Ser Emma, the White Knight, wiped the four harpies' blood from her blade with a look of disgust before sheathing the sword and looking back at the villagers surrounding her. She was tired, exhausted both physically and mentally after months of travel, but she was almost at the end of the known world, and there weren't many more places where she could go on her quest. She looked towards the looming mountain and the dark castle that was built into the rock face halfway up the jagged mountainside.
"Who lives up there?" she asked one of the villagers, out of curiosity more than an actual need to know. Her quarry did not live in castles or any kind of building.
The man looked at her with wide eyes which flicked between her and the dead harpies in the bloody snow. Emma sighed. Great.
"Nobody lives there," an old woman answered her question, her voice heavily accented, reminding Emma once more that up here in the north most people did not speak the language common to her homeland. The woman's tone was guarded and offensively unfriendly, given that Emma had just slain a group of harpies that had been attacking the village paddock.
"Nobody," came the confirmation.
Emma knew the woman was lying but she couldn't figure out why. She looked around the other people who were now coming closer, encircling her, and they all seemed to nod in rhythm with the old woman's nodding. "Well then," Emma sighed. "Maybe you could help me find what I'm looking for instead."
The woman gave her a suspicious look but nodded vaguely. "We will try."
"Thank you." Emma pulled the map from her armor and unfolded it carefully. "I'm looking for a dragon," she began with enthusiasm, and the hope that maybe here she would be able to find the answers she was looking for. "Its name is Yolbriidur. Have you seen it around here?"
"Why are you looking for this … dragon?” the old woman asked before saying something in a language Emma couldn't understand to the other villagers. Their faces went grim.
"Queen Snow of the White Lands has sent me to vanquish it," Emma replied.
"To kill it," Emma confirmed. She heard a gasp behind her that was cut off so fast that she wondered if it had been there at all.
“Others like you have come before, bearing that same crest on their shields.” The woman's eyes narrowed. “There are no dragons here," she growled, but Emma could see some of the villagers looking towards the mountain before the old woman barked out some words in the foreign tongue. The villagers scattered and walked away.
"No dragons," the woman repeated. "The only dragons we have ever seen came from there, and that’s where we sent the ones that came before you as well.” She pointed in the direction where Emma had come from. “We thank you for your help, but you need to leave.”
“Wait!” Emma exclaimed when the old woman turned to leave. “Why in all the seven realms would you protect a dragon?”
But the woman didn’t hear her or ignored her; Emma assumed it was the latter. Shaking her head, she went back to her horse, storing the map in her gauntlet, and her sword under the saddle. She knew there was something going on here, knew that the villagers had been lying to her, but she had no idea why.
Her gaze went back to the castle halfway up the mountain as she got on her horse and steered it towards the one spot the villagers didn’t want her to go. Well, her mother had always told her she was too stubborn for her own good, and there was always a chance that the information she was after could be found up there.
As she slowly made her way through the falling snow, her mind went to her reason for her presence in this remote corner of the world. Yolbriidur, the dragon she was hunting, was at the center of many a legend as well as the stories parents told to keep their children in line. Every year, the Queen sent out a knight willing to prove himself to try and find the dragon, and if possible to slay it.
None had ever come back successful, if they came back at all.
And now, in all her months of roaming the lands, those villagers had provided the first actual hint of something, a lead of sorts. Even if it was only by blatantly lying to her. Emma hoped that whoever lived in that castle would be able to point her in the right direction or provide help of some sort. If they couldn’t or wouldn’t, well, she hopefully would at least be offered dinner, a bath, and a bed before continuing her quest.
She made camp when she realized she wasn't going to make it up the mountain that night and settled down under the protection of a tall tree with a small fire and her meager dinner, the rest of the meat of a rabbit she had killed the night before. She heated up some water for tea, then settled down onto her furs and let her mind drift back home to her son and what adventures he might have had that day. She missed Henry fiercely, but life at her parents’ court had become too stifling for Emma, especially once her mother had started dropping hints that it would be lovely if she were to find a nice prince to marry.
With Henry being kept busy for hours and hours every day with his education as the heir to the throne — Emma refused to even think about becoming queen one day, and had thrown herself into being a knight instead — leaving him for a few months seemed something they could both deal with. So Emma had asked the King and Queen for the honor of taking on the dragon quest, and her parents had agreed, albeit reluctantly. They had sent her off with a big ball and promises to keep Henry safe, and now, after months of roaming the lands, she had finally made it here to the far edges of the known world.
It took Ser Emma most of the following day to make her way up the narrow, barely-there path up the snowy mountain. The sun was already beginning to set when she knocked on the heavy wooden door after taking a deep breath to guard herself against the unknown.
It took many long minutes of nothing until Emma could hear the faint sound of footsteps through the dark wood, and before long the door was pulled open by a young woman, a few years younger than Emma.
“Hello,” the young woman greeted her with a wide smile. “I’m sorry it took so long … we don’t often get visitors up here.”
“Ruby!” came a sharp shout from somewhere deeper in the castle before Emma could even return the young woman’s greeting. “I told you not to open that door!”
“It’s all right, Granny,” Ruby called over her shoulder, as she made room for Emma to enter the castle. “It’s just a traveling knight.”
“Good evening,” Emma said with a slight bow. “Is there a barn where I could leave my horse?”
“Nah,” Ruby grinned. “Just bring it with you. There’s a room right here that can be used as a stable, and it’s warm and dry.”
Emma did as asked and began to settle her horse in a room just off to the side, which was indeed filled with straw. Hurried footsteps made her look up.
“What do you mean just a traveling knight, you silly girl?” an older woman asked while still bustling towards Ruby. “You know we can’t have those here,” she hissed. “You know what they’re after.”
Emma perked up at that but decided to step forward, so as not to risk her welcome for the night. “Good evening,” she bowed to the older woman. “I am Ser Emma, First Knight of the Realm. I hail from the White Lands.”
Ruby let out a small gasp — more of excitement than fear — but the older woman, Granny, gave her a hard look. “You can’t stay here,” she growled menacingly, even as Ruby dragged Emma further into the castle. “This is no place for you.”
“No!” Granny barked, then sighed. “You know we can’t ri—“
“Why don’t you let me decide that?” a silky, throaty voice asked from inside the great hall. Granny scowled at Emma in response to the newcomer’s words. “It’s fine, Granny. I’m sure our guest is hungry and in need of some rest. She looks like she has been on the road for some time.”
“Granny,” the voice got a little firmer. “I think we can offer a knight of the realm at least some hospitality for the night, don’t you agree?”
The look in her eyes made it clear that Granny better not disagree further. Emma’s mouth twitched slightly as her brain was working hard at trying to put together all the puzzle pieces. The villagers and their lies, this dark castle halfway up the mountain, a grumpy old woman trying to keep her away, and a beautiful woman who ordered her to let her in regardless. A gorgeous woman who had raked her eyes up and down Emma’s body when she looked at her, leaving behind a feeling of utter warmth.
“I apologize for Granny,” the beautiful woman rasped. “She’s very protective.” She called Ruby over with a wave of her hand, and in a second the young woman was there to take her cloak. “You have met Granny and Ruby,” she said with a small smile. “My name is Regina, and this is our home, such as it is.”
“My name is E-Emma, Ser Emma … Swan,” Emma stammered, caught as she was staring into Regina’s eyes, which she found both hauntingly beautiful and immensely distracting. She managed to pull herself together enough to stand up straight and press her gloved fist against the crest on her light armor. “I am a knight of the White Lands.”
“Yes, I heard that.” There was a fleeting look of sadness in Regina’s eyes — or so Emma thought — but it was gone immediately, replaced by a smile. “You must tell me of your journey, and what brings you here, so far from the White Lands,” Regina insisted. “But for now, welcome, Ser Emma … Ruby, would you show our guest where she can freshen up?” She turned back to Emma. “Will an hour be sufficient time for you to rest?”
“Perfect,” Emma replied with a smile, wondering why every time Regina’s eyes met hers she felt short of breath.
Emma took her time washing the road grime off her body and getting dressed in her one relatively clean set of tight leather breeches and a white shirt that bore her parents’ crest on a patch above her left breast, but her inner clock told her that she hadn’t quite needed the allotted time. With her stomach growling, she set off to find her hostess and the dinner she was promised, although she wasn’t sure which of the two she was looking forward to more.
She stopped halfway down the great stairs when she heard voices, one calm, one upset. On impulse, she decided to listen and carefully, silently moved further down the stairs.
“… sent her away, not invite her for dinner!”
“That would not have been very polite.”
“I don’t care about being polite,” Granny growled. “I care about you.”
“No, you’re not,” Granny replied bluntly. “You’re getting weaker every day, and her presence here … she can’t find out about … or you’ll be dead sooner rather than later.”
“We’re all going to die at some point,” Regina pointed out, remarkably calmly, Emma thought. She held her breath as she wondered what was wrong with her hostess. “I made my peace with that fact a long time ago and you need to accept it, too, my old friend.”
“Excuse me while I don’t.” Granny sounded really upset, Emma thought. “And if that knight finds out you’re a witch—“
Emma let out a breath as she took a half step back at that.
“Granny.” A warning.
“… or even worse, that you’re a drag—“
“Granny!” Regina exclaimed, finally getting the older woman to shut up. “We’re no longer alone.”
“Oh, no,” Granny groaned. “I’m so … Oh, Maker’s tits.”
Emma took that as her cue to move forward and join the two women in the great hall. “I’m sorry,” she apologized immediately. “I wasn’t intending to listen—“
“Like hell you weren’t, Ser Knight,” Granny whirled around, positively spitting the title, furious at Emma for eavesdropping. At the resulting glare from Regina, she took a few steps towards Emma, visibly trying to calm herself. “You can’t take anything I said seriously,” she pleaded. “I’m just an old woman, and I tend to ramble and rave … I’m quite mad, you know …”
“Granny, please,” Regina kindly stopped her friend. “It’s all right. I’m not in the mood to pretend I’m something I’m not. Or pretending I’m not something I am, to be more precise.”
Emma saw the genuine love between these two people, and wondered if what she’d heard could actually be true. How could someone be a dragon and a beautiful woman at the same time? And a witch? All Emma had ever heard about magic was that it was done by old hags in dark corners, and that it was bad. It was frowned upon in the White Lands, and those who dabbled in it, usually did so in the shadows.
But if this woman was not only a witch but also a dragon, and maybe even the one she was hunting ... How was that possible? Emma had never heard of anything like it. “You’re a dragon?” she asked, her knees slightly weak.
“I’m … Regina,” her hostess replied quietly.
Granny slid between Emma and Regina, hands on her hips, in full protective mode. “Are you going to run and get your sword now, Ser Emma?” she snarled. “To get your own heroic dragon kill?”
Emma’s eyes never left Regina’s. “Not before dinner,” she said evenly. “Besides, I was sent to kill Yolbriidur, the formidable dragon … and I don’t see a dragon here.” At least not in the form she had expected. She paused. “But I would like to know where I can find it, and I came here in the hope that you could point me in the right direction.”
"Away from here is the direction you're looking for," Granny said sternly. She studied Emma for a long moment, then her eyes slid to a point behind her with a curt nod. Emma turned around to find herself facing a huge black wolf. She turned back to Granny, who smiled at the wolf before meeting Emma’s shocked eyes. “For now, however, ... let’s eat.”
When Emma turned back to the wolf, all she saw was Ruby standing there in her simple dress, a smile on her face. A rather wolfish smile. “You all have magic,” Emma breathed, in awe.
“Nope,” Ruby grinned. “This is just my nature.” With that she followed Granny to the table which was laid out simply but offered enough food to feed a small army.
Emma looked at Regina, whose expression was unreadable, but if she had to, Emma would swear there was a smile playing around her mouth.
They talked about harmless things during dinner, mostly about Emma’s journey and the things she had seen along the way. She told stories about trolls and chimeras, ogres and harpies while the others mostly listened. Emma’s eyes went to Regina again and again, and every time, Emma had the feeling the other woman was just looking away from her, mostly at her food or at the goblet of wine she was twirling gently in her hands.
After dinner, Emma’s curiosity could no longer be contained. “I think that the villagers down on the plain knew something about my dragon … Yolbriidur,” she began. “They tried to send me back the way I came.”
“So how did you end up here?” Ruby asked bluntly, although not entirely unfriendly.
“I’m stubborn,” Emma shrugged. “Especially when I get the feeling I’m being lied to.”
Granny and Regina exchanged a quick glance, which Emma almost missed. Just almost, however, and it got her senses tingling; but before she could think more about it, Ruby continued. “Why are you hunting that dragon anyway?”
Emma gaped at the question and looked from one woman to the next. “Why am I hunting the dragon that’s been a scourge to my homeland for as long as anyone can remember?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you?”
