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Hope Of Our Hearts

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When the Heir to Snow White's kingdom, who was known to the people not only by her name of Hope but also as Hope-of-our-hearts, had reached her majority, word came from the kingdom to the east that they were being harried at their eastern border by an army of nearly supernatural strength. Shortly following the first news came Prince Karl, the heir of the kingdom to the east, and a man only a few years past his majority. He came with a small retinue of guards and Lart and Boll, a pair of sober dwarves.

The King and Queen received the Prince in their throne room where he swept a low bow.

"Your Majesties, I come to ask of you your aid. There is a spreading evil to the east of us, and I fear that if it should overcome my kingdom, yours will not be far behind."

"We have heard there is war at your borders," the King said.

"More than just war," the Prince said grimly. "Slaughters, often, of scores of warriors. The army that comes to us is made of men, yet there is something unnatural about it."

"Some of our people escaped the growing kingdom that seeks to add us to its stores," Boll said. "They say this is no natural progression of war. They say that the armies are nigh invincible. They say they are led by a queen who does not live yet does not die."

"There are tales," the Prince said softly, "that this queen's power comes from a small shard, a piece of gold that once was a mirror."

His words were enough to electrify the court.

The Queen looked to her Huntsman and Huntswoman, who had come to hear what news the Prince brought. "How can this be?"

The Huntsman and Huntswoman shook their heads.

"I do not know, Princess," the Huntsman answered. "We saw the pieces of the mirror delivered safely to Sanctuary."

"The mirror has powers unknown," the Huntswoman said. "If one piece were missed, it might still have contained enough power to allow Ravenna to rise again."

"Your Majesties," the Prince said, "you know what she is capable of. I ask for your aid."

The Heir stepped forward, but did not speak when the Queen held up a hand to stop her.

"We will speak of this and grant you an answer."

*

In a private chamber, the Queen sat pale in a chair with the King grasping her hand.

"You saw her destroyed," the Queen said to her Huntsman and Huntswoman. It was not quite accusation nor despairing wail.

"Aye," the Huntsman answered. "I saw her destroyed twice."

"Perhaps a third time will end it," the King suggested.

The Heir paced across the room. "We have to send them aid. Soldiers." She faced the map on the wall. "We can spare a few companies."

The King and Queen, Huntsman and Huntswoman, looked from one to the other.

"We won't send soldiers to be slaughtered," the King said.

"We must do something." The Heir crossed her arms over her chest in a gesture of determination familiar to the others in the room.

"Aye," the Queen said. "She'll overrun Prince Karl's kingdom and use her power to come here."

"At best, soldiers will slow her down as she kills them," the Huntswoman said. "We won our battle because there was another sorceress to oppose her. You won yours because you had the power of the land. I fear the best person to defeat her on Prince Karl's lands is Prince Karl."

"The best aid we can give is to help him get close enough," the Huntsman said.

The Heir turned away from the map she'd been studying. "I'll go."

"No," both the King and the Queen said.

"You're the heir to the kingdom," the King said. "We cannot risk you that way."

"Amalric and Rose are as well-trained to rule as I am."

The Queen held out her hands to her daughter. "You are this kingdom's hope. Our future. It is rightly yours to rule."

Hope came forward and placed her hands in her mother's. "And it was yours too, when you defeated Ravenna. This task calls to me as yours did." She lifted her chin. "I will go, whether you wish it or not."

The Queen looked past her daughter to her Huntsman and Huntswoman. "I would not order you to face Ravenna again, but I will ask."

The Huntsman and Huntswoman took silent conference.

"Aye," the Huntswoman answered. "We will go and protect your daughter as best we can."

*

It was a small party that left the castle at dawn. Prince Karl, his men, and the dwarves they traveled with waited on their mounts as the others said their goodbyes.

The Queen embraced her daughter, who was so much like her. "She has powers you have not encountered, and the mirror can turn even the brightest heart dark." The Queen placed her hand over her daughter's heart. "Take care to avoid her influence."

