All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too
Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl
- All Along The Watchtower, Bob Dylan
(or Jimi Hendrix, whichever is your preferred version)
So what if there are no damsels in distress?
What if I knew that and I called your bluff?
Don't you know every kitten figures out how to get down
Whether or not you ever show up
- Not A Pretty Girl, Ani DiFranco
And so the girl and the huntsman made a plan.
First things first, the huntsman needed to find William. They both agreed that revealing the girl's current state to him would probably raise more questions than they had answers to at the moment, it would waste precious time, and they might have to deal with William either wanting to come with them or trying to stop them, so the huntsman went alone. When he did find the man's bedroom, he knocked before entering and roused William from sleep. At this point, Eric was completely sober and had no problem impressing upon William that the queen's forces were currently marching toward their position.
Once William realized the gravity of the situation, he was on his feet pulling his clothes on. He asked Eric how he'd come by this information, but Eric laughed and told the man honestly that the story was truly unbelievable and that if he wanted to know, he'd have to survive this battle. William nodded gravely and then tore out of the room, calling for his advisors to awaken.
With that done, the huntsman went to collect the girl and leave as quickly as possible. Leaving wasn't as easy as he had hoped, but neither he nor the girl would have been able to bare the thought of leaving without giving William and the people here a warning of what was coming.
As they made it to the stables, they could see people begin to collect in the square. He held his breath, hoping they'd remain undetected, but the townspeople couldn't have possibly guessed that the girl in the dwarven clothing sneaking through the shadows behind him was the recently dead princess. The stirred no interest and encountered no problems.
The huntsman led them to the stables and they each quickly surveyed the horses before saddling up and leaving as quickly as they could. He miraculously found his axe in the equipment shed and used some leather tongs to fashion a sling for it so he wouldn't have to hold it as he rode.
The ride would take them several hours over rough terrain. The most important thing they had to do was avoid the queen's army. They were taking the straight roads towards the keep. That meant he and the girl would stick to the coast. It was a race against time on two fronts: they had to get to the queen while she was unsuspecting that the girl had been revived, but they also had to defeat the queen before her army had a chance to kill everyone at the hold. Being only two riders, they could make good time, but they knew the army would not stop either and they had to ride hard.
After a while, the land went from snowy forest to rolling coastal plains to the jagged black cliffs of the princess's home. The ground soon became too sheer for the horses to continue. The huntsman and the girl knew they had to manage the rest on foot. The castle was surrounded by an impenetrable wall that they would never get through, but the girl had found one way to get in when she had escaped: an open sewer that emptied from the rock face on one of the sides of the castle and opened up into the courtyard inside. If they could get to that point, they were in.
From a purse at her belt, the girl drew out the small vial of red potion that Clare had given her only a few short days ago and poured out the remainder of the liquid into her drinking skin. She sealed the skin and swirled the liquid around. Then she drank deeply before handing the skin over.
The huntsman looked at her questioningly before taking it from her. "If we ever needed strength and fortitude," she said, "it's right now." After a few seconds of him looking at the drinking skin without moving, she laughed. "Drink! It won't harm you. Trust me."
"Now she's encouraging me to drink…" he muttered in jest before doing as she said and drank the remaining liquid from the skin. He felt a warm kindling in his heart and he found that he did feel stronger in an ephemeral way. The huntsman knew then that this feeling wouldn't last and urged the girl to lead the way before the potion had any time to wear off.
They hiked along the edge of the cliff, single file. After what felt like ages, the girl pointed out the small opening in the cliffside and they made their way down the treacherous surface. The huntsman was glad to have the additional aid of the potion because without it, he doubted he would be strong enough to have been able to attempt this approach.
At long last, they set foot in the stinking tunnel that ran up into the courtyard of the castle. They waded through the foul water and peered up into the courtyard in search of guards. The place looked deserted, but they were both wary of being detected, so they observed the courtyard for some time before climbing out of the sewer.
