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The Boar And The Bear

Chapter Text

 

 

BEAR [bair]:The Bear is considered the greatest of all beasts, and are held sacred to Thor. Bears are considered to be similar in personality and temperament to humans as they are intelligent, curious, highly adaptable, brazen and persistent creatures, with an innate awareness of fairness and honour. A common favorite of berserkers and shape shifters, the Bear is often the totem spirit of those who are extraordinarily strong of body, mind, and soul.

 

BOAR [bawr, bohr]:Linked to both Freyr and Frejya, the boar is traditionally associated with protection from harm. As an warriors' symbol, its body often formed the crest on helmets representing a potent sign of protection and ferocity in battle. The Wild Boar is the mightiest of the totem animals of the Vanir. The Boar first taught mankind the arts of agriculture by showing us how to plough the Earth before "sowing" seeds by rooting up the ground with his tusks.

 

DRAGON (or SERPENT) [drag-uh n] [sur-puh nt]:

The mighty Dragon (Serpent) is the dweller of the burial mound, and the physical and psychic embodiment the Earth’s natural powers of fertility. Representative of natural electromagnetic Earth energy, pictured as slithering across the skin of the earth. As the great serpent guardian of gold, the Dragon (Serpent) has been closely associated with unseen power, fertility, protection and esoteric wisdom.

 

High Castle, Kingdom of The Enchanted Forest - 28 Years Earlier, 3AM

'Just once more,  My Queen and all will be calm,' spoke the midwife soothingly. 

Bearing down, the woman, already drenched in sweat, pushed with all of her might in front of the fire.  Her suffering was rewarded with the strong cry of a new child....but she was not done.

'You must be strong, My Queen,' startled the midwife in amazement, 'Just one more time...there is another....'

Bearing down again, the Queen soon gave birth to a second child, smaller than the other, but with as strong and ferocious a cry.

Her work done, the Queen lay back against the pillow as she wept of exhaustion and joy. Soon, the babes were brought to her side and, so absorbed was she with her newborn children,  that she did not notice the raven that had flown from its perch on her sill and headed off to distant lands with its cries of warning and foreboding....

 

Skloss, Kingdom of Uvihr - Present Day, 3AM

The High Queen arose from her restless sleep, throwing on her heavy dressing gown to shield herself from the cold drafts that lingered and swirled about the rooms and corridors of the bastion that had been her temporary accommodations for the past fortnight.

The fire barely glowed in the coals of the hearth and she determined that a flogging would be given to the servant that had allowed it to die so low.

Stepping to the window, she could see a heavy snow swirling outside the diamond shaped panes of the window, collecting deep on the sill and sparkling in the light of the full moon that hung low and red in the sky.

She'd had disturbing dreams.  The boar and the bear had walked as equals through a darkened forest portending an alliance of strength and fertility, ferocity and protection.  In its mouth, the boar carried the lifeless, great serpent who guarded and protected the gold of the Kingdom, tossing the body in a clearing bathed in the white light of the moon.

The cold wind whipped at the High Queen's body and face as she opened the glass shutters, but she no longer noticed or cared; her ears had heard the cry of the eagle.  

Walking to the dressing table, she scratched a few words upon a piece of parchment before returning to the window.  Holding out her hand, a raven appeared from nowhere to land upon her wrist.  It was but a moment before it had taken flight again, messaged attached to its leg.

She watched with a scowl on her lips until she could see the bird no more, then called sharply to the Commander of the Guard, who entered the room immediately.  She relayed swift, but sure, orders, and he left at once to carry out her command as she gathered her items to return to her own castle.

 

The Forests of Ravndal, Kingdom of Uvihr - Present Day, 3AM

The old Master lay awake pondering his dream.  

In a darkened forest, the boar and the bear had walked as equals.  In its mouth, the boar carried a lifeless, great serpent which it spat into a clearing bathed in the white light of the moon.

Turning his head, the Master looked to the other side of the small hut where his apprentice slumbered, undisturbed.

His eyes grew heavy after only a few moments, but snapped wide again when he heard, distinctly, the eagle's cry.   Pulling himself quickly from bed,  he moved to the wooden table in front of the fire where he scratched a few words onto a piece of parchment before opening the raven's cage so that it might hop out to perform its work. It watched him curiously, turning its head this way and that as the Master secured the parchment to its leg.

'Fly swift and sure.  You know the way, ' he encouraged as he opened the window.  Lifting the raven, he placed it on the sill. 

'You must not fail, ' were the last words spoken by the Master as he watched the bird fly off into the night.

Turning back to the cluttered table, he placed his hands upon the top and bowed his head. 

Now, he had only to wait....

 

Chapter Text

High Castle, Kingdom of The Enchanted Forest - Slightly Less Than 28 Years Earlier

An almost deafening explosion was heard as the boulder launched from the trebuchet found its mark against the castle wall, impacting directly outside the throne room.   

The resulting tremors rattled the King to his core and he was brought to his knees in the ensuing shower of stone and rubble.  He reached out blindly, searching and grasping with desperate hands through a fog of dust which was hanging thick in the aftermath.  

As the opaque veil lifted, his searching eyes found his wife, the Queen, face down, half buried in the rubble that now lay thickly on the once pristine and grand floor that had, over their years, hosted royalty from kingdoms far and wide.  They were  benevolent rulers, adored by their people and well allied with those around them.

As such, the ferocity and source of the attack was a bewilderment to the King, but he had no time to ponder it.

Slowly rising to his feet, the King bothered not to look down or recognize his own injuries. His sole focus was his wife and his Queen, and he stumbled to where she lay, falling once again to his knees beside her.  Grasping her with gentle hands, he turned her over as a lover would do in the evening twilight seeking one last connection with their beloved before the envelope of sleep would take them both.

As he turned her, the Queen's eyes fluttered open and a small groan escaped her lips. She was battered and bruised and the King knew that the extent of her injuries was severe as he watched the trickle of blood fall from the corner of her mouth and ear, yet she smiled gently at him.

With great effort, she lifted her arm and cupped his bearded cheek tenderly in her hand.   Despite her immense pain she tried valiantly to maintain the soft smile that she had reserved all of her life only for him, her King, her husband, her children's father and her one true love.   Her steadfastness in maintaining her poise was tested more than a few times, evidenced but fluttering eyelids and a few gasped breaths as she fought hard to control the excruciating pain.

She knew that even their immense powers could not cheat the death that was riding in with too swift wings.  

'My King,' was her breathy salutation as she felt his hand cover her own and keep it firmly against his cheek.  The dust that covered her delicate fingers was quickly becoming marred by tiny rivulets that were created by her husband's devastated tears.

'I am nothing more than your humble servant, My Queen.  I have been since the day you thought me worthy of your glance and kind words,' whispered the King in reply through trembling lips.

'We are equals, no more, no less,' replied the Queen raggedly in an effort to bring him a modicum of comfort and to assure him that he would have the strength to carry out what they both knew she would ask.

'You must protect them, Henry; especially her. She is first born only by moments, but the throne is rightfully hers and I sense in her a greatness and power and gentleness such as this land has never known.  Her brother is strong, but he has not this potential.  He will realize that someday and the jealousy will fester in him like a canker such that his judgement will be impaired.  They must be protected.... from themselves and from others who wish to do them harm...'

'I still cannot believe that a son born of you could be so malevolent as you describe. He is but an innocent babe and a rambuncous youth, as much, but no more than his sister. 

Then again, you have always had a gift of foresight and judge of character far superior to mine.  I will do as you have asked, Eva.....' trailed off Henry sadly.

They had spoken of this before. The words were not foreign to his ears, nor was the evidence to his eyes.  Even at four years old, there was a quickness of wit, a keen empathy and a fire of spirit that Henry could see clearly in his daughter.  Their son had but a shadow of those traits.  In fact, Henry would often argue that it was their son, not their daughter that needed protection, but his wife firmly insisted that the darkness of envy was both timeless and unaffected by the bonds of family.  They must be careful.

'Your friends and family may well become your enemies, Henry.  Do not turn your back for too long, or you will feel the stab of their betrayal....'

The last words were said through clenched teeth and the Queen arched her back from the ground trying to draw a breath,

'I will always love you, Henry,' she whispered through a final, gurgling exhale, 'now...go...to...them....'

As these final words were spoken, the King felt the Queen's body relax against the floor.  Her hand pulled from his as the weight of her arm drew it downwards and he held it strongly, guiding it to lay atop the velvet gown that molded itself perfectly to her flawless form.  

Her eyes had closed and her full lips had parted only slightly.  

Had he not been witness to the previous events, he would have simply thought her sleeping, but her chest rose and fell no more.

Wrapping strong arms around his wife's body, the King cradled and rocked her as if soothing a child, but his mourning was short-lived as a blood curdling cry rang out in the corridor behind him.

'PAPPPPAAAA!'

Jumping to his feet and spinning around, the King quickly located the source of anguish.  

Approximately two thirds of the way down the hall, and moving swiftly in the opposite direction, he could see his three year old daughter struggling to free herself from the vice-like grip of a monstrous heathen that sought to imprison her.  Arms outstretched over her captor's shoulder, her green eyes were wide with terror as they implored the King, her father, to save her.

Her captor was Viking, of that, the King was certain.  The runes that covered his filthy, scarred leather breast and backplate were the same style as those that the King had studied with great interest on many a night; captured in metal around the edge of an enormous shield which had been a gift from a far away land.  He had often wondered at the size of the warrior that would be able to wield that size an object.  Now, he knew.

In an instant, he recalled all of the other tales he had been told.   The Vikings were a vicious people whose main objective was the attainment of wealth at any cost of life.  They travelled as far as their ships would take them, seeking their treasure. They attacked without provocation or warning, and no army was considered too strong.  They were indescriminate in their selection of target.   The world was their enemy and, wherever they went, they left death, fear and destruction in their wake. 

The King hesitated only a moment more  before sprinting down the corridor after them, calling his guards to him as he ran, but only a few heeded his call. Most lay dying or dead; casualties of a war they had neither anticipated nor instigated.  

Unwilling to wait for the others to amass, the King sprinted ahead, trying to keep up with his quarry who was surprisingly quick despite his size.  He followed every twist and turn, unable to gain ground but unwilling to lose it either.  

Rounding the last corner, he recogized the corridor.  It led to the main courtyard and the door stood agape, pressed hard against the outside wall by the howling wind. Bursting into the courtyard, he had barely a glimpse of his daughter through the thundering, beating rain.

She was bound and thrown over the back of a jet-black Belgian Draught, no doubt the spoil of a different conflict, but well suited to the size and weight of its rider.

'PAAAAAPPPPPPAAAAA!!!' Was the last word heard by the King before the entourage was consumed by an impenetrable darkness.

Falling to his knees for the third time, the King cried out in reply to an unlistening darkness,

'EMMMMMMAAAAA!'

before burying his face in his hands and weeping. He had lost his wife and his daughter and a promise was broken. He would never forgive himself.

Chapter Text

Ravndal, Kingdom of Uvhir - Less Than One Year Ago

 

'GIRL!!' bellowed the lone occupant of the broad table that sat in the center of the hut. 

His scarred and haggard visage was accented and shadowed by the flames of the fire that burned low at the far side of the room.  It would be stoked later to prepare the evening meal.  For now, however, it was left untended, allowing only some meager light into the otherwise dark and windowless space.

Five, crude benches, which served as both seats and beds, lined the walls and were heaped with furs.  Chests containing clothes were arranged by each while the bare essentials needed for cooking or hunting hung on the walls.  Only a small bit of privacy was offered by a partial wall at one end of the hut.  It shielded a view of the more luxurious straw and fur bed of the head of house and his wife though it did very little to contain their sounds.

He was an older man, but still heavily muscled for his age.  His red and grey streaked hair was frizzy and only partially tamed by the leather strap that gathered it into a ponytail at the base of his neck. His beard, equivalently colored, was similarly gathered and hanged to his chest.  Steel blue, beady eyes shifted about nervously in anticipation of danger, though he knew there to be none. It was a habit of years and it had served him well.  

His tunic was simple and sleeveless extending to mid thigh.  It was ingrained with the dirt of a thousand fields, stained eternally with blood and food and cinched at the waist by a wide, leather belt that had been knotted in front.  Heavy leather boots were laced over his similarly stained, but darker, pants, and the tops had been wrapped in muslin and burlap for extra protection.  His hand clenched and released impatiently around the handle of his leather tankard as he awaited the arrival of the one he had called.  

Within moments, a woman of approximately 28 years arrived at the small, side entrance, having been outside tending to her duties in the garden and barn.  Her blonde hair fell in loose waves to her mid back, speckled occasionally with bits of straw that had been swept up by her pitchfork.   Her face was comely, but smudged with dirt from her labours and her cheeks showed a faint glow of colour from her exertion.  Beautiful green eyes were offset by thick blonde lashes and well shaped brows and she chewed her full, pink lower lip nervously, twisting her mouth slightly and looking meekly at the floor, as she waited for the man to speak again.

'You will do well to make haste when you are called', barked the man as he slammed the tankard angrily onto the table to emphasize the point, 'I am not to be ignored or left waiting.  Do you understand?'

'Yes, Papa,' said the woman, barely above a whisper, in a Scandic tongue that had always felt so foreign as it passed over her lips and tongue.  

For as hulking as the man was, the woman was quite the opposite.  Her simple, over-sized red dress and cream coloured apron hung to the floor and fell loosely over an almost emaciated frame.  She had very little muscle or tone despite her constant labor, distinguishing her from all of the other women her age (who had grown strong and hearty) and making her the constant target of ridicule and bullying of her four brothers.  Both her body and face bore the marks of their punishment, with a fresh bruise presently erupting on her cheek and eye from their latest encounter.  

Her mother had afforded her some meager protection from their harmful attentions, but that had ended upon her death the previous winter.  Now she was treated only with hatred or ignored completely.  She preferred the latter, but it was typically less common than the former.  She was so different, even among her family, that she often wondered if she even belonged with them at all. 

'Agni needs the help of other hands at his shop.  

My sons are too busy preparing for war to be bothered with such matters, so I will send you in their stead. 

You will do all that he asks and do it well.  I will not hear of sloth or defiance.  You will go there in the early morning and return before supper. You will feed us and will do your chores by moonlight, if need be.  

Nothing will fail, or so help me, the wrath of Odin will be upon you.  Have I spoken clear enough for your ears, Girl?' insisted the old man.

'Yes, Papa,' was the simple, demure answer.

'Now go!  'Tis already high morning and you are late.  You will be lucky to avoid a beating, if you make haste.  And forget not your other duties, ' he finished coldly with a scowl, 'or ye will suffer a worse fate at home.'

Turning on her heel, the woman exited quickly through the side door from which she came.  She had barely made it five feet from the hut when a strong blow to stomach doubled her over and brought her to her knees.  As she collapsed, she realized that the attacker had been one of her brothers who had been lying, out of sight, in wait for her.  Soon, he was joined by the remaining three brothers who were, by this time, laughing heartily at her expense.

'Stand and fight, Thorinsdottir, ' started the first brother boldly, 'show yourself to be a warrior of this clan and not just a black mark on our father's good name.'

Slowly, the woman sighed and rose to her feet.  She was still unsteady and nauseated from the force of the blow. Her movements were sluggish and her eyes were slow to focus.  She was no match for one, let alone all, of her brothers, but she needed to see this through or a similar fate would await at the shop.  She must be on her way. 

She raised her fists feebly in defense, marking the start of their engagement.  She could only hope for a quick end to this torment.  It was only a moment before she was again on the ground.  This time, blood ran from her lip and nose and the bruise from earlier was extended further down her cheek. She tried to press herself up on her hands, but her shaking arms gave way, sending her face first into the mud, straw and excrement that lined the walkway. 

'Our father would do well to disown you, ' started the eldest brother, 'lucky for you, he is more patient and forgiving than I.  If you are still here upon his death, I will cast you out myself.'   He ended by spitting thickly upon her back and walking away.  Each of the brother's took their turn in doing the same, enforcing the point by cleaning their muddied boots upon her back and leaving her to lie in the dirt while they wandered off to laze about in the warm, spring sun.

She allowed herself to recover for only a moment more before pulling herself to her feet.  Using the fence as a crutch, she exited the garden slowly, limping slightly, and started down the road towards town.

 


 

It took almost a half hour to finally reach the village, even at a half sprint, and the woman prayed that her punishment would not be too severe. 

Working her way through the throng of patrons, she made her way to one of the larger stalls where a large oven and extended hearth threw enormous heat into the surrounding air.  Swords, spears, shields and helmets hung from the rafters in various stages of construction along with leather tackle and armor.  

She entered through a small opening in the back-right side of the stall.  She recognized Agni, but she dared not approach.  He was speaking to several customers, so she waited silently to be acknowledged, head bowed and arms hugging her middle.  She had become comfortable in her silence and anonymity when a strong voice broke through her reverie.

'You there! Why do you enter my shop in so familiar a manner? Explain yourself!' 

Immediately, the woman looked up to see several sets of eyes observing her.  The most disconcerting were those of Agni who had a fire of threat behind his glare.  The others looked on merely to observe the outcome of the ensuing banter. 

As large, if not larger than her father, Agni stood with his muscled, hairy arms crossed over his chest awaiting an answer.  His face was wrinkled from a combination of exposure, toil and age with each crease and crevasse filled to capacity with soot and dirt.  His long grey hair was tamed with oil, grime and a leather band, as was his beard, to prevent it being singed by fires in which he worked. His dress was similar to her father's, but his tunic had been cut open to counteract the excessive heat and stifling conditions of the stall, exposing a healthy thicket of grey hair upon his chest and upper stomach.

The woman opened her mouth to speak, but found that no words would come. 

'Answer me woman before you feel my true wrath!'

Finding her voice, the woman replied barely above a whisper, 'I-I am Th-Thorinsdottir.  H-He has s-sent me to y-your aid.'

The malice in Agni's eyes was quickly replaced by mirth and the air filled with booming laughter as he considered the woman's words.  Collecting himself, he turned to his patrons, announcing loudly,

'We may no longer trust Thorin's keen eyes and judgment.  I have asked for the aid of a strong back and he has instead sent me this half-dead mouse!!!'

A wave of laughter erupted from his patrons.  Sensing his support, he continued,

'At least if he is to send me a maiden, she should be kind to my eyes, not drive me to the drink!'

Again, the peels of laughter erupted from the crowd, but the woman held firm. Ridicule, played out at her expense, was not unknown or uncommon.  Eventually they would tire and get to the nature of their business.  She must complete her requested duties and get home before the sup.

Eventually, the laughter did die and the patrons wandered away, leaving Agni and the woman alone.  Stepping closer to her, he allowed his eyes to wander freely over her body.  She was scrawny, but her breasts were pert and she was young.  While she would be of no real use to him in the shop, there might be a time when she would provide a different kind of assistance, allowing him to save some of the money that he typically gave to the tired, worn-out, too-familiar whores.

'You will take that bundle of swords from the well,' he said motioning with his finger towards a trough of water, ' and move them to the table in the back to dry.  Make haste, I have another set ready from the oven and they must be cooled straightaway,' he finish gruffly as he moved to the hearth to extract the new batch.

Leaning over the trough, the woman submerged her arms up to her shoulders in the warm water, drenching the bodice of her dress in the process.  Scooping up the pile, she lifted.  Initially, the true weight of the load was masked by the assistance of the water.  As the bundle broke the surface and was pulled over the edge of the trough, however, the full nature of her burden became apparent.  Stepping back quickly to counteract the weight and to prevent being pulled head first into the fetid water, her heel found a deep rivet in the uneven ground.  Falling backwards, she was hit with the full weight of the metal across her chest and stomach as her arms raised to shield her face.  Thankfully, the edges were dull, having not yet been honed by the grinding wheel, still, they bruised and broke the surface of her skin in more than one place.

"Stupid, useless girl,' screamed Agni as he turned to investigate the cause of the commotion.  Lumbering over, he grasped the hilts of 5 swords in each hand, lifting the weight from her body and allowing her to breathe.  Throwing the swords, they found their mark, clattering to the table.

'Be gone from my sight! 

Take this hand wagon and collect the stone from the forest to keep the fires.  Do not return until the cart is laden down with their weight and your back is breaking.  I must have time to think on what to do with you.'

Agni waved his hand in the air in dismissal.  Cautiously, the woman stepped past, taking hold of the cart and wheeling it out of the stall and into the wood as commanded.

Chapter Text

The Spring sun filtered through the leaves and boughs of the tall trees, and the blonde woman stopped the wooden barrow, settling the stilts onto the ground.  Closing her eyes, she allowed her head to fall back gently so that her face looked towards the sky.  She smiled despite herself as she enjoyed the warmth on her face and the soft sounds that surrounded her: the rustling of leaves, the scampering of a squirrel, the trill whistles of the birds that pierced the air occasionally.....

Despite the vastness and unfamiliarity of this part of the wood, she felt safe and reveled quietly in the solitude and temporary freedom that the forest offered from the burdens of her existence. 

Aside from the slowly increasing effort needed to move the weight of the barrow, the work was menial and easy and she allowed her mind to wander as she walked.  

Her thoughts were filled with stories that had been recounted by the elders of Ravndal since before she was born; tales of far-off lands, of Kings and Queens, of powerful magics, of lands where mythical creatures dwelled together among the trees of the forest.  

She had always enjoyed the stories, though she doubted any part of them were steeped in truth or fact.  Still, she could hope that places such as this actually existed....even if only in her mind.

So consumed was she by her recounting of those stories that she hadn't realized how far she had ventured into the forest.  She wasn't lost, but she had a long journey back to the village.  

Looking up, she could see that the sun had already moved past its apex and every minute of the remaining daylight would be needed to return and unload the cart before running home to prepare the dinner and finish her chores.

Shaking off the last vestiges of her daydreams, the woman turned the cart around, gathering the last few stones from the forest floor and tossing them into the cradle of the barrow.  Lifting the handles, she could now move the cart only one to two hundred meters at a time before stopping to catch her breath and relieve her arms.

She had made steady progress for the last half hour.  The brambled, forest path had widened into a slightly more travelled road and followed the bank and curve of a nearby stream which gurgled along lazily. 

Stopping once again to rest, the woman lifted her arm to wipe the beads of sweat that had collected on her brow.  As she did, she heard a sound that wasn't typical of the forest, but was still familiar to her ears. It was an ancient, Nordic melody which she had heard sung more than a few times throughout her years.  Quickly, she looked around to see if she could find the source of the dulcet tones.  Unable to locate the singer, she crept quietly to the edge of the path, hiding behind the trunk of a large Bird-Cherry tree. 

The blossoms in the branches above her were releasing their sweet, soft fragrance into the air signaling the turn of Spring into Summer and the loosened petals trickled down toward the stream on the light breeze.  Placing her hands on the trunk , she shifted only slightly so that she could see down to the water without being seen, and the sight took her breath. 

Fifteen meters ahead, standing naked and partially submerged in water up to her hips was another woman.  Her back was turned to the bank, still, it was evident that she was both slight and strong. 

Dark, brown hair fell to her mid back and the recent dip of her head under the water had pulled it straight between her shoulder blades.

A tattoo ran from the top of the woman's shoulder to the dimple of her hips covering much of the smooth skin of her left back, and, while the blonde woman could not yet see the entire picture, she could tell that the typical bold and strong Norse styling of their kingdom had been tempered and embellished quite beautifully and elegantly with the significant detailing of a very skilled hand.  

She watched mesmerized as the water that had collected momentarily in her thick hair continued down the exposed, olive-colored skin of the woman's back tracing delicate lines over the smooth curves of her upper rear before rejoining the water of the stream.  

She continued singing and humming alternately, oblivious to her audience, as she raised her nicely-toned arms to gather her hair over her shoulder and wring the stubborn remnants of liquid from her locks.  As she did this, her torso twisted slightly and the blonde-haired woman caught her breath as the side of a glistening, firm, ample breast was exposed.  A taut, dark nipple stood at attention, surrounded by a coin of equally rigid skin, while the smooth lines and gentle curves of her flat stomach and curved waist descended elegantly into her shapely hips. 

Fully revealed now was her tattoo of two swans entwined about the neck and embraced by a series of neverending curves and knots.  Between the pair was a series of runes.   They were unreadable by Svanhillde's eyes, but she sensed an amazing depth and meaning:

The woman's face had turned slightly as well revealing a stunning profile.  Closed eyes were surrounded by dark, thick lashes and dark eyebrows that were perfectly coiffed.  Full, red lips were slightly parted, and the blonde woman watched in rapt attention as the darker-haired woman would occasionally trace her tongue over them to moisten and protect them from the sun and breeze. 

In an instant, the blonde-haired woman's head began to spin with emotion that she had never before felt for another and she knew not what it meant.  Feelings of protectiveness, strength, longing and physical attraction swirled about her mind in a beautiful cacophony.  

She had heard stories told of 'love at first sight', and she could not help but wonder if this was what she might be feeling, though she knew that she should not.  A relationship which had no potential to produce another warrior for the clans of the Kingdom was considered unnatural and forbidden.

Who was this woman and how could she have such an effect?  Never had they crossed paths, yet the blonde-haired woman felt as if she had known her for an entire lifetime and beyond.  

The blonde woman became vaguely aware of a warmth coursing very slowly through her body.  The pain that had lingered in her arms and back from her lifetime of labour was slowly being extinguished, while the constant, gnawing feeling of hunger that she carried in her stomach was sated.  Perhaps the woman was a sorceress who had lured her to the water's edge, ensnaring her mind and senses as a precursor to making her a slave. 

She had only a moment to consider the possibility, however, when a voice rang out behind her.

'YOU THERE! WHAT BUSINESS HAVE YOU HERE?!  YOU ARE TRESPASSING IN THE HIGH QUEEN'S WOOD!'

The blonde-haired woman wheeled around quickly to face her accuser.  He was a solid, muscular man of almost 2 meters, dressed in a combination of leather and metal armour that clanged quietly as he shifted his weight.  His head was covered by a rounded, metal helmet with protective side flaps that tied under his bearded chin.  A narrow piece extended down the bridge of his nose and was decorated with the heads and bodies of two, intertwined, Norse dragons leaving only his blue eyes and the tops of his cheeks exposed.  He was almost immediately flanked on his left and right by two other soldiers of similar build and dress.

Confused by the sudden intrusion and the accusations, she opened her mouth several times, trying to find an answer to his question.  

Glancing to her left, she saw the cart filled with stone for the blacksmith's ovens and realized the gravity of her situation.  She had unwittingly taken resources from a forbidden land.  The consequences of her thievery would be dire.  Knowing that her simple admission of ignorance regarding her location would not save her, she remained silent.

'ANSWER ME AT ONCE, WOMAN!  DO YOU NOT SEE THE POSTED SIGNS?' he demanded forcefully as he pointed a finger at the trunk of the tree behind which she had been standing.  

A piece of hide upon which had been scratched a series of runes was held tight against the bark by nails.  Unable to focus, she assumed that the sign simply reinforced the message that he had already so clearly delivered.

Looking right, he finally noticed the cart of stone.

'THIEF!!' He cried as he kicked the barrow hard with his boot, toppling it over and spilling the entire contents onto the road, 'YOU DARE STEAL FROM THE HIGH QUEEN?!?!?'

Stepping forward quickly, he drew a short, leather crop from his belt, raising his arm high as he moved swiftly towards the woman.  He had barely reached the place where she stood when a sharp crack was heard through the trees and the lash of the whip burned across her back cutting the fabric of her dress and drawing blood.  

Falling to her knees, she doubled over in pain, covering her head in an effort to provide herself with, at least, some protection. 

Several cracks followed in quick succession and her mind reeled from the agony of each contact.  Warm blood seeped from the gashes on her back and trickled around her torso, following the dips and ridges of her ribcage before dripping onto the waiting fabric of her dress and apron.  She could only pray that there would soon be an end to this excruciating pain.  She had not long to wait.

"YOU WILL STAND DOWN!" came the calm, but forceful, voice of a woman.

As quickly as the lashes had been given, they were withdrawn and the blonde-haired woman could hear and feel the retreat of the soldier. 

Finally able to catch her breath, she raised her head slowly to look upon her Savior. Bare feet led to smooth, athletic calves and muscular thighs before the line was broken by the covering of a thick fur hide held tight by toned arms wrapped about a slender waist and ample chest.  Raising her eyes further, the blonde-haired woman looked fully upon the face that she had seen before only in profile. 

Beautiful, rich, brown eyes were fixed intently and severely upon the man who had led the accusations of thievery.  Again, the blonde-haired woman felt the surge of warmth through her body and the pain which had threatened to overtake her mind was instantly and fully relieved.

'What is the meaning of this?  We do not punish in this land without fair trial,' stated the woman boldly to the officer.

'M'Lady, she has stolen from the Queen's land.  The evidence is right before us,' he responded, sweeping his arm towards the tipped barrow.

'She gathers stones for warmth and cooking.  There is nothing nefarious in her actions.  She seeks only the comfort which we should be more than willing to offer to any member of our clans, ' came the immediate response.

The blonde woman glanced towards the officer, awaiting his retort, and noticed that the head of every soldier was bowed.

They stared intently at the ground, not daring to raise their eyes.  The blonde woman sighed as she realized who had emerged from the waters and she prayed that the woman would give her the mercy of a quick death. 

'You will help this woman to her feet immediately,' stated the brown-haired woman assuredly.

'Yes, Ma'am,' was replied in unison and the three men moved quickly to the blonde woman's location without raising their eyes.  Reaching down, two of the men assisted her in standing, holding her until she was steady on her feet.  Almost instantly, the blonde-haired woman bowed to one knee and lowered her head in reverence to request clemency.

'My Queen, I knew not where I was, ' she said barely above a whisper.  'I was absorbed by my thoughts and the beauty of the forest....'

Almost before she had finished her sentence, she felt the warmth of an index finger beneath her chin.  Gently, it urged her to stand, which she did, though she kept her head bowed.

'I am not your Queen,' stated the woman softly, 'but you know not who I am?' asked the woman almost confused.

'You are my Saviour,' responded the blonde-haired woman thankfully as she dared to raise her head and look into the eyes of the woman to whom she owed her life.  The severity that she had seen in those brown eyes only a moment ago had been completely erased.  It was replaced, instead, by kindness and warmth, understanding and comfort, but there was confusion as well.  As they locked eyes, it felt as if time and circumstance had fallen away and the feeling of familiarity that she had felt as she watched the brown-eyed woman in the river returned forcefully.

'Have we not met before?' asked the brow-haired woman with a furrowed brow.

'Not that I am aware,' came the quiet response, though she felt in her heart that the words were not the truth.

'Are you certain?'

'Yes.  I am quite sure that I would have remembered a beauty such as yours.'

The blonde-haired woman chastised herself for being so bold.  She knew not from where her words came and she was finding it difficult to control her tongue and thoughts.

Luckily, the woman before her dismissed the comment, but not before revealing a slight smile and blush.

'What is your name?'

'Svanhilde.  Daughter of Thorin of Ravndal.'

'Battling Swan,' said the woman slowly and thoughtfully as she considered the literal translation of the woman's name. 'Do you fight for our clan?'

'I am of no use in a fight and am a discard of both my village and my family.  I fight only for my own existence.  I am sorry, M'lady.  I wish that I could do more, ' she ended sadly.

'Do not underestimate your abilities and potential, Svanhilde.  You may, yet, do great things....' trailed off the dark-haired woman softly.  While her eyes told her that it could never be the case, it was her heart that told her the truth, and it was her heart that she would believe.  The feeling was too strong to deny.  After a slight pause, she added thoughtfully,

'I cannot help but believe that we have met before.....'

Over a thousand lifetimes, thought the blonde woman immediately without vocalizing her response.

'Not that I am aware, ' came the simple and quiet answer which betrayed her thoughts.  Even the blonde-woman was starting to doubt her own words.

She lingered thoughtfully on the response for a few more moments before turning to the guards that surrounded the blonde woman and issuing a series of orders.

'The day will soon give way to night.  You will escort this woman to Ravndal and ensure her safe return.  The cart will be refilled two-fold and delivered to the exact place or places that she instructs.  Upon arrival, you will unload these stones and make apologies for her late arrival on my behalf.  She is not to be blamed or touched for her tardiness.  AM I UNDERSTOOD?'

The last words were emphasized to ensure there was absolutely no room for error.  The fierceness had returned to the woman's eyes and she looked directly at the commander to ensure he had heard her instructions completely.

'Yes, M'lady, ' was the curt response.

'You will be safe with these men.  Do not fear them, ' assured the woman as she bowed her head in the direction of Svanhilde. 

'Thank you, my Saviour, ' was the simple, reverent response as Svanhilde was led to the waiting horses and the stones were replaced quickly in the barrow. 

As they disappeared into the wood, the simple, unconsidered, unexpected response fell from the brown-haired woman's lips,

'You are most welcome, my beautiful love.'

 

Chapter Text

The Freyja had never been to Ravndal.  It was one of the smallest villages in her mother's kingdom and visits by royalty were typically reserved for the larger tribes.  Only in rare or exceptional cases would a High King or High Queen, Feryr or Freyja find themselves in these smaller towns, otherwise, the governance was left to the Lendr Madr or Skald.    

She had no business here and would be reprimanded by her mother later for wandering so far from the protection of their wood, but she was compelled to catch a glimpse of the woman that had consumed every moment of her waking thoughts and slumbering dreams since their first meeting. 

By the time she reached the outskirts of the village, there was a desperation and need in her search that she could not explain.

This woman, this discard of her village and family, seemed to hold a broken piece of the Freyja's heart that she had heretofore not even known was incomplete.  

The urgency of her quest was both exhilarating and terrifying, and she had no choice but to see it through.

The townspeople bowed their heads in recognition and respect as she passed, but showed no other formalities. The clan found little use in the pomp and circumstance afforded the rulers of other kingdoms.  Excessive adoration had made these rulers weak and drunk with power, able to focus only on themselves and not the needs of their people and their circumstance.

The main street of the village was little more than a well-worn dirt road which was crossed occasionally by ragged, but sturdy, men and women rolling carts laden with both goods and garbage. 

On each side of the path, merchants peddled their wares in open-air, ramshackle stalls of varying sizes. Objects and services were actively bartered between shopkeepers and villagers in exchange for other goods and services and there was a constant thrum of activity.  

Those seeking more quiet and isolation need only look behind the stalls on the right where walls of oak plank and rooves of reed and thatch protected the patrons who had gone to seek rest, food, drink or to satisfy more carnal desires.  

Behind the stalls on the left, stretched the quay where longships loaded or unloaded the tools and spoils of their raids, respectively.

Eventually, the treasure would make its way to her mother's castle, but, for now, that work would have to wait as familiar villagers, too long from home, were welcomed by family and friends who listened in rapt attention to their tales of adventure.

Riding slowly through the center of the town, the Freyja looked right and left, scanning faces for the slightest bit of familiarity. She had not to go far before she found the exact person she sought. 

Sitting at a small table at the back of the blacksmith's stall, Svanhilde's flaxen hair was gathered at her neck by a leather tie, exposing the fair skin of her face and neck.  Several fresh whip wounds lay bare, extending from beneath the ponytail, crossing over the top of her shoulder and disappearing down the front of her dress, and the Freyja winced as she thought of the day in the wood.  She only wished that she could have intervened sooner on the woman's behalf, but these were not the marks of her Commander.  They were raw and had been provided by another very recently.

Dismounting her shiny, black Shire, Rocinante, the Freyja handed the reins to her Thane before approaching the blacksmith stall where she lingered by a display of cloak clasps, tunic pins, pouch closures, tackle decorations and all other manner of ceremonial adornment.  

Celebration was infrequent in the villages, but on those rare occasions when they were held; weddings, return of a victorious war party, death; these items were sought as a mark of distinction among wearers.

Pulling off her leather glove, the Freyja allowed her fingers to trace over the ornaments' details.  Her attention was only half-focused. 

While her fingers moved and her head was bowed, her eyes would occasionally look up through her lashes to observe Svanhilde working on a rosette which was even more beautiful than any of those already in front of her.  She watched closely as Svanhilde furrowed her brow and chewed her bottom lip as she worked, oblivious to the sounds and movements of the village.

'You there, Smithja, ' called the Freyja to the blacksmith who had reengaged in conversation with another patron after recognizing the Freyja's presence, 'who has made these items?'

Svanhilde neither acknowledged their conversation nor lifted her head in curiosity at the new voice. She was not permitted to talk to the patrons and she was so engrossed in her work that she had not even realized that the woman that had captured her heart and soul only a few weeks before was, again, only feet away from her. 

'I did, M'Lady,' answered the blacksmith gruffly with a wry smile of deceit.  These decorations were one of his main sources of income during the drought of peacetime and they brought him much wealth, still he had no intention of giving credit where due despite the fact that their creator sat actively working on one of these decorations right behind him.  

Turning her head, the Freyja looked up and addressed the blacksmith directly.  She could see the sarcastic smirk and she angered at the hubris that he displayed belittling both his employee and a female of their clan.  Her mother may lack the gift of observation and reward the cunning of the wrongfully clever, she, however, did not.

'No, these items are too delicate and refined to have been wrought by your head and hand. I have seen your swords. They are sturdy and strong and have led our people through many battles, but they lack grace. So, I will ask again.  Who has made these items which I admire before me?'

His smirk quickly morphed into a scowl as he internalized the entwined compliment and criticism and he tilted his head back, barely raising his chin to acknowledge the woman that sat, still working on the rosette before her.  Turning slightly, the Freyja now addressed the other occupant of the stall.  Her tone was no longer commanding or sure, but comforting and almost reverent.

'Your work is beautiful.  Dare I say some of the finest I have ever lain my eyes on, ' breathed the Freyja as she looked in Svanhilde's direction.  She had to stifle a smile as she watched Svanhilde's dedication to her craft and pure ignorance of the world around her.

'GIRL!!' husked the blacksmith cruelly, 'the Freyja speaks to you and you would do well to answer!'

At the sound of his voice, Svanhilde's head snapped up and she looked at him perplexed as her mind assimilated what he had just said. Quickly, she turned to the patron of whom he spoke and drew a sharp breath. 

Jumping immediately to her feet, she knocked over her small stool before bowing her head in embarrassment and recognition. 

The woman of whom she had both seen too much, and not enough, now stood before her dressed in a light-weight robe of dark green silk which had been lined with a silver brocade.  The colors were a perfect compliment to her hair and eyes and the plunging, but tasteful, cut of the bodice revealed the smooth, ample cleavage of her breasts before tightly hugging her slight torso and shapely hips.  The flowing skirt lay behind her on the ground, dusty from her long ride and the dirt of the road.  

The sight of the Freyja was a welcome contrast to the dreariness of the village and a relief for Svanhilde's heart and mind.  In the weeks since their first meeting, she had thought or dreamed of little else than the woman whose company she now kept.  The punishment of that inattention had been the pain of whip, but it was a welcome relief to the slow death that her heart was enduring every minute that they were apart.  

Only this beautiful, compassionate stranger and savior could heal and strengthen her mind, body and soul.  Of that,  she was certain, though her tongue could not explain why.   

'I a-apologize, F-freyja, ' stuttered Svanhilde nervously, 'I was concentrating on my work and heard not your question.'

Silently,  Svanhilde cursed herself for not being more inquisitive on the day of their meeting. The Freyja had asked her name, but, in her haste, Svanhilde had not returned the favor.  

She wondered, now, if she had been too familiar in her address....too liberal with her eyes.   While the brown-haired woman had stated that she was not High Queen, she had neglected to mention that she was the High Queen's daughter and next in line to the throne.  Hers was a place of honor and respect and Svanhilde intended to show her as much now to make amends for any previous transgressions.

Bowing her head, she kept her eyes focused on the ground, cursing the God's for the moments that she was losing in admiring the stunning face of her future, High Queen; especially considering this might be the last time she looked upon it in her life.

She was compensated, somewhat, by the soothing sounds of the Freyja's voice. 

'It was not a question, but a compliment regarding the beauty of your work, ' replied the beautiful Freyja softly.

'Tis no where near enough to compliment your exquisite beauty, M'Lady,'  blurted out Svanhilde without looking up, only realizing after the words had passed her lips that it was what she had wanted to say, but not what she intended heard by any ears.  

Glancing up quickly through her lashes, she could not help but think that she had seen the faint shadow of a blush pass over the Freyja's cheeks before lowering her eyes again.

Turning away quickly to hide her embarrassment, the Freyja addressed the surly blacksmith directly.

'I require the skills of someone like Svanhilde,' started the Freyja. She was met with the confused look of the blacksmith who was trying to sort out how the Freyja might possibly know the name of one among them with such low breeding and stature.  Ignoring her obvious slip, the Freyja continued,

'I will require her services at least thrice per week....'

Noting the hesitation and seeing the words of protest starting to be formed on the blacksmiths lips, she added, before the man could respond,

'She will be compensated for her service and you, generously, for your sacrifice.  What say you?'

Not willing to lose the generosity of the Freyja's offer and totally unconcerned about his apprentice, the Smith responded immediately,

'When will she begin?'

Snapping her fingers, the Thane brought over a pristine set of ceremonial reigns which she tossed to the  blacksmith.

'As soon as she has tooled two rosettes of sufficient beauty to match my own and mounted them upon these reigns.....' 

The Freyja finished with a wry wink in Svanhilde's direction, noticing that she had been watching their interaction intently through her lashes.  This time it was Svanhilde's turn to blush and she looked quickly at the ground to hide her shy grin.

Harshly, the blacksmith threw the reigns at Svanhilde who caught them haphazardly, loose leather bands lashing at her face and arms.   She was ignorant of their stings, focusing instead, on the form of the Freyja as she walked away, mounting her horse effortlessly before riding swiftly into the wood.

'GET TO WORK! THE FREYJA WAITS!' Agni grunted sharply at Svanhilde who scattered quickly to her bench to begin the work that would bring her closer to the woman to whom, from the moment of their first meeting, she vowed to give her heart, soul and life, should the Freyja ever ask.

Chapter Text

'Enter,' came the direct response of the Freyja to the knock on the thick wood of the library door.

Turning from the tower window where she had been enjoying the light of the sunrise as it dawned over the trees, she saw Svanhilde, head down, being escorted by two of the castle guards.

The group stopped at the far end of the room awaiting further orders from the Freyja. 

'You may leave us,' was the simple answer to their unasked question. 

Warily the two guards glanced at each other.

Sighing, the Freyja continued, rolling her eyes slightly in exasperation,

'No harm will come to me from this woman.  I assure you....and I will pass the same assurances on to my mother when I see her as I know that you fear her wrath far more than you fear my anger or for my safety.' 

Bowing their heads curtly, the guards took a step back before turning sharply on their heels and filing out the doors, closing them behind and leaving Svanhilde and the Freyja alone in the room.

Svanhilde remained in her place, head bowed, unsure what to do or why she had been singled out by the Freyja for this work, whatever it may be.  

She could hear the light swish of the fabric of the Freyja's gown and the click of her boot heels as she approached.  Soon, they were no more than a foot apart and Svanhilde senses were filled with the intoxicating scent of honey and lavender and apples that clung tightly to the Freyja's skin and clothes.  

It was a welcome contrast to the smell that was clinging to her own clothes and skin and she prayed to Odin that she would not be offensive to her Freyja.  She had done her best to clean up for their meeting, but early morning chores in the barn, a run to the village and the subsequent hour's long ride by guard's horseback had left her smudged and dusty and less than fragrant.  

For every moment that they stood in silence, she became more and more self-conscious and she hoped the silence might be broken soon.

The Freyja's attention was not focused on what Svanhilde feared, however.  The Freyja's gaze was, instead, focused on Svanhilde's neck and chest where, once again, fresh lashes of the whip mingled with scabs and scars of old.  A prominent and hollow collarbone was nothing more than corroborating evidence of her mistreatment and malnutrition. 

Without thinking the Freyja reached out to trace the scars and wounds on Svanhilde's neck hoping to bring some comfort.  

Seeing her raised hand, Svanhillde flinched turning her head, drawing a quick breath, and closing her eyes tightly.

Immediately, the Freyja's hand was withdrawn and she stepped back quickly to remove the perceived threat.

'I apologize, ' were the gentle words spoken, 'I only wished to assess the depth of your wounds to determine the appropriate course of treatment.'

The words and the sentiment were more kindness than Svanhilde could remember ever receiving over her lifetime, and she chastised herself for ever believing that this beautiful woman could mean her harm, but years of mistrust and cruelty were hard erased, no matter what the heart knew.  Opening her eyes, Svanhilde stood again to her full height but kept her head bowed to hide her embarrassment and shame.

'I am so very sorry, My Freyja,' she replied, barely above a whisper, 'I did not mean to assume....'

'And I did not wish to frighten,' was the soft response.  'I should have asked your permission first.  Sometimes, I forget myself and my actions are too bold.....'

She trailed off quietly, leaving them standing, once again, in silence.  Changing the subject, the Freyja spoke again,

'In the wood, on the day of our meeting, did you not know where you were?'

'No, My Freyja.  As I said, my mind had wandered as far as my feet and I paid not enough attention.'

'But, there were many signs posted.....' responded the Freyja curiously.

'I did not see them, ' came the the quiet reply which was followed by silence and a slight, nervous, uncomfortable shifting of weight.

'They clearly noted....'

'I CANNOT READ!' responded Svanhilde quietly and frustratedly through gritted teeth.

'When I said that I had been discarded, my lips did not lie.  I am unfree.  Who in this Kingdom would ever deign to teach me words so that I might be more than what I am?'

Svanhilde's chest heaved with the emotion of her words and Regina could see how hard she struggled against the invisible chains that were holding her prisoner; chains forged by her own family and held secure by a merciless and unforgiving Kingdom.  Still, while they broke her body, they did not break her spirit, and Regina could see the strength, defiance, and desire reflected in Svanhilde's green eyes.

'Well, I, for one, am thankful that you knew not what they said, ' offered Regina casually.  'Had you heeded their warning, you might not have hidden behind the tree to watch me bathe.....'

Looking up at Regina's face, Svanhilde's frustration quickly turned to embarrassment and denial. 

'I swear to you that I was only in the wood to gather stone, My Freyja!' she pleaded, 'My first glimpse of your face was when you stood before me with your men!'

'I daresay you are right, ' offered Regina thoughtfully, 'you could not have seen my face from that vantage point....'

Svanhilde released a skeptical sigh of relief that the Freyja had believed her words.

Technically, she had not lied.  She had only fully looked upon the Freyja's beautiful face once they were both upon the bank.  

But now she had to wonder if this was why she had been summoned.  Surely the guards had told the Freyja everything they had seen; that it was not just a glance; that her eyes had lingered too long where they should have been averted.  

It was a crime to look upon the Freyja without her permission; especially under the circumstance in which she had.  Though Svanhilde had not lied either when she said that she did not know not who she was at the time.  Perhaps that might bring her some leniency or clemency

She was about to throw herself again at the mercy of this beautiful woman, when the Freyja spoke. 

'It is probably for the best.  I would not want anyone to see the hideous image that mars my back....' lamented Regina as she turned to the window once more to mask her grin..

'How can you say that? They are beautiful swans upon a flawless back, My Freyja, and they suit you well....' offered Svanhillde perplexed before her eyes widened at her slip of tongue.

'Ahhhh....so you did, perchance, see me there?' 

'I...uhhhh....' was all that Svanhillde could offer readily, knowing that she had already revealed herself through her own thoughtlessness.

She was somewhat surprised at Regina's next words, however.

'Did you truly like them... the swans?' inquired Regina softly as she kept her eyes focused out the window.   'I saw them in a dream once when I was young and with fever. They told me not to be afraid and each lay at my sides wrapping themselves around me protectively until I was well.  I carry them still so that I might remember their embrace, comfort and strength.'

