After all that business with the troll, Eric had thought that he was beyond being surprised by Snow, but when he woke one morning to see her sitting on a log, close in conversation with a raven perched on her wrist, he still gaped, open-mouthed.
"He does not look very clever," the raven huffed, glancing at him when Eric sat up. They were close to the edges of the Dark Forest, now, where the gnarled ground was not soaked deep with the land's hatred, and it was safe - for a certain definition of safe, anyway - to rest.
"You speak unkindly, Muninn," Snow smiled, and the expression looked oddly jarring on her for a moment. The frightened, panicking child, bone-tired with exhaustion, was gone, replaced by a youthful, innocent girl who looked painfully out of place in the dead forest around her. "Huntsman, this is my friend, Muninn."
Eric found himself subjected to a surprisingly calculating once-over by a bird, beady black eyes sweeping him slowly from head to toe. "Pleased, I am sure," Muninn concluded frostily, clearly finding him wanting, and pointedly glanced back at Snow. "I know that help is difficult to get this deep in Her domain, but were you truly so desperate? This man is a drunkard and seems thoroughly disreputable."
"Hey," Eric objected, irritated, even as Snow shot him a quickly apologetic look.
"He is doing this for me out of the kindness of his heart-"
"-and a monetary reward, no doubt-" the raven interjected.
"-and I will not see you insult him, Muninn." Snow raised the bird up until they were on eye-level, and after a long moment, the raven looked away, fluffing its feathers irritably.
"Oh, very well. Have it your way. I suppose you are the escapee, not I."
"A royal pet?" Eric hazarded, looking at the silver torque around the bird's neck that was intricately inscribed with runes, and a jewelled cuff around its right leg, and Snow let out a startled laugh, even as the bird huffed in irritation.
"A royal prisoner," Muninn corrected, then seemed to decide to pointedly ignore Eric altogether. "Snow, you must hurry. She has gathered another force, one made of her best men, on the best horses in her stable. Finn leads it. They intend to ride around the Dark Forest and intercept you on the other side. You must keep moving."
"I will be back for you," Snow promised, reaching over to pet the bird's wings affectionately, and Eric blinked as her fingers passed through at the tips, as though sleeting through a mirage. The raven was an illusion, then. "I promise."
"Save yourself first, girl," Muninn, however, seemed to relax, his wings drooping. "She needs me yet; She has for decades. I am in no danger. You are."
"I know." Snow nodded slowly. "I confess myself surprised that your magic works in the Dark Forest when Hers does not."
"Her magic was traded," Muninn reminded Snow. "I was born with mine. The Dark Forest is a difficult place for spellweaves, but I can sense the flavour of your mind anywhere. Now, I must go before She notices my distraction. Good luck, child."
"I am a child no longer," Snow retorted, though she smiled, as though it was an old argument between them both.
"And I am thankful for it. Her magic weakened when you grew into your own; I have never seen it wane so sharply. As it did, I grow stronger." Muninn spread its wings, then seemed to hesitate, glancing back at Eric. "Huntsman."
"Aye, raven," Eric drawled, in the middle of packing up the camp, feeling a little manic about it all. He had, all in a couple of days, betrayed his Queen, become a fugitive for a child he knew nothing about, and was now talking to a bird. Life could take the oddest turns, so drastically.
"I charge you to keep her safe," Muninn instructed him imperiously, and vanished before Eric could open his mouth.
"The Queen uses raven magic," Eric observed, when Snow got to her feet. At her narrowed eyes, he shrugged. "Just making an observation, girl."
"Muninn is..." Snow hesitated, then added evasively, "Different."
"It's common knowledge that She knows how to make illusions."
"Muninn's magic is different," Snow retorted, now on the defensive. "He is a friend - I have known him almost all of my life. Now. Can we keep going? Please?"
"Suit yourself," Eric shrugged, warily. If this was an elaborate trick by the Queen, he did not quite want to be in range when she showed her colours. Hopefully he would have earned his reward long before then.
