They resumed their ride early in the morning after a hasty and somewhat-less-than-satisfying breakfast of nuts and dried berries. He warned her that it could be several days before they were clear of the gloom of the forest and she accepted the news without comment. The trees around them looked the same as ever- twisted, grasping, and difficult for the horses to pick their way through.
By mid-morning, however, he began to sense that something was…different. The air felt somehow lighter, and the smells of dampness, mold, and vegetative rot were lessened. They rode another mile or so, and the changes became visible as well. The color of the landscape softened, and the overcast sky became increasingly visible. As they rode close to the trunk of a tree, he saw something which shocked him- tiny shoot of green stemming from amidst the black bark. The tree was alive and putting forth new growth!
He called her forward to see the miraculous discovery. She touched the tiny shoot tenderly, stroking it with gentle fingers. Her eyes glowed with wonder.
“I remember Father and the Duke talking about the blight in the forest,” she murmured. “It worried them deeply, at least until the Dark Army appeared a few weeks later.” Her expression grew solemn. “Then they worried only about war.” She glanced to him. “Is this simply as far as it spread, or is it…getting better?”
He surveyed their surroundings, shaking his head.
“No.” he said shortly. “The forest should continue as it has been for another thirty miles or more. This… is new. I’ve never seen any growth on these trees.”
Over the next few hours, the landscape continued to change around them. Tiny shoots of green became struggling leaves, and the twisted reeds and noxious black mushrooms gave way to tender young plants budding with promise. The forest lightened as the ever-present haze began to dissipate. The ride became easier as well, and they covered the distance in easily half the time he had anticipated. There were even sporadic twitters of birdsong that rang out from amongst the branches.
The trees gave way to clear land long before he had anticipated. It was rough land, to be sure, with numerous patches of cracked ground bare of any vegetation at all, but it was an end to the dark forest nonetheless. He felt some of the tension he had been carrying ease from his shoulders.
Before them, on the horizon, the verdant woodland slopes of the Old Mountains rose up gently against the sky. At the base of these hills, many miles distant, ran the River Willow. The Willow provided water, transport, sustenance and trade for the many small villages that had been formed along its banks. The Queen would no doubt want to see some of them, but the nearest was more than half a day’s ride away- much too far to attempt to travel yet before the light faded. Although the clouds obscured the sun, he calculated that they could ride perhaps another hour or so before they would be forced to stop and make camp. The darkening sky to the west suggested that they might have even less time than that before it began to rain. He intended to share his observations with the Queen, but something else had clearly caught her attention.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing and leaning forward in her saddle. He had to squint to make out what it was she saw.
“Smoke.” He said at last, “From either a campfire or a hearth- it’s impossible to tell. It’s a few miles away yet.”
“Can we reach it before dark?” she asked, “I’d like to see what it is.”
“Most likely…” he responded slowly, not entirely thrilled with the notion of rushing head-on toward the unknown with darkness falling and a storm rolling in. Still, the odds favored it being a farmhouse or a homestead rather than a band of outlaws camping on the plain in anticipation of kidnapping a Queen. The clouds were also looking more threatening with each passing minute. Shaking his head at his own hesitation, he nodded and turned his horse toward the faint wisp of smoke. As he did, he lifted the axe on his belt, checking that it could be pulled free with ease. One could never be too careful.
As it turned out, the smoke was coming from a farmhouse beyond the rise of a low hill, settled stubbornly in the middle of the rough land, surrounded by a pen of sheep and scraggly fields. The sheep didn’t look much better. He hoped that the tenants would at least prove hospitable.
His hope deepened a moment later when the skies unleashed their fury. A few fat drops sprinkled down upon then, followed seconds later by a roaring deluge that seemed half-intent on drowning them, or at least obscuring their vision. They were forced to slow the horses to a walk so as to lessen the risk of them injuring themselves by stepping incorrectly on the mucky track.