If the Freyja was angry, then she kept it hidden well.  There was no accusation or threat in her tone, only a genuine curiosity regarding Svanhilde's opinion, coupled with a desire to share something of herself with another.  If Svanhilde could sense anything, it was that Regina was quite lonely for the simple company of another... for someone with whom she might talk.  

Quietly and thoughtfully, she offered her the words that came to her mind and heart.

'My Freya, there was nothing in the water that day that was anything less than perfection to my eyes.  I say this, not because you are Freyja, but because it is the truth that I have been privleged enough to see....' 

She remained looking at the Freyja's back, hoping for any kind of reaction that might reveal her intentions.

'Thank you, ' the Freyja whispered softly as she turned from the window.  She could see nothing but sincerity, kindness and trepidation in Swanhilde's expression. 'Those are the most beautiful and honest words that have been spoken to me in a very long time, Svanhilde.'

They stood in silence for a moment before the Freyja spoke again softly.

'Of what were you thinking, Svanhilde?'

'I'm sorry?' she asked confused.

'Of what were you thinking as you wandered in the wood?'

'Oh, ' blushed Svanhillde and she thanked Odin that the Freyja was not asking about the thoughts that had run through her mind as she had watched her bathing naked. 

'Of our stories of old....'

'Of plunder and war...' stated the Freyja forlornly.

'Of courage and beautiful love...' responded Svanhilde immediately with a soft smile looking deep into the brown eyes of the woman that stood before her.  In a instant, she could feel her health and strength return and the weight of the exhaustion that had lingered in her bones for weeks was lifted.

'Of loss....' was the quiet response given by the Freyja as she turned back around to face the window.  It was not soon enough to hide the deep sadness that dwelled in her brown eyes and the single tear that fell down her cheek as she said the words.  

Stepping forward, Swanhilde reached out boldly and lay her hand against the Freyja's bicep which she squeezed gently and reassuringly.  The warmth which fell upon their faces from the sun in window could not compete with the heat that was coursing through her fingers and arm which still lay in shadow.

'My Freyja,' said Svanhilde, barely above a whisper.

'Please don't call me that,' responded the Freyja in a tone that was much more severe than she expected.  Pulling away, she turned to face Svanhilde who had released her immediately and stepped back, bowing her head in apology though she knew not what she had done.  The Freyja looked at Svanhilde and shook her head at herself accusingly.  It was the most sincere kindness that she had received from another in many years. 

Immediately, she regretted her words and sought to remedy her actions.

'I truly apologize for my tone.  It was not what I intended, Svanhilde.  Forgive me?'

Slowly, Svanhilde raised her green eyes.  She saw nothing but remorse and sadness in the eyes of the Freyja; feelings that Svanhilde wanted so badly to take away and replace with happiness.

'Freyja....the goddess of fertility and love.....she is the woman that I am expected to be but cannot....' 

'You cannot bear children?' asked Svanhilde confused.

'Of that, I have no means to know until the day comes...'

'Then, you cannot love?' asked Svanhilde curiously with a furrowed brow.

'I cannot love who my mother desires...' responded the Freyja quietly.  'I cannot love he who would put an heir in my belly....not when I love another....'

'But, still, you are the Freyja, surely you may do as your heart desires and seek the one you truly want?' questioned Svanhilde perplexed.

'Yes, I AM Freyja....which is exactly why I CANNOT do as my heart desires.  I must be a role model to my people....even if it means the sacrifice of my true happiness, ' she ended sadly.

'Then all of this is an illusion.  This glorious life that so many covet, ' observed Svanhilde as she waved her hand at the opulence about her, 'You are as unfree as me.'

'Yes, I suppose I am,' responded the Freyja with a sad smile.

After a moment of consideration, Svanhilde inquired again.

'If you prefer not 'Freyja', then what shall I call you?'

'I was given a name at my birth.  One that is barely spoken, or perhaps not even known, anymore.  My mother never uses it in my address, but my Father did, always, and, for that reason, it is very special to me.'

'I will not breathe your name to another, if you prefer it that way.  You may entrust me with its safe keeping, I do so promise you.'

Smiling gently, a warmth of kindness and muted happiness reignited in the Freyja's eyes, and it made Svanhilde's heart light to see it.

'You may call me 'Regina',' offered the Freyja.

'Regina,' repeated Svanhilde reverently on a breath, 'I can see why your father kept it.  It has strength and elegance and suits you well.'

A slight blush fell over Regina's cheeks, and she smiled despite herself.  It had been so long since she had heard her name spoken so beautifully by another.

'Svanhilde,' stated Regina thoughtfully, 'if I may be so bold as to ask....may I simply call you Svan?  The implication of ferocity in your name belies your true nature.  While you may yet prove yourself a warrior, to me, you will always be a gentle soul that calms my heart.'

'It would be my great honor, Regina,' replied Svanhilde proudly as she tipped her head in deference; a smile falling across her lips.

After another moment, Svanhilde continued,

'Pardon my great curiosity, Regina, but why have you brought me here today?'

'Ah, yes,' stated Regina smiling softly, 'I forgot myself.....'

Walking slowly to the center of the octagonal room, Regina turned in a circle.  As she did so, Svan followed her eyes and took in, at last, the space in which she found herself standing.  

A large, faded carpet covered the center of the dark-timbered floor atop which was placed a heavy table large enough to accommodate two people comfortably.  A Hnefatafl set was situated on the table, pieces neatly ordered, patiently awaiting the commands of their players, while two chairs were turned slightly to beckon weary persons into their leather seats.   A bench heaped with furs shared the rug and faced the large stone fireplace that was nestled into the left wall and sat dark, due to the mildness of the Summer.  

The ceiling was two-stories above them, and, save the space provided to accommodate the door and the fireplace, the walls were lined with shelves upon shelves of books and scrolls.  A small, circular staircase on the right extended to the landing that followed the rotunda above and allowed a reader to move around the room as needed to find materials of interest.  

A single, wooden circle, strapped with iron and burdened with 12 candles hung from the center of the room by large, black chains.  Its struggle against the darkness was aided only by the light of the windows, but the dim light would be quickly overwhelmed once evening fell.

'My Father loved this room,' said Regina in a reverent and reminiscent tone. 

Svanhilde watched Regina's face intently as she continued to turn slowly, a slight smile playing on her lips as she recalled both beautiful and painful memories.

'As a child, we would come here, and he would read to me from these very books in front of the light of a fire.  Nothing too scary, mind you, but tales that would keep me spellbound for hours.  It was the same tales of love and courage of which you spoke so fondly just moments ago.'

Smiling softly, she looked directly into the green eyes of Svanhilde and saw her smile returned gently before looking back to the landing as if expecting to see her father still standing there.

'I would beg him to read me story after story, not wanting our time together to end, but eventually, he would urge me gently to bed where I would lay pondering for hours those tales that I could recount already by memory. 

Sometimes, I would sneak from my chambers well after the high moon passed to look through the crack in the door, and I would see him sitting at this very table attending to the affairs of the kingdom well into the night.'

Pausing, Regina took a deep breath to collect herself before continuing and Svan could see the tracks of several tears on the perfect, olive skin of her cheeks.

'As I got older, his duties would take him from me more and more often, but I would still join him here at every opportunity and we would sit, quietly reading, content in the silence of each other's company.  

He would seek my counsel on matters of the realm, and I would provide my opinion.  No matter how wrong my judgment might be, he would always assure me that he would 'take it under advisement', ' she said with a sad, slow chuckle.

'It was here that the rider from the North found me, on that horrible evening, to inform me that my Father had been killed by a band of raiders from another Kingdom.  

Thieves who had taken his life for no more than a handful of coin that he would have gladly given without confrontation.....'

Trailing off, Regina brought her hand to her face and used her fingers to wipe away the tears that had fallen onto her cheeks and trembling chin.

Svanhilde remained silent, unsure of what to do.  What comfort could an she provide to this beautiful woman?   What right did she have to provide it?  Her mind told her that there were thousands in this land better suited than her to provide the quiet embrace of strong arms.  Still, the need was immediate and they were alone, so, timidly, she stepped forward to the place where Regina stood hoping to provide a modicum of relief from her sadness.

'Regina,' she said in a whisper.  No sooner had the word left her lips that Svanhilde found Regina in her arms, her dress gathered in Regina's fists as she wept, face buried against her collar bone.  Carefully, she wrapped her arms around Regina's shoulders and held her tight laying her cheek against the crown of her head.  In return, she felt Regina's arms wrap more snugly around her waist and back.  

They remained in this perfect embrace for what seemed like a moment and an eternity, until her tears stemmed, and Regina turned her head so that her cheek rested more comfortably against Svanhilde's shoulder and her forehead nestled into her neck.

'Please, tell me what I can do to ease your pain.....' begged Svanhilde softy as she bowed her head; her warm breath caressing Regina's face.  

'I need you to bring light into this room, so that it can be restored to the former glory of my father...' whispered Regina in reply as she hugged Svanhilde more tightly to her, not wanting to let go.

'I will not stop until this room is all that you wish, Regina.'

Regina could feel Svanhilde's arms wrap more tightly around her shoulders and she reveled in their warmth and strength, despite their apparent frailty.   Without thinking, the tips of her fingers traced up and down the sides of Svanhilde's back, but she pulled back quickly as she felt the scars beneath the cloth.

'I am sorry.  Have I hurt you?' asked Regina with a concerned look.

'I do not believe you capable of causing pain to me or anyone, Regina...'

Blushing, Regina continued quietly,

'I would still like for the healer to look at you....if you will allow it?'

'I will, if only to ease your mind and calm your worry, ' replied Svanhilde, 'but this day draws to a close and I must return to my home now or the pain will run deep, until I can see you again.'

'Until tomorrow then?' asked Regina hopefully.

'I will count the moments....'

 

Chapter Text

'Rocinante, please,' pleaded Regina exasperately.

Standing beside the forge, Svanhilde furrowed her brow as she looked inquisitively at the open door of the barn.  She could not see Regina or Rocinante from where she stood, but Regina's concerned voice and Rocinante's desperate neighing told her that something was not right.

Laying down her tools, Svanhilde walked swiftly to the stables.  Stepping inside, she could see Regina standing outside the enormous, last stall on the right.  She held Rocinante's reins tightly in her fists as the Shire struggled against her, causing her to dig in her heels so that she could pull in the opposite direction.

Just beyond them, a very young and small stable boy had abandoned his work with the hay to press his back tightly into the corner where the front wall of Rocinante's stall met the back wall of the barn.  He held his pitchfork, which was twice as tall as he, upright in front of him, tines pressed hard into the ground, trying to form a crude but, ultimately, ineffective barrier behind which he could hide.  His eyes were wide as he watched the events unfolding between Regina and Rocinante.

Glancing at the Shire, Svanhilde could see the frustration building in his eyes as he jerked his neck back strongly and raised his head. 

'FREYJA! NO!' shouted Svanhilde as she took off at a sprint towards the back of the barn.

She was only half way to her destination when she saw the enormous shadow of Rocinante's reared body covering Regina's slight form.  He had managed to pull the reins from her hand,  but had startled her in doing it, and she stood stock still in surprise, unable to move from her position.

Almost immediately, the frustration in her horse's eyes was replaced by panic, and he flailed his front hooves wildly trying to stay upright so as not to land on Regina who stood frozen in his path.

Taking several, huge strides, Svanhilde cleared the remaining distance between them grasping Regina about the waist and back and spinning her quickly so that her own back now faced the stall. 

She closed her eyes tightly as she shielded Regina's body with her own praying that her actions had moved them far enough from harm, and the ground trembled beneath their feet as Rocinante's hooves landed only inches behind Svanhilde's heels. 

After breathing several sighs of relief and thanking a few random gods, Svanhilde  looked down to find Regina still curled tightly into her chest; cheek against the top of her breast; eyes closed tightly.  Her arms hugged Svanhilde's torso; the loose material at the back of her dress gathered in Regina's  fists.

'Freyja?' Emma whispered softly against the crown of her head.  'Are you hurt?'

She could feel the softness of Regina's hair against her lips as she spoke and she breathed in deeply; indulging in the scent of lavender and apples that seemed to cling constantly to Regina's skin.  Unconsciously, her left hand, which was shielded from the view of the stable boy, rubbed soothingly up and down the side of Regina's back, and she thought she felt Regina's arms tighten slightly as she awaited her answer which was finally provided in the form of a shaken head.  Even then, it was a few moments more before Regina actually opened her eyes and reluctantly released her grip.

'Thank you, ' said Regina softly, 'I don't know what is wrong with him today....'

Turning around, Svanhilde looked at Rocinante curiously and noticed a subtle shaking in his left, front leg.  

Pulling back slightly, he watched Svanhilde very cautiously as she entered his stall and gathered his reigns in her hand to better control his movements.

'Shhhhhh, ' she offered quietly over and over before reaching forward to pet his cheek softly several times.  Seeing him relax, she took another step towards him before sliding her hand slowly down his neck to his shoulder.  There, she could feel the muscles twitch and jump strongly under her fingers and she noticed the reaction continued down the length of his leg.

'Whoa, ' said Svanhilde as she noticed him shifting warily from foot to foot and she remained unmoving, but in constant contact, until he settled again. 

Running her hand further down his leg, she noticed that the intensity and frequency of the reaction increased steadily.  Finally able to cup her hand loosely around the thick shaft of his leg, she grasped his ankle and lifted his foot gently from the ground.

The underside of his hoof was caked in blood and straw and a sizeable crack extended from the coronet band at the bottom of his leg to the tip of his hoof.  What had previously been invisible as he stood in the thick hay was now readily and painfully apparent.

'Who shod this horse?' asked Svanhilde as she inspected the injury more closely.

'Th-the ferrier, ' said Regina confused.

'Actually, My Freyja, ' piped up the stable boy, 'the ferrier was not available.  He is at home with the fever.  He sent his apprentice in his stead.'

'Well, ' sighed Svanhilde as she looked over her shoulder at Regina, 'his apprentice still has much to learn.  He has driven several nails into the flesh of Rocinante's leg and split his hoof to the quick.  If he was resisting you, then it was for good reason.  He is hurting.'

She watched as Regina covered her mouth with her hand, and Svanhilde could see the pain and tears in her eyes as she worried about the comfort and well-being of her beloved steed.

Releasing Rocinante's leg, Svanhilde stepped from the stall.

'I will return to you and Rocinante in no more than a moment, My Freyja, ' she consoled before she moving quickly out of the stable and out of sight. 

 


 

Regina and the stable boy could hear Svanhilde approaching before they actually saw her.  

When she arrived at the stable door, she carried a large, heavy wooden box filled with both blacksmith's and ferrier's tools, limping slowly as she wrestled the weight from the door of the barn into the stall.

Settling the tool box on a small bench, she spoke softly to Rocinante as she clapped him gently on the side of his neck.

'Now, let us see what I may do to ease your pain and quell the Freyja's worries a bit....'

Reaching down, she grasped Rocinante's ankle once more and lifted his hoof, this time, straddling his leg to hold his foot steady between her thighs.  

Grasping a blunted pair of nippers, Svanhilde worked the ends gently under the head of the first nail.  Rocking back and forth slowly, she felt a slight pop as the nail released itself from the surrounding calcifications, and she withdrew its length before throwing it into the box.  

Slowly and methodically, she repeated the process on each of the offending nails, resting her palm against his shoulder between each extraction until she was rewarded with the sensation of relaxed muscle and skin and several gentle nudges of his muzzle against her shoulder.

'I do believe that the worst is over, my friend,  but there is still some delicate work to be done.  Please be patient with me.  I have not the skill and quickness of your ferrier, but I promise that I will do my best, ' offered Svanhilde encouragingly as she wrapped her arm about his face and patted his cheek playfully.

Using a combination of clamps and metal bridges, Svanhilde fashioned an elegant, but sturdy bandage for the front of Rocinante's hoof before removing the uncomfortable iron shoe from his foot.  Cleaning out the dirt, blood and debris carefully, Svanhilde washed Rocinante's skin and hoof gently with clean water before refitting him with a shoe of thin, polished iron which covered the bottom of his foot, save the frog and groove, and wrapped snugly around the newly trimmed edge of his hoof lending even more strength to his 'bandages'.

Moving to his other feet, Svanhilde was relieved to find that the damage had been contained to a single leg and she made quick work of the remaining shoes.

Tapping in the last nail carefully, Svanhilde replaced the hammer in the wooden box before stepping in front of Rocinante and taking the sides of his harness.

'My work is complete, my friend, and I hope it has brought you, and your Freyja, some comfort, ' she offered as she scratched the bridge of his nose and between his ears.  

She smiled gently as he bowed his head and leaned it forward blowing a deep, fluttering, relaxed breath through his nostrils.  Laying her forehead against his, Svanhilde scratched his cheeks happily and playfully, and she smiled and laughed at his growing excitement at the attention.

Behind her, Regina couldn't help but stare in awe at their interaction.  Only she and her father had ever dared approach Rocinante in such a personal and familiar manner.  Others, who had attempted the same, were rebuffed summarily; typically with a simple, but very clear, warning that told them never to repeat their actions again.  

All had been foolish suitors who believed the fastest path to Regina's heart, or, more specifically, her bed, was through Rocinante. 

One man had not been so lucky.  Selected by her mother as a suitable match, he had proven himself uncomfortably aggressive from the day of their first meeting, and it was clear that he saw Regina as nothing more than his whore and the key to the wealth and power of the Kingdom.  

Tired of waiting for his prize, he found Regina alone in Rocinante's stall one evening.  In a drunken rage, he beat her mercilessly before clamoring atop her in the hay.  When they found them the next day, she was intact; he....barely breathing...the imprint of hooves covering his skin.  

Perhaps Rocinante had the capacity to see clearly that which Regina's eyes could not; sincerity, courage, humility, compassion, selflessness, faithfulness, dependability, kindness, humor, intelligence, commitment, passion....

Could it be that this person that had only existed in her dreams stood before her now?

The attraction to this woman was certain.  She had felt it when their eyes first met.  Despite her physical frailty, her beauty was unmatched in all of the kingdom and the strength that flowed through her veins.... her entire being... was undeniable and unlike anything that Regina had ever before witnessed.  

Regina knew that she had lingered too long in Svanhilde's embrace before, but she had never felt such security and warmth, and she wanted only to be lost in the feeling forever.  Perhaps, someday, she would get the chance to feel her arms again....

Eventually, Regina was pulled from her thoughts by the sound of Svanhilde's voice coming from behind her. So lost had she been in her musings that she had not even noticed that Svanhilde had exited the stall with her tools and box.

'I will stay the night to watch him, My Freyja, but I believe that the worst is past, ' said Svanhilde as she cleaned her bloodied hands on a rag extracted from the box.  

'He is anxious to serve you, but I would advise that you offer him a day of rest so that he may recover fully.  Tomorrow, I am certain that he can and will take you as far as your heart desires....'

'I do not know how to thank you for your kindness....' offered Regina.

No sooner had the words been spoken than she found herself again in Svanhilde's arms; nudged and held there definitively by Rocinante's muzzle in her back.

Regina offered him a faux look of annoyance, but struggled not against his instruction, immediately relaxing into the arms that had already been wrapped instinctively and tightly about her waist and shoulders. 

'Perhaps I should provide you company for the evening?' offered Regina tentatively and hopefully as she looked into Svanhilde's green eyes.  'The hours can be quite long....'

'So I can see...' offered Svanhilde in reply with a grin as she raised her chin to draw Regina's attention to the stable boy who had fallen asleep already in the hay.

'Give me a moment to get him to his mother?  I promise to return immediately.....'

Encouraged by Regina's smile and nod, Emma gathered the sleeping boy in her arms, walking quickly from the barn to deliver him safely to his home.  It was no more than five or ten minutes before her return, but it seemed like an eternity to Regina.  

When Svanhilde returned, she carried a leather bag that was full to bursting with food, and Regina's stomach growled loudly as she took in the aroma of warm bread and stew.

'Our small friend awoke and recounted his harrowing tale to his mother.   I don't remember seeing a dragon, but he insisted quite strongly that his words were true, so I will assume that I simply wasn't paying attention very well, ' chuckled Svanhilde, and she was rewarded with a short burst of Regina's melodious laughter.

'Oh, yes, he was quite sneaky, ' grinned Regina.

'I see, ' responded Emma with a cocked brow and a grin of her own.  'It is good then that she has provided us with this bounty of food, so that we might placate him.  After all of this work, it would be a shame if he insisted upon eating Rocinante.'

Almost immediately, Rocinante stopped frisking about in his clean straw and looked at Svanhilde with a wary eye.

Laughing heartily at his reaction, Svanhilde reassured him 'Worry not, my friend, I will bite its tail myself, if it dare come too close to you or your Freyja.....'

Satisfied with her answer, Rocinante rolled to his back and wiggled his enormous body about trying to draw himself closer to Regina who rested in the soft straw on her hip and hand.  Finally drawing close enough, he lay his head in her lap and closed his eyes enjoying the scratches  and pets of her fingers under his jaw and chin.

'Big baby, ' teased Svanhilde with a grin.  Her response was a terse snort followed by soft nickering which was directed at Regina to encourage her to continue her pampering.

Svanhilde busied herself making comfortable arrangements for Regina.  It was a barn, so the luxuries were limited, but clean hay, clean blankets and a sturdy bench could, at least, be provided.  

As she worked, she would glance over at Regina, her heart skipping a beat every time she saw the soft smile that played upon her lips or watched her press the strands of hair behind her ear that had released to bounce lazily in front of her eyes.  

She was thankful that she had been able to provide Regina, at least, some amount of peace.

Seeing that Rocinante had finally curled into a sound slumber, Svanhilde spoke quietly.

'May I offer you some food and drink?   It is most definitely in abundance, ' said Svanhilde in wonder as she considered the amount of food that the boy's mother had been able to fit into such a small bag.   Stew, fruits, bread, cured meats, cheese, meade, and wine had all been unpacked and arranged neatly on one of the small, tack benches that Svanhilde had positioned close to a small square of folded blanket that sat atop a mound of fresh hay.

'Mmmmm, ' said Regina with a grin as she stood in front of the bench, arms folded over her growling stomach. Leaning over, she pressed her hair behind her ears once more before closing her eyes and breathing in deeply, 'It smells delicious....'

'Then, allow me to serve you, ' said Svanhilde softly, indicating with her hand that Regina should sit upon the blanket she had laid.

Carefully, she placed a crust of warm bread, grapes, cured meats, and cheese into a square of burlap for Regina cradling it gently so as not to drop anything.  Turning around, she noticed that Regina had opened one of the folds of the blanket so they might both have room to sit, if they remained close.

Taking a relaxing breath, Svanhilde delivered the plate of burlap to Regina before bringing her a crude, dented metal bowl filled with piping hot stew.  Gathering a few items for herself into a piece of burlap, Svanhilde returned to the blanket where Regina patted the ground beside her to encourage her to sit.

Doing as she was asked, they both ate a few small bites in silence, unsure of what to say and avoiding each other's eyes to hide the nervousness that had started to build.

'This stew is delicious.... do you not like it?' inquired Regina as she noticed that Svanhilde did not have a bowl, though ample quantity remained at the bench.

'She gave but one bowl and spoon and it is not easily eaten with fingers, ' mumbled Svanhilde, 'I will wait until you are finished and have eaten your fill.'

'It will be cold by then....And, it is so delicious, that I may very well eat it all, ' teased Regina before growing more serious.  'You may share my bowl.  There is more than enough for both of us here.'

'I...uhhhh....' was all that Svanhilde could offer as she looked into Regina's eyes and beautiful face.  The sincerity and concern that she saw there was undeniable.  

'I am unfree, Regina....I should not even be sitting this close beside you, let alone sharing your meal...'

'We are all unfree in some way, remember....' offered Regina encouragingly, 'even me.....'

Unsure how to respond, Svanhilde's waited for Regina to continue.

'I know not what terrible names others may call you.  I know you only as Svanhilde of Ravndal, and I can see that you are hungry.  Please, do not deny me the opportunity to try to repay you, even if only meagerly, for your help and kindness today....Please?'

Gulping, Svanhilde nodded her head in acquiescence, and she watched Regina tuck a strand of hair behind her ear before grasping the spoon in her fingers and dipping it into the stew.  Before she could pull the spoon from the bowl, the errant curl fell forward again and Regina huffed quietly in frustration as she pressed it back again.

'I-I have something for you, Regina, ' whispered Svanhilde tentatively. 

Raising her eyes, Regina looked curiously at Svanhilde, who furrowed her brow and twisted her mouth in thought as she felt about in the pocket of her apron.  

After a moment of searching, Svanhilde extracted a silver hair tie which she held out to Regina in offering.  

Shaped like a half cylinder and approximately three inches long, Regina could see that the polished silver had been hand-embossed with delicate leaves and vines which would have taken hours to design and even longer to lay.

The sides were laced with a sturdy leather webbing that could be loosened and tightened to accept as little or as much hair as Regina chose.  

'I noticed that your hair frustrates you sometimes,  ' she trailed off as she held out the bangle in her hand and looked shyly at the ground.

'I made it for you.  I thought it might help, but you do not have to use it, if the source of the item is an embarrassment.   I will understand....'

'I will wear it proudly, ' she breathed as she took the clasp from Svanhilde; her fingers brushing over Svanhilde's softly and gently.

'How would you prefer that I wear it?' 

'You will look stunning no matter how it is worn.  Please do not ask me to decide...' she offered as she looked into Regina's eyes. 

Blushing and smiling,  Regina lay the bowl on the blanket between them before gathering the sides of her hair into the tie and securing it tightly.

'Do you like it?' asked Regina tentatively.

'More than there are words at my disposal to describe...' breathed Svanhilde reverently as she smiled softly at Regina.

Again collecting the bowl in her hands, Regina dipped the spoon into the stew, smiling softly at the fact that Svanhilde's would even notice such a subtle mannerism and reaction, nevermind seek so adamantly to rectify it. 

She had received gifts from others in her lifetime, but most were given because of tradition, expectation or want of return.   The gifts were gaudy and predictable;  chosen to be conspicuous and to call attention to the giver, not the wearer; worn once and then locked away, never to be looked upon again.

This gift, however, was exactly to her taste; simple, elegant, intricate, useful, and she knew that she would wear it proudly every day, BECAUSE of who it was from.

Svanhilde watched as Regina lifted the spoon from the bowl pursing her perfect lips to blow upon the hot broth to cool it.

'I believe it is cool enough, but do please be careful, ' she said quietly as she lifted the spoon to Svanhilde's lips.  She was met with a surprised and somewhat confused stare.

'Open, ' urged Regina parting her in lips to demonstrate before offering a shy grin.

Svanhilde captured Regina's eyes with her own as she opened her mouth slightly, and she soon felt the spoon and warm liquid pass slowly between her lips.  Closing her mouth, she savored the flavors that were placed upon her tongue as the spoon was withdrawn gently and she could never remember enjoying a more delicious bite of food.   

As she swallowed, she watched Regina chew her bottom lip nervously; a new habit taken up to replace the old of tucking her hair, and Svanhilde wondered how anyone of her stature and position could be so generous after only a single meeting, when others, only slightly above a status of unfree, could be so uncaring, unforgiving and cruel over an entire lifetime.

'Was it too hot? I did not burn you did I?' asked Regina fearfully.

'You did not hurt me, Regina, please don't be afraid.  You worry too much over me, ' she reassured.

'If not I, then who?' Regina questioned softly.

Laying down the spoon for a moment, Regina reached to Svanhilde's face and used the tip of her ring finger to collect a small drop of broth that had collected in the corner of her mouth brushing gently over Svanhilde's bottom lip before withdrawing her finger. 

Bringing the wetted finger to her own lips, Regina sucked the tip softly into her own mouth, enjoying the taste of the morsel still warm from Svanhilde's lips.  

Svanhilde watched mesmerized; her own lips parting as Regina's did, and she could feel her breathing quicken and her chest start to heave at the raw, but unintentional, sensuality that Regina displayed.  Withdrawing her finger, Regina drew a bit of stew from the bowl for herself and slid the spoon between her lips closing her eyes as she savoured the full flavor of the delicious soup upon her tongue.

'Exquisite, ' moaned Regina quietly.

'Yes.  Yes, it is, ' whispered Svanhilde knowing well that they spoke of two separate things.

If Regina noticed Svanhilde's mounting reactions, she made no indication, though every bite delivered by Regina's hand became an exercise in self control.  She wanted so badly to press her lips upon Regina's; to revel in their fullness and softness, to be lost in her touch, to feel wanted and loved.  

By the end of the meal, Svanhilde knew that the desperation in her eyes could no longer be masked.  If the Freyja saw not, then Svanhilde could only believe her blind or beyond polite.

Seeing her opportunity, Svanhilde gathered the empty bowl and burlap, jumping to her feet and taking them to the bench where she arranged them neatly before placing her hands on the seat and bowing her head as she breathed in and out slowly to calm and collect herself.

'Is everything all right?' asked Regina quizzically.

'Yes, ' offered Svanhilde as she stood to her full height and faced Regina with only a slightly more calm demeanor.  'I believe the meade has made my mind a bit foggy.'

'Are you certain that it was not something else?' she asked hopefully.

'No, ' responded Svanhilde almost immediately and nervously, 'I truly believe it to be the meade....'

'Yet....we have had none served, ' questioned Regina as she nodded at the full pitcher. 

'I...uhhh...ohhhh...' groaned Svanhilde as she looked at the bench to see the meade untouched.  Facing Regina again, she could see her looking at her curiously.

'I meant the wine....'

Immediately, she could see Regina's head shaking 'no' and she again groaned at the full flagon to her other side.

'I can tell you only that my mind is foggy.  I cannot tell you why....'

'Cannot or will not....' asked Regina gently. 

'Is there a difference?'

'If you cannot, then I must assume that you know not the source. If you will not, then I must assume that you know the source but are afraid to reveal it.  To me, there is a difference.'

'Regina, please.....' pleaded Svanhilde.

'Are you afraid?'

Unsure what to say, but unwilling to attempt another failed lie, Svanhilde sighed before offering up the only answer she could.

'Afraid. Excited. Overcome. Amazed.  Unsure. Hopeful. Nervous.....'

'Attracted?'

'In every way possible.....' whispered Svanhilde as she looked to the ground, unsure of what else to offer.

There was a slight pause and she began to curse herself silently for having been so stupid as to trust Regina with the truth.

'Would it help to know that I feel those same things?' offered Regina quietly as she dipped her head to catch Svanhilde's eyes with her own.

'I too am afraid and overcome because every one of the feelings that I have in this moment I have never felt for another.  Still, I am excited to see where this may lead, even if I am unsure of whether my heart may eventually be broken.  I am nervous because I go against the wishes of my mother and the expectations of this Kingdom, yet I cannot deny what my heart feels and I do not want to spend my life wondering 'what if'.  I am amazed and fascinated by what I learn about you each and every day, Svan, and I hope that, if nothing else, I might get to know you better.  You have captured my mind, my body and my soul.

If I have misunderstood your words, or if anything I say feels foreign or uncomfortable to your ears, then please tell me now, so that I may become less familiar in my actions.  If I am not mistaken, though, please, sit beside me.  I know that this is new for both of us and I will never ask for more than that which both of us may willingly and freely give.   

And, tonight, I ask only for the pleasure of your company and conversation.... '

'Before I settle, ' asked Svanhilde tentatively, 'would you like some meade?'

'At this point, I might suggest that you bring the entire flagon to settle my nerves, ' teased Regina which earned a twisted, shy grin from Svanhilde.

Bringing the only cup and flagon, she settled again beside Regina on the blanket.

'I have something for you as well, Svan,' offered Regina softly as she reached into her pocket and extracted the first volume of a small, children's primer where each page contained only a single picture and word written in the runes of their language.  Svanhilde had seen them only a few times before, carried by the younger children of the noblepersons of the village, but had never been considered worthy enough to touch one herself.  Now, her fingers reached out, unthinking, to feel the thick, leather cover reverently. 

'If you so desire, Svan, then I will help you learn....'

'Yes, Regina, ' she whispered and nodded, still looking at the book's cover. 

'Then let us begin....'

Opening the leather, Regina held the book between them so that they both might see, and she could feel Svanhilde scoot closer placing her hand on the ground behind Regina's back so that any distance between them was quickly closed.  Relaxing slightly, she could feel the brush of Svanhilde's cheek against her own as they looked at the first picture together.

'C-a-t, ' offered Regina as she passed a finger under each letter, sounding it out so that Svanhilde might relate the symbols with the sounds.

Turning the page, they looked at the next picture.

'D-o-g, ' was spoken with the symbols emphasized again.

'And Rocinante?' asked Svanhilde as she turned her head to look at Regina.   Smiling, Regina looked up from the book, turning her head as well to offer a reply.  Misjudging the distance between them, she soon felt their lips and noses brush lightly though neither pulled away.  Instead, they remained, brown eyes locked with green, saying with their souls all the words that could never fall safely from their lips.

Regina closed her eyes and her lips parted slightly as she felt Svanhilde's hand cup her cheek, thumb brushing against her skin, nose gently and affectionately nuzzling against her own, and she gasped slightly as she felt her lower lip taken briefly and lightly between both of Svanhilde's own.  

'Please, My Svan, ' whispered Regina desperately and her pleas were answered immediately by a more emboldened enveloping of her lips by Svanhilde's own.  

Fingers entangled in hair and chests heaved as their kisses became more ardent and urgent; the primer now abandoned to the hay.

It was Rocinante's urgent neigh that snapped them back to reality after only a few moments and they separated quickly; Svanhilde jumping to Rocinante's side and Regina hiding the primer before refolding the blanket to give the illusion of a single place of rest.

'My Freyja, ' inquired the stable boy who was quite out of breath from his excitement and the run from his home, 'is Rocinante well today?'

'You should ask his ferrier, ' offered Regina with a grin and nod of her head at Svanhilde who was inspecting carefully the completely wrong hoof as she attempted to calm herself and look natural.

'Yes, he seems to be quite well this morning, ' stated Svanhilde in a voice that was a bit more loud and high-pitched than she had intended.

'Shall I bring more hay?' asked the boy without seeming to notice anything unusual. 

'I believe that he would like that very much, ' said Regina brightly with a beautiful smile.  

'Yes, M'Lady!' replied the boy enthusiastically and proudly as he ran to grab his pitchfork.

'He adores you, ' said Svanhilde quietly as she moved to each of Rocinante's feet to ensure his healing and the comfortable but snug fit of each shoe.

'He is a beautiful boy of whom his mother must be very proud....'

'He serves the Freyja.  There is nothing of which a person of this Kingdom may be more proud.  You should know that the people hold you in high esteem, My Freyja...even above the Queen herself.'

'I do not understand why....'

'In you, they see beauty and hope, in her, only fear....The people long for the day when you will be their Queen, My Freyja....'

'Mmmmm, ' responded Regina distractedly with a soft smile as she watched the young boy gathering hay.

'And you long for something more....' mumbled Svanhilde as she watched Regina curiously.

Finishing her work, Svanhilde moved closer to Regina.

'I must go.  I have already overstayed and will feel the wrath of my father for missing the sup.  I should not miss breakfast as well....Rocinante is well and ready to serve as you command.  Ride well and safe, Freyja.'

Turning to Rocinante, Svanhilde grasped his bridle and pressed her forehead against his so that she might address his ears and eyes.

'Please ensure that no harm comes to her, my friend. I know not what we would do without her, though, I am quite certain that you realize that already...'

Feeling his gentle nodding against her head and hearing the stamp of his feet, Svanhilde released him from her grasp and turned to find Regina standing close behind.

'Be careful on your ride, Regina.  Please...' offered Svanhilde barely above a whisper as her fingers brushed lightly against the back of Regina's hand.  

'As you command, My Svan, ' she replied quietly as their fingers touched and then drew to the tips before separating and severing the last vestiges of their evening.  She watched until Svanhilde disappeared into the daybreak before turning to offer a gentle smile to the small stable boy and help him with his work. 

Chapter Text

'Please, Father, ' whimpered Svanhilde softly through gritted teeth as the tears ran from her eyes only to be lost among the straw of the barn floor.

'When I tell you that you will be home to make the supper, it is not a request.  IT IS A COMMAND!!!'

His last words increased in volume and fervor as he swung his arm and brought the heavy strap of leather down for the ninth time upon Svanhilde's exposed shoulders and top of back.

The crude, blunt metal buckle smacked hard against her right side again and she gasped and gripped the hay with shaking hands as she felt the slight pop of her newly fractured rib.

'The Freyja's horse required my care...'

'The beasts HERE require your care!  They starve as you forget yourself and your responsibilities!'

Another crack was heard as the leather contacted her bare skin.

'You will make the breakfast and care for THIS house FIRST, ' Thorin instructed as he gathered his leather belt in his hands and replaced it about his waist,  'then, you will go to your Freyja and let her look upon you so that she might think twice about making you late or absent again, lest she need find another blacksmith.  I will not be so lenient next time....'  

Turning sharply, he exited the barn quickly leaving Svanhilde alone.

'Yes, Father, ' whispered Svanhilde to no one as she breathed a sigh of relief that her punishment had come to an end.

Holding her right arm tight against her ribs, she sat up slightly before grasping the right side of her dress with her left hand.  Pulling it up and forward, she winced and cried softly as the rough fabric and seams scratched against the open wounds that crossed her back and shoulders.  Grasping the left side of the dress, she repeated the process and a new wave of tears fell from her eyes before the pain abated slightly.  

The majority of the wounds were covered, but the tendrils of enough lashes still showed about her neck and collarbone to assure that the message her father wanted delivered to Regina would not go unheeded.

Pressing herself to her feet, Svanhilde found that she could only straighten comfortably to a hunched position even with her hand and arm pressed firmly against her side to dull the pain.   It was enough to allow her to work, albeit at a very slow pace. 

Her only consolation was the silence that finally surrounded her, though she knew it would be short-lived.  Once inside, she would be relegated to the continued beratement of her father and brothers as she cooked and served them.  It would be inevitable and furious due to her slowness of pace.

 


 

Work complete in the stables and yard, Svanhilde sighed as she looked to the house, finally resigning herself to begin the breakfast after gathering over two dozen eggs from the hens.

Once inside, she moved slowly, struggling to reach and collect the items from the wall needed to prepare the meal.  Despite her difficulties and their impatience, not one offer of assistance was tendered, and so she continued slowly, but diligently, hoping to soon be in a position to be gone from their presence.

'You damned fool, ' offered one brother from his place at the table earning the laughter of his brothers, 'you are as slow as you are ugly.'

'I might be married and have grown children before this meal finds its way to the table, ' taunted another before walking to where Svanhilde stood chopping herbs, intentionally bumping into her and ensuring a hard smack to the right ribs.

The pain was excruciating and she placed her hand atop the chopping board to keep herself from collapsing as her head spun violently and the darkness on the periphery of her vision crept further into view.

She was quickly drawn back to consciousness by a knife driven into the wood of the board between her fingers, and she looked up to see her father, hand on the hilt,  who had been watching and listening, unamused.

'You have 10 minutes to serve this meal or, so help me, you will be unable to do more than crawl for a week.'

'Yes, Father, ' she managed; thankful that preparations were done and the cast iron was hot.

She needed every moment of the ten minutes, to plate the eggs and partition the bread and drink, finally moving to watch the men eat; trying to anticipate their needs so as not to be reprimanded.  Her goal was met with only marginal success.  Insults were intermingled with intentional jabs, jostling and bumps all aimed at aggravating the injuries at her right side and back

'Are the animals fed?' asked her father harshly once he had finished his plate.  There was a clatter as he brushed the metal to the middle of the table with his large hand before wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

'Yes, Father, ' responded Svanhilde softly on a series of short, gasped breaths.

'Then be gone from our sight and do not forget to give my message to the Freyja.  She is not the High Queen and will not be held in the same regard as her mother in this house.   I will not cower to her wishes and desires. Do you hear me, Girl?'

'Yes, Father. '

As she reached the door, she was hit hard in the middle of her back by a heavy flagon, half full of ale, which had been hurled by the eldest of her brothers at the table.  It rebroke anew the seeping wounds on her back; the alcohol scorching her exposed muscle and flesh like fire.

'And bring better ale from the village upon your return.   This is stale and fit only to drink by the dogs and the unfree....'

'Careful, Brother.  The dogs might take offense at being ranked equal to someone that even they know is their lesser.....'

'Good observation, Brother, ' said the eldest. 'Now, be gone, vermin, and come not back tonight empty handed lest you feel my wrath along side Father's....'

Lifting her skirt, Svanhilde exited the door; happy to be free of her family's shame and degradation.

 


 

Svanhilde was almost two hours late arriving in the village and the Freyja's men sat waiting agitatedly and impatiently in their usual place.

She approached, eyes cast down in apology and embarrassment, reaching her left arm up silently and bracing herself for the excruciating pain that she knew she would feel at being pulled upon the saddle.  

The tears ran copiously from her eyes, but only a small whimper escaped her lips during the process. It was enough, however, to draw the attention of the soldier with whom she rode.

She had seen him before in their party, even as recently as a few hours earlier when they had brought her to Ravndal after her watch with Rocinante, but she had not yet ridden with him.  

He was younger than the rest and the scruff of his beard was not as full as some of the more seasoned men, residing as a mere shadow upon his face.  His steel-blue eyes always shined with mirth and the excitement of a life yet unlived but greatly anticipated.  

It was a welcome change to the ever-serious, rough, unapologetic behavior of the remaining men that surrounded the Freyja and, more often, the High Queen herself.

'You must eat so that you may heal, ' he offered quietly to her as he pressed a large piece of jerky into her hand.  'I can see that you have suffered greatly already today.  No doubt in punishment for your late return.

I know it is difficult, but take solace in the fact that your actions with Rocinante brought consolation to both our Freyja and to her magnificent animal.  

My name is Gravnik and I will steady my own horse as much as I am able so as not to jostle you greatly.  You may lean against me as you require.  I am at your service....'

'Thank you, ' breathed Svanhilde as she relaxed slightly, barely moving her lips as she knew that he should not be speaking to nor offering her any concessions.  She could only be thankful that there were still those who lived among them who had retained their compassion and understanding for others, regardless of their status.

Leaning back slightly against him, she brought the jerky to her lips taking small bites and settling in for a long and uncomfortable ride.

 


 

Regina stood by the window of the library, back to the doors, her expression a mix of anger and concern.  She had expected Svanhilde to have arrived earlier, despite the fact that they had only left each other a few, short hours ago.  Their separation seemed like an eternity and she wanted her time alone to come to an end.

Whatever she may have been feeling, however, melted away instantly and her lips curled into a brilliant smile as she heard the library door open and close behind her.  The number of steps told her that Svanhilde had finally arrived, but she dare not turn around to look upon her, lest the guards see her exuberance at the arrival of an unfree; a reaction that was certain to cause too many questions to be raised.

'You may leave us, ' she instructed solemnly as she kept her eyes fixed out the window.  She could hear the men bow followed by the shuffle of their feet before the door clicked closed.

'I have missed you terribly, ' offered Regina as she turned from the window.  'I thought we might re--, ' was as far as her sentence progressed before she looked fully upon Svanhilde standing just inside the door.....if Regina could even describe it as standing.

Svanhilde's arm and hand was pressed hard into her right side at a location and angle that required that she bend awkwardly to the right and forward.  Her furrowed brow covered exhausted eyes and she breathed quickly and shallowly through parted lips.  The ends of multiple lashes showed about her shoulder and neck and were deep enough that Regina could only imagine the incredible damage that lay beneath the fabric of Svanhilde's clothing.  Weakened legs wobbled slightly, and Regina could only wonder at how she remained standing.  

With a few brisk strides Regina crossed the room, but hesitated slightly, unsure of how to help without causing more damage.

'I can walk, if you will but lend me your arm to lean on, ' whispered Svanhilde softly.

'Of...of course, ' replied Regina frantically offering her right arm quickly to Svanhilde's left.  She allowed Svanhilde to set the pace and they found their way slowly to the front of the fireplace.

'Let me make this bench more comfortable for you, ' said Regina as she released her grip and moved to arrange the soft furs.  

She had barely started her work when she heard the thump behind her and she turned to find Svanhilde kneeling upon the floor, body slumped over in exhaustion.

Her head was bowed and her hair had parted at the back of her neck while the neckline of her dress had pulled down slightly.  

Nauseated, Regina took in the deep gashes and seeping wounds which crossed her skin, some of which were filled with dust and straw.  They mingled haphazardly with both newer and older scars some of which were raised and thickened as a result of multiple lashes having been delivered to the same spot.

Despite the red fabric of Svanhilde's dress, Regina could see the thick lines of crimson blood that had seeped through the material, some dry, some fresh.  

Regina knew immediately that it was she that had delayed Svanhilde's journey home; she that had kept her from her other duties; she that was to blame for the injuries that had been sustained.

'I am so sorry, my Svan, ' she whispered as she drew her hand to her mouth and the tears began to fall.

'This is not from your hand, Regina, ' panted Svanhilde quietly.

'No.  It is from my selfishness of wanting you near to me when you have a responsibility to others....'

'I would never deny us another evening like the last, ' she offered through gritted teeth, 'no matter the cost to myself...'

'You will not be tardy or absent again, no matter the circumstance....'

'But, if you are in need....'

'My need and want of your presence is constant, but it is not worth your safety or, perhaps, even your life....'

'But....'

'Please, my Svan, do not require that I command it....' said Regina softly but more harshly than she had intended.

Sensing Regina's frustration and reluctance, Svanhilde fell silent, rocking herself slightly to dull the pain that had flared by their arguement.

'Give me but a moment and I will once again be at your side, ' stated Regina more gently and her words were met with a barely perceptible nod.

Regina's return found Svanhilde in the same position upon the floor, and Regina wondered if Svanhilde had been fortunate enough to escape her pain in the embrace of sleep.

Placing a shallow pan of warm water beside Svanhilde's knees, Regina also knelt on the floor pressing the front of her hips against Svanhilde's left buttock before pushing the sleeves of her gown above each elbow to expose her forearms.

'My Svan, are you awake?' whispered Regina as she leaned slightly over Svanhilde's back and pressed her flaxen hair behind her ear.  Again, she received a barely perceptible nod.

'I know that my request is bold, but I must ask you to loosen your gown so that I might tend your wounds....'

She watched as Svanhilde's left hand slowly reached to release the leather tie that lay between her breasts.  

Taking the loose material in her fingers, Regina slipped the coarse fabric over Svanhilde's shoulders slowly, working her hands gently across Svanhilde's back to release the stubborn fibers from the clotted blood.  Inch by inch, Svanhilde's sleeves lowered over her upper arms until they pooled about her elbows and the neckline slipped almost to her waist.  

Gathering the sides of the gown's bodice in her shaking fist, Svanhilde attempted to hold it closed, so that she might cover her breasts from view and feel less exposed and vulnerable as her face flushed with embarassment.  

The porcelain skin of her back was marked with scars, scabs and fresh wounds from the nape of her neck to her waistline; some of the lashes extending further beneath the cloth of her skirt and across her buttocks. 

Most of the fresh wounds were gathered together in a line that extended from her left shoulder to her right side where an angry, purple bruise extended from the impact point of the buckle.

Her skin was drawn tight over a prominent ribcage and Regina could distinctly see the single rib that had taken the worst and heaviest of the lashes.

'I must clean these wounds, please forgive me...' sighed Regina.

Delicately she extracted the pieces of straw from flesh and muscle until she could no longer get to them easily.  Satisfied that she had done as much as she could, Regina pulled the basin closer and dipped a soft cloth into the clear water to wet it.