They walked in silence until they were close to the very edge of the forest. Even as Eric bent to inspect tracks in the mud - three days old, by the look of it, a raksha's snaking prints - Snow muttered, "I apologize."
"For?" Eric glanced at her, surprised.
"I was sharp with you. You are right. The Queen uses raven magic." Snow looked hesitant, as if debating whether to speak more of it, then she bit down on her lip.
"Girl, your choice of friends are yours to make," Eric noted, rather tersely. "You say you have known this talking raven all your life and that he is friendly. Yesterday I saw a troll turn away from you where it should have crushed you into the rock. The world becomes a touch unbelievable around you, I think."
Snow blinked, then she grinned, bit her lip hastily, and grinned again, girlish this time, uncomfortably so. Eric glanced away, quickly. This child had no business being in the Dark Forest. "The next time he visits," Snow said, sounding conciliatory, "Perhaps he will be less rude. He can be charming if he wants to be."
"I have no real need to make friends with a bird, girl," Eric said dryly.
"Oh, but he is not a bird," Snow objected impulsively, in a rush, then a touch of colour rose to her cheeks, as though she had said too much, and she bit down on her lip again, and was silent.
The women of the fishing village reacted with sharp cries of fear when Muninn abruptly appeared out of the sky, swooping down to perch onto Snow's shoulder from where she sat at the jetty. "What are you doing?" the raven demanded irritably, "You cannot stay here. You must keep moving."
"That is her friend. Apparently," Eric found himself informing the matriarch of the village, who cast a doubtful glance between the raven, its jewellery, and Snow, before nodding slowly. The other women slowly went back to their routines, though Eric noticed the lookout archers casting frequent glances towards them.
"'Apparently'?" Muninn repeated, sounding offended.
"Shush," Snow interrupted, as Eric shrugged at the bird. "I've been running for days, Muninn. I needed to rest. This is a peaceful place."
"It will be a peaceful place no longer if you stay here," Muninn snapped, hopping from one foot to another. "The Queen's men are coming on horseback. If they see you here, they'll torch this place to the ground. They might do it anyway."
Beside Eric, the Matriarch stiffened, even as Eric grit his teeth. The raven had a point. Now that Eric himself knew who Snow was - it was all too obvious that she would call the Queen's fury to herself, and to anyone unlucky enough to have been between them. On the jetty, Snow paled visibly, now frightened. "But I - but this-"
"You are young and naive and stupid," the raven told her unmercifully, though it stretched one wing briefly to wrap around her shoulders. "With the Queen after you, can you not see that you will bring her fury upon any-"
"Stop, Muninn, stop," Snow cried, and clenched her hands in her lap. 'I understand. I will leave."
"Now," Snow echoed, her shoulders slumping. "I just... I have not had such gentle company since I was a child."
"I know." Muninn glowered at the women who hesitated at the edges of the jetty, darting frightened glances towards the marshes. "But you were not made for gentle company. You are a princess. Your hand must learn iron, not a loom. Your shoulders were born for mail, not frippery."
"You are too harsh on her," Eric objected. "She is a child."
"I see no point in coddling her when she needs honesty," Muninn shot back, glaring at him. "Gather your things, Snow. You must leave."
"I will, I will." Snow pulled herself to her feet, smoothed down her britches, and squared her shoulders. Turning to the matriarch, she smiled, tentatively at first, then warmly. "Thank you for your hospitality. I am very sorry if I have brought you any trouble."
"We have been raided before. We know what to do." The matriarch nodded at her, though she glanced warily at the edges of the dark forest, from where it melded into wasteland. "Go."
Eric hesitated when Snow scurried into one of the huts, to pick up the pouches that one of the children had given to her, and started when he realized that Muninn had perched onto his shoulder, instead. "Raven."
