was right. She hated dancing. She was never any good at it as a child, even when she was forced to have lessons.

Snow left William to his plans and returned to her apartment and sat in her office. It had been decorated nicely now that she was using it more often. A vase of flowers sat in the corner of her desk, new curtains had been hung and a woolen rug was spread out over the floor. It wasn't much, but Snow wanted to keep the room simple and tidy.

Snow reached into one of the desk drawers and pulled out the maps she had been studying. Spreading them out in front of her, Snow examined the drawings and words. Eric's handwriting was scattered over the parchment, indicating all the villages, lakes, mountains and landmarks of Tabor. He had spent hours each afternoon drumming the pictures and names into her, so that Snow would have some idea of what her Kingdom looked like after ten years. She knew most of it by now, but she still looked them over every now and then to make sure she hadn't missed anything.

A while later, there was a knock on the door and Duke Hammond entered carrying a small bundle of parchment. "Only you would be sitting in here on your birthday. Just like your father," he smiled as he bowed. "Happy birthday, your Majesty. Are you feeling well?"

Pushing her maps aside, Snow smiled up at the man. "Very well, thank you Duke Hammond. More papers to sign?"

Snow somewhat broke the Duke out of his gaze as he remembered what he was there for. "Ah! Yes, some deeds to small parts of land, one note for the new tax arrangement and a couple more declarations." The Duke placed the pile of parchment on the desk. "Feel free to read over them slowly. I don't need them until tomorrow."

Snow sifted through the pile quickly and put them to the side. "Thank you. Is there anything else?"

"No, your Majesty, that is everything. I just wanted to give you these documents. Also, William and Eric are both busy, so I said I'd come and check on you and place an extra guard at your door." The Duke turned for the door and paused with his hand on the handle. "I shall see you tonight, your Majesty," and he left the office, closing the door gently behind him.

Snow stared at the back of the door and sighed. Another guard? This was ridiculous. Snow had come to realise that Duke Hammond was a very peculiar man. One moment he wanted control of everything and the next, he seemed quite happy to let Snow do all the work. Snow had made an agreement with herself not to let the Duke bother her anymore. She would take him as he was and do her best at running her kingdom, with or without his help. Sooner or later he would return to his own castle. Perhaps William would go with him? She wasn't sure how she felt about that yet.

The afternoon seemed to fly past as Snow read through her forms and returned them to the Duke herself. Before she knew it, Mary had found her and convinced her to start getting ready for the Ball.

After her bath, Snow sat in her silk robe while Mary fiddled with her hair. Snow gave up trying to follow Mary's fingers in the mirror as they weaved and curled parts of her hair. Instead, she played with the rose that was left on the vanity table from the morning.

"I heard what you did for Greta, your Majesty. That was very kind. I have never seen her so excited."

Snow laughed and imagined Greta telling her aunt. "I'm glad she is happy. Did she manage to find a dress? I haven't seen her again today."

"Oh yes, dear. She chose one earlier while you were in your study. We didn't want to disturb you, so we let you be."

"Fantastic. I am excited to have at least one female companion. Will you be attending, Mary?"

"Most definitely. Not for long though, dear. Parties are beginning to be too tiring for an old woman like me! Unless you want me to stay, that is."

"Oh, do not stay on my account. Stay as long or as little as you want." Snow stroked the petals on the rose, being gentle not to pull them off.

"That is a beautiful rose, dear. From the Huntsman?" Mary's voice was warm and soft, and Snow couldn't help but smile and nod.

"I love roses. My mother once told me a story about a rose like this." Snow thought back to when her mother would tell her stories before she had gotten ill. The story of the rose was short, but it was her favourite.

"It was winter," Snow continued and Mary listened as she worked with Snow's hair. "The sky was black, and snow covered the ground as my mother roamed the gardens. She spotted a beautiful red rose amongst all the snow and she walked over to it. As she reached for it, admiring its beauty, she pricked her finger and a drop of blood fell onto the snow. I remember her saying she had wished for a daughter with lips as red as the blood, skin as white as the snow, hair as black as the night sky and was as strong as a rose in winter."

"Is that how you got your name, dear? No wonder you like roses."

Snow nodded and smelt the rose before speaking again. "Yes, but it's not why I love them. Roses remind me of her, she smelt like them because she was always in the garden. I suppose also, because they remind me of how much she loved me. From the moment she saw that rose she had wanted me... and she never meant to leave me."

Mary stopped what she was doing and stared at the girl in the mirror. Such a darling thing, whose whole world was stolen from her at such a young age. Yet there she sat, after defying evil and reclaiming what was rightfully hers. She really was as strong as a rose in winter.