'I must cleanse your skin to remove the dirt and remaining debris.  I hope that the water is not too warm.  This may sting....the wounds are so deep....'

Removing the cloth from the water, Regina wrung the contents onto Svanhilde's back.  She could hear Svanhilde's gasp of pain and the muffled cry released through her gritted teeth; her knuckles white as they gripped the cloth of the dress even tighter.

'I must continue to clean them or they will become infected.  It will take few more times.  I am so sorry....'

Svanhilde's head nodded slowly in permission and so Regina continued; same action, same reaction, until the wounds were clear and released only plasma and blood.  Dipping one last time into the water, she wrung the cloth almost dry before blotting it against the wounds gently, feeling Svanhilde's back flinch and arch slightly with each contact. 

'I believe the worst is over, ' whispered Regina as the palm of her hand caressed Svanhilde's bare, left side softly and unconsciously.  She continued unthinking as she collected a small jar from the deep pile of the fur beside her, only stopping long enough to uncork the top.

The salve was thick and clear.  Regina's father had used it countless times, to great effect, on the scrapes, bruises and cuts that she collected as a child, but these wounds were much more severe, and she could only hope that it might provide the same comfort and healing to Svanhilde.

Dipping her right, middle finger into the jar, Regina collected some of the balm onto the pad of her digit before placing her left hand against Svanhilde's side again. 

Again, she leaned over to speak softly, gently rubbing the flat of her hand up and down the skin of Svanhilde's ribcage completely unaware of her own actions and the wanderings if her hands and fingers as they brushed the soft side of Svanhilde's breast only to return to squeeze her hip gently.

Before she could speak, a slight moan escaped Svanhilde's lips and Regina looked down confused, knowing that she had not yet even touched the ointment to Svanhilde's skin.

It took only a moment for her to put the pieces of the puzzle together and immediately she stilled her hand.

'Please, Regina, I beg you not to stop.  It is all that gives me strength right now.....'

The only response was Regina's hand starting to move more deliberately up and down Svanhilde's side; fingers ligering briefly to massage gently into the soft skin at the side of her breasts and the side of her hip.

'Then close your eyes and concentrate only on this as I tend to your wounds, ' whispered Regina as she continued administering her soothing touches. 

She felt the slight nod of Svanhilde's head that told her that her continued actions would not be rejected, and Regina brought the salve to raw skin with her other hand, filling the cracks and cuts with gentle strokes of her fingers.  

No longer did Svanhilde's back arch or flinch.  Her only reaction was the bumps of skin that raised in response to Regina's touch which encouraged and emboldened her fingers' exploration.  

As Regina's fingers slipped to Svanhilde's right side, to the most severe and painful of her wounds, her left hand dared to move further as well, brushing against Svanhilde's nipple that had already hardened into a stiff peak before grasping, pinching and twisting gently.

She could feel the fabric of Svanhilde's dress release slightly as she allowed herself to indulge in the pleasure being provided by Regina's hand and Regina took the opportunity of Svanhilde's distraction to ensure that her bruising and fracture was well tended with the medication.  

As Regina finished her work, she felt Svanhilde's left hand laid atop her own left to still its motion.  Tugging gently, Svanhilde replaced their hands in a different location; this time, above her heart.

'Thank you, My Queen, My Regina, ' she breathed, squeezing Regina's hand strongly before her arm dropped to the floor and she slumped exhausted, the weight of the past several hours no longer able to be kept at bay.

Grasping Svanhilde's dress once more, Regina lifted it up and replaced it upon her shoulders carefully before moving the items she had used to treat her injuries to the side and then sitting upon the floor, back leaned against the bench.

'Come, Svanhilde, ' she whispered softly, 'rest your head upon my lap and sleep.  You need to heal....'

Patiently, Regina watched and waited as Svanhilde slowly resituated herself, laying on her left side, knees drawn up towards her chest, cheek resting on Regina's thigh.  Her hair spread about her shoulders and Regina's legs, covering her face.

With the tips of her fingers, Regina drew the strands of blonde hair away from Svanhilde's visage and pressed then behind her ear so that she might gaze upon her beautiful countenance and she smiled gently as she saw her closed eyes; the tension that was previously in her brow now erased.  Softly, she trailed her fingertips over Svanhilde's cheek and watched as her eyes fluttered open tiredly.

'Will you read me a story, Regina?' she asked quietly.

'A story worthy of your ears does not exist upon these pages, My Svan, but, perhaps I may tell you of a beautiful place that exists only in my dreams?'  asked Regina as her fingers continued pressing gently through Svanhilde's hair.  'The vision came to me on the same eve as the swans appeared to me as a child.  I believe it is the place from which they came, but I cannot be sure.  The memory was almost lost from me, but the dreams returned again the night after we met in the forest, stronger and more beautiful and more complete than ever.  It is an amazing land of magic and mythical creatures....'

'I would like very much if you would tell me about this place, ' sighed Svanhilde as she again closed her eyes.

 


 

'I hope that the land of which you speak exists and that I might someday see it, ' offered Svanhilde quietly after Regina finished describing the dream which she had never told to anyone. 

'As do I, ' offered Regina softly. 'Perhaps someday we may see it together....'

'I would very much like that, ' drowsed Svanhilde as she nestled in further, falling sound asleep.

Chapter Text

The Castle of the High Queen, Kingdom of Uvhir - Present Day

 

Summer had passed quickly into Fall and Fall into Winter. The days had grown cold and short with only a few hours of daylight piercing a, seemingly, perpetual darkness.  

A constant, blowing snow lingered and swirled in the air, penetrating structures, clothes, skin and bone, occasionally increasing and decreasing, but never-ending....

'Regina, the winds are strong and the snow falls heavy.  I have silenced the forge and must be on my way, if I am to return to my village and home tonight, ' said Svanhilde as she lit the newest sconce in the library and descended the steps of the ladder.

'I am afraid that time has passed, ' responded Regina as she continued her concerned vigil at the window.

'The snow lays heavy in the air and in the boughs of the trees, and the window of opportunity has closed swiftly.  Not even Rocinante may see you home safely now.  The snow will pass by morning, and then, you may go safely, but you must stay here tonight....' finished Regina as she turned to look into Svanhilde's eyes, which were filled with dread and foreboding of what she would endure upon her return.

'But....' replied Svanhilde in panic.

'Please do not make me order you, Svanhilde....'

Svanhilde's brow furrowed at the formality of her address, but realized quickly that it was Regina's fear for her safety that made her now so adamant and determined.  Even Svanhilde knew that a brief flogging was the lesser of the two evils; one resulted in gashes which Regina might tend gently; the other in frostbite or even death. 

Regina chewed her bottom lip nervously as she continued watching the slowly deteriorating conditions.

'I am at your command,' replied Svanhilde after only a moment's hesitation, tipping her head in respect.  'You know that I would do anything that you ask of me....'

'Thank you, Svan.  I know, already, that I ask too much of you and have brought you significant pain, but I am truly afraid this evening....' 

'Please, Regina ' said Svanhilde as she touched Regina's arm gently, 'come away from the window and be at ease.  I will remain at your side for the night....'

Walking over to the hearth, Regina sat upon the floor, leaned on hip and hand, atop the great, bearskin rug that was situated between the bench and the fireplace.  Smiling gently, she patted the floor beside her and beckoned to Svanhilde,

'Come and warm yourself by the fire.  There is food and drink enough for both of us to share,' encouraged Regina.  'Do not forget that you promised to do anything that I asked of you, ' she finished with a teasing smile and received a small, huffed laugh and shy grin in return.

Quickly, Svanhilde made her way over to the fireplace and sat atop the rug facing Regina. 

Svanhilde's eyes could not help but take in Regina's dress of deep burgundy which was lined with a silver brocade and cuffed with fur.  

The cut and fabric of the cloth and the color and smoothness of Regina's skin was all accentuated ten-fold by the firelight, and Svanhilde could not take her eyes off the beauty that sat in front of her.  It was as if she was looking upon a goddess and she prayed that she was not dreaming.

'Please eat,' encouraged Regina softly, 'you know how I worry about you...'

Holding out her free hand, Regina offered a bit of cheese and meat on a crust of bread which Svanhilde took only tentatively.  She chewed the bite slowly, watching Regina's eyes, before washing it down with a sip of wine from a pewter cup which they shared.

'You know that I should not share your food, Regina,' offered Svanhilde dejectedly.  'They bring only enough for one, and I have jerky in my bag of which I can partake so that you may eat your fill....'

'Each time, you say this, and, each time, we manage.  Allow me to worry about you tonight...' said Regina with a shy smile as she offered another small bite of food from her fingers.  

This time, as Svanhilde tried to take it with her own hand, the food was withdrawn. 

Furrowing her brow, Svanhilde attempted again to take the offering, only to find it withdrawn a second time.  

Looking up, she saw a playful grin dancing on Regina's lips, and she realized it was a game that she played.  Svanhilde had seen it played before, but only by young lovers and she knew not if the expectation was the same.  

Unsure what else to do,  Svanhilde leaned forward, hands planted firmly on the ground, closing her eyes and opening her mouth slightly.  She felt the slight tug of delicate fingertips on her lower lip as Regina deposited the morsel upon her tongue.  As it has been in the barn, Svanhilde could not remember a more delicious bite.

Holding the chalice with one hand and supporting the base with the other, Regina offered a sip of wine,

'May I quench your thirst?' she offered softly.

Leaning forward, Svanhilde continued to stare into Regina's eyes as the chalice was brought to her lips and she drank a satisfying draught from its basin before the pewter cup was withdrawn and placed upon the hardwood floor.

'Tell me a story?' asked Regina as she looked into the gentle, green orbs that had become so familiar and welcome to her over the past several months.

'There are many stories in this land, Regina. What would you have me recount?' asked Svanhilde quietly as she refused to avert her eyes from the gaze that had brought her so much peace and happiness over the same time.

'Perhaps, we should simply write our own story?' offered Regina as her face leaned close to Svanhilde's. 

'And what would the premise be?' asked Svanhilde softly as her lips brushed against Regina's and her breath warmed her chin.

'Courage....and beautiful love....' replied Regina on a breath before closing the remaining distance and capturing Svanhide's lips boldly with her own. 

The returned kisses of Svanhilde were tentative at first; the hesitant explorations of a new lover, but it was not long before she sought more.  Pressing her tongue forward, it was accepted eagerly by a warm, wet mouth and the gentle caresses of Regina's tongue as their kiss deepened and lingered.

Finding Svanhilde's hand with her own, Regina laid it atop her breast, encouraging her to take a next step.  Reluctantly breaking their kiss, Svanhilde bowed her head embarrassed as she spoke her next words on a panting breath,

'I have never been with another, Regina,' she whispered hesitantly, 'I will be but a disappointment to you...'

'Nor have I,' responded Regina as Svanhilde looked at her perplexed. 

'I have surprised you, I see,' Regina continued as she looked up shyly through her lashes with a slight smile.

'But you could have had any...' replied Svanhilde in disbelief.

'Perhaps, I was simply waiting for you....' offered Regina as she looked at Svanhilde with imploring eyes, 'and I can only pray that what I have to offer you is acceptable....'

'I am fairly certain that you have less to fear than I,' sighed Svanhilde sadly.

'If it pleases you, we may determine that together,'  offered Regina hopefully.

'There is nothing that would please me more, ' breathed Svanhilde in reply. 

Emboldened by their shared lack of experience, Svanhilde took the leather tie at the top of Regina's gown between her fingers, and pulled gently to release the bow that had been secured there.   Regina looked down briefly at the bodice of her gown before looking back up between her lashes

'Promise me that you will not stop, ' she begged quietly. 

'I could not tonight...even if I wished, ' replied Svanhilde as her index finger found the first cross of leather and pulled the stands from the grommets.   Pressing her lips firmly against Regina's, Svanhilde kissed her deeply and passionately as her fingers found each of the remaining braids and released the taut fabric from about Regina's breasts and stomach.   

Breaking their kiss,  Regina looked down again to see the open bodice of her gown which now exposed a deep 'v' of olive skin that extended from the inside of her nipples to her navel, and she chewed her bottom lip nervously as she looked at Svanhilde expectantly.

'So, so beautiful, ' offered Svanhilde reverently as her index finger traced slowly from Regina's collarbone,  between her breasts and down to her navel before repeating the pattern in the opposite direction. 

'May I?' Svanhilde asked as her eyes looked to Regina's and the tips of her fingers slipped beneath the collar of the open gown, indicating what she hoped to do.  Regina nodded in silent agreement and caught her breath as the fabric pulled away from her collarbone and Svanhilde's mouth found purchase there instead. 

Kissing and sucking gently, lips trailed lightly over skin which Svanhilde felt raise into bumps in response.  Slipping her fingertips further under the fabric,  she pressed out, pushing the heavy velvet over Regina's left shoulder and halfway down the top of her toned bicep.   Squeezing the top of her arm gently, Svanhilde scraped her teeth lightly over the skin of Regina's shoulder earning a quiet moan in response.

Breaking their kiss to catch her breath, Svanhilde rested her forehead lightly against Regina's collarbone.  Looking down, she could see Regina's firm breast which had been exposed by the movement of her gown and she reached her hand so that her fingers splayed against its soft side.  Drawing her thumb downwards she tugged gently at its already hardened peak before pressing upwards and then tracing the pad several times around the surrounding coin of rigid, darkened skin.  Immediately the memories of the forest came to her and Svanhilde couldn't help but break their silence.

'I have wanted to be with you since the day that I saw you in the stream,' she whispered quietly in confession.

Smiling gently, Regina responded just as quietly,

'I know.  I could feel you there...'

Raising her head, Svanhilde looked at Regina with puzzled eyes.

'I have felt you with me for as long as I can remember, but I knew not how to find you...On that day,  I knew my wait was over, ' said Regina as she reached out to press a strand of long blonde hair behind Svanhilde's ear, trailing the side of her index finger across her jaw before withdrawing her hand and bowing her head. 

'But you told me once that you love another...' replied Svanhilde sadly.

'To whom do you think my heart belongs?' inquired Regina quizzically as she took Svanhilde's hand from her breast and placed her palm gently over her heart instead.  She held both of her own hands tight over Svanhilde's, unwilling to let go.

'I have waited an eternity to give myself to you and only you.  I am yours complete, if you will have me...' said Regina hopefully as she raised her head to look into Svanhilde's gentle, green eyes that now sparkled with a fire all their own.

'Then let us not wait another moment,' replied Svanhilde as she leaned forward again to try to recapture Regina's full lips with her own.

She was startled when she found Regina's palm pressed into her chest, holding her back gently, and she looked into Regina's eyes, concerned that she may have misunderstood or, worse, imagined the words that she had just heard. 

'Please do not do this only because I ask, ' implored Regina. 

Smiling gently,  Svanhilde cupped the side of Regina's face, brushing her thumb over her cheek several times before drawing it softly across her bottom lip.

'I don't do it because you ask, Regina,' she said quietly, 'I do it, because I love...'

Guiding Regina's face gently with her hand,  Svanhilde  leaned forward, bringing their lips together again in a searing kiss.  Parting her lips,  she pressed her tongue deep into Regina's mouth caressing her tongue over and over again. 

Her head in a beautiful haze,  Svanhilde finally broke their kiss, panting,  and rose to her knees,  offering her hand to Regina to encourage her to do the same.   

Keeping Regina's gaze, but speaking not a word, Svanhilde slipped her fingers beneath each collar of Regina's dress,  sliding the fabric slowly down her toned arms,  over her delicate wrists and past her fingers, leaving the fabric to hang at her waist and her olive skin to indulge in the light and warmth of the fire. 

Dipping her head, Svanhilde continued watching Regina's eyes until the last moment when her warm mouth covered an already hardened nipple that became even more rigid with the attentive ministrations of her tongue.  

Closing her eyes,  Svanhilde allowed herself to indulge in the decadence of Regina's body and was rewarded with the feel of Regina's fingers slipping through her hair and holding her head gently to her breast,  encouraging Svanhilde to continue her explorations as Regina allowed her head to fall back, face to the heavens. 

Releasing Regina's nipple with a soft pop,  Svanhilde's mouth moved to the neglected breast, sucking gently and teasing relentlessly while her hands moved to Regina's back, fingers splayed, massaging and kneading the skin and curves of Regina's sides before slipping down to grasp her hips and draw their bodies closer together.  

Finally satisfied that she had provided sufficient attention to Regina's full and resplendent breasts,  Svanhilde again raised to her knees, slipping her hands into the waistline of Regina's gown.  

Watching her eyes for permission and seeing it received,  Svanhilde pressed the fabric slowly over beautifully curved hips until it pooled about Regina's  knees and her gorgeous body was accentuated further by the firelight.

She could see Regina trembling slightly and her eyes grew concerned.

'Have I done something wrong? ' asked Svanhilde in a shaking voice, 'I told you that I have no experience, and I fear that I have hurt you or that you are afraid of me.... '

'I am scared only that I disappoint you, ' replied Regina softly as she crossed her arms over her breasts. 

'Then you have not yet experienced true disappointment, ' replied Svanhilde trying to lighten the mood, 'forget not that I have yet to remove my dress, ' she finished with a teasing smile.

Her reward was only a shy and hesitant turning of one corner of Regina's lips and she could almost see the tears forming under her lower lids.

'How can you not know how beautiful you are, Regina?' begged Svanhilde in a whisper.  'I will spend my life and longer proving it to you, if you will let me.  I beg you, Regina.   Let me show you just how beautiful you are to me, ' finished Svanhilde as she smiled softly in assurance. 

Looking into the comforting eyes of her lover, Regina released her arms and reached to wrap them about Svanhilde's shoulders and neck kissing her strongly, needfully and urgently as their bodies pressed together.

Wrapping one arm around Regina's back and one around her waist, Svanhilde pressed her body forward urging Regina to lay back against the soft fur of the rug as her other hand tossed aside the gown that had burdened them for too long.

Leaning over the length of her body, Svanhilde placed a hand to each side of Regina's head before lowering herself to touch her lips to Regina's ear.

'You are, and always will be, my Saviour and my life,' she whispered on a breath before lifting her body to kneel between Regina's legs.  In a single, deft movement, she crossed her arms over her sides and lifted her threadbare gowns over her head before tossing them aside and bowing her head. 

'It is now I who should apologize for being a disappointment, Regina,' stated Svanhilde sadly.   The scars of a hundred cuts covered her chest and wrapped over her shoulders and under her arms to her back where there lay a hundred more scars to provide them with company.  Her ribs showed beneath the pale skin of her sides and her stomach was hollow from too many years of too little food.  The arms that had guided Regina's body were frail and thin as were the legs upon which she knelt, but her green eyes burned with passion and strength that was undeniable.

'I see only the beautiful woman to whom I will pledge my life and my love,' whispered Regina comfortingly.  'You will never be a disappointment to me.....'

Encouraged by her words, Svanhilde settled her weight upon her heels, grasping Regina's hips firmly and pulling her body up so that her shapely ass now rested atop Svanhilde's thighs.  The position arched Regina's back from the floor, and she earned a gasp of pleasured surprise in return.

Reaching forward, Svanhilde placed the flat of one hand against Regina's heart before drawing it down between her breasts and over the flat of her stomach where muscles twitched and jumped slightly in anticipation.

'What would you have me do?' Svanhilde pleaded quietly.

Within the a single heartbeat,  she had her reply,

'Whatever you desire....for I am yours....'

'I desire only to bring you happiness,' was offered as Svanhilde slipped one arm under each of Regina's thighs, wrapping her forearms over the tops of Regina's legs, and hoisting her further into the air so that she was supported only by Svanhilde's arms and her shoulders against the softness of the fur.

Watching her lover's eyes intently, Svanhilde lowered her head and dipped her tongue once into the dark, coarse hair between Regina's legs.  Swiping her tongue lightly, she separated her warm, soft, wet lips barely enough to taste the juices that now bathed her tongue and she heard the sharp gasp of excitement escape Regina's lips.  Tracing the tip of her tongue about her own lips, Svanhilde knew immediately that she would never find, in all the lands, a sweeter wine than the one that lay in the cup before her and she wanted desperately to drink her fill.

Supporting Regina strongly, she used her fingers to expose Regina's clit before bowing her head again and covering it with her mouth.  Sucking softly, she swirled her tongue, flicking it quickly and teasingly over the bundle of nerves that stood in rapt attention and hardened further with each passing stroke.  She watched as Regina's eyes fluttered closed and her hands searched for purchase, entwining in the thick hair of the rug and forming fists with such might as they turned her knuckles white.  

Regina's gasps quickly turned into deep pants marked occasionally by a soft moan, stifled with only partial success, as she tried not to draw attention to their lovemaking.

Continuing her incessant teasing, Svanhilde could feel Regina pressing firmly against her mouth searching for a pleasure that she would readily and willingly provide.  Reaching out to grasp Regina's searching hand, she entwined their fingers and was rewarded with a look of passion, adoration and love which she had never before experienced.

The lone word, 'please', played on Regina's lips and Svanhilde nodded slowly as she worked her mouth, lips and tongue strongly to bring Regina to the beautiful edge she sought.   Her arms wrapped more firmly around Regina's thighs to hold her bucking hips as she exploded into orgasm behind clenched teeth and closed lips and Svanhilde held tight, continuing to lick and suck and tease until Regina's body was spent and she sagged in exhaustion.  Placing a last, tender kiss against Regina's swollen, twitching,  pulsing clit, Svanhilde helped to lower her body to the rug before hovering over her and catching her lips so that Regina may taste that same sweetness that she'd had the pleasure of enjoying.  Their kiss was deep and probing and she felt Regina's tongue trace her lips and chin until every drop had been consumed. 

Settling lightly atop Regina's body, Svanhilde held her tightly in her arms, laying an ear to her chest to hear the strong beating of her heart and providing her with what little protection she had to offer as Regina recovered slowly from their lovemaking.  

As they lay, she could feel Regina's fingertips tracing the scars on her back lightly.  The pain had subsided long ago, but the memory of every lash remained and she prayed that the deformity of her skin would not be offensive.

Eventually, Svanhilde settled onto her back beside Regina who turned to rest her head against Svanhilde's chest and shoulder.   She was held tightly by Svanhilde who would lower her head occasionally to place a gentle kiss in her hair and Regina couldn't help but smile, though it was short-lived as her fingers once again found the dips and protrusions of the lashes across Svanhilde's chest.

'I am sorry that I couldn't spare you from all of this pain, ' murmured Regina as she looked up sadly into Svanhilde's face.  Looking down, Svanhilde smiled back at her kindly.

'I would suffer a thousand more lashes, Regina, if I knew that they would always bring me to this day, ' she replied surely as she gazed deep into Regina's brown eyes and leaned down to kiss her lips.  

As their passions escalated and tongues explored hungrily once more, Regina's hand slid across Svanhilde's skin; her eager palm finally lighting upon a small, but firm, breast which she kneaded strongly, feeling Svanhilde's nipple rise quickly into a stiff peak which she grasped between her thumb and forefinger, twisting, pulling and pinching gently, at first, then more strongly to match the intensity of their desire. 

Slipping her hand further down, Regina's fingers pressed through the tight, blonde curls that were already soaked with abundant wetness, and she was amazed that her unpracticed hands could evoke this kind of response. 

Emboldened, she pressed her middle finger slowly between warm lips and began to rock the tip back and forth against Svanhilde's swollen, hard clit. 

Gasping strongly, Svanhilde's head swam with pleasure, and she broke the kiss that she was no longer able to return sufficiently.  Leaning her forehead against Regina's, she rocked her head slowly from side to side as she closed her eyes and tried to memorize every brush of her lover's fingertips.  Reaching up, she let her own fingertips trail from Regina's shoulder down the length of her arm before covering Regina's hand with her own. 

Together, they played light circles about her clit before Svanhilde guided her hand further down and their fingers slid inside her warm, tight entrance.  They pressed and withdrew their fingers to their full length several times before returning to tease her hardened bud, repeating the pattern several more times until the words 'please' fell from her lips and Regina moved her hand to quickly and lightly wave the flat of her fingers over Svanhilde's clit one last time. 

'My Queen!' was exclaimed behind gritted teeth as Svanhilde's back arched strongly from the floor and her eyes fluttered closed in ectasy as Regina continued her incessant teasing,  repenting reluctantly only when Svanhilde collapsed in exhaustion.

 


 

They made love in front of the fire for hours that night, until they created a perfect union of their souls and their bodies were spent.

The fire still crackled and popped as Svanhilde pulled the furs up to cover their naked bodies.  Settling in behind Regina, she drew her tight against her front, unwilling to allow even a breath to come between them.  She could feel Regina's body relax as her breathing slowed and deepened.

'I love you, My Queen.'

'And I love you, My Beautiful Svan.'

These were the last words whispered into the dark stillmess of the room before they drifted off to sleep in each other's embrace.

In the hearth, a fire burned bright and warm though there were no logs to be consumed in the grate and somewhere in the distance, an eagle screamed..... 

 

Chapter Text

The dawn of a new day broke over the horizon, and the sun cast its rays over the deep and drifted snows which surrounded the castle. The wind had calmed and the few flakes that remained in the air were drifting down from the high branches of the trees in the forest.

Inside the library, Regina snuggled deeper under the furs unwilling to let go of the night.  There was a chill in the air, and the warm presence that she had felt behind her all night as she slumbered was noticeably absent.  Reaching back, she slid her hand beneath the hides seeking the reassurance of Svanhilde's soft touch.  Her hand had not far to go before it touched warm skin.  She smiled and sighed deep as she felt a wave of comfort that all had not been a dream.   Keeping her eyes closed, her fingers moved lazily and lightly over smooth skin which was stretched tight over solid muscle.   Furrowing her brow,  Regina sensed immediately that something was not right.  Opening her eyes,  she turned slightly to glance over her shoulder. 

In an instant,  she was wide awake and she scrambled to her feet,  grabbing a fur from the top of the pile which she used to try to cover the front of her naked body as she pressed her bare back against the side stone of the great fireplace hoping for some protection.  She felt dangerously exposed.

Regina's eyes were wide as she looked upon the woman that still lay sleeping, nestled into the fur of the bearskin rug.  She was fully uncovered and naked, and her face was turned away from the fire, but her golden hair fell thick and rich over her back and shoulders.  The porcelain skin of her back was without blemish and incredibly muscular, and Regina's eyes followed the smooth waves of her spine from the nape of her long neck to the small of her back and over the tight, ample curve of her rear.  A tight waist gave way to small hips which led to long legs with solid, thick thighs and muscular calves.  Broad shoulders, striated with muscle, extended her arms above her to support her head as she slept and her well-defined biceps and triceps relaxed and contracted slightly as her hands flexed into fists unconsciously beneath her head.

'How dare you lay beside me in this bed unwelcome, Stranger!' hissed Regina through gritted teeth.  'You are not invited here!  What have you done with My Svan?'

The woman barely stirred at the sound of her voice, readjusting her body slightly before falling back asleep.

'ANSWER ME, DEVIL!!  WHO ARE YOU AND WHY DO YOU LAY IN MY BED SO FAMILIAR?!?!' Regina repeated more loudly, so as to assure a response.

The woman opened her eyes groggily, disturbed by the noise around her, but still not recognizing it as words.  Shifting her weight slightly, she turned her head to look towards the fire and her brow immediately furrowed in concern.

'Regina....you seem afraid,' said a familiar voice as the woman turned onto her side and propped herself onto her elbow, looking deep into the brown eyes that she loved and worshiped. 

'Come back to bed and let me warm you.  It is cold and you will catch your death.  What has scared you so that you would leave my side and now look upon me with fear?'

Regina's mouth fell open slightly in disbelief as she stared into familiar, deep green eyes. She was stunned to silence by the woman upon whom her eyes gazed, and she could only open and close her mouth silently, trying to find any words of explanation.

Svanhilde kept her eyes fixed on Regina and pushed herself up to her feet; the look of concern growing exponentially with each passing moment.  As she raised to her full height, Regina drew a breath and could breath only a single word,

'Svan?'

'Who else would it be, Regina?' she responded perplexed.

'I know in my heart and soul that it is you that stands before me, but you are not the woman that I remember from only hours ago,' she said in reverent amazement as her eyes lowered to look at Svanhilde's body.

Following Regina's gaze, Svanhilde looked down as well, and her eyes went wide.  

Her breasts, small before, had a new fullness and firmness.  Her hollow and thin stomach had been replaced by solid abdominal muscles which dipped and rose in clear separation contacting and twitching as Svanhilde breathed in and out heavily, trying to control her mounting concern.   The dip of the muscles at the tops of her hips pointed to the apex of her thighs where a small, thick patch of golden curls lay, and the muscles of her thighs stood at rigid attention.  The frail arms that had supported Regina the evening before were now full, hard and strong, and the scars of the whip that had crossed her chest only yesterday had faded on the ivory skin of her chest which was now flawless and smooth.

Looking up at the same time, they locked their gazes and stared in silent confusion, trying to make sense of a situation for which they had no explanation.  Before they had time to speak, however, the word 'FREYJA!' was barked outside the door and Svanhilde snapped her head in the direction of the sound only a moment before Regina did the same.

'I am home from my travels and you will join me for breakfast when the sun is full above the horizon.  We have urgent matters to discuss,' came the emotionless, and almost cruel, voice of a woman.

Turning to Svanhilde quickly, Regina whispered desperately and fearfully,

'You must go!  It is the High Queen, and she has returned earlier than expected.  She cannot find you here, or we will both be lost.....'

Not bothering with a response and unable to wrap her mind around everything that had and was happening, Svanhilde reached for her dresses which she threw over her head.  The fabric which had swayed light on her body before now clung tight to her skin and the seams of the arms pulled tight, threatening to break. 

Frantically, she searched for her quilted long coat which was the only thing that she owned to protect her from the biting cold outside.  Finally locating it, she slipped her arms inside and tied it in front.  It had been a discard from one of her brothers and still hung somewhat loose, offering an adequate disguise....for the time being.

As Svanhilde dressed, Regina had done the same, and, now, they stood before each other, hesitant to part despite the imminent danger and uncertainty they faced.  Stepping close, Regina brushed the backs of her fingers against Svanhilde's cheek and looked into her familiar green eyes in wonder.  Her fingers tingled and warmed quickly at the contact.

'I cannot explain what has happened to your physical form, Svanhilde, but I know that it is you and that your heart has not changed.  I feel your love now more strongly than ever.  Give me time.  I will study these books that surround us for an answer, but for now you must go.  If the High Queen has returned, then the snow has abated and the way will be clear.  Do not return until I send word that it is safe.....'

Svanhilde nodded her head hesitantly.  She knew that Regina's words were right, but she knew not when she might see her love again, and it pained her heart greatly.  

Stepping forward, Regina slipped her hands beneath the heavy coat that draped Svanhilde's shoulders and wrapped her arms tightly about her lover's torso.  She could feel the muscles of Svanhilde's back contract and relax strongly under her fingers as strong arms encompassed her, pulling her close.  She smiled sadly as she felt Svanhilde's lips nuzzle into her hair, and she placed a gentle kiss upon her head.

As Regina looked up, Svanhilde's head dipped slightly and she touched their lips together gently, seeking one last kiss and one last moment of closeness.

'Regina, you are my Saviour, my life, my love and my Queen,' whispered Svanhilde softly before placing a soft kiss on her forehead.

'I am yours always, My Beautiful Svan,' sighed Regina as she released her hold reluctantly.

'Now....GO!' she commanded desperately and Svanhilde turned on her heel, quietly opening the door and disappearing down the hall of the castle.

 


 

'My Queen,' murmured Regina timidly as she curtseyed deeply and tipped her head in respect.  

Receiving no response, and expecting none anyways, she raised again to her full height and looked down the length of the table where the High Queen, its lone occupant, sat eating small bites of food. 

'You are late and your food has gone cold.  I should burn that library to the ground.  Perhaps, then, you will listen and respond when I give you a command,' she spoke disgustedly without looking up from her plate.

'Mother....' gasped Regina.  Immediately, she realized her mistake, and she was met with a glare of anger that made her blood run cold. 

'I am sorry, My Queen,' replied Regina quickly in an effort to rectify her blunder.  Stepping to the opposite end of the table, Regina waited as a servant pulled the chair from the edge and bowed low indicating that she may take her seat.  Once comfortable, she nodded to show that it may be moved again closer to the table.

'Be gone,' said the High Queen to the servant with a dismissing wave of her hand.  Bowing again, he moved through the door, closing it behind him and leaving them alone in the room.

'I have received disturbing news, Freyja, ' the High Queen started as soon as the servant was gone.

Swallowing thickly, Regina awaited the next words with dread, unsure of what may have been seen, or worse, told by nefarious or vengeful mouths.

'The raven has foretold great peril.'

Silently, Regina breathed a sigh of relief.  She did not subscribe to the old ways and did not believe in the gift of sight.  Even if the power existed, she doubted that the High Queen was its vessel.  Had she been, then perhaps, her Father might still be alive.  Still, the pretense and illusion of magic had the ability to make those closest to the Queen deeply afraid.  Their trepidation of her abilities was widely known, and it kept her remaining subjects in line, lest they suffer her wrath.   Fear was a very powerful weapon, too often wielded by the weak.

'A warrior has awakened with a strength and power yet unseen in this land, ' she continued. 'They are a danger to this Kingdom and must be eliminated,' she finished coldly. 

Regina stopped chewing mid-bite and looked down at her plate fearfully, gripping utensils tightly in her fists.  Her eyes had seen the inexplicable transformation of her love only an hour ago, but Regina could feel Svanhilde's heart and she knew it to be gentle and kind, not fierce or combative.  Surely, her love was not the person of whom the High Queen spoke, and she dismissed it as coincidence, though she could not shake the feeling of uncertainty and dread that had been planted in her mind.

'I will remain at the castle for now, as will you, Freyja,' she added severely.  'We will await word from the scouts who have been sent forth throughout the Kingdom to eradicate this pestilence from our midst.  You are not permitted to leave until I have been told that it is safe.'

Placing her elbow on the table, she looked out the window over the forest, tapping her lips thoughtfully with her forefinger.

'I fear this threat may be closer than we think....' she offered before tossing her napkin upon the table, rising from her seat and walking from the room leaving Regina alone at the table.  

Within a moment, Regina exited as well, returning to the library to try to find answers to her ever-increasing number of questions.

Chapter Text

High Castle, Kingdom of the Enchanted Forest - Present Day

The King's Advisor slouched in the fur covered chair of his chambers.  Arms resting on that of the chair, he watched intently as the fire danced in the great hearth.   

His silk tunic lay open exposing his muscular stomach and chest that was covered in straight, thick, dark hair.  The ties of his leather breeches had been loosened allowing them to be pushed down to his ankles where a whore knelt at his feet trying, unsuccessfully, to give him pleasure.   

He was a handsome man.  Steel-blue eyes were surrounded by thick, dark lashes, all of which were shrouded by dense, prominent brows.  His strong jaw, chin and upper lip were covered in about three days of stubble which joined longer sideburns and blended into a dense thicket of black hair that was parted on the left and lay tussled about his face.

A goblet hung from his fingertips filled to almost overflowing, and his eyelids were heavy with too much drink.  Still, he continued to bring the cup to his lips, thoughtlessly and lazily, causing some of the burgundy liquid to drop upon his chest and the face of the prostitute.  She giggled at his clumsiness, but her laughter was not shared.

He wore a scowl upon his lips as he pondered his situation.  The King must be replaced, of that, he was certain.  He had been held too long in His Majesty's shadow.  It was HIS skill and counsel that had brought the Kingdom to its current glory, yet the laud was given only to the King.  The King was but a pawn in a larger and longer, strategic game.  A pawn that had outlived its welcome.  Yes, the King must be replaced.  He just needed the opportunity to show itself. 

The Advisor's annoyance and agitation rose as he looked down at the whore.  She was useless, just as so many others had been to him; unable to give him the outcome that he deserved and had been promised as his own birthright.  

As she looked up at him, biting her lip seductively, he became enraged.  Drawing his right arm across his body, he swung hard, cracking the back of his hand against her cheek and knocking her to the floor.  Terrified, she raised to her elbow, trying to pull herself away and crying in pain.

'Be gone from my sight, you incompetent bitch!' he hissed, waving his hand dismissively.  Sobbing, she pulled herself to her feet and grabbed her tattered clothing from the floor.  She was hit hard in the head by several coins that had been thrown from the direction of the chair.

'Here is for MY trouble,' he sneered, 'dress outside and close the door behind you....'

Retrieving her coins, she hurried to the door, holding her clothing to her chest, doing as he had instructed and leaving him alone. 

Leaning on his elbow, he supported his chin with his thumb and curled his fingers in front of his mouth, losing himself in thought again.  He was soon interrupted by a banging and scratching sound.

'BE GONE!' he barked again as he rose from his chair, pulling up his pants and drawing them closed tightly, 'OR I WILL PAY YOU IN FLOGS OF A WHIP!!'

Starting towards the door,  he realized suddenly that the sound was not coming from in front, but from behind.  Turning around, he saw a shadow moving quickly and randomly against the frosted, diamond-shaped panes of the window.  As it continued its incessant banging and scratching, he squinted hard trying to determine what it might be.

Shaking his head to counter the effects of the alcohol, he crept slowly to the window.

Grasping the iron latch, he twisted it and flung open the sash, jumping back in anticipation of an attack.  Instead, a large raven, finally able to catch its footing, lighted on the sill.  It stared intently at the King's Advisor with narrow eyes.  Shaking its foot a small, rolled piece of parchment tumbled to the floor falling from the tether on its leg.  Satisfied that its work was done, it spread mighty wings and leapt from its perch, allowing the breeze to lift it into the sky and away over the forest.

Cautiously, The King's advisor knelt, still watching the window for signs of the raven's return.  Seeing him no more, he grasped the piece of paper between his thumb and forefinger, unfurling it to its length.  He read the entirety of the message twice before throwing it into the fire.

The moment that he had been waiting for had finally come....

 


 

'Again, ' ordered the master swordsman in a frustrated tone as he waited for the Prince to retrieve his sword from the ground for the third time.  The hilt was barely secure in the Prince's gloved hand before the instructor advanced again, driving him backwards down the wide marble path towards the fountain that was situated in the middle of the courtyard.  The loud clatter of steel filled the frozen air as the blades of their broadswords met over and over in attack and defense.  Frustration and fury grew in the Prince's eyes as every swing of his sword was effortlessly deflected by the instructor, and he lunged forward haphazardly trying to find victory and flesh for his blade.

Stepping back strongly following another failed volley, the shallow wall at the base of the fountain hit the Prince's calf, causing him to falter for an instant.  

It was all the opportunity that his opponent required.  

Grasping the lapel of the Prince's doublet,  the instructor threw him roughly to the ground before holding the tip of his blade to the Prince's throat and lifting his chin with the broad metal edge. 

'Your anger and inattention will be your undoing, my Prince.  It makes you clumsy and shortsighted....'

The Prince stared at the instructor, flaring his nostrils, enraged at the embarrassment of his situation. 

'Do you submit?' the instructor asked calmly.

A single, curt nod was given and the blade was withdrawn.  Offering his hand, the instructor helped the Prince to his feet.

'We are done for the day, ' declared the instructor as he raised the hilt of his sword to his face in salute and bowed curtly before turning on his heel and walking off, leaving the Prince to ponder his defeat. 

Looking to the far side of the courtyard, the Prince saw his Father, and King, standing with his Advisor and tipped his head in acknowledgement.   

The gesture was returned immediately by the Advisor, but was barely acknowledged by his Father who turned, instead, to look out over the thick forests of his Kingdom which were dotted here and there with settlements large and small.

Expecting nothing more,  the Prince grabbed his sword one last time from the ground and sheathed it before briskly making his way back to the castle.

 


 

'Your son improves,  Your Highness, ' said the Advisor as he stepped close to the King's side. 

'Hmmmm, ' replied the King distractedly, as he continued to survey his lands.   His mind was far from his current circumstance and there was a look of great sadness in his eyes. 

'What troubles you, My Lord?'

'I cannot help but believe that she is still out there somewhere....'

'Your Highness,' the Advisor said with a frustrated sigh, 'it has been almost 28 years. 

We have searched kingdoms far and wide for any news of her whereabouts, and our scouts have returned no information to give us hope,' adding hesitantly,   'Perhaps it is time that we assume the worst....'

'I promised her mother, the Queen, that I would keep her safe, ' the King responded as he placed his hands upon the stone railing and bowed his head in shame. 'I failed her....'

'My King, I know that it is hard for you, but do not forget that you still have a son.  He is ready and willing to give you rest and take the throne, ' stated the Advisor earnestly,  'He will make a fine King, ' adding quickly, '...just as you once were...'

'Once. Were?' repeated the King slowly and deliberately as he turned to look coldly at his Advisor.

'Sire, I meant no offence,' stuttered the Advisor, 'I only meant that.....'

Holding up his hand, the King cut him off.

'For over 30 years, your Father and I broke bread at my table.  He was like a brother to me and, as such, I have kept you like a son.

Upon his death, I promised him that I would look after you.  In return, he instructed you on the ways of the Kingdom so that you could provide me with counsel when he was no longer able.  

Make no mistake, though, your advice, while sage, does not compare to that of your father.

You are only slightly older than my son and, as such, lack experience and knowledge in the true ways of the world.  Your counsel, and that of my son, is fallible and not always welcome......'

The Advisor swallowed thickly and ground his teeth as he bore the insults and degradation being heaped upon him.  His only consolation was the knowledge that his father had failed in his quest, and the spoils of the victory, which would arrive as sure as the message did upon the raven's wing the night before, would be his and his alone to enjoy. 

'Sire, you know that I have always tried my best to serve you and the best interests of this Kingdom, as did my Father before me...' he offered in mock humility while tipping his head in deference.

'It will do you well to remember that I am still in command of this great Kingdom.  It is I who will decide what is in its best interests, and I who will decide when my son is ready to take the throne.  That day does not lie in our immediate future. Not, at least, while closure eludes us....'

Pausing momentarily he added, looking directly into his Advisor's eyes,

'Do not be so quick to remove me from the throne,  Killian.  Some might be inclined to mistake your concern for personal ambition....'

 

Chapter Text

'You did quite well in your lessons today, Sire,' offered Killian encouragingly as he stopped in the doorway of the Prince's chamber.  

He bowed deeply at his waist, smiling slyly at the floor, as he waited to be acknowledged.

'My Father does not seem to share your opinion, ' grumbled the Prince as he removed his heavy gloves and threw them to the floor.   

Pacing back and forth in front of the balcony windows, he kept his back turned to the door and said no more. 

Unwilling to wait any longer for an invite and having business to discuss, Killian stepped into the middle of the room to continue their conversation. 

'Fathers will always see fault more readily than achievement, ' responded Killian thoughtfully,  'plus,  you know that his mind is occupied with other matters...'

'Yes, yes, ' said the Prince disgustedly, 'his mind is always occupied with other matters, and his thoughts are always elsewhere, yet they are always in the same place.... with a long-dead girl and on a damnable promise that he made my mother....'

'Your Highness,  it is not easy to lose a child...' implored the Advisor. 

'And yet, he loses another, more and more everyday, right before his very eyes...' responded the Prince coldly. 

The conversation had taken a very welcome turn, and Killian was more than willing to capitalize on the situation. 

'If it pleases you,  My Lord,  your Father seems to be finding significant fault in both of us these days, ' offered Killian.

'And why would that please me?' the Prince said with a huffed chuckle of amazement.   

He paused a moment before adding with a wry smile, 'But I will be damned to the fires, if I don't tell you that it makes me, at least, a bit happier.'

As he said the words, he broke out in laughter and was joined immediately by Killian.

'Perhaps we should commiserate together then, my friend, ' said Killian as he clapped him heartily on the shoulder and waved his hand at the massive flagon of fresh ale that had recently been brought to the table.

'Nothing would please me more, Brother, ' said the Prince as he lifted the pewter tankard that had been poured to the rim. 

Tipping the draught back, he emptied the contents in massive swallows, while Killian took his time, watching closely over the rim of the cup.

'Another!' demanded the Prince with a laugh as he slammed the mug back onto the table.

Refilling the tankard again to the brim, Killian motioned them to the two chairs in front of the fire where they could indulge in more comfort and leisure.  

He grabbed the flagon from the table before following behind the Prince.  He needed him to have a loose tongue and a foggy mind.

They laughed and drank for awhile, but with the coming of evening, the mood turned somber again, and the laughter that had been issuing forth from the Prince's lips soon silenced as the same frustration and anger that had been there before seeped back into his veins, joining the copious amounts of alcohol.  It was awhile before the Prince spoke again.

'He is an old man, no longer fit to lead his own soldiers into battle or to rule this Kingdom, Killian.  For how long do you think he will continue to deny me my birthright?' asked the Prince as he stared into the fire and swirled some of the remaining liquid at the bottom of the tankard.

'You know that he will not relent until he is certain of her passing, Fredrick, ' stated Killian matter-of-factly.

Standing up quickly, the Prince teetered on his feet a bit before walking to the fire and throwing the alcohol in the flames.  A loud hiss was heard and the flames dimmed slightly before rekindling to their former height.

'I should be inclined to go myself and bring back her bones to drop at his feet, if it means that we can be done with this charade, and I can claim what is rightfully mine...' he spat disgustedly as he turned to look Killian in the face.   'I grow tired of playing hand maiden to the deceased.....'

Rising from his chair, Killian took his place by the Prince's side.  Shoulder to shoulder, they stood looking into the flames.

'Fredrick, I have news, ' sighed Killian,  'I did not trouble your Father with it yet, as I know how this type of thing fills him too often with false hope....'

'Yes, but you may speak candidly with me.....'

'Of course, ' replied Killian with a tip of his head.  Drawing a breath, he continued, 'I have received word from the East regarding people that have information about your sister.....'

'Do you believe it rumor?' questioned Fredrick.  'We have chased down too many an empty grave...'

'I believe it comes from a reliable source with whom my father has done business in the past, ' replied Killian as he glanced to the side to see the Prince's reaction.  'If this turns out to be true, then this may well prove to be the chance that you are seeking....'

Returning to his chair, the Prince fell down hard into it to ponder his options and opportunity.

'Where is this place that you speak of?' asked the Prince.

'It lies far across the North Sea.  Conditions are harsh in those lands.  The people are not as tame or civilized as we are here.  It will require significant preparation, and the soldiers must be ready for a difficult journey, though we should not seek to send many, lest we be mistaken for a threat....'

'I do not wish a battle.  I wish only to provide him the closure he seeks so relentlessly,'  offered Fredrick dryly.

'Of course, My Lord, ' acknowledged the Advisor readily, 'we will send a few of our finest men.'

'No.'

'No, Your Highness?' questioned Killian in a startled voice.

'No, ' he repeated definitively, 'I will no longer leave my fate in another's hands.  I will lead these soldiers over the seas, reclaim my sister's bones and bring her home.  My father cannot deny me once my work is done.'

Killian tipped his head at the Prince's words hiding a deceptive grin.

'As you wish, Sire.'

'Now, go, ' ordered Fredrick, 'there is much to be done and very little time to do it.'

Nodding once again, Killian turned and began walking to the door.  Half way across the room he paused, turning again to the Prince.

'Sire?'

'Yes, Killian?'

'As I said before, your father is prone to false hope.  He may be inclined to join us if he knows the true nature of our journey, and this trip will not be borne well by a man of his age and health.'

'Yes, ' replied Fredrick, 'I believe you to be right in that regard.'

Thinking on it a moment, he offered a solution.

'We will tell my father that we are travelling as a gesture of goodwill to those kingdoms that have supported his reign.  I will tell him that you are coming with me as his Ambassador.  

