He had a name once upon a time. Nothing original, fancy, or sentimental: just an ordinary name for an ordinary boy. He bore it with neither shame nor pride. It was just a name, after all, nothing he’d earned through cleverness or hard work. It meant less to him than his first successful rabbit snare, which his father praised, or the cloak he mended all by himself, which earned him a kiss on the forehead from his mother.
He carried his name to war with him, and there, it seemed, he lost it for a time. He was one of thousands, of hundreds of thousands, bleeding and killing in the queen’s name; he had no use for his own. There was little camaraderie among the men; none of them wanted to be there, and none of them saw the point in sharing names or stories of home. Had he been captured – and he nearly was, more than once – his name would not have bought him his freedom.
As the war dragged on, first the summer sun baked his flesh, turning it brown and tough like leather; then the autumn rains came and drummed against his armor, changing the blood-stained earth to a sea of mud that sucked at his boots. By the time the first snow fell, he no longer thought of himself as an individual, but only a pair of arms with a sword and shield attached to them. He saw his face in sheets of dented metal and the eyes of his enemies, but it might have been anyone’s face.
He came home in the dead of winter to find Sara waiting for him.
She remembered his name and whispered it to him as she put her arms around him and held him close.
They spent the long, cold nights curled together under a thick quilt, with the embers dying in the fireplace and the wind shaking the thatched roof. Sometimes he tried to talk about the war, and she about the queen’s cruelty; other times they simply held onto each other in silence. In the morning, they hunted together. She was nearly as skilled as he was with the bow, and at tracking game through the snowy woods; more often than not, she led and he followed. It occurred to him, one seashell pink dawn when the air tasted sharply of peppermint, that she had given him more than his name, that she had led him back to himself without even realizing it.
Sara was everything to him.
So when she died, she took everything with her.
At first, he tried to drown his grief in mead, but that didn’t work. He’d forget, but then the memories would come back to him, sluggish but persistent. Next he tried brawling, and that too seemed to work; he couldn’t think of Sara when he was getting his head bashed in.
The trouble was waking up. Each time, he half-expected to see his reflection in her worried dark eyes, and to hear her whisper his name. It hurt like a thousand daggers when he didn’t, though that might have been the hangover too.
Finally he tried to lose himself in the Dark Forest, a place no one ventured into willingly, unless he were truly desperate or had a serious death wish. The branches turned to fingers that tore his cloak and gouged his flesh. The toads belched poison. Wraiths rose from bubbling pools of mud, screaming dire threats. But somehow he stumbled from the forest alive, albeit somewhat the worse for wear.
They started calling him the Huntsman after that, and he let them. It was as good a name as any, and in time, that was how he came to think of himself as the Huntsman. It even turned out to be profitable. If someone ran off with your horse and you didn’t feel like involving the law – since that might ultimately earn you the attention of the queen’s guard – you went to find the Huntsman. If your daughter ran off with the wrong boy, you went to find the Huntsman.
He didn’t always take the job; when he had enough gold for his mead, he found it very easy to be lazy. But for some reason that only enhanced his reputation as an elite tracker and woodsman.
It was a source of sour amusement for him, if nothing else, at least until it brought him to the attention of the queen, which in turn led him to her.
To the Princess Snow White.
He didn’t think much of her at first; he certainly didn’t consider her the fairest in the land, even after she’d washed her face and tugged one of the river women’s combs through her hair. He aided her because he wanted to spite the queen, who had lied to him.
Then he aided her because of whose daughter she was, and because he felt guilty about stealing away in the middle of the night, only moments before the queen’s men attacked the river women’s village.
He couldn't be sure when, in fact, aiding her became following her, and when that turned into actually caring for her. It was some time after the dwarves caught them, but before he had to stand by helplessly and watch as William gathered her lifeless body in his arms and kissed her bloodless lips. That might have been when he realized a change had come over him, but as to the actual moment…
He didn’t know.
And he supposed that he didn’t care. What mattered was that he realized he would follow her anywhere – through death’s door, if need be, and into Hell or Heaven. It didn’t matter to him.
He didn’t think of himself as her champion. That was one of the names she gave him, after Queen Ravenna had been overthrown and Snow White crowned in her place.
After the dead had been buried and the wounded seen to.
After, with the magic in her hands, Snow White had restored the youth of the women Ravenna had drained and then tossed aside.
After the castle and the countryside had been cleansed, ambassadors sent to negotiate peace with the neighboring kingdoms, and the men called home from the wars.
After all of that, Snow White and her Huntsman stood at a window overlooking a moonlit garden. She slipped her pale, cool fingers through his rough ones and stood on the tips of her toes to kiss him. Then she stood a little taller and whispered in his ear all the things he was to her, giving him names that only the two of them would ever know. That transformed and renewed and could not be forgotten.