By the time they reached the farmyard, they were soaked to the skin. As they rode up, the door of the cottage swung open, revealing a woman silhouetted against the warm light of its interior.
“Are ye travelers, or tax collectors?” she demanded, voice raised above the storm and hands braced upon her hips.
“Travellers!” the Queen called back.
“Well then,” the woman shouted over the rising wind, “Ye’d best bed your horses down in the barn and come inside yourselves. There’ll be a bowl of hot soup in it for yeh.” Hot soup sounded like one of the greatest luxuries possible just now.
“Thank you!” he called to her. “We’re grateful for it!” She nodded and stepped back inside the cottage, shutting the door behind her.
The barn was a low, modest building with clay walls and a roof of woven thatch. The walls were so low, in fact, that they had to dismount to lead the horses through the wide door. Inside, it was dim but blessedly dry. He swiped a hand through his wet hair, dragging the damp strands out of his face. His soaked clothing clung irritatingly to his skin, pulling and dragging as he tried to work. Snow’s sodden garments clung to her as well, but he found the effect of it far less irritating. The slick sheen of rain on her skin and the way the wet cloth revealed the shape of her only served to increase her allure.
They worked together swiftly and efficiently to unburden and unsaddle their mounts, rubbing them down and giving them their feed. He worked diligently at his tasks, but could not keep his eyes from straying to her.
Like this, without crown or castle about her, it was easier to forget what troubles would arise if he were to give in to his desire to take her in his arms and kiss her soundly, to press her up against the wall of the barn and feel her writhe against him. He’d like that, he acknowledged, even as it guilted him. He’d like to have her slender legs wrapped around his waist and under his hands. He wanted to know what reactions he could draw from her merely by skimming his fingers over the wet leggings and teasing at her mouth with kisses.
Such thoughts were becoming increasingly frequent, and increasingly difficult to disguise. At least the dash they would have to make to the cottage in the cold rain should prove useful for something more than just moving them away from the offending wall and welcoming beds of soft straw that were fueling his imagination.
The cottage door was swung open as they approached, and they were ushered inside. He could see now that the woman was older than he realized. Wrinkles had begun to sink into her smooth face at the corners of her eyes and along the contours of her lips. Even with her hair pulled away from her face, he could see that its nut brown color was liberally sprinkled with strands of grey. She was certainly old enough to be his mother, although most likely not his mother’s mother.
Fittingly, she clucked over them like a mother hen, fussing about their wet clothing, the likelihood of catching a shill, and how the weather outside was fit for neither man nor beast. He found himself struggling to suppress a grin at her antics. It had been some time since he’d had someone fuss over him like he was a child.
“There!” she exclaimed, “Both of you soaked to the skin and dripping wet. We’ll have to get you into some dry clothing. Thom ought to have a few things you could wear,” she mused, looking him over critically, then turning to Snow. “As for you, my dear, there might just be something in my hope chest to fit you. Believe it or not, I used to be almost as slender as you, but three bairns will make a difference in a woman’s waistline.” She grinned ruefully and patted her sturdy hips.
“You have three children, then?” Snow White asked with genuine interest.
“Ay, well, we did.” She said a little sadly. “Eliza, our youngest, was taken by the Black Queen years ago and never heard from again and Thom Jr., our oldest, died in the Wars. Jared is all that’s left now, but he’s married with a house in the village and a wee one on the way, so he doesn’t make it out here as often as he used to. He still comes by often enough to help with the livestock, but then, he’s got his own business to attend to as well. He goes around to the various farms and helps with the sheep shearing, then bargains to sell the wool in larger lots for a better price for a share of the profits after it’s split back out. He’s got quite a head for numbers, that boy does. He gets it from Thom, I think. Certainly not from me!”
At this, a wiry grey-haired man ducked through the low doorway from the bedroom, his heavy boots clomping on the rough-hewn floor despite his gentle stride and came to stand beside his wife.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “My manners! This is my husband Thom,” she gestured to him and then to herself. “And I’m Ida. I should have said right off.”