"Huntsman," Muninn mimicked his grave tone, mockingly, then the raven tilted its head, even as around them, the women startled to bustle away, gathering up baskets and possessions in an orderly chaos, likely preparing to hide in the marshes for the night. "You are thinking of abandoning her."
"I did not know what she was when I agreed to take her to the Keep." How had the raven known?
"She will die without you," Muninn noted this, with clear distaste. "She has an ally in the Queen's men, but he is also barely more than a boy, and besides, I harbour grave doubts about his level of intelligence. You, on the other hand, you seem to possess a brutish set of basic survival skills that have served her well to date. As much as it pains me to admit it, she needs you."
"This is the most ungracious request for aid that I have ever heard," Eric observed dryly. "And I have had the dubious pleasure of making Lord Finn's company."
"Please," Muninn groused, even more ungraciously, and despite himself, Eric chuckled, startled. "You laugh... if you care even a fraction about this kingdom, Huntsman, if you care about the women who have disappeared, who turn up mysteriously dead on the streets... she has swallowed kingdoms before, I have seen it. She will drain this place of every last shred of life and joy, leaving it barren, before finding another to ruin. Snow represents a chance to end the cycle. One that I have not seen before."
"I am only a huntsman," Eric pointed out, even as he shivered, curling his fingers into his palms.
"Oh, well, if appealing to your humanity was too difficult," Muninn snapped, glaring at him, "I can match the Duke's reward. Coin for coin."
Two hundred pieces of gold would be a handsome sum. "You are only a bird."
"If you truly think that," Muninn huffed, "Then you are even more of an idiot than I originally surmised, and perhaps she will be better off without you," which was of course the moment that Snow emerged from the hut.
"Muninn!" Snow protested, flushing. "How could you say that?"
"Since I am only a bird, I can say whatever I like," Muninn noted loftily, though it did not relocate to Snow's shoulders.
Instead of feeling insulted, however, or annoyed, Eric found himself chuckling again, amused, and it was a strange sensation, laughing, twice now this day, when he had felt only black grief for so long. A good sensation.
Perhaps he could heal. Perhaps he could change.
Perhaps he had already begun to.
"Aye, raven. I will keep to my bargain."
"Good," Muninn appeared surprised, for a while, its wings flaring, then with a flap, it was back on Snow's wrist. "The Queen is weakening, but slowly. The more you grow in strength, the more she will fade."
"And then, you will be free?" Snow asked, hopefully, touching fingers to the cuff at Muninn's feet, her fingertips briefly passing through an emerald.
"Perhaps. Oh! Perhaps." Muninn ducked its head. "If I can free myself, I will come to you. We won't need this peasant oaf, then."
"You are so unkind," Snow scolded, aghast, but Eric merely shook his head, still amused at the bird's haughty airs.
"Make haste." Muninn nudged her hand affectionately. "Gods willing, perhaps I will see you soon."
"He is not a raven," Snow began awkwardly, when Eric called a halt for the day and set up camp beside the river. They had borrowed a boat from the women, and had set off along the marsh; just in time, he felt. In the distance, there was an orange glow - the village had been torched. Hopefully, it was empty when it had been.
"I can see that." Eric conceded. "He must be a sorcerer. Born with magic, so he said. I have heard tales. They are rare breeds of men."
"He is..." Snow hesitated, uncomfortably, darting a glance over at the glow in the distance, then she sighed.
"You do not need to tell me."
"I should," Snow glanced up at him, her jaw set. "No more secrets. I have trusted you this far, and you have become hunted because of me. This is what I know. A month after the Queen took over the castle and locked me in the tower, I started to see him in my dreams. He was unkind to me at first, but we took to talking, and we eventually became friends. He had no name, until I gave him one. He is a prisoner of the Queen. I do not know where he is held, but before She... before I escaped, I could only see him in dreams. The Queen is weaker when She is resting, and apparently, we have some form of... destiny bond, that allows him to transpose an image of himself to me, around Her wards."