Mary leant down and hugged Snow's shoulders. "Your parents would be proud of you, darling. You are a fine young woman."

"Thank you, Mary." Taking a deep breath and forcing back her tears, Snow put on a large smile and stood. "Right, what shall I wear?"

Snow stood outside the Grand Ballroom doors clutching William's arm. She wore a soft yellow gown and her curled hair fell around her shoulders and down her back. She could barely breathe, not only because the dress was almost crushing her lungs, but because she was so nervous. Snow focussed on what was in front of her, trying to breathe and calm herself and not think about what lay on the other side of those heavy doors.

"Are you alright?" William gazed down at the young Queen. "Don't be nervous, you look beautiful."

Snow nodded quickly and swallowed hard. "Thank you for walking with me, William." Snow was glad she had somebody to hold onto because she wasn't sure she'd make it in there on her own. Seconds later, the doors opened, and she was led into the Grand Ballroom.

The first thing Snow noticed was not the crowd of people cheering and calling her name, but an instant wave of perfume and sea of colours. The ceiling, the walls and everywhere she could place her eyes was covered in some sort of foliage. The most beautiful purple wisteria hung from the ceiling, creating a sky of soft violet. Flowering vines of all colours covered the walls and the tables were laden with cherry blossom centerpieces. Standing in the middle of the hall was a fountain covered in red and white roses. Snow stared around her in astonishment as William led her through the crowd towards a long table on a dais overlooking the ballroom.

"Do you like it?" William spoke as they neared her seat.

"I love it," Snow exclaimed. "I cannot believe you did this all. How has everything stayed so alive?"

"Most of it was done today. Ah, my father is already here."

Snow looked at the long table and saw that Duke Hammond was waiting by his seat. Snow had only just spotted him when she noticed a familiar guard standing behind her throne. Her heart skipped a beat and it took all her strength not to run the rest of the way and fling herself at him. The Huntsman stood against the back wall behind the Queen's throne with his arms behind his back. A smirk came across his face when they made eye contact and he winked.

William and Snow finally made it to the long table. "Thank you, William." Snow pulled her hand from his arm and William nodded went and stood by his own seat. Duke Hammond greeted the Queen, wishing her a happy birthday again.

"You look marvellous, your Majesty. If you'll excuse me, I will let you take your seat so I can say a few words and hush the crowd." Duke Hammond bowed quickly and went to subdue the cheering guests.

The Huntsman moved to her as soon as the Duke had left her side. "Milady," he said and bowed. "Ye look…" his eyes darkened as they danced over her body, "…ravishing."

"Thank you," Snow blushed.

The Huntsman ushered Snow to her seat, his hand on her back as they walked. Snow sat next to William and faced the crowd, but all her senses were focussed on the man standing behind her throne. All she could think about was touching him. She wanted to be in his arms so desperately.

The Duke cleared his throat and the crowd began to disperse and find their own seats. He began by thanking everybody for attending and mentioned a few notable guests. It was then that Snow tried to focus her attention on the guests. She noticed the dwarves first and felt a pang of guilt. She hadn't seen them in so long, and she vowed to speak to them tonight if she got the chance. Looking around again, Snow spotted Mary near the back of the hall and smiled. Mary returned the smile and glanced pointedly towards a table in the middle. Snow followed her gaze and saw Greta beaming back at her, wearing a lovely emerald gown.

"Your Majesty?" The Dukes voice broke Snow out of her thoughts.

"Yes?" Snow stared at the Duke, who was staring back at her questioningly. He must have known she hadn't been listening to his speech.

"I asked if you would like to say anything? Thank anyone for this beautiful celebration?" the Duke asked suggestively.

Of course, she had to say something. Why had she not thought about this before? Snow stood out of her chair and went to stand by the Duke in front of the large crowd. "Thank you very much for coming. It means a lot that you all are helping me celebrate my first birthday back as Queen." In all honesty, Snow would rather be laying in bed, tucked away in the Huntsman's arms, but she wasn't about to announce that to the entire Kingdom. Keeping her speech short, Snow thanked William and some other servants for planning the celebration and returned to her seat. Servants then emerged and started serving everyone food and drink and the Duke took his seat next to the Queen. She wondered if the Huntsman was going to eat, or if he had already. She hated the fact that he was on duty.

As soon as everybody was eating, the band started up and a lovely, happy tune flooded the ballroom. Snow devoured her food and even accepted a second serving when she was offered. She had just finished her second plate when a short stubby man from the band announced the Queen's first dance. Terror reached the pit of her stomach and a cold chill went through her. What? Snow panicked. In front of everybody? She thought a least everybody would be dancing together. Not a moment later, William stood from his seat and offered her his hand. Trying not to make a big deal out of it, Snow took his hand and William led her to the middle of the ballroom. Snow hardly looked at the Huntsman as they passed. She didn't need to see him to imagine the look on his face.

