"So what's this 'word' then, that you were wanting with me?" William asked, turning back from the door when it had closed at Gort's heels.

"That was me bein' a sideways liar," Eric told him. He leaned back, blew out a breath, and ran his hand back through his hair. "I knew by the time Her Highness there had done with me, we'd need a word about what to do next." He let his hand fall, and pushed carefully back to sitting. "I'm just hopin' she won't quite have realized that it must be her we'd be talkin' about."

"Aye, well, you might have got away with that part," said William, folding his arms, "but I'm not sure what you think is left to be said."

"Oh, I think there's a few things, yet," Eric said. "An' thanks, Master Coyle, but there's no need," he added, when Alf Coyle came to tug the curtain across at the side of the alcove. "After everything else that's been said before everyone this evening, I'd as soon have as many witnesses as we can to the rest of it, too."

He shot a glance at William, who had stilled at this, his face questioning, then fixed his own gaze on his host, and pushed on. "With all the to-ing and fro-ing here tonight, I'd guess your neighbours will be lining up tomorrow, to ask you an' your good wife whatever was goin' on, and I'm not going to pretend either of you won't answer—or shouldn't—because I think it'll help, you having seen how things stand."

"Countin' on that, are ye?" Coyle came in to stand beside him, set hands on hips, and studied him with a mild but frank distrust.

"Power of a good story, and all that, I figure it should be half-way round the castle before breakfast." Eric gave him enough of a smile to win one back, though it might still be a touch dubious. "Eh, you already know how I came to fall in wi' the princess—and everything else about that trek through the Dark Forest, and onto the fens. You're as fit to know the rest, too."

He made a cautious gesture, left-handed, towards the bench. "Sit down an' make yourself comfortable, and leave room for your lady when she and Anna are done. You've daughters, as you said, and she and Jeff have a young one, too." He spared a glance for Jeff, as hearing his name made the other swing round from before the fire."You may be able to tell Lord William and I a thing or two, that'll bear on keeping our princess safe."

He spared a glance then, at William, and sighed at the other's darkening expression. "Fact is, there's no way stories won't be told of Her Highness and I, as we go on.

"I'd be just as happy if nothing needed be said, except that we made a deal, an' eventually I did get her to Duke Hammond's castle wi' the help of Lord William and the dwarves, an' then we were done the way we expected. Maybe that I did come on here with her, after, an' fought with the rest once there was any chance of winning.

"But I'm not that goddamned stupid."

He pulled his arm in closer, to brace his side, and looked round at the others again.

"I am not nearly that goddamned stupid! Tongues will wag! People will wonder about all of it. How she came to escape, how Finn came to seize on me to hunt her—"

"Through that matter of you bein' asleep in the mud at the time?" Coyle snorted and seated himself. "And so the only one not fit to swear ignorance of ever having seen the Dark Forest—"

"And damn, but wakin' up in that horse trough was an icy business!" Eric sighed. "So I got to meet the princess, and we ended up travelling together. And now there's just no way anybody's never going to raise the question, of just how much might have happened between us, along the way. Especially those days we were alone together. Then, whether it's people wonderin' about what I made of her, bein' fresh and lovely as she is, or she of me, as the first man she'd ever met as a free woman—it's just too damn much the sort of story that folk get all too much fun nattering about."

He glanced again at William. "Except for the ones who get angry, faster. Like you would, Lord William, if you didn't right well know better, after a week of tramping up and down the hills after us."

"Aye," said William, "and after seeing this past hour, I hardly know if I do know better!"

He looked away, letting a hand fall, then pulled in a breath and turned aside. Still half hugging himself, reached for the chair he'd been sitting in, jerked it a step nearer the bed, and dropped heavily into it.

"I don't know what you think you've accomplished, Huntsman, by any of what you've bound her to tonight, or yourself." He shook his head, and briefly, the line of his jaw set. "I also don't know how you imagine this working tomorrow, or a year from now, either!—but I think I can promise you, that it will not be as you think!