Granny leaned forward in her seat, eyes bright and challenging. “Tell me, Ser Emma ...” Suddenly, the sneer that had been absent through dinner was back in her voice, Emma was surprised to hear. What had she said to warrant that? “Tell me … when was the last time Yolbriidur has even been seen in the White Lands? And I don’t mean tales told by drunk dwarves in run-down taverns or the stories that scare your children into decent behavior …”
“It’s …” Emma opened her mouth to reply … but nothing more came out. When was the last time anyone reliable had actually seen the dragon? “Hunting that dragon has been a quest for the knights of the realm to prove their worth for decades,” she finally whispered hesitantly, sounding lame to even her own ears. “I don’t think anyone remembers when and how it started but I think it was when the dragon killed King Leopold.”
"Yeah, Leopold the great dragonslayer," Granny snorted in disgust, and if they hadn’t been sitting at a table in a castle, Emma was sure she would have spit after saying the name. "Cowardly bastard he was."
"What ...?" Emma had never heard anyone talk about her grandfather like that before. All she had ever heard was Leopold the Brave, Leopold the Good, Leopold the Dragonslayer ...
Regina saw the expression on Emma's face. “It started when King Leopold went out to kill a dragon for sport,” she explained softly. “He was a young man who wanted to prove his greatness.” Her words were laced with sarcasm. “So he went to a powerful sorcerer and had his arrows infused with a curse guaranteed to kill dragons. Then he roamed the land looking for a dragon and finally found one with an injured wing. It couldn't fly away, and the great hero of course decided to kill it … kill a dragon that was hurt and weakened, and couldn’t fight back. However, he still didn't dare get close enough to end the dragon’s life quickly, with a sword like a warrior should. No, he shot one of his cursed arrows at it from a distance, ensuring that the dragon died a slow, painful death.”
Regina clenched the fist around her goblet so hard the metal creaked in protest and her knuckles stood out starkly. “That dragon had a mate who swore vengeance on the king and his people for what he had done.” She didn't mention that the mate also received a glancing blow of the curse when the king had tried to shoot it. It had been the great distance that had saved the mate, and it had been the king's undoing in the end.
“Yolbriidur,” Emma surmised breathlessly, enthralled by the tale. “The mate … that was Yolbriidur, wasn't it?”
Regina nodded. “Although she didn’t have a name back then, at least not one that was known or used to scare children.”
At Emma’s questioning look, Granny elaborated. “Dragons are most often named by the people who tell stories about them … or hunt them.”
“But the dragon did lay waste to the lands for years,” Emma pointed out. At least that was what she had always been told. “Killed hundreds of people, if not more. Killed the king.”
Granny and Ruby snorted in tandem. “Yeah, it’s a wonder there are any people left to tell the tale,” Ruby said with a snort.
“Are you saying that everything I’ve ever heard about that dragon is wrong?”
“What she’s trying to say is that stories get embellished in the telling and retelling of them.” Regina sounded calm and mild compared to her two companions. “Yes, the dragon killed people and burned down a few villages, and she did kill the king,” she added. “But that was a lifetime ago. As far as anyone knows, Yolbriidur hasn't even been to the White Lands since she killed the king."
"Yolbriidur," Emma dragged out the name, tasting it on her tongue. "That means something like beautiful fire curse, doesn't it? And the tales tell of the dragon spreading fire over the land like a curse, and of it being quite beautiful, all gleaming black with fire red markings ..."
"Actually," Ruby cleared her throat, "what it means isbeauty, fire, cursed. There's a difference.”
“Yes, cursed,” Ruby repeated. “As in, victim of a curse.”
"But I thought only the dragon that died was cursed ..."
"Maybe you thought wrong. Or not at all."
“Ruby, leave it be …” Regina tried to suppress the weary sigh that threatened to come out at the end of a long day. It had been a long time since she’d had to entertain guests, and she was beginning to feel it. That was the worst thing about the curse that was slowly killing her, and had been for the past however many years; it was sapping her strength, her energy, her very life-force, and it got progressively worse. Not long now, she thought morosely, but shook it off when she noticed Granny’s eyes on her.
“Maybe we should all retire for the night?” Granny mentioned casually.
Emma’s eyes immediately went to Regina. She was loathe to end the night as she felt like she hadn’t had her fill of watching her hostess or hearing her voice, and she wanted to hear more about the dragon. But she was only a guest and if she had to, she would say goodnight and leave.
“That’s not necessary,” Regina replied softly. “I’m fine, Granny.”
She’d said the exact same thing when Emma had been eavesdropping earlier, and this time Emma could see why Granny was worried. Regina had lost some of her color, and there were rings under her eyes. Emma opened her mouth to say something to that effect when Regina’s eyes met hers across the table, and her hostess shook her head almost imperceptibly.
“Why don’t you and Ruby get some sleep,” Regina went on, and it was more than a suggestion. “I’ll keep our guest company for a little while still. I’d like to hear a few more news from ou—… her homeland.”
Ruby looked from Emma to Regina with a small smirk, then immediately stood to follow Regina’s wish. “Come on, Granny,” she motioned for her reluctant grandmother to follow suit. “Let’s leave these two be.” She wiggled her eyebrows, causing Emma to wonder if she was missing something.
Emma stood as Granny and Regina also got up from her seats, and watched as Regina bid them both goodnight with short but heartfelt hugs. Granny whispered something in her ear, which Regina answered with a sigh and a quick shake of her head; then Granny and Ruby left as Regina turned to Emma, goblet of wine in her hand. “Shall we go sit by the fire? There’s a chill in the air.” Regina pointed to a door at the other end of the hall, through which Emma could see a smaller room. She picked up her own wine and followed her hostess.
“So, what exactly are you?” Emma started once they were sharing a low settee in front of the fire in an attempt to hear more about Regina and learn about dragons at the same time. “A witch that can turn into a dragon? Or a dragon that can turn into a woman?”
Regina stared into the fire. “I … am both, I guess.” She shrugged. “Dragon and woman, there is no difference. Much like a werewolf, I guess, with the difference that I have full control.”
“Can you speak in dragon form?”
“I can,” Regina nodded. “Although my voice is a little different.”
“What Granny said … earlier,” Emma started hesitantly. “About you dying … is that true?”
Regina nodded again. "I have been dying for a long time," she brushed away the concern on Emma's face. "There's a point where you get used to the feeling, to the pain ... and I've been staving it off as best I could by staying in human form as much as possible. Th curse mostly affects my dragon side, so when I stay human, it's not progressing as fast."
"Then why not stay human forever?"
Regina chuckled. "It's not quite as easy as that sounds, Ser Emma," she replied. "All of us who are dual beings have to transform every so often. It's the way things are. Granny and Ruby absolutely have to turn into their wolf form a few days every month, and I have to take my dragon form out for a flight. And frankly, it's not something I'd want to give up ... I'm a dragon as much as I am a woman."
"And Granny and Ruby?"
"They've been with me for many, many years. They're my oldest friends ... they have been taking care of me."
"Ruby can't have been helping you much," Emma mused aloud. "She's barely grown up."
Regina laughed lightly. "Rest assured, Ser Emma, Ruby has seen many more summers than you."
"How is that possible?"
"Have you not been paying attention?" Regina sipped from her wine. "My friends are werewolves. They age differently to humans."
"Werewolves?" Yes, of course. Emma let out a slow breath, wondering for the first time what she had gotten herself into here in the company of a dragon-witch and her two werewolves.
Regina read her perfectly. "Don't worry," she laughed lightly. "They haven't eaten any humans in a long time. They both prefer the taste of venison or wild boar."
"What about you?" Emma blurted.
Regina gave her a feral smile. "While I've enjoyed the taste of quite a few people in my life," she commented casually, "it has never been as food."
Emma blinked when the words registered in her brain, and she blushed furiously. "I'm happy to hear that," she croaked. She could feel heat racing through her body and felt wholly unprepared for the teasing.
Regina considered teasing her guest some more but decided against it when she caught the knight biting her lip and pressing her legs together. "Maybe I should let you get some rest now," she offered graciously. "We can talk more in the morning."
Emma nodded, still flushed, an ache between her thighs that had nothing to do with all the riding she’d done that day, and stood immediately. "Allow me to accompany you to your door, milady?"
Regina got up and took the knight's offered hand. "So chivalrous," she teased with a smile, unable to stop herself. There was just something about this knight she found very alluring.
Emma's blush darkened even further. "I am a knight, milady," she replied hoarsely. "It's what we do."
Regina extinguished the fire with a wave of her hand, then led them out of the room and up the stairs. At the end of a long hallway, quite a ways away from Emma's bedroom, she stopped in front of an ornate door. "Thank you, Ser Emma," she said softly. “I’ve enjoyed your company tonight.”
"My pleasure," Emma murmured, suddenly unwilling to leave but seeing no excuse to linger.
Regina smiled at her lovely company, toying with the idea of simply dragging her into her bedchamber and having her way with her. She was certain that the knight would come willingly — happily even, judging from the way her eyes roamed from Regina's eyes to her lips and back — but in the end she simply leaned in and pressed a chaste kiss to the young knight's mouth. She was not prepared for the jolt she felt when their lips touched. "Good dreams," she whispered shakily, then hastened through her door and into the refuge of her room.
Emma stood stock-still, fingers pressed against her lips, which still tingled and spread warmth through her body. Finally, with a soft sigh, she made her way back to her own room, very sure that all her dreams that night would revolve around this mysterious woman.
Regina leaned back against her door, listening to Emma's footsteps down the hallway, biting her lower lip. A minute ago, she had been exhausted, depleted, but now, after just that one brief kiss, she felt some of her energy returning, and with it came the feeling of restlessness.
Suddenly she needed to be out there, flying. Hunting.
She hadn't been out flying in a while to conserve her strength but now it was all she could think of. She ripped off her clothes and tossed them in the direction of her bed, then walked out onto her large balcony. The air was cold on her naked body but she didn't feel it for long as her body instantly reacted to her desire to fly and began to change into her dragon form.
Seconds later, she spread her huge wings and launched herself into the air with a roar of joy.
Emma had a hard time untying her boots, her mind still occupied more than it should be with the brief, chaste kiss, or — more precisely — with all the other things she imagined their mouths could be doing, sliding together as well as against skin all over their bodies. She felt the familiar feeling of a flush heating up her body, but it didn't even surprise her this time. The presence of Regina had her blushing almost constantly, so why would the thought of her be any different? Especially if it were those kinds of thoughts?
For a second Emma wondered if her beautiful hostess had put her under a spell. She had magic, after all, and it was probably possible. Maybe everyone here was under her thrall — Ruby, Granny, even the villagers — but that would take an inordinate amount of energy, she assumed. Energy Regina didn't have to spare if Granny's worry had been genuine, and there was no reason to doubt that. The old woman clearly loved Regina like a daughter, and she had the look of someone who was preparing for a great loss while trying not to show it.
A roar tore Emma from her thoughts, and she hobbled to the large window, one boot in hand, the other hanging half off her foot. What she saw stopped her breath.
Regina soared on the winds coming up the mountain as she circled her castle, then flew in a wide circle towards the plain, heading straight for the village, her keen eyes scanning the ground for anything that moved.
There. A group of deer, grazing by the forest's edge. With a feral grin, she swooped down towards the group, which tried to scatter in vain. The dragon was too fast for them, as she caught two deer in each of her enormous talons, killing them quickly, almost mercifully so. Then, as quickly as she had descended, she rose again and headed for the village once more.
The village was quiet this time of night, only a few stragglers walking from one place to the next, mostly from the tavern to their homes. When the dragon closed in on the village, they could hear the whooshing sound the wings made on the wind, but none of them ran.
Most of them even smiled.
Regina sat down gently in front of the village elder’s house, dropping her cargo in a neat little pile before knocking on the door with the barest of taps of a single claw. The village elder — a woman with silvery hair in ornate braids whom Emma would have recognized easily — opened the door with a wide smile. Regina bared her teeth in an answering smile. "I'm sorry I was gone so long," she greeted in the language of the North, her dragon voice deep and throaty but still recognizably female, and the inflection still very much Regina.
"Thank you for thinking of us, Yolbriidur," the village elder replied. She called over two men and motioned for them to take care of the meat delivery. "I sent two women up to the castle earlier ... another one of those knights showed up here on a mighty quest for your hide.” Her words were rife with sarcasm and affection for the dragon standing before her. "Astrid and Inga are on their way to warn you and bring you some provisions. They jumped at the opportunity to see Granny and Ruby to gossip.”
"Thank you," Regina huffed. "That knight arrived at the castle earlier tonight. For now I don't think she means to kill me."
"Does she know who you are?"
"Not yet, although she knows I'm a dragon." Regina took a few steps back from the house before rising again and taking a slow flight over the village. As she got to the large lake she saw that it was frozen over, and it only took a few breaths of fire to thaw off the clear cover and provide access to the fish inside again.
On the way back to the castle, she could feel her wings getting weaker, the exhaustion returning. Still, she stopped when she spotted the two village women resting by a fire at the foot of the mountain, and swooped down to offer them a ride. They settled into her talons gratefully, and enjoyed the view on their much accelerated journey to the castle.