Our party will be small so he will have no reason to suspect otherwise.  It will lengthen our journey significantly, but it is time that I make myself more familiar with the people who will become my strongest allies in assuring the continued safety of this Kingdom.'

'Well spoken and thought, My Lord.  I will be honored to be at the side of my future King,' offered Killian as he bowed deep at the waist.  'I will take my leave now to select the finest among your men to accompany us....'

Turning on his heel, Killian exited the chambers, barely able to contain his mirth as he closed the door behind him.  He was yet another step closer to his victory.

 

Chapter Text

It had been over a week since Svanhilde had heard anything from Regina beyond a cryptic note warning her to be cautious.   Each day she would return to the blacksmith shop in hopes of finding another message hidden at her workbench that would assure her that her beloved was safe. 

A constant, blowing snow still lingered and swirled in the air, and while the stalls remained open for trade, all had their heavy, hide curtains drawn about them to keep the weather at bay.  The blacksmith shop was no exception. 

As the twilight faded into night at mid-afternoon, Svanhilde sat at her small bench in the shop working an intricate design into the still-warm metal that lay before her.  Her mind was a million miles away, recounting every detail of the night that she had spent with Regina in her arms.  Every touch, every kiss, every gasp, every release was recalled in vivid detail and her heart swelled with the knowledge that her love was not one-sided.

She loved and was loved in return.

Despite the beauty of the night, though, her mind reeled from the revelations that had been brought by the dawn, and she prayed that Regina had found some answer in the books of the library that would explain her startling transformation.

So consumed was she by her thoughts that she didn't notice Agni until he stood right before her.  

Looking up, she noticed that he teetered very unsteadily on his feet and his eyes were glazed over.  His movements were erratic and his clothing was disheveled as a result of a recent bar fight; the evidence of which was manifesting rapidly in a swelling eye.  The stench of alcohol was overpowering and Svanhilde wondered how he was even able to remain standing.

'Has the Freyja tired of her dog so soon?' he slurred vehemently.  'Your presence here costs me money and annoys me.  I prefer you at the stronghold of the castle.  At least I do not have to look at your ugly face.....'

Svanhilde remained still and quiet, not wanting to provoke confrontation.

'You have embarrassed me in front of our High Queen and the Freyja, ' he bellowed. 'They see you as an equal to me in skill and stature by selecting you to carry out their work, but you are nothing more than a slave and an unfree.  You are no better than the whores of the village and you will learn your place.'

Enraged, he grabbed her, pulling Svanhilde from her stool before twisting her arm behind her back and slamming her face down against capstone of the broad, surrounding wall of the hearth that extended from the oven. Grabbing her other wrist he twisted her previously free arm back as well, holding both wrists tightly in one hand.  Reaching down, he quickly bunched her skirt over her back before clawing and tearing at her undergarments.

She was stronger than before,  but not strong enough to overpower a brute of Agni's size.  Her hands, drawn behind her back and held firmly, were of no use and could not be budged. Agni was blinded by anger and desperate for an outlet to his rage and frustration. It had made him even stronger.  It also made him sloppy. 

Despite her current position and the consequences that her retaliation might bring, she was unwilling to acquiesce.  What had been so beautiful between she and Regina would not be soiled by the filthy hands of another.   Unsure why, she closed her eyes and focused on her love and a calm washed over her while a thrum of new strength radiated from her core to her limbs. 

As Agni reached to open his belt, Svanhilde opened her eyes. The spark of the hearth danced on the glassy surface of her pure green orbs, but it was dimmed by the lightning like sparks that danced within them in time to the beating of her heart. 

Finding her opportunity, Svanhilde slammed her boot down with the force of four men, crushing the arch of his foot with the sharp edge of her heel.  Caught off guard, Agni yowled in pain and teetered, releasing his hold just enough to allow Svan to raise her upper body and throw her head back, catching the crown of her head on the bridge of Agni's nose with a sickening crunch. Warm blood spattered about the hearth and onto the back of her dress, and Svanhilde found her hands freed as Agni drew his own to his nose. 

Lunging forward, she grasped an iron from the side of the pit; end glowing from having been buried in the hot coals.  Wheeling around, the red-hot tip left a stream of residual light before making contact with Agni's temple, rendering him still on the ground. 

Svanhilde knew not if he was alive or dead and had no time to be bothered with the assessment. 

Assuming the worst, she collected herself enough to run.  If he was dead, she prayed to Odin that no one saw.  She had changed physically.  Her clothes, until now, had protected that fact.  Her mind was growing sharper each day and it seemed as though her heart and soul were the source. The mere thought of her lover drove strength into her veins.

Should she be caught, she could not explain this to the Elders.  Any mention of Regina would endanger the life and position of the woman she revered.  Their love was forbidden. Two women.  Royalty and a common slave.  It was not to be tolerated.

Further, the revelation would only serve as another bundle thrown on Svanhilde's pyre.

The magic of which she would speak was unknown and unknowable to her and her people. She would be tried as a heretic and a practitioner of dark magic, though she knew not what she had done to instigate its  presence.   She would be accused of challenging Odin himself, and she would pay dearly and painfully.  No, she would hide in town and wait the night.  By daybreak, word would reach her ears of Agni's fate. She would decide then what to do.

 


 

As the first light of dawn seeped across the horizon of her frozen home, Svanhilde lifted her head.  She need not open her eyes.  She had been awake all night pondering her fate and the fate of Agni.

Straining her ears, she heard the first, timid sounds of the waking village.  Over the next hour, the volume grew, but not beyond that which Svanhilde was accustomed to hearing.

No screams of fear, cries of treachery or  tears of remorse were expressed, and the name 'Agni' was not uttered by any passerby.  

Svanhilde remained still, listening only, for the next hour.  Hearing nothing of note, she rose from her position and crept quietly to the entrance of the barn where she had hidden.

Opening the door only a crack, she looked toward the Blacksmith's stall.  The day was clear and the curtains had been drawn back revealing the apprentice that Agni had taken to fill the absence left by Svanhilde.  The apprentice went about his work quietly and calmly showing no indication of concern or caution.  

Looking to the ground where Agni had fallen, Svanhilde could see that he was no longer there.  She hoped that this was a positive sign.  Perhaps, Agni had wandered home to tend to his wounds and sleep off his draught of meade.  Perhaps he had moved to the whorehouse having been left frustrated and unsatisfied by Svanhilde.  Perhaps he had simply wandered to a nearby barn and passed out.  Hoping for the best, she watched for only a moment more for any signs of danger.  Sensing nothing, she opened the door far enough to allow her to slip out into the path between the stalls and barn. 

Looking left and right, she saw no obstacles to her intended path, and so she lowered her head and made her way quickly toward the wood where she soon disappeared between the trees.

Chapter Text

Svanhilde crept along the side of the longhouse, sticking to the shadows as much as possible.   Stopping for a moment to collect herself, she saw and heard quickly that the chores had been left unattended since the previous day.   

In their pens, the pigs rolled about in their filthy straw trying to find warmth, while chickens pecked fruitlessly at the icy ground hoping for a morsel of seed.   In the barn, the horses showed their disapproval and hunger through agitated neighs and the stomping of hooves to the ground. 

The rubbish heap was piled high with burnt bits; evidence of more than one unsuccessful attempt at cooking the supper, and she wondered if these men would ever eat at all, if it were not by her hand. 

Svanhilde sighed as she considered her situation.   Regardless of Agni's fate,  the punishment for these simple transgressions would be harsh, and she could only imagine what lay in store for her.  The Freyja's name would not protect her this time.

Reaching the back door, she lifted the latch quietly, barely opening the heavy wood and slipping quickly into the shadow of the interior.  Turning, she placed two palms firmly against the door to prevent it shutting too loud.  She dared not draw attention to herself before she had a solid alibi in hand, and, currently, she had none.

Turning back to the room, she dared look up and was met with a sight that she feared more than any punishment. 

Sitting across the table from her father was Agni.  His temple was burnt, bruised and bleeding, and he stared at Svanhilde with a vengeance in his blackened eyes that could not be mistaken.  He had been denied and humiliated, and he expected someone to pay.  There was little doubt in her mind who that person would be.

'COME HERE, GIRL!' demanded her Father who was looking at her with equal disdain. 

Slowly, she made her way to the end of the long table that sat in the middle of the room.  There she stood, head bowed, waiting to be addressed again.

'Agni has relayed a disturbing tale that I would scarcely believe were he not my oldest and most trusted friend.....' her Father started, trying to keep his calm.

Awaiting a response or reaction, but receiving none, he continued,

'He tells me that, yesterday, he found you drunk and belligerent in the Blacksmith stall.  When asked to leave, you denied your state and turned on him viciously, assaulting him with a fired rod and breaking his foot as you tipped a cart of rocks in an attempt to escape your due punishment....'

Astonished, Svanhilde raised her head to look at her father.  Her mouth was agape as she looked alternately between he and Agni.  She could scarcely believe her ears. 

'He LIES!' countered Svanhilde vehemently.  'It was HE that was drunk, and he tried to have his way with ME!  If he was injured, it was in defense of myself as I attempted to thwart his advances!'

After considering Svanhilde's words for a moment, both Thorin and Agni burst into laughter.

'You wish me to believe that my oldest friend would have any interest in your worthless, ugly cunt?!' laughed Thorin incredulously.

'What I say is true....you MUST BELIEVE ME!!' Svanhilde implored again.

'SILENCE, GIRL!!' Thorin bellowed at the top of his lungs. His laughter was no more and his visage displayed an unpleasant scowl.

'You dare to call one of the most respected warriors in the village a LIAR?!?!'  he asked astonished.  'Even after he has brought proof of your actions?'

'What proof could he have?  No one else was there!'

Immediately, Thorin threw several large flasks upon the table which clanged heavily as they bounced randomly across the surface.

'We found these hidden among the hay of the barn.  One of them is my own flask which has been missing for some time, filled to the top upon its disappearance with some of the most expensive and potent ale in the Kingdom.  Now, it lays empty before us along with these others.  What say you now, Girl?'

'I have told you what I know to be truth.  I know not from where the flasks have come, but they were not put there by my hand,' replied Svanhilde slowly through gritted teeth.  

She could only imagine that they had been planted by Agni to lend more credence to his outrageous lie.

'See, Thorin,' Agni offered loudly, 'I told you that she would lie to deny her vice and avoid her punishment!  I have smelled the alcohol on her before.  This is not the first time!  Her only advantage was the element of surprise....I never suspected, therefore, I could not defend!'

'I have heard enough,' said Thorin as he rose to his full height from his chair.  Looking directly at Svanhilde, he passed his verdict. 

'You have committed a crime against a member of this clan, but not of this family.  As such, your punishment is not mine to decide.

You will be taken before the High Council in the village tomorrow and they will hand down a punishment that is befitting of your crime.'

'How can you not believe me?' begged Svanhilde with tears in her eyes, 'I am your daughter!'

'You are no daughter of mine, ' countered Thorin as he turned his back to Svanhilde. 

Looking over, a sadistic smirk was wiped upon the lips of Agni as he considered all the possible ways that her punishment might be carried out.  As victim of the crime, he would be allowed a say in its manner of execution.

Unable to breathe, Svanhilde ran from the table and burst through the back door of the longhouse.  She had barely stepped outside when one of her brothers blocked her path.

'I hear you like the ale, Thorinsdottir, ' he stated tauntingly, 'too bad we didn't know or we might have invited you to partake with us in the barn.  It might have made you feel, at least, a bit better about taking this punishment on all of our behalf.  I know I feel better about you taking the punishment on MY behalf, ' he finished with a huffed laugh.

'Funny thing about the drink and your connections.....it makes you feel invincible,' he offered.

Grasping her chin between his index finger and thumb, he raised her head roughly so she would look into his eyes, 'Not feeling so invincible without your Freyja now, though, are you?' he said with a sadistic smirk.

The brothers laughed heartily at her misfortune and predicament as her brother flung her chin to the side and wiped his hand on his tunic.

Barely able to see through her tears and unable to focus her mind enough to provide a coherent response, Svanhilde pressed forward with her shoulder, trying to break through the wall of bodies in front of her.  She just wanted to go to the barn so that she could indulge in the silence that would allow her to think of what to do as she awaited her fate in the morn.

Stepping back slightly, her largest brother braced himself and shoved her backwards so that she stood in front of them once more. 

'I asked you a question, bitch!'

Breathing deeply, Svanhilde clenched her hands into fists several times trying to calm herself as she looked up through her lashes with a rage in her eyes.

Stepping forward, her brother stood almost chest to chest with her.  His hot, stinking breath bathed her face as he whispered once again, harshly,

'Not feeling so invincible now, eh?'

He barely saw her move before the fingers of her right hand wrapped around his throat tightly and lifted him to his toes.  

His eyes were wide with fear, and he scratched and clawed helplessly at her hand as he tried to relieve the unrelenting, vice-like grip that was constricting his airway.  Looking desperately to his brothers, his eyes pleaded with them to help, but they remained frozen in place, mouths agape, as they tried to make sense of the sight before them. 

Maintaining her grip, Svanhilde turned them both around and slammed his back against the side of the longhouse. 

'I will no longer be your plaything,' she offered through gritted teeth, 'when I return, so help me, I will....'

Her world went black before she was able to finish her sentence, and she crumpled to the ground in a heap as her father stood behind her with the shovel he had used against the back of her head.

'Hoist her upon my horse,' he ordered his son who was kneeling on the ground, rubbing his neck and swallowing huge gulps of air that he had been denied just moments before. 'I will take her to the village myself TONIGHT!'

Chapter Text

The cold wind was sharp upon Svanhilde's face, and the sun almost offensive to her eyes as it shone bright through her lids. She was acutely aware of a throbbing pain at the back of her skull, and her arms, wrists, hands and fingers were frozen and stiff as a result of their position. Her knees ached as they rested upon a rough and splintered surface, and her buttocks sat hard upon her ankles in an effort to relieve the pain.

A murmuring of voices carried in the air as Svanhilde's head lulled against her bicep, and she tried valiantly to pull herself from her forced slumber in an effort to hear the conversations that the breeze carried. She failed many times to awaken before her lids acquiesced to open only a slit and her rolling eyes stilled.

Her first glance was to the heavens where she saw that her wrists had been bound tightly above her head by heavy, iron shackles. A short length of chain connected her cuffs and was passed through a thick iron hoop, held tight to a sturdy pole that passed through the wooden platform on which she knelt. Blood ran, clotted and free, down her arms; a result of the metal biting deep into her skin. She had no idea how long she had been in this position, but the amount of blood that had leached onto the sleeves of her dress told her that her tethering had not been recent.

Finally able to open her eyes further, Svanhilde dared to glance at the long, broad table that had been set at the edge of the platform in front of her. There sat the jurors who would decide her fate.

She was unsurprised to see Agni; same sadistic smile plastered on his lips as the previous day. Her Father had taken the chair beside, as deliverer of the initial verdict that had gathered everyone together. Various other villagers, some known and some unknown to her, also sat at the table, but it was the person that sat in the center seat that caused her to draw breath sharply and a lump to rise in her throat which could not be swallowed down.

There, seated directly in front of her, was the High Queen. Her countenance could only be described as a combination of severe and beautiful. High cheekbones were accentuated strongly by the thin, drawn features of her face while deep, rich, almost black, eyes bore a cold, calculating look under perfectly coiffed and arched brows. Her tastefully painted, full lips were pursed slightly as she considered Svanhilde, and her long, thick hair was pulled back tightly into a bun pulling the skin around her eyes flat where there might normally be the blemish of wrinkles. Svanhilde could not help but notice the resemblance of daughter to mother and, despite her circumstance, she wondered if the High Queen had once been as beautiful, kind and gentle as the Freyja.

Feeling another set of eyes staring at her intently, she dared a glance to the High Queen's left, and her heart was immediately awash with calm as she saw the brown eyes of her beloved.

She dared not show any recognition other than a working acquaintance, until she knew the nature of her crimes and trial. The High Queen was not here to pass judgement solely on an accusation of assault related to drink, of that, Svanhilde was quite certain. Even having only attended a few of these public displays in her lifetime, she knew that the High Queen would only sit the jury under extenuating circumstances.

No. Something was wrong. Something else was known, and Regina's eyes showed that she had come to the same conclusion. The look of desperation and pleading was pronounced, much like a rabbit caught in a snare, yet the subtle shake of her head told Svanhilde that she too did not understand fully what was about to transpire. As Freyja, she would be expected to sit at the Queen's hand as a silent observer, and the slight, returned shake of Svanhilde's head told her that she should remain that way, no matter what happened.

Placing her hands on the table, the High Queen rose from her seat before lifting her hands to silence the crowd. Both Svanhilde and Regina looked at her intently in anticipation of her decree.

'The woman before you has been charged with the crimes of intoxication and assault of the man at the end of this table,' stated the Queen loudly for all to hear. Immediately, Svanhilde and Regina looked at each other in confusion as they waited for additional accusations, but there were none.

After considering her words for a moment, the crowd erupted in laughter. The absurdity of charges for which the High Queen was sitting court could only point to a joke being made at their expense. Surely, this was the start of some unannounced festivities to which the High Queen and Freyja had been invited.

'SILENCE!!' ordered the Queen and the peals of laughter were immediately abated, though those in the crowd continued to look at each other in confusion and discomfort as they realized that this was, in fact, no joke.

'How do you plead to these charges?' asked the Queen as she lowered her eyes to look at Svanhilde.

'Not guilty, ' was the offered response.

'Yet, the evidence against you is overwhelming, to say the least....'

'I am not guilty, My Queen,' was repeated.

Scowling deeply at the woman before her, the High Queen considered her verdict.

'The punishment for your crime will be 50 lashes of the victim's whip.'

Immediately, a murmur swelled through the crowd as the villagers discussed the severe nature of the punishment in relation to the crime. Agni had received a worse beating from several of the drunk, village whores when he shorted them payment during a past visit to the brothel. After, he had simply gone off to lick his wounds and recount his tale of an evening well-spent and well-ended. These crimes were no different, and yet, somehow, they were.

'50 LASHES?!?!' erupted Regina incredulously as her head jerked to look at her mother in astonishment and disbelief. 'That is untenable, even for a great warrior. She will die!'

'You will hold your tongue, Freyja, ' offered the Queen slowly through gritted teeth. 'How dare you be so bold as to question my authority in front of this village? Who is this criminal to you?'

'She is nothing more than the blacksmith's apprentice who has helped me with Father's library, ' she offered quietly as she looked down and she winced at the pain of regret, betrayal and cowardice that she had just shown.

Looking up again at Svanhilde with saddened eyes, she saw nothing but kindness and love and thanks that Regina had withheld the true nature of their relationship, which assured that she would remain safe, at least, for now.

Shaking her head almost imperceptibly again, Svanhilde begged that she would say no more. She was cut off before she had the chance.

'Precisely, she is a nothing and a nobody, and you will do well to remember that before you attempt to speak again, lest you find yourself chained beside her, ' offered the Queen with a hateful look.

Satisfied that she would receive no additional interference, the High Queen turned back to Svanhilde, addressing her directly once more.

'You may find mercy, if you admit your guilt now....'

Lowering her head, Svanhilde remained silent.

'Very well then, ' sighed the Queen.

'Blacksmith, you may proceed with the administration of punishment, ' she offered coldly as she resumed her seat to watch the proceedings.

The heavy scraping of a chair against wood resounded as Agni rose slowly from the table, and Svanhilde could judge his proximity by the thumping of his boots upon the boards of the platform. As he drew closer, the light jingling of his belt could be heard as he pulled the whip from his side, and she twisted her hands in their shackles to make fists about the chains that tethered her. Keeping her head lowered, she closed her eyes tightly, bracing herself for the pain with which she was all too familiar.

Every lick of the scourge tore long slits in the thin fabric of Svanhilde's coat and dress and opened deep gashes on her back and sides.

Small droplets of blood were flicked high into the air, landing on both the surrounding platform and juror's table,as the whip was delivered and withdrawn, again and again.

Screaming through gritted teeth, Svanhilde's body twisted and jerked and her back arched forward as she tried unsuccessfully to escape the fire being branded into her skin by the hard leather. She could only wonder if her body or her mind would break first.

After ten lashes had been administered, the High Queen raised her hand, ordering Agni to stop.

Immediately Svanhilde slumped, exhausted, hanging from her chains and thanking Odin for her respite, no matter how short-lived it might be. Her head lulled against her bicep, and she struggled to wipe the tears from her eyes as her chest heaved and she gasped for breath.

'Are you ready to concede the truth?' Asked the High Queen again.

'What I have already offered is the truth. I can concede no more or no less,' offered Svanhilde wearily.

'You may continue, ' stated the Queen as she nodded at Agni.

Beside her, Regina looked on helplessly, torn between her obedience to Svanhilde's silent request and her desire to protect the woman she loved. She had seen the strongest men break under less than 20 lashes of the whip, and she was certain that her heart would not endure the loss of her beloved.

Laying his whip on the platform, Agni stepped forward. Grasping both sides of Svanhilde's coat and gown, he ripped his hands apart, taking the fabrics with him and exposing her back down to her waist. Leaning down, Agni placed his lips close to her ear and whispered,

'I told you that you would learn your place, ' before returning to his position and gathering his whip from the boards.

Several more cracks of the whip sounded, and Svanhilde found herself drifting in and out of consciousness; the bobbing of her head and the involuntary jerking of her body becoming the only reactions that she could offer.

The warmth of her own blood enveloped her torso like a blanket, and she wished only that she might lay down awhile to sleep. Several in the crowd had already turned away, unable to watch what was happening before them. The punishment did not befit the crime, and it had gone to far.

Again, the High Queen stopped Agni. Rising from her chair, she walked to the front of the table where she stood before Svanhilde.

'WAKE HER UP!' she demanded of the guards by the platform. Immediately, one of them appeared with a bucket of ice water that he threw onto Svanhilde's listless body. She gasped deeply and her eyes opened wide as the shock of the cold registered in her brain.

'Don't leave us yet, ' the High Queen taunted cruelly, 'we have barely started.....'

Drawing close, the Queen bent down to take Svanhilde's chin between her thumb and forefinger, raising her head so that their eyes would meet.

'You already know how to stop this, ' she offered helpfully, 'simply concede the truth...'

Svanhilde opened and closed her lips several times, whispering quietly.

'What is that you say, Thorinsdottir?' Asked the High Queen as she placed a hand to her ear. 'We cannot hear you. '

Mustering as much energy as possible, Svanhilde looked up through her lashes and directly into the eyes of the High Queen before speaking again. This time, her words were louder and more pronounced.

'Why bother when my truth falls only on the ears of the deaf?' she questioned before hanging her head again and panting for breath.

Enraged, the High Queen stood to her full height.

'CONTINUE!' she commanded Agni.

Agni drew back once more, but his arm was stayed by a single word.

'MERCY!!!'

Looking to the table, he could see the Freyja standing at her position with tears in her eyes.

She moved quickly around the table and positioned herself in front of her mother before falling to her knees, bending at the waist to touch her forehead to the ground.

'Please, My Queen, I beg you, have mercy upon this woman. The punishment she has already endured is befitting of her crimes, and she can bear no more. Show her leniency by sending her to live in the dungeons of the castle. There, she will serve as an example of both your capacity for authority and for compassion....'

At Regina's words, Svanhilde forced herself to look up once more. She wanted so badly to gaze upon the face of her Savior and her one true love, but Regina remained prostrate before her Mother awaiting her reply.

'Unshackle this filth from the post and bring her before me, ' ordered the Queen.

Immediately, two guards stepped forward, releasing Svanhilde from her chains.

Grabbing her roughly under the arms, they dragged her, toes scraping, and positioned her in front of the High Queen. Clamping heavy hands upon her shoulders, they forced her to her knees beside Regina, who had straightened from her prone position. Their shoulders touched and the cloth of Svanhilde's dress and Regina's gown disguised their hands from prying eyes.

Reaching over, Regina searched with her little finger, hooking it around Svanhilde's own, never daring to take her eyes from the Queen.

At the same moment that their skin touched, a warmth such that Svanhilde had never known scorched through her veins and the exhaustion that had threatened to take her just moments before was lifted as if she had slept for a thousand days and needed no more rest. The aches and pains which had coursed through her wrists, knees and head vanished instantly, and the wildfire that had raged on the skin of her back was extinguished.

Again, a murmur arose from the crowd before the piercing cry of a woman was heard.

'SORCERESS!!'

Confusion ensued as both the villagers and those on the platform looked about for both the source of the accusation and its recipient. Eventually, a small clearing developed in which stood a woman of middle age.

'SORCERESS, ' she declared again as she pointed to Svanhilde on the podium. 'Look how she heals herself!'

Following the path of the woman's finger, all eyes turned to the platform, and they watched, amazed, as Svanhilde's deep wounds resealed themselves leaving no trace of her punishment on smooth skin of her back.

A swell arose as others took up the chant as well.

Assuming the worst and fully aware of what would happen next, the Freyja offered quietly to Svanhilde without turning her head, 'You must go. Find a way to escape, or you will die.'

'Please do not ask me to leave you, My Queen, ' was the whispered, pleading response.

'There is no choice, My Svan. I know her too well. She will destroy that which she does not understand.'

Bowing her head, Svanhilde considered her options. Her love was right. If she stayed, she would surely be executed for witchcraft and sorcery. There would be no mercy for that crime. Closing her eyes, she nodded finally in acquiescence.

'I will always love you, My Regina. I will find you again someday.'

'Do not forget that promise, ' was the wavering and melancholy response.

Barely had the words left the Freyja's lips that another voice was heard above the fray.

'YOU!' hissed the High Queen through gritted teeth as she looked at Svanhilde with hatred and anger.

'SEIZE HER......IMMEDIATELY!' The High Queen shouted harshly to her guards.

Releasing Regina's hand, Svanhilde jumped to her feet, eyes darting about trying to find an exit.

'SEIZE HER, YOU INCOMPETENT FOOLS!!' the High Queen continued screaming as the guards, who had stepped back in fear, approached Svanhilde slowly and warily. Crouching low, Svanhilde prepared herself to fight until the death.

Catching a movement out of the corner of her eye, Svanhilde glanced to her right. Across the platform, Rocinante pounded the ground forcefully with his front hoof, bouncing his head hard with each impact. His nostrils flared, releasing an icy smoke with every heavy, insistent breath, and there was a determination in his eyes that was unmistakable as he stared directly at Svanhilde.

Taking off at a sprint, Svanhilde dashed across the platform, jumping left and right to avoid the guards that jumped at her feet in an effort to tackle her legs. Reaching the end of the wood, she pushed off with one foot, jumping with all of her might, trying reach the sanctuary of the saddle.

She was mid-air when the first arrow drove through her right shoulder, and past the apex of her jump when the second pierced her side.

She landed heavy and clumsy, stomach first, over the saddle; the impact knocking the air from her lungs as it pushed the tip of the second arrow back into her skin, seating the barbs firmly into muscle.

Gasping for breath and crying out in pain, she almost lost her tenuous grip upon the saddle.

Struggling mightily, she reached up with her left hand to weave her fingers through Rocinante's mane and held tight. As soon as she was secure, Rocinante reared, knocking his handler backwards to the dirt in a flurry of hooves before galloping off into the darkness of the forest, Svanhilde on his back.

On the platform, Regina was jerked to her feet by the High Queen who held tight to the tops of her arms.

'WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT HER?!?! WHERE HAS SHE GONE?!?!' screamed the High Queen shaking the Freyja's shoulders hard, as if trying to pull her from a daze.

The confusion of the moment shown in the Freyja's face and eyes, and her mouth gaped as she struggled to find the words to respond amidst all that was happening.

'ANSWER ME YOU STUPID GIRL!!' screamed the High Queen again as she slapped the Freyja hard across the face.

The look of confusion was replaced quickly with one of shock, and the Freyja's focus returned immediately.

'I know not where she has gone!' she replied desperately, wincing as her mothers fingers tightened around her biceps, fingernails cutting through the fabric of her gown and into her skin.

'SHE'S YOUR CHEAP WHORE! SURELY SHE TOLD YOU SOMETHING?!'

'You knew?' questioned Regina incredulously.

'Of course I knew! Do you think my guards have not the eyes to see and the ears to hear? I know everything that you do. Perhaps, if you do not want your secrets told, you should be less inclined to make a mockery of the Commander in front of his men.....'

'You used this trial as a means of punishing us both....' whispered Regina as the full realization dawned on her.

'But, of course, My Dear,' responded the High Queen with a sickening tone and smile as she released the arms of the Freyja, 'Two women? A Freyja and an unfree? It would not be tolerated were it to reach another's ears. She needed to learn her place, and if she died in the process, then so be it....and believe me when I tell you that I am not through with her yet....'

Looking directly into her Mother's eyes, the Freyja could see a change in her gaze. What may have started as the persecution of a lover, had now turned into something much more sinister.

Turning back to her guards, the High Queen barked her orders again.

'You will hunt that trash down like a rabid dog. I do not care how long it takes or to what ends of the earth you must go. You WILL find her and bring her to me, intact! AM I UNDERSTOOD?'

The guards around the platform and ground bowed fearfully in acknowledgement before scattering to find their horses and riding into the wood in pursuit.

Turning back to her daughter, the High Queen finished her thoughts,

'There will be no mercy when I see her again. Do you understand?' asked the Queen as her lips curled into a sadistic smirk. Receiving no response, she asked in a different manner,

'Have you nothing more to say on her behalf?'

Gathering herself to her full height, the Freyja looked directly into the Queen's eyes before offering her response.

'Yes, I do.'

'Then what say you?' growled the High Queen.

'Goodbye....'

Gathering her skirt, the Freyja ran quickly down the steps of the platform, hoisting herself onto the back of the closest stallion.

Grabbing the reigns, she kicked her heels strongly into its side to spur it forward, galloping blindly into the forest to find her lover and refusing to look back.

Chapter Text

Svanhilde slid slowly from the saddle and crumpled to the ground at Rocinante's side. 

They had journeyed for several days and nights into the deep wood, but she could scarcely recall any details of the trip as she had spent the majority of time slumped over the saddle, drifting in and out of consciousness.  She could only pray that Rocinante had led them far from danger, as she was certain that they had been, or would soon be, pursued.

Opening her eyes, she could see that they had arrived at a small house made of timber and thatch.  The small windows at the tops of the walls were dark, but the chimney that extended from the roof released a thin stream of smoke, indicating its potential occupancy or recent abandonment.  

No animals were present at the side of the house and the barn door stood open, devoid of livestock.  Only a small, fresh bale of hay and trough of clean water lay in the entrance to the barn, and Rocinante meandered over to partake of a ready meal.  The journey had been long and strenuous and his work was complete, for now.

Taking a few ragged breaths, Svanhilde forced herself to her feet.  Holding her left side, she limped slowly to the side door of the cabin, wary of any noise or movement that might signify danger or ambush.   

She had no weapons or defense.  If occupants were inside, she could only hope them friendly and compassionate as her energy was sapped, and she had no strength to fight.

Knocking several times at the door, she stumbled back slightly and waited for a response.  Receiving none, she knocked again, this time calling out,

'I mean no harm to you.  My horse has eaten your hay, and I need a place to stay the night.  You will be compensated....'

Still receiving no response, she stepped forward and lay a hand upon the door which swung inwards easily at her touch.  Entering the shelter cautiously, she searched for signs of life before closing and locking the door behind her.

Dying embers were nestled low in the fireplace grate and new, dry wood had been lain against the hearth.  Looking around, she could see that the table, chairs and mantle were covered in a thick layer of dust.  The bed was made fresh, but undisturbed.  

If someone had been there, they had arrived only long enough to build a fire, warm themselves and leave.  Perhaps, they were trapping or hunting, expecting to return home for the sup.  Perhaps they had abandoned the dwelling after gathering the warmth of the flame.  No matter the circumstance, Svanhilde required shelter to recover and tend to her wounds, and she resolved to deal with the problem of the occupants, if and when, they would return.

Reaching down, Svanhilde tossed a few of the logs onto the grate, hoping to rekindle the fire.  Within minutes, it burned high in the box again and cast a soft, warm light about the small interior.  

Able to see better, she noticed a small bag hanging to the side of the hearth.  Looking within, she found several pieces of jerky and a half-loaf of bread which was too soft to have been left for more than a few hours.  Seeing no evidence of baking, she could only assume that it had been bought at a nearby village. 

A full pitcher of water sat nearby on the floor, and Svanhilde lifted it to her nose to test its freshness.  Smelling no foul odor, she poured a bit into her hand.  It ran clear and crisp, and she wet her dry lips with a few drops from her palm before limping back to the table. 

Placing the flagon on the surface, she settled onto the bench beside, staring into the fire. 

Sighing heavily, she reached her left hand to her shoulder, finding the tip and short fore-shaft of the arrow.  Gritting her teeth and closing her eyes tightly, she pulled forward, groaning deeply, drawing the fletching closer to her back.  Twisting her wrist sharply, she heard a crack and cried out before pulling her hand away to find several centimeters of shaft and the arrow tip laying in her open palm.  Throwing it forward, the shard landed somewhere in the furs of the bed. 

Panting deep breaths, Svanhilde collected herself before reaching back again, this time, over her shoulder.  Finding the staff at her back, she used her fingers to work it, centimeter by centimeter, from her body, crying out as the jagged edge passed, finally, from her skin.  She slumped wearily on the bench, exhausted from her efforts, before tearing a strip of cloth from her skirt, wetting it with the fresh water of the pitcher and wrapping it under and over her arm several times.

Laying her flat palm against her left side, she could feel the tip of the arrow just below the surface of her skin.  Reaching behind again, she found the shaft which extended from just above her hip and attempted to press it forward as well, hoping to repeat the extraction process.  The tears fell from her eyes as, time and time again, the barbs tore at tender muscle, but refused to surrender their grip.

Frustrated, and making no progress, she again turned her wrist, breaking off the arrow close to the skin of her back.  She would need to find a healer, but darkness had descended quickly over the forest, and she would not find her way that night.  

Satisfied that the wound had reclotted around the arrow, she took bread and jerky from the bag.  Tearing ragged hunks from both with her teeth, she attempted to fill the emptiness of her hunger.  The food was consumed within only a few minutes, and Svanhilde rose from the bench to throw more logs onto the fire before collapsing onto the bed.

Lying still for a moment, she prayed to Odin that he would keep her Saviour and True Love safe from harm before her eyes closed and she fell into a deep sleep.

 


 

A rattling at the locked door pulled Svanhilde immediately from her slumbers.  She had no idea how long she had been asleep, but she could see that the sky was dark with clouds and a heavy snow.  The winds howled fiercely and pierced every crack in the longhouse, barely kept at bay by the fire which still burned high in the grate despite there being no fuel to consume.  Lying as still as possible, Svanhilde's fingers slid through the thick fur of her covers, trying to find the edge to draw it back.  Her brow furrowed as her fingers found a short stick and a quick exploration told her that this was the arrow tip which had been extracted from her shoulder previously.  

Gripping the short shaft tight in her fingers, she continued searching for the blanket's edge, finally finding it and drawing it away from her body so that she could place her feet on the ground and creep to the door.

Standing by the hinge, she watched as the inside lock turned slowly and she raised the arrow tip in her hand ready to strike at the slightest sign of danger. 

As the door opened, she stepped back, trying to remain in the shadows and maintain the element of surprise.  A cloaked figure slipped through the doorway, hood drawn up to conceal their face,  looking around cautiously as they backed against the door to close it.  

Unsure of the new arrival's intent, Svanhilde leapt forward, wrapping an arm around the strangers upper arms and chest feebly and drawing the tip of the arrow to their throat with a shaking hand.  It was a meager weapon and she hoped that her ruse would be enough to scare the person away.

'Tell me who you are, quickly, before I am forced to do something that we both regret,' demanded Svanhilde in a panted whisper.

'I am someone who feared that 'someday' might never come,'  replied the stranger in an all too familiar voice as their hands dropped the saddle bags that they held and lifted to the hood of the cloak, sliding it back to fall over their shoulders.

'My Regina, ' whispered Svanhilde in thanks and relief as she released her hold and dropped the tip of the arrow to the ground.

Turning around, Regina reached out immediately to catch Svanhilde under the arms as she began to collapse to her knees, helping to lower her gently to the floor.

'How did you find me?' asked Svanhilde weakly.

'Against, my mother's command, I followed you into the wood.  I knew that Rocinante would bring you here, but I rode a day further to lose the guards that pursued you, and me, relentlessly.  When I was satisfied that I was no longer being followed, I returned to this place, passing by the healer's house on the way for medicine, praying that I would find you still alive....'

'I know not who or what I am, Regina.  I am afraid, and I wonder that you should leave me here to rot, lest I bring you harm...'

Placing her fingertips beneath Svanhilde's chin, Regina raised her head gently to look into her eyes. 

'I know who you are, My Svan.  You are My Love and My Life.  I would rather stand in harm's way or die a thousand deaths than to be parted from you again.  I am not afraid of you....' she whispered softly and assuredly.

'But we must tend to these wounds, or I fear that I might lose you again, ' finished Regina definitively.

Helping Svanhilde to her feet, Regina wrapped Svanhilde's left arm about her shoulders, gripping her waist and supporting her weight as they made their way slowly over to the bed.  Once there, Regina lowered Svanhilde to sit at the edge.

'I must undress you to assess your wounds, My Svan....May I?' Regina asked softly.

Svanhilde nodded to provide her permission and bowed her head, leaning forward slightly to give Regina access to the back of her dress.  Grasping the torn sides, Regina pulled them apart and forward, slipping the fabric gently over Svanhilde's arms and allowing the tattered cloth to pool at her waist.  Taking one knee, Regina used her delicate fingers to unwrap the crude bandage that had been placed over the wound in Svanhilde's shoulder.   The hole left by the puncture of the arrow was ragged and the surrounding skin showed tendrils of black from the onset of infection which leached thick and yellow from the center of the wound.

'It is not that bad, ' she offered hesitantly.

'You are a poor liar, My Queen,' responded Svanhilde with a weak grin.

'Let me help you lay back, so that I might see the other wound as well...'

Working together, they settled Svanhilde more comfortably onto her back, and Regina slipped her dress over her hips and legs so that she lay naked on the bed.  Sitting beside Svanhilde on the edge of the mattress, Regina assessed the state of the wound on her hip.  The sharp tip of the arrow could be seen sticking barely out of the skin of her side and the surrounding skin showed blackness similar to her shoulder.  A mixture of blood and pus seeped from the front of the wound and ran slowly down Svanhilde's side onto the heavy rags that Regina had pulled from one of the saddle bags to place beneath her waist and buttock.

'I have tried already to extract it.  It does not budge, ' sighed Svanhilde.

'The barbs are embedded deep and hold fast, My Love.  I will have to cut it out, ' said Regina as she looked at Svanhilde with trepidation.

Entwining Regina's fingers in her own, she received her support,

'I trust you....'

Reaching into the saddle bag again, Regina extracted a sharp, hunting knife, and she thanked Odin for the fortune of having stolen the Commander's steed.  

Pulling the razor-sharp blade from its sheath, she walked to the hearth and held the metal in the flame.  Satisfied that it was heated sufficiently, she withdrew the blade from the fire and sat down again at the edge of the mattress.  Placing the sheath between Svanhilde's teeth, she positioned the tip of the knife against the skin of Svanhilde's hip and pushed in firmly while dragging downwards making a shallow incision.

Biting hard into the leather, Svanhilde grasped the mattress in her fists trying to stay still.  She moaned loudly around the sheath as tears ran from the corners of her eyes and beads of sweat broke out upon her forehead. 

Separating the skin and muscle, Regina grasped the tip of the arrow wiggling it gently to try to free it from its position.  After several attempts, she felt the metal give way and she pulled the arrow tip and remaining shaft up slowly clearing it from Svanhilde's body.  Grasping a rag, Regina covered the wound applying pressure to staunch the flow of blood and reached up to remove the sheath from between Svanhilde's teeth.

'I am sorry that I had to hurt you, ' she whispered gently, 'and I fear that I must hurt you again.  I must cauterize this wound to stop the bleeding.  A bandage will not suffice. You must hold this rag while I put an iron in the fire....

As Regina started to rise, her left wrist was grabbed by Svanhilde's right hand, preventing her from continuing to the fireplace.  Sitting back upon the mattress, Regina reassured Svanhilde once more.

'There is no other choice, My Love.  I know that it hurts.  Please let me do what needs to be done.'

Keeping her eyes locked on Regina's, Svanhilde pulled Regina's left hand to her shoulder laying her bare palm flat against the open wound and holding it there with her own hand.  Reaching down with her left hand, she pulled the rag from between Regina's hand and her skin before placing their hands together over the open incision on her hip. 

'My Queen, My Saviour and My Life, ' was all that Svanhilde whispered before she lifted her upper body from the bed, holding Regina's hands tight to her skin as she brought their lips together in a tender kiss.  

Swiping her tongue tentatively at Regina's plump lower lip, she requested permission to deepen their kiss; an appeal that was immediately granted.  Pressing her tongue forward, she found Regina's doing the same and their warm lengths stroked and caressed softly, becoming more bold in their explorations with each passing moment. 

Not desiring to break their kiss, Regina pressed forward gently, urging Svanhilde's body back onto the bed where she straddled her hips lightly.  She could feel Svanhilde's hands caressing the small of her back and Regina sighed heavily, thankful that she might still partake of the safety and comfort of her lover's touch.

Regina sat up quickly as she felt Svanhilde break their kiss, fearful that she had hurt her, but Svanhilde still held Regina's hands tight to her skin preventing her from moving away.

Green eyes unwavering from brown, Svanhilde spoke softly,

'I know not who or what I am.  I know only that I love you with all that I am and all that I will ever be, My Beautiful Queen.'

Slowly, she lifted their hands from her body, never taking her eyes from Regina,

'Please...you will bleed out, My Svan.'

Looking down, Regina reached out quickly hoping to staunch the flow of blood that she anticipated from the removal of pressure.  She froze midway, however, eyes wide, as she looked at Svanhilde's hip.  

The incision that she had made no longer marred her skin, and the black and yellow of the infection was now masked completely by the soft ivory of her skin.  

Blood that had coated her stomach and side had been washed away by invisible waters; the only evidence of its previous existence collected in the rag which lay beneath her. 

Looking up, Regina saw that Svanhilde's shoulder, too, showed no signs of injury, and any scar that might have revealed its previous existence was vanished away.  Fascinated, she reached towards Svanhilde's shoulder with her fingers, hesitating slightly before her fingertips touched the skin.

'I assure you that you will not hurt me to touch it, ' offered Svanhilde with a gentle smile.

'I-I don't understand, ' stuttered Regina as she looked to Svanhilde's face in confusion and amazement.

'Nor do I, ' responded Svanhilde calmly and thoughtfully. 

'All I know is that, when I think of you, my mind has the calm of a baby at its mother's breast. The sight of your beautiful face gives my blood the warmth of a thousand fires which no cold may temper.  Your touch is a cure beyond the explanations of the gods, and there is nothing that cannot be healed by its power.  And your love, ' sighed Svanhilde reverently,  'well...your love has transformed me into someone; mind, body and soul, that I never believed that I could be...' 

As she finished, she looked up at Regina with gentle and imploring eyes. 

'I know that I may frighten you, and I understand if you don't....' continued Svanhilde dejectedly,  but she was cut off mid-sentence by a searing kiss placed upon her lips. 

Breaking that kiss,  Regina looked down at Svanhilde with a wry grin as she gathered the skirt of her gown up so that her bare thighs rested to each side of Svanhilde's smooth, muscular hips.

'I must say that I do not believe my presence has improved your hearing...or perhaps you simply chose to ignore me when I said that I am not afraid of you....How could I ever be afraid of the woman that I love?' she offered questioningly.

Sitting up quickly,  Svanhilde wrapped strong arms around Regina's waist, turning them over so that Regina's back now lay against the mattress, legs wrapped around Svanhilde's waist and back.  She laughed quietly at  Regina's surprised look as she lowered her face so that barely a hair's breadth was between their lips.   

'I'm sorry.  I am not sure that I heard you.  Perhaps you could repeat what you said...'

Rolling her eyes and grinning, Regina repeated her words,

'I am not afraid of you...'

'No....not those words,' responded Svanhilde seriously and barely above a whisper.

Smiling softly, Regina repeated again,

'I love you, My Svan.'

Leaning down, Svanhilde kissed her lips, gently at first and then more and more eagerly and urgently; 'I love you' repeated over and over again between their kisses, until there was no longer an end to one and a beginning of another.

Reaching down, Svanhilde placed her open palm against Regina's knee, sliding her hand slowly over the outside of her thigh, willing her fingers to memorize every inch of soft, smooth, supple flesh.  Reaching Regina's bare hip, she squeezed, kneading her fingers into the firm muscle of her backside over and over, until she received a moan of approval for her ministrations.  

Breaking their kiss, Svanhilde sat up a bit, not daring stop the incessant rhythm of her fingers as she drew her left hand to the bodice of Regina's gown.  Grasping the strings, she watched Regina's eyes for any sign of disapproval as she pulled the bow apart, releasing the tension of the fabric about her torso.  Unable and unwilling to wait any longer to become one with the woman she loved, Svanhilde grasped the bottom cross of leather binding, pulling hard to release the full length of cord from the grommets and lay Regina bare beneath her as the sides of her gown fell away. 

Lowering herself again, Svanhilde touched their lips barely, moving at the last moment to drag her tongue and lips over the outline of Regina's jaw, before kissing down the side of her neck, earning a throaty groan.    She paused briefly to suck the skin above her lover's pulse point before brushing her lips slowly and softly over her collarbone and placing open-mouthed kisses on her shoulder.  She felt Regina's back arch at the contact, and Svanhilde slipped her left arm under her waist to draw her body upwards and encourage her supplication.

Threading the fingers of her right hand into Svanhilde's hair, Regina held the back of her lover's head, guiding her mouth gently to her breast; silently begging for more.  

Svanhilde kept Regina’s gaze as she flicked her tongue, barely catching the tip of Regina’s right nipple.  She watched intently as Regina's eyelids fluttered, and she gasped slightly as her sensitive nub felt the quick brush of Svanhilde's tongue.  Almost immediately, the dark skin surrounding her nipple hardened and the remaining skin of her breast rose in a pattern of bumps which continued across her chest, arms and stomach.  Continuing to lock eyes, Svanhilde flicked her tongue several more times, pressing forward slightly each time to catch more and more flesh upon her tongue. 

'Do not tease, My Love, ' was whispered imploringly as Regina begged to become one with her lover.

After several more light strokes, Svanhilde swiped the flat of her tongue against the underside of Regina’s nipple, lifting it slightly before taking the sensitive bud between soft lips.  She sucked, gently at first, but quickly increased the pressure, urged on by Regina’s hand against her head and the moans that were rapidly increasing in volume.  

As she sucked, her tongue flicked and swirled, teasing the nipple between her lips into an almost uncomfortable hardness.    Her mouth and tongue worked hard against sensitive flesh, and she was rewarded by the feeling of Regina's lower back rising further from the bed; a silent affirmation of her increasing desire for Svanhilde's touch.

Regina’s hand gripped the fur atop the mattress tightly; her left joined by Svanhilde's right as they wove their fingers together trying to remain grounded, and her hips jerked and twitched as she sought to soothe, even slightly, the incessant ache that had started to build. 

“I need more, My Svan, “ she gasped, holding Svanhilde tighter to her breast.  Her request was met by the scraping of teeth across her hard nipple, and it earned a gasp of surprise that was immediately followed by a drawn-out moan.  

Releasing her nipple with a soft pop, Svanhilde watched Regina's eyes as she released her hand, moving to place her open palm on Regina's lower abdomen, instead, feeling the muscles tense and release quickly under her touch.  