They approached the tower from the rear using a secret passage the girl remembered from her childhood. It would lead to the royal chambers at the top of the tower. At the entrance to the quarters, there was a bottleneck where only one guard could fit through at a time. That was where the huntsman would position himself. It had been agreed upon that he would guard against the queen's guards from this point and the girl would enact the plan they had discussed.
She wasn't sure how, but she knew the queen would be there.
They climbed the hidden stairs up to the top of the tower, but before entering, he looked at the girl. She gazed into his eyes, not with trepidation, but with determination.
"Are you ready, Girl?" he asked, steadying himself.
She took a deep breath. "Almost." Her eyes darted around and she blushed, but then she made eye contact again. "I know we both stink, and this is a terrible moment, but…" Without waiting another second, she stood on her toes so she could brush a kiss against his lips. She pulled away and looked up at him. "Okay. Now I'm rea-"
The huntsman couldn't help himself. He grabbed her around the waist, pulled her close to him, and kissed her like their lives depended on it. She was right, this was a terrible time for this. But this might be their only chance, and who was he to let it slip by.
They broke the kiss and he let her go, but kept a hand at her waist to steady her. She looked a little unbalanced for a moment, but then came to her senses quickly. "Okay. Now I'm ready. You remember the plan, Huntsman?"
He smiled down at her. "Of course: kill anything that tries to get in. Don't interfere."
She nodded assuredly. "Alright. Let's go."
They pushed into the antechamber and he saw the little alcove that was to be his station. The girl moved quickly toward the open doorway. His heart thudded heavily as he saw the queen in the room, hunched on the floor, staring into what looked like a huge brass gong. She had aged considerably since the last time he had seen her, but he had no doubt that she was still dangerous and formidable. He suddenly felt terror sending the girl in alone with only a dagger and her dwarven purse, but he had promised not to interfere.
The girl entered the room and readied her dagger just before he took up his position in the doorway. He saw the queen look up, and he noticed the tick of surprise on her face before she smoothed it away. "GUARDS," she called, and he readied his axe, but tried to be aware as possible of what was going on behind him.
The queen stood up to her full height. "So it seems you managed to escape both of my spells. I have to admit I'm impressed."
"Both of your spells?" the girl asked, confused.
The first wave of guards approached. The hunstman swung through them and they shattered into obsidian shards. They attempted to reform, but could not. For the first time, he realized that they really had a chance. The queen, though she was still dangerous, was weakening. He readied his axe for the next wave and kept his senses open to what was going on around him.
"Oh, well, I'm sure you noticed the duke's, shall we say, passion for having you by his side. I couldn't let the old fool bury you and risk your suffocation. I need you alive. For a while at least." The queen walked around the girl in a wide arc.
"What is it you kept me alive for? Why imprison me all this time? Why not just kill me along with the rest of my family?" the girl asked, a note of exhaustion lacing her voice.
The queen clucked her tongue at the girl. "Why, Snow White, you are the reason my powers have wavered, and you possess the two things I need to restore them to me. I need your beauty, your youth to restore mine. And as for my powers, well, I must consume your heart."
The girl inhaled deeply through her nose, steadying herself. She looked back to the huntsman, and he caught her eye between dispatching guards. She nodded at him and pulled the scarf tightly over her face, then turned, charging at the queen with the dagger in both hands.
She ran full force into the queen, spearing her through the heart. The huntmsan felt a momentary thrill of triumph, and the queen took a step back, but only to laugh. The huntsman could only watch as the girl stood there, dumbfounded, while the queen grabbed the handle of the dagger and pulled it out of her chest, dropping it harmlessly onto the ground.
"Oh, you foolish little girl," the queen said as she grabbed the girl around the throat. "First, I'll consume your youth, and then I'll take your heart. And once more, I will be the fairest and most powerful in all the land. All your allies will be dead. The resistance will be destroyed. And it will all be because you were a stupid little child who wanted to play hero so she could save the day and avenge her dull, stupid, worthless father."