Regina fell into her bed a short time later, tired to the bone, a smile on her face.
They were moving together on a large bed. In her mind's eye she could see Regina above her, pushing herself against her, always keeping their bodies pressed together, her face hauntingly beautiful. Emma could see her own hands as they clung to shoulders, ran down a strong back, curled into dark, silky hair. They kissed, passionately, hungrily, and moved together with an intensity Emma hadn’t known before. Regina was fire, Regina was air, Regina was pleasure, her hands roaming Emma’s body freely, increasing her arousal immensely. Regina's hand pressed against her as knees pushed apart Emma’s thighs, and then Regina was where Emma wanted her, needed her, two fingers pushing inside her, tongue and lips teasing the bundle of nerves at the top of her sex. Emma groaned and arched her back, hands in dark hair pressing Regina into her as she gave herself over to the intensity of the feeling and tumbled over the edge, coming undone quickly.
Regina looked up at her from her position between Emma’s legs with a soft smile and glinting eyes before curling her fingers inside Emma and pushing her towards another orgasm that had her screaming.
Emma awoke with a start at the knocking on her door. “Emma!”
“What?” The knight croaked, still lost in her dream, her own fingers still pressed to her soaked center. Oh Maker, what a dream that had been.
“Are you all right?” It was Ruby’s voice she could her through the door. “You were screaming.”
“Ye-Yeah.” Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I’m fine.”
The door opened wide enough to allow Ruby’s head to poke through. Hastily, Emma removed her hand from between her thighs and tried to dry them on the bed covers as surreptitiously as she could.
Apparently, that wasn’t enough as Ruby suddenly laughed and gave her a roguish smirk. “Okay, so that wasn’t a bad scream,” she said. “I’ll … erm, I’ll leave you to it then. Just wanted to let you know that we’re having breakfast in the kitchen.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” Emma mumbled defensively, thoroughly embarrassed at having been caught.
Ruby snorted. “You’re forgetting that I’m a wolf, Ser Knight,” she said, tapping her nose. “My sense of smell is really good."
Emma huffed and jumped out of bed, glad she’d worn her long woolen breeches and a shirt for the night. “I’m coming,” she told Ruby. “For food, I mean … downstairs.” But the door had already closed again, and all she could hear was Ruby’s laughter moving down the hallway.
“Maker’s tits, what a way to wake up,” Emma muttered under her breath, then got ready as quickly as she could just as her stomach reminded her that food sounded really good right about now.
Then all her movement stopped when she remembered that she would have to look Regina in the eye, and had no idea how to do that without giving away the fact that she had seen her fly around in her dragon form.
Or worse, her less than chaste thoughts and vividly erotic dream.
Despite her embarrassment Emma put on a smile as she followed the voices to the kitchen, and her smile turned genuinely bright when she entered the warm room. Whatever else these three women were, they also were a loving family, and it showed in the way they were teasing each other and caring for each other. They were sitting at a rough wooden table, which was covered in bread and cheese, but also several earthen jugs and bowls of oats and different nuts, and it fit the generally relaxed and unceremonious style of this household perfectly. It was very different from the castle Emma had grown up in, and she enjoyed it immensely. There was no constant need for posturing here, no courtly behavior at all times. Just love, and living life as best these women could.
To Emma's surprise there were two women standing at the hearth whom she recognized from the village, and she inclined her head in greeting despite the scowl she received from them.
"I see you've met our friends from Starkhaven," Granny called out while Ruby couldn't seem to help herself and gave her another teasing smirk.
Regina spoke to the village women in a language Emma didn't understand, and they nodded, both to Regina and then to Emma in turn. "The villagers provide us with victuals we don't have up here," Regina explained. "They came a few days early to inform us of your presence like they do whenever one of you knights show up in this part of the world to hunt your dragon."
“You're the first in three years who came this far north," Granny said. "In years when none of you show up we hope that maybe finally Snow and Charming got it in their thick skulls that this dragon hunt is useless," Granny grumbled into her porridge. "And then another one of you knightly types shows up here ..."
Emma stared at the three women. "You knew my ... the king and queen?"
"What makes you think that?" Granny replied.
"The king hasn't used that name in many years," Emma pointed out. "It wasn't deemed kingly enough or something like that."
Ruby snorted. "Then maybe the queen shouldn't have married a shepherd."
Emma gaped. "You really do know them." The fact that her father had been a peasant once was not commonly known among their own people, and even less outside the borders of the White Lands. "Who are you?"
"I was once a good friend to Snow," Ruby admitted. "But I left the White Lands with my family shortly after the princess was born." Ruby stopped, her eyes widening almost comically as she put the pieces together. "You're her, aren't you?"
"What are you talking about, Child?" Granny asked, but Regina looked on thoughtfully as if she knew what Ruby meant.
"Ser Emma Swan," Ruby whispered. "Snow's daughter was named Emma … and the age fits, too. You're the princess."
Granny dropped her spoon. "Of course ... the only way Snow would allow a female knight at her court …"
“Yeah, well, she wasn’t happy.” Emma winced at the memory of that particular conversation with her mother. The many, many conversations, in fact. “But the truth is that I am a far better knight than I am a princess.”
If Emma thought admitting to being the princess of the White Lands would change anything, she was very wrong. All she got was nods from Ruby and Granny, and a smile from Regina, and then the conversation went back to other things, flowing from one topic to the next seamlessly, like a beautiful stream winding its way through a meadow in spring.
Emma couldn’t remember feeling this content in a long, long time. The only thing that was missing was Henry.
And maybe a few more kisses from the woman smiling at her from across the table.
The following days went much the same as this first one. Emma woke up uncomfortably aroused from dreams of Regina and went to breakfast trying not to blush or show her increasing feelings.
After breakfast, Ruby and Granny went about their work — whatever that was, Emma couldn't figure out — while Regina went into the castle's library. Emma either roamed the castle or the woods surrounding it, with or without her horse, or — which was much more often — she sat on the window sill in the library, her eyes fixed on Regina until the witch pretended to be mad at her for the interruption, tossed away her papers, and joined Emma to talk.
And if Emma was really lucky, there were kisses as well as talking. Each kiss was exhilarating, no matter how chaste. Things were developing slowly, both holding back, but over the course of a few days, the kisses turned more intense, deeper, until they were almost bringing Emma to her knees.
They were also bringing color and energy back to Regina with every touch of Emma's lips, which meant that invariably Regina ended the day far more energized than she started it. She knew it was due to Emma but what she hadn’t been able to figure out was why her touch seemed to affect her so. And the more intense their kisses became, the more energy they gave Regina, until she was almost feeling like her old self. It was only temporary, which was why she never mentioned it to either Ruby or Granny, but she was determined to enjoy the extra time that was given to her.
The one thing Regina and Emma didn't do was talk about dragons, or discuss other things of importance. As if by a common decision, the words they exchanged revolved around Emma’s life as a knight or the land and people around the castle. Regina even tried to teach Emma a few words of the local language, but Emma was usually too focused on the movement of Regina’s lips to learn much.
The days spent at the castle were a welcome respite for Emma, one which she hadn't known she wanted or needed during her time of traveling. She enjoyed herself immensely, enjoyed the company, enjoyed the feelings that were growing inside of her, feelings for the complex witch she spent most of her waking hours with.
Not to mention her dreams, which were getting more and more intense the closer she got to Regina, especially since every evening ended with Regina taking her to her door and spending a good, long time saying good night without saying a single word.
Hunting her dragon was the furthest thing from Emma’s mind, especially since most night's now included flight shows that Emma watched from the window of her room without ever mentioning them to Regina. The more she watched the dragon soar around the castle, the more she got the niggling feeling that she might not want to continue her hunt for Yolbriidur because it might be someone she liked.
In fact, as soon as she got home she would tell her parents that the quest was over, the dragon killed, the deed done. She would have to figure out a way to prove the kill, but she hoped Regina would have some idea for that.
If she had to leave here — and with every day spent here she wanted to leave less and less, the only thing pulling her away being her son — she could at least make sure that Regina would live out her life in peace.
About a week into her visit, Emma woke up refreshed but also feeling flushed, and it took a moment for her to register the fact that her hand was buried between her thighs, again, fingers unconsciously stroking her wet flesh to the remnants of another dream of Regina. This time, she continued touching herself, not wanting to lose the feeling of being close to the woman she was falling for, and it only took a very short time for her body to tense and come undone in a wave of pleasure.
If only Regina had been the one to touch her …
Maybe one day. Emma smiled as she jumped out of bed and ran into the bath chamber next door, the stone floor cold against her naked feet. She quickly washed herself, then got dressed for the day, finding herself looking forward to spending yet another day with the three women who lived in this castle.
She still hadn’t found a way of saying goodbye, but she knew she had to leave soon. She was missing Henry, and he was probably missing her too, no matter how much his tutors kept him occupied.
Breakfast was as informal as ever but the thought that she had to leave soon dampened Emma’s mood. She picked at her food, lost in thoughts of Henry and having to go home. Oh, how she wished she could just whisk him here.
Emma tuned out the conversation going on around her. Now that her thoughts had gone to Henry, she couldn’t shake them off, and the pain of missing him came back with a vengeance, forcefully pressing the air from her lungs.
“Are you all right, dear?” Regina’s voice pulled her back from the brink of tears.
Emma swallowed hard and cleared her throat. She was a knight of the realm, she would not cry. “I’m fine,” she rasped. “I was just reminded of something.” She saw Regina’s curious and concerned gaze and paused, then decided to finally be completely open. “I was just thinking of my son,” she said softly.
“You have son?” Ruby blurted.
“You must miss him …” Regina commented softly, her eyes glued to Emma’s.
“Terribly.” The word escaped Emma’s mouth before she could hold it back. “I’ve never been away from him for so long …”
“How old is he?” Granny asked.
“He had his tenth birthday the week before I left,” Emma said with a small smile as she remembered that day. They had spent it in the woods surrounding the castle before her parents had thrown a ball in his honor, which he was barely allowed to attend due to his young age. He would have hated it anyway.
Regina’s eyebrows went up at the information but she refrained from making a comment at how very young Emma must have been when she had him. “Is he with his … father?” she asked instead. Her forehead was creased in a frown.
“No, no …,” Emma immediately shook her head and reached out to touch Regina’s arm. “Henry’s father died before he was even born,” she assured her. “He’s with my parents … well, his tutors mostly. My parents thought it best not to interrupt his education but he would have loved to come on an adventure no matter how much he enjoys his schooling. He’s a very bright boy.”
Regina saw the pain of separation on Emma’s face, saw the love she had for her son, and before she could think about what she was doing, her mouth opened. “Would you like to see him?”
“Regina, no!” Granny jumped in before Emma could fully comprehend Regina’s question. “Remember that you—“
“It’s fine,” Regina assured her calmly. “I’m fine.”
“But you know the magic is—“
“Granny, please.” Regina’s voice was quiet but very firm. “It’s perfectly all right, I think I can spare a little magic for this.”
She knew she could, especially if Emma was touching her in some way. Still, it would be quite an extravagant expenditure of magic, and she wondered what it was about the younger woman that made her want to risk it. Regina spared a smile for herself — she knew what it was; her feelings for the young knight that had been growing in leaps and bounds over the past week. Feelings she knew were never going to go anywhere, with Emma being drawn back to her home and son, and Regina … well, as soon as Emma was gone, she would once more descend towards death.
Regina turned back to Emma. “So, would you like to see your son?”
Emma realized that this offer was maybe not in Regina’s best interest — there was no doubt when Granny had reacted the way she had and Ruby’s face had clouded over — but she was also selfish enough and missing Henry enough to nod fervently. “I don’t know how that might be possible,” she said, “but it would mean a lot.” She spared a glance at Granny and Ruby who wore matching scowls. “If it’s really not too much to ask.”
“Nonsense,” Regina brushed off the concern with a smile. “Besides, you didn’t ask … I offered.”
At that, Granny shook her head in dismay while Ruby smiled softly at the look on Regina’s face. Regina didn’t miss either look, but she also caught the way the corners of Granny’s mouth turned up slightly at the beautiful, beaming smile Emma sent Regina.
Regina led them upstairs into a large room, which was empty apart from a large mirror standing against the far wall covered by a red, velvety piece of cloth.
“I’m going to use this to show you your son,” Regina explained as they neared the mirror. “Unfortunately, you will only be able to see him, not talk to him.”
Emma nodded. Her eyes were wet at the thought of seeing him. As much as she would have loved to talk to him, to hold him, seeing him was already going to be a miracle. “Do you need me to do anything?”
“All you need to do is focus all your thoughts on who you want to see,” Regina replied with a soft smile. Being able to do this for Emma made her inexplicably happy. “I will do the rest.”
Regina nodded. “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep the connection going,” she stated with regret. “It would be easier if …”
“If what?” Emma asked immediately.
“If you held onto me,” Regina replied. “My hand, my arm … some part of me. It would help me focus … it would make focusing on your son easier.” And possibly not drain her as much.