Sliding her hand down firm abs, she slipped her fingers between Regina's legs without hesitation, parting her soaked lips and tracing small, tight circles against her clit with her middle finger, feeling the bud harden and swell instantly in response to her touch. 

Tightening her grip in Svanhilde's hair, Regina held her firm so that their eyes remained locked and unwavering.  Regina’s normal color had darkened to almost black, and her pupils were blown wide with lust as she panted in shallow breaths grinding and pressing down with her hips, trying to find some relief.

'Make me yours completely, My Svan....do not deny me the strength of your love, ' demanded Regina in a low growl.

Shifting slightly, Svanhilde repositioned herself so that one leg straddled Regina's right thigh.  Moving her soaked fingers down further, the abandonment of Regina's clit was quickly met with a sigh of frustration, but it was soon replaced with a strong gasp of pleasure as she slipped one finger, and then a second, into her lover's warm, slick entrance.

Watching Regina's eyes, she moved her fingers in and out slowly, feeling the tightening and relaxation of her walls as they tugged on her fingers trying to deepen their exploration.

Sliding her thigh forward a bit, Svanhilde pressed it against the back of her hand, helping her fingers to overcome the resistance of Regina's tight walls and holding the heel of her hand against Regina's clit as it circled briefly with each push of her fingers, working the hard nub quickly into a frenzy. 

She could feel Regina grind more frantically, seeking additional pleasure, and she laid a trail of wet kisses starting at the hollow of Regina’s throat and leading down between her breasts as she tried desperately to sate her lover. 

Raising her knee, Regina placed her thigh tightly against Svanhilde's hot, wet core and she could feel her start to roll her hips slowly, spreading her wetness until she could move without resistance.  

Freeing her hands from the fur, they wrapped instead around Svanhilde's back, delicate fingers tracing random patterns on soft skin before nails scraped gently from the small of her back to her shoulders.  

Moving her hands down again, Regina massaged the taut muscles of Svanhilde's back that tightened and relaxed in time with the motion of her hips, encouraging and urging Svanhilde to not be shy in continuing to seek her own, mutual pleasure.  Sliding lower, Regina grabbed handfuls of her lover's beautiful ass and squeezed tightly, unwilling to let go.

Slowly, Svanhilde worked her way up Regina’s chest placing light kisses against her skin.  She hovered over her, face to face, breasts touching lightly as she bowed her head to capture Regina’s lips in a deep, sensual kiss that she hoped would convey the swirl of emotions that she was feeling but couldn’t verbalize.  

She moaned into Regina’s mouth as the sensation built steadily between her thighs, and she wondered how long she might hold on.  Touching her forehead to Regina’s , she closed her eyes, concentrating on their building pleasure and reveling in the closeness of their bodies, skin on skin, sliding easily and melding into one.  Emma’s breaths were coming hard and Regina could feel the warmth of her exhales against her lips and chin as Emma panted and gasped, open mouthed, above her.

'My Queen, My Saviour and My Life, ' being the only words she was capable of offering.

Bowing her head, Svanhilde touched her flushed cheek to Regina’s and she could feel the heat and dampness of Svanhilde's skin against her own as strands of thick blonde hair, wetted from the sweat of their exertion, fell around her face.  Regina felt the heat rising in her core again as Svanhilde whispered her thoughts once again,

'You are my Queen, My Love, My Life and I devote myself to you, now and forever....'

Regina could feel the ache building fast between her thighs as Svanhilde conferred her deepest desires, and she reached down to urge Svanhilde's thigh forward against her core, holding it from behind to maintain pressure against her lips and clit.  She slid easily against Svanhilde's thigh and lifted her hips slightly to drive her lover's fingers deeper and to place even more pressure against her core, simultaneously pressing her own thigh further against Svanhilde. 

Their strokes were long and fervent and both could feel their walls tightening almost painfully.  Laying their damp foreheads against each other and closing their eyes, they bucked,  twitched and jerked their hips desperately, trying to relieve their aching and achieve the union that they so desired.

'I PLEDGE MYSELF TO YOU ALWAYS, MY ETERNAL LOVE!' cried out Regina into the soft light of the room.

'OH MY QUEEN, MAKE ME YOUR SERVANT!'  moaned Svanhilde loudly in reply, pleading desperately for her own release.

Almost immediately, her words drove Regina to the edge, and they teetered there only for a moment, before both toppled over the beautiful precipice.

Surrounded by a blinding, white light, they remained suspended in time for only a moment, before a burst of energy separated them, throwing Svanhilde out of the bed and onto the floor.  

Her body slid hard against the legs of the table and chairs, scattering and knocking the furniture about the room, before all was still. 

From her position, Svanhilde looked toward the bed with slitted eyes.  She could see that Regina lay naked and unmoving, eyes closed.  Svanhilde tried to move to the aid of her lover, but she felt bound by invisible chains that were tightening their grip upon both her mind and her body, and as her eyes closed and her consciousness was taken from her, the light that had surrounded them dissipated into nothingness and all was consumed by a thick darkness. 

Chapter Text

Svanhilde opened her eyes to a dimly lit cabin.  The fire in the hearth was burned low in the grate, having reignited at some point during the duration of her unconsciousness.  

She had no idea how long she had been out, but her first thoughts were of Regina and she looked to the bed to find her naked body still there, eyes closed, unmoving.  Pushing herself to her knees and then to her feet, Svanhilde stumbled to the side of the bed, looking down upon her love.  Regina's chest neither rose nor fell.   Grasping her shoulders, Svanhilde shook her hard trying to wake her.

'PLEASE DO NOT BE GONE FROM ME, MY LOVE!' she cried and pleaded to no avail as her lover's limp body moved in her hands without resistance.

'WHAT HAVE I DONE TO YOU?!?!?' Svanhilde screamed into the air as she released Regina's shoulders and pressed her fingers through her hair, grasping handfuls of her golden locks and pulling the strands from her scalp harshly as she stumbled around the room trying to make sense of the situation.

'WHAT HAVE I DONE TO YOU?!?!?' she screamed again as she released one hand to beat herself mercilessly upon her breast in punishment.  The tears fell copiously from her eyes, dashing upon the floor around her.

Confused by her grief and unsure of what to do, Svanhilde gathered the remnants of her clothes from the floor, pulling the tattered and torn rags about her body as best she could before moving again to the side of the bed. 

Reaching down, she arranged Regina's body neatly on the mattress, weaving her fingers atop her stomach before pulling the heavy hides over her to mid-chest.  

The frozen ground would be unyielding to a shovel or pick and a pyre would surely draw attention to their location, though she briefly considered it, as her capture, punishment and death would be a welcome relief to the emptiness and sorrow that she now felt. 

Reaching down with her left hand, Svanhilde cupped Regina's cheek gently, brushing her thumb over Regina's lips which had parted slightly.

'Though my body will move, I will never again live, and I most certainly will never again love as I have loved, and will always love, you and only you.  I will devote this life to finding a way to take this curse away so that I may never hurt another. Believe me when I promise you this....'

Turning quickly from the bed, she hesitated only a moment to grasp the saddlebags from the floor before flinging open the door and stepping out into the blinding, thick snow and howling wind.....

....and with the click of the latch still hanging in the air, Regina's back arched strongly from the bed as she gasped deeply for a breath, eyes opening wide to darkness.

 


 

The tears were frozen solid to her cheeks as Svanhilde stumbled about the woods for hours.  The driving snow offered little visibility and even less directionality, but she continued moving forward slowly, not knowing where she was going, but knowing that she wanted to leave the longhouse far behind her.  

She cursed herself mercilessly for the destruction she had wrought upon the life of the only person that had ever loved and believed in her and wondered why she should be alive while Regina was consumed by an eternal slumber.  All she wanted was to be rid of the scourge inside of her so that she might never do harm to another.

Stopping briefly, Svanhilde squinted, shielding her eyes with her hand, trying to protect them from the large flakes that were falling around her.  She thought that she had caught the glimpse of a lantern, and, as the winds abated for a moment to ready themselves for the next onslaught,  she caught sight of the lamp again. 

Lifting her knees high to pull her booted feet from the drifts of snow,  she inched forward slowly, unsure of what she might find.  After an hour more of slow progress, she reached the outskirts of a clearing.   Looking up, she saw that the perimeter was lined with poles in close succession atop which were settled the skulls of boars and bears, alternately.  

The leather straps dangling from the jaws were being whipped about by the gusts of wind, and the lanterns attached below rang hollowly as they bounced against each post.  The few that were still lit struggled to hold their own against the wind and darkness.

Looking to the center of the clearing, Svanhilde could barely make out the outline of a longhouse.

The light glowed dim in the windows, but the smoke rose thick from the chimney, and Svanhilde wondered if she might warm herself and rest for an hour before being on her way again. 

She had not even knocked at the door before it was opened to her.  A man stood inside dressed in a heavy, black cloak whose hood had been pulled low to partially conceal his face.  On his  upper lip and chin grew the stubble of a beard which was a mix of brown and grey and she guessed him to be in his fortieth year, though she could not be sure.  She had barely enough time for her eyes to adjust before he spoke.

'Svanhilde...the Master has been expecting you, ' he said in a soft voice.

'H-how...how do you know my name?'

Ignoring her question, he continued,

'Please, come in and warm yourself by the fire.  You are among friends, and we wish you no harm.'

Stepping back, he smiled slightly at her,  tipping his head in benevolence and welcome.   

Still unsure of his familiarity, but too frozen to run or continue her journey, she accepted the offer, stepping cautiously inside the door of the hut.  

She continued watching the cloaked man carefully as she stepped farther into the room, which was lit with the soft glow of a well-tended hearth fire, but he remained in place,  showing no movement except to close the door and stand beside, looking quietly into the room with his hands folded in front of him. 

Pausing a moment, Svanhilde waited for her eyes to adjust so that she could take in her new surroundings.   The hut was small,  a single room with the long wall opposite the door dominated by a curved hearth and mantle around which were hung several small cauldrons that bubbled, hissed and steamed smokes of various colors.   Herbs of healing and plants of poison thrived in a large box against the short wall to her left, despite the absence of sun,  and a heavy table of cracked,  aged, worn wood sat directly in front of the garden,  laden with glass vials,  parchment,  books, quills and ingredients both foreign and familiar.   

The short wall opposite held a collection of sleeping benches, fur blankets and ancient books; some stacked high and precariously and others arranged neatly on sagging shelves.  Hundreds of dusty volumes extended to the ceiling and several feet from the wall.

The only, true pieces of furniture in the hut were two, massive high-backed armchairs that had been covered and recovered in a patchwork of leather and hide.  They sat facing the hearth, turned slightly to each other to accomodate the conversations of the occupants.  Wide, wooden arms had been worn down from years of repose and activity, and Svanhilde could see that one arm of the right chair was draped over by the cloak sleeve of an occupant, yet unseen.

'Locksley?' Came the cracked, elderly voice from the chair.

'Yes, My Master,' came the quiet reply from the man beside the door as he stepped forward into the light of the hearth.

'You should be on your way.  As we discussed, time is of the essence...'

'Yes, Master, ' replied the man named Locksley with a tip of his head before turning to the door and exiting into the cold and snow without another word.

When the door was closed, the voice spoke again,

'Come, Svanhilde, warm yourself by the fire and rest.  As Locksley has already told you, we mean you no harm...'

Svanhilde craned her neck trying to see the face of the man who now beckoned to her. 

Creeping forward slightly, she could barely make out the profile of an older man whose face was cragged and cracked with the passage of many year's time.  

'A man of my age has no quickness to offer...only knowledge, ' he stated in assurance as he sensed her drawing closer.

Leaning forward slightly, he patted the cradle of the seat to his left with a gnarled hand, offering again, 'Come and warm yourself and tell me what troubles you so deeply that you would seek me...'

'I believe you have mistaken me for another, Sir, ' responded Svanhilde confusedly as she took tentative rest in the chair beside the old man.  'I have only just stumbled upon your cottage during my journey.   I was not searching for anyone, only for warmth and rest so that I may soon be on my way.  If we have met,  then I must apologize as I do not remember and know not who you are....'

'No.   Rest assured that we have not met before, so there is no need to lament, but I also assure you that no one finds me that does not have great need or desire, ' he offered slowly while taking her hand and looking deep into Svanhilde's pained, green eyes with orbs of steel blue.

Almost instantly, a feeling of safety and trust washed over her, and she felt as if she was talking to someone that she had known for many years. 

She blinked as brief visions flashed through her mind of a beautiful young girl and a young man running at play in the once-pleasant gardens of the hut while two, older men laughed at their antics.  She knew not the children or elders though the blue eyes of one of the men told her that she might be in his presence, many years after the fact.  

Soon, the scene morphed and a young woman, so familiar to her, walked in the same yard holding the arm of the other elder in support.   There was happiness and concern as she watched his progress as if she feared that he might someday leave her alone and afraid. 

And, last,  she saw her beautiful Regina as she reached to gentle and craggy hands, the same that held hers now, to take the medicine that she had brought the previous night to treat Svanhilde's wounds.

She wanted to hold onto that picture forever, but her thoughts were interrupted by the voice of the man beside her.

'She was beautiful as a child, ' the old man offered quietly as if he had been witnessing the same scene right beside her, 'and the years that passed only enhanced and nurtured that beauty.   It is no wonder that you fell in love with her....'

'You knew her...'

'And loved her like a daughter...for all of her life....Now, tell me Svanhilde, what is it that you desire so much that you would be out on a night such as this?'

Sighing,  Svanhilde sat back in the chair and stared into the fire before bringing her hands to her eyes to wipe away the tears that were forming anew.   She had no energy or defenses to deny him the responses that he sought.  He should know the truth.  He deserved that much.

Almost silently,  she responded, 

'Forgiveness.  Absolution.   Freedom.'

'Mmmmmmm,' answered the old man thoughtfully.  'Forgiveness for her death? Absolution from your unmerited and undeserved guilt? Or freedom from what lies within...the thing of which you are now most afraid?'

Jerking her head up quickly, she looked directly at the old man, mouth open but unable to speak.

Waving his fingers,  he silenced her before she found her voice. 

'I know that you do not believe it right now, but what you possess is not a curse. For thousands of years,  men have killed for that which you have...'

'And men have died because of what I have,  ' responded Svanhilde quietly and remorsefully while shaking her head in shame.

'Mmmmmm, ' was his repeated, non-committal response.

Arising from his chair, he grasped a crooked walking stick before limping slowly to the table at the far side of the room.

'I appreciate your hospitality, but I must go.  The snow abates and I may still cover some kilometers this eve...' stated Svanhilde, discomforted and saddened by the conversation. 

Not acknowledging Svanhilde's observation, the old man hobbled back over to the center of the hearth where he placed a large,  lidded glass jar on the flat stones before retaking his seat.  Closing his eyes, he stated his next words softly and measuredly,

'Though my body will move, I will never again live, and I most certainly will never again love as I have loved, and will always love, you and only you.  I will devote this life to finding a way to take this curse away so that I may never hurt another.  Believe me when I promise you this...'

Upon hearing his words,  the tears started to fall from Svanhilde's eyes.   She could not remove the last vision of Regina's beautiful face from behind her lids and the sorrow of her deeds came flooding back anew. 

Weaving her fingers into her hair, Svanhilde rocked a bit in her seat. 

'Remove yourself from my head.  You know too much already and should know no more lest it bring you the same pain it has brought me!!' Svanhilde cried in vain.

'I see only that which you permit me to see and hear only that which your mind and heart call out.  I can help you find some comfort if that is what you want....'

'You cannot provide me the peace that I seek. It is to late....and she is already gone....' Svanhilde trailed off softly as she shook her head in defeat and cried into her hands.  

'She is gone at my hand.  Taken by this plague that infects me....'

'My Child, ' said the old man softly as he reached out to lay a worn hand upon Svanhilde's shoulder, 'I cannot fix or change  the events of the past,  but I can help to relieve you of the precious gift that you seek so desperately to abandon, if that is truly what you desire....'

'Will you destroy it?' Implored Svanhilde. 

'I have not the power to create nor destroy, but I know of the corruption, destruction and death that it may cause should it fall into the wrong hands...'

'Like mine...' interjected Svanhilde despondently.

'Believe me when I tell you that it is not to you that my mind wanders when I say those words.  I do not fear one who did not ask for, and who willingly gives away, strength and power because they do not want it or do not trust their ability to control it.  

It is others, those quite near and those yet far,  who will seek both at any price.  They care not if they are able to shoulder the weight of its responsibility.

No, I will keep it safely hidden away.  You may find someday that you need to call upon it to serve you again....'

'What would you have me do to be released of this scourge and for you to forgive me for what I have done....' begged Svanhilde as the tears fell heavy from her eyes, and she dropped to her knees in front of the old man, burying her face in his lap to hide her shame.

'It is already done,' he responded as he stroked her hair gently to comfort her.

Raising her head, she looked at him confused and he nodded towards the jar on the hearth. 

Within its confines, a white light swirled and ebbed,  bouncing against the front of the glass as it tried, unsuccessfully, to rejoin its owner and master. 

Rising to her feet,  Svanhilde walked to the jar.  

Placing her fingertips to the glass,  she watched as the frantic swirl raged against the impermeable barrier trying to find its way home. 

'It will seek you always.  Do not forget that,  ' stated the old man. 

'Then it will look forever,  ' answered Svanhilde definitively.

'Where will you go?'

'I do not know'

'There is a village,  not far from here, which has been all but forgotten.   They are part of the Kingdom, but they ask no questions and offer no information.  I know that they are in need of a blacksmith's services.   Perhaps,  you may find sanctuary there and offer your talents in return?  I assure that you will find no where safer in this Kingdom.'

Having no other options,  Svanhilde nodded her head in agreement. 

'As you said, the storm has abated, so you should take your leave before it blows again.  Your saddle bags have been filled with food and a key to the blacksmith shop lies within. There is lodging above and customers await already at your door.....'

'How may I repay you for all that you have done?'

'Why should there ever be repayment for simple kindness?  You are not in my debt, but I would appreciate your assistance, should the need ever arise...'

'I am yours always, ' assured Svanhilde with a bow, 'you need only ask...'

Moving to the door, she gathered her bags which were laden much heavier than she had left them before. With what she had seen, she questioned it not, instead, thanking Odin for the fortune of finding an enduring friend in her time of need.  

Opening the door, she braced herself against the bitter cold and snow before venturing forth, while behind, the old man moved the despondent jar for safekeeping.

Chapter Text

'WHO IS THERE?!?' demanded Regina as her hands reached out into the darkness.

She could hear the whispering of voices and could vaguely determine their direction, but,  despite her best efforts, her eyes refused to see the source.  

Unwilling to accept what she already knew to be truth, she reached to her face, attempting to lift the blindfold that did not exist.

The touch of fingers against one of her hands caused her to startle.  Flinching hard, she recoiled to the corner of the bed, slamming her back into the wall and grasping her knees as she tried to curl herself into a ball for protection.  Her actions were met with only marginal success as she struggled to draw her knees any closer than half way to her chest.  Reaching to her stomach, she could already feel the swelling of a child.

'No, no, no, no, ' were repeated over and over in a whisper as she drew her fists to her temples, rocking back and forth as she tried to make sense of all that swirled in her head. 

Waves of nausea passed over her as she considered how she might have come to be in her current state, and she swallowed hard to keep the bile down as tears of anger, self-pity and hopelessness fell from her eyes.

From her size, she estimated the passage of 2-3 moons, though she could not remember anything of that time.  

Her last memories were of the Master as he helped her with the medicines needed to treat Svanhilde's wounds and of her Svan as they made love passionately in the abandoned cabin after the miraculous healing of her wounds at their touch.  

If they had been found, she did not recall the events and could only assume that her captor or captors had kept her well drugged as they had their way with her, and she breathed a silent prayer that she had not been awake to endure the shame and degradation of their actions.

Suddenly enraged, she demanded again to the room,

'WHO ARE YOU? WHERE AM I? AND WHO IS THE FATHER OF THIS CHILD SO THAT I MIGHT KNOW WHOSE THROAT TO SLIT FIRST?  HOW DARE YOU KEEP ME HERE AGAINST MY WILL!'

Receiving no response, she continued to speak through gritted teeth as her body shook with rage.

'BASTARDS AND COWARDS!!  MAKE YOURSELF KNOWN TO ME AND PLACE A SWORD IN MY HAND, SO THAT I MIGHT THANK YOU PROPERLY FOR YOUR KINDNESS AND HOSPITALITY!

'You are safe,  Regina.   You know that no harm will come to you while you are in our care, ' came the cadence of a familiar, quiet voice as a weight was settled at the edge of the bed.

A brow, previously furrowed in anger was transformed almost immediately by one furrowed in confusion.

'Robin?' she asked quizzically. 

Bringing his hands to his face,  the man called Locksley pulled his hood from his head, letting it fall back onto his shoulders.  He was a handsome man, only five to ten years older than Regina, though his brown and grey hair belied his age.  His blue eyes danced in the light of the fire at the sight of his oldest friend and he smiled, despite the situation, at the chance that he had been given to see her again.  She was exactly as he remembered her, and her fire and spirit had only grown from what it was as a child when they had played together in the yard.

'It is me, Regina, ' he offered as he placed his hands over hers, drawing them from her face and holding them tightly in his own, 'and the Master is here as well.'

Not daring to believe, but needing to be certain, she asked her question quietly and astonishedly,

'It is YOURS?'

'No, Regina, ' he said with a gentle smile, 'You know in your heart that I would never be so bold as to take that which you did not allow.  

I loved you as a child, and, as a young man, you refused me your hand, and I understand now why.   I could never love you as she does.  

You also know that I have taken a vow of celibacy, so it cannot be mine....'

'Then WHOSE?!' She asked as confusion and panic set in again.  'Where is Svanhilde and what has happened in these months?  I do not understand!  Why are my eyes open only to darkness? How did I get here?'

Finding herself unable to breathe, Regina stopped speaking.  She looked to Robin in panic, eyes wide, as she tried over and over to draw air into her lungs.

Sensing Regina's struggle, the Master assumed Robin's place at the side of the bed.

Grasping her hand gently, he lay his open palm against her forehead before closing his eyes and mouthing a few words in repetition. 

Within time, he could feel Regina relax and breathe again in a normal cadence, and he breathed his own sigh of relief in turn.  He dare not lose her.  Her importance to the future of the Kingdom was beyond measure and her safety, as a surrogate daughter, was paramount.  Sensing, finally, that she would be able to hear and understand his words, he spoke,

'My Child, I know that you have many questions and are afraid.  There is much that you should know, but also, much that I cannot answer.  

I can tell you that what seems like 2-3 months has been only a single eve, but your tale, and hers, started long ago, even before you were both born.  If you will indulge an old man to tell you a story, just as I did when you were just a child, then all will be revealed to you.

Closing her eyes, Regina nodded her head and allowed herself to be led from the bed and settled into one of the chairs by the hearth.

Her dress was unfamiliar and loose, but comfortable and soft, and she cupped her hands beneath her stomach, already in love with the child that lay within, regardless of its status, heritage or lineage.   It mattered not who the Father was, only that she was the child's mother and she knew already that she would give her life for its safety.  

She was interrupted only briefly by Robin's offering of food.  She was not hungry, but she accepted gratefully as nourishment for her unborn child.  As she heard the old man settle in his chair, she waited with great anticipation for him to begin his story.   

'For many hundreds of years, the Kingdom of Uvhir has sought the wealth of other nations as a means of providing for its own. 

Kingdoms far and wide were scouted and raided based upon their potential to bring treasure, and I am loathe to admit it, but your Grandfather, King Leopold, was most ruthless in this quest. 

Nations unwilling to submit to his rule would succumb by a warrior's hand, and fall they did; people of the defeated lands bring taken as slaves that still live amoung us as the unfree.

Some 30 years ago, Leopold heard rumor of a Kingdom of boundless wealth in the West; more than anything ever encountered previously.  The lands were vast and contained an overabundance of the natural resources needed by Leopold to strengthen our armies and extend our reach.  Their coffers were filled with gold and gems beyond imagination, and their influence was strong.

Numerous Kingdoms, stretched far and wide, provided them with their allegiance in return for the protection of their incredible army.    

It was a daunting, but perfect, scenario; like cards stacked upon their ends.   Fell the strongest, control their armies, and all others would fall in line to maintain their protection.

The success of Leopold in securing this Western Kingdom would ensure that Uvhir's rule would be unchallenged and absolute in the known lands.

Knowing that Uvhir could not match the strength of an army as large and strong as the one described, Leopold sent forth his scouts to observe his new enemy.  As I am sure that you have been taught, the best way to defeat one's foe is to know and exploit their weaknesses.

For almost two years these spies collected information, reporting back anything that might provide advantage, and believe me when I tell you that there was much to learn.  

The castle of this Kingdom sat atop the ledge of a stone plateau which rose from the middle of a vast wood dotted by settlements, large and small.  Its situation provided defensive advantage and visibility to all four corners of the Kingdom while allowing privacy for their monarchy.   The King and Queen, Henry and Eva, were benevolent and well loved monarchs; not one subject could find fault in their rule or situation. 

They sat as equals upon the throne, even though she was the true heir by right of her birth.  They were very much in love, and it was that love that gave them their strength and power.  You see, the place in which they lived was no ordinary land.  As the scouts quickly learned, the forest itself was alive with enchantment.  It was not the typical pixies and sprites of which I speak, although, of those, there were numerous reports as well. 

The magic of which they spoke existed in the people themselves. 

As Leopold learned over time and careful observation, every person in the Kingdom he sought to conquer is born with the gift of magic.  The extent to which it manifests itself and to which each person's physical strength develops is determined by the depth of their love for another.  Those who find their 'Predetermined', as they are called by the people, are the most powerful of all. 

These are matches determined by fate, even before birth.  It is extreme rarity that these people should find each other, though.  They exist across Kingdoms and time and the chance of meeting is slim, though not impossible.  Those unwilling to settle for a love less than perfect venture out to find their Predetermined, though most never return and only a few extremely lucky or brave ever succeed.

Of course, this revelation further weakened the chances of Leopold ever taking the Kingdom.  An army with a strength bourne of love could never be defeated. 

It was some unexpected news in the second year, however, that made Leopold reconsider his tactics. 

It was during this year that the Queen gave birth to twins; one boy and one girl.  The girl, Emma, being the eldest by moments, was the rightful heir to the throne upon the King and Queen's death, and, by all accounts, she was far above average ability for her age.  

Cunning and intelligent, she showed propensity for great strength of both body and mind, even at a very young age.  

It was believed that, were she to find her Predetermimed, she could be the most powerful ruler ever seen in those lands; more powerful than even her Mother and Father combined.  And, being of noble birth, she would have the means to seek her Predetermined to the ends of the earth and time, should she so choose.  Of course, even if they were never found, any love she might have would give her the strength to be a more than capable ruler.

Her brother, Fredrick, was not so blessed by the gods.  Of only average ability, there was great fear by the people that he could be overtaken or controlled, if his sister were not to survive to assume the throne.  

Upon hearing these details, Leopold became obsessed with the power that he could have at his disposal were he to take young Emma alive.  

Knowing her potential, the desire for her return to the Kingdom would be great, and he could demand the wealth, armies and servitude of the King and Queen for her safe return without delivering a single blow.  

Of course, he had no intention of giving the young girl back. Once the transaction had been agreed, he would keep her as a slave, determined to find a way to tap and harness her great power to do his bidding.

And so, a diversionary attack was planned to allow access to the castle for his elite soldiers.  Trebouchers hurled great boulders against the castle walls, eliciting terrible damage and loss of life; including that of Queen Eva.  The King survived, but was badly hurt, and, by the time he could amass his remaining soldiers in pursuit, Emma had disappeared into the shadows.

Fearing he might be challenged by another who knew of the young girl's power and wanted it for their own, Leopold ordered the slaughter of his elite forces and spies; anyone that might have knowledge of the young girl and her capabilities.   

He ordered her sold to a family who would take her as a daughter, but show her no concession and no regard which might draw forth her abilities.  

By denying her basic comfort, then taking her to the castle and lavishing her with gifts and opportunity, he believed he might cultivate her power, as she fell in love with him as her new father and provider.

No, he was not her Predetermined and she would never love him as a woman loves a man, but, if rumor were true, she needed only a nudge....

Ultimately, his plan mattered not.  Killed in battle shortly after, the last person with knowledge of this young girl took the secret of her existence to the grave, and she was left to languish, unloved and unwanted for many years.

Of course, the rumors of Emma's existence would not be entirely squelched by Leopold's purging.  Word will always pass by mouth faster than it may be staved by the hand.  

The details were varied and scarce, jumbled like sticks, as they were passed along until lie could not be separated from truth.  Her whereabouts were unknown, and since the very few that had actually looked upon her were all dead, she could be any friend or stranger......'  

Pausing for  breath, the Master looked to Regina who sat quietly contemplating the words of his tale as her palm stroked her buldging stomach in soft circles.

'You believe Svanhilde is Emma....' she offered quietly.

'Yes, for me, there is no longer doubt.  She is of the right age, and her power is immense, albeit wild and untamed. She knows not how to use or control it....'

'Can you teach her?'

'I, nor any other in this Kingdom, is capable of teaching her.  These children are nurtured and instructed from a very early age regarding the capabilites and limitations of their magic. 

The love of their mothers and fathers helps them to grow physically and mentally stronger each day, and it gives them just enough magic and power to learn, practice and hone their skills over many years.  

Only when they find their betrothed, do their abilities and physicality blossom further, and, by this time, they are prepared for these changes. 

No, Regina.  This love and instruction has been denied for far too many years.  Whatever she had learned, it has been long forgotten, and it would take a very powerful hand to reign her now....'

'But she would only have been a babe at the time of her capture, incapable of being taught, ' offered Regina in confusion.

'Ahhhh, yes, one would think, but these children do not develop as we are used to seeing ours grow.  

As I mentioned, Queen Eva's delivery of her children was a surprise to Leopold's men. They recognized no sign of her pregnancy,  even having seen her only one month before.  

The arrival of twins would not have been easily disguised, nor was there reason for secrecy.  By the time Leopold attacked, not 6 moons later, Emma was our equivalent of 3 years old....'

'Three years?!' repeated Regina with a furrowed brow, 'with the passage of only 6 moon's time?'

'While these peoples have an incredible ability to heal their injuries, they are not invincible. 

Wounds, plagues, disease....they are still susceptible and may be taken by any, if severe enough.  

For their own safety, they are born and mature very rapidly at the start of their life.....for who is more susceptible to the devastation of illness but the unborn and the new?'

Pausing for a moment, he added,  'But...you above all should know that, Regina....'

He could see the bare nod of her head as he continued to speak,

'By around one year, the equivalent age of 7 or 8, this process slows, and they will mature gradually just as our own children do....'

The Master looked intently at Regina's face as she stared, unseeing into the fire of the hearth, rubbing her tummy gently and unconsciously over and over.  

He could tell that her inquisitive mind was reeling with a thousand questions about the people of this far-off Kingdom, and, for a brief moment, he could see again the child that he had tucked into bed on many-a-year's cold, hunting night, answering pleas for 'one more story' until her eyes grew too heavy, and her mind too tired, to ask for another. 

He knew that she had yet to ask some of the most important questions, so he waited patiently for what was to come.  It would not be an easy discussion, but it was necessary.

Eventually, Regina's hand stilled and a light of realization shown upon her face.  Almost tentatively she spoke her next words,

'You said that what seemed like months to me has only been an eve.....'

'Yes, ' he offered in reply.

'And yet my stomach grows heavy, filled with a life not there yesterday.'

'Yes, '

She furrowed her brow, unsure of how to state her next question.  In anticipation, the Master offered,

'They do not align themselves to the laws of this Kingdom.  Their love is not bound, and their children are not only from the betrothal of a man to a woman.'

'The child is hers?' Asked Regina in a voice both incredulous and unbelieving.

'Yes.  Conceived by the magic bourne out of your love and devotion to one another.  I may only offer conjecture, but I know that her magic is stronger than anything that I have ever read or studied   Finding one's Predetermined is rare, indeed, but not impossible.  And I can not help but wonder, if, perhaps, you are hers....'

'I must find her, Master.  If it is her child that I carry, then she must know!'

'You must believe me when I tell you it is better that you remain separated, ' he implored.

'You do not understand, Master, I cannot do this alone.'

'You will not be alone, Regina.  I assure you.  Robin and I will be here to assist you...'

'I do not need simple assistance!' she said as tears of frustration began to fall from her eyes. 

'LOOK AT ME!' she cried, 'I cannot even do basic things without help!  How can I care adequately for a child when I cannot even care for myself?  I am blind...' she finished, panting hard from the swell of emotion that she was trying to both convey and withhold.

'Yes.... the blindness was an unfortunate side effect of her uncontrolled magic, ' he confirmed in a quiet voice.

'Please, Master, you must help me find her, ' pleaded Regina frantically, 'I am afraid and I need her help and protection now more than ever....'

'She cannot protect you as she once could, Regina, ' he responded in a stern voice.

'Her magic is powerful....you said so yourself!' she responded in turn as her volume raised to match his.

'It lacks control!'

'It is at least more than what I have alone!'

'SHE DOES NOT HAVE IT ANYMORE, REGINA!!' he finished, almost yelling, before silence fell upon the room.

'What do you mean?' she asked slowly through gritted teeth as her fear began to turn to impatience and anger.

'When she left you, she believed you were dead by her hand.  She was devastated with grief and wanted only to be rid of that which she was afraid and did not understand.'

'And because of that desire, she found you here...' trailed off Regina quietly and exasperatedly. 

'Yes, just as your father's desire to save the life of his only daughter, and your desire to save the life of your beloved, allowed you both to find me...'

'And you did not even try to stop her?' she questioned incredulously.  'She could not have been thinking clearly enough to make a decision such as that!'

'It is not mine to influence the desires of another, Regina. Only to offer assistance, if I am able.  And I believe, in this case, she was right to let this power go.... She knows that she cannot control it, and, while she cannot, she is a danger to herself and others....'

Leaning forward, the Master took Regina's hands in his own, holding them tightly.

'Regina, you are in more danger now than you can possibly imagine.  You must understand that you carry the heirs to two Kingdoms, and should someone find out....'

'HEIRS?!' repeated Regina incredulously, praying to Odin that she had just misheard.

'Yes, Regina, there will always be two born to royalty....'

Infuriated, Regina pulled her hands away and jumped to her feet, turning to address the location where she believed the Master to be sitting,

'Is there anything else that I should know about this damnable Kingdom or its people or its customs before we continue?  I have grown quite tired of surprises this evening and am ready to take my leave of you both,  so that I might have a moment's peace to think....'

Receiving no response, she turned to the corner where she believed Robin to be.

'Robin, ' she addressed commandingly, 'I demand that you bring me Rocinante at once.  I am quite certain he can find the way back to the cabin without the help of either of you. And, I would venture to say, that he could cook better than you as well....'

Robin, who had been sitting quietly in the corner during the course of their dialogue, snapped his head up immediately at the call of his name.   Catching the Master's eye, he could not help but grin.  Receiving a similar reaction, they both shook their heads in mock hopelessness at the stubbornness and independence that would not be suppressed by any circumstance.  In that moment they knew, Regina would be fine.

'Regina, you must promise that you will not look for her.   She is safe and will not be found, unless you draw her out of that hiding.

If you do, and she is found, she will be taken and tortured to give up a power that she can no longer provide.  She WILL die at their hands.  Worse, should you be seen together, your pregnancy will confirm what may be already be suspected; that you are her Predetermined and that the children are hers. 

What Emma cannot give to them WILL be extracted from your children.  And believe me when I tell you that both will have power beyond any imagination....'

'But you said that all were lost that knew of this power and of Svan.....I mean....Emma....'

'Think, Regina....'

'MOTHER!!'

'Yes.  She was close to your Grandfather and would have heard both rumor and truth.  He was blind to your mother's cunning and ambition.....and all she need do was wait......'

'She recognized her on the platform, ' offered Regina.

'Perhaps.  But, more than likely, she was simply startled and surprised by Emma's presence.  

The High Queen would have been aware of Emma's existence.  Though, I know she could not confirm her location or her appearance.  I learned that much from your Father.'

'What else does the High Queen know?'

'Likely the same things that I have already told you.  The King's men were braggarts.  One need only ask for all to be revealed.....'

Sighing, Regina conceded,

'I will not look, but I will also not be coddled.  Bring me Rocinante, and I will make my way as best as I am able at my father's cabin.  If what you say is truth, I cannot return home now, either.  I must protect my children....'

'As you wish, ' said the Master with a tip of his head to Regina and the click of his fingers at Robin.

In only a few moments, Robin had led Rocinante, fully saddled, to the door.  As Regina stepped out into the abating snow and wind, the Master touched her arm gently.

'You will allow us to look in, now and again?'

'As long as Robin doesn't insist on cooking....' she offered with a wry smile.

'As you wish, ' he offered with a smile and tip of his head.

Robin returned to the Master's side, after helping Regina into her saddle.  Seeing her ride away they spoke.

'You will visit her?'

'Every day, Master.'

'Before the next moon, she will have these children. I watched as her belly grew even fuller this eve.  They know that they are, and will be, loved by both of their mothers.  Of that, there is no doubt, and they grow stronger by the moment because of it.'

'Odin, help those children no matter what, ' Robin offered with a chuckle,  'I am honestly not sure if they should be more fearful of their enemies or their own mother at this point...'

'A keen observation, my friend, ' exclaimed the Master as he clapped Robin on the shoulder, 'perhaps we should take a drink and ponder this dilemma?'

'After an evening like this?' questioned Robin, ' I most definitely will not refuse....'

Chapter Text

'If you insist on continuing to speak, then I swear by the Gods that I will kill you with my own hand, ' were the angry words offered through gritted teeth.

'Regina, ' groaned Robin as he twisted and turned his arm, trying unsuccessfully to release his hand from her grip, 'I am only trying to help....'

'If you truly want to help then.....SHUT UP!!!' she offered definitively before driving her heels into the mattress, arching her back and crying out in pain, squeezing his hand even harder.

'By Odin, ' he moaned to the midwife as he crumpled to his knees beside the bed, wincing.  'Please assure me that these children will make an appearance before my fingers are crushed beyond use!'

'SHUT UP!! ' offered the midwife and Regina at the same time, before huffing their disapproval at his impatience and fragility.

'One more push, ' assured the midwife calmly. 

'You said that the LAST. THREE. TIMES.'  screamed Regina as she turned her ire on the midwife.  Locks of dark hair, laden with perspiration clung strong to her forehead and cheeks, before releasing their liquid to roll down her neck and chest, soaking the top of the fur that had been been lain over her naked body for warmth.  

The bottom of the blanket was pushed up, bunched below her protruding stomach, exposing her hips and legs. Blood and clear fluid coated the inside of her thighs, raised knees, calves and feet; remnants of the announcement made earlier that her children would no longer wait to be born into the world.

Despite her current irritation with him, Regina was most definitely grateful that Robin had happened by for his daily visit at the time that he had.

She'd had no signs or symptoms that day of anything out of the ordinary, so she went about the business of performing her simple daily routine.  It was while she was drawing water at the well that her water broke, and she was struck with a wave of pain and nausea unlike anything she had ever experienced. 

Beads of sweat instantly covered her forehead as she placed her hands on the cap stones of the well wall, trying to maintain her footing.  She could feel the warm wetness cascading down her legs which pooled in her boots and stained and melted the snow beneath her feet.  

Barely enduring the pain of the first, hard contraction, she attempted to get back inside where she would have, at least, some comfort and safety from the elements.  

She managed to stumble halfway from the well to the door before a second wave of contractions hit, bringing her to her hands and knees in the cold snow.  

It was there that Robin had found her alone, shaking, crying and afraid.  Carrying Regina inside, he had stayed with her for many hours already, leaving her company only briefly to bring the midwife to the cabin.  

Exhausted beyond any recollection, Regina held her breath.  Red-faced, she bore down with all of her might praying that the midwife was right this time.  She could not imagine having the strength for another push.

'But this time, ' the midwife stated positively, 'I am most correct.'

Reaching forward, the midwife pulled strongly, but carefully, and Regina breathed a sigh of relief as some of the pain caused by the incredible stretch of muscle and skin was slowly removed.  She knew her respite would only be short-lived, but was thankful all the same. 

A slap was heard, followed by a healthy cry from a strong pair of lungs.

Taking a sharp knife from the table, the midwife heated it in the flame of the nearby candle to sterilize the blade.  Catching herself at the last moment, she inquired,

'Perhaps the Father would prefer?' as she offered Robin the hilt of the knife.

Immediately, Robin went wide-eyed.  Should he refuse, the midwife might suspect something.  Should he accept, he might be killed instantly at Regina's hand.

'I....uh....ummmmm......ahhhh......' Robin waffled as he considered which alternative would be preferable to his continued livelihood.  His musing were interrupted by a sweet, but somewhat threatening, voice.

'You should, My Beloved....'

As he took the hilt of the knife, he found his hand squeezed harder than ever before as his ear was pulled tight against Regina's lips.  

Whispering very softly, she coveyed her brief message,

'I may be blind, but I know that you are not.  I suggest you remain focused on your work and nothing more....'

She smiled as she felt the fearful nod against her lips and heard the gulping at his throat, knowing that he had received clearly the intended message.

Barely peeking over Regina's knee, he stared only at the spot indicated by the midwife.  

Making the cut swiftly, he lay the knife quickly back onto the table before being pulled back hard to resume his place at Regina's shoulder.

No sooner had the cord been cut that Regina began to feel the pangs of her second labor, and she prayed this would be an easier delivery than the first. 

Quickly the midwife swaddled the newborn and lay it on the bed to keep watch on its progress as she delivered the other babe.

Focusing only her breathing, Regina closed her eyes and hoped that this delivery would be over sooner than the first.  She was relieved when she heard the words of the midwife.

'I see the crown.  One push is all that is required....'

'Just once more, Regina, you have always been strong....you can do this, ' came the quiet, supportive voice of her lifelong friend and Regina found renewed energy at his helpful words.

Nodding her head in understanding and thanks, she bore down one last time, screaming to the heavens to provide her strength.  Her plea was rewarded with a empty belly, freedom from her pain and the strong cry of another child.

'Sir?' Came the tentative words of the midwife after holding the blade of the knife over the flame for a moment.

Sliding forward slightly to grasp it from her hand, Robin felt a squeeze upon his fingers to which he replied softly and exasperatedly, 

'I know, I know, ' before grasping the hilt of the knife and focusing on the work at hand. 

He was back at her shoulder before Regina could even think to reprimand him for his tardiness, sighing heavily and remorsefully for having ever taken a vow of celibacy.....

Having washed and swaddled both babies, the midwife was ready to present them to their anxious mother.

'This is....' said the midwife, but it was Regina that finished the sentence definitively.

'....my daughter, Eva.'

Astonished, the midwife looked at her.

'How did you know?''

'I can simply feel it in my heart,' she responded quietly as she reached out expectantly.  

She smiled as she felt a healthy weight placed in her arms and she drew her daughter in quickly, laying Eva face down upon her upper chest and placing a thousand light kisses into her downy hair.  She hoped that Eva, in return, might feel and hear the familiar, soothing beats of her heart which now resounded with an even stronger love for her and her brother.

A trembling, unsure, novice hand passed delicately over a small face as fingertips explored every detail of Eva's features, and Regina smiled as she imagined the picture of her child which was being created.

'And my son, Henry?' Regina asked as she held out her arms again.  Drawing him in, she placed him beside his sister, burying her mouth and nose into his soft tuft of hair as well, breathing deeply to memorize his innocent scent which she knew would be gone too soon.  

She traced Henry's features with her fingers just as she had done with Eva.  They were so alike, yet so different, and she couldn't help but laugh as he yawned wide beneath her soothing touch.  She prayed only that she might someday see their beauty with her own eyes.....

She lay contentedly with her children for a bit, recovering as the midwife continued her work of delivering the afterbirth, bathing Regina's legs and torso of blood and fluid and withdrawing the blankets and furs that had been soiled during the delivery.  

Having finished the remainder of her work, the midwife came quietly to Regina's side.  She could see that the children were beginning to root, seeking out the nourishment of their mother's breast.

'You should feed them, M'Lady, ' she offered gently and encouragingly.

Regina turned her head toward the sound of the midwife's voice, furrowing her brow in confusion and fear, unsure of what to do next.

'Perhaps you would prefer that I assist you this first time?' She asked, not wishing to overstep her place.  'You need not your eyes, only your touch.  They will help you.'

'I would be honored to have your guidance, ' responded Regina quietly with a sigh of relief and a grateful nod of her head.

Working together, they situated Regina upright in bed, piling thick furs upon her lap.  Her torso was exposed to her waist and she felt more vulnerable than ever, almost like a child herself, born into a role of motherhood that she had never even conteplated and for which she was ill prepared.  

It did not matter.  She was Eva and Henry's primary protection now, no matter what her own shortcomings may be, and in an instant, she resolved that her lack of sight would no longer be her weakness.  Smell, touch, taste and hearing would become her guides, and she would rely on them alone to paint the pictures of her world.  She would not fail her children.  

The midwife helped to position Eva solidly in the crook of Regina's left arm, drawing the baby close so that its face was near to her breast.  Laying her hand atop Regina's, she helped to pinch the nipple of her left breast between her index and middle finger before guiding it to the eager mouth of her daughter who accepted readily and began to suck strongly.  Satisfied that Eva was nursing properly, the midwife situated Henry in Regina's right arm.

'Would you like to try yourself?' Asked the midwife.  Seeing Regina nod, she stepped back slightly to observe, but remained close in case her assistance was needed.  

Pinching her right nipple, Regina could feel the warmth of her own milk flow across her fingers, in anticipation of her son's hunger.

Bringing her nipple to him, she brushed it lightly upon his lips, encouraging him to open his mouth to eat.  Her actions were rewarded immediately with eager pulls of a strong jaw and, smiling, she huffed a small laugh of proud accomplishment.

'See, ' offered the midwife with a smile, 'they know their mother needs them just as they need her....'

Closing her eyes, Regina nodded before starting to rock her children slightly, indulging in the serenity of a perfect moment.  Without thinking, she hummed a soft lullaby.  It was the same one that she sang at the stream on the day of Emma's meeting.  Though she dare not speak Emma's name, Regina promised that her children would know their mother in some way, even if only in the familiar tune of an ancient song.  

'I believe that she will be just fine, ' offered the midwife quietly to Robin, so as not to disturb Regina's time of bonding.

'Yes, I believe you are right, ' he offered lazily in reply, unwilling to turn his head or take his eyes from the most beautiful sight that he had ever witnessed.

Laughing to herself, the midwife patted his shoulder gently, gathering the few things that she had before exiting the small cabin and leaving Regina and Robin alone with Eva and Henry.

Regina indulged her children until their suckling became intermittent, eventually feeling both release their mouths from her breasts in restful slumber.    

Finding herself exhausted and almost unable to keep her eyes open, Regina worked diligently to situate herself at the edge of the bed.  

Nestling Eva into the thick furs that covered the mattress, she held Henry tight, reaching with her hand to grasp the side of the cradle that had been positioned nearby.  

Kissing his forehead and cheeks, she whispered a soft 'I love you' before laying him down to sleep, tucking the covers warmly around him.  She repeated the process with Eva, breathing a sigh of relief once they had been lain down safely in their cribs. 

'You know that you may ask for help, ' came the quiet voice of Robin as she pulled a fresh dress over her head, 'it is not a sign of weakness.....'

'No.  It is a sign of independence and knowledge that you will not always be here to guide my hand.  I must learn, and there is no better time than the present....' she offered thoughtfully.

After a few moments, she spoke again,

'Robin?'