“No worries,” Eric said easily, reaching out to shake Thom’s proffered hand. “I’m Eric.” He introduced himself.
“And I’m Snow,” the Queen volunteered, conspicuously leaving out any mention of her royal lineage.
“How did you come to be traveling together?” Ida inquired curiously. “Are you kin?”
Eric could not contain a grin of amusement. Snow smiled as well.
“Not exactly,” she said. Just as well, he reasoned. If she wasn’t going to tell these people that she was their monarch, it was best that she give them what answers she preferred them to have. She startled him, however, by wrapping her arm around his. “We’re betrothed, “ she announced. Shocked did not begin to cover his reaction to her statement. He blinked stupidly, wordlessly, until she pinched him.
“Ah…yes. Betrothed.” He was rethinking his stance on leaving her to answer questions. The deception must seem painfully obvious to these onlookers. And yet, neither of them looked skeptical. Instead, Ida was beaming and a warm smile had even spread across Thom’s lips.
“Oh, young love!” Ida exclaimed delightedly, clapping her hands together. “Do you remember, Thom, when we were that young and starry-eyed? How sweet on each other we were?”
“Aye.” The older man said, looking fondly at his wife. “I do at that.”
Eric remembered too, for a brief moment. The heady rush of being a young man newly betrothed…and a pang at the vision of a couple clearly still in love after a life with many hardships. He doubted that when he reached Thom’s age he would have anyone to look upon with such obvious adoration.
He wondered what precisely had possessed Her Highness to give such a false answer. What purpose did she think it served? He would ask her, but there was neither space nor time to do so in front of this sweet farm couple without raising more questions. Instead, he played along, silently counting this among the multitude of foolish things he would scarcely hesitate to do for her.
Ida held true to her promise of dry clothing, ushering Snow into the small bedchamber, pressing a dry shirt and set of trousers into his hands with instructions to change quickly and set his clothes to dry before the fire. Thom graciously turned his back, staring out the cheaply glazed window at the rain and puffing quietly on a clay pipe that he had lit with the aid of a twig set ablaze by the crackling flame in the hearth.
The borrowed clothes fit well enough. Rolling the sleeves up on his forearm disguised the fact that the sleeves were too short. The cloth was rough homespun, worn soft with use, and was actually quite comfortable. Above all, he was glad to be wearing dry clothes again. He’d had plenty of experience travelling, hunting, and scouting in damp clothes, but it was an experience he was glad to have dodged this time. He hung the wet garments near the fire to speed their drying, and took a seat at the sturdy if somewhat rustic wooden chair that Thom offered him. He was about to ask Thom to tell him more about the running of the farm to fill the silence when the bedroom door opened and Ida emerged, followed by Snow.
His breath caught in his throat. He had seen her dressed in leggings and in all manner of courtly garb and had paid little mind to the clothing beyond moderate appreciation. But this… The dress was pale blue- the color of the sky on an early clear morning- and simple. The linen hugged her body to her hips and fell artfully to skim the floor. The dress’s only adornment was a line of neat stitches in darker blue around the scooped neckline. Her black hair had been pulled away from her face and braided in a traditional style. She smiled slightly at him, and for a second he forgot to breathe.
He caught Ida’s pleased grin over Snow’s shoulder, and knew that she figured he was speechless because of the stunning beauty of the gown dress, which was exceptional by the standards of most common folk in the kingdom. This was not, however, the case. What made him hesitate to speak was how the dress made her appear so…normal. He was accustomed to see her decked in satins and velvets and costly muslins, looking every part the queen. But this…this was the way he saw her in his mind, the way he’d thought he’d never see her in life. The girl before him was, for a moment, neither Queen nor Princess nor child nor damsel in distress. She was … a woman. A beautiful one, with cheeks flushed faintly pink by the cold wind, and a smile meant for him alone.