"He had no name?" This seemed improbable.
"He is..." Snow paused again, longer this time, then she exhaled. "He is her son. She chose not to name him. Names have power when fixed to a sorcerer, apparently." When Eric stiffened, Snow burst out earnestly, "I know, at first, when I found out, I was angry; I thought that it was just one of Her tricks. But he is as much a prisoner as I was. She uses him as a source of power. When She has no girls to drain, or when She needs to work great magic, She takes energy from him. Blood can use blood. He hates Her."
"You make dangerous friends," Eric observed, at last, thinking it over. "But desperation does give you little choice."
"I do not think that he is dangerous," Snow noted defensively, painfully naive again, "He is lonely."
"If what he speaks of is true, the both of you have a common enemy, at least." Try as Eric could, he could not quite think of any way in which Snow's judgement of Muninn's character did not ring true. If Muninn had been working for the Queen, it would not have kept chasing them onwards; would not have tried to bribe Eric to stay by Snow's side. "And a sorcerer would make a powerful ally."
"I have sworn to free him and I will," Snow said firmly, and for all her slight frame and pale, pretty features, there was iron within this girl, Eric felt. Her shoulders were indeed made for mail and not silk. Sarah would have liked her.
"Is something amiss, Huntsman?" Snow asked anxiously, and Eric belatedly realized that some of his grief and the abrupt memory of his wife must have shown on his face.
"No. Nothing. Rest well. We must move quickly tomorrow."
Eric was reminded of Muninn's brutal assessment of William's character when Snow introduced the Duke's son to him - the young man was barely out of boyhood, clearly trying to cultivate a moustache and a beard to look older, and he was hot-headed, puppyishly impulsive, and possessed that particular sense of invulnerability that plagued only the young. Still, he was good-natured, and clearly devoted to Snow; besides, he did have an uncommon skill with the bow and arrow.
Eric preferred the dwarves' company lately, however. Snow was starting to unnerve him, and in any regard, she spent much of her time whenever camp was set up speaking to William in low tones, smiling, with a most particular touch of colour to her cheeks. William was handsome and he was familiar to her, after all, but Eric could not help but chuckle when he started back with a oath, fumbling for his bow, when Muninn dropped out of the darkening sky and onto Snow's shoulder.
It was no illusion this time - Snow let out a cry of joy, then Muninn a squawk of outrage as the girl grabbed the raven and hugged it tightly, ignoring flailing wings. The strange jewellery was gone, Eric noted, as the raven struggled up to Snow's shoulder, furiously preening itself.
"This is Muninn," Snow told William happily.
"Your raven... friend," William noted slowly, even as Muir frowned and Beith muttered something to Nion, uneasy.
"Gods, he must be even more of an idiot than I thought," Muninn glanced at William, clearly unimpressed by the heir to the ducal throne of the Eastern Marches, then it looked over the rest of their party. "Dwarves... good. Dwarves are very dependable. Oh. Huntsman. You are still alive."
"You sound disappointed, raven," Eric raised his mug of water in a playful toast.
"Keep the dwarves, you don't need the others," Muninn told Snow, even as William sputtered, turning red.
Snow grinned. "I need all the allies I can get, Muninn."
"And you still owe me a hundred gold pieces," Eric reminded the raven mildly.
"We are not yet at the Keep, Huntsman," Muninn shot back tartly.
"What is that?" Muir cut in suddenly, his frown deepening. "I sense... I sense seidhr. The old magic. What has come?"
"A dwarven seer? I never thought that was possible." Muninn swooped over to Eric's shoulder, ignoring his wince as claws dug into his shirt, and hopped down to his knee for a closer look at Muir. Beith's hand dropped to his axe, but Nion hastily grabbed his elbow.
"Seiðmenn," Muir murmured to himself, then, more loudly, "A sorcerer."