'Yes, Regina?'

Balling her hand, Regina swung hard, landing her fist squarely upon Robin's jaw and knocking him out of his chair.

'WHAT WAS THAT FOR?!?!' he cried as he jumped to his feet, holding the side of his face.

'For looking when I specifically told you not to, ' offered Regina matter-of-factly, 'or perhaps you would rather I simply tell the Master of your indescretion?'

'You wouldn't dare!' offered Robin as he cocked an eyebrow at Regina and curled one side of his mouth into a playful grin.

'Then you admit it!!' fired back Regina with a wry grin of her own.

'I refuse to say any more, fearing that it will implicate me in something for which there is no evidence, aside from your conjecture....'

'And historical precedent....' offered Regina thoughtfully, 'I do seem to remember you being disciplined by the Master more than once as a young man, after having hidden by the side of the stream to watch me bathe....'

'It was a misunderstanding, you see.  I was seeking mushrooms... nothing more....'

Listening close, Regina could hear the slight crackle as his lips parted into a smile, and she could not help but smile in return as she thought about their adventures and mischief as children.  It seemed so long ago now....

'Robin?' she asked once more in a quieter voice.

'Yes, Regina?'

'Thank you...'

'You know that I will always be here for you, Regina, ' he assured as he pulled back the furs atop the bed and encouraged her to slip beneath them for warmth.

'I know, ' she trailed off, the last thing remembered being the gentle kiss of his lips on her forehead before she fell into an exhausted slumber.

Returning to his seat beside the bed, Robin rubbed his jaw gingerly before flexing his still sore fingers, addressing the babies that slept in the crib,

'The two of you will most definitely be safe in her hands.  I, on the other hand, believe that your mother may someday be the death of me.....but know that I still love her, and you in turn....'

Closing his eyes, it was only a moment before the only sound in the cabin was the crackle of fire and the soft sounds of fitful sleep....

Chapter Text

'Someone is hungry today, ' whispered Regina with a soft smile as she trailed the backs of her fingers gently over Henry's forehead, temple and cheek.  Her chair rocked in the same rhythm as his fingers, which grasped and kneaded at her breast, trying to draw more milk for him to eat.

Softly, she hummed an old Norse tune, but she stopped suddenly when she heard the bay of a wolf, turning her head slightly in the direction of the sound and furrowing her brow.  The sound came from closer than she had expected and seemed to be starting earlier than normal.

She wasn't surprised.  The snow had rarely abated over the past month, leaving very little prey for the hunters, let alone the wolves, to capture and eat. So scarce was food, in fact, that the wolves were beginning to starve, and a few of them, in desperation, had become more brazen, plucking some of the smaller, weaker livestock from the nearby homesteads.

Hearing nothing more, she began her tune again, only to be interrupted by another howl, this one, even closer.

'Henry, I am sorry, but I must close the barn quickly.  I know that you are not yet sated, but I promise that you get your fill upon my return.'

Reaching to her breast, Regina pulled her nipple from Henry's mouth, earning a hearty cry of protest that she attempted, in vain, to soothe and shush.

'I promise that I will only be a moment, My Prince, ' she whispered quietly as she kissed his head tenderly and laid him in his crib before re-lacing her dress.

Grasping her shawl from beside the door, she threw it over her shoulders and braced herself before throwing open the door, feeling herself immediately surrounded by the swirling snow and biting winds.

Cautiously and slowly, she made her way across the small clearing between the long house and the barn.  She could hear the goat bleating, chickens clucking and pigs snorting inside, and she thanked Odin that they'd had the sense to remain in the stables.

Finally reaching the barn, Regina walked quickly from pen to pen, entering for a moment to count the occupants by feel or sound and assuring that all were accounted for.

Her last stop was at Rocinante's stall, and she rocked her forehead against his as she petted his cheeks.  

'The wolves draw closer, Rocinante.  I will keep the door closed tightly tonight to ensure they are kept at bay.  Please be safe.....'

Her response was a stuttered huff through closed lips indicating both thanks and caution.

Walking back to the entrance, she strained to pull the heavy, oversized door closed tightly, feeling the frozen lock carefully with her fingers before pressing on the door several times.  Satisfied that all was secured, she walked back to the long house, stopping midway and furrowing her brow as she fought to determine if she had actually detected the scent of wet fur in the air or if it was her concerned mind playing tricks on her.

Breathing deeply again, she shook her head warily before continuing on her way. 

She could hear Henry's frustrated wails from three meters.  They had not abated since her departure, and her gown was quickly saturating with milk in anticipation of his continued feeding.

'Oh, Henry, I know that you are hungry, ' she offered exasperatedly as she entered the door to the long house, pushing it closed behind her, but neglecting to verify the sound of a clicking lock.

'I am so sorry, ' she whispered in a harried voice as her hand reached to loosen the top of her gown, and she started across the floor to his crib.  She froze immediately when she heard the creak of the door hinge and felt the draft of cold enter the room, and she prayed to Odin that it was nothing more than the wind and her haste combining to scare her.

The tap of long claws upon the floor solidified the gravity of their situation, and she turned quickly to place herself between the door and the cribs.  Immediately, the tapping stopped.

Breathing deeply a few times, she focused her attention on the sounds about her.  A fire crackled in the hearth to her immediate left, while Henry continued to wail behind and left. Soft breathing assured her that Eva was still behind and right.   Based on her position, the table and chairs would blockade her immediate right, making the only clear path to any of them directly through Regina.

She kept her gaze fixed in the direction of the growling while she crouched, searching with her fingers until she found the handle of the heavy cast iron skillet that sat upon the hearth. Rising again slowly to full height, Regina gripped the handle with both hands, drawing it over her right shoulder in preparation to defend herself and her children, to the death, if need be.

She could hear the crackle of saliva as the wolf drew its lips back over its teeth, darting its tongue out quickly between a firmly clenched jaw as its growl became ever louder.

Seeing no movement from Regina, the wolf started forward again slowly, the clicking of its claws growing louder with each step.

Regina continued to take deep breaths, trying to stay focused on the sound in front of her so that she might judge distance and intent.  She heard the clicking stop only a moment before she recognized the scrape of claws indicating its intent to pounce, and she drew back the pan a few more inches before screaming and swinging across with all of her might, catching the side of the wolf's head solidly mid-jump.  It yelped as it was thrown sideways onto the mattress of the bed that lay to Regina's front left.  

Immediately, it jumped to its feet, crouching defensively before springing at Regina, knocking her sideways into the table and then onto the floor where it jumped atop her quickly.  The clatter was almost deafening as the table rocked and fell towards them; items, large and small, spilling on to the floor around them.   

As her body hit, so did Regina's elbow, and the shock and pain caused the pan to be knocked from her fingertips.  With nothing left to defend herself, she raised her arms and hands to protect her face, grasping her fingers into the thick hair of the wolf's neck and chest as she pushed with all of her might.

She rolled side to side, trying to throw the wolf off of her body, but his weight was almost suffocating.  She could smell its fetid breath as her arms started to weaken, and it pushed its way closer, teeth snapping open and closed constantly, trying to find something into which it could latch.

Releasing her grip with one hand, she flung her arm to the side, searching with desperate fingers for something, anything, that she might use to help herself.  As the wolf pushed strongly, her straightened arm buckled slightly, and Regina cried out as she felt its left fangs sink into her upper lip on the right side, piercing and tearing at flesh.  Despite the searing pain, she continued searching frantically with her fingers, finally feeling the hilt of her butcher's knife.  Wrapping her fingers tightly about it, she swung up and across, plunging the long blade deep into the side of the wolf's chest.  It released its bite to yelp loudly before falling over dead.

Breathing heavily, Regina relaxed into the floor, and, almost instantaneously, a brutal wave of pain from the injury to her mouth hit her.  Turning to the side, she vomited violently; the bile and acid stinging and scorching her lips like fire.  The tears fell from her eyes, and she was still gasping for breath when she heard the tapping of claws again upon the wood.

'Please, Odin, no....' she breathed as she wondered for the first time if she had the strength to fend off another attack.  

Focusing on the cries of her children, both of whom were awake now, she found renewed strength and pushed herself again to her feet, knife at the ready.

'Come on then, you bitch, ' she whispered through gritted teeth as she turned to face her new attacker.  Again the snarls came, but were silenced almost instantly after a terse yelp.

Confused, she listened as heavy boots ran across the floor towards her, and she wondered if this was one of her mother's soldiers or one of the older trappers that used semi-domesticated wolves for the hunt and was now looking for repayment for his loss.  

Startled by the touch of a gloved hand on her left arm, she raised the knife overhead before another hand grasped her wrist to prevent the blade's downward descent.  The man squeezed her wrist hard until her fingers could no longer hold the knife, and it clattered to the floor.

Unwilling to go down without a fight, Regina swung across with her left fist, catching the man square in the jaw, and she felt the brush of stubble across her knuckles as he stumbled sideways a bit, still holding her wrist firmly in his grasp.  Her right knee found its mark against his nose with a sickening crunch, and he crumpled to the floor, finally releasing his hold as both hands went to his face.

Falling to her hands and knees, Regina searched frantically for the dropped knife, quickly finding herself lifted from the floor by strong arms wrapped around her from behind.

A very muffled voice spoke indistinctly; all words lost as Regina kicked and screamed and wriggled, trying to break from her attacker's grasp, and he tightened his hold with his left arm before releasing his right to pull his thick neck and face wraps down so that he could be heard.

'Regina!' he cried without success before wrapping both arms around again trying to still her motion.

'REGINA!!!'

Her movements became less persistent as her ears attempted to catch up with her thoughts.

'Regina, it's me....It's Robin.... You're safe now...' came the familiar voice, and he could feel her finally stop fighting him.

'Let me GO!' she cried as she sprang from his grasp and ran to the cribs, reaching in with bloodied and bruised hands to feel the faces of Henry and Eva.  Shaking fingers felt flushed skin and heaving chests as both babies cried loudly.

'Oh, thank Odin, ' she sighed, sobbing with relief and slumping straight down to the floor beside the cribs, exhausted.

'They are safe, thanks to you, Regina, ' whispered Robin as he lifted her in his arms and placed her on the bed. 

'Henry and Eva need me, ' she said desperately as she heard both of them still crying loudly from fear and hunger, but she found herself restrained by a gentle press upon her shoulders, urging her back onto the mattress.

'I know that you want to hold them, but I need to care for you first....' comforted Robin.   'I am certain that they will wait a few moments more, if it means their mother will be tended...'

Regina sighed and nodded her head reluctantly.  This was an argument she would not, and probably should not, win.  The pain was intense, and her lip throbbed in time to the beating of her heart.  She could still feel the warm blood dripping down her chin, cheek and neck and the taste of iron coated her tongue and teeth.  She winced and drew a strong breath as a clean, damp cloth was placed against her mouth, and she felt Robin take her shaking hand gently, lifting it up to encourage her to hold the rag in his stead.

'Let me discard the carcasses, ' he offered before retreating from the bed.  Quietly, he hoisted the dead wolves, one at a time, carrying them far from the long house before returning and securing the door with latch and lock.

Sitting beside Regina on the bed, he could see that the cloth was well saturated with her blood.

'Regina, allow me to take a look?' he asked quietly as he lay his hand atop hers.

She nodded barely as she withdrew her hand and whimpered quietly as he pulled the cloth away, tugging at the injury slightly as the dried and clotted blood released.  

The tears rolled from the sides of her eyes and into her hair as the weight of the evening finally caught up with her.

The cuts and punctures continued to seep as Robin inspected the wound carefully.

'Well, it needs to be cleaned thoroughly, and you have a significant cut that needs to be stitched....' he offered as Regina groaned and rolled her eyes.

'Do you want some ale to help with the pain?' asked Robin

'I cannot as it dulls my senses, ' answered Regina.

'Then I will be as quick and gentle as I can...'

Reaching into his pack,  Robin extracted a needle and thread that he carried in a crude, first aid kit.  Holding her lip gently, he began his work, talking the entire time, trying to take her mind off the pain of the procedure.

'The Master and I heard the wolves drawing closer, ' he acknowledged as Regina drew a breath through gritted teeth and winced hard.  Her fingertips dug strongly into his thigh while her other fist twisted, white knuckled, into the furs beside her hip. 

Robin knew he added insult to injury, literally and figuratively, and the dullness of the needle meant that she must endure every painful pop as it entered and exited her skin sloppily.

'I knew the snow fell thick, but I also knew that you would disregard your own safety for that of the children and livestock, and I could not bear for you to be alone in your duties to them.'

'Dammit, Robin, ' stuttered Regina as she grasped his thigh even harder, and the tears fell from her eyes.

'Almost there....' he said gently as the last stitch was administered and he tied off the thread, cutting it with a sharp knife.

Almost immediately, Regina expelled a sigh of relief and pressed herself up into a sitting position, but the motion of her legs over the side of the bed was stopped by Robin's hip.

'I will bring them to you, but first, you will hold this against the stitches to help with the swelling and bleeding, and you will not argue, '  he added as he watched Regina's mouth open in protest and then close quickly.

A very cold cloth, filled with snow, was placed against her lip and she determined, quickly, that it hurt more than the stitches themselves.  He grinned and chuckled silently as he realized how much she looked like the petulant child that he'd met so many years earlier.

'Who shall I bring first to you, Regina?  They are both quite wide awake as you can hear...'

'Henry, ' she whispered quietly, 'as he has not yet drank his fill.'

'She calls for you, little man, ' stated Robin cheerfully as he lifted Henry from the crib and brought him to the bed, laying him in Regina's lap after she had arranged the furs and placed the compress aside.

'I will take my leave to the barn to give you privacy....'

He had only taken a few steps when he heard Regina's voice.

'Robin, ' she sighed, 'we both know that it is too cold for you to stay out there for that long.  We also know that you have already seen far more of me from the bank of the stream than you will see today.'

Pausing for moment, she added quietly,

'I need your help....more than I am willing to admit easily.....' 

Hearing only silence, she tried once more.

'Please, Robin.....do not make me beg you to stay....'

She heard his footsteps drawing closer to the bed and offered a gentle smile.

'Thank you....' she sighed.

'What would you have me do?' he asked quietly.

'My hands and arms shake badly still, and I am afraid that I might drop him.  Will you help me support him....please?'

'Regina, I.....' he offered hesitantly.

'I am giving you my permission, Robin.  Come, sit behind me....'

Leaning forward slightly, Regina felt Robin slip behind her, one leg to each side of hers, and she relaxed back against him, still quivering strongly.

His palms remained flat against his thighs as he tried to calm his breathing.  He had imagined this scene a thousand times in his mind, but the children had always been his.... hers.... theirs.... not those of someone else.

'I need you to slip your arms under mine, Robin, so that I might feel your support.'

Sensing that he was not moving, Regina continued quietly.

'I know that I ask too much of you, Robin, but I do need your help tonight.'

Tentatively, his hands lifted from his legs and he slid his palms down her forearms trying to memorize every detail of the arms that would never hold him at night, that would never cling to him as they made love.  His eyes closed and his chin trembled as he considered his loss.

Pressing his palm against the back of her hand, he felt the steady, strong shaking of her right hand as she touched Henry's face tenderly, searching for where he was positioned in relation to her breast and he continued with her as her hand moved to the bodice of her gown, barely able to find the laces.

Realizing her dilemma, he guided her fingers gently to the strings, allowing her to pull the end to loosen the bow.  

Together, their hands slid beneath the left side of saturated cloth, pulling the fabric away to reveal her breast that was full and firm in anticipation.

Grasping her nipple between their forefingers and middle fingers, Robin could feel the warm wetness of Regina's milk as they guided her shaking hand to Henry's mouth where he eagerly latched on.  Hearing his gentle sucking, Robin moved their hands to support Henry's back as he bowed his head to rest his temple against the crown of Regina's hair; his tears falling softly into her curls.

'Robin, ' sighed Regina, but she trailed off, not knowing what to say to bring him solace.

'I know you could never have loved me as you love her.  Still, I cannot help but dream of that which might have been...'

Threading her fingers between Robin's, Regina held his hands tightly.

'I cannot give you any more than this, Robin.'

'I know, ' he offered quietly.

'My heart belongs to her, even if she is gone from me forever....'

'I know, ' he interjected again before being cut off.

'I would not blame you, if you needed to leave us....'

'Regina...' he said quietly.

'As I said.... I know that we... I...ask too much of you already.....'

'Regina...' he tried again.

'We keep you from living and seeking your true happiness....'

He could feel her grip tighten around his fingers as she spoke through trembling lips, and the urgency and panic was causing her voice to raise.  

He knew that the words she spoke were not what she desired, nor was it what he wanted, but he also knew that Regina would, selflessly,  give her up her own security and happiness, to ensure that of the ones she truly loved.

'Shhhhhh, ' calmed Robin as he pulled his left hand from hers and brushed the backs of his fingers on her cheek, feeling the wetness of her tears.

'You have always used too many words where few or none would have sufficed...even as a young girl, ' he chuckled sadly.

'And you know full well that I could not leave you or Henry or Eva...even if I desired or tried....'

'But, Robin....'

'I will be with you in whatever way you will allow me to be, Regina.  Just do not shut me out complete.... please....'

The desperation was now clear in his voice as well as he returned his hand to hers and gripped it tightly.

'Please....' he reiterated as held her and Henry tightly in his arms.

He felt the nod of her head beneath his and he breathed a sigh of relief that she would allow him, still, some place in their lives.

'I will love you, forever, Regina, ' he offered quietly as he kissed the crown of her head before resting his cheek against it again.

'And I you, 'she replied as she settled back comfortably into Robin's arms for the night.

Chapter Text

'Eva, you will give Henry his toy and apologize for taking it without his permission, ' said Regina sternly without looking up from her work at the table where she was preparing supper.  

She had already heard the slight scuffle and drawn breath that typically signified an impending argument.  

Handing the toy back, Eva apologized briefly before sticking her tongue out at her brother.

'And now you may apologize for that as well, ' stated Regina without pause.

Again, Eva mumbled an apology which Henry accepted with the smug smirk of a 4 year old.

'I would suggest you accept her apology a bit more humbly, Henry, or I might be inclined to allow her to keep the toy next time, ' Regina offered with a slight grin as a frown fell upon his face.

Regina had not a sibling growing up, but she could remember the childish squabbles that she'd had with Robin when she and her Father had visited the Master during her father's many seasons of hunting trips.  She often wondered if Emma and Fredrick had similar exchanges before they were so brutally separated.

'I am beginning to wonder if you have the same gift of premonition and intuition as the Master, ' chuckled Robin as he looked across the table at Regina.  A grin formed upon her lips at his observation, but he could see in her eyes that she was exhausted.

Reaching across the table, he touched her hands to still them from dicing root vegetables for soup.  Taking the knife from her fingers, he grasped her hands in his, feeling their slight trembling.  

'Regina, please tell me what's wrong...'

'Robin, you know that I do not complain...'

'No.  And you do not rest either.  I know that you work from well before the sun rises into the late night to provide for your children, but the pace is excessive and it catches up with you.....'

'It must be done.  The coming of summer has already started to provide that which I must gather and prepare for us to make it through the next winter which, you know, will come all to soon.  The cow and chickens, while generous in their bounty, require tending, as does Rocinante, who I feel I have neglected greatly despite his constancy for me and his patience for the children.  

Eva and Henry grow more by the day and their continued needs of clothing and nourishment and study must be met. 

And, as you can see, they are like any other children in regard to their curiosity and mischief.  I must be diligent in my watch, lest I find another toad has taken up residence in my cooking pot, as I encountered last week. I believe both the toad and I breathed a sigh of relief that it had not been above the flame at the time of his hiding...'

Despite her attempt at humor, Robin could hear in her voice that the mere mention of this list of items was causing her to become anxious, so he squeezed her hands gently again to calm her and let her know that she had his support and was not alone.

'Regina, might I suggest something?  And please hear me out before you decline....'

Regina nodded her head slowly, unsure of what she would hear next.  

'Tomorrow, I will go into the village for your weekly provisions.  Allow me to take Henry and Eva with me on this trip.  I will do the chores tonight and you may be left on your own for the entirety of tomorrow to rest, assuming you are capable of that....'

Furrowing her brow in concern, Regina immediately responded,

'You know that we cannot allow them to be seen or recognized, Robin.  Why would you suggest such an arrangement?' she asked, baffled.

'Because you know there to be little or no danger in doing so, and because you need some rest.  You cannot continue this way, Regina!' he stated in a slightly louder voice than before, lowering his tone to a whisper when he noticed the children taking interest in their dialogue.

'I think that we play with fire, Robin, and I do not condone it...'

'The people of the village know that I am bound to the Master.  They are not eager to engage in rumor and will assume that the children belong to someone that has sought his help and requires peace to address their need.  

Eva and Henry have seen nothing of this world except what surrounds them here.  The books that the Master has them read and the stories that you tell are no substitute for true experience.  You KNOW this!' implored Robin as he watched Regina's face for any sign of reaction; his concern for her well-being far outweighing the potential risks of their trip.

'Your children are brilliant and well beyond their years, Regina, ' he continued earnestly, 'it will not be long before they seek out, independently, what we do not and cannot provide.  You, and the Master, have opened up worlds to them that they will want to explore.  Would you rather they have some or no protection in sating their curiosities?'

Despite her fears, Regina could see that Robin was right.  She had seen so much in her lifetime, yet her children had seen nothing.  

Despite their occasional transgressions, they were helpful and obedient, kind and patient, and she could ask no more of them.  She had fed their thirst for knowledge from the moment they were born, and they would need to be encouraged and supported in spreading their wings and gaining their eventual independence, even if that meant she would someday be alone.  

The thought of it frightened her, and she wished that she could protect them in a chrysalis of her love and company forever, but it was an unreasonable and selfish desire.

'You would be solely responsible for their well-being, Robin, and it would be IMPERATIVE that you be diligent in their care.  Do you truly WANT that responsibility?  It is a heavy burden, indeed, and should even a breath of rumor or curiosity or recognition reach my ears, then I will never forgive either of us for putting them in harm's way....'

'I understand, Regina....'

Sighing deeply, she bowed her head before speaking softly again,

'I will allow it.....on one condition....'

 


 

'Children, ' said Regina as she knelt in front of them at the door, helping to arrange their clothes one last time, 'remember the rules of the game that we talked about.  You each have a new name to use with each other throughout the day.  Henry, you will be 'Thorin', while Eva will be 'Agnatha'.  You will call each other by these names and will recognize them immediately, if called by Robin.  He will watch you closely and will tell me who played the game best tonight.  Whoever wins will receive a prize for their diligence.....do you understand?' she asked hopefully.

'Yes, Mother, ' they responded immediately and excitedly.  It would be a day of amazement made even more special by the introduction of a game and the possibility of a secret prize, and they both vowed silently to themselves that they would be victorious.

Cupping each child's cheeks in turn, Regina placed a gentle kiss on their forehead, whispering 'I love you' against their skin before releasing them to run out the door.  She could hear Robin adjust himself in the saddle of his horse, leaning down to offer a hand before hoisting them each up in turn to sit in front of him in the saddle. 

The journey was an hour's ride through dense forest, and Regina prayed that it would be uneventful as she threw a nervous smile and wave from the doorway and listened until she could no longer hear the clopping of hooves.

Turning, she went back inside to take a seat in the fur laden chair that was situated in front of the hearth.  She smiled as she remembered rocking Eva and Henry to sleep in front of the fire on so many nights; soothing illnesses, chasing away nightmares and satisfying curious questions that had entered their minds as they slept.  

Despite Robin's best intentions, she knew that there would be no relaxation or rest today....and so she began her long vigil until her children were safely in her arms again.

 


 

The journey to the village was uneventful, but noisy.  What started off quietly, soon became an ongoing, volume-increasing conversation of questions and answers, and Robin could not help but laugh aloud at how much Eva and Henry resembled their mother's temperament, curiosity and brilliance, though only Henry truly resembled her in appearance with his dark brown hair and brown eyes.

As they approached the outskirts of the village, Robin quieted their chatter,

'Thorin, Agnatha, we are close.  Let us take a moment to prepare for our day ahead in quiet....'

Immediately silenced, the children watched in rapt attention for the first signs of the people and stalls of the village.  They were rewarded after only a few minutes as a bustling world of new smells, sounds, sights, people, animals and businesses came into view.  What started as a voluntary quiet soon turned into a stunned silence as they struggled to take in everything in at once.

Bringing their horse to the nearest stable, Robin slid from the saddle before helping Henry and Eva to the ground next to him.  Paying the stable boy a few coins, he retrieved his saddle bag and slung it over his shoulder before taking a knee in front of the children.

'Remember our game, ' he reiterated quietly to them, 'and remember to stick close.  No wandering off.  There is constant commotion here, and we have too much to accomplish to spend time trying to find each other if separated.  Do you understand?'

His inquiry was met with sincere nods of both small heads, and, taking one small hand in each of his own, he led them down the street in search of the week's provisions.

Walking between the food stalls, the children knew not which way to turn as there was such an incredible amount to see.  Ducks, geese, rabbits, pheasants, quail and other animals, familiar and unfamiliar, dangled, feathered and furred, by their hind legs awaiting new owners while cured meats and fishes sat all around in heavy, wooden boxes of salt.

Strapped barrels filled with brine, fruits and vegetables sat upright or lay on their sides, corked to contain their contents. 

Occasionally, the men or women of the stalls would uncork the side, allowing amber, clear or deep red liquids to flow into water skins, jugs or flagons which they handed to patrons in exchange for a few coins.  

Rare and common furs lay in heaps upon tables, sold to those without the skill to trap or skin animals independently or to those in search of something less ordinary, while woven cloth was arranged neatly on bolts, ready to be measured and cut for an agreed price.  

Finally, stopping at one of the food stalls, Robin prepared to do business with the shopkeeper.  Henry's head continued to swivel, taking in all that lay around him, while Eva's attention had become fixated on something the next lane over. 

There, in one of the stalls, was displayed the most brilliant array of swords, armor, helmets and knives that she could only imagine, until now, thanks to the stories told by the Master and her Mother.  

Craning her neck, she looked for the blacksmith, himself, wondering if he might resemble the dwarf Eitri who had fashioned Thor's hammer.  She had not seen a dwarf, but had heard tales of their mastery with the forge, and she wondered if all blacksmiths might be made in his likeness.

So intent was Eva in her thoughts that she had not noticed that Robin and Henry had moved further down the lane and become lost in the throng of patrons.  Startled by a sharp noise, she drew her attention back to her present position only to find herself alone. 

Panicked, she bobbed her head looking for some sign of Robin or Henry.  Seeing none, she dashed down the dirt street, not noticing that they had stopped at one of the nearby stalls, where they were coming to the same conclusion about their separation as she had already realized.  Frantic, she continued onward, ducking and weaving between patrons, unseeing, except for any sign of their familiarity.

It was not long before she found herself in front of the stall at which she had been staring when she lost her way, and an unexpected wave of calm and curiosity washed over her.   

Approaching slowly, she stood upon her toes to see over the railing that separated the patrons from the dangerous heat of the hearth.  Looking about the empty stall, she sighed in disappointment when she did not catch a glimpse of the dwarf that manned the bellows or forge.  Seeing no one at all, her attention turned to a small display of silver animals in front of her.  They were creatures of the forest and farm, simply detailed, yet realistic, and she wondered what it might be like to hold one.  Daring not to touch, however, she simply stood, staring for a long while, unaware that the blacksmith had appeared from behind the forge and now stood directly in front of her.

'Do you like animals, ' asked the blacksmith quietly so as not to startle the little girl.

Immediately, the little girl jumped back and stood stock still as she tried hard to reconcile the picture in her mind to the voice that she heard.  It was not a man, nor a dwarf, that stood before her dressed in a heavy apron of blackened and worn leather, but a woman with brilliant green eyes and soft golden hair tied loosely behind her head, and it did not make sense.

'You are not a dwarf, ' stated Eva, stunned.

The blonde haired woman before her laughed heartily before offering the most beautiful smile Eva had ever seen aside from her mother's.

'Well, I should hope not!' the woman exclaimed before motioning to Eva to come closer.  Leaning down to get nearer to the small girl's ear, she whispered, 

'From what I have heard, they are quite unattractive and a surly lot, and I would hope my disposition more preferable than that....'

Leaning back, she looked directly into the eyes of the little girl, before giving her a wink and standing back to her full height, crossing strong arms over her chest.

Hesitantly, Eva continued to crane her neck, looking around the young woman, unwilling to give up the image she had created in her mind and trying to catch a glimpse of the real Blacksmith.  

As the woman watched, she couldn't help but furrow her brow in curiosity at the young girl's blonde hair and deep green eyes that were so similar to her own, yet so rare in the Kingdom.  In fact, she could never recall having met or seen another having the same characteristics, aside from herself.  Unsure what to make of it, she turned her attention to the girl's actions, realizing that she still sought a dwarf or man at the hearth.

'Ahhhhhhh, ' stated the woman thoughtfully, 'I see that you seek the Blacksmith still?'

Unable to speak, Eva nodded her head slowly, wondering if she truly would see a dwarf appear.

Cocking an eyebrow, the woman grinned slightly before holding up her index finger,

'One moment, please, ' she said kindly with a tip of her head, 'and I will see what I might do to help....'

Walking to the far side of the hearth, she made her way around the back of the forge, waiting a moment before reappearing on the other side and walking again to the rail.  

Bowing deeply to the young girl, she presented herself,

'Blacksmith Svanhilde at your service, M'Lady.  May I ask who I have the pleasure of addressing?'

'Eva....' said the young girl quickly, but quietly, before remembering the game that she had committed to play.  Catching her breath sharply and widening her eyes, she corrected herself, 'I mean, Agnatha...'

Her reaction did not go unnoticed by Svanhilde.

'Hmmmm. I see, ' said Svanhilde curiously, 'I have never met someone with two names.  Which do you prefer?'

'Agnatha...' she responded with a hint of sadness, barely above a whisper.

'Agnatha is a very pretty name, though I do believe that I prefer Eva.  It suits you.  It is unique and elegant and strong.  You might reconsider your choice someday, M'Lady, ' she said with a smile and a tip of her head.

'Now, are you alone today or do you shop with your husband?' asked Svanhilde playfully, curious as to why this young girl was here all alone.

'No, ' responded Eva with a roll of her eyes that brought back memories to Svanhilde of another.  'I am with my brother and....ummmmmm.....' she hesitated, not knowing what to call Robin except by his name.

'Your mother?'

Eva shook her head in response.

'Your father?'

Again, Eva shook her head.

'Perhaps an Aunt or Uncle?'

Vaguely, Eva could remember her mother once speaking of an uncle.  Her impression had been that he was older with grey and brown hair, just like Robin's.  Twisting her mouth in thought, she nodded her head slowly, watching Svanhilde's eyes to see if her response had been right.

'I see, ' said Svanhilde as she began to doubt any of the responses that she was receiving and wondering what this young girl might be trying to hide.  While interested, it was not hers to inquire.  She had learned that much from the people of the village, and she believed it good policy.  It kept both her secrets and theirs.

Hopping over the railing, Svanhilde knelt down near the girl, looking at the display of animals that had caught her eye earlier. 

'Which one do you like best?' asked Svanhilde of Agnatha as she swept her hand over the lot.

'That one, ' she said immediately, pointing to the Shire horse that stood near the back and was almost as large as her hand.

'Hmmmmmm, I believe that it is my favorite too, ' replied Svanhilde as she reached for the statue of silver.

Holding it up between them, they looked at the horse from opposite sides.

'I believe that he should belong to you now, Agnatha ' stated Svanhilde definitively as she held out the horse to the little girl.

Awestruck, the little girl took the statue of silver gingerly from Svanhilde's fingers, holding it delicately as she turned it this way and that, studying it's features.

'I called him, Rocinante, ' said Svanhilde softly.

Surprised, the little girl looked up, 'That is the name of my mother's horse, ' she said astonished, but her words were lost on Svanhilde who had stood already to look to the end of the lane where a man waited with his back facing them, holding a young boy's hand and calling out desperately.

'AGNATHA!' could be heard very clearly in the air and Svanhilde looked to the little girl who had not even flinched at the the mention of her name, though it had been repeated several times.

'I believe your Uncle looks for you, Agnatha, ' said Svanhilde quietly as she knelt again in front of her.

Looking over Svanhilde's shoulder, Eva saw Robin and Henry at the end of lane, and she took off running, though not before placing a kiss on Svanhilde's cheek in thanks for the gift.  As she ran, she placed the horse securely in her pocket before approaching Robin who immediately swept her up into a thankful, relieved hug.

Settling her feet back onto the ground, Robin did not turn around, walking away from Svanhilde instead.  She watched the family take a few steps down the path before her eyes went wide, and she caught her breath.

Turning his head over his shoulder, Agnatha's brother looked directly at Svanhilde with eyes of rich, chocolate brown which were surrounded by soft, long, dark eyelashes and topped by arched, thick eyebrows.  The color was matched perfectly to his head of thick, brown hair that highlighted and shone beautifully in the sunlight.  The light olive skin of his face showed no imperfections and the smile that he offered to Svanhilde was not only stunning, but entirely too familiar.  She had seen that same smile offered by another too many times before for it to be mistaken.

She could still not see the face of their caregiver, whom she was fairly certain was NOT their Uncle given the hesitant reply, but she immediately recognized the mix of brown and grey hair.  Something was not right and was not making sense, and despite her better judgement, Svanhilde resolved to find out what was going on.

 


 

Regina ran from the door when she heard the clop of hooves outside the cabin and knelt on the ground, arms outstretched waiting for her childrens' embrace.  

She snugged them in quickly when she sensed the familiar touch and scent of them in her arms.  Hugging them tightly, she kissed their heads several times before standing and giving Robin a hug for bringing them back safely.

Over dinner, the children recounted everything they had seen at the market, while Robin recounted his brief separation from Eva.  She had assured him that she had not stopped playing the game or revealed any information to anyone in the village, and Regina rewarded both with large slices of homemade apple pie which she had baked herself while they were away and which was still hot from the cast iron. 

Exhausted from the events of the day, the children's eyes grew heavy at the dinner table and Regina helped them into bed clothes before tucking them in and saying goodnight to Robin who decided to return to the Master's home for some much needed rest, peace and quiet.

Regina stood near Eva and Henry's bed, listening to the soothing sounds of their breathing for a bit before reaching down to collect their clothing from the floor.  She heard the heavy sound of metal bounce against the wood floor as she drew Eva's apron into her arms.  

Kneeling down, she felt about with her fingertips, finally wrapping her fingers about a small, cold figure of silver.  Standing, she traced her fingers over the details of the object, finding it quickly to be a replica of a horse.  Bringing it to her lips, she could feel the smoothness and cold of the metal which told her that it was silver, and she weighed it in her hand, estimating it to be several ounces.

Sighing to herself, Regina rubbed her temple. 

What had been a good day was now marred by the uncertainty of the origin of this statue.  Sitting in her chair by the fire, she held the horse in her lap and waited for the sun to rise.

 


 

'Eva, I would like to speak to you, ' requested Regina sternly, 'please sit down at the table.'

'Yes, Mother, ' came the meek reply of a waking child as she moved slowly out of bed and sat on the table's bench, yawning to try to awaken further.

'Would you be so kind as to explain how you have this in your possession?' asked Regina as she placed the small statue of the horse on the table between them.

'Yes, Mother.  The Blacksmith in the village gave it to me....'

'It is a very expensive gift, Eva, did he ask you for anything in return? Anything at all?  Something that you might not feel comfortable telling me?  Are you certain that he gave it to you and that you did not accidentally misunderstand or take what was not yours?' she asked impatiently, concerned about the answer that she might receive.

'No, Mother.  I promise that it was a gift.  And the Blacksmith was not a man or a dwarf, but a woman....'

'A woman?' repeated Regina as her brow furrowed and she caught her breath.

'Yes, Mother.  She said that she called him Rocinante, ' offered Eva casually as she picked up the horse and moved him to gallop back and forth across the table, 'I thought only we had a horse named Rocinante, but maybe there are others just like him....'

Regina had already tuned out her daughter's words, deep in thought over the possibility of it being Emma, and her having been so close for so long.  Surely, the Master would not have hidden her in such plain view...

'Eva, ' asked Regina softly, 'I was wondering if she might have told you her name?'

'Yes, but, ' sighed Eva, 'I don't remember it exactly.  It was a funny name about a bird....'

'If I said the name, might you remember?'

'I guess, ' said Eva with a shrug of her shoulders.

'Was it 'Svanhilde' perchance?' asked Regina expectantly.

'I think so, ' answered Eva.

'Eva?'

'Yes, Mother?'

'What was she like...I mean....the Blacksmith?  Did she seem..... ummmm.... happy?' asked Regina tentatively, wondering if her daughter thought her odd for inquiring so deeply about a complete stranger.  

She need not worry as her daughter was more than forthcoming in her reply.

'She laughed many times and teased me when I wondered why she was not a dwarf like Eitri or Bokkr.  She must have met some dwarves before because she assured me that they are ugly and mean, and she hoped she might never be one....'

Covering her mouth, Regina smiled and laughed quietly into her hand as she tried to imagine the dialogue that had taken place between the two of them.  The few times that she and Emma had the opportunity to laugh together were some of the most treasured memories that she had, and she could sometimes hear the melody of Emma's voice in her ears as she fell asleep.

'Her arms are very strong.  I hope that mine may be as strong someday.....'

Closing her eyes, Regina could picture clearly the muscled arms of her lover, remembering how they had supported her during their lovemaking and then embraced her tightly afterwards while Regina's fingers traced delicate patterns over the flesh of her taut stomach.

'She has gold hair, just like mine, and green eyes that dance when she talks.  Her smile is just like yours.  It makes me feel safe and happy, and it stays upon her face, so I think that she is happy too...'

Sighing forlornly, Eva added,

'I hope that I may see her again someday.  I did very much like her....'

'Well, I wish that I might meet her some day as well, Eva.  You seem quite smitten with her, and I would very much enjoy meeting anyone that can capture your attention as she seems to have done...'

Finding the horse upon the table, Regina handed it to her daughter with a grin.

'Thank you, Eva.  It is a fine horse indeed, and you are lucky to have received it as a gift.  The work of this artist will never be repeated or duplicated.  Guard it carefully.'

Hearing her daughter get up from the table, Regina moved from the table herself, stepping outside the door of the cabin into the rising, summer sun.

It was warm on her face and body, and she closed her eyes, breathing in deeply before wrapping her arms tightly about her torso. 

Wandering about the small clearing, Regina considered briefly if she might try alone to ride into the village while the children met with the Master for their studies.  Surely, Rocinante would know the way and might even lead her directly to the woman that she knew and loved as both Svanhilde and Emma.

Almost as quickly as the idea had entered her mind, she refused it.  Were it only herself to think of, she would already be upon the saddle, but, under the current circumstance, it would be nothing more than a selfish act that would endanger the lives of their children.

However tempting it might be to reunite with her beloved, to feel the security of her arms, the kindness of her touch and the softness of her lips, she must deny herself the pleasure, though she wondered how long she could live without Emma, knowing she was so near.

A thousand things flooded her mind as she walked.

How would she explain Eva and Henry?  Even she did not believe their origin when she had first heard the words.  They had only lived a few full moons upon this earth, but showed years of age in their faces and bodies.  Their curiosity was limitless and their intellect beyond imagination; even Regina and the Master struggled to keep up with them sometimes. 

Did Emma even know who she was, where she was from and of what she once been capable; not only strong enough to heal herself, but to create life in another?  If she introduced herself as Svanhilde, then perhaps, she knew not her true name. Or, perhaps, she simply allowed her given name to die with her magic so that she might live out an ordinary and uneventful life, blending in with those around her until the end of her days.

It was then that a thought occurred to Regina that she had not considered previously.  When they had parted, Emma had believed Regina dead at her hand.  Both of them had endured many months apart, attempting to build independent lives that they had neither wished for nor anticipated.  During that time, souls and hearts had started to heal, though Regina knew that hers would never truly return to what it was.

Perhaps Emma had grieved sufficiently.  Perhaps, her heart had mended better than Regina's, and she had moved on to seek another love.   Perhaps she preferred the peace of singularity.  Perhaps it was for the best.  What could Regina offer her now that her sight was gone?  She was independent, yet bound to the generosity of others.  She was confident, but terrified every moment of every day.  What used to come easy to her hand was now an ongoing exercise in humility, patience, repetition, and correction.  Her impatience with herself and her blindness during her pregnancy had eliminated most of the original crockery in the cabin.  Luckily the iron ware was not so easily damaged, though she had done her best to test its limits as well.

No.  Eva had assured her that Emma was happy.  Maybe things were best left alone, so that they could both move on.

And so, Regina resolved, they would remain separate until fate and circumstance might tell them otherwise.

Chapter Text

'Quiet, you damn fools, ' hissed Killian at the three guards that were still conscious and awake.   'The liquor too much loosens your tongues, and the language we speak is conspicuous.  We cannot raise suspicion...'

Immediately the other men silenced, but the Captain of the guard looked up from his mug with a scowl on his lips.

'If we must sleep again with animals, surrounded by the fetid stench of their shite and piss, then, you'd be wise to allow us our drink and conversation,' he slurred in an irritated voice.  'It is the one thing that keeps us sane anymore....'

'Am I to take that as a threat?' spat Killian disgustedly.

'Take it as you will, but you know as well as I do who holds the power to determine all fates....'

'You are an ass, Thane, ' groused Killian.

'Perhaps, but as an ass AND a Captain of the Guard, I have grown accustomed to certain 'benefits' that I have been denied for far too long now.'

'We are here only long enough to gather information...'

'And the only place not deserted at this hour is the whore house.  As castoffs, they are rarely believed, but often confided in.  You want information? That is the place to go, but you will take me with you...' the Captain offered definitively. 

Killian glared at the Captain as he considered his words and reasoning.

'And, fear not, ' chuckled the Captain, 'I will hold my foreign tongue, though I assure you that she will not.  What I desire is quite easily satisfied without speaking a word, except in the form of coin....'

'Very well.  Let us go.  But, no others...'

'Of course, ' he bowed to Killian, 'to the victors alone go the spoils...'

 


 

The entrance of the whorehouse was the same as any other tavern.  A few tables and benches surrounded a central hearth above which was skewered a half-carved boar that provided sustenance for patrons and workers alike during the long night.

Nestled into the far corner was the bar where bottles and barrels were stored and stacked in arbitrary order, while the other corners hosted a few, additional tables that stayed well-buried in the shadows; typically occupied by the affluent and influential, so as not to draw unwanted attention or rumor.

The night seemed slow.  Several of the prostitutes meandered through the unconscious and half-conscious, trying to entice them for a few minutes fun in one of the back rooms while others stood by the bar whispering and laughing.  

The most talkative among them, and the one that seemed to be capturing the most attention from the others with her stories, was a short, slight, red-haired, blue-eyed woman who wore a simple, peasant dress of sea green trimmed in brown with cream-colored short sleeves.  She was young, not as worn and haggard as many of the other women whom Killian could tell had made this their life's work for probably as long as he had been on this earth.  Her lips were the color of ripe cherries and she had a flush upon her porcelain cheeks from the stale heat that surrounded her which was only marginally offset by a door that had been half-opened near the bar.

'Let us sit nearer to the bar, Thane.  I see several things there that I wish to indulge in....' offered Killian in a quiet, yet threatening, tone.

'Wherever you prefer, my Lord, ' offered Thane distractedly as he took in all of the women and quickly selected tonight's conquest.

Settling on the bench, Killian took a brief look about him to identify any threats or hints of suspicion.  Seeing nothing, he folded his hands and lay them on the table in front of him, bowing his head slightly.

'What can I get you, Loves?' asked the older barmaid in her Nordic tongue.

'Two ales, ' grunted Killian in the same Nordic language, earning a surprised and confused look from Thane.

As the woman turned from the table and walked back to the bar, he leaned forward over the table.

'You speak this language?'

'I speak enough to get both of us what we want tonight...'

'Good, then you can get me the raven-haired woman with the green eyes.  She looks like she'd take it nice and rough....'

The barmaid returned with the ales and set them in front of the men.

'Anything else?' she hinted.

'Raven-hair.  Green eyes. For my friend. When he finishes his ale.'

'An excellent choice, ' she nodded as she waved to the girl to approach.  Immediately, she was by the woman's side who nodded her head at Thane.

Sitting in his lap, she ran her fingers through his hair and beard, giggling, whispering in his ear and kissing his lips between his draughts of ale.  Kissing her back finally, he took her lower lip between his teeth biting down hard enough to draw blood which he licked from his lips.  

Slightly alarmed by his aggressiveness, the woman stopped giggling and her smile fell a bit as she looked to the barmaid who showed no reaction or concern.  She soon resumed her attentions but her actions seemed to be more hesitant and cautious as she realized what her night ahead would now hold.

'And for you?'

'I have not yet decided, but we will take another ale as I do, ' replied Killian.

Nodding her head, she left them again and Killian focused his full attention to the bar where he could hear quite clearly the words of the red-haired woman.

'I tell you that I have not seen anything like it in all of my days.  The Freyja begging mercy for an unfree...It is no wonder she is better loved than her mother...'

'You should not say words such as this, Belle, lest the wrong ears hear.  You are among friends, but enemies should always be assumed near...'

'I simply say what I saw and know, ' she responded back confidently. 'And what I know is that even the strongest of our men have never endured as many lashings.  It was unnatural....'

Killian listened intently from his seat, both hands grasping his tankard, head bowed to feign disinterest in anything but his drink. 

He barely noticed when Thane arose from his seat and grasped the wrist of the raven-haired woman roughly, jerking her forward to lead the way to the room

'Of course, she was unnatural anyways ....blonde hair, green eyes, weak stature.... Neither her father or mother, Odin hold her, has that appearance despite calling her 'daughter', so I must wonder if perhaps the woman whored while her husband was away in the fight.....'

Killian's grip tightened about his tankard until his knuckles were white, and a wave of anger and hatred passed over him.

'Belle!' gasped one of the girls before tittering behind her hand.

'A woman has needs as well....I do not hold her in malice....'

'Though, I do believe that the Freyja was quite shocked when she found out that she had begged mercy for.....a witch...'

Looking up through his lashes, Killian observed the woman's mannerisms which seemed slightly unusual compared to the other women, but not unfamiliar. 

Closing his eyes, he relaxed completely, allowing himself to sense what could not be seen. The corner of his lip turned up slightly when he identified the exact thing that would give him the most leverage to attain his information quickly and easily.

Almost immediately, Killian motioned for the barmaid.

'I believe I have made my selection...' he offered raising his chin at Belle.  

'She is intact and inexperienced...'

'I will pay four times the highest rate....She will be safe in my hands....'

The old woman hesitated a moment before nodding her head in agreement.  Walking to the bar, she whispered a few words to the woman they called Belle, and she looked to Killian's table confidently before making her way over.

'I hear that you ask for me?'

'I hear you tell tales, and I do love a good story...'

'It is not a story.  It is truth.'

'Perhaps. Perhaps not.  Maybe you would indulge me with more of the details, so that I might make that judgement for myself.'

'My storytelling is extra...' she teased as she kissed his lips, completely unaware of his mounting frustration and impatience.

'And who shall I pay for that pleasure, ' he offered sweetly through gritted teeth.

'Only me.  In private....' she stated as she continued running her fingers through his hair, capturing his lips with her own.

'Then let us retire quickly as I wait anxiously for the rest of this story, ' said Killian as he arose from the bench and motioned for her to lead the way.

 


 

The three, cloaked men stepped silently through the paths and alleys of the village, blending easily with the shadows.

They stopped only briefly by the wall of the inn that neighbored the whorehouse before the first in line motioned for the two remaining men to split off from him and assume a position nearer the back of the brothel.