She came to him, and when he held out his hand, she took it. His fingers curled into her narrow ones and he was moved to drawn them to his lips so that he could brush a kiss across her knuckles. Her skin was soft under his lips, and tantalizing. He wished that he could linger.
“You look stunning.” He breathed, and she lowered her lashes and blushed at the compliment.
“Thank you.” She murmured.
He was aware that Ida was watching them both closely, in the pleasantly nosy way that only older women can truly master. Thom, equally aware of this fact, cleared his throat quietly, drawing her attention and nodding toward the fire, where the black iron kettle bubbled.
“You’ll be ready for soup then?” Ida asked rhetorically, catching her husband’s meaning easily and bustling toward the kettle. It was served in plain stoneware bowls, fragrant and piping hot, with chunks of brown bread for dipping. After two days of damp weather, cold food, and hard riding, it seemed that no meal had ever tasted so good. They ate hungrily, and did not refuse the second helping that Ida ladled into their bowls. Over dinner, they talked of life on the farm, and the wool trade.
“Well lass, times are harder than ever these days,” Thom said in answer to a question Snow had posed. “Our flocks have been dwindling for nearly a decade now. Back when King Magnus was alive, the flock here was 95 head of sheep. But the land’s been dying, and it’s taken the grasses with it. Only the hardiest scrub grass is left, and there’s not enough of it to go around. Between the lack of food, the harsh winters we’ve had, and an infection that spread through all the farms in this area a few years ago, we’ve lost too many. The flock out there is down to 33 head now. Come spring, there’ll be a few lambs, but not enough to make much of a difference. They’re the most fragile, and least likely to make it.”
“Is it the same everywhere?” Snow asked curiously.
“Most everywhere that I know of. It’s not been an easy span of years.”
“And that’s the reason why there’s such a shortage of wool in the Kingdom then.”
“Aye, that’s the way of it.” He looked at her shrewdly.
“Things are getting better though, right? We’ve seen in our travels so far that plants and trees are starting to grow again.”
“Yes, and no.” Ida answered. Tom clarified the statement.
“The scrub grass is growing better this year, that’s true. But the other things- the things that they need to eat to flourish and not just survive- the grasses and flowering plants like clover- those are gone, and they’ve not come back at all.”
“What is it that you need most?” She asked earnestly, “To increase your flocks again.”
“Land or seed.” The older man answered sadly, “Neither of which are in supply. The land that could easily support a hundred head of sheep years ago isn’t enough now to support the 33 out there. There’s no more land to be had, and even if there was, I can’t afford to buy it. Even then, it’s not better than the land I already own in terms of quality.”
“And there’s nowhere that has seed. Jared has tried to buy some when he sells wool, but there’s none to be had.” Ida explained.
“I see.” She said solemnly. “We’re even more grateful for your hospitality.” She smiled charmingly.
“It’s no trouble, dear.” Ida told her warmly. “We’re glad of the company.”
“We’d like to repay you for your kindness.” Snow insisted. “ There must be all manner of things that need doing around here. Please let us stay tomorrow and offer our help to you for the day.”
“We’d be glad of it.” Thom told her warmly. “More hands are never turned away.”
They sat around the table talking and listening to Thom and Ida’s stories until the candles burned low. The rain was still coming down, and Ida conceded (with a bit of nudging from Thom) that it wouldn’t be improper to allow him to sleep on a pallet before the fire, rather than braving the weather to spend the night in the barn. This was provided, of course, that Snow stayed up in the cottage’s sleeping loft, where a straw mattress was still set up for the use of guests.
“Yeh’d best give her quite the goodnight kiss to get ye through the night, m’boy,” Thom advised him jovially. “As it’s no treat to sleep upon this floor, extra quilt or no.” He winked. “I know, as I’ve had the misfortune myself on more than one occasion after upsetting the missus.”
He grinned at the older man’s camaraderie, and Snow blushed a bit.