"Old magic?" Eric pressed, conscious of how nervous the other dwarves were becoming. "Not like the Queen's?"
Muir grimaced. "No. Nothing like hers. But seidhr was thought long dead from this world. The age of old magic is past."
Eric shot Snow a pointed glance, and she hastily padded over to scoop Muninn up, ignoring the irritated clack of his beak at the indignity when he was deposited back on her shoulder. "Muninn is an old friend of mine," she declared firmly, "And he was ill used by the Queen as well."
"Seidhr and its practitioners were purged from this world in the last age for a reason," Muir shook his head. "It is the magic of creation. When ill-used... it seared much of the world into places like the Dark Forest."
"He is my friend," Snow retorted stubbornly, and after a moment, Muir turned his head away, in assent, and Eric let out the breath that he hadn't realized that he had been holding as the other dwarves grudgingly relaxed. Seemingly satisfied, Snow walked back to William, who had been watching the entire exchange with open confusion. They spoke quietly for a moment, then William nodded, and they sat back down on the rock. Eric raised his cup to his lips, just as Muninn glanced back at him, then he turned away, to address something that Snow said.
Travelling became a tense affair after that. The dwarves were suspicious of the talking raven - unsurprisingly - and William seemed rather bemused by it all. Eric found himself ranging further and further ahead, ostensibly to scout, but in actual fact, he found the quiet soothing. Nature was still unbroken, this far from the castle, and the streams were sweet with clear water.
Exploring a thick copse of trees for fruit, Eric froze when Muninn drawled, "There's nothing dangerous here, Huntsman."
"So I see," Eric replied dryly, glancing up, and clenched his hand tightly around his axe in shock. Instead of a raven perched on a branch, there was a man, slender and tall, lounging in the branches of a tree, a half-eaten fruit caged in elegant fingers, his features delicate to the point of almost being pretty, raven-dark hair combed into a sleek shell that fell to his shoulders. Muninn was dressed richly, in a deep green jacket trimmed with silver brocade, fawn breeches tucked into black knee-high boots.
"Close your mouth, Huntsman, 'tis most unbecoming to gape," Muninn frowned at him, and Eric drew himself up belatedly.
"Does Snow know of... of..." Eric waved a hand helplessly in Muninn's direction.
"Of course she does. I just felt that a talking raven might seem a little less difficult for her to introduce." Muninn took another delicate bite of the fruit; whatever it was, the juice was cherry-red, staining full lips. Watching him, Eric felt his own mouth water for a moment before he hastily took hold of himself. Men were not usually to his taste, but Muninn was a most uncommonly comely man, touched with a rare beauty that seemed ageless. "I was tired of scraps."
"You bear little resemblance to your uncle," Eric noted slowly, and Muninn grimaced.
"I hear I take after the King whose bed my mother was once forced to warm," Muninn observed, with cavalier disinterest. "Save that he aged poorly, near the end, and I have aged not at all. I must commend you for my uncle's death, however; that was the last seal on my cage."
"You have been imprisoned all your life? Since your birth?" When Muninn nodded, Eric shuddered. "Her own son... the Queen has much to answer for."
"I gather I reminded her of a time when she was yet too weak to be anything but subjugated," Muninn mused clinically, "Had I not been born to magic, she would likely have arranged for me to be strangled long since." The sorcerer raised one shoulder in a light shrug. "That might have been kinder."
"But then you would not have known what it was like to be free."
Muninn snorted, finishing the fruit and tossing it away. With a gesture of his fingers and a glance, his lips and fingertips were clean, and he hopped down from the branch with careless grace. "You saw the reaction from the dwarves. I have heard that and more from my mother, my uncle, her guards. Old magic is feared. I have been freed, only to be hunted."
"Then perhaps it is good that you have made a friend of the kingdom's rightful Queen," Eric suggested, puzzled at Muninn's air of cynical pessimism. "Snow is very fond of you."