“Henry,” Emma reminded her. “His name is Henry.”
Regina’s eyes met hers. “Henry.” It was a whisper. “It’s a beautiful name. My father was also named Henry.”
“Oh.” Emma smiled softly. “I have no idea why I gave Henry his name … it just felt right.”
“My father was a very special man,” Regina said. “If the name felt right for your son, maybe it’s because he’s a very special boy.”
“Oh, he is,” Emma instantly insisted. “Kind, loving, bright.” He would fit in right here, she thought, so much more than at the White castle.
“Shall we?” Regina asked. At Emma’s impatient nod, she pulled off the mirror’s covering, coughing a little as the dust flew up. Then she came to stand in front of it, about three feet away from the glass, and held out her hand to Emma. “Join me.”
Granny and Ruby, who had insisted on being there, watched as Emma took Regina’s hand without a second’s hesitation, intertwining their fingers and caressing the back of her hand with her thumb. They saw Regina’s magic flare up at the touch, saw the way sparks surrounded their joined hands, and turned to look at each other, mouths agape.
“Did that really just happen?” Ruby whispered. “What have we missed?”
Granny could only nod. She took a step forward to talk to Regina, but Ruby held her grandmother back. “Let them figure it out,” she said quietly.
Granny took a step back and returned to watching silently.
Regina held one hand out to the mirror, whispering words under her breath that Emma couldn’t understand. Both their eyes were fixed on the mirror’s surface, Regina’s in concentration, Emma’s in burning need.
It only took a few seconds for a light purple mist to cover the surface, and when it cleared, a room in a faraway castle was revealed.
But it wasn’t the sight Emma had wanted to see, and her breath caught in her throat at the scene she was witnessing. “Henry,” she breathed as her knees became wobbly.
Her son was lying in his bed, looking pale and sick, his brow covered in a sheen of sweat. His face had lost all color and had turned almost gray. There were people around the bed — Emma could see her parents and Doc, the dwarf that served as the family physician — and they all looked extremely worried.
“Henry,” Emma repeated in a pained whisper.
Regina was equally shocked by what she was seeing. She could only imagine what Emma was feeling right now. She wished they could hear what was going on. “He was healthy when you left?” she asked, not knowing what else to say.
Granny and Ruby moved closer to the mirror, Ruby watching the faces in the mirror intently. “The dwarf says that it’s serious,” she muttered.
Emma tore her eyes from her son’s image to stare at Ruby. “How …?”
“I can read lips,” Ruby replied, then focused back on the mirror. “It’s … can’t make out the word, sorry … but it’s a consuming sickness,” she translated what she could make out for Emma. “He says that there’s nothing more he can do … oh, Emma … he says all they can do is wait but that it doesn’t look good.”
Emma could see her mother crying, giving credence to what Ruby had read. Then Henry opened his eyes and Emma felt as if he was staring right at her. His lips moved, and she didn’t need Ruby to relay what he was saying. He was calling out for his mother.
Emma crumpled to her knees, letting go of Regina in the process. As soon as their connection was severed, so was the link to Henry’s room in the White castle. “Nooo,” Emma wailed. “Henry.”
Regina had no idea what to do. Her heart was breaking at the sight of Emma in so much distress, and she tried in vain to reestablish the connection. If only Emma could see the boy, she thought.
“I have to go home,” Emma muttered, standing up quickly, although she was still feeling shaky and very much unlike a stern, unwavering knight of the realm. She was just a scared mother. “I need to go home now.” She tore at her hair as she paced the room, leaving Regina feeling utterly helpless. “I’ll never make it, though, am I?”
Emma’s eyes found Regina’s, and the despair the witch could see in them made her heart clench. “Even if I slept in the saddle, it would still take me a good month to get home … and two horses probably ...”
“Let me take you,” Regina offered. “I can get you to Henry in two days.”
“How?” Emma blurted, but the question was almost drowned out by Granny’s and Ruby’s loud protests.
“You can’t, Regina!” Ruby shouted.
Mirrored by Granny’s, “That’s not possible!”
Regina closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “If I turn into my dragon self,” she told Emma, ignoring her family. “I can fly you there … and once we’re there I could try to heal him.”
“Regina …” The warning in Granny’s low growl was hard to miss. “You can’t.” There were tears in the old woman’s eyes. “Even if you made it there alive — and that’s a big if — they’d kill you there!”
“They hate you,” Ruby added. “Everything about you.”
“Why would you say that?” Emma looked startled. “What kind of people do you think we are?”
“Remember that we’re from the White Lands as well, Ser Emma,” Granny retorted. “A lot of people there hang on to old beliefs as you well know, rife with superstition.”
“Regina is a dragon and a witch,” Ruby added calmly. “And if there’s anything people in the White Lands fear more than dragons, it’s magic.”
Granny nodded. “If Regina even survived the strain of the trip, she’d be killed once she got you two there, especially if she used magic to help Henry."
Emma opened her mouth to say something but Ruby interrupted her before she had the chance. “Don’t say you would protect her, Princess Emma,” she younger werewolf growled. “Even if you tried, they’d just kill her once your back was turned.”
Emma held up her hand to stop Ruby. “I know you have no reason to trust me but believe me when I tell you that wasn’t what I was going to say,” she stated, her voice low and pressed by the emotions clogging her throat.
She turned to Regina. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you for the offer … but Granny and Ruby are right.” She gave the two of them a rueful smile. “You can’t take that risk … not for me.”
“Emma,” Regina said slowly, insistently. “I’m going to be dead in a few weeks anyway. Time is running out for me.”
Emma could see the tears in Granny’s eyes and the way she clung to her granddaughter. “That makes it even more important that you use the time you have remain—“
“And do what?” Regina asked plaintively. “Embroider my funeral dress?” She laughed darkly. “That’s not the woman I am, Ser Emma, or have ever been.” Her face was deadly serious. “I’ve done some really bad things in my lifetime,” she rasped. “In the name of revenge … and even though that feels like a lifetime ago, the debt is still there.”
“You paid that debt, Regina,” Ruby said. “Everyone here in this part of the land would agree.”
“Ah, yes …” Regina sighed. “The only part of the known world where the name Yolbriidur is a blessing, not a curse.”
“So you are Yolbriidur,” Emma stated. Involuntarily, she blanched a little because she had grown up with stories of what that dragon did to small children, and even though she knew the woman before her was safe, there was a moment of fear and the instinct to find her sword.
“Now you see why this is an even worse idea than I made it sound before,” Granny said pointedly, staring at the way Emma’s hand had gone to her hip and her absent sword. “If you react that way, what do you think your parents or the guards will do if you land on the castle grounds on the back of the feared dragon?”
Emma had no idea what her parents would do, but she was certain it wouldn’t be good. “Regina, you can’t.”
“And yet, I will,” Regina stated calmly. “If I have to die — and I am not quite as decrepit yet as Granny makes me out to be — than at least I could die doing something good. If you won’t allow me to do it for you, then let me do it for your son.” She could see Emma’s resistance waning. “Let me try and save your son … and even if I can’t save him, then you could at least see him one last time.”
Emma bit her lower lip, her mind warring with her heart. “If you’re sure,” she finally said, although it almost sounded like a question.
Regina nodded but Emma could see that there was a trace of very understandable doubt. “You should pack your things,” Regina suggested. “Your horse will have to remain here, however.” She looked at Granny, who was still scowling at them both while fighting the tears in her eyes. “We will leave in an hour.”
With one last nod at Emma, she swept out of the room, Granny and Ruby following her at a trot. Emma spared one last, forlorn look at the mirror, than headed for her room to get ready.
As she hurried past the door to the library, she heard hissed voices coming from inside the room. She stopped to listen, heart beating in her throat, telling herself that she needed to know if she had to saddle up her horse and ride instead of flying with Regina.
“Are you sure about this?” Granny asked sadly.
“I know you have feelings for her,” Ruby added, causing Emma’s eyebrows to rise. “But sacrificing yourself on the off-chance that you can save the boy?”
“You two make it sound like I won’t even get there,” Regina complained.
“It is a very real possibility,” Granny grumbled. “You can’t blame us for not wanting to lose you any sooner than we have to.”
“It’s just … I think we’re both afraid we won’t be seeing you again,” Ruby admitted. “And if you die out there, we won’t even know.”
Emma could hear in the voices that all three women were fighting tears now or openly crying. She swallowed hard. What right had she to make Regina take such a risk? Was getting back to Henry really worth playing with a woman’s life like that? A large part of Emma knew it was too much to ask, knew that she wasn’t worth risking that much for, but to her deep shame, an even larger part accepted that she wanted this with a burning, longing intensity.
“I know you’ve been feeling better since Emma has arrived,” Granny was saying just then. “I’m not sure what’s happen—”
“It’s Emma,” Regina replied simply. Emma perked up. What about her? What was she doing? “We’ve been … getting closer.”
Ruby snorted. “Oh, really? We hadn’t noticed.”
Granny actually giggled lightly. “So … not that you and Emma weren’t giving off enough sparks to light the lanterns from here to Starkhaven, but what—“
“When we kiss,” Regina explained hesitantly. “It feels as if I’m gaining energy, and the more … intimate the kiss, the better I feel afterwards.”
“So you must be completely juiced up after a … vigorous coupling,” Ruby mused with a smirk that Emma could hear outside in the hall. “No wonder you’ve been flying every night since her arrival. Starkhaven hasn’t been this well supplied in years, I bet.”
There was a pause, and Emma wondered what was going on. Then Regina whispered, “We haven’t …” There was a sigh. “She’s so … frustratingly chivalrous about it.”
Maker, I shouldn’t have resisted all these nights, Emma whined in her head. How was she supposed to know their time was running out so fast? But this was giving her an idea, knowing from Regina’s earlier estimation that they would have to stop for the night on the way. If she could recharge Regina by making love to her, then Emma couldn’t imagine doing anything more pleasurable. Or anything she wanted more. Apart from getting home to Henry.
With renewed hope, and somewhat relieved, Emma stepped away from the door and rushed to her room, not realizing that three women were listening to her footsteps, one even with smile on her face.
It had taken Emma about an hour to let go of the absolute terror of flying high over the land at very high speeds atop a dragon. She dug her fingers into the scales and small horns so hard that she almost lost feeling in them and was forced to relax her hold somewhat unless she wanted to lose all feeling — and her hold.
Regina had told her not to worry, to relax but it was in vain. In the end, Regina had just huffed in mild annoyance but still had decided to fly as smoothly as she could — and refrain from having fun with her passenger and doing some rather more fun flight maneuvers — to allow Emma time to get used to the feeling of being airborne.
“This is much better than horseback riding,” Emma now said, barely audible over the sound of the wind.
Regina shook her massive head. “Are you comparing me to that mangy horse you came to us with?”
Her voice rumbled, and Emma wondered for the first time if she wasn’t calling her companion by the wrong name. “Should I be calling you Yolbriidur when you’re a dragon?” she asked.
The sound the dragon made was one of clear disgust. “Regina will do fine,” she replied. “Yolbriidur was a name given to me by the people who killed my mate and then hunted me.”
“Regina it is.” Emma wrapped herself closer around the dragons neck. “I’m sorry that my grandfather killed your mate and turned you into the hunted dragon you became.”
Regina was quiet for so long that Emma began to wonder if her words had gotten lost on the wind. She was just about to repeat them when Regina finally replied. “You have nothing to be sorry for, Princess … I am the one who chose the walk the path of revenge, and I did kill many people in my thirst for vengeance.”
“Why did you stop?” The question had been at the tip of Emma’s tongue ever since she figured out who Regina really was.
“I received no satisfaction from killing the ones who had wronged me and my mate,” Regina explained, but Emma had to strain to hear it. She clung even closer, resting her head atop Regina’s, right between two rows of horns. It was strangely comfortable. “And being feared … it’s not nearly as great as being loved, and once I realized the difference …”
She trailed off but Emma could finish the rest. “Granny and Ruby,” she surmised.
“They found me when I was beginning to feel the effects of the curse for the first time,” Regina continued the story. Emma closed her eyes to listen, one hand stroking the scales on the side of Regina's head. “I was in a cave in the mountains, feeling like my body was being turned inside out, and in walked these two wolves, one barely beyond being a cub.” Regina snorted, which translated to a rumble in her current form. “I expected them to kill me but they didn’t. They’ve been with me ever since.”
“Maybe because they’ve known their own curse,” Emma commented.
“This curse that is killing you …” Emma started. “Is there any way to stop it?”
“We’ve tried everything,” Regina replied. “Granny even hunted down the sorcerer who gave your grandfather the curse—“
“Wait!” Emma exclaimed. “My grandfather cursed you?”
“It’s the same curse that killed Daniel.”
“Yes. When he was in his human form, his name was Daniel, and he was the sweetest man you could imagine.” Regina’s voice turned sad. “When your grandfather killed Daniel, he spotted me in the distance as I was flying in to help Daniel. The king shot one of his cursed arrows at me but it was only a glancing blow, barely hit me, which is why the curse is working slowly. It comes and goes but in the end …”
“It’s going to kill you,” Emma finished sadly. “Unless we find a way to stop it.”