"Further," he went on, "even with some faith that you didn't look for any of this to happen, you'll have to forgive me not being especially happy about it."

"Aye. I'd understand that," said Eric. "You were childhood sweethearts, weren't you?" He looked down, himself, at William's curt nod. "Well, if it's makin' you unhappy, with you knowing how things were, I expect your father would be livid over any of it."

"You don't imagine I'm going to tell him!"

Eric shook his head. "It won't need you to tell him. Like I said, the questions'll come soon enough. Soon as everyone starts looking to put that story together, that'll make sense of everything ever known about either of us, or fancied, either."

He tweaked the bandage straighter over his chest. "My hope is that with me not here to be doted on, and Her Highness keeping her word about provin' herself, with no askin' after me, God willing those questions won't be asked above whispers.

"If any ask louder, how much may have been between her and me, my word would be to lift your brows at 'em, and tell them the truth: I was sent to hunt her, and when that devil's deal went wrong, she and I made another, that I'd guide her to the Duke's. Which, in the end, she judged I did, and I was paid, and we were done, and after that—what of it? For sure, if there were anything more to it, would I not still be here, and there not more to see?"

Eric turned again to Alf Coyle, and held out his hand. "That's where you and your wife may come into it, Master Coyle, and Anna and Jeff also. No less Gort and the rest! I shouldn't be surprised if even young Greta may not have words to say in this as well, for yours will be the power of plain folks knowin' better how matters stand, than most."

"Aye," said Coyle. He glanced aside at his wife, now returned with Anna to stand by the foot of the bed, and held out his hand to her. "Though you'll have to tell me, Mother, what passed while I was takin' the princess' ladies back to their quarters."

"Aye, later," she said. She took his hand and came to settle herself beside him, and Eric drew in a sigh.

"Just start with Her Highness showin' up at my bedside, and givin' me the fright of my life, then carry on from there!" He looked up at Anna. "I was doin' just fine, there, wasn't I, until I rolled over?"

"So you were," she said. She glanced aside at Jeff, now standing again at the back of William's chair, then came behind him, circling them both, to consider the lamp on the chest beside the bed. She pulled it closer, steadied it, and turned the wick lower. "And now, what would you say? Had you not realized she loved you, before?"

"No! I hadn't!" he said. "Her showin' up like that was the last damn thing I ever expected!" He made a show of stopping short, and pulled a hand to his face. "An' oh, dear God, I'm a lucky man, because y'know what thought next occurs to me?"

"What?" she asked. She perched herself on the chair Snow White had left, and he dropped his hand and turned to look at her.

"If I'd not been hurt, and this'd been any normal taking of a town," he said, "or even a castle, in a place with fewer women about, doing their damnedest to be homely—she might have come lookin' for me as she did, and found me abed as she did. But I might well not have been alone!

"Or decent," he added, as the Coyles both grinned and chuckled. Jeff muffled a snort, and Anna brushed her fingers to her eyes, then smiled and shook her head.

"Eh," said Coyle. He rocked back, slapped his thigh, and laughed again. "Then she might've had cause to find you even more fetching, without your underwear!"

"I'm not thinking it would work out that happily!" He leaned back and stared at the ceiling. "I'd not expect ever to live that down. Not that I'm ever like to live this down, either! But at least it'll be with no harm done to her."

He looked back again at William. "You may not see what I hope to do, wi' that 'year and a day' bit, but you'll not deny it's bought us time. I'll hope that's all it may take, to mend what I'd say has happened, here."

"That being what, past her falling in love with you?"

"No! Because she hasn't," Eric said. "There's a bond between us now, but it's not love."

"Oh-ho! Stuff and nonsense!" said Goody Coyle, and folded her arms. "Pull the other one, it's got bells on."

"She's no' in love with me!" He slapped his right hand down hard on the bed beside him, and they all started a little. "Would none of you guess what I see happening, here?"

He glared round, and all but Jeff and William traded glances.

