She goes to sleep in the frost and when she wakes she is surrounded by stone and flame. She dies gasping in Will’s arms and comes back to herself alone, the Huntsman’s tears on her cheek. With the poison apple comes the knowledge: she can win this fight. Ravenna is afraid of her. So Snow White makes herself a weapon long before she was made a queen.
And now that she is Queen, she finds it hard to put away the blade.
She wants to go and explore each corner of the kingdom, into all the places where the earth withered and died. There was so much change, those years she was locked away, and a Queen would ride out and see it all, look into the dead lands and bring what light she could. But when she talks of it, after they bury the dead and after she is crowned, they act as though she has suggested something unthinkable. Why would she leave the safety of the castle to venture into the wilds of the forests and the mountains? They forget that this place was a prison to her longer than it was a home.
Her Huntsman, at least, looks as ill pleased to be here as she is. She doesn’t know why he has not left – she has asked him for nothing since she woke under the familiar arches of Duke Hammond’s hall. He took her where he had promised; he fulfilled any bond he had with her. But still he skulks in the shadows and in the back of rooms, frowning at her but not leaving. The people who knew him before laugh behind their hands, commenting on how he is changed. He is sober, he is shaven, he picks no fights (or fewer fights). They assume it is her influence, and laugh again. For doesn’t she charm all wild things? It makes her want to punch the stone walls, but she knows that will not help. She wants to leave, but that will make them unhappy. She dreams of Sanctuary. But she brought violence there, as she did to the women’s village. She could go back now and ride through in peace, if it would not upset the Duke, upset Will.
Will says, “They want to protect you. I want to protect you.” She doesn’t think he will ever forgive himself for leaving.
“I am not in need of protectors,” she tells him. Too many men and women have died in the name of keeping her safe.
He says, “I watched you die. I watched-”
Finn used to watch her sleep. Or he used to watch her pretend to sleep, curled on her side, folded in on herself and waiting for the day he would open the door. She is finished with men watching over her body. She sleeps alone, in a room with no mirrors.
Her people look to her for a symbol, the weapon she made herself safely sheathed in this castle. They look to her for an heir – she is plenty old enough now to give the kingdom a son. It was the absence of bloodline that allowed Ravenna to take power – stealing it from a heartsick King with a daughter still young enough to be bundled away. They think she would not have won so easily in a land with princes. Snow White knows better. She understands, a little, why Ravenna took no mate once she had the kingdom in her hands.
There are some who think the land wished Snow White back to life. The dwarves helped in that story telling, talking of the Hart and the curing of ailments, talking of her bringing life herself. Now she is waiting for the day the people look at her, and instead of seeing the Princess blessed by fairies, they will see a Queen of magic. They will see that it is not right that she should live, that it is uncanny. She wonders how long it will be, if she keeps deferring Will’s advances (an excellent choice, a hero of the war, a link to her father’s reign). She wonders what they would do if they knew how she doubts what room she has left in her heart for that. Will said it: she has a duty. But then that wasn’t Will. Ravenna was the one who spoke of duty. Snow White knows only the dim memories of her childhood, of a mother who was loving but couldn’t stay and a father who was not strong enough without her. She knows the years of a prison-cell, watching the world change through the bars of her window. She wants to know her kingdom. She does not want to rule amongst the angels. She wants only for the kingdom to be well again, to spill her blood and tears onto the earth and see if that is enough to mend. It had been enough for the other magic.
She wants to try the weight of a blade in her hand, and dare him to try and take it from her again. If he will not, then Snow White will know she is ready.
He finds her in the courtyard, scaring the guards. William is watching her. He sees Eric, smiles and shrugs. He won’t trouble her in such a mood; he’ll take her later into the little woods around the castle and hunt game without finding any, more a reflection on the Queen’s whims than the archer’s skill. They’ll come back laughing. She seldom laughs with him, a serious girl all the while he’s known her, but she will smile at his severity. He thinks that, at least, amuses her. She sees the world so differently.