They reached their place in the middle of the floor and a large circle formed as everybody gathered around them. Snow looked around nervously at everyone. She immediately wished she hadn't eaten so much because now she thought it was all going to come back up. Oh, please god, she prayed. Don't let me make a fool of myself.

The music started again and this time the band played a soft waltz. She put a hand on his shoulder and held his other hand, careful to keep a safe enough distance away from him. William moved his feet and Snow tried her best to keep up with him but the distance between them made it hard for her to judge where he was going. Snow bumped into him once and even stood on his toes a few times. The music finally ended after what seemed like forever and everyone around them applauded and cheered.

Red faced, Snow apologised to William. "I'm sorry, William. You know I am a terrible dancer. Were many people laughing?" People began to disperse into the dance floor as the band began to play a faster tune.

William looked at Snow, amused and shook his head. "Nobody was laughing at you, your Majesty. You were wonderful; the best dance partner I have ever had."

Snow knew he was trying to make her feel better but chose not to say anything. Before either of them could speak again, a flash of green whirled over to them. Snow had to look twice before she realised it was Greta.

"Greta! You look beautiful, I'm so glad you could make it. Your dress is magnificent." Snow smiled at Greta and winked.

"Thank you, your Majesty, but you look more beautiful than anyone in this room." Greta beamed at the Queen.

William cleared his throat. "You are the girl from the Kitchen, are you not?" he asked Greta and she turned pink.

"Yes, Sir," she muttered, and Snow noticed the way Greta's cheeks turned red.

Before anyone else could say anything, Snow clapped her hands and smiled. "William! Enough chatter. Ask this beautiful young woman to dance."

"Of course. How childish of me." William reached for Greta's hand and bowed gently. "Would you do me the honour?"

Greta seemed lost for words and could only nod. Snow laughed and before William could drag Greta away, Snow bent down to whisper something in her ear but made it look like she was kissing her cheek.

"Keep the dress," Snow said softly and then William pulled Greta onto the dance floor. Laughing for a moment at a bewildered Greta dancing around in William's arms, Snow decided to go and sit down. She weaved through all the people, some were dancing, some were just talking and laughing, but everyone was enjoying themselves. As she neared her table, somebody grabbed her from behind and pulled her into a small corridor that was hidden from view. Whoever it was, they pushed her against the cold, hard wall and crushed their mouth to hers. Startled at first, Snow shrieked but melted into the kiss as she realised who it was.

The Huntsman pinned Snow's hands above her head and forced her against the wall even harder with his body. She welcomed it; wanting to be this close to him had eaten at her all day.

Breaking the kiss, the Huntsman breathed heavily into her neck. "I've been wanting to do that all day."

Snow rested her head on the Huntsman's chest. He released her hands, so she could wrap her arms around him. "I missed you," she said softly. "Thank you for my rose," and she smiled sweetly up at him.

"T'was nothing special," he said dismissively.

Snow frowned. "It was special to me."

The Huntsman gazed fondly into Snow's eyes. He knew that she would find something amazing about something so ordinary. Even the simplest rose was the most beautiful thing in the world in her eyes. He kissed her on the forehead and softly unattached her from him. "We better get back out there. People will begin to miss ye, and if we stay here any longer, I may have to have my wicked way with ye."

Snow's stomach leaped. Oh, please do, she thought but held her tongue. Instead, she let the Huntsman lead her back out to the party. People were still dancing and laughing and quite obviously having a wonderful time. Thinking that the Huntsman would follow her, Snow went to walk over to her seat but was stopped by the man himself.

"I know I'm supposed to be on duty, but do you want to dance?"

Snow laughed at the Huntsman's question. "Dance? Surely you don't mean it? You already saw how bad I am- the whole party did!"

The Huntsman smirked and stepped close enough so that he could whisper in her ear, "Firstly, I blame that on your pig-headed partner, and second, it'll give me a reason to keep hold of you."

Snow didn't have much time to respond because the Huntsman grabbed her hand and dragged her to the dance floor, ignoring everyone's stares. They reached a clear spot in the middle beside the fountain and the Huntsman pulled her against him, one strong arm wrapping around her waist, keeping her pinned against him. Snow gasped at the movement and self-consciously looked around them to see if anyone noticed.

"Don't look at them, Snow. Look at me." Eric lifted Snow's chin and made her look at him. "We are only dancing, they can watch all they like."