Hope touched her mother's pale cheek. "I will be the heart you have made me."

The Heir embraced the King next, and then her brother and sister.

"Do not look so glum," Hope said. "I shall bring back a tale for the ages to tell you."

The Heir turned last to Yarona, one of her country's dwarves and one of her dearest friends.

"Do not bid me farewell," Yarona said with her usual cheer. She patted the horse twice her height that stood at her side. "I'm going with you."

There was a brief uproar that settled down when Yarona climbed up onto her horse. "My father fought with the Queen when she opposed Ravenna, and met my mother while traveling with the Huntsman. Besides," she added with unquestionable firmness, "I must go with you."

Hope grinned at her. "Then you must."

The King bade farewell to the Huntsman and Huntswoman with a firm grasp of hands.

The Queen gripped the Huntsman's hands in her own. Her eyes bored into his. "You must bring her back. She is the next queen."

The Huntsman looked down on her with an answering gravity. "We will do all we can."

They stayed locked in the moment for long seconds before the Queen let go and nodded to the Huntsman and Huntswoman both.

*

"Well, this is an adventure," Yarona said as the sight of the castle faded in the distance. She drew her horse alongside Lart and Boll. "I haven't met dwarves from your kingdom before. Are things very different there?"

Lart gave her a disdainful look. "This is not a pleasure jaunt."

"As we have far to go," Yarona said, good cheer undiminished, "we may as well have conversation."

"This is not some adventure to tell around a fire," Boll said. "We are all likely to die."

"None of that," the Huntsman said. He drew his horse beside Yarona's, and Boll and Lart fell back. "We've got the most fearsome party that ever did travel to defeat a foul sorceress. We'll not all die."

"None of us will die," Hope said firmly. She rode past them, catching up to Prince Karl riding at the head of their small party. "We are not familiar with your lands, and we do have far to go."

Prince Karl spread his hands. "We are not familiar with your lands either. That makes comparison difficult."

"Then tell us what we may expect to face."

The Prince gave a sigh. "In truth, I do not know. In the time I have gone, Ravenna may have made inroads into my kingdom. If she has not, we will have to cross the whole of it to reach her armies at our borders."

"Let us hope for that longer journey."

*

They were days on the road, safe through the whole of Snow White's kingdom.

"It looks well," the Prince said when they reached the borders of his lands.

"Looks may deceive," the Huntsman said. "Ravenna has powers of illusion."

"There's only one way to find out," the Huntswoman said, and she was the first to cross the border into the Prince's kingdom.

The others followed her, the Heir, the Prince, the dwarves, the guards, and last the Huntsman.

They paused across the border, and looked around.

"It seems all right," the Prince said.

"We're being watched," Yarona said, though none of them could see any observers.

"No use standing around," the Huntswoman said. "Ride quickly, that we may soon finish our task."

They traveled through the day and made camp at nightfall in a clearing in the woods.

"Are we still being watched?" Hope asked.

"Yes," Yarona said certainly.

"Can she hear us?" the Huntsman asked.

Yarona shrugged helplessly. "I don't know."

"Best not to discuss our plans then," the Huntswoman said, "lest her powers extend that far."

"There are no watchers," Lart said. "It is only your nerves that make you think so."

"There are," Yarona said with another shrug. "If you choose not to believe me, then so be it."

Prince Karl eyed the Huntsman and Huntswoman. "You trust her saying so?"

It was the Heir who answered with a firm, "Yes. When Yarona knows things, they are true."

"That's preposterous," Boll said.

"Aye," the Huntsman said, "and you have a twice-dead enchantress powered by a single shard of a mirror at the borders of your kingdom."

Lart and Boll gave twin harumphs of disbelief and turned to their tasks in making camp. The others did their parts as well, and they were soon eating their evening meal around a small fire.

"How is it," the Prince asked the Heir as the dwarves bickered over a loaf of bread, "that Yarona comes to know things?"

Hope looked at him in surprise. "It just is. Do you not have dwarves in your land who do so?"