“I’ll do that,” he promised solemnly. He pulled her aside before she could climb the narrow ladder to the sleeping loft and spoke in hushed tones so that Ida and Thom did not hear. Finally, he had the chance to speak without rousing suspicions.
“Betrothed?” He whispered incredulously. “Why on earth would you tell these people that you and I are betrothed? Do you insist on courting chaos everywhere you go?”
“I didn’t want them to know who I was,” she explained in a reasonable tone, “And I thought it would be more comfortable for them- not to mention safer for us- if they thought us to be just typical travelers and did not know our true identities.”
“So you decided that, rather than tell them I am your bodyguard, you would tell them that I was your betrothed?”
“A bodyguard might have seemed too unusual. I was going to tell them that you are my brother,” she fired back, “but I thought it might be difficult to explain the decidedly un-brotherly way you look at me.” She swallowed, averting her gaze. “And why I look at you the same way. Betrothal seemed the more believable lie.” She met his eyes squarely and her voice came out as little more than a whisper. “And you know that you are more than a bodyguard to me.”
“Aye.” He conceded slowly. “Aye, I do know that.” He didn’t give himself time to think of the reasons why he shouldn’t do what he was about to do, why it was rash, and stupid, and beyond insanity. Her actions had driven him to infuriating distraction. “I said I’d do this, and I will,” he promised roughly, stepping closer to her and crowding her against the wall. “So if you want me to stop, you’ll have to tell me. Now.” And with that, he bent, despite all his best intentions, to kiss her. If she wanted a betrothal, he’d give her a taste of it, by God.
The touch of his lips on hers was light, and would have been almost chaste except that he lingered, drawing the moment out far longer that he had intended. After several seconds he drew away slowly, reluctantly, checking to see that she was not affronted, though in fairness it was she who had set the stage of this in the first place. Her eyes were closed and her lips slightly parted in surrender. The sight only increased his wanting of her. He bent to claim those lips again, letting the tension of attraction simmer between them with every gentle press and brush of their lips.
She had kissed him before, but this was the first time he had kissed her- had pressed his lips to hers and felt her response, felt her lips moving under his and her breath shuddering in her lungs. He could not take this back, and God help him, he did not want to.
She stood against the wall, and he braced himself against the same with his forearm, yet their lips were all that touched. He could not keep himself from kissing her, from drinking in the experience of her like a fine wine. It was only when he found himself tempted to rush it, to press her against the wall and plunder her with his mouth that he knew he had to stop. When he pulled himself away, they were both dazed and breathless. He could feel his blood rushing in his veins in time to the rhythm of his beating heart.
“Goodnight.” He whispered unnecessarily, resting his forehead against hers. She giggled, hiding a grin behind her fingers.
“Goodnight, Huntsman. Pleasant dreams.”
“Undoubtedly.” He grinned and stole a final swift kiss. “Sleep well, Y- Snow” he amended swiftly. Her smile widened.
He watched her climb the ladder and listened for the sounds of her settling into the straw mattress before he climbed into his own pallet, drew the quilt over himself, and drifted off to sleep with a broad smile on his lips.
The next day dawned clear, without even a hint of a cloud in the sky. The sun shone brightly, making the cold chill of the rain seem a distant memory. Only the mud puddles in the yard that reflected the brilliant blue of the sky above remained as testament to the deluge that had driven them all indoors the day before.
They awoke early to a breakfast of oatmeal sweetened with honey to start the day. Immediately after eating, Thom led him out to the farmyard to show him what needed doing. He spent the morning using his axe to split rails from the logs Tom had procured. They would use the rails to mend a section of fence that was falling into disrepair. It felt good to work at this, allowing his muscles to stretch and burn and to build up a sweat. Life at the palace did not lend itself much to good, honest tasks like chopping wood and splitting rails. He wondered how Snow would manage, being put to work here for the day, and if she would end up regretting her offer of help.
