"Oh, God, how does anyone bear it?"
From the steps before the donjon tower, Snow White surveyed the castle forecourt. It was swarming with men and horses, and now every cart they could muster to bear in the wounded and dead from the beach, where the tide was rising apace.
Sir Thomas and a handful of Duke Hammond's other senior knights were marshalling the milling crowd into rough order, those at the gate separating the living from the dead as they were borne in, and horses towards the stables. From deeper within the castle walls and the hoardings lining the entry court, others herded disarmed prisoners towards the cells in the north tower. Those wounded still able to walk were being directed into the great hall of the donjon, past the staircase she had just descended. Those of less certain fate were being borne through into the garrison hall at her right, where the duke's burly infirmarer could be seen further directing their disposition. Even on this bright, spring day, with the last of winter rains now a week past, the ground was churning into a sea of mud, blood, and offal, and the stench borne through on a sea breeze still heavy with smoke, was like a foretaste of hell.
"Only through necessity," said Duke Hammond, beside her. He met her gaze with weary eyes as she looked up at him, mute. "Only as a last resort, my queen."
"Then I must hope I can make it worth the sacrifice." She turned, eyes following the thin line of wounded aiding each other up the steps. "What now? Ravenna's dead. Where can I best serve next?"
"Not here, for now." The Duke followed her gaze and sighed. "Matters are well enough in hand, Your Highness. The castle is secure as far as the second courtyard, and once our armsmen are done sweeping the walls beyond, I believe we may call resistance ended. The sorry business which follows, I and my men know well."
"It would seem to me that I have a responsibility to know it also," she said.
"You already know the worst," said William, at her shoulder. He pressed her arm, and drew her round to face him. "You saw it five days past, when that brave little man died in your arms, and I promise you there is no worse to know, only more, and you have nothing to learn from it."
"When all that has happened has been at my order—"
"And necessary!" he said, "as none has known better, but Snow, this is not your place for now." He bowed his head and drew a breath, pained enough that she reached back to touch his armoured side. "As queen, there is no certainty you will never have to order war again, that we will never need you able to do it. What will best serve us now, is that as soon as possible you stand before us as our queen, and rally us to heal as you have rallied us to fight."
"In other words, princess," said the Huntsman, behind him, "best go find your crown." He dragged his sleeve across his face to wipe away the sweat and blood from the shards of Ravenna's obsidian warriors. "Come on, lass. I'll go with you, just in case of stragglers lurking in the corners."
"You with them also, William, and keep your bow to hand," said the Duke. "There's room enough here for stragglers—though I should fear rooftops before corners, at present."
"This may not be simple as it seems," Snow White said, as they made their way up through the great hall where the wounded were now gathering, and on into the passage beyond. "It's been ten years. How much may have changed?" She glanced at William, and he shook his head.
"We'll find out," he said. "I don't know either. I wasn't that much older than you, when I was last here—but the old solar was through there, to the right, and straight ahead should take us into the second courtyard." He pulled an arrow forward, set it to his bow and moved on quickly. "Hold back a little while I see if the way is clear."
"But will the the treasury even still be in the same place?" she said. "Ravenna could have changed everything!"
"Prob'ly not," said the Huntsman. He pushed past her with ax in hand, to look down the corridor leading north to the armoury. "It'd be a good secure room, wouldn't it? Aye, and why should she change that?"
"No reason, I hope," she said. She shook her head, and followed him. "In my head, it's all a child's imagining. I can't be sure anything I remember is real!"
Enough was, though, she realized, as they came out into the long gallery overlooking the second courtyard. That had in her memory been the public heart of the castle, and in the instant, glowing in the morning sunshine, it seemed unchanged.
At its landward end, its broad arc hosted the bakehouse, brewery, and the kitchens that served the servants' dining hall and that for the garrison quartered at its opposing end, near the barred gates to the stables in the first courtyard. The kitchens stood nearest the well and the largest of the great cisterns securing the castle's water, and were supplied from the storerooms and granary beside them, through the south entrance from the forecourt. Between the two, facing the gallery, had been the great span of public offices and court of justice and the library. Except for the library these had been mostly mysterious, to a small girl who had seldom had reason to do more than run through the arches cut beneath them, flanking the wide steps leading up to the court, and into the cloister walk that circled the third courtyard. There, in the garden below the royal apartments and those for the castellan's and chancellor's families, had been the heart of her world.
"Who's been castellan, all these years past?" she asked. "It was your father, William—"
"Before he was Duke, yes," he said. He held out his hand. "Wait, I need to see that the walk along the sea wall is clear." A swift glance right, then left. "I don't think even I could get up to the cistern roof, but from the top of the wall an archer could fire in almost as well as out. But safe again, I think."