"Have you never seen ducklings following their mother? Have you never seen how sometimes, if the farmwife chances to take them up when they're hatching, they'll follow her instead? Like she's the first thing they see in life, and the sun rises and sets with her? Our princess, for all she's now a woman grown, is hardly more than such a fluffy duck!

"Leavin' aside the past twelve days, that she's mostly spent runnin' for her life, she's spent most of that life locked up in one little room, with nobody to talk to! Then the day she breaks out of it, she ends up with me.

"Then we end up trekking across the Dark Forest for five days, not so much together as me leadin', her followin', an' both of us edgy about it, not to mention each prayin' to stay upwind the other—and do you no' see what I'm saying? Even with all the things wrong with it, there was a bond tied there, for her, that now needs to be severed, quick as may be. Because it'll no' do, that I be the one she follows!"

"As she said," said Jeff, "her anchor in the world."

Eric nodded. "Aye. Beith said similar, that for all my failin's, I was still the man she looked to, to hand her across the rough and slippery places. An' you all know what I mean, when I say it'd not do!"

Anna nodded, and he challenged the Coyles with a look, and they did likewise. "So you all heard what I just asked, and you heard her grant it."

"Aye," said Coyle.

"You see, then, that I'm cutting her free as far as I can, because I can't help her further. Because it's time for her to become the queen she was meant to be. I don't want her history to be that of a woman who betrayed her destiny by getting distracted with a man!" He set his jaw stubbornly. "If she does, it'll not be me."

"Aye," said William. "Well, that's all very well to say." He pushed to his feet, swung his chair around, and gave a nod to Jeff, for him to drag back to its place. "Just don't look for her not to surprise you, a year and a day from now."

"Oh, I wouldn't be surprised if she'd try," he said. "That's where you come into it."

"Me?!" William stared at him. "What am I meant to do, by your reckoning?"

"Be that man she needs at her side." he said.

"I'm not the man she wants there." William folded his arms and regarded him steadily. "It's not me that she cares for, Huntsman."

"William." He met the other's eyes with his grimmest stare. "She doesn't care for me, either. Not in the way you mean."

"You're still the man that was able to bring her back from—" The prince cut off, and looked down, then away. "From under Ravenna's spell. As she'd insist she wasn't dead."

"Was I? Did I?" He shook his head and waited for Willliam to return his look. "I wouldn't be in any haste to think so. I'd easier suspect that spell was already lifting, by the time she knew anything of my being there. I think it may have helped, that she heard me, but the fact is, William, that I wasn't there when she woke! An' for me, that makes the whole thing suspect, because why should we think that me kissing her would do anything, if your doing didn't?!"


"Because damnit, William, this is not some bloody fairy tale, d'you not get that?" He slapped his hand down hard on the bed again. "An' that was not true love's first kiss!"

He set his hands down carefully, bracing himself, and held that defiant look. "That was me not havin' any place I cared to go, where there was anyone, that night. So I went into the church, once things were quiet, an' went and sat down next to a pillar, and got drunk. Then, at a point when it seemed worth doing, I got on my feet and went and talked to her.

"I told her about how I had a wife, once, that I loved more than anyone or anything, and then one day I let her out of my sight, an' she was gone, and I stopped bein' the man she'd made me. Until she'd come along, an' her heart and her spirit reminded me. That they'd both deserved better. An that I was so sorry I'd failed her, too—an' then I kissed her goodbye." He bowed his head, and shook it. "An' then, somehow, I got the hell out of there.

"It wasn't love! It was just this bloody tangle of grief and loss and me feelin' sorry I failed her, and her feelin' all that was wrong, an' half my love in it belonging to somebody else, and more than half, if I'm honest. Love and grief and sheer, blind, bloody, drunken chance, and I'd guess her knowing loneliness too well, not to feel for what I faced.

"Because love her though I may, William, I am no more in love with her than you are! And yes, you heard me, no more than you are." He fixed the younger man with as hard a stare as he could still muster. "Because you've no more loved her your whole life, than I have.