"No," the Prince said, "or none whose tales have reached my ears."

Hope looked into the fire, and across it at her friend, and at the Huntsman and Huntswoman, all who had been so much a part of her life. "They say that the dwarves were thought to have left our lands, before my mother encountered them when she fled from Ravenna's prison."

"There are few dwarves in our lands," the Prince said. "Lart and Boll came to us as ambassadors of their people."

"Some ambassadors," Hope muttered.

"They are not the most courtly of men," the Prince said with a slight smile, "but they have pledged themselves to me and to the fight to defeat the enchantress."

*

They traveled two days across Prince Karl's kingdom before they caught sight of his castle shortly before dusk.

Prince Karl halted them on the road that ran between fields. He shaded his eyes and gazed across the landscape. "Something is not right here."

"Aye," the Huntswoman agreed. "There ought to be more folk in the fields."

"And on the castle walls," Prince Karl said.

A raven swept down on them from the sky. It let out a loud cry, and a dozen more ravens joined it.

The travelers turned back to back, facing out as the ravens circled around them.

They variously drew swords and bows, but held themselves still until the ravens gathered together before the Heir. As the company turned, the ravens melded together and took on human shape.

The Huntswoman let fly an arrow from her bow before the others could even react.

The figure - Ravenna - let the arrow pass through her, and laughed as the wound closed over. "You cannot harm me that easily, Huntswoman."

The Huntswoman's only answer was to nock another arrow.

Prince Karl drew his horse next to the Heir's, facing down Ravenna. "This is my country. I'll not see you take it from me."

Ravenna waved a hand, and his horse was pushed back, so the Heir faced her alone.

"You," Ravenna said. She drew closer to the Heir. "You are much like your mother." She laughed, and it was a terrible sound. "Your mother had the fairest heart. But I see that did not survive her rule."

"My mother," the Heir said, steady and firm, "has the fairest heart of anyone I know."

"Does she?" Ravenna drew closer, and stroked one finger down the Heir's cheek.

The Heir did not flinch.

"Then why," Ravenna asked, her voice growing deep and cruel, "did she deceive her husband? For you're no child of his, but of the Huntsman who once was mine."

The Heir swept a dagger out of its sheath and brought it up to meet nothing but air as Ravenna became a flock of ravens that swirled around the small party before soaring up and away from them.

Hope hissed and sheathed the dagger.

"She tells lies to unnerve you," Prince Karl said. He looked across the land, and pointed toward a copse of trees. "We can camp there and enter the castle tomorrow."

"No," Yarona said, "she did not lie."

Hope met her friend's uncharacteristically solemn gaze, and took in a sharp breath.

"Shelter before all else," the Huntswoman said, sharp and not to be disobeyed.

*

They made camp in the copse of trees, daring a small fire as Ravenna already knew of their presence.

Two of Prince Karl's guards took the task of preparing a supper for the party to eat. The party from Snow White's lands ate in silence until Hope broke it.

"Did she tell the truth?"

The Huntsman met her gaze. "Aye."

All the breath went out of Hope. When she found it again, it was to ask, "How could you? How could you do that to my fa- to the King? And to Sara?"

"Think, child," Sara snapped. "Do you really imagine my husband would bed another without my blessing?"

Tears stung Hope's eyes. "Everything of my life is a lie."

"No," Eric said. He shifted to sit beside Hope. "No, Hope-of-our-hearts. Everything of your life is true."

"My father is not my father!"

"Aye, he is," Eric said. He folded one of Hope's hands between his. "He is your father, and a good and true one."

"Then why?" Hope dashed the tears out of her eyes with her free hand. "Why would you?"

Eric and Sara exchanged a glance.

"Would you listen," Sara asked, "if we told you all?"

Hope looked at them, and at the Prince, guards, and dwarves who were witness. "Aye," she said. "I'll listen." It was not a promise of understanding, or forgiveness.

Eric, too, looked at the others. "This is not a story to be repeated." Only when he had gained their agreement did he ask Hope, "Do you know the story about your parents?"