The Huntsman began to move and unlike dancing with William, it was effortless keeping up with him. Being held so close seemed to make all the difference in the world, and all she had to do was hang on. Soon they were in their own little world. The crowd of people around them seemed to vanish and the man holding her was all that mattered. They spun around the ballroom and twice the band started a new tune. Too soon though, they came to a halt and Snow gazed up at the Huntsman. He put his hand around the back of her neck, and Snow felt her knees go weak. His mouth was so close to hers, all she had to do was reach up… Then everyone would know she was his.

Right at that moment, a cough startled Snow and she jumped away from the hunter. She turned and saw Duke Hammond standing beside her with a curious look on his face.

"Forgive me," he started. "I was wondering if the Queen would do me the honour of a dance. It seems this may be the only chance I get."

"Of course, Duke Hammond." Snow nodded, embarrassed.

"I think I'll go and find the dwarves," muttered the Huntsman. He bowed quickly and smiled but it didn't reach his eyes as it usually did. Snow stared after him as he walked away, wondering what had gotten to him.

The Duke took the Huntsman's place in front of her and the two danced to another waltz.

"You look lovely, my dear. Are you having a nice time?" The Duke smiled down at the young Queen.

Well, I was until you interrupted, she thought. "Oh yes! William has outdone himself. The Ballroom looks amazing."

"Yes, he has done a fine job. Though, I think it is you that truly amazes people."

Snow blushed at the Dukes kind words. "I don't know about that. I'm not sure why people are so attached to me. I did what I had to do to reclaim the throne. Anybody would have done the same."

"You are mistaken my dear. We tried for many years to defeat Ravenna before you reappeared. And that is not the only reason people love you. You are not just the people's saviour, you are a beacon of hope; a constant reminder that even when things are at their darkest, even the smallest spark can ignite the flame."

Snow's eyes prickled. "You are very kind, Duke Hammond. I'm sorry things have not always been the best between us."

"Never mind that; the blame is all mine. Your parents would be very proud of you and I'm very sorry that they couldn't be here to see the fine young woman you have become."

Lost for words and quite overwhelmed, Snow tried moving her eyes anywhere but at the Duke. If she looked at him again, she was sure to cry. Just then, something caught her attention. A large group of men entered the ballroom. It wasn't their sheer size or dirty armour that caught her eye, but what they were holding. Her stomach lurched, and she felt her dinner rise in her throat.

The men were carrying several human heads.

Everything seemed to happen at once. Screaming started up around the ballroom as the men dispersed through the crowd slashing around their swords and firing their bows. Chaos erupted around her, but Snow was glued to her feet. Duke Hammond took her by the arm and ran towards the back of the ballroom. Somebody bumped into her as she was running, and they fell to the floor. Snow only caught a glimpse of the arrow lodged in their heart and knew they were dead before they hit the ground. When they reached a door, Duke Hammond grabbed hold of her shoulders and stared into her eyes as if he was about to tell her something important; but those words never made it out of his mouth. One second Snow was staring back at him with panicked eyes and the next, she was staring at the arrowhead that had flew through his chest.

"Go!" was all he managed before his soul left his eyes. The Duke fell against Snow as she screamed. She tried with all her strength to hold him up, but he was too heavy and they fell to the floor.

Trying to move out from underneath the Duke's body, Snow began to hyperventilate. What was happening? Who were these people? From the ground, she saw bodies lying all over the floor, unmoving. Women were still screaming, and men had grabbed anything they could to fight. Panicking even more, Snow searched the mess, looking for the one man she couldn't bear to lose. Relief hit her as she saw him, but she almost heaved at the sight. The Huntsman was fighting with one of the rebels, a large and terrifying man with a tattoo across his left cheek. She had barely spotted the two men before the Huntsman gripped him by the hair and in one swift movement of his axe, slashed the man's throat.

Just as Snow managed to break free from the Duke's lifeless body, someone grabbed her by the arm and tugged her to her feet, the movement nearly pulling her arm from its socket.

"Well, look what I've found." A large man was staring back at her, a menacing, toothless smile plastered across his dirty face. Snow tried to pull away from the man, but his iron grip on her made it impossible.

"Let go of me!" Snow shrieked but the man just laughed.

"I don't think so, your Majesty. I have a better idea." The man then picked Snow up and threw her over his shoulder.

"Put me down! Eric! Help me!" Kicking and screaming, Snow banged her fists against the man, trying desperately to get away. "Eric!"

From the other side of the hall, the Huntsman slashed the throat of another man and blood splattered across his face. His mind flicked to Snow and told himself to get to her. He had seen the Duke running with her towards a door and prayed they made it there okay. As another rebel fell to the blow of his axe, the Huntsman heard Snow calling for him. Only the cry was enough to send his blood cold. Spinning around he saw a tangle of yellow being hurled over a large man's shoulder and then disappear through the door.