"Whatever that boy you were felt for the girl he knew—children haven't the same need of it, and you thought she was dead. And anything I could feel for her was based on twelve days! I might add you've now known her seven!—so by any real measure, she's only had five days longer with me at her side.

"And having just now bought us each a year, the one thing I've to say to you, is get busy!"

He looked around, then, when Anna reached her hand around his shoulders and gently rubbed between them.

"She's clever," he said. "I think she'll learn the wiles of men quickly enough, if she does not better than half see through us already. But as she is, at her best, she doesn't more than half pay attention, and if there's nothing clearly threatening about, she's wandering off in all directions, and God help the man who hopes to keep track of her."

"Like the young girl she was when locked up," said Anna. "Our Lily's nine, and I'm only just beginning to trust her."

"Aye." He relaxed and met her eyes, as she went on stroking his back. "She's a child, Anna. A royal child, who'd see and be taught more, earlier than most, and know to be wary of things most children wouldn't think of, but still—an eight or nine year old, locked up?"

"No chance to learn more," said Goody Coyle, aside to her husband, and he nodded.

"Aye." He looked at her. "Now think how close we had to watch ours, when they were that age."

"Say she's now a little older," said Anna. "I could have said a quiet fourteen. But no, not woman yet, not quite."

Eric nodded. "So what would you think, Anna? I think I've just done all I could, and given now, the way I find she's feelin' about me, the only thing safe for either of us. Would you see anything else I might have done?"

"Not really." She let her arm settle, warm, around his shoulders, and smiled. "You know, Eric, you're a lot better man than I'd thought."

"And you'd agree, it's not wise for me to be anywhere near her, this next while?"

"If I'm honest, yes." She sighed. "I wish she might have had a little more time before losing you, but this next while, it's as you've said."

"An' I've just given her my word to show up at the coronation tomorrow."

"Aye, so you have. Making it time you were properly abed," she said. She darted a glance across him at Goody Coyle, and the old woman pushed to her feet.

"I'll just get that tea we've made for him, then," she said. She tapped her husband on the shoulder before she turned. "On your feet, my old lad. It's our bedtime soon, as well."

"Aye," he said, rising. "But what's this about tea?"

"Willow bark for pain, and a thing or two else for—I won't say sleep," said Anna, "but a quieter mind." She looked up at Coyle, and smiled. "No more of that brandy I'll guess you gave him earlier, please."

He looked up again at William, still standing watching him thoughtfully, but with his face a good deal calmer. "I think she understands enough that she won't look to stop me, William, but if she does, you need to see the plan goes awry."

"She won't," said William. "No fear of that." He stepped aside, by the end of the bed, as Goody Coyle bustled in again with a cup of something that steamed, and smelled sharply of lemon, and patted it comfortably into Eric's fingers, as he took it.

"The other thing I'd warn," Eric said, watching him, "is that eighteen—" He looked around warily at Anna, as she rose. "That's a good four or five years past when most mothers start lookin' around to see who their girls might think of marrying."

She raised an eyebrow at him, and he sighed, and took a careful sip of the tea. "Because if they don't start givin' it some thought," he went on, "the girls will set about choosing for themselves, wi' no great thought to consequences!"

"Ah, yes." She folded her arms and considered him, thoughtful. "I'm sorry to say so, but yes. One does best to keep a good watch..."

"Because the first to catch their fancy will likely be unsuitable." He gave her a sassy smile. "Like me, when I was younger!"

"Like you, right bloody now!" she said. She grinned and reached to brush his hair tidy. "And for the next thirty years, I shouldn't wonder, if nobody murders you! So have you a point to go with that comment? "

"Aye." He shifted a glance again between her and William. "Now, just think about four or five years' worth of everything that might add up to any urge or impulse for a girl to get herself into mischief, and consider that in our girl, it's all getting loose at once. " He shifted his gaze to William. "You and your father may be in for a lively next year or two."