Clearing the open distance in only a few steps, he positioned himself along the outside wall of the whorehouse at the hinge of the bar door which was swung wide enough to the inside to offer a view of a few of the patrons.

His interest was peaked by the dark-haired man and his companion who sat drinking; one with a beautiful, raven-haired woman in his lap.

It was not long to wait before the companion and the woman took their leave only to be replaced at the table by a red-haired woman.

He strained his ears in vain, unable to hear the words that they spoke.  He knew, however, that an opportunity would present itself soon enough.  

Seeing them both finally rise from the table, he hurried towards the back of the building where he stopped under each of the open windows to determine which door they had entered.  He was rewarded soon enough with the sound of a latch and the shuffle of feet.....

 

****************************************************************************TRIGGER WARNING START*********************************************************************************************************

 

Stepping through the heavy leather curtain, Killian could see that they were in a long hallway with five or six doors on each side.     They were closely spaced, indictating very small rooms behind, likely only large enough for a bed and night table.

A single door at the end of the hallway led to the small alley behind where men, and the occasional woman, could exit undetected.  

From one of the furthest rooms on the right he could hear the hard slaps, pleas and muffled sobbing of the whore who'd had the unfortunate luck to be favored by Thane that evening.

He was unconcerned and uncaring about her well-being, but could see Belle's anxiousness growing as she continued down the hall, finally stopping at one of the left hand doors.

'W-w-we a-re h-here, ' she stuttered out; all confidence gone from her voice and demeanor.

'Excellent, ' whispered Killian as he placed a soft kiss on the curve of her neck, feeling her relax and let her guard down slightly.

Opening the door, she entered, Killian close on her heels.

No sooner had the door shut behind them than Killian grasped her roughly and spun them.  Slamming her back against the door, he wrapped his fingers about her neck with one hand and held a knife to her stomach, directly above her hip, with his other hand.

'Now, ' he snarled, 'I am tired of playing your games, so we are going to play one of mine.  It is called 'How Much Do You Value The Life of Your Unborn Child?''

Belle's eyes were wide and brimming with tears that were streaking down her face.  She gasped for air, but dared not move to claw at his hands; remaining, instead, frozen in place.

'I-I am n-not...'

'DO NOT LIE!' he raged through gritted teeth as his grip tightened about her throat.

'I-I am s-sorry.  P-please do n-not t-tell my father....'

'Your fate and the fate of this child is entirely up to you....'

'W-what do you w-want from m-me?'

'I want the details of that story.... NOW....then, I want your legs spread wide on that bed while I fuck you any way that I desire.  Do as I ask, and I will allow you to crawl eventually from my sight with your child unharmed.  Do not and I will put you both in a grave tonight.... now TALK....'

Loosening his grip only slightly so that she might speak, she sobbed and gasped as she spoke quietly.....

 


 

'How long ago was this?' demanded Killian.

'Almost six moons...' whispered Belle meekly.

'And where is she now?'

'I do not know, ' she squeaked out as she felt his grip tighten.

'YOU LIE!'

'I do not, ' she gasped, 'she escaped into the wood and no one has seen her since.  The High Queen's guard followed, and they are relentless.  She must be dead.  If not, she hides well, perhaps, in a neighboring village to remain close to her family.'

'And what is the next closest village?'

'Helmstadt, about three day's ride northeast through the wood...'

'If I detect that you are lying, then so help me, you will get infinitely worse than your friend.  As it stands, you might be lucky to get only the same....'

'I do not lie, ' she sobbed as she raised her arm to point the direction.

Almost immediately, Killian's demeanor changed, and he released his grip on Belle's throat to pet her hair and dry her eyes, smiling ingeniously.

'You see, that wasn't so bad....' comforted Killian, '.....I cannot say the same for the next part, though, ' he offered with mock sympathy...

 


 

'If I find out that you have told anyone about our little conversation here, I will hunt you down like an animal, ' stated Killian calmly as he pulled on his pants and boots.

'Do you understand my words?' he asked sternly as he looked to the bed where Belle lay, curled into a fetal position, crying softly.

She barely nodded her head but it was sufficient to placate Killian as he pulled on his remaining clothes.

'For your story....' he huffed as he threw a few coins upon the bed, hitting her in the back and head.

 

****************************************************************************TRIGGER WARNING END*********************************************************************************************************

 

Walking out the door and through the curtain, he laid a leather pouch filled with coins in front of the barmaid.

'For our troubles...' he grumbled before exiting the tavern and stepping into the street where he found Thane waiting.  

'Did you get what you needed?' he asked Killian.

'Absolutely.  You?'

'Much to her dismay....'

'Let us go.  We ride for Helmstadt...'

 


 

The cloaked man released a low whistle to gather the others, and they made their way back across the lane, blending into the shadows from which they had come.

He had heard all that he needed and all that he could stomach. 

'Tomorrow.  Daybreak. Northwest to Helmstadt.  Inform the others....' he said quietly.

'Yes, Sir, ' offered the other two men before all three scattered to the wind to prepare and wait.

Chapter Text

Svanhilde breathed a sigh of relief as she ducked behind a tree very close to the cabin with which she was all too familiar.

She had spent the last hour picking her way through the brambles of the forest, trying to remain silent and unseen as she followed the man, whom she had recognized as Locksley, on his journey home from the village. 

So confident was he in the safety and familiarity of his path that he had been singing, badly, most of the way.  These songs combined with the heavy step of his horse had masked well any accidental sound that Svanhilde might have made, and, to her knowledge, he was still unaware of her presence.  She truly hoped to keep it that way.

She was here only to confirm that, what had entered her mind upon seeing those children in the village, was nothing more than the foolish musings of a still-broken heart.

Surely, if the children were the product of some previous relationship with Locksley, it might have been mentioned, but Regina claimed she had never been with another.  

It would not have mattered to Svanhilde.  She would have understood, if she had just been confided in.  Regina must have known that she would never have breathed a secret such as that to anyone. 

She was not so foolish as to believe that Regina and Locksley's betrothal would have been condoned by the High Queen, and she knew, for certain, that the children would have been reminded daily of their rightful place as bastards. 

Keeping them far away from the castle, and the criticism of the Kingdom, would have provided the best opportunity for them to live in peace, but Svanhilde also knew that a separation such as that would have been heartbreaking for Regina.  Surely, she would have seen or felt it heavy in her lover's heart at some point.

If they were Regina's children, Svanhilde knew that she had no place in their lives.  Still, they were her lone tether to a love and happiness that would never be repeated in any lifetime, and, if she were capable of providing them any comfort, kindness or protection in their mother's absence, then she would do so, without question, for as long as she was able.  It was only a matter of confirmation and assurance.  

Shaking her head slightly, she wiped away, again, these absurd thoughts which had no origin in logical thought.  No, she could not believe it to be.  

These children were nothing more than visitors from another land, passing through as strangers, brought to the village to explore and expand their knowledge before starting the monotony of a journey back home, or to yet another land.  It was the only explanation that her mind would allow, though her heart could not help but wonder....   

Crouching down, she watched as Locksley led his horse into the barn.  It was almost past a half hour before he returned to view, saddle bags slung over both shoulders filled to the brim with goods from the village.

Hearing a distinct click, she watched as the door to the cabin opened, and she could see the familiar faces of Agnatha and Thorin as they ran to him in greeting. 

Studying them closely, Svanhilde couldn't help but believe that they looked even older than they had the previous week, though she knew it could not be so.

Scooping them up in each of his arms and placing kisses on their cheeks, Locksley carried them to the door before opening it narrowly and moving them all inside.

For the better part of an hour, Svanhilde remained; eyes fixed on the door, hoping to see some signs of movement.  If these children were visitors, then their stay was long, but not excessive.  Surely they would be gone soon, and any doubt of their origin would be removed from her mind.  

Seeing and expecting nothing more, Svanhilde resigned to return the following day, and every day thereafter, until she could confirm her suspicions that these children were no more than transient.  She had only taken one step before she heard the click of a lock, and she resumed her crouched position by the tree, awaiting the next time when she could leave unnoticed. 

She heard the familiar cadence of Regina's voice before she saw her face, and, in those few moments between, Svanhilde's breathing stopped and her heart pounded, almost from her chest, in anticipation.   

It was only when Regina stepped over the threshold that Svanhilde allowed herself to believe that what she had known in her heart about the children was true.  Moreover, the woman that she loved, the woman that she had mourned, the woman that had filled every sleeping and waking thought of the past several months, and before, was there before her, in the flesh, and she grasped the trunk of the tree, trying to ground herself from the flood of blessed emotion that threatened to drown her.

Regina was more stunning than Svanhilde could ever recall.  Her hair, longer and thicker than before, was drawn back into the clip that she had been gifted by Svanhilde, before cascading down her back in loose, dark rings that shone in the sun.  A slight smile played upon perfect, painted lips and her skin shone rich and bronzed having been darkened even further by hours outside.  There was still an elegance in her demeaner despite the simple clothing she wore, and Svanhilde prayed that she might look more fully upon her lover's beautiful face, but Regina had busied herself in tending to the needs of the brood before her.  Holding the ends of her apron, she walked about the clearing, scattering feed for the chickens that scratched about happily in the yard.  

Apron empty, Regina allowed it to fall before walking into the barn. Svanhilde could hear the rustling of hay and the scrape of the pitchfork as Regina worked, and she smiled as she considered that Regina still had the steadfast companionship of Rocinante.  

She wanted to run to Regina and take her in her arms, but she dare not approach.  It had been many months, and she knew not what her welcome might be....

Regina had been dead, of that, Svanhilde was sure. She had held Regina in her arms and begged her back to no avail. Had she believed Regina might have again taken a breath, she would have stayed. Surely, Regina knew that Svanhilde had not abandoned her intentionally.  Still, Regina had not sought her out, so perhaps she did blame her for leaving and refused to ask her location. 

Surely, Locksley would have told Regina of her proximity, if asked.  Locksley served the Master, and there was no doubt that he would have shared Svanhilde's location with his apprentice.

Maybe, it was a secret that Locksley chose to keep regardless of her inquiries.  Seeing an opportunity to be joined again with Regina, he might have lied or disavowed knowledge of Svanhilde's location, so that he and Regina might live out their days together as betrothed.  Perhaps, it was what Regina preferred anyways; reunited with the father of her children.

It mattered not now. What was done was done.  Regina was with another, and Svanhilde found herself an outcast in a life that had once belonged to her.

Emerging from the barn,  Regina wiped her hands down the front of her apron to remove a bit of the of hay that had become stuck in the fabric.  Chores done,  she walked toward the hut where she would retreat to the comfort of the home she shared with Locksley; though Svanhilde prayed that Regina might stay outside forever to be looked upon in reverence for the remainder of her days. 

Regina had only made it half way to the door before she stopped and turned toward the wood.  

Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply,  vaguely aware of the smells of bergamot and lavender on the breeze.   

Regina swallowed hard as she remembered that it was the same scent that had intoxicated her when she and Svanhilde had made love; her lips trailing lightly over Svanhilde's sweat drenched, hot skin.  She breathed deeply again, wondering if it was simply her mind playing tricks, but the aroma had not waned, and she longed to see the source so that she might collect it to keep in her pillow.

She was distracted by the sound of children bursting through the door of the house,  running full speed toward her.   The girl carried something cupped in her hands,  though Svanhilde could not yet see what it was. 

'Mother!! Look at what Robin has brought us!'

Svanhilde furrowed her brow as she considered the formal address that these children were giving to the man that entered the house.   Something was missing.  She did not have all of the pieces to the puzzle. 

She watched as Regina knelt on the soft ground in front of the children.  Holding her hands out, Thorin took one of them and moved it to Agnatha's cupped hands, guiding her fingers against the soft tuft of yellow that had been revealed.  Svanhilde furrowed her brow in confusion as she watched Regina's movements.  They were slow and deliberate, soft and exploratory.  Bringing her other hand to her daughter's, Regina cupped the gift in her own hands before drawing it to her cheek to feel the softness.

'It will be a fine replacement for the hen that we have lost, and she is lucky to arrived so quickly after laying the seed.  Reaching with one hand, Regina felt within the dirt and short blades of grass, hoping to find a trace of meal.  Recognizing with her fingertips what she sought, Regina placed the chick on the ground, never lowering her eyes to watch, but keeping them focused on the horizon.

Raising her hand to her mouth to cover her gasp, Svanhilde's eyes went wide as she realized that the woman that she loved was not the same woman that she had left, and her heart fell as she realized that it was she that had destroyed Regina's chances of ever seeing her children again.

If Regina had not wanted to find her, then she could not deny the reasoning nor place blame any longer, and her ire at Locksley was quickly replaced by gratitude and understanding.  He had been there when Regina had needed someone most.  He deserved her love much more than she who had provided only injury, uncertainty, fear and loss.

Her only consolation was that she had rejected that which had already affected too many lives.  If a curse, then it had fulfilled its duty.  If a gift, as the Master has tried to convince her, then should could but wonder for whom.

She watched until Regina rose from her crouch and retreated inside with her children.  Unable to bear the guilt any longer, Svanhilde left again for the village, determined to find a way to provide her protection and support in heartbroken silence.

Chapter Text

Killian, Fredrick and the five guards moved slowly through the dense and unfamiliar forest.  The sun had started to set and the boughs of the trees beckoned to the darkness eagerly, casting long, threatening shadows upon the ground.

They had hoped by now to find the village to which they had been directed hours ago. 

They, and their horses, were tired and hungry, and they preferred the shelter of a building for the night, feeling much too vulnerable to remain in the open of a hostile land. 

Luckily, they had passed unnoticed so far.  Their band was small, resembling a typical hunting party that scouted the woods frequently during this time of year, and they had adopted the dress of the Kingdom's residents before setting off on their journey, adding yet more support to their ruse.

'Whoa, ' said Killian softly as he held up a closed fist to signal the others to stop as well.  

They had entered a clearing in which stood a small longhouse and stables.  The light glowed warm in the windows, and he could see the shadows that signified the movement of those inside.  The chimney belched forth a strong smoke, and there was the scent of venison in the air that made his mouth water.  

Unsure of when they might happen upon the next village, and unwilling to remain exposed in the wood after dark, Killian considered his options only briefly before deciding upon their course of action.

'We will ask for lodging here for ourselves and our horses and be on our way once we have had sufficient rest.'

Receiving no objection from his exhausted colleagues, he continued,

'Fredrick, I do believe that your demeanor is more pleasant than any of ours.  Perhaps you should inquire with the Master of the home?'

'I cannot argue that observation, ' Fredrick responded wryly before hoping down from the saddle, thankful to stretch his legs.

Killian dismounted as well to follow, but signaled the others to remain, partially in watch and partially to not be perceived as a threat.

Knocking on the door, Fredrick stepped back awaiting a response.  He could hear the murmur of voices and the shuffling of feet, but could make out nothing distinct. 

Eventually, the familiar sound of a lock click was heard, and he placed a smile upon his face to encourage his patrons.

'Good evening, ' he offered warmly as he saw the face of a middle-aged man appear at the door opening.

'And to you, ' offered the man in reply with a tip of his head.

'I seek the Master of the house to request the kindness of lodging for the evening.'

'My wife and I are equals in this house.  Whatever is to be asked of me may be asked of both, ' he offered as he opened the door a bit wider.  As it moved, the woman used her arm to brush her children further behind her, into the shadows, so that they might remain unseen. 

'M'Lady, ' offered Fredrick with a tip of his head as she came into view.  Acknowledging her silent greeting of a return nod, he continued,

'My companions and I have traveled far this day in search of a good hunt and seek shelter and a meager meal for ourselves and our horses.  We will repay you for your kindness and be on our way once the sun has risen sufficiently in the sky, if you might be so kind as to allow us respite in the stable.'

Standing quietly to the side, Killian followed the course of the conversation, watching closely for any sign of danger.  His attention was particularly focused on the woman inside the door.  She was beautiful, of that there was no doubt, and if he had been there under other circumstance, he would most certainly kill the man just to have his way with her.  What struck him most, however, was her behavior.  While she looked, in turn, to those speaking, her eyes seemed unfocused as if she was concentrating on something beyond the conversation.

'I see no reason that we should deny a weary traveler rest for the evening, ' said the Master of the house, before turning to the woman.  'Do you agree, My Love?'

Turning to the man, she nodded her head slowly and deliberately.  He could see the concern rising by the moment in her eyes. 

They both sensed that something was not right with these men, but to refuse them before or now might put them in more danger than they would be if they simply waited the night and saw that they were on their way in the morning.

Extending his hand towards the stables and tipping his head in deference, the man continued,

'Please settle your horses in any of the open stalls.  There is hay and grain at the back which may be given.  Allow us no more than a half hour to gather the meal.  It is not much, only venison, vegetables and wine, but I hope that it will sate your appetites.'

'You are most gracious, and we humbly accept your offering.  May we speak again in a bit, ' finished Fredrick as he bowed slightly to the man and woman before turning around and walking back to his horse; Killian close behind on his heels.

Door closed and locked, the man and woman exhaled a sigh of relief.

'Seven men traveling together for a hunt, yet all wear a slight perfume that would alert any animal to their presence, and I heard not the clatter of traps against their saddles....' 

'I saw only five men, Regina ' was the confused response.

'There were two others, further out in the wood.  I heard the crackle of the underbrush that lay beyond the shadows.  I also heard the touch of swords against stirrups.  They are not here for hunt, they come for something else, Robin....'

Pausing briefly, Regina furrowed her brow in thought as if trying to place something in her memory,

'There was another man close, but he said nothing.'

'Yes, he stood to the side and behind, covered in shadow.  Why?'

'His scent.  It is different and familiar to me, yet I cannot place....'

Her eyes went wide and she drew breath as she realized where she had experienced it before.

'What's wrong, Regina?'

'When I was a young girl, I used to sneak into my Grandfather's chamber to play.  He kept his most prized possessions from his conquests there.  

On his bed side table,  he had a small, ornamental box which contained a liquid that smelled of spice and bergamot.  It was a wonderful scent which I adored, so I would uncap the bottle many times just to drink in the aromas.  I was a bit older when I remembered it appearing....perhaps five or six years in age.  According to the Master, this would have been the same time that Emma came to this land.'

'Do you think....'

'I believe her people have always sought her, though I do not understand how they would know of her location here, and until we know for certain that they are from her Kingdom, as well as their intent, we should be cautious about answering any questions or providing significant information about ourselves or others.  I simply do not trust them, in particular, the quietest of them....'

Turning around, she dropped to one knee in front of her children who had stood silently by listening attentively to the conversation at hand.

Reaching out, Regina searched for their faces, holding one cheek of each in each of her hands.

'Do you remember the game that you played in the village?'

She could feel each of them nod slowly and solemnly, and she smiled reassuringly.

'Good, because we must play it again here, but only until tomorrow.  It is important that none of us lose this game.  Do you understand?'

Again, the children nodded their heads.

'It will be all right, ' offered Regina as she released their hands and brushed her fingers down their cheeks, 'you will be safe...'

'Let us get the supper so that they may adjourn.  It may result in an earlier departure.'

Pouring wine into several large flagons, Regina and Robin portioned out a meager meal for themselves so that they might take the rest quickly to the stable.  Carrying the food and drink between them, they opened the door.  Before it closed, Regina turned once more,

'Close and lock this door behind us and do not exit this house....'

Stepping into the yard, Robin and Regina made their way quickly to the barn.

The men's horses stood unsaddled and fed within the stalls, and they stomped their feet and snorted happily as they enjoyed their well-earned meal.  Meanwhile the seven riders lounged about upon the bales of hay that they had formed into a loose circle.  

They already pulled their cups and platters from their bags in anticipation of their meal.

Looking around, Robin could not help but wonder at Regina's abilities.  Where his eyes had denied him the most basic sight, Regina's blindness had allowed her to see, and she was most correct in her assessments of their numbers and secrecy.

'I do hope that this meal will be to your satisfaction, ' stated Robin as he placed two cast iron pots and a large loaf of fresh bread onto the bale of hay that sat in the center of their circle, 'it is all that we have to offer....'

Taking four, large flagons of ale, meade and wine from Regina, he placed them beside the cooking pots, stepping back and tilting his head to show that the setting was complete.

'We will take our leave for now, so that you may continue your conversations in peace....'

Threading his arm through Regina's, Robin turned them so that they might head out the stable doors.  They had almost reached the exit when a smooth but disingenuous voice rang out from behind, and they turned to recognize his address,

'Forgive us for our ill-mannered behavior, we have not even asked or offered names....I am Killian, and the man that spoke to you before was Fredrick.   We have also Martyn, Thane, Alburn, Bevan and Laran.'

Each man nodded as his name was called receiving a curt nod in return.

'We are honored to have your company, ' offered Robin as he started to turn again.

'And your names?' asked Killian as he cocked his brow wondering why they were in such a rush to leave.

Turning back, Robin offered a slight smile.

'My apologies.  We do not get many visitors here, and I forget my manners as well.  I am Ragnar and this is my wife, Svanhilde.'

'Hmmmmmmm....' was the only response.  Receiving no other, Robin and Regina turned and made their way back to the house.

It was almost an hour before Regina returned.  

The men had drank their fill of the very strong contents of the flagons, and Regina could smell the remnants of the liquid hanging in the air from their breath.  She could also hear that at least three of them were already unconscious, snoring loudly atop the bales while the others continued to speak in varying volumes of slurred speech.  

She knew every inch of the barn, and Robin had advised her of the new configuration that their guests had created.   They had decided that it would be less conspicuous if she returned alone, though it was a risk.  Her disability was a weakness that she did not want exploited if they had harmful intent, and still unsure of their business, she needed to disguise her blindness well. 

Entering the stable quietly, Regina walked quickly to the center of the circle, using Rocinante's husked breaths, that were reserved only for her, as a guide.  She shuffled lightly for a few steps until her toe touched the side of the bale that had been used as a table.

Reaching out, she breathed a sigh of relief as her finders touched the metal of the first oven. As she lifted, she swung it gently in a circle and heard the distinct ring of another oven and three flagons.  Gathering all quickly in her hands, she turned towards the door to exit.

'You have missed a flagon....' came the familiar voice of the one that called himself Killian.

'I did not wish to disturb.  I will gather it in the morning.  Goodnight, ' she offered quickly hoping that this would draw an end to the conversation.  Receiving no response, she took a step but found too late that her toe had caught on the foot that Killian had placed in her path.

Falling forward, she released the ovens and flagons with a clatter as she reached to catch herself with her hands, landing with an 'oomph' as her body struck the floor.

'You see, gentlemen!' announced Killian triumphantly as he jumped to his feet wobbling slightly as he landed, 'She is blind.  Just as I told you!'

A couple of the men 'humphed', drunkenly impressed, while a few more, that had been woken from their slumbers by the commotion, groaned before falling back asleep.

Crawling forward on her knees, Regina tried to push herself up from the floor so that she could flee their ridicule and scrutiny, but she found herself, instead, pulled up from the floor by strong forearms hooked under her arms. 

Barely able to catch her breath and her bearings, she soon found herself held down tightly in Killian's lap, and she smelled his fetid, liquored breath on her face as he drew his lips close to her cheek, whispering harshly,

'I wonder.....do you know your beauty or have you ever even looked upon your own face?  I am quite certain your husband enjoys your full lips and breasts, your smooth skin and taut ass as he fucks you hard in your bed.  Tell me....does he provide you with as much pleasure as I am sure you offer him?'

Trailing off, he squeezed the side of Regina's hip strongly before stroking and kneading the side of her rear deeply, and almost painfully, with his fingertips.  

Closing her eyes, Regina swallowed hard and tried to control her breathing as a tear rolled down her face, and she could only pray that Robin had heard the clatter in the house and might come to her aid.  Focused on her situation, she did not even hear the agitated movements of Rocinante as he stared vengefully from his stall at the man who held his Queen captive.

'Don't cry, my Dear, ' offered Killian as he brushed the tear away with his thumb, 'I promise that you won't need your sight tonight; just your mouth, your cunt and a diligent hand....'

Taking Regina's hand in his own, he pressed it against the front of his pants where his member stood, already hard, beneath the fabric. 

The crack of Rocinante's hooves against the front of his stall was almost deafening, wood splintering and bowing under the force of the blow.  Startled, Killian looked up, releasing his hold slightly.  Recognizing her opportunity, Regina wrenched her hand from Killian's grip before jumping to her feet and running out the door, the sound of his sadistic laughter following close behind and ringing in her ears.

'Svanhilde, wait....' called out Robin, concerned, as she passed him half way to the house.  She did not stop to acknowledge his presence, instead, going inside and closing the door before falling to the ground, shaking and sobbing.  It was there that Robin found her only a moment later, and he took her in his arms and rocked her gently, unsure of what had happened but imagining the worst.

In the barn, Killian's laughter turned quickly to agitation as he considered the loss of his prize.  Stumbling out into the clearing in front of the stable, he wandered a crooked path to the house before climbing upon a small pile of rocks and crouching low so that he might see in the window.  He could see the woman that had refused him sitting at the table crying and he untied his pants, freeing his penis which sprung erect from the fabric.  Taking the shaft in his hand, he imagined her crying beneath him as he used long, firm strokes to satisfy himself and to remove the ache of his neglect.  

He gritted his teeth and moaned low as he came against the side of the house, continuing to work his flaccid flesh until no drop of pleasure remained within him.

Finally satisfied, he tied his pants again and prepared to move away when he heard the voices of children that had been yet unseen and unknown to him.  Moving back to the window, he watched intently.  

On the floor playing was a young boy of five or six with the dark brown hair and brown eyes of his mother.  He played with small toys, looking up occasionally with concern at his mother who still sat at the table, head in hands.

Killian's spirits soared and his eyes widened when he heard the next words spoken in the house,

'Henry, give it back!'

'I do not have your silver horse, Eva, you have lost it, I am sure....'

'It was a special gift from the blacksmith, Henry, and I want it back!'

Killian watched with interest as two names, so familiar to him, resounded in his ears.  They were uncommon, if not non-existent, in this land to his knowledge.  And the occasion of hearing them together might even be punishable by death, if heard by the wrong ears.

Almost unable to blink, he watched in rapt attention as the blonde-haired, green-eyed girl named Eva came into view, and a sadistic smile crossed his lips as he realized how close he was to victory.  He stayed no longer than a moment more before returning, fully sobered, to the barn where he found everyone asleep.  

Laying upon the nearest bale, he placed his arms behind his head, staring at the rafters in thought, waiting for the sun to peek over the horizon so that he could be on his way to the village.

Chapter Text

Killian sat smug on his horse as it broke through the wood and entered the clearing at the edge of the village.  

The fates had smiled upon them by leading them to the cabin, though the village had been not more than forty-five minutes further, and there was no doubt in his mind that his quarry had been alive up to at least 6 months ago. 

The face he had seen the previous evening was the same as the one that he had looked upon often as a child.

As he rode, he remembered the words of the young girl.  She had a special relationship with the Blacksmith.  

Perhaps, Eva, feeling confident in the nature of their relationship, had told the man something of great importance, though he might have, himself, considered it inconsequential and meaningless coming from the lips of a child.   

Killian knew that any information might lead him closer to his target, so Killian resolved to stop at this man's business first.

Riding through the lanes, Killian spied the Blacksmith shop easily,  arms and armour glistening in the sun.  It was some of the finest work on which his eyes had ever settled.  Seeing no one in the stall, he rode on, bringing his horse up behind the row of shops before dismounting and tying his steed to a nearby tree.

Walking back round to the front of the shop, Killian perused the variety of decorative handcrafts on display on the hearth-separating wall, raising his eyes occassionally to determine if the proprietor had yet arrived.

'May I help you?' came the unexpected sound of a woman's voice after a few more moments.

Killian did not look up, as he assumed the person to which he was speaking was the wife of the Blacksmith, and he felt no compunction to offer her the same courtesy as he would another man.  Continuing to browse, he stated boredly,

'I await the Blacksmith's arrival as I have need of a specific piece for my collection.....'

'Then I am at your disposal, Sir, ' offered the woman in a slightly perturbed voice, knowing that the man before her was not only a stranger, but one that thought himself above all women.

Looking up, Killian struggled to retain his composure and indifference as he looked directly into the green eyes of the woman he sought.  Immediately adopting a more amenable disposition, he responded,

'My apologies, M'Lady, I did not expect...' he trailed off as he was cut off in turn.

'As most do not......' she responded.  Unwilling to remove the frustration from her own voice and knowing full well that his apology was insincere, she inquired again, 'so, how may I help you?'

Looking into the Blacksmith's eyes, Killian could see that she was not to be tricked or warmed by flattery, so he resolved to another tactic,

'I look for a blade for hunting and skinning.  I would like it to be approximately this long, ' he offered as he held his hands about 1/4 meter apart, 'and of the finest workmanship ever seen.  The animals provided its mercy should be honored by its use....'

The woman was silent as she continued to study the man.  She was quite sure that he honored no one or no thing and could imagine nothing but brutality at his hand.  Still, he stood before her and seemed dedicated to his task, so the only way for him to be on his way was to indulge his desires.

'I have many hunting knives that match your description, ' offered the Blacksmith as she waved her hand at the sheaths that hung from the rafters and lay upon the cap of the wall.

'Yes, I have seen these, ' he responded thoughtfully, 'yet none of them truly caught my eye....perhaps we can talk more privately about my vision and desire?'

Not waiting for a response, he grasped the wall, jumping over the height easily before landing on his feet inside the stall.  Walking over confidently to the Blacksmith, he stood directly in front of her, taking her by surprise with both his brazenness and the deftness and quickness of his movement.

'I did see one that is quite similar to what I seek, perhaps you would be so kind as to indulge bringing it down for my study?'  he stated in an overly sweet tone that almost churned her stomach.  Her eyes darted warily between his finger and his eyes as he pointed to a blade that swung gently near the narrow edge of the oven

Focusing only on his eyes, the blacksmith reached up, wrapping her fingers about the sheathed blade that he had indicated before pulling it from its peg and directing its blunt hilt to the man.  

Providing a wry and deceptive smile, he nodded his head before taking the blade from her hand.

'Hmmmmm, ' he offered as he pulled the razor sharp blade from the sheath and waved it about in the air to check the weight in his hand.  'I may have been mistaken....it seems that this blade will do just fine.....'

Reaching out quickly, he wrapped his hand about the front of the Blacksmith's neck before curling his arm to draw her back to his front.  She barely had time think and no time to react before the blade that she had given was at her throat, and they had been moved out of sight behind the oven.  

'So tell me Blacksmith....what do they call you in this land?' He asked in a menacing undertone, lips close to her ear.

'W-what?' she stuttered.

'Your. Name. ' He asked again, slowly and perturbedly.

'Svanhilde, ' she responded with a hint of defiance, not willing to back down but unwilling to move due to the proximity of the blade to her skin, 'and I believe you have mistaken me for another.'

She could hear him huff a laugh under his breath before responding, 'Oh no, I am quite certain that you are exactly who I seek.  But it is odd that this same name seems to be reaching my ears all too frequently in the past two days.  Perhaps you would be so kind as to come with me so that we might reconcile its true owner as I find myself quite confused.....'

Grasping a handful of her blonde hair, he pulled her head back hard and kept the knife tight to her throat as he urged her body forward with his own. 

Stopping at the back of the stall, he looked both ways to ensure their progress would not be questioned or impeded.  Seeing no one, he stepped into the clearing, pushing Svanhilde hard from behind, causing her to stumble forward and land flat upon her stomach close to his waiting horse.  

He was on her again in an instant, grasping her hair in a tight fist and jerking her to her feet before placing his lips to her ear, all pretense of civility gone from his voice.

'In my land, you are called 'Emma', and you would do well to remember that name for the short duration of your remaining life; not the heathen name that you were given by animals....'

Pulling her head back harshly to prevent her turning away, he stepped in front of her and looked into her green eyes with a malice and jealousy that she had never before seen from someone familiar, let alone a stranger.  He spoke quietly through gritted teeth as he addressed her again,

'If you would like to see your blind whore alive again, I suggest you mount this horse with me and ride quietly into the forest....am I understood?'

Svanhilde's face fell as she realized his superiority of position, and she nodded in agreement as she felt his fingers release their grip from her hair and grasp the reigns of the horse firmly.  Climbing into the saddle, she moved forward and removed her feet from the stirrups before feeling the man mount the saddle behind her.  He tied her hands roughly behind her back before pressing the sharp edge of the blade into her ribs, cutting through the fabric of her leather apron easily before slicing through the cotton of her dress, digging far into her flesh and drawing blood.

She winced in pain as she considered her situation and that of Regina, and, as the stranger turned the horse into the wood, she knew all too well where he was headed.  It would not be long before she looked upon her lover's face and knew their fates, but, until then, her world would go black with a sharp blow from the hilt of her own knife....

 


 

'FREDRICK!' called Killian as he and his prisoner approached the stable.

'KILLIAN, ' declared Fredrick as he threw open the doors of the barn in relief, 'you told Martyn only to wait for your return before leaving.  Where have you been these past hours?'

'Attaining our prize, ' offered Killian smugly as he pushed Svanhilde's unconscious body from the top of the horse onto the ground at Fredrick's feet.  She grunted as she hit the earth solidly on her shoulder, hip and side of face, blonde hair knocked loose from its tether and falling soft about her head.

'Emma?' offered Fredrick quietly with a furrowed brow as he took one knee trying to see the face of the person that lay at his feet.

Brushing her golden hair back gently and reverently with his fingers, he looked upon his sister's face for the first time in over 25 years and was awash with emotion at the site of his twin.  She was almost unrecognizeable, but still as beautiful as he imagined she would be.  

Her body, while strong, showed years of underdevelopment and neglect and he wondered how much she had endured during her absence, quite sure that he would not have been so strong as to survive.

'Pick her up, ' demanded Killian with a wave of his hand that dismissed the ridiculous reunion.

'We must get her some assistance from the Master of this house, ' replied Fredrick frantically as he looked from his sister to Killian, 'she is badly injured...'

'No, ' offered Killian irritatedly, 'you will pick her up from the ground as I ordered you to, you damn fool.....'

Seeing only confusion in Fredrick's face, Killian sighed in disgust at his companion's inability to comprehend the most simple of instruction.

NOW!!' barked Killian impatiently.

'HOW DARE YOU SPEAK TO ME THIS WAY!!' retaliated Fredrick as he jumped to his feet, 'I AM IN COMMAND HERE!'

'What you still fail to realize, my ignorant Brother, ' offered Killian calmly and sadistically, 'is that you have NEVER been in command or control.  You could not lead cattle to a pasture, let alone command this excursion. The men that surround you are loyal to me, alone, and acquiesce to MY command.  If it seemed otherwise, then it was only to keep you in the dark, and I do believe that we accomplished well what we set out to do...'

He paused for a moment to allow Fredrick to consider his new-found lack of position, before offering him some reassurance,

'Don't despair.  The blame for your inadequacies lies solely with your useless, stupid Father.  Had your Mother been alive, I daresay you would have been a far superior man. 

However, the person that remained as your role model was nothing more than a puppet himself.  Make no mistake, my friend, EVERYTHING that our Kingdom has accomplished has been guided solely by my hand or that of my Father....'

Pondering for a moment, he shrugged and huffed a laugh before adding,

'I guess being royal does not always give you the superior position....now.....PICK.  HER.  UP.'

Helping his sister to her feet, Fredrick stood with her arm over his shoulder and his arm about her waist   Her weight slumped against him, and he could feel the warm wet of blood on his hand as it oozed from her side.  

To his right, Fredrick could see Killian as he confided quietly in four of the guards. Given all that he had just heard, he could only wonder about Killian's remaining plan. 

Having received their orders, the men walked briskly to the house, not even hestitating before kicking in the door and surprising the occupants.  After only a brief struggle, the residents were brought, one by one, to the clearing in front of the house where they stood facing Fredrick and Emma.

'Now, wake your worthless sister, ' ordered Killian harshly; his ire directed at Fredrick.

'Killian, I beg you....' pleaded Fredrick before being cut off.

'WAKE HER!!' he screamed again.

Fredrick continued to look into Killian's emotionless eyes for a moment before reaching over with his hand and cupping Emma's jaw in the webbing of his index finger and thumb, shaking her head lightly to rouse her.

'Please awaken, Sister.  I know I am asking much of you given our abbreviated reunion and your condition, but I need you now more than ever.....' Fredrick pleaded quietly as he realized that he was no position to defend, independently, against so many.

Emma's head bobbed a bit before her eyes fluttered open, and she looked groggily around her.  Everything was a blur to her muddled mind.  Faces, unfamiliar and not, surrounded her on all sides, and she struggled to separate one from the other.    

'Regina, ' she breathed exhaustedly as she looked straight ahead, lids drooping.

Turning her head slowly to the right, she saw the face of the man who supported her.

Without thinking, her lips formed a word not spoken by her in ages,

'Fredrick....'

'Yes, Emma, I am here....' he responded quietly, 'I have got you....'

He was cut off from offering more solace by Killian, who was impatient to continue his work.

'Not to interrupt this joyous reunion, but I would ask that all of you indulge me in an explanation before we continue, ' said Killian with a smirk.

'I hear names, familiar and unfamiliar, and I struggle with what each of you should be called, so let me try to establish fact....'

Turning to Svanhilde, he began,

'As we established before our journey started, no matter the name you are called in this land, I know you only as 'Emma', twin sister of Fredrick, and you will be addressed as such from this point forward...'

Turning to Regina and the others that stood opposite, he continued,

'I believe her voice has declared your name to be 'Regina', not 'Svanhilde', as you sought to deceive me...'

Drawing a breath, Killian cocked an eyebrow and smirked a bit as realization hit him.  Bouncing an index finger at her, he added thoughtfully,

'If I am not mistaken, this also means that you are the granddaughter of Leopold and daughter of the current High Queen of this land.... very, very interesting....' he trailed off before looking over his shoulder at Emma.

'I must admit that I admire your taste and ambition, Emma.  Royalty...beauty...powerful connections....strength..... You certainly do not shy away from a challenge.... It is to bad that she is marred by this defect, though her blindness has most probably worked to your advantage.  At least she cannot see how far beneath her status and stature you truly are.....'

Turning back to the larger party, he identified two more by name,

'And these are your children, 'Henry' and 'Eva'...Am I correct so far?'

Receiving no response, he continued,

'I will take your silence as confirmation of these facts..….'

Pausing a bit, he turned to address Robin with a furrowed brow,

'What I fail to see is where you fit in this picture.....Ragnor....is it?'

'I am the father of these children...' he offered defiantly.

'If you truly believe these children to be of your seed, given the evidence that stands before you, then I declare that you are more ignorant than he and more blind than she, ' laughed Killian as he pointed to Fredrick and Regina in turn.  

Tapping his lips thoughtfully with his index finger, Killian sighed before observing,

'It is no matter.  You are no longer an actor in this play, '

Jerking his thumb across his throat, Killian signaled the guard behind to carry out his next order.

'But, I am your...' 

The blade of the knife rung low as it passed over flesh, and the children screamed briefly before only gurgling and coughing could be heard.  Dropping to his knees at his captor's feet, Robin clutched at his throat, wide-eyed with shock.

'ROBIN!!' cried Regina as she tried to wretch free of her captors to no avail.  

Regina screamed Robin's name again and again into the forest, straining against her captors hold, until the only sound that remained was that if her own, ragged breathing and the soft crying of her children. 

She had received no response, but expected none either; the heavy thud of his body as it slumped to the ground a final confirmation that he was gone.

Closing her eyes, Regina breathed in several times to ground herself before looking up through her lashes in defiance and rage.  

'Now that he's out of the way, perhaps we should proceed?' Killian asked retorically, turning in a circle to consider any objections.

Receiving no backlash, he smiled.

'Excellent, ' he stated cheerfully as he clapped his hands together.

Turning to Fredrick, Killian addressed him directly,

'Fredrick, ' he offered consolingly, 'I can see that my words have angered you greatly, and I know that you find my methods questionable, but....' Killian piped up more triumphantly, 'have I not been true to my word?  Did I not promise you that we would retrieve your sister's bones?' 

Pausing, he sighed while rolling his eyes.

'Granted, the bones are still in her living flesh, but that should be easily enough remedied...'

'How dare you suggest.....? ' asked Fredrick, shocked.

'I have suggested no specific course of action for any of us, ' stated Killian bluntly, cutting him off.

'I am merely saying that before you is a choice....take your sister's life and assume your rightful place upon the throne or support this ridiculous notion of inheritance and family allegiance and have your bones returned to your father beside hers....'

'SHE IS MY SISTER AND THE RIGHTFUL HEIR!!  HOW DARE YOU PROPOSE THAT EITHER OF US WOULD TAKE HER PLACE BY INSTIGATING HER DEATH?!'

Sighing, Killian rubbed his temple and brow, wondering if the man before him would ever be persuaded to see reason or take advantage of the opportunities that he continally seemed to be presented.

'She is a heathen, Fredrick, raised by animals, ' reasoned Killian calmly, 'to give her any more credit is fool-hardy and over-indulgent. She is no longer fit to rule our Kingdom.  Look upon her, she cannot even care for herself and weakens by the moment.  Killing her would offer her mercy and reprieve from this hell she lives in....'

Receiving no response, he continued,

'I assure you that, should you choose the former, your actions will not be judged and will remain secret.  But, make no mistake, that secrecy comes with a price.  I will remain your advisor and my decisions will be unchallenged by you or any other...'

'YOU FOOL, DO YOU BELIEVE FOR ONE INSTANT THAT I WOULD NOT HAVE YOU REMOVED AS ADVISOR!?!'

'Have you any idea how far my influence extends into the Counsel?  Your words and accusations would fall on deaf ears, I assure you....'

Killian sighed into the heavy silence, unable to comprehend how a decision, so simple for him, could be so complex for another.

'Consider this, Fredrick.   Should you choose the latter path, both of your deaths will only assure that I assume the throne as the 'heir apparent'.  My patience wears thin, so I assure you that, if i am placed in that position, quite sooner versus later, the Kingdom will mourn your Father's tragic and untimely death....

Staying alive and convincing your father to transition his power, may guide my hand to a more merciful and lenient path... for both of you...there need be no more death than is absolutely necessary....'

'She need not die either, Killian ' pleaded Fredrick, 'I will acquiesce to your wishes and convince my Father that she is no longer fit to lead our Kingdom and that he must defer to me.  Please, just let me bring her home to live quietly and comfortably...'

'I am afraid that is not possible, Fredrick.......'

'WHY NOT?!?!' screamed Fredrick with tears in his eyes, though he already knew the answer.  There would simply be to much left to chance... too many loose ends... 

Fredrick struggled hard to keep his sister standing beside him, finally turning to hug her in his arms and whisper against her ear,

'I see now why Father has kept searching these many years, confident that someday you would be returned safe.  I thought his hopes nothing more than the delusions of a despondent man, but he was right to hold fast to his faith, Emma.  I can feel in my heart that you have a strength and potential unimaginable, and I may only aspire to the greatness that lies within you.'

Fredrick paused to collect himself, and Emma could feel the warmth of his tears and the trembling of his chest as he hugged her even tighter. Finally able to speak again, he continued,

'I had so long ago resigned to your loss, that I never considered that I might look upon your living face again.   I never wanted it to come to this....' he trailed off as the sound of his knife being drawn from its sheath overtook the silence.

He offered a sad smile as his cheek brushed his sister's and he turned his head to kiss her face softly as his hand covered the wound at her side.  She sighed as she realized that her pain would soon be over.

'Forgive me for what I am about to do....' Fredrick offered quietly.

'My Brother, you know that I would do the same, ' she offered in assurance. 

'Simply promise me that you will be quick?' She asked calmly as she raised her green eyes to look into his own.

'I will endeavor to no less than that for you, Emma, ' he reassured as he placed the tip of the knife between her ribs on the opposite side and watched as she closed her eyes in acceptance of their fates....

Chapter Text

No sooner had the tip of the blade brushed Emma's flesh that she could feel it withdrawn, and Fredrick turned on his heel, sprinting towards Killian with hatred and vengeance in his eyes. 

He made it only half way to his goal before the blade of another knife cut the air and pierced his chest from behind.

Placing her palm tight against her side, Emma stumbled slowly to where Fredrick had fallen on the ground, removing the blade from his back, before using all her strength to turn him gently over.  Her fingertips, wet with their mingled blood, traced softly against his cheek, providing him some comfort as he took ragged, shallow breaths; her tears falling heavy on his chest.

'Protect your family, Emma.  Promise me that you will tell Father that I didn't know, but tried to make it right?' implored Fredrick barely above a whisper.

'Worry not, My Brother, your courage will be known and lauded by all, ' she assured.

'Emma, ' he choked out quietly as he reached to wrap his hand tightly around her bicep, 'it seeks you always. You need only ask and it WILL return to you.....'

Emma nodded her head in recognition.  She had heard similar words from the Master what seemed like a lifetime ago.....

His fingers released their grip from her arm, falling limp to the ground, as the last breath expelled from his lungs.  Looking upon his face with gratitude and love, she drew her fingertips over his eyelids to provide him the comfort of eternal darkness, before crossing his hands over his chest.  She remained for only a moment more, before struggling back to her feet and resuming her position across from Regina.

She watched as Killian stepped forward to Fredrick's body,  nudging the sole of his boot harshly against her brother's face to assure his state. 

'The swordmaster was right....' he offered as he spat upon Fredrick's body.  Turning to his officers, he spoke with disgust.

'Remove him from my sight.  Dump his body in the wood. Let the crows and wolves pick at his flesh as they would carrion.  He will prove more useful in death as food than he was in life.'

Immediately, two guards stepped forward.  

Hooking their arms under Fredrick's on both sides, they lifted his upper body slightly, pulling him toward the wood as his heels dragged paths in the hardened earth.  They were out of sight for only a moment before returning to their positions, one less among their group.

'Now then, ' said Killian thoughtfully as he tapped his index finger against his lips, 'who shall be next?  I fear I am already running out of options though we have only just started...'

Shooting his hand out, he grasped Eva by the arm, jerking her roughly against him and placing the blade of his knife to her throat.

'Leave the girl alone, ' shouted Emma as she advanced a few paces.  Struck hard behind her legs with a staff, she fell to her knees.  

'I will submit to your will, if you will allow them all to live, ' she offered.

'Why do you care so much about these children?' He asked curiously trying to find a hint of recognition in Emma's face but seeing none.

'Because they are Regina's children, ' she answered quietly, bowing her head.

After a moment, Killian's booming laughter filled the air.

'Do you truly not realize who stands in front of you!?' He asked incredulously.

Furrowing her brow, Emma looked at Killian but remained silent, unsure of how to answer.

'Can you not even recognize your own children or are you as blind as your whore?' 

'You mock me as a fool!  They cannot be mine. It is not possible! We cannot lay as a man and his wife!'

Stopping for a moment, Killian considered her response.

'Do you remember nothing of our Kingdom and its ways? ' he asked intrigued and almost stunned. 

Emma remained silent, bowing her head and shaking it lightly, struggling to recall any fact about the Kingdom of which Killian and her brother continued to speak.  

For most of her life, she'd been an outcast in this land.   Still, she could recall no other home.  She was called 'unfree', a word typically reserved for those taken as slaves from other Kingdoms, but the label was not exclusive to them. Those who lacked strength and ability, the 'runts' of the villages, knew the term as well, forced to use it as a constant reminder of their weakness and lack of value to the larger community.  There was never any evidence, until now, that would have given her pause to believe that she was an unfree for any other reason than her own shortcomings. 