"After, it was Ravenna's brother," said the Huntsman. "That slimy villain, Finn. When I first came back from the wars, I dealt with him by times, as one of the huntsmen who served the castle's need."
"I'm happy to need another, then." Snow White eyed him, reading something unsaid in the set of his jaw. "Do you remember where he did his business?"
"In the courtyard, for the likes of me. But," pointing across to the smaller doors at the left of the main chancellory gate, "he did come out to us from over there."
"Good enough," said William. "That would be right!" Another sweeping look around, and he tugged her toward the steps, the Huntsman following them this time, as they hastened towards the archway sheltering that entrance. "I know," he said, as they leaned together into the heavy panel, "you dread finding keys in so great a pile, but I think we'll find more order within, than you expect." He drew her in lightly towards the shadows behind the door, and they stood looking round in the twilit hall. "All we need now is the room my father used. He had a cabinet there for all of them, and likely it will still be in use."
"Oh, this is wrong," she said, appalled, when she saw the treasury. It was the same solid room she had seen more than once before state occasions, when her father had allowed her to come with him to select the jewels she or her mother would wear, but the walls were now lined higher with the heavy chests used by the tax gatherers, than ever she remembered as a girl. They had stood to her shoulders then, in no more than single or doubled ranks against the walls, or perhaps higher, in the last rank against the back of the chamber. Now they stood in doubled ranks against both walls, higher than her head as a woman, and a lower, double row filled the most of the centre of the room.
She moved forward as in dream, into the dusty light from from the small, barred windows near the roof, outlining the stacked chests. Seeing no locks, she stopped before the nearest in the lowest rank, and spun the circular latch to open it. Gold. A second. Gold. A third the same, and that was not as she remembered, either. Memory spoke of silver in this room, far more than gold.
"What has that woman done?!" She slammed down the lids and turned on the men following her. "Never—never!—in my father's time, this room never stood so full!"
"Ten years, Snow," said William. "She has ravaged the land. Taxed without mercy, and robbed where she chose."
"Then we shall see it restored," she said. "This is beyond reason!"
"And it'll all keep for now," said the Huntsman. "You're looking for a crown, if I remember?"
"Behind you." She pointed to the deep armoire set against the wall. "They should be there, along with the rest of the state jewels." He pulled at the door, and she pulled the great iron ring of keys from around her wrist, to search for the smaller brass key that fit its lock. She found it, stepped forward, and held it out, hands shaking. "Open it, will you? It's my father's crown I need, here, and right now I hardly know whether I fear more to see it, or not!"
He took the ring from her, carrying her hand for a second in his, before drawing the key up to look at it. Turned it to set in the lock, and released her to do it. "Aye, well, princess, I shouldn't worry. I fancy we should be able to make do with anything that doesn't fall past your ears when you put it on. . ."
He glanced back, on the face of it quizzical, but with the spark of a smile lighting as she instinctively drew herself up. A smile that broke in a grin as he turned away, and she realized: oh, now that was meant. Then, that between the calm in hands and voice, and the provocation in the words, she had steadied.
"Just as long as it's nothing of Ravenna's," he continued thoughtfully. He pulled the cabinet open. "Beyond their mostly being ugly things, I've yet to see any crown of hers that you wouldn't look a right fool in."
"No fear," she said, coming to stand beside him, and pointing to the shadowed top shelf. "and no need. There it is, and my mother's, and—" taking in the two rows of tiaras below it, she stepped back with a grimace. "Ai, you're right. They're all spikes and black iron!"
"Are those silver rat skulls?" William asked, behind her.
"That has a net of either silver twigs or bones—"
"And those are chin chains, too." This time the Huntsman's grin took in both her and William. "I got to see that one up close, and it was right silly. Or would have been, if the woman wearing it weren't so vicious."
"Enough!" she said, raising her hands. "Just lock it all up again, and I'll face it tomorrow! My father's crown in the morning, and the rest of it, I swear I'll have melted for scrap by Sunday!"
"In the meantime," she continued, taking back the keys when he held them out to her, "we've one more thing to attend to here." She held out her hand. "Huntsman, where's your purse?"
For an instant he stared at her, surprised, then rocked back and stepped away, regarding her uncomfortably.
"Ahw, no!" he said. "Princess, there's no need for that! You don't owe me anything!" He shifted, looked away and then back, in plain distress. "I mean, Your Highness, there's just so many ways it went all wrong!—that I went all wrong with it! " He stepped back quickly as she closed on him, and ducked his head to avoid her glare. "I mean, it's no' like I even managed to get you to 'Ammond's alive! "
"Well even if you don't think you did, you must have done, for I live now! Stop trying to distract me, we had a deal!" She glared at him, chin raised. "I gave you my word, and I will not have the first act of my reign be to break or deny it, and do not think you will cross me in this!" She thrust out her hand flat and rigid, palm up. "Purse, Huntsman!"