"Oh, thanks," said William, "for that thought!"

"So I mean it, about you sticking close!" Eric drank down the rest of the tea, and handed the cup back to the goodwife. "Thanks, I think."

She withdrew, and he looked up again at William, and braced himself wearily, as Anna once more set about rearranging his pillows. "She'll need the likes of you and your father to teach her sense and all she must consider, and see to it she's not forced to anything, and keep her safe from any who might ever treat her as ordinary—and best you can, protect her from herself.

"And I will also say, win her to you if you can. Pray she turns out enough like the girl you've been dreaming about as a lost hope, all these years, that you can love her as much in the end. Though just give her any chance, and I think you'll find she's better."

William sighed in turn. "Lord knows, I can try."

"No!" Eric said. "Don't try! You damn well do it! Start by tellin' her how much it means to have her back, and for all our sakes, be stubborn about it!"

"Because," looking up into William's wondering expression, "unless there's any other handsome prince you can think of out there, who'd be right for her, I should say you're it, and better you than me."

The smile that quirked the prince's lips, this time, was as genuine as he might have hoped. "All very well to say, Huntsman. I'll still say never underestimate her. I think she'll have it in her, to surprise us both."

It took a moment to be sure, at that distance, that it was him. Certain he could not hope to see her smile, with the length of the great chapel between them, but he should have no doubt of that moment when she bowed her head in that acknowledgement that likely most of the crowd would take for prayer. Which in a sense it was.

Be safe, love, and well.

A year will hardly be so long, no longer being alone—and I shall bear it all the easier, knowing you will not be, either.

You just don't know it, yet.

Author's Note

And there, dear readers, you have it...for now.

This started out 10 months ago as a modest little gap-filling story meant to tuck neatly into the very, very loosely implied gap of a day between Ravenna's fall and Snow White's coronation, and not do a lot more than answer the question posed in the summary.

I could say that's still what it is, at least to the extent that it doesn't try do anything final with the big question left at the end of the film... Unfortunately, it does enough with enough else, that every instinct says, as a gap-filler, it's doomed. I've ended up working in so much, here, that looking ahead to possibilities for a sequel film, there's no way this has a prayer of ever tucking in neatly. This is of course always the most likely fate of any non-trivial fanfic written into the body of an unfinished work: anything you write today, consistent with canon, is likely to become AU as soon as the story continues.

So now seems as good a time as any to bow to the inevitable and call this the beginning of a branching AU, because there are sequel stories here, that I'd like to write. I'll be interested to know if anybody wants them, beyond the few who've already been kind enough to say they would.

It will also be months before any sequel appears in the archive, because there's no way I am ever going to get into posting an unfinished story, ever again! When one writes the sort of fruitcake fiction* that I do, it just makes for too slow and irregular an update schedule, not to have the whole thing at least to a complete first-draft stage before I begin to post.

For anyone who fancies a look at the ongoing process of research, working out assumptions, and generating backstory (think of it as a window in the wall around a construction site, looking in on the 90% of the story that ends up being invisible in the finished work) I now have a working-notes stash forum online in the SWatH forums section. I'll be adding to it as I go...for me the main benefit is that it puts my working papers within reach from anywhere I have Internet access.

Leaving one musical reference, as well: Loreena McKennitt's Seeds of Love. The lyrics don't apply at all, directly, but for some reason every time I hear this, I think of Snow and Eric. It got played a lot, while this was being written.

*Fruitcake fiction: dense, heavy, sticky with all sorts of stuff, and always potentially as digestible as a brick.

/ pauses to don flameproof underwear

I would love to know what anyone's thought of this, especially in terms of whether or not you've found characterisations and content even remotely credible.

And finally, my deepest thanks to everyone who has reviewed, or followed or faved the story

or even me, as I've pounded along...

(which I promise, I've felt as a terrific vote of confidence, when it's happened)

especially given how much of this has been laid down so nearly first-draft raw.