“Emma.” There was a warning in that tone. “There’s nothing to be done … only an act of true love can break this kind of curse, and even that is not a sure thing.” It certainly hadn’t worked with Daniel, Regina thought bitterly, and she had loved him with all of her heart.
The next few hours were spent in silence, each woman lost to their own thoughts until Emma noticed that Regina was beginning to move sluggishly and they were losing height. Emma scanned the area they were flying over and was astounded to see how far they’d gotten in just one day.
“We should stop for the night,” Emma suggested. “There’s a relatively clean tavern in the next village if I remember correctly, so maybe we should land by that forest over there and walk the rest of the way.”
She tried hard not to show her worry when Regina started to descend without even a token protest.
They landed close to the tree line about half an hour's walk from the village Emma remembered from a few months ago. She jumped off the dragon's back then walked around to lose some of the stiffness of the long — and cold — ride in the cold air. When she turned back to Regina, she almost swallowed her tongue at the sight of her.
Regina's legs were encased in skin-tight black leather, which almost looked scaly, just like the equally black and equally tight vest she wore over a white shirt. "I-Is that ...?" Emma wasn't quite sure how to ask the question.
"Dragonhide, yes." And then Regina stumbled, too tired to stand up.
Three long strides had Emma by her side. Emma had the insane urge to scold Regina for flying too long, too far, for risking too much, but stopped herself in time. It would have been entirely too hypocritical, and also absolutely useless, so she did the next best thing. She cupped Regina's face in both hands and kissed her, long and slow, moving her lips across Regina's with loving intensity, wondering if she could give Regina more of herself if she did something. Anything. So she wished fervently, and kissed her deeper, never noticing the small wisps of purple smoke, so faint as to be almost translucent, move from her to Regina.
"Thank you for doing this for me," she finally said reverently, breathing the words onto Regina's lips.
Regina simply nodded, somewhat stunned by the powerful kiss, then took Emma's offered arm, and together they made their way to the tavern and some well-earned food and rest.
Although rest was not all Emma had in mind for the night, especially not after the kiss that had her veins sing with desire and her body burning for more.
Emma got them a room and a large pot of beef stew, then went back down for some of the local ale. They shared their dinner and more kisses in front of the fire in their room, seeking both the warmth of the flames as well the closeness sharing provided. Emma kept a close eye on Regina, watching and waiting for the color to return to her cheeks but it was a slow process.
When Regina excused herself to go and have a quick bath, Emma returned the empty pot to the tavern owner, ordering two more pints of ale at the same time. As she waited for the ale to arrive, she listened to the patrons around her, and smiled in relief when none of them mentioned seeing a dragon. The last thing she wanted to do that night was to have to fend off some enthusiastic locals on the hunt for a bit of dragonhide.
Regina still hadn’t returned to the room but Emma forced herself not to go look for her. She got out of her clothes and washed herself with the tepid water in the wash basin next to the fire, then climbed into the small but surprisingly comfortable bed. After a moment’s thought, she wiggled out of her underclothes as well, and tossed them in the general direction of the rest of her clothes.
Hopefully, this wouldn’t backfire.
The look on Regina’s face when she returned to the room — vest open and shirt laces half undone — told her it didn’t. The slow smirk that grew around Regina’s mouth at the sight of Emma’s obviously naked shoulders under the single blanket brought Emma’s desire back to pre-dinner levels. Emma smiled and beckoned Regina over with one finger. “Join me,” she rasped.
Transfixed, Regina nodded and walked closer, allowing Emma to reach out and pull at the laces holding the shirt and the leather pants closed. She tugged with little patience, while Regina pulled off the vest and kicked off her boots. In no time at all, Regina was standing naked in front of the bed, nipples hardening in the slightly chill air. Emma held up the blanket with one hand, and tugged at Regina’s hip with the other, and just like that, their bodies were pressed together, and the feeling elicited a groan from both of them.
“I’m glad to see your chivalry has its limits,” Regina moaned as Emma ran one hand up the ridges of her spine. She found herself hoping that this was not just some form of quid pro quo for Emma, even though she had dropped the hint mostly for that reason, knowing she would need the boost during this trip. But now that they were here, together, Regina couldn’t switch off her feelings, couldn’t stop herself from hoping that this might mean something to Emma, too.
“I have no idea how I managed to resist you for a whole week,” Emma admitted, her eyes dark with desire. Then she decided that talking was overrated and focused on touching, tasting, feeling instead, kissing her way down Regina's throat and towards her breasts. When her lips closed around an already hardening nipple, Regina’s hands flew into her hair, tugging, pulling, directing Emma’s head. Emma groaned at the perfect mixture of pain and pleasure, and gave back as good as she got, nipping her way from one breast to the other, leaving small bite marks and laving them with her tongue to alleviate the pain.
“I won’t break,” Regina moaned.
“And I’m not done yet,” Emma replied, adding a sharp nip that had Regina arching her back with a gasp of pleasure.
“You’re so beautiful,” Emma muttered against Regina’s skin. “I want you so much.”
“Then have me,” Regina offered, demanded, her fears finally alleviated by the unmistakable desire in Emma’s voice. It wasn’t just a business transaction, not for either of them, and all of a sudden Regina felt free enough to admit, “I need you.”
Emma surged up to capture Regina’s lips once more. “I’ll give you what you need,” she whispered against her mouth. “Everything you need, everything you want.” She rolled Regina onto her back and settled between her legs, pressing her own sex against Regina’s with slow, rhythmic rolls of her hips, not quite prepared for the jolt of arousal it caused in her body. She tried to slow down to regain some self-control but Regina pulled her in, hands on Emma’s ass, legs bent at the knees, open wide, in an effort to get Emma closer, to have more contact.
“It’s not wise to tease a dragon,” Regina complained when Emma refused to follow the commands of Regina’s body. “Not now … later maybe.”
“You’re right,” Emma agreed. “We have all night.” She focused on her rhythm, on Regina’s, quickly finding a fluid, rolling movement, pressing herself fully against Regina. Her head bent to capture a nipple in her teeth, mirroring the rhythm of her hips with her lips, her tongue, her teeth.
When she felt herself and Regina getting closer to the edge, Emma trailed one hand down Regina’s body and worked it between them. Without warning, she slid two fingers inside Regina and used her thumb to lightly tap on Regina’s clit. Not to be outdone, Regina followed her move and pushed into Emma, who faltered in her rhythm for only a moment before pumping her hand and hips with renewed vigor.
“Harder,” Regina ordered.
“More,” Emma requested.
She was rewarded with the slight burn and the added fullness of another finger inside her, sliding into her deeply, driving her higher and higher, relentlessly pushing her towards her climax.
“Maker,” Emma moaned as she spiraled upwards, faster and faster. “Feels so good, Regina.”
Regina could only moan in response as her exhausted body soaked up the attention and the energy their coupling provided. She felt more alive than she had in years as she dug the fingers of her free hand into the muscles of Emma’s back, no doubt leaving marks. She never wanted this to end, never wanted to stop pleasuring this woman, being pleasured by this woman, didn’t want to come just yet, not yet, not yet, didn’t want to die, not a small death, not any kind of death. Not when the alternative was doing this with Emma, all the time, always, for eternity. Regina wanted to cling to this feeling, wanted to hold out, hold out hold out hold—
She came with a shout that she barely managed to muffle against the skin of Emma’s shoulder. Her whole body stiffened, then relaxed, just a second before Emma’s did the same, and the knight came undone with a loud moan that could probably be heard down in the tavern.
Neither of them cared.
And since they both had their eyes closed, neither of them saw the cloud of purple magic that surrounded them, moving from Emma to Regina and back in a circle of energy.
Emma collapsed, unable to hold herself up, as Regina pulled her hand from between their bodies and wrapped Emma in a tight hug with both arms and legs. “That was wonderful,” she husked, her mouth already seeking out Emma’s for another kiss.
“That was only the beginning,” Emma promised and returned the kiss. Then she trailed her lips down Regina’s body and began to make good on her pledge.
Regina woke up with a smile on her face. She was in Emma’s arms and the night was just barely giving way to the pale pink light of dawn outside their window. Emma was sleeping peacefully, wrapped around her like a blanket, so Regina used the time to take stock of her situation.
She was feeling … all right, she thought as she felt for her magic and her reserves. Her magic was as juiced up as it could be thanks to Emma’s tireless dedication the evening before but it was her cursed body that gave her pause. While superficially everything seemed in order — she knew she would look as healthy as she ever had — she could feel a bone-deep exhaustion that had taken root weeks, maybe even months before, and had now been made abundantly clear by the long flight yesterday.
Regina knew without a doubt that flying Emma all the way to her parents’ castle, to her son, would probably be her last long flight ever. It seemed that Granny’s fears had been quite well-founded, and no amount of kisses or loving attention from Ser Emma Swan would change that.
She was dying. Hell, she was as good as dead already, and all she could do now was to make sure that Emma saw her son again, and maybe try and heal Henry before finding a nice, quiet, out of the way place to rest her weary body. And die.
The only thing worrying her was the fact that shortly before his death the curse had caused Daniel’s body to fluctuate between dragon form and human form, so Regina hoped with all her might that her body resisted the curse’s final blow long enough to get away from the castle and the people who hated her. She wondered if she should tell Emma but she decided to wait until it became absolutely necessary while hoping that this moment would never come. She wanted Emma to remember her the way she had been the week before, last night, and not as some curse-induced freak show to be feared.
When Emma woke up minutes later with a bright smile, Regina’s face had relaxed and smoothed out, mask firmly in place.
They barely made it to the forest outside of White castle, Regina losing energy even faster than she had expected in the final hour of the trip. She successfully fought not to let Emma notice, so when she landed in a clearing in the forest and transformed into her human form only to immediately collapse in a heap at Emma’s feet, the knight was shocked and angry.
“Damn, Regina!” she yelled. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
She pressed her lips to the unconscious woman’s lips, hoping she could give her a jolt of energy that way but it wasn’t helping. Trying hard not to panic, Emma paced the forest clearing until she heard a faint moan coming from Regina.
“Regina,” Emma was on her knees by Regina’s side in an instant. “Regina, can you hear me? What do I do?” And there was the panic she had barely managed to keep away.
“That … was … a little much,” Regina breathed out weakly. “Sorry, Emma.”
“The only thing you should be sorry about is not stopping when you got tired,” Emma protested but there was no further comment from Regina apart from her eyes rolling back into her skull before closing once more. “Come on, Regina,” Emma coaxed gently. “Please? I can’t lose you now … not when we’re so close.”
Close to what exactly, Emma had no idea. She just knew that there was more she wanted. More time, more Regina.
Regina moaned again as she drifted in and out of consciousness. “You … should go to the castle,” she murmured. “See Henry.”
“Yes, good idea,” Emma agreed. “We’ll go as soon as you can stand.”
Regina shook her head. “No … need to stay here. Need rest … and my body will …”
“Your body will …?” Emma asked when nothing else was forthcoming but Regina’s eyes were already closed again.
Emma looked through the trees towards the White castle, surprised that no guards had yet come to check out the area. She would have to have words with her men, she thought randomly. With a sigh, she put one arm under Regina’s shoulders and the other under her knees and lifted her up until she was standing, Regina settled safely and comfortably in her arms.
Then she started to walk.
“Emma,” Regina moaned some time later as her body alerted her that it would transform soon, and she knew she didn't have enough reserves to prevent it. The curse wanted to consume the dragon, and it was doing everything to get that dragon. “You have to … put me down.”
“What?” Emma panted. “Why? We’re almost there.”
She was already on the bridge leading up to the castle, could in fact see the courtyard up ahead, and a few more steps would have them inside and closer to where Regina could rest. Closer to Henry, too, but Emma was torn between those thoughts. She pushed on, pushed through the feeling that Regina was getting heavier in her arms.
In minutes they were inside the courtyard, and Emma’s knees almost buckled in relief. She could see one of the guards running off, most probably to alert her parents, and she struggled to walk a little closer to the big oaken door of the castle.
“Emma.” Another moan, this time deeper and even more urgent. “My body … turning into … dragon form,” Regina moaned. “Can’t stop it … too tired … the curse …”
Emma carefully lowered Regina to the ground, right there in the middle of the courtyard, then sat down and rested Regina's head on her thighs, running her hand through the dark hair, willing her energy to flow to the other woman.
A shudder went through Regina as her body changed in front of Emma's eyes. It was the fist time she had witnessed the transformation, and she couldn't look away as the beautiful woman turned into the equally beautiful and majestic dragon. She was so engrossed in her friend that she didn't realize that a crowd had started to gather around them, weapons drawn, albeit a safe distance away.
Among them were the king and queen.
"You did it!" Queen Snow exclaimed joyfully. "You slew the fearsome dragon Yolbriidur! All hail Ser Emma, First Knight of the Realm."