Yet every time he caught sight of her- feeding the chickens, or wheeling a barrow of soiled straw bedding from the barn, she looked immensely pleased with herself and with life in general. He caught her grin as she passed him and returned it, shaking his head as he brought the axe down in another smooth stroke. She never ceased to amaze him.
The sun continued to shine, and by mid-morning the temperature had risen dramatically. He could feel the sweat trickling down his back as he worked, soaking his borrowed shirt. When Snow joined them, lugging a bucket of cool water from the well, he was glad enough to take a break and have a drink. The first ladleful of water he poured into his mouth; the second he poured over his head, letting it wash the sweat from his brow and cool his skin.
“Thank you.” He told her.
“You’re welcome. Walk with me for a moment?” she asked. He turned to glance at Thom, who waved him on with an indulgent grin and a twinkle in his eye.
“There’s a lovely view of the valley on over on the far side of the barn.” The older man advised. “Always a popular spot for a stroll.”
Snow thanked him, and they set off across the yard. A minute or so later, they rounded the corner of the barn, and he caught Thom’s meaning. The view of the valley was much the same here as it was everywhere else on the farm. The major difference here was that this spot was one of the few places where there was no sightline to the cottage. A popular spot for strolling indeed. No wonder there had been such a glint in the old man’s eye.
“So have you gotten enough of a taste of what it is to be a hardworking citizen of your kingdom, Milady?” He tugged playfully at the edge of the kerchief that covered her hair, causing her hand to fly up to keep it in place. She scowled playfully at him and batted his hand away.
“We’re making candles.” She informed him. “Bayberry ones. It’s very hot work.” She fanned at her face. “We’ve been boiling the berries, and in a few minutes we’ll be able to skim off the wax and begin dipping the candles themselves. It’s absolutely fascinating.” Her eyes shone with a childlike exuberance.
“I’m surprised that you were able to spare the time to bring us water and to visit. It sounds very consuming,” he teased.
“Well,” she said almost shyly, “There was something I wanted to give you.” She had drawn closer to him.
“And what is that?” he asked.
“This,” She murmured, and suddenly she was up on her toes, leaning against him and pressing her lips to his. Now it was he that was consumed. Her lips moved against his, supple and inviting, and he had no thought but to return the kiss. A hunger was building inside him, and much as he tried to control it, he still brought an arm up to encircle her waist and pull her tighter to him. The homespun cloth of the borrowed skirt and shapeless tunic was rough beneath his fingers. Beneath them though, the softness of her waist and of her bosom pressed against his chest was delightfully female.
And then she was gone, stepped away with a teasing grin and a toss of her head. “Also, Ida says to tell you that the mid-day meal will be in about an hour, and that you and Thom should both remember to wash up for it. And with that, she slipped around the corner of the barn, making her way back to the cottage and her candle-making.
“Minx.” He muttered affectionately as he straightened his clothing and did the same.
Lunch was a simple affair, with more of the brown bread from the night before paired with sheep’s milk cheese and a delicious apple chutney. They ate their fill, then returned to work. By the time the light was fading and they trooped inside for the evening meal of salt pork, boiled potatoes, fresh beans, and the last of the bread, a great deal had been accomplished. The fence had been repaired, the flock had been crutched, the hinge on the barn door had been repaired, and a stock of candles hung on pegs beside the door to set. He was exhausted, and he could tell that Snow was hardly able to keep her eyes open over dinner, but he was also pleased.
This exhaustion was the good kind, born of hard work and accomplishment, and he was glad of it. His tired muscles might protest the notion, but he also knew that he would have no trouble falling asleep tonight, which was a good thing because otherwise he might lay awake for hours torturing himself by trying to figure out what was going on between himself and the Queen. He would have to think on it at some point, but not this night. If he were to be entirely selfish, he would not try to figure it out for several days yet, as thinking rationally about this would be the surest way to end it.
These days, when he could pretend that what was between them was bitterly impossible were like the sweetest dream- and Lord help him, he did not want this dream to end.