Hope nodded. "Ravenna tricked my mother and caused her to fall into a sleep of death. My- The King kissed her, and brought her to his father's castle where she came to life again."

"What the story does not tell," Eric said, "is that when she lay in state in his father's castle, I, too, kissed her. I left her there, thinking her dead, and joined the crowd outside. She came out of the castle then, and spoke to us." There was a faraway smile on Eric's face as he recalled that time.

Sara took up the tale. "You know the next part of the story. Your mother defeated Ravenna and took the throne, but the mirror stayed, and your mother fell prey to its influence. We defeated Ravenna a second time, and returned to your lands. Your mother was still not well."

"She improved," Eric said, "but she did not bear a child."

"It was a great worry to all," Sara said. "Eric's love brought her to life once before, and so it did again."

Hope drew her hand from Eric's. "Does my- Does the King know?"

Eric and Sara exchanged a look, and it was she who answered. "I do not believe your mother has told him. He may have guessed."

Hope stood and walked around to the other side of the fire. "Then I am not the kingdom's true Heir."

"You are," Eric said fiercely. "You are your mother's daughter, and the Heir to her throne and her kingdom."

"You are," Yarona echoed. She shrugged when Hope looked at her. "I know it."

"This is fascinating," Boll said in a tone that meant it wasn't, "but it does not help us defeat the sorceress and free our kingdom."

"Boll is right," Prince Karl said. "We must focus on Ravenna."

Hope visibly put aside what she was feeling and came to sit close to the others.

Prince Karl nodded at the Huntsman. "You have seen her defeated twice."

"Aye. She returned both times."

"Then we must be sure she does not this time," the Huntswoman said.

"Defeat her," the Huntsman said, "and take the mirror shard to Sanctuary."

"Will your army follow you?" Hope asked Prince Karl.

"Aye, if they are not ensorcelled."

Hope looked around at their small party. "Very well, then. I have an idea of how we might gain the castle."

*

The Prince's party did not trouble to hide itself on its approach to the castle. Ravenna knew they were coming after all, and they would not defeat her with surprise.

They swept into the castle, where they met opposition. The dwarves ducked out of the fight and left the others to fight their way toward the castle keep.

"The Prince," one of the guards who'd traveled with them yelled. Many of the soldiers in the keep turned, then, and fought with them, but not all.

The Heir grabbed the Prince's arm. "We must go," she said.

The Prince looked around at his men fighting each other. His mouth was grim, but he nodded.

The Prince and the Heir, accompanied by the Huntsman and Huntswoman, wove through the fighting men and gained the castle keep. The Prince led their way to the throne room where Ravenna sat atop the Prince's kingdom's throne and a shard of mirror hung heavy on the wall behind her.

"So you think you can defeat me," Ravenna said. "Have you not learned?" She gestured, and the doors slammed shut behind them. Another gesture and uncanny soldiers rose from the very stone of the floor.

The Heir and the Prince exchanged a look, and they moved inexorably forward, leaving the bulk of the fighting to the Huntsman and Huntswoman.

Ravenna laughed. "You are mere children before my power."

Behind her, there was a scraping as a trunk was dragged into place. The sound was hidden under the clash of the Huntsman and Huntswoman's swords against the soldiers that would not die.

"You think to defeat me." Ravenna laughed again, a horrible, malevolent sound.

The Prince and the Heir gained the steps up to the dais.

Ravenna rose and took a step down to meet them. "You cannot defeat me." She caught the Heir's sword blade in her hand. She threw the sword aside. Blood dripped from her hand, even as it healed itself.

The Heir stepped closer, the Prince too.

Ravenna's mouth curved into a cruel smile that was suddenly cut off. "No," she said as she began to turn.

Behind her the mirror shard was half covered with a cloak. Before Ravenna had completed her turn, Yarona and Lart adjusted the cloak so it covered the mirror's surface entire.

"Yes," the Prince said. He stepped around and pushed his sword through Ravenna's body.