"Dear God, have you always been like this, or is it just the damn armour?"
William grinned. "An' you give her the moral high ground, Huntsman, you are lost." He let the grin widen as the Huntsman gave him a dubious scowl, then set down his ax and fumbled in the pocket of his long coat. "Best course is simply to do as you're bid, as quick as you may."
"Aye, I might've guessed, if I'd not been so stunned," muttered the other, giving up on his coat and digging with a grimace into his trousers pocket. "Soon's I saw that troll runnin' for it."
"Stop stalling!" said Snow White. "And one more thing, Huntsman—" She stopped, her expression softening.
"What?!" Teeth set, the Huntsman pulled out the small leather bag and slapped it into her hand.
"What is your name?"
"Eric." He stared at her. "Tis Eric. Your Highness."
"Then, Eric, call me Snow." She sighed. "As William does—and I would have you continue, William."
"Ever as you wish." William said. She nodded, shot him a grateful glance, and began to work at the thong holding the purse shut.
"By tomorrow night, you may be the last two men in my kingdom who will know me as ever other than Your Highness, or Majesty, and I find I am unwilling to give that up so—" she cut off. "Eric, why is the side of this thing so squishy?"
"That would be blood," he said. He caught it quickly back from her fingers, had the thong loosed with a brisk pull, and handed it back. "You don't imagine my antics this morning would've made no difference, would you?"
"To what?" She stared at him, threw the ring of keys back over her wrist, and caught his arm. "Eric, I know you have a cut of some sort at your shoulder the day we met, but if that were bleeding all the way down your side, I doubt you'd be standing!"
"It's not that!" He sighed and regarded her in exasperation. "That wasn't my shoulder bleeding, princess, that was my chest, from where the horse kicked me, and twelve days ago, and a longer story than I'm gettin' into, neither of us need it!"
"Then what, and when?!" She tightened her grip on his wrist, and he pulled back. "We need you seen by a surgeon, and quickly!"
"The hell you don't, princess—not as I am still standing!" He twisted his arm free of her and glared. "There's enough men paraded into that great hall of yours, and down in the garrison barracks, who aren't, and it's with them that the Duke's infirmarer and surgeons must take their time first! Those who hang between life and death, and there's anything can be done to save their lives, they come before any of us who only bleed a bit."
"He's right," said William. "It's part of that sorry business, Snow, that my father would have spared you." He studied Eric sideways. "Though not knowing you were hurt, I'll admit I'm curious. How bad is this?"
"No' much." Eric sighed, rolled his eyes, and waved a hand dismissively. "Finn scratched me in the side a hand's breadth or so, before I killed him. I had that and the gouge on my chest all bound up by your father's infirmarer the night before last, so it's fine, it'll all do. It's just everything's pulled open again, doing this morning's business."
"Ahhh," said William. His tone was noncommittal, but his look hinted understanding enough to earn him a warning scowl from Eric.
"And yes, I'll be aye sore tomorrow!" He turned again to her. "So all right! If you'd care to be gettin' on wi' this matter, Your Highness, we can be done and I can go see about gettin' cleaned up of this mess, and you and young William here can go get yourself pried out of that plate steel of yours."
"And we shall see about tending to you as a part of it," she said under her breath, and turned away to the last open chest. "Don't imagine I'm done with you, Huntsman, we've come too far for that."
"Next thing after, Snow," said William, as they came out again into the sunlight, "I think we must find whether there are any women alive here, to attend you. I'd prefer not to have any of Ravenna's maids close—if she had any—but the sooner we can find any reasonable company for you, the better."
"From all I've been hearing, I don't know what women Ravenna will have been willing to have near—oh!" Snow White raised a hand to her lips. "Oh, my God, William! Greta!"
"In the north tower!" She caught at his arm. "A girl who was brought in the day I escaped, and Ravenna—I don't know what she did to her, except it aged her terribly, but she was still alive when I escaped! There may be others, too—she said all the girls in her village were taken. Come on! We must find out!"
"All right!" William caught her hand back. "We'll find out!" He glanced back at the Huntsman. "Are you coming, Eric?"
"No," he said, and pointed down the courtyard. "You'll do better to tend to the maids. I see Beith and the rest of his wee hedge-pigs makin' a parade down past the well, and I'm thinkin' someone will have told them where to find the bath-house by now. The sooner we've all done business there, the happier everyone's likely to be." He waved at Snow White cheerfully. "Go on, now, princess, it's fine, we can all be seeing you later."