"Children grow up and tire of their toys eventually," Muninn said dismissively, though he did relax a fraction.
"I very much doubt that Snow sees you that way, sir, but if you ever do need to hide," Eric found himself saying, "I know this land well. I can help you disappear."
"For another hundred gold pieces?" Muninn arched an eyebrow.
"Less than that," Eric tried for a grin, but Muninn sniffed, and patted his elbow condescendingly.
"Thank you for your offer, Huntsman, but it would be a poor day indeed should I need your aid." The sarcasm seemed half-hearted, however, and Muninn shot him a briefly uncertain glance as he brushed past. There was a blur in the air, like a mirage forming, then the raven stood in his place, taking to the sky. Watching it go, Eric absently rubbed his elbow, mentally kicking himself. He was not a boy any longer, or so he thought, that baser wants could so easily make a fool of him.
Eric remembered little of that horrific morning when he'd woken up to realize that Snow had gone on a walk by herself. Her still body on the ground, her black hair in curls of sharp contrast. Muninn's circling above, his hoarse, sudden cry of grief. The storm of ravens that exploded up when Eric had swung through the Queen's body. The way Muninn had landed - crashed, really - beside Snow's body, blurring into his human-shaped form, raising his chin and shouting-
-later, much later, far into his cups in drink, Muir would tell Eric that Muninn had spoken one of the Words of Creation, the cornerstones of the oldest forms of seidhr, and he had set the very air above him aflame. Some fragment of self-preservation had Eric drag William down by his cloak, flattening them on the snow the moment he had seen Muninn open his mouth, and that had probably been all that had kept them alive.
Carcasses fell, feathers and bone still burning even as they steamed on the snow, but a few scattered ravens fled southwards, and Muninn staggered to his feet, hands curled into claws, changing into his raven shape and falling beak-first into the snow, struggling, wings slapping weakly at the ground. William had scrambled to his feet, rushing to Snow's side, a low moan bubbling in his throat, and awkwardly, Eric scooped up Muninn instead, holding him close and ignoring the pecks and flailing until the bird stilled.
"Is she dead?" Eric asked, his voice sounding distant and small, even to his own ears, as William rocked Snow's body, shoulders shaking, brushing a kiss over her still lips.
"She is neither alive nor dead," Muninn said finally, if shakily, and William jerked up his chin, wild-eyed. "She is bespelled."
"Break the spell then, sorcerer!" William demanded. "You are her friend, are you not?"
"I cannot," Muninn bowed his head. "The Queen's magic and mine are worlds apart. Hers is delicate work. Mine-"
"Not his magic," Muir cut in. The dwarves were clustered around him, shooting glances between Snow's body and the charred corpses on the ground. "The Queen's magic bargains with death and trickery. She'll swallow kingdoms, do murder, but on a scale, beside him, She counts for little. His magic can set the entire world afire."
Muninn tensed, but remained silent as the dwarves slowly went to work, to construct a stretcher, their heads lowered, William frozen where he knelt. Failure heavy in his heart, Eric stepped aside, leaning against a tree to watch the dwarves at work. He was barely aware that he still held Muninn until he felt the bird struggle, then he let up his grip, allowing the sorcerer to climb up to his shoulder.
"I am sorry," Muninn said, finally, and in a small voice. "Had you not fallen on the snow-"
"You were angry." Eric interrupted quickly. "Did you hurt her? The Queen?"
"She will heal quickly. She has the means." Muninn shifted his weight, uncomfortably. "I nearly did kill you. You and William. The dwarves are right - my mother was right. I am dangerous."
"All men are dangerous," Eric noted dismissively. "Women, as well." He had indeed come close to dying, but he wasn't sure if it was because of his grief, or of the savage satisfaction he had felt when the ravens had burned - right now, Eric felt simply the empty grasp of failure. They had all failed her.
"How could you so quickly..." Muninn trailed off, then he sighed. "No matter. Our priority now is Snow."