"What? No!" Emma protested. "You don't understand."
"Congratulations!" her father added. "There shall be a feast in honor of Ser Emma, the fiercest knight in all the realms!" The guards all around the courtyard celebrated that announcement, and the king looked like he was bursting with pride.
Emma could hear Regina huffing quietly but no less scornfully but that was all the dragon was capable of at the moment. Emma gently moved out from under Regina's head and walked towards her parents. "You don't understand," she tried again. "I didn't slay any dragon." She turned her back to Regina. "Especially not her."
"Emma, what is going on here?" Snow asked. "Is that beast still breathing?"
The king drew his sword and took a step towards Regina, weapon raised high. "Not for long," he proclaimed.
“Father, no!” Emma yelled, scrambling back again and putting one hand on Regina’s massive dragon snout, softly stroking, trying to comfort, while the other stretched towards her father. “She’s my friend. She’s hurt.”
“She?” The king and queen stared at their daughter. “It’s a dragon,” Snow said slowly, almost spitting the word. “A savage beast, unfeeling and murderous. How can you say something like that is your friend?”
“She’s not just a dragon,” Emma insisted.
Snow’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, I know,” she replied, eyes and voice cold. She took her husband’s sword from his hand and stalked towards Regina. “Not any dragon … Yolbriidur,” she hissed the name slowly, drawing out every syllable. “Now I can finally avenge my father.”
“Mother!” Emma tried again, scrambling to her feet and putting herself between Regina and Snow. “She’s the only one who can save Henry.”
That stopped Snow short. “Henry?” she asked, dazed. “How do you know about Henry?”
Emma let out the breath she had been holding for what felt like forever. “That’s a long story,” she said. “But first Regina needs rest. The trip here was long and hard.” She put her hand back onto the beautiful, scaly head, willing to let her own strength pour into Regina. It was easier than she thought it would be, even after the night before, but she felt as if the energy flowed easily between them now. She just hoped it was enough to stabilize Regina.
“Rest?! Rest for a dragon?” Snow gasped. “Are you out of your mind? It can have eternal rest once it’s dead!”
“Ask … for Ethelgard,” Regina breathed, ignoring the queen’s posturing. She sounded a little better, but her voice was a mere whisper only for Emma's ears, so it was hard to tell. “One of the cooks. Friend of Granny’s. From Starkhaven ... She’ll help …”
“I need to talk to Ethelgard,” Emma immediately demanded. At her mother's blank stare she added, “One of the cooks.” She called over a guard. “Please go and ask her to come out here as quickly as she can.” When the guard looked at Queen Snow for confirmation, Emma yelled at him, “Now!”
He ran off, half the eyes in the courtyard following him.
Emma turned back to her mother and father. “Please return to your court business,” she said curtly, all attempts at courtesy having flown out the window at her parents’ reaction to Regina. “I’ll take care of Regina, then go find Henry.”
Snow studied her for a long moment, then shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she declared. “The best I can offer you is a chance to explain once you’ve come to your senses.” She turned to the contingent of guards that was standing off to one side. “Get some rope and drag that … beast to a cage. I will consider what is to be done with it tomorrow."
"What about Henry?" Emma asked.
"Henry is stable for the moment, and the court physician is with him night and day," Snow replied, her features softening a little. "Besides, do you really think that beast can help him now?"
Emma shook her head, not believing her mother’s coldness. Had she known, she never would have let Regina come here. But her mother was also right; in her current state, Regina would not be able to help anybody, not herself, not Henry. She needed to help Regina get her strength back, and then get her out of here.
She turned back to her mother but was distracted by gasps all around and fingers pointing to Regina. Emma whirled back, only to be faced with the human form, curled up on the ground in her dragonhide pants and vest, panting slightly. Her face was ashen nut not as starkly white as it had been earlier.
"Regina!" Emma fell to her knees beside her.
"What magic is this?" Snow demanded. "Where did the dragon disappear to? Who are you?” she yelled at Regina.
“This is Regina," Emma snarled, not taking her eyes off Regina. She reached out to run her fingers through tangled dark hair. "She's my friend," she added more softly. "She only came here to help Henry."
"With magic?" Snow shrieked.
"Would you rather see him dead than accept her help, Your Majesty?” Emma snarled. "He is the heir to the throne. He’s your grandson.” And I thought you loved him, she added in her head.
“Fine, by all means,” the Queen ground out. "Lock her up," she ordered the guards. "In the morning she can try and help the prince. If she manages to save him, I might spare her life."
Emma couldn't believe what she was hearing. "You can’t—"
"I can," Snow said slowly, over her shoulder, already on her way back into the castle. "She might not look like it right now, but she is still the dragon Yolbriidur who killed my beloved father King Leopold, and you’d all do well to remember that.”
"After he killed her family!" Emma yelled, thoroughly disgusted and frustrated. “Don’t you care about what happened? He got a curse from a sorcerer and killed a helpless dragon!”
"Don't be absurd, Emma," Snow sneered. “Father hated magic, he never touched it. He valiantly fought a dragon and won, no matter what that witch has told you.” Snow heaved a breath. “Besides, dragons are beasts ... How can they have families?"
Then she was gone, King David following after her but he at least gave his daughter a half-shrug of apology. As soon as they were inside the castle, the guards surrounding Emma and Regina turned their eyes to their commanding knight, unsure what to do since she was standing in a protective stance over Regina's body.
The castle door flew open and a heavy-set older woman bustled through, pushing guards out of the way as she went. "Oh, Lady Regina," she cried when she took in the situation. She hurried over to the prone woman and crouched down next to her.
"Weak," was all Regina said.
"I can see that," Ethelgard commented before she started digging around in the basket that was slung over her arm. She pulled out a flask and held it to Regina's lips. "Here, drink this," she ordered. "All of it."
"How did you ..." Emma stared at the flask.
"Everyone in Starkhaven knows Lady Regina," Ethelgard murmured. "Besides, not an hour ago a raven arrived from the North with a message from Granny, telling me what to do. I barely had time to finish the infusion.” She pursed her lips. “Granny was hoping you’d be more mindful of your own health and take at least three days to get here.”
"I didn't think it was going to be this bad," Regina admitted between sips of the drink. Emma was still feeding her energy as well, albeit, she assumed, unconsciously so. She recognized the drink straight away; it was a powerful stimulant. She couldn’t blame Granny for sending the recipe to Ethelgard since it was painfully clear that Regina needed it.
"We'll have you better by first light," Ethelgard promised, then turned to Emma. "But she needs a bed, and rest." With the way she emphasized the last word, Emma wondered what exactly the message from Granny had said.
"Are you going to turn back to your dragon form?" Emma asked softly, her hand lightly stroking Regina's arm.
Regina felt inside her body for a long moment. "No," she finally said. "I think I'm stable for now, especially with this.” She held up the almost empty flask. "The curse seems to have withdrawn its claws for the moment."
"We'll take her to my quarters in the barracks then," Emma stated, loud enough for the guards to hear. There was grumbling at the clear violation of the queen's orders. "Come on, Men," Emma said with a roll of her eyes. "What safer place than the knight's quarters in the castle barracks?”
When the guards nodded and proceeded to walk away, Emma leaned closer to Ethelgard. “I don’t know what the queen has planned for the morning,” she whispered, “but we might need to get out of here quick.”
“I’ll do whatever needs to be done,” Ethelgard promised without hesitation. “It was time I returned home to the North anyway. I don’t really like the backwards attitude here.”
Emma couldn’t help herself; she laughed, but it was a brittle sound.
Emma woke up feeling tired. She hadn’t slept much, spending most of the time worrying — about Regina, about Henry — and thinking about her future. She had no idea what was going to happen, not in a few hours, let alone in a few days. All she knew was that her future seemed linked to Regina’s, for better or worse.
She looked at the sleeping woman, barely able to make out her features in the still dark room even though Regina was lying almost on top of her. So beautiful, so serene in her sleep. Emma closed her eyes again, tightened her arms around Regina, and thought back to the night before.
She had gotten Regina settled in her quarters, watched over by a vigilant and supportive Ethelgard, who had sworn she would defend Lady Regina with her life, if need be. Then Emma had snuck into the castle to see Henry. He had been sleeping, albeit fitfully, interrupted by a cough now and then, and Emma had sat on his bed, trying not to let her crying disturb the rest he needed so much.
Her boy had been so pale, almost as pale as Regina had been, and his lips had been tinged almost blue. Emma wondered how long he had been sick like that and couldn’t stop herself from hoping that Regina could heal him. She hoped her parents would let her try.
And as soon as Henry was healed, she would take him and Regina, and even Ethelgard, and would leave this place behind once and for all. Even if they couldn’t stay with Regina and her family, they would make a home in the North, possibly in Starkhaven. Henry would come with her, wouldn't he?
When there had been footsteps outside Henry's room, she had snuck out and made her way back to Regina's side only to find the woman awake and talking to Ethelgard in that language of the North that Emma couldn't understand. As soon as she had shown up in the door, however, Ethelgard had given Regina a knowing look, then left with a small chuckle. Regina's eyes had turned to Emma then, beckoning, and Emma had fallen into her arms willingly to find some rest of her own.
Now, as the room brightened a little in the pale dawn light, Emma watched Regina wake up slowly, pressing her face into the crook of Emma's neck, and letting out a quiet snore that Emma found rather adorable. She ran her hand down the ridge of Regina's spine and pressed a kiss to her head. "Morning," she whispered, forgetting their situation for one moment.
Regina made a grumbling sound deep on her throat, more dragon than human, before raising her head and pressing an uncoordinated kiss to Emma's cheek, clearly not fully awake yet.
“How are you feeling?” Emma whispered.
Regina groaned. “Not dead yet,” she replied after a moment, and it didn’t come across as flippantly as it had probably been meant. “Better,” she amended. “Not good, but better.”
“Good.” Emma exhaled slowly in relief.
Regina looked up at that, studying Emma’s face. “I will try and heal Henry today … if you still want me to, that is.”
“Why would I not want that?” Emma was surprised at the question. “I’d love that, but only — and I really mean that — only if you’re feeling up to it.” She brushed a lock of dark hair out of Regina’s face. “He really did look stable last night … just like my mother said.” The last part was added almost grudgingly. “I should never have made you come here, Regina,” Emma then suddenly blurted out. “I’m so sorry you endangered your life for me!”
“I’m not,” Regina muttered. When Emma didn’t meet her eyes, Regina sat up and gently forced Emma chin up until her eyes reluctantly met Regina’s. “Neither of us could know how this all played out, Emma … and if I can heal Henry, I consider this a well-spent few last days.”
“What do you mean, last days?” Emma gasped.
Regina sighed. “Emma, you knew I was dying,” she replied patiently. “The trip here … well, I made it here because of you, and once I heal Henry, I’ll head back home … slowly. If I’m lucky, I’ll make—“
There was a sudden ruckus outside the door, the sound of many man scrambling to their feet, just seconds before there was a sharp knock on the door.
“Yes?” Emma asked.
“It’s me,” a male voice said, muffled only a little by the door. “Your father.”
Regina waved her hand almost lazily and had them both dressed in pants and shirts in the blink of an eye. Emma stared at her own body, blinking at the sudden change, then chuckling a little. “Nice trick,” she mumbled as she got out of bed and stretched her muscles, which were stiff from the two days of riding a dragon in frigid air.
“Waste of magic,” Regina muttered, sounding almost embarrassed, but also a little pleased at the compliment. She also got to her feet, albeit a bit more hesitantly than Emma, and smiled in relief when the world remained right side up when she was standing on her own two feet, unaided.
“Come in,” Emma called out after one last loving look at Regina. She wondered what her father wanted.
The door opened and the king stepped inside, closing the door behind him. When it was almost closed, it swung open again, to allow Ethelgard to slip in behind him. The cook ignored the king apart from a perfunctory curtsey and bustled over to Regina's side, another flask in her hand. "Drink this," she ordered before facing Emma with a small nod and a mumbled, "Good morning, Ser Knight."
"Emma is fine," Emma replied with a grin. The more she saw of the woman, the more she liked her.
Her father on the other hand looked slightly disturbed by the cook and her charge, but one look at Emma's rather stormy face stopped whatever he was meaning to say. "Emma," he started. "I er ... I'm sorry that our reunion yesterday was a little ... difficult."
Emma snorted. "I don't understand why mother reacted the way she did." She turned sad eyes on her father. "I came here as quickly as I could because of Henry and that was only possible because of my friend here," she continued. "And what do you do? Threaten her life!"
Her father had the decency to look a little sheepish. "You know how your mother is about her father and his legacy," he said, and Emma wondered if that was his attempt at an apology. It was a poor one. "But that's not why I came to see you this morning."
Something in his voice alerted Emma immediately. "What happened?"
"Henry took a turn for the worse during the night," King David explained. "I think you should be by his side now."
Emma gasped. "How?!" she exclaimed. "I saw him not even five hours ago and he was sleeping peacefully."
"I don't know," the king replied. "But Doc said he doesn't have much time."