"You will not take another kingdom," the Heir said. She too came to face Ravenna, and slashed her remaining dagger backhanded across Ravenna's throat.

Ravenna's blood bathed them both as she fell.

There was a crash behind them as the uncanny soldiers broke apart into stones. Then there was silence, in the room and outside of it as the fighting slowed and stopped.

The Prince and the Heir stared at each other across Ravenna's body.

After a moment, the Prince bowed. "Thank you."

The Heir gave him a sharp nod. "You are welcome."

"Well," the Huntsman said cheerfully as he ascended the dais and looked down at Ravenna's slit throat, "you certainly are your mother's daughter."

Hope met his eyes directly. "And my father's."

The Huntsman's face softened into a gentle smile. "Aye."

*

The Prince took hold of his kingdom once again, and sent riders to retrieve his parents from the stronghold they had held even against Ravenna's forces. He dispatched a second set of riders to escort the Heir, the Huntsman, the Huntswoman, the dwarves, and the mirror shard to Sanctuary.

"I and my people owe you a great debt," the Prince said to the Heir upon her leavetaking.

The Heir took his hands. "I could not have borne to let your kingdom go unaided."

The Prince squeezed her hands in his. "I hope we may be friends and allies into the future."

The Heir smiled at him. "I'm sure it will be so."

The departing party kept the mirror shard tightly wrapped in the cloak that had belonged to the Prince, and theirs was an easier journey than the one before.

"Oh," Lart said as they made their way into Sanctuary.

"Aye," the Huntsman said. "The place has its own magic." He reached across the space between them to the Huntswoman. She reached back, and their hands met for a few moments as they rode deeper in.

"Where do we leave the mirror?" Boll asked.

"I think," Hope said, "that we will be shown that."

They kept moving, deeper into Sanctuary. After a time, the party became aware they were being watched, and then the fairies began to show themselves. They flitted along, and two of them appeared before Hope.

Hope smiled at them, and directed the party to follow. The fairies led them to the base of a large tree where the roots had made a hollow just the right size for the mirror shard.

"How do we know the full mirror's presence won't corrupt this place?" Boll asked.

"I've seen the heart of this place," the Huntsman said. "I don't believe it can be corrupted."

"It may cleanse the mirror," the Huntswoman suggested.

"It will be safe," Yarona said. She shrugged when the others looked at her. "I know it to be true."

*

The party camped for the night in Sanctuary and awoke refreshed and calm the next morning. They traveled out of Sanctuary together and parted ways outside of it.

"We thank you for your assistance," Boll said stiffly.

"And for yours," Hope said easily. "We would not have succeeded without you and Lart."

Lart smiled at them, and Boll nodded with what seemed to be the upper limit of his capacity for friendliness.

The Heir, the Huntsman, the Huntswoman, and Yarona turned for home. It was an easy ride, and they let their voices ring out in laughter and the telling of tales.

The castle turned out to greet them upon their return.

The Queen threw her arms around her daughter.

"All is well," Hope said to her mother. "We are safely returned, and Ravenna will trouble us no more."

The Queen looked past her to the Huntsman and Huntswoman.

"Aye," the Huntswoman confirmed. "All is well, and your daughter safely returned to you."

Hope let go of her mother and embraced the King.

The Queen stepped toward the Huntsman and Huntswoman and held one of each of their hands in hers. "Thank you."

"Oh, she is her mother's daughter," the Huntsman said. "Ravenna did not stand a chance." He went to one knee and pressed a kiss to the back of the Queen's hand. At his side the Huntswoman did the same.

The Queen bore their obeisances, then lifted them up. "I thank you all the same. I know she has learned much from your teachings."

"She is her mother's daughter," the Huntswoman said. "She could do no less."

Snow White squeezed Eric and Sara's hands before she let them go.

William joined his wife, and Snow White took his hand in hers. "She is the Hope of our hearts."

"Oh, aye." The Huntsman looked past them to where Hope was listening intently to her brother and sister's excited words. "You may be certain she is that."