"Do you know how the spell can be broken?"
"There are different forms of old magic," Muninn noted, almost evasively. "I must think."
A talking raven would be too much for his father, William had said, and as such, it was in human form that Muninn had been brought into the keep, introduced as another escapee from the Queen's dungeons.
Snow was placed on an altar in the state room, still and lovely in her white gown, and from local gossip Eric heard that Muninn spent most of his time in the chamber, seated beside the altar on a chair, his long fingers folded on his lap, his eyes closed. Dreamwalking, perhaps, or thinking, Eric couldn't quite guess, and the dwarves were thoroughly uncomfortable whenever he raised the question with them.
Duke Hammond ran a tight ship, and the keep was orderly, geared for a siege rather than for war. Eric had been glad for a warm bath and a bed, on the first night, then he had felt guilty about being glad, with Snow suspended between life and death, and then he had simply been bored. There was nothing he could do for Snow and little for a huntsman to do in a keep, the dwarves kept to themselves, and William spent most of his time arguing with his father.
Eventually, Eric crept back into the state room, feeling a little like an intruder even as he did so. He would ask Muninn to leave his vigil and have something to eat, he decided - not that this was likely a problem; Muninn, by all accounts, was very popular with the Keep's women. Beautiful and elegant, he had to be a most uncommon sight, among all the men armed in mail and leather. Still, it wasn't as though Muninn paid them any heed at all, and heartened by this knowledge, Eric stepped into the chamber just in time to see Muninn bent over the altar, brushing a kiss over Snow's lips.
Frozen, he stared as Muninn took a step back, as though waiting, and then, unbelievably, Snow took in a high, lost breath.
"I thought so. Her magic works in multiples of two," Muninn said, his relief betrayed in his unsteady tone as Snow sat up, blinking away sleep and rubbing her eyes.
"You broke the spell! I knew that you would," Snow stroked fingers briefly over her throat, as though at a memory of choking, then she slipped off the altar and hugged Muninn tightly, even as he tensed for a moment before circling his arms around her. "What did you mean, multiples of two?"
"William and I, Snow. Two men whose lives are pledged to you," Muninn stated, with bland honesty, and Eric felt something in his heart constrict as he turned away - or tried to. "Eric?"
Eric glanced back, surprised - he hadn't even thought that Muninn knew his name. "Snow. You have cheated death."
"I have good friends." Snow squeezed Muninn's wrist; she looked exhausted, but determined. "Where is William?"
"Arguing with his father out in the courtyard," Eric supplied, and Snow nodded solemnly at him before gliding out, all the more Queenly in her simple white dress and her hair in a dark cloud over her shoulders. The dwarves were wrong, Eric thought, watching Snow descend the stair. The Queen and Muninn might have magic, but it was people like Snow who set the world afire, who could break entire nations under her will if she wished to.
"She is remarkable," Muninn murmured, having stepped like a ghost up to Eric's side.
"You love her," Eric stated, and it was raw, too tellingly raw; Muninn glanced up at him, as though surprised, his handsome face frozen, then he ducked his eyes and smiled, faint and crisp.
"I have loved her since she was a child. As has William, and that was what the spellwork needed to be undone. Two men who love her, and truly. Old magic has simple rules, when used to dispel spellweave; it works in counter-agents and balances. Our twin set of life, love and devotion, against Her twin set of death, hatred and loathing. Unlike William, however, I have no wish to wed her."
"She will be Queen," Eric noted, dumbly, not understanding, and this time, Muninn smirked at him, with his usual condescension, and leaned over, catching his chin between thumb and forefinger.
"My interests lie elsewhere," he whispered, invitingly, and it was Eric that closed the gap between them, Eric that stole an immortal's breath and pressed him squirming and groaning against cold stone, to take what he could from the eager body flush against him and give all that he could in return, their kiss filthy and drunk with revelation.
Hands curled tightly over his vest and pushed him back a step, and Eric jerked back with a startled gasp as the world itself seemed to blur; then they were in the guest room in the Keep that had been allocated to Eric, his axe resting on the table with his freshly scrubbed gear folded beside it.
"So there are benefits to bedding a sorcerer," Eric mused out aloud, and Muninn's smile could only be described as predatory as he undid the laces on Eric's vest and pulled them off his shoulders. Clothing became an irritating obstacle as they struggled out of undershirts and jackets and britches and boots, and when they were finally naked, rolled on the bed with its rich brocade quilt, Eric set his big, roughened palms beside Muninn's pale, flawless shoulders and took in a slow breath, drinking it in, as soft fingers played up his ribs and traced scars with gentle curiosity.
"You are so beautiful," Eric said, reverent, when Muninn arched an eyebrow, and the sorcerer snorted, reaching up to tangle fingers in his hair.
"Then try not to bore me, Huntsman," Muninn drawled, in every breath a note of challenge, and it was Eric's turn to smile as he leaned down to set his teeth to the unmarked skin of Muninn's neck, breathe in his scent, like sandalwood and spices, trail his lips down and further down yet, planting his palms over Muninn's hips as the sorcerer hissed and writhed, to set his mouth to his sex and suck until he heard Muninn keen his name.
Afterwards, Muninn growled and jerked his chin away when Eric tried to kiss him, and chuckling, Eric settled for urging him to turn, instead, to face the lovely curve of his back to him, to make Muninn gasp and squeak as he marked each inch with bites and kisses, until the sorcerer was rubbing himself on the sheets again, biting down on a whine as Eric rubbed spit-wet fingers carefully between his cleft. Muninn sucked in a high, sharp breath when he was breached, tensing despite the hour of careful preparation, and it was sweet torture to hold back, to sink in slowly until he was finally hilted, sweet torture again to keep himself buried, rocking in gently until Muninn shuddered and cursed beneath him.
Eric found Snow and Muninn in the castle's garden, where the first buds of spring were already beginning to blossom on the branches of seemingly dead trees. The ground was covered in ash and rubble, but in time, Eric felt, it would be lush and green again, now that the Queen and her magic were past.
They glanced up at his approach, and Snow smiled at him, even as Muninn frowned, and Eric lifted an eyebrow as he came to a stop. The new armour sat heavily on his shoulders, and he had disdained the blade for the axe that he was used to, which hung in a scabbard at his hip. "Should I be concerned?" he asked, finally, when neither of them said a word.
"You look very fine, Captain," Snow said brightly, even as Muninn muttered, "He stinks of oil and steel."
"The Queen's opinion carries more weight than her court mage's, I am afraid," Eric observed, just to see Snow laugh and Muninn roll his eyes.
"Perhaps it should not," Snow noted, with a sly sidelong glance at Muninn, who pointedly glanced away. "I have to see Hammond over the new trade route arrangements. Try not to get up to any mischief."
"We'll try," Eric said dryly, as Snow nodded with mock solemnity at them both and swept away, towards the stair. Once she was out of earshot, Eric murmured, "I have no experience with armies."
"You were a soldier," Muninn reminded him.
"A footsoldier. I have never commanded an army."
"Find someone who has, and delegate," Muninn retorted, unmerciful as always. "This is your reward, Eric. Try to look pleased."
"I am pleased." Eric grinned, as he reached over to pull Muninn close, ignoring the gasp of disgust and the fingers pushing irritably at his breastplate. "My lover seems to hold a different opinion about my rise in social status, however."
"He holds no opinions about your status, merely about your regrettable choice in clothing." Muninn, however, stopped squirming, possibly conscious of further indignity, and he allowed Eric to lean in for a kiss, clean and soft, almost chaste. Around them, the sundered trees continued to spread slowly into bloom, as the touch of spring crept gently back into the fold.