"Yes, all right," Emma rambled, at a loss at this completely unexpected information. "Regina ..." she started but wasn't sure what she was going to ask.
Regina was by her side in an instant. "Let's go save your son."
King David stepped in front of Regina. "You aren't going anywhere," he told her. "We still consider you a threat."
"You are an idiot, Shepherd," Regina hissed. "Would you rather let your heir die?"
"Who says you're here to help him?" the king snarled. "For all we know you could be the one making him sick." He raised his hand as if to strike Regina.
"Father!" Emma jumped between them. "Regina is the only one who can help him! I know you have no reason to trust her ... but you should trust me on this. We're talking about my son."
The king looked from Emma to Regina and back while Ethelgard was standing off to the side, looking like she was read to defend Regina with her life if need be.
"Please trust me, Father," Emma pleaded.
"Allow me to help Henry," Regina added. "I swear I only want to help him." Her face was sincere but Emma had a feeling that pleading to her father cost Regina a great deal of effort.
It took a minute but finally the king relented and nodded. "But you should probably go now while Snow is busy with the council."
With a nod and a smile at her father, Emma took Regina's hand and ran out the door, Ethelgard hot on their heels.
The king followed at a more sedate pace, his face uneasy.
Emma and Regina stormed through the door of Henry's room, scaring everyone inside. Doc, the dwarven physician, was the first to recover and bow deeply. "Your Highness," he greeted her. "I'm afraid the news is bad. It's good that you have arrived home.”
“What happened?” Emma asked while Regina leaned over the boy who was lying very still on the bed.
“I don’t really know,” Doc admitted, casting a suspicious glance towards Regina. “These things happen with an illness such as this.” He looked uncomfortable, then tried to move closer to Regina but Emma blocked his way. “He was stable yesterday, and almost looked to be a little on the mend, but when I returned this morning, he was suddenly much worse than ever before.”
“Where were you last night?” Emma inquired. “I was here and Henry was alone then.”
“I was called away by a sudden emergency," Doc explained. "I was fetched by a guard who said there had been an accident ... but when I got there, it didn't seem to require that much attention after all."
"So you went to see your brothers for a pint in the tavern?" Emma surmised, having known the dwarf all her life.
Doc hung his head in shame. Then his eyes caught the way Regina's hand was moving over Henry's body and he pushed past Emma with a shout. "Hey!"
Emma grabbed him by the arm. "It's all right," Emma assured him. "She's here to help."
"That remains to be seen," King David said from the doorway.
Doc smiled at him and nodded before sending another glare at Regina.
Regina ignored the dwarf as she ran her hand over Henry, feeling his body for the problem. She had tested his lungs first since Emma had said Henry had been coughing but she hadn't been able to feel anything of note. Now she was feeling deeper, letting her magic run through his body, checking for more unusual things. There was something about this that looked suspicious to her, and then, suddenly, she felt it.
"Who had access to the boy?" she asked without taking her eyes off Henry.
"Why?" The king sounded suspicious.
Emma rolled her eyes. "Before he got sick, he used to run around all over the place, so I'd say everyone," she explained. "Once he was confined to this bed ... I'm not sure. Father?"
"Snow and I, Doc, the guards, the servants ..." King David replied reluctantly before letting out an impatient sigh. "Are you going to tell us what it is you think you found or not, Witch? Why did you ask?”
Regina looked at him over her shoulder. “Because Henry isn’t sick,” she replied. “At least not seriously.”
Emma took a step closer. “He’s not?” Her voice was vaguely confused. “But why—?”
“He was poisoned,” Regina stated softly, one hand on Henry’s forehead, one on Emma’s arm. “Someone slipped him a poison, possibly in a potion. I detect a trace of magic, so I think that’s what it was. Hard to tell what exactly it was but that was what caused the symptoms.” She paused. “It must have been a while ago, too, because the poison has settled deep in his body, barely traceable.”
“Then how can you be sure, Witch?”
“Because whoever wants Henry dead,” Regina sighed, “didn’t trust his or her own work, and gave him more poison last night.”
“Oh.” There was a world of sadness in Emma’s tone. “Who would … he’s just a boy …”
“And the heir to the throne,” Regina pointed out. “For many that is reason enough.”
“Can you help him?” Emma whispered hoarsely.
“I think so,” Regina said quietly. “But … it’s going to take a lot of magic. You may have to hold onto me.”
“Anything you need,” Emma promised.
Regina nodded before focusing back on Henry. She didn’t see Doc and King David walk to the other side of the bed to watch closely, didn’t see Emma sit down on the edge of the bed next to her, one hand on Henry’s leg, one on Regina’s hip. She didn’t see King David’s raised eyebrow at that, nor Ethelgard’s smile, quickly hidden behind a hand. All she saw was the boy lying on the bed until she closed her eyes in concentration and saw only with her magic.
Regina felt for the dark pockets of poison she had spotted before, much easier to find now that she knew what she was looking for, and she realized that it had settled into many of his major organs. Slowly she began to draw out the poison from his liver, painfully meticulous, drawing the poison away from his body. She heard a gasp from next to her, and assumed that Emma was reacting to the sight of the poison being expelled, oozing out and into the air. She opened her eyes for a moment to confirm that it was actually working, and they were drawn instantly to the black-green mist that was slowly dissipating.
She closed her eyes once more and moved to the next organ, repeating the process.
Emma could only watch in awe as Regina seemed to pull the poison from her son’s body with her bare hands, and she gasped when the thick mist appeared and then slowly evaporated. She was mesmerized by the sight of Regina’s hands, crackling with magic, a white-purplish hue moving from her to Henry wherever she rested her hands. Regina moved surely over the body, as if she knew exactly where she needed to go next, and it was a wonderful sight to behold.
Regina had no idea how much time had passed by the time she finally made it to Henry’s head, where some of the poison had burrowed deeply into the recesses of his brain, possibly muddling it on top of inflicting the wasting disease. She was beginning to feel light-headed due to the serious use of magic — more than she had expected, and the fight was harder, too — but tried to shake it off. She could feel Emma’s hand digging deeper into her hip, alerting her to the fact that she hadn’t been as successful as she had hoped about hiding her exhaustion.
Now Emma was saying something as well, but Regina couldn’t afford to listen. Not now when the tendrils of her magic were weaving through the sensitive areas of Henry’s brain, feeling out the last spots, the last remaining pockets of poison.
“Regina,” Emma tried again, beginning to be seriously worried about Regina’s state. “You’re shaking like a leaf,” she murmured. “I don’t know how to give you more of me …”
Regina ignored her, and Emma assumed she hadn’t even heard. She had been working for a couple of hours now, using magic constantly, unaware of anything going on around her. Unaware perhaps of how much energy she was expending, energy she really couldn’t afford to lose, not this soon after her collapse the night before. Her color had almost completely vanished, face gaunt and ashen now, and now—
“Maker,” Emma breathed, as she watched Regina sway on her feet, dangerously close to falling over on top of Henry. She jumped up, ready to pull Regina away when the other woman gasped softly and fell to her knees by the bed, spent.
Emma dropped to her knees by Regina’s side, not surprised when Ethelgard was there in an instant as well.
“Too much, Lady Regina,” the cook chided gently. “Always too much.”
“Just … enough,” Regina mumbled. “It's done ... Henry should wake up soon.”
Emma was torn. She was deliriously happy that Henry was safe — and there was not even a speck of doubt on her mind that Regina had done it — while also being worried out of her mind for Regina now. The last thing she had wanted was for her son and the woman she … well, she cared for a lot to change places.
“Why didn’t you stop?” she muttered. “You should have rested …”
Regina shook her head. “The poison would have spread again,” she explained hoarsely. “Once I started, I needed to finish, no matter what.” She turned her head to look at Henry. “He should be waking up …” She turned to Emma. “Help me up, please?”
Emma gently pulled Regina to her feet, then steadied her as she bent over Henry to check him again. Regina saw that the dwarf had one hand around the boy’s wrist, checking his pulse against the pocket watch in his hand.
“He’s breathing easy,” Doc confirmed. “His heart beats calmly. I think he’s just tired still.”
Regina did her own inspection, lifting his eyelids to check his eyes, which were moving rapidly, then resting her hand over his heart and feeling into his body once more without using too much of her severely depleted magic.
Regina was just about to take her hand off Henry when the door burst open and the queen walked in, followed by a contingent of guards.
“There you are,” Snow cried. “Are you threatening the heir to the throne?”
“No!” Emma jumped between her mother and Regina, a sense of deja-vu almost blindsiding her. “She just saved his life!”
“That’s impossible!” Snow scoffed. “Magic only ever harms!”
“Snow,” the king said placatingly. “It’s true. Regina just saved Henry.”
“Even if she did,” Snow said. “Magic is an offense punishable by death in our realm.”
“Since when?!” Emma shouted.
“Since this morning,” Snow replied evenly.
Several sets of bewildered eyes turned to the queen, only Regina looked around the room for a means of escape. She knew how this was going to end, and she refused to give Emma’s mother the satisfaction of putting her on trial. If she was even planning on doing that, given that she had brought a whole cadre of guards, and also had a bow and arrows slung around her shoulders.
“You just made a new law?” the king asked, sounding like he couldn’t believe it.
“I’ve decreed many things today, yes,” Snow retorted. She turned to Regina who was still shielded by Emma. “You should come quietly,” she suggested. “Otherwise I’d have to use force.” She took her bow from her shoulders and held it in one hand, still relaxed, but ready to raise it in an instant.
Emma swallowed hard when she got a good look at the bow and the quiver at the mother’s hip. They were a family heirlooms; they had been King Leopold’s. Instinctively, she took a step closer to the queen, both arms raised. “Mother,” she said, using a word she hadn’t uttered in years. “Please, don’t do this.”
Regina watched as Snow’s face seemed to harden even more. Her gaze went around the room again and finally fell on Ethelgard who had slipped around everyone else and had made her way towards a large window that led out to a balcony. She watched as the cook unlatched the window and pushed it open before giving Regina an encouraging smile.
Regina watched as the queen raised the bow and nocked an arrow, and the sight of it caused a rush of panic as memories raced through her. Adrenaline pumped through her body, bringing with it the urge to run. She pressed herself against Emma’s back for a too brief moment, her only chance of a goodbye, and whispered a brief, “I’m sorry,” before launching herself onto the bed and over the head of the surrounding guards with an unnatural, magically enhanced grace and height. She sprinted through the window and launched herself off the balcony’s ledge, her body transforming as soon as she was airborne. The wind even managed to almost drown out Emma’s anguished cry of her name, and Snow’s enraged shriek.
Regina headed straight for the forest, only too sure that the burst of adrenaline that had allowed her to escape would not carry her much further before she crashed. Even now she could feel her strength waning at an alarming rate, and she was beginning to see spots before her eyes. There, the glade where they had first sat down the day before. With a final burst of strength Regina dove down and managed to get close to the glade before losing consciousness and falling the rest of the way, crashing through the trees like a stone.
A murder of crows flew up where she crashed before settling down again, surrounding the downed dragon.
Everyone in the room was too stunned to react for several long moments before Snow screamed in rage and ran after Regina, which was what got Emma out of her stunned stupor.
“Mother, no!” she yelled when she saw that Queen Snow drew back the arrow and took aim.
Emma sprinted for the balcony and lunged for her mother, knocking her to the ground and the arrow off course. It fell harmlessly to the ground below. The queen let out an enraged, bloodcurdling scream before scrambling to her feet and running back into the room. “Guards!” she shouted. “After her! Whoever brings me proof of the dragon’s death receives a year’s pay and promotion to Knight of the Realm. It seems Ser Emma is no longer interested in the position.”
The guards shared a look, before one finally decided to be the first to follow the command and ran out the door, quickly followed by the rest, and — at a more sedate pace — the queen.
Emma ignored all of that, busy as she was watching the dragon fly away into the direction they had come from. She watched as Regina lost height, stared in horror as the magnificent dragon seemed to stumble in the air, and screamed when she saw her crash down in the forest. “Noooooo!”
She fell to her knees on the balcony, her eyes staring unseeingly into the distance until a hand on her shoulder brought her out of her dark fears. “You should go find her,” Ethelgard suggested. “Before your mother and the guards do.”
Emma only gave her a blank stare.
“Even if she’s dead,” Ethelgard added, “which I don’t believe until I see it with my own eyes,” she added quickly when she saw the look of loss in Emma’s eyes. “Even then it would be better if you found her first, wouldn’t you agree, Lady Emma?”
With a nod, Emma slowly got on her feet and slowly walked back into the room. In there, she was greeted by a sight that would have had her overjoyed a mere hour ago but now simply brought forth a small but happy and sincere smile. Henry was sitting up in his bed, talking to his grandfather, another unexpected sight. Emma had assumed the king would have run after his wife as was his custom.
“Mom!” Henry’s excited shout made Emma jog towards his bedside. “You’re home!”
