Let us get the least important details out of the way first:
Snow never marries the Huntsman. She never marries at all. Even an acceptably noble match is distasteful; she will not be subject to anyone again, and she will not lessen a man she loves by making him be labeled her consort, unequal to her in humanity.
It is really none of your business, if she took him into her bed. A queen does as she wills and must question the loyalty of any who grow too familiar.
She knows that she is the fairest of them all, now: it is a valuable thing to know (it is a horrible thing to know). Kings from across the borders come to seek her hand and join their kingdoms, promising riches to rebuild her lands. They have been broken by wars and by magic.
Snow doesn’t know if she’s wise, turning the kings down. Her people need unpoisoned land or they will starve. What would the cost of her kindness be, if she were to put herself and them on the pyre, in order to appear to restore the land to its greatness before Ravenna?
She stops combing her hair, stops rubbing rouge into her pale cheeks. Eventually she cuts her hair short, her sharp features making her look more elflike than female or male.
She proved that a woman does not need youth and beauty to be safe and powerful in a world of men; Snow put on armor herself and carried a sword. She put her will into the sharp edge of her blade, not into clothes and blood-red lips.
The woman in armor is the one who conquered; she will stay that woman.
She conquered, armor binding her breasts, and her hands calloused as a man’s. But the woman who rules this castle spent her life in its cells, with hidden straw dolls and prayers to a silent God as her only guidance and light.
The only real thing she knows about ruling is: do not be Ravenna. Do not chase the acknowledgment and fear of powerful men while letting your kingdom go to rot. Do not see women as anything but allies (even Ravenna could have been one, and Snow pities her for the fate to which she enslaved herself).
She thinks she will talk to the people who stood with her when she fought, the foot-soldiers and farmers. The land will grow and feed its people again if only she can provide them with what they need. She promises to help them.
They just need to keep believing in her.
She may have led a battle but the landowners and generals now only see her pinched face, hungry for the respect she had attained, not feminine enough bring comfort and not dominating enough to bring fear. She looks like a stablehand some days; she looks like a child who would steal a loaf of bread and they would kick her for it.
Snow straightens her back, like a warrior, like a queen. It looks like a petulant child’s defiance, without hammered armor supporting her spine.
So the next time a wealthy landowner looks down at her and refuses her request to let the farmers keep a larger portion of their crops instead of selling so much to the traveling merchants, she removes him. He and his wife are exiled from the town to seek their fortune on the road; their children are brought to the palace to serve. Snow gives the land to one of the farmers, a man who fought at her side in the battle, and puts out the word that any other men who refuse to treat the families who work for them well will face the same fate; her Huntsman will remove them bodily at the first sign of resistance.
If she continues to fight for them, her people will continue to believe in her.
They just need to keep believing in her.
It does not take long for the line between her eyes to grow deeper than the wrinkles her Huntsman brings out in their corners; years on, and ruling does not grow easier the way she thought it would. The crown’s weight on her head makes her neck ache, but she wears it more as time goes on. She has the polished mirror that Ravenna left cleaned so that she can see her face in it, and this is what Snow sees: a face that bears the burden of too many years without enough food, too many years away from the sun, too many fights against every single thing that walked into her life to destroy her.
“Am I beautiful?” she asks her Huntsman, holding his large, steady hand to her cheek.
“You are my queen,” he says. “Nothing else is important. I would rather see you be fair in spirit than in appearance.”
But that isn’t the point, although she is too tired to explain and isn’t sure that she knows herself what the point is. She had lived in a cell, escaped through a sewer, lost her life as a prisoner princess to him in a cursed forest. But he had woken her up—yes, from the apple, but before that by clearing a path before her so she could know what beauty looked like. So she could find her dwarves and know that friendship and music existed. So that she could find the village on the lake and know that family existed. So that she could find the spirits of the wood and the white stag and know that beauty existed somewhere beyond the battle.
And now, when Snow looks in Ravenna’s mirror at herself and her kingdom behind her, she is not sure anymore what beauty looks like.
This is why, nearly five years after taking the throne and five years of sitting at her counselors’ table trying to convince them a girl like her belonged, Snow acquires some pigments from a court lady. She paints her eyes to match the grey stone of her castle. I am my fortress and it is me: you will not deny me. She applies red to her lips like bright apples, like blood. I have taken life and have given life: you will not deny me. She wears a white dress that looks more the shade of old bones than of new brides. I am the color of old death, and as inexorable: you will not deny me my place at this table.
And finally, blessedly, they yield, these old men who would gently rule her kingdom for her if she would only let them deny her room in their counsels. She knows what she looks like in the mirror, and she is not beautiful. She is not the fairest maiden in all the land.
But she is weathered stone, she is fresh fruit and bloody wounds, she is certain and inescapable. Every day she rises ready for battle, dresses in a queen’s armor and paints her face to demand her place, and she will not be denied. (If her Huntsman never could see the strategy of appearance, it was because he was the one person she never needed to use it on.)
Snow White: her name is said in faraway lands, whispered like a curse. She has black eyes and white skin and a mouth like a fresh cut, and she never took a husband. She killed a witch-queen and re-conquered a kingdom. It isn’t right, say the diplomatic parties of kings who asked for her hand and her alliance. She’s a witch-queen too, the tale is told, a spirit who created herself from Tabor’s stone and blood and wood, its life and death.
Her name is whispered like a curse, Snow White, passed down from mother to daughter like swords pass from father to son. Snow White, who bore no heir but instead chose the younger Duke Hammond’s eldest daughter to succeed her. She took into herself the stone of her kingdom for strength, its blood for life, its men for love, and its bones for her name to never fade away. That is the kind of curse women hold close to their chests, hidden between their breasts and only take out when they must rise and take up their weapons for battle. Those weapons are the weaknesses their lords and husbands and kings assign them, and when they are alone they drawn them out and sharpen them into points men will push themselves down on.
And in a stony kingdom by the sea, the old queen, Snow White, wraps her hand in the large, gnarled hand of her Huntsman, and asks, “Are we soldiers or rulers?”
He leans over, kisses her pure white hair. “We are beautiful, you and I, and that is a sharp thing. It depends on the day, what we are.”
“Good,” says Snow. “I should hate to be one thing all the time. To be a singular thing, easily replaced and forgotten.”
“You will not be forgotten,” he says. “Long after we are gone, women will remember you when they are queens. And they will remember your secrets and extend their wills and never, ever, give up their crowns.”
“You broke the sleeping-death curse on me, but I would not have given my crown up for you.” Snow searches his face. “Does that bother you?”
He draws her close. “You would not be the queen I followed all my life, if you had.” He paused. “You would not have been the woman I’ve loved.”
“My loyal Huntsman,” she responds, pressing herself flat against him like a forged blade against the anvil, an old woman and an old man. “My dear Eric.”
(Snow White, they say, is cold as a steel blade in winter, sharp and straight and cuts through to the bone; she is who the wives who need strength to stand against their husbands pray to for blessings, and who the girls who will be more than mother to a man’s sons pray to for courage and opportunities. When men dismiss women as hot and volatile as summer, Snow White is the secret winter in their hearts, held close until they coolly strike.)