Snow White turns to him, the mantle of her hair spinning behind her. She goes unhelmeted, as she had to battle, as he does now and did then. Then, the braid of her dark hair had been as much a flag of the right ruler as the standards they rode behind. Now, she shrugs it over her shoulder and calls to him. “Will you show me, Huntsman?”
“What would you know?”
Her mail flashes in the sunlight. “Not a man here brave enough to draw sword against me. But you will.”
“What makes you say that?”
She smiles. “You showed no reluctance to press a blade against my neck before.”
“I didn’t know you then.” She had been an unreal thing, a life to place in the balance against the one he loved best. He had expected a thieving kitchen maid, or some wench who had offended the Queen’s brother. He had been too addled to expect anything at all. And then when he saw her, saw the way the forests changed around her, perhaps he had thought her the Queen’s get, a witch-child. But where Ravenna was golden and sleek and dangerous, Snow White was pale and mud-stained, tripping over her words and her stolen weapon. She was a scared girl, huge-eyed and lost. And then she was a warrior-princess, leading the charge into battle. He hadn’t noticed one becoming the other; he thinks perhaps she had waited for him to see it.
She is still waiting. “And now?”
He knows this like he knows his way home from the dark forest, as well as he knows anything so written in his blood as to be instinct. “I would die in your name, protect you from all harm.”
She looks around her. “I have a hundred men who offer that. What else do you have than those?” She throws her challenge down in front of him.
He sighs and draws his blade. “Step towards me, slow.”
She draws a wicked knife, the blade curved. “I remember.” She takes a step.
They call her unafraid, those who only know she rose from death and called them into battle. He knows she feels fear. He walked beside her in the forest, heard every small noise of alarm. It is simply that she does not stop for fear. She has no more concern over staring down a troll than she does crossing blades with him, if the cause is right. She could have died trying to save him, who had so recently tried to trade her life for one already lost.
He says, “I have never known a person with so little care for their own life.” She wanders off to investigate fairy-song, she roars at monsters, she trusts a fool drunkard at her side before any other man.
She raises one eyebrow. “Really? I have known at least one other.”
He cannot but nod at that hit. He had thought to die at her side already, happy enough as long as she still drew breath. He had rode smiling into battle, certain of nothing but that she was alive who had been dead, and that he would die to keep her that way. She is the ruin of his best-laid plans.
“I want to tour the kingdom,” she says. When he stills, she presses her advantage, getting her little blade under his arm. “Yield?” she asks.
“You cannot hope to surprise all your attackers into a misstep. You need-.” He turns her knife aside with his axe, getting his shoulder in the way of her spin. “-to learn to land the killing blow.” She is a fine horsewoman, she can light her own fires, she can find fruit and water as well as any forest-dweller. But she has no stomach for the kill.
Her expression clouds. “Until you see the soul. I remember you telling me that too.” She had killed Ravenna all the same, and then wept over the body. She twists, knocking his foot away from him and sliding her small body under his axe. He can feel her heart beating through his chest, her breath against his throat. She touches her blade to his neck. “Now will you yield?”
He could break free from her hold but that isn’t her question. “What is it you want of me?”
“Would you kneel, Huntsman, if I asked?”
She should remember; he knelt to her before, though she did not ask it. All in white with the fire burning around her, like a wild thing brought from the other side of death. He says, “The question, my Queen, is would you ask?”
She doesn’t answer him that. Instead, she asks a different question, “Then will you ride with me?”
She will ride out whether he goes with her or not. He wonders at the others not knowing that of her already. This castle is not enough to hold her. If they will not go with her, the birds will show her the way, or the stars will change in their orbs to point her a new path. Something had willed breath back into her body; he would be surprised by nothing else now. He says, “Yes. I will ride with you.”
There is an edge in her smile, like the thorns hidden under the frost of her. While she is standing there living, meeting him stare for stare, he would not claim to know another like her.
She holds her arms away from her body, knife still held tight in her hand. Her grip is steady on the hilt now. He wouldn’t try to take this weapon from her. She says, quiet, “They wanted a true Queen. So I must make them one.”