“Yes, I am, my little prince,” she whispered as she pulled him into a fierce hug which he returned in equal measure. “I’m so glad you’re okay now,” she rasped, emotion clogging her throat. “So glad.”
“Me too,” her son squeaked, and Emma loosened her hold a little. “Grandpa said your friend healed me?”
Emma shared a look with her father, who shrugged as if to say well, she did. “Yes, Henry,” she replied with a smile. “Regina helped you … and now I need to go and help her.”
“Why?” he asked curiously. “Is she sick as well?”
“She is,” Emma nodded with watery eyes. “And if I don’t go and help her, she’ll die.” If she’s not already dead yet. Or if mother and her guards don’t find her first. “Do you understand?”
“I want to go with you, Mom,” Henry nodded. “I’m feeling much better and you might need me to help your friend.”
“You just recovered from a serious illness, Henry,” Emma denied his plea. “You can’t come with me … It’s much too dangerous.”
“But I’m your squire,” he insisted with a pout.
Emma smiled sadly. She had assumed Henry had forgotten the games they used to play, with Emma as the valiant knight and Henry as her equally valiant squire. “I know, Henry,” she whispered. “But you were hurt and you need to get all better before we can go on another adventure.” One that would take them far, far away from this castle that she couldn’t stay in. “All right?”
Henry nodded reluctantly, his pout still as prominent as ever on his face.
Emma hugged her son again, then got to her feet beside her father. “Could you …”
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” King David promised. “Now go!”
Emma sprinted to her quarters to fetch her weapons and her shield, then made for the stables. There were almost no guards around and those that were studiously ignored her, pretending to be too busy with their cuirasses or gauntlets to notice her. She saddled the first horse she found, then flew out of the castle as if the very devil were after her.
She rode straight for the forest, keeping her eyes open for her mother’s guards, not to mention her mother herself, although she could hardly believe she would join in the hunt. But before last night she also would never have believed her mother could be anything but a fair or level-headed ruler, so she had no idea what to believe anymore.
She spotted some of the guards combing through the edge of the forest on foot, so she veered off to take the long way round, making the best of the fact that she knew these woods better than anyone, including all the shortcuts and obstacles. She also knew where Regina had been headed once she realized that she wasn’t going to be able to keep flying, or so Emma hoped at least.
She raced along the tree line until she was closer to the glade, then cut through the trees down a little-known path, hoping to avoid the guards that way. She hadn't been riding for more than a few minutes when suddenly the smell of smoke and fire was in the air, which could only mean one thing.
Regina was fighting for her life.
She spurred on the horse and pushed on, uncaring of the branches in her way, her shield held high to protect her body. The horse was neighing in complaint but Emma paid it no mind, urging it on, urging it closer to the cacophonous sounds she could now hear.
Regina knew it was over. If she were honest, she had known from the very start of this journey that she wouldn't return. The curse was sapping her strength and her magic, making recovery difficult, and if the curse's leeching of her body's energy wouldn't kill her, there was no shortage of enemies surrounding her now.
She had resigned herself to her death a long time ago, but the part of her that was all dragon, fierce and powerful, refused to give up. If she had to die, the dragon would do it fighting, not whimpering like the mighty dragonslayer Leopold had done. He had even soiled his breeches, Regina remembered in disgust, and that was definitely not how she was going to end.
If she had to die, she'd do it honorably, and in a way that would allow Emma to remember her fondly, and would bring pride to her family.
Emma burst into the glade at full speed and pulled hard at the reins when she took in the scene. Regina was lying at the far side of the clearing, still in dragon form, her back pressed against a couple of trees, her wings held in front of her like the sides of a large cloak to protect her vulnerable belly. She was surrounded by a huge murder if crows — if Emma had to estimate she'd say there were at least a hundred — which were busy flying interference between the dragon and the approaching guard.
"STOP!" Emma yelled at the top of her lungs as she approached the front of the line. "Stop!"
The guard captain raised his hand and echoed her command. When the soldiers were frozen in line, he turned to Emma who was just dismounting. "Ser Emma!" He called out. "What is the meaning of this? Our orders are to kill the dragon."
"Graham, please," Emma urged as she recognized the man under his helmet. She hadn't seen him since her return and automatically smiled at her old friend. "That dragon is a good friend of mine."
Graham almost dropped his sword. "A ... friend?" He stared from Emma to the dragon and back. "The queen said the dragon was Yolbriidur."
"Would you believe me if I said it was complicated?" Emma asked sardonically, her eyes trained on Regina, who seemed to be panting and having trouble getting enough air into her body. "Can you send your man back to the castle, please?"
Graham sighed. "The queen promised them a great reward, Emma." He sounded apologetic. "I'm not sure my word holds that much weight."
"And they were told that I'm not their Knight of the Realm any longer, so they won't listen to me either."
Emma eyed the group of soldiers around them. She knew most of them well, had trained with them, lived with them, shared the barracks with them, but she knew better than most that at least half them harbored a great deal of resentment for her, if for nothing but the fact that she was a woman in a man's place. And the rest, well ... she had beaten most of them at one thing or another and they would gladly take any chance to pay her back for that.
Unconsciously, Emma shifted into a battle stance before nodding at Graham and turning to the assembled guard. "Men," she addressed them firmly. "You all know me, know what I'm capable of. So listen closely to what I'm telling now: If you want to kill my friend, you'll have t—"
"You might as well save your breath, Emma," the queen's voice rang out through the clearing, and Emma watched as her mother walked through the ranks of the guard which parted for her like the sea. "They will never go against my command," she stated evenly, her warning gaze wandering along the rank and file. When the queen was standing right in front of Emma, she added, her voice low and cold, "And neither should you."
"Mother," Emma tried once more to reason with the queen who seemed hell-bent on killing Regina. "Please leave us alone. Regina has done nothing but save Henry's life since she came here."
This caused a murmur in the group of soldiers, and Graham looked particularly disturbed. The queen, however, was not impressed. "The use of magic in this realm is forbidden," she snarled.
"Even if it was used to save the heir to the throne?"
“Of course," Queen Snow replied. "Anything else would not be fair, would it?"
The guards nodded, although some of them seemed to look a little perturbed.
"Enough talking," Queen Snow continued calmly as she drew her bow and took the last remaining arrow out of her quiver. She took a few steps towards Regina, Emma hot on her heels. “Do you know what this is?” she asked Regina, lifting her bow. “This is my father’s bow, and this,” she presented the arrow, “is the last of his arrows.” She looked at Emma. “Fitting, isn’t it?”
Emma looked at Regina and met those big, dark dragon eyes with her own. There was anguish in those eyes, but also resignation, and Emma knew without a doubt that Regina would not fight anymore.
“Goodbye, Yolbriidur, scourge of the White Lands.”
Snow nocked the arrow and drew her hand back towards her ear as she took aim. The crows around Regina hovered in the air as time seemed to stand still. Emma sprinted for Regina and threw herself between her and the arrow’s path just as her mother let it fly.
“No!” Emma screamed, echoed by her mother’s tormented scream when her arrow headed straight for her daughter.
Regina roared and tried to nudge Emma out of the way but the knight wouldn’t budge. “I can’t let her kill you,” Emma shouted, the last word turning into a scream as the arrow embedded itself deep in Emma’s shoulder.
Regina screamed with rage and sorrow as Emma slumped against her body. Without her conscious command her body transformed and she pulled the injured knight into her arms. “You idiot,” she rasped. “You should have let her kill me.”
“Couldn’t,” Emma croaked, the curse on the arrow causing more damage than the comparatively minor wound should. She felt herself going fast but there was one more thing she needed Regina to know. “Love …you.”
Regina sobbed as she pulled Emma even closer and pressed their lips together in a desperate kiss.
The white light that spread out from them both flattened every single person in the glade and caused the murder of crows to protest loudly and rise into the air as one.
Regina felt light as the curse was lifted from her body, her strength returning quickly. “The curse,” she breathed against Emma’s lips. “Emma, it’s gone. You broke the curse.”
Emma felt her own strength returning and winced when the wound in her shoulder now became the predominant problem. “Ouch,” she muttered. “I did? I mean … we did?”
Regina nodded, a wide smile on her face. “You sacrificed yourself for me,” she whispered. “An act of true love.”
Emma nodded, then waggled her eyebrows. “Or, you know,” she said with a grin. “It could have been the kiss. You could admit that you love me, too.”
Regina leaned in to kiss Emma again. “I could, I suppose,” she murmured. “But I think I don’t have to.”
“S’okay, I know what I need to know,” Emma sighed. “Regina?”
“I think I should see Doc now.”
“Yes, if you think you have to.”
“Or you could heal me,” Emma suggested.
Regina smiled and held up the arrow. “What do you think I’ve been doing while we were talking, dear?” She poked Emma in the shoulder for good measure.
“Have I mentioned that your magic is awesome?” Emma smiled. Then she turned serious. “Thank you for saving Henry … really, thank you.”
“Most welcome. Should we go see him before I leave?”
“You’re leaving?” Emma gasped, even though she knew it was coming.
“You know I have to,” Regina replied sadly.
“Yeah.” Emma slowly got to her feet and looked around the glade as the outside world intruded on their moment with noise and talking. She saw the soldiers getting to their feet, and so was her mother. Emma turned back to Regina, a sneer on her face. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“Come on,” Regina said before transforming into the dragon, the process going even faster now that her body wasn’t affected by the curse any longer. She smiled darkly when she saw the open-mouthed stares of the soldiers as the woman turned back into the feared dragon Yolbriidur. Maybe some of them would change the stories they were telling about her now.
Emma climbed onto Regina’s back and together they took off, leaving behind a queen and her soldiers still too stunned by what they had witnessed to stop them.
Regina had firm plans to be far away from the castle by the time Queen Snow remembered she hated dragons. And magic. With a snarl, she twitched one of her claws and watched with a glint in her eyes as a storm cloud gathered over the glade and proceeded to douse the people on the ground in a torrential rain.
Emma smiled all the way to her son’s room, and the smile only got wider when Henry hugged her, and then, tentatively, also hugged Regina and started asking her a million and one questions about her dragon form.
The king cleared his throat and smiled, pretending not to notice the witch in the room.
Ethelgard smiled at the sound of running feet on the castle stones. “No running, little prince!” she yelled, but there was a smile in her voice.
“Mom says I’m not a prince any longer,” Henry replied, poking his head around the door.
“You’ll always be a prince,” Granny reminded him. “Maybe just one without a throne. Besides, squires need to behave, too.”
“What’s for dinner?” Henry changed the subject.
“Ruby here caught some very nice fish, so that’s what we’re having, young man. Want to help us?”
“Sure,” he shrugged. “I hope the snow stops soon … I don’t want to be cooped up inside here so much.”
“You could always find a good book in the library and read,” Ethelgard suggested.
“Or do your studies,” Ruby added, although she didn’t look like she was being serious.
To the women’s surprise, Henry blushed a deep shade of red.
Ruby burst out laughing. “Oh, poor boy,” she chortled. “Did you enter without knocking again while your mothers were doing research?”
Henry brightened even more. “I just wanted to see how their research is going … I don’t understand why they can’t ever lock the doors,” he mumbled. “It’s not like Regina would even have to get up to do it.”
“You’re too young to understand,” Ruby replied. “But sometimes you just … stop thinking about things like that.”
“All the time?” he complained.
The three women nodded. They all had learned the hard way that opening a door without knocking could lead to seeing more than they ever wanted to see of either Regina or Emma.
Well, Ruby actually didn’t mind all that much. It had been an interesting two years at the castle on the mountain.
Just then, the subjects of their conversation burst into the room with huge smiles on their faces. Actually, Emma was grinning wildly, brandishing a tome from the library.
“We’ve done it!” Emma shouted.
Ethelgard, Ruby and Granny snorted. “We know,” Granny said through her laughter.
Regina rolled her eyes. “I swear I have no idea why I’m keeping you three around most days.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Granny replied.
“That’s all nice and good,” Emma interrupted, sounding like a puppy needed to show them something exciting. “Regina’s found it! The recipe for the elixir!”
“You mean you’ve finally found a way to turn Mom into a dragon, too?” Henry gasped. “Wow, that’s fantastic!”
“It’s not quite like that,” Regina explained. “But …”
“But at least I won’t keel over dead while Regina hasn’t aged more than a few days in the upcoming years,” Emma added.
“Can I have that, too?” Henry asked.
“We can talk about that when you’re older, my little prince,” Regina said diplomatically. “You’re way too young to stop aging, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be 12 for the rest of their life,” Ruby shuddered.
“So when are you going to start making that elixir?” Ethelgard asked.
“As soon as we have all the ingredients,” Emma replied.
“Which of course is not quite as easy as our rambunctious knight here makes it sound, right?” Ruby asked Regina.
“Not quite, no.”
“Hey, it’s another adventure,” Emma shrugged. “It won’t be easy but …”
But, Ethelgard thought with a smile as she looked at the family gathered in her kitchen — fine, the kitchen she and Granny fought over every day — they were all happy.
And that, after all, was everything.