Even the unexpected physical changes that she had experienced only several moons ago told her nothing, except that she might finally be looked upon more favorably.  Tales of unfree discovering their strength and finding their redemption after many years of oversight were not uncommon, though the speed of manifestation had been somewhat surprising, and more than slightly disconcerting.

Only now could she see that the sculpt of her form matched much more closely that of the foreigners than any of those that she had encountered in this Kingdom.  Lithe and nimble, their strength was as much a function of their agility and quickness as the bulk of their muscle which was still small in comparison to those of the present kingdom.

Despite her lack of remembrance of the place Killian claimed was her home, she had recognized her brother's face and name without thought or consideration.  Perhaps, it was the nature of their shared birth.  Perhaps, it was their fondness and love for each other, and she couldn't help but wonder how many other things, that she once held close to her heart, she might remember if she could just look upon them again. 

If their bond was truth, then so was her origin, and the magic that she had rejected as a curse was nothing more than her birthright, just as it had been his...

Her musing were soon interrupted by the condescending voice of Killian who was all too willing to offer a simple explanation for her loss of memory, offering loudly with false sadness and sniffles, 'Of course.....you were so very young when they took you away....'.

Becoming almost immediately enraged again, he offered, 'Perhaps, if I can't convince you, then someone else can...'

Turning, he addressed the men closest to him.

'Bring the cunt and the boy here.  Take her hands and place them at their necks.'

Roughly, Regina's hands were placed against the throats of her children, and she couldn't help but gasp in fear as her fingertips felt the cold steel of razor sharp knives waiting at the ready.

'Whore, let her hear it from your own lips before I am inclined to slit their throats.'

'Regina?' Asked Emma confused, hoping for some explanation.

'I'm sorry.  I should have come to you sooner, but I was afraid....'

'I don't understand, Regina, what are you trying to say?'

'He speaks the truth.  They are your children....' she finished almost silently.

Emma's brow furrowed and her mouth opened and closed several times as she tried to find the words to express her emotions.  Disbelief, joy, confusion, protectiveness, fear, love...They all washed over her at once, threatening to drown her.  She could only hope to keep her head above water.

'But that is not possible...we are not as man and wife....'

'Must things always be so distinct and limiting? ' inquired Killian exasperatedly, 'Just because the people of this land say it 'should not' or 'can not' be does not mean that the rule or law is universal.   In the Enchanted Forest, your relationship is no different from any other and may produce offspring, if the couple so desires.  Believe me when I tell you that they are indeed yours; the product of true love's magic....'

Pausing a moment he added, 'well, that, and your bumbling inability to control your power sufficiently.'

Turning to Regina, he chuckled.

'Come to think of it, I never remember your grandfather mentioning your blindness.  Perhaps, this is yet another by-product of her ineptitude?' He offered boredly.

Receiving no response, he shook his head before rolling his eyes and addressing no one in particular,

'I swear, the stupidity of this family is overwhelming, and I am beginning to think that I do the Kingdom a bigger service with their extermination than I had intended.....No matter, all will be resolved as it should be by my hand, and I will succeed grandly where my father and the whore's grandfather failed.'

'Take my life, not our childrens'' begged Regina as tears fell from her eyes.

'All in due time, My Dear.  But first, do you not want to hear the story of our two kingdoms?'

'Does it truly matter?' she asked indignantly with a trembling chin.

'It does to me, ' he offered, almost insulted, 'and I am quite certain that pompous bastard, Leopold, has rewritten history to make himself quite the hero, even though he was nothing more than a supporting player.  It would be a shame for that lie to perpetuate, though I do not believe anyone will remain at the end of this day to tell your Kingdom's historians the truth....' he ended with a sad shake of his head.

'No matter, I have always believed that it is quite important that people know truth and details, otherwise, ' he added as he waved his free hand toward Emma, 'you end up like this idiotic bitch that still stares at us unbelieving that these are her children, and still unsure of her true place in this world....'

Pausing for a moment, he continued as both his volume and rage rose exponentially,

'Oh, and since I currently hold the fate of your childrens' lives in my hands, perhaps you will be so kind as to SHUT UP AND INDULGE ME!?'

Balling his free hand, Killian punched Regina's face hard from the side, and she cried out before slumping forward into the arms of the man that held her.

'STAND HER UP, ' Killian commanded as she was immediately pulled straight.

Balling his fist again, he hit Regina hard once more before cracking his neck to each side and breathing in deeply to calm himself.

Emma looked on helplessly, unsure of what to do.  She was outnumbered and without substantial defense.  Despite her weaknesses, she was Regina, Eva and Henry's only protection, and she needed the situation to calm to give herself time to formulate some kind, any kind, of plan.

Regina's cheek and lip were split open and swollen and a trickle of blood came from the side of her mouth.  Her eyelids fluttered as she tried to remain conscious, finally receiving help in the form of a slap to the face by one of the other men.

'My Dear, ' said Killian sadistically, 'I truly do want you to be awake for everything that remains today.  Believe me when I tell you that my men and I have much in store for you that I will not, for the sake of your children, mention aloud.

Now, please do not make me do that again.  I would prefer to keep at least some of your beauty intact.  It will make for a much more enjoyable experience for us later...'

Turning back to the larger audience, he continued more happily and grandously, 'Now that we have established the rules regarding who should be talking, I believe we may continue?....  Excellent....

Emma, considering you current confusion, I would doubt that you remember that my father served yours for many years before me, relegated, as I am, to the role of Advisor.  

He saw such potential and opportunity for the Kingdom to attain wealth and land and power, to be greater than any Kingdom had ever known, but his advice was ignored time and again by your righteous and pretentious father, Henry, who believed his guidance to be dangerous and fool-hardy.

Luckily, my father found in her grandfather, Leopold, a man of similar vision and ambition. 

Though himself, a King, he had not yet the military strength to assume the lands and wealth that he desired.  Together, they devised a plan to achieve, collaboratively and secretly, what they could not do separately. 

For almost two years, my father trickled information to Leopold via his spies hoping they might find a weakness to exploit.  

A strategically planned and precision attack would allow Leopold to assume the army that he desired, and it was the arrival of Emma and Fredrick that presented Leopold and my father with the opportunity that they had not anticipated, but greatly needed.

By stealing the King and Queen's beloved daughter, Leopold would finally have the leverage to bring Henry and Eva's Kingdom to its knees without full scale invasion.

Henry and Eva's love and committment to their children knew no bounds, and my father knew that the King and Queen were foolish and sentimental enough to pay a very high cost for Emma's safe return.  The people would trust their judgement and support the decision, even if it meant their supplication.

Forced to give allegiance to Leopold, the wealth, land and armies of the King and Queen would be handed over, and my father would be named Regent of the Kingdom, free to rule and invade as he saw fit, as long as it continued to bring more riches and power to Leopold.

What my foolish father forgot to consider was the lure that magic has on the unfamiliar or unexposed.  What is common to us is coveted by many others who would give their lives for its attainment.

Leopold had never intended to give Emma back, only to use her as a bargaining chip, but he grew suspicious of those around him who might want the same power that he sought to control in the girl.  

Without telling my father, the idiot Leopold hid her away in this land, eliminating all those who knew of her existence or location before getting himself killed and taking his secrets with him.

The bargaining chip gone, unsure of the motivations of the High Queen and with security tightened by the King on all of his Counsel, my father retreated to the shadows to wait.  With no viable information or leads to locate the King's daughter, the opportunity became lost and the Kingdoms remained separated.

My father died before finding Emma, but not before sharing the story.  Being much wiser than my father and having more time to see Fredrick grow, I realized that I no longer needed the King's daughter, only his idiot son who was easily controlled.  I need only to get him into power and I could rule the Kingdom using his voice.

Unfortunately, Fredrick's ineptitude was too great, and your fate too uncertain, for your father to willingly step down.  He needed to be convinced of your death, so I suggested to your brother that we come here to collect your bones.  

I knew them to still be in your flesh even before our departure; thanks to a raven sent by the High Queen who hoped to renew the same agreement with my father as Leopold.  Unbeknownst to her, the raven arrived at my late father's window, now my window, instead.    The few words offered in the note were quite intriguing.  She had been awoken by the screaming of an eagle in the night, but not before receiving a disturbing vision which portended the bear walking in allegiance with the boar.  At her feet, they placed a serpent, killed by their combined effort.

Having studied this kingdom extensively, I reviewed the details of this vision with great interest and came to the same conclusion that, no doubt, she had.  

The screaming of the eagle could mean only that a heroic soul, beyond compare, had been born somewhere in the Kingdom.  Of course, the birth need not be literal.  It could be an evolution; a transformation, if you will.   The same as might be experienced by Emma if she were somehow exposed or introduced to her true nature and ability. 

I had no doubt that, given the opportunity, a person of this character would soon transform into the bear, a remarkable being embued with fairness, honor and extraordinary strength of mind body and soul.

The snake, being guardian of the gold, might represent the High Queen, herself.  It was the boar, however, that was most interesting and disconcerting for her.  Known for its ferocity in battle, it is associated with one person alone; the Freyja.  That is your title, if I am not mistaken, whore?'

'Do not call me by that name, ' Regina spat vehemently.

'I prefer 'whore' anyways, ' shrugged Killian before continuing.  'Arriving in this kingdom, a few well placed coins confirmed my suspicions, and I heard the detailed story of Emma's punishment in the village of Ravndal.

I can only imagine the High Queen's surprise, ' chuckled Killian, 'when she realized that the person who was most favored between her daughter's thighs was not only a woman, but the same person that could bring about her Kingdom's downfall or its glory.....'

He paused for a moment to relive the details that had been offered, shaking his head in amazement and continuing to laugh.  

Bringing himself back into the moment, he offered more seriously,

'What the High Queen does not realize is that I no longer need or desire her alliance.   The death of the first and second heir will mark the end of Henry and Eva's bloodline.  The leadership of the kingdom will be bestowed on the King's Advisor upon the death of the King.  

Make no mistake, once in power, I will crush this Kingdom like wheat from chaff and rule independently, submitting myself to no man or woman.'

'I should warn you, ' stated Regina matter-of-factly, 'that my Mother does not lose well...'

'What?  Am I to be afraid of her vengeance, should the Freyja or the Freyja's children be killed?'

'I am not so naive as to believe that the High Queen gives a damn about me, ' responded Regina vehemently.  'My consideration as 'daughter' was quite short-lived, I assure you.  

That being said, you do, right now, control the prize that the High Queen's own father coveted enough to hide away from all others.

She knows of her existence and she WILL want her back...ALIVE....so that she too may succeed where her own father failed. 

The two of you are not so different in that regard.  Where you differ greatly is in the depth of your lust for control and power.  In this, she has no match...'

Taking a breath, Regina continued,

'So....you, too, have a choice before you.  Take Emma's life, as you originally intended, or spare it.  Neither path will end well for you, but one may still keep you alive in some form. 

If the High Queen believes for one moment that you still have Emma, then she will go to the end of the earth to seek you out and get her back. If you acquiesce, she may only take pieces of you in payment for her troubles.  If she finds out, however, that her prize is dead at your hand, then Odin help you and have mercy on your black soul...'

Laughing heartily, Killian replied cockily,

'Believe me when I tell you that neither this Kingdom, nor your Mother, are of concern to me any longer.  I would suggest, however, that they begin to fear my wrath instead...'

Turning to Emma, he addressed her directly,

'In a moment, both of your children will die at my hand.  Afterward, you will watch as your blind whore satisfies me and my men over and over, even if I must hold your lids open for the duration.  Once she is broken and of no more use or pleasure to us, you will see her take her last breath as well.

You, of course, will die last....going to your shallow grave in the wood beside your brother knowing that you were helpless to stop any of it....'

By this time, Killian's words had become nothing more than a faint buzz in Emma's ears as her arms straightened to her sides, and she stood at her full height.  The pain in her ribs had finally abated and the wound closed.  

The contact with her brother had been brief,  but it was enough to start the healing process which she could not invoke herself.  The fresh blood at her dress and apron was the only evidence that now remained of her injury.

Unthinking and without fear, she stretched her left arm out, horizontal to the ground, palm toward the wood, in the same direction that she had run the night that she had left Regina for dead. Closing her eyes and looking towards he sky, her quiet, mumbled words mingled with Killian's; creating an almost melodic and soothing, undercurrent despite his threats.

'Come to me as your Master and be my guide.  Just as you have sought me, I seek now also your protection and strength.'

She knew not from where the words came, but she felt them strongly in her heart and so she offered them again and again. 

It started as only a thrum in her body, faint at first, but ever growing, and she opened her eyes and looked to the wood just as a blue ball of light shot from between the trees and entered her raised palm. 

She could feel the energy of her magic invade her body with an almost overwhelming joy at being finally reunited with its caregiver.  

Without thought, Emma dropped to her knee, simultaneously stretching an arm in front and behind.  From her fingers, six arcs of light were directed with pinpoint accuracy at their marks and the men around her and her family fell to the ground, writhing in pain.

Running forward, she gathered Regina and the children into her arms.

'I know not how long this will last.  Let us get to the barn and look to Rocinante's speed to put distance between us....'

Hoisting Eva, she handed her to Regina to hold before lifting Henry to her own shoulder; both children immediately hugging tightly to their mothers' necks.  Wrapping an arm about Regina's waist to guide her, they took off with haste toward the entrance of the barn, barely making it a quarter of the way inside before they heard the footsteps of the men behind them. 

Placing Henry onto the ground, Emma swept her arms, gathering her family behind her for protection as she backed them up slowly, trying to keep some distance from the advancing men.

She was unsure how to call upon her magic again and have it acquiesce to her command.  What seemed so natural a moment ago, now felt foreign and unsure.

Wiping the blood from the corner of his mouth and flinging it to the floor, Killian chuckled a bit with a snarled lip.

'If you believe for one moment that your amateurish magic is any match against six men of strength and practice, then you are sadly mistaken.  I intend to make your children and whore suffer in ways that you cannot even begin to imagine....' 

'And if you believe that the death of my son and the threats against my daughter and her family will go unnoticed and unpunished, then it is YOU that is sadly mistaken, ' came a voice from behind Emma as several men in gleaming silver armor ran forward from behind a stall to position themselves between Killian and Emma's family, forming an impenetrable line and taking a defensive and protective position.  A second set of men positioned themselves across the entrance of the stable, cutting off the only exit. 

The last to join the line in front of Emma was a man whose face showed age, but whose gait showed the purpose, power and strength of a much younger man.

'Sire, ' breathed Killian with wide eyes as he dropped to a knee in supplication; his men following suit.  'As you can see, I have found your daughter and I was merely trying to convince her and her family to return with me and take their rightful place in our Kingdom...'

'These many years, Killian, you and your father have believed me naught but a fool, ' sighed King Henry, 'but it was both of you that were more foolish than I.  I have heard your words from the moment you murdered Fredrick, and I will go to my grave carrying the regret that I did not arrive sooner to save him.  

The man that you called an idiot....more useful as carrion....I call a hero and my son...and he will be remembered always as such by me and our people.'

'Sire, I...' started Killian, but he was cut off by a wave of the King's hand.

'You will be brought to the Enchanted Forest where you will be tried for treason by the Counsel....'

Seeing the smirk appear on Killian's lips, he added,

'Oh and, Killian, I would begin praying for leniency now as all those on the Counsel that were beholden to you have been identified and dealt with accordingly during your absence....'

The smirk fell from Killian's lips in an instant as he heard the King's words. 

Drawing his dagger, Killian rose, sprinting toward the King in a blind rage; his men following suit with nothing more to lose.

'He is mine, ' stated the King calmly to his men to prevent their interference.  

Killian was almost upon him, and he could hear Emma already gasping, when the King finally drew his knife.  He exerted no effort, merely raising blade strategically, allowing Killian's momentum to do the rest.  

The deed was done silently, in an instant, and Killian fell at Emma's feet, eyes still wide with shock.  The five other men also lay scattered about the barn floor...dead.

'Drag these men to the underbrush of the wood and retrieve my son's body so that we may honor him with the burial of a hero. 

When you are finished, gather these horses, taking special care of the one called Rocinante, ' ordered the King to his men. 

'Yes, My King, ' offered the men in response as they set hastily about their work.

'Emma', ' offered the man as he turned toward her, 'I do not know if you remember me...'

He was cut off by the feeling of his daughter hugging him tightly, and he relaxed into her embrace as she did the same to him.

'Thank you, Father, ' the only words uttered from her lips before she collapsed, exhausted, against him.

Chapter Text

The salty spray pelted her cheeks, stinging painfully, as Emma hung far over the side of the ship, emptying the contents of her stomach into the churning ocean below.  

This was her fifth time at the rail of the main deck since she had awoken, and she prayed it would be her last. Surely, this sickness must end at some point, either by cure or by lack of available substance to heave.  She could not imagine that her stomach had much more to offer. 

She could not remember eating.  In fact, she could not remember anything beyond falling, weak and exhausted, into her father's arms at the stables.  How long she had been unconscious since that time was a mystery to her.

'I see that you have not yet gotten your sea legs, ' came a reassuring and familiar voice from behind her.  She could feel gentle hands gathering her hair behind her neck before holding her strongly at the waist, steadying her from behind as she wretched violently again over the side.

'I have never been on a ship, ' she responded quietly.

'You have, but it was many years ago.  I do not expect that you remember, ' he trailed off sadly.

Turning, Emma faced the man, a pale green hue still present on her face.

'I remember nothing of our Kingdom, Father, ' she sighed, shaking her head as the tears welled thick in her eyes.  'Perhaps it would have been better for you to leave me so that I might live out my days, ignorant of all but the life that I have known these many years.  I am nothing more than a burden to you now, just as I have always been...'

Cupping her cheek in his hand, he smiled softly as he felt the weight of her head nuzzling gently into his palm, seeking a comfort that she had rarely, if ever, been given since her youth.

'You could never be a burden, Emma.  You are my daughter, and I love you, ' he said, dipping his head to catch her eyes.  

'All that you have forgotten will be learned again in time, but you must have patience, ' he urged encouragingly.  'Believe me when I tell you that all is not lost, and I refuse to give you up ever again, now that I have found you.'

Closing her eyes, she nodded her head barely into his hand.

'Father?'

'Yes, Emma?'

'Have you seen Regina and the children?' she asked tentatively, but hopefully.  She and Regina had left things so unresolved between them that she wondered if they might ever make amends.

'They are safe with us, but I have not looked upon them with my own eyes.  Regina prefers only the solitude and safety of the cabin, ' sighed Henry, 'but she does accept our food for Henry and Eva.  

I do not know that she eats much, but we cannot force her, either.  She is very strong, but she has also been through much over the past weeks and months.  I am quite certain that her mind and heart are disquieted by all that she has learned and experienced...'

'Perhaps I should go to her?'

'Perhaps.... But you must not be discouraged or disappointed if, right now, she is not the same person that you remember.  She loves you deeply, and her heart will recover, but it will also take time.  She may not be ready to heal just yet....'

 


 

Emma bit her lower lip gently in concentration as she attempted to balance the tray laden with food and drink.  Her nausea had finally subsided, and she was better able to endure the continually rough seas, but she had no appetite, only worry.

Only a few had seen Regina and the children as they brought food and supplies to the cabin.  Their reports were neither discouraging nor encouraging.   

During their brief stays, Regina remained quiet, but civil, speaking only enough to thank them for their hospitality.   

Emma could understand where their past and present circumstance would give Regina pause to remain stationary and vigilant.  She relied on familiarity, habit and slow, safe exploration; none of which could be assured on a working ship.  She depended on friends, all of which were gone from her now as they sailed to a new land. 

As Emma descended the steps and walked through the darkened corridor to the aft of the ship, she breathed deeply to calm herself. 

Words swirled in her mind but formed no coherent thought, and before she knew it, she was upon the thick, oak door of the cabin, still at a loss of what to say.

Resituating the tray, she knocked lightly at the wood.

'Come in, ' was the soft response, barely discernable through the timbers as it competed with the moaning of the ship under the pressure of wind and waves.

Pressing her hand against the wood, it swung open easily and Emma stepped quietly inside.

The space was enormous, and she knew, instantly, that this was her father's quarters, offered up readily in an effort to make Regina and the children feel safe and welcome and to provide them with enough space to live comfortably for the duration of the journey. 

The entire back wall was nothing more than a series of tall, arched, square-paned windows which angled out from floor to ceiling, following the line of the ship.  The set was dressed by heavy, burgundy, velvet curtains draped strategically to allow the light of the day through the windows. 

Directly in front of the windows was lain a thick rug of intricate pattern atop which was placed a substantial, round, mahogany table.  It was lighted by a wrought iron chandelier which hung from crossed, stocky beams and swayed overhead following the motion of the ship.  Four chairs sat at the ready; the largest of which was embroidered with a crest which prominently displayed the figure of a swan wearing a crown.

A dressing table sat against the left wall; a telescope and globe to each side.  The top was bare save some candles set in brass candlesticks, navigational instruments and a brush in which Emma could see combined strands of gold and brown hair.

A large bed was situated on the right wall, surrounded on both sides by bookcases laden with volumes, maps and stationary.  The sleeping space was similarly adorned with burgundy curtains which had been drawn to keep the sunlight from reaching the face of the occupants.  Still, they were parted just enough to allow Emma to see the sleeping forms of two, small children, and she smiled despite herself, relieved that they were safe and at peace.

In front of the bookcase, at the head of the bed, sat a deep arm chair which was turned slightly towards the door so the occupant may take advantage of the sun over their shoulder as they read.  

Emma couldn't help but draw breath as she saw Regina nestled into the thick padding and soft material.  Her legs were gathered beneath her so that she sat more upon her hip, leaning her shoulder and head into the wing of the chair as her hands remained folded in her lap. 

She smiled gently in response to the soft sounds that Henry and Eva made as they slept, but she seemed so lost in thought and alone.

She was more beautiful than Emma could ever remember seeing her.  Her dark brown hair lay in smooth, gentle waves, cascading down her back and over her shoulders, draw away from her face by the simple silver and leather binding that had been made for her by Emma so many moons ago.   

A dress of light, wine colored velvet wrapped around her frame, laces tying in front under a v-shaped neckline that showed the olive skin of her chest and the swell of the tops of her breasts that were even more ample since the birth of the children.  Her lips were full and painted with only a hint of color that caused them to glint a bit in the light of the candles in the chandelier, and Emma breathed a sigh of relief that the skin of her face showed a soft glow and color that indicated that she, too, was getting enough nourishment.

'Thank you, you may place it on the table, ' Regina offered quietly, unmoving from her position .

Stepping forward, Emma did as instructed, placing the heavy tray onto the table and removing some of the contents so that they might be recognized more easily.  Walking back to the partially opened door, she held the handle, bracing her palm against the wood in counter pressure so that she might shut it as quietly as possible.  Once done, she latched the door before turning and standing silently inside.

'Is there something else that you want or need?' asked Regina without emotion.  'If you wish to rape me, then do it quickly and silently, so that my children may not wake to see...'

Furrowing her brow in confusion, Emma stepped forward, 

'Regina...' was all that she managed to press from her lips before she saw Regina's own brow furrow in anger.  The muscles of her jaw twitched almost violently as her teeth ground together and she sat straight in her chair, placing her feet on the floor and grasping the arms of the chair with white knuckles. 

Standing up, Regina strode across the room with conviction, stopping almost directly in front on Emma who had backed up slightly in fear and concern.

She stood waiting quietly for a reply which was delivered in the form of a hard slap across the face. 

'R-r-regina!' she stuttered as she grasped her cheek wondering how someone with no sight could have such incredible aim

No sooner had she lowered her hand that a second slap was delivered, this one harder than the last.

'YOU LEFT ME!!' stated Regina in an enraged whisper trying not to wake Henry and Eva.

'I thought you dead, Regina!  No breath came from your body and your heart did not beat.  I tried to rouse you, but to no avail.   You must believe me when I tell you that I would never have left had I thought that you might be alive!'

'And yet I did live, blind, trying to raise our children as best as I was able!'

'How could I know Regina?  Had the Master wanted us to find each other, surely, he would have sent word to one of us via Locksley!'

The mention of Robin's name caused another slap to be set across Emma's cheek, and she could see the tears welling in Regina's eyes before falling upon her cheeks.

'And I blame you for his death!'

'He did not die by my hand, Regina!' responded Emma stunned.  'I would never have let him die had I thought for one minute I might prevent it!'  

'The danger we all faced at that bastard's hand was because of you!  Your children do not sleep because of those memories that flood their dreams!  But you would not know because you are not here to soothe them in the night.  It is me only that rocks them when they wake screaming and crying, just as it has always been me that rocked them gently back to sleep when illness or fear filled their bodies.  We do not need you, Emma of the Enchanted Forest.  Just leave us....'

'Regina, please.  You cannot mean what you say....'

Emma watched as Regina walked to the table, picking up the loaf of bread before throwing it directly at Emma who deflected it with her hand.

'Get out!' cried Regina as she grasped the pewter goblet from the tray and hurled it at Emma's head.  Ducking just in time, it struck the door behind her spraying its contents over the wall before falling to the floor with a clatter.

'GET OUT!' Regina screamed again through gritted teeth, reaching behind with searching fingers for the next object to throw.

'Please stop, Regina! I will do ask you ask!  But you must know that I do not leave willingly; only at your command... As it has always been...' implored Emma as her fingers searched for the lock.  Finding it, she flipped it up, opening the door and looking back only briefly with tears in her eyes.

'I will always love you, Regina, and hope someday you will remember that you once loved me too...' was all that she offered before exiting the door and closing it behind her. 

She could hear the metal of the wine flagon ring out as it burst open upon the closed door, and Emma stopped, falling back hard against the wall.  She bounced her head against the wood several times, wincing in pain, before slumping to the ground, hugging her thighs tightly to her chest and sobbing into her knees uncontrollably.

 


 

Within the chamber, Regina fell to her knees, crying into her hands, immediately regretful of every word that she had said to her love.  

She had acted no better than her own children when afraid and confused, lashing out indescriminately with no regard for the feelings of another and with no ears for a viewpoint other than their own.  Oh, Odin, what had she done?

Aside from her father, Emma had been the only person in her life that had ever offered her kindness, generosity, love and protection with no expectation of return.  Now, she too was gone, and Regina wondered if Emma might ever be so generous as to forgive her for her cruelty.

Leaning forward, she pressed her forehead into the soft rug and wrapped her arms about her torso tightly, rocking gently to soothe herself and find some relief from her pain.  It was the feel of small hands petting her hair softly that drew her back to reality.

'Please do not cry, Mother....'

'We don't like to see you sad...'

Came two familiar voices that had carried her through many moons.

Shifting back onto her knees, Regina wiped her eyes before attempting a feeble smile for her children.

'It will be all right.  It is nothing for you to worry about, ' she offered as she reached out to brush her fingertips down each of their cheeks.

'Why are you so angry with Momma?'

'I-I don't know, Henry...' stuttered Regina, surprised by her childrens' address of Emma and unsure of how to even answer his question.  She had been angry at Emma for so long that she no longer knew why and wondered if she had ever known.

'Silly, ' offered Eva to Henry, 'Mother isn't mad at Momma.  She is mad at everything else because she had to miss Momma for so long when all she wanted to do was be with her.'

Stunned, Regina looked at her daughter and realized the truth of her words.

'But Momma wants to be with you now, ' offered Henry.

'I doubt that, ' offered Regina, 'after what I have just done...'

'She still loves you and does not want to be apart.  She leaves only because you sent her away, not because she wanted to go....'

'And how do you know that?' asked Regina as she reached out to tickle Henry's tummy a bit causing him to laugh.  'Were you eavesdropping, perhaps?'

'You were quite loud, and the noise did wake us, but I know because I can feel her here, ' shrugged Henry as he reached out to touch his mother's heart.

'I can feel her, too, ' supported Eva, 'We have always felt Momma with us, but we did not know not her face until only a short time ago.'

'She missed you as much as you have missed her.  Her heart hurts right now, but she does not give up hope that you still love her.  She wants so badly for you to forgive her...'

'It is I that should ask for forgiveness after what I have said and done....' sighed Regina as she pulled herself from the floor and straightened her dress.  'For now, however, we still have some food left on the table.  Let's share what Em-...your Momma...has brought us so that you might be as strong as she is....'

Voicing their agreement, Regina situated Henry and Eva in their chairs with food and drink in front before sitting down beside to eat and ponder her mistakes and apology.

 


 

'EMMA, WAIT!' Called Henry as she pushed past him on the stairs.

She had not even noticed her Father; blinded by tears and consumed by grief as she made her way quickly from the aft cabin.  She wanted only to reach her own small bunk so that she might be alone in her thoughts and sadness.

She stopped at the sound of his voice. Turning her head to look over her shoulder at him, he could see the tracks of her tears heavy on her blushed cheeks.  She reached over and over to wipe her nose on the back of her sleeve, just as she had done as a child, swiping with such force that she had already drawn significant blood from the raw skin

Their encounter had gone as he anticipated, but it had not been his to decide if the timing was right.

'Oh, Emma,' he sighed as he walked up a few steps and gathered her into his arms.  He could feel her clinging to him, grasping at the back of his coat, trying frantically to draw him closer as she lay her cheek against his chest, and he couldn't help but remember her doing the same the day she fell from her pony as he led it around the courtyard.  This time, however, it was more than just a scraped knee, and despite wanting so badly to take away her pain, just as he had that day, even he could not heal a broken heart.

'Tell me what I may do to help, ' he asked as he placed soft kisses into her hair and hugged her tightly.

'She does not want me anymore, Papa, ' Emma choked or between sobs.

'I do not believe for one moment that this is the case.  She is simply scared, Emma.  Give her time and remember what I said.  You cannot be discouraged....'

He could feel her nod against his chest before raising her head to look at him.  Using his thumbs, he brushed the tears from her eyes before cupping her cheeks in his hands and drawing her forward to place a kiss on her forehead.

'I am ready to learn, Father, ' said Emma as she drew and deep and calming breath.  'I want to be there always for Regina and my children.  I want them to know that they can depend on me; that I will be their strength when they have none and their protection when they need it most....'

'If that is the case, then come with me so that I might introduce you to someone....'

Chapter Text

There was a soft rap at the door, and Regina turned her head to acknowledge it. 

She had been enjoying the fresh air on the balcony, the warmth of the sun on her face and the few moments of quiet that she had left as the children wrapped up their play with a some of the soldiers in the courtyard below. 

She could hear their laughter, both the childrens' and the soldiers', and she couldn't help but smile.

She had not seen Emma in over a month, ever since their argument, but she hoped that word might reach Emma's ears that she was trying hard to have faith and trust in these people that she, and the children, now called family.  

'Come in, ' she offered quietly so as not to disturb the silence around her too much.     

She found it strange when she received no reply.  Typically, the attendants needed only to be told to enter and waited not for formal reception.

Receiving no response, she turned.  Taking slow, deliberate steps, she crossed the still unfamiliar room, arms outstretched, searching for any barrier.

Finding the door, one of her hands slid across the rough wood until it touched the latch which she lifted to allow the door to swing inwards.

'Yes? ' she asked quietly, unsure of who might be calling on her.  

She had been treated with the utmost kindness since her arrival at the castle; her every request or need granted without question or concern, but she'd had no visitors save those who came to take the children for their studies and play.  

Even then, the discussions were short-lived, usually overtaken by the excited voices of Henry and Eva who could not wait to absorb every wonder that this kingdom had to offer. 

She could not blame them.  Based on the stories that they told her in the evenings, she learned that this Kingdom was rife with opportunity and wonder.  Things heard only as legend in her land had been seen by her children with their own eyes.  She was only sad that she could not look upon them as well.

'I must apologize that I have been so long in visiting you, Regina, ' said a vaguely familiar voice.  'I have been detained by matters of the Kingdom, and it has been most difficult to break away...'

The words triggered her recollection of the voice, and she immediately took a knee, bowing her head,

'My King, ' she gasped, 'it is I that must apologize for not showing the proper respect.  I did not recognize your voice.  Please forgive me?'

'My child, ' offered Henry as he took her hand and helped her to her feet, 'there is no need for apology.  I forgot myself for a moment and did not provide an adequate introduction. 

Also, I would prefer if you called me 'Father', but if that does not yet feel comfortable, at least let it be 'Henry', lest I mistake you for one of the ancient men that sit with skull caps in the library and archives.  Believe me when I tell you that you are much too beautiful to be sorted with the likes of them....'

Regina blushed slightly and smiled at his compliment, lowering her head shyly but not before he caught a glimpse of her reaction.

'Emma told me that your smile was beyond description, and I must say that I do not believe that she has exaggerated....'

Pausing a moment, he added,

'Would you mind indulging an old man with a walk about the castle?  I do get rather lonely wandering by myself, and it would be nice to have the company of a beautiful woman on my arm again.'

'It would be my honor, ' smiled Regina as she raised her head and held out her hand.

Taking it gently, he wrapped her arm about his, leaving his hand to rest atop hers as he turned and guided them out the door.

They strolled for a bit in silence, save the few verbal guides he provided when they encountered an obstacle or step.  She was filled with an overwhelming sense of peace, safety and comfort with this man, though they had only just been formally introduced, and she hoped that they might get to know each other better.  Emboldened by his kindness, Regina broke their silence.

'You must be happy to have your daughter back home...'

'I am happy to have BOTH of my daughters back home, ' he offered happily as he patted Regina's hand tenderly. 

'And I cannot forget my beautiful grandchildren!' he chuckled heartily, 'Though I have quite forgotten the amount of energy that children have...'

'I am sorry if they have bothered you or created distraction, ' offered Regina nervously, 'I shall speak with them tonight.'

'Oh heavens, no!' responded Henry jovially. 

'These corridors have gone far too long without the sound of childrens' rambunctious play and laughter.  It is time that this castle awoke from its slumbers.  It has been left in peace for far too long.'

They walked for several more minutes before Henry spoke again.

'You know, ' pondered King Henry, 'based on what Emma has told me, I believe our stories have a number of similarities.  Would you mind if I shared mine with you?' he asked inquisitively.

'I would be honored, ' responded Regina quietly.

Drawing a breath he began,

'Just like you, I was born of a foreign soil; a small seafaring Kingdom whose merchant ships travelled far and wide to transport goods between lands and people that had not the means to carry them on their own.  

As a young man, I was no more than a deckhand on one of our ships; a 'bilge rat' as we were sometimes called by the senior officers, ' he added with a chuckle.

'My head was filled with dreams of sailing the seas, exploring far off lands and meeting familiar and unfamiliar people.  I could imagine no other life for myself and fully expected that, someday, my body would be returned to the same waves upon which I had lived and worked. 

It was in my 20th year that we docked in a port that sat on the edge of a great and wild forest.  The men that had been there before told of sightings and experiences that were beyond imagination, and I could only believe that their exaggerated tales were nothing more than an attempt to have fun at my expense.

Regardless, I could not wait to take my leave of the docks so that I might verify their claims for myself.  Unfortunately, there was much to be loaded and unloaded, so we remained, laboring, well into the evening.

Being of lowest tenure, I was eventually left alone to work as the other men wandered off to a nearby village to begin their shore leave and have their fun.  I was aggravated and frustrated by my abandonment, but it was my lack of status that would place me exactly where I needed to be that evening.  And it was that twist of fate that would, very soon, change my life forever....

I had been working below decks and had only raised my head above the main deck for a moment when I saw her.  She was the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes upon.  Modestly dressed in the common clothing of the Kingdom, her thick, golden hair shone in the moonlight and provided the most perfect accent to her brilliant eyes of green.  I guessed her my age, perhaps a bit older.  It mattered not to me, except that I might be discounted more quickly because of my youth. 

She walked with a purpose which told my eyes that she had both strength and power, but it was my heart that told me that she was imbued, to almost overflowing, with warmth, intelligence,  kindness, generosity, protectiveness, and love.  

She seemed so familiar to me though I could not recall us ever having met.  

I knew immediately that I would like to know everything about this woman, but I was only a young lad and still quite intimidated by the opposite sex; most especially this woman, which was very evident by my inability to do more than stand stock still and stare at her as she drew closer, ' chuckled Henry.

'I fully expected her to pass, never to be seen again, except in my dreams, so you can imagine my surprise when she paused and smiled at me, bidding me good evening and asking my name.  Her name was Eva, and her voice was like a siren song to my ears.  I wanted nothing more than to listen to it forever.

I will not bore you with the details of our conversation, but suffice it to say that Eva was everything that I had imagined that she would be; engaging, witty, kind, well travelled, intelligent beyond her years.  

We talked and laughed for hours on that dock as if we were old friends catching up after a long absence, and I could not help but feel, as did she, that we had known each other for longer than we had been on this earth.

She allowed me the honor of escorting her home by horseback in the wee hours of the morning.  I had expected that we would find our way to the same village as my colleagues, but, again, I was quite taken aback when we found our way to this very castle.  I bid her farewell with no more than a kiss upon her hand, returning to the docks with a smile on my face and her beauty in my eyes.

We saw each other as much as possible in that week.  We found pleasure in the most mundane of things; walking in the wood, shopping at the market, riding horses in the meadow.  If we were talking and laughing, then that was all that mattered.  Within time, Eva validated that every tale that I had been told, and more, was true. 

I wanted not for our time to end, but too soon my leave was over, and we had to say goodbye.   I knew not if I would ever see her again.  I left only reluctantly; this time with tears in my eyes. 

For weeks, I went about my duties, consumed only by my thoughts of Eva.  What was she doing?  Did she think of me?  Did she love me as much as I loved her?  

No longer willing to wait for the answers to my questions, I resigned my duties at the next port, willing and ready to give up the only life that I had ever known, so that I might build a new future with the only woman that I would ever love....'

'Were you her.....Predetermined?' asked Regina tentatively.

'Yes.  Just as you are my Emma's.  But it was chance and circumstance that brought Eva and I together.  Your story is a bit different in that regard, but I will allow another to speak of that more in a moment.  I sense that you have other questions, though.'

'Did you have....magic....when you met Eva?' asked Regina.

'Oh goodness, no, ' declared Henry kindly. 

'When I arrived here the first time, I knew nothing of magic.  In my land, it was no more than lore. 

No.  My power was bestowed upon me by Eva; a part of her which was passed as a gift to me at our wedding ceremony, just as Emma will pass along a part of her gift to you when you marry.'

Regina sighed and stopped walking, bringing her hand to her mouth to cover her quivering chin, though she could not hide tears in her eyes.  Henry could hear her ragged breaths being drawn through her shaking fingers, and he gathered her in his arms to comfort her as she laid her head on his chest.

'I fear that what you want to believe will not come to pass. I was so cruel to her when I saw her last, and I have no reason to believe that she will ever forgive me.  I want only to beg her pardon for the pain that I have caused, but she has not been to see me in over a month, and I have no idea if she ever wants to see me again.  

I did not want to lose her again, yet I drove her away myself, and I know not how to make things right anymore....' Regina trailed off trying hard to catch her breath as she clung tightly to Henry for support and comfort. 

'Regina?'

'Yes.'

'Do you truly believe that Eva and I NEVER had any disagreements?' he chuckled.

'Not of this magnitude, ' offered Regina hesitantly and sadly. 

'Well, I will just inform you, ' he stated, almost proudly, 'that we once went three months without speaking following an argument over the ripeness of a cheese, and the children's names were only decided AFTER we managed to.... ummm... redecorate the library by hurling a number crude spells, and other objects, at each other

Thinking on it further, he added indignantly,

'And I don't care what anyone says...the cheese was moldy, not 'well aged'.

Furthermore, I realize they were her parents, but, really, Chauncey and Helga?!  Who needs enemies when you have names like that?!'

Henry winced and shook his head in exasperation before grasping Regina's shoulders gently and pressing her back so that he could see her face.

'Regina, being Predetermined does not mean that you will not face challenges in your relationship, ' said Henry with a smile.  'In fact, ' he added in a whisper as if sharing a secret, 'that's the exact thing that will keep the relationship quite interesting and exciting....'

Regina smiled half-heartedly as she felt him dry her tears with his thumbs.

'Come, ' he offered gently, 'I would like to introduce you to the person that I spoke of...'

Regina allowed herself to be led through a doorway into a room filled with warm sun and the scent of apples and lavender.  

She stopped after only a few steps, closing her eyes and allowing an amazing calm to wash over her.  She was overwhelmed with feelings of warmth, kindness, generosity, protectiveness, and love; every amazing thing she had ever felt while in Emma's presence, though she could sense that her lover was not actually there.  She sighed dejectedly and wondered how, or if, she might ever make things right again.   She was pulled from her thoughts by Henry's voice.  

'Regina, may I touch your face?' he asked gently.

'Of course, ' she responded, somewhat confused.

She could feel his fingers cup her cheeks and she closed her eyes as he placed his thumbs against her lids at the bridge of her nose. 

He swiped outward only once before removing his hands.  No longer sensing his touch, she opened her eyes was almost overwhelmed with colors and images that she felt like she had not seen in a lifetime. 

'Thank you, My Father, ' was breathed over and over as she covered her mouth with her hands and took in the beauty of her surroundings.

'I am sorry that it has taken so long to restore your sight, Regina, but it was necessary that we build a bond before you could heal.'

'I don't understand, ' said Regina quizzically.

'We may only use our magic with the purest intent, in acts of love and healing, but that love must be reciprocated for our magic to be effective.  Or magic is only as strong the bond we share with another.  

'But, Emma, in Uvhir, she struck those men to the ground....'

'It is forbidden, but not impossible, to use our power to inflict harm or pain upon others, but I do not believe that was her intent that day.  

She wanted only for your safety and protection.  This was the only way that it could be secured...'

Turning in a circle, Regina saw that she was standing in the middle of a massive library, likely the same one Henry and Eva had found themselves in so many years ago as they argued over their children's names.  

The room immediately reminded her of her Father, and she could only wish that he'd had the opportunity to see the magnificence of the space.  He might never have left this room, and she would not have blamed him.

Pristine volumes reached from floor to ceiling all around, supported by wooden shelves of deep, dark grain and interspersed with similarly-colored wooden panels on which hung portraits of previous and current rulers. 

Several sturdy ladders stood at the ready attached to a track on the ceiling which allowed them to be moved about the circumference of the room, offering easy access to any book that might be of interest.

The wood's richness was counterbalanced perfectly by the sunlight that streamed through the wall of windows, some of which had been opened to allow the refreshing fall breeze to fill the room with fragrance and to permit access to the extensive garden of fruit trees, hedges, flowering plants and bushes beyond.

The fireplace stood silent at one end of the room, but Regina felt her gaze drawn there regardless, compelled to look upon the portrait of a beautiful woman of golden hair and green eyes.  Her place of honor and her resemblance to Emma left no doubt that this was Eva, and she could see why Henry had fallen in love with her when he was a young man.  

Even in this formal portrait, Eva showed no hint of pretentiousness or judgement, only an excited smile of happiness and anticipation of a life yet to be lived.  Hers was a life taken too soon by a man who had known happiness only in the volume of his possessions and wealth.  It was an empty and meaningless devotion.  One that was shared, sadly, by Regina's mother.

It was only after a few moments that she noticed that another man had joined their party, and she stopped immediately to recognize his presence bowing her head before truly looking upon his face

'Please forgive me, Sir, I did only just notice you there.'

'Please do not apologize, Regina, for I know that you have had much to catch up on...'

'Master?!?' asked Regina astonished as she raised her head and looked fully upon the countenance of her and her father's oldest friend.  

He was the same, yet different, from what Regina remembered.  The haggard appearance that he had worn in Ravndal had been washed away to reveal the man that she remembered from more than 15 years earlier. 

A neatly cropped goatee encircled smiling lips and straight, white teeth while his blue eyes sparkled and danced with mirth and playfulness.  

He was still bald, but the longer hair he'd had at the sides and back of his head was now shorn neat and clean; salted and peppered with both youth and age.  His hands were no longer gnarled, but elegant and strong and he wore robes much more befitting of his status as Master.

'Oh, please do not call me that any longer.  It was another name for another place.  Here, I am known only as Marco, ' he offered with a tip of his head and a gentle, welcoming smile.

Marco was almost knocked backwards by the force of Regina's embrace, and he chuckled heartily as he wrapped his arms tightly around her shoulders and placed a kiss into her hair. 

Grasping Regina's shoulders, he pressed her back gently after a few moments so that he might look upon her face.  

Cupping her cheeks in his hands, he drew her close, before placing a fatherly kiss on her forehead.

'I do believe that you grow more and more beautiful every, single day, Regina, ' offered Marco with a smile.

'Then I must believe that your sight is worse than mine recently was, ' she countered with a grin.

'I should apologize, ' Marco declared while casting a thumb in Henry's direction, 'that you had to spend so much time today listening to the boring stories of this old man.  

I am quite sure that he has made himself out to be much more debonair and dashing than he ever truly was, ' he added with a sly wink before laughing heartily. 

'NEVER!' offered Henry in false shock as he soon added his own laughter to that of Marco. 'You simply refuse to admit how handsome and irresistible I truly was! Besides, Regina, unlike you, was quite smitten with my stories!'

'Please tell me he didn't talk about the cheese...' mumbled Marco to Regina loud enough for Henry to hear.

'IT WAS MOLDY!!'

'Well-aged'

'MOLDY!'

'Whatever...'

Rolling his eyes and chuckling, Marco addressed Regina, who had been standing between them and taking in their banter with more than a little amusement.

'Perhaps you would like to hear a bit more about your own story? There is much still that you should know, and I will try to provide the remaining details, if you so desire?'

Eagerly, Regina nodded her head, wondering where the story might lead.

'I was Queen Eva's Advisor long before the birth of Emma and Fredrick.  In fact, I had known her since both of us were only children.  She was as kind and generous a woman as anyone might ever know.  It was a true honor to have been allowed to serve her and I will consider myself blessed for the remainder of my days...' said Marco and he paused to wipe a tear of rememberence from his eye. 

Collecting himself for a moment, he continued,

'Upon the revelation of her pregnancy, Queen Eva asked me to perform a special service. 

Now, you must understand that the Queen was endowed with some of the most powerful magic ever seen in this Kingdom.  In addition, she had been granted, as some are, with an additional gift; the gift of foresight and prophecy, but her visions were cloudy, as are the visions of most Oracles; muddled by the uncertainty of time and choice. 

She had seen that an attempt would be made to take her daughter not long after her birth, but she knew not exactly when or by whom.

The vision that had been more clear to her was the location of her daughter's Predetermined, and she asked me to travel to a place deep in the forests of Ravndal where I would keep vigil for her daughter's one true love. 

Of course, every precaution would be taken to protect her daughter from harm or kidnap, but the Queen also wanted every means of recovery provided, should it still come to pass. 

No matter where she might be taken, the Queen knew that Emma's heart would always seek the one to whom she was destined.  If I could find and protect Emma's Predetermined, then I might someday also find her daughter and return both to their rightful Kingdom and home.

As you already know, it was the hand of ill-fate that brought you to me.  You had fallen gravely ill during your father's hunting trip, and he was desperate to find a means for your recovery, having exhausted all traditional methods of healing in the land. 

I had set defenses about my location, but my devotion to the ways of this Kingdom would not allow me to turn away someone in true need of my assistance.  It was your father's love for you and his desire to save your life that revealed my location on that day.

I knew immediately that you were Emma's Predetermined, even though you were only eight years old, and I did everything in my power to save your life.  To lose you would mean that I failed my Queen, denied true love to the heir of this Kingdom and, most importantly, devastated a Father that loved his child beyond all measure.

Believe me when I tell you that I, too, breathed a great sigh of relief on the day that you opened your eyes and asked for your father, ' chuckled Marco with a soft smile.

'I wanted many times to speak to him of your destiny and importance.  We grew close over the years, and I will forever keep him in my heart as a fine and honorable man; a true friend.  I know that he would have guarded your secret.  He loved you so much.  