The queen suddenly lifted the girl up by the throat with one hand and placed her other hand on the girl's chest. The huntsman almost turned and ran toward her, but the girl caught his eye and shook her head imperceptibly. There was no struggle in the girl.
"How strong is your heart?" the queen asked, probably rhetorically, but it didn't matter.
With as much confidence as she could muster, the girl whispered, "The strongest."
The queen chuckled a little at the reply, then opened her mouth wide, too wide, as though she were a snake unhinging her jaw, and prepared to inhale the girl's vital essence. At the last moment before she began syphoning off the girl's youth, the girl reached into her purse and pulled out the little black bag and threw it in the queen's face. Black powder erupted from the bag, and the queen gasped in a huge inhale of it that left her coughing and gagging. She dropped the girl, who fell to the ground. She rolled to grab her dagger as the queen clawed at her throat.
"What did you do to me?!" the queen rasped, barely able to breathe.
The guards that were in front of the huntsman fell apart on their own. Whatever had just happened had rendered the queen powerless.
"What have you done to me? What have you done to my powers?" the queen wheezed at the girl.
The girl got into a defensive stance, her eyes scanning the room for something. "A little bird told me your powers don't work in the black forest, so I brought a bit of the forest to you." She made sure the scarf was still tight against her face so she wouldn't inhale any of the dust. "That was a little bit of the black mold that drives people mad."
With the guards out of the way, the huntsman came into the room with his axe ready. "What do we do now? Do we kill her?"
The girl nodded, but her expression was pensive, still searching. "Yes, that's what we do."
The huntsman didn't need any more excuse. He stood over the queen, now pitiful and powerless, and raised his axe in the air, but the cry of the girl in front of him stopped him.
"No, Huntsman! It will not work! Did you see when I stabbed her in the heart? It didn't hurt her." He lowered his weapon. "She's stored her heart somewhere else, and we must find it."
At this the queen gasped, and the huntsman noticed her eyes flitting quickly toward the big brass thing on the floor. Just as quickly, she looked away, but it was too late. "Girl!" he pointed at the brass thing. "Try that."
"The mirror!" the girl cried. "It just might be…" She walked over, lowered herself to her knees, held the dagger high, and plunged it into the mirror. Instead of bouncing off or the blade breaking like he'd expected, the dagger sank into the metal surface and a dark red fluid began gushing out of the wound the girl had made in it.
At the same time, the queen tried to scream, but before she could, her body exploded into a million shards of glass that plinked and fell onto the stone floor. A moment later, the glass shards crumbled into dust and blew away.
And with that, the ordeal was over. A pall of magic that was so oppressive the two hadn't even realized it had been there had lifted and suddenly the castle seemed brighter. The girl jumped to her feet and ran to one of the large windows and gasped. The huntsman made his way over to see what was going on. The land. It was green again.
The spell was finally broken.
He breathed in deeply and felt free for the first time in years. He turned to the girl.
"You did it," he said. "She didn't take your heart."
She smiled up at him and leaned close. "She wouldn't have been able to anyway, you know."
"Is that so?" he asked, smiling.
"Yes, because my heart already belongs to someone."
And with that, she closed the small gap between them and kissed him.
A/N: Sorry about the crazy wait for this last chapter. I originally planned 3 chapters to finish this up, but then I got a job and life got in the way and this story completely fell off my radar. The good news is that the original ending I had planned kind of sucked and I like the way this one plays out infinitely more. Hopefully this is a satisfying ending to this story. I hope all of you are well. This story was really fun to write. There was so much back and forth with reviewers. I've never had an experience like that in any other fandom. Thank you all so much for taking the time to read and review. It means a lot to me. I am sorry this story took so long to wrap up, but I figure it's better late than never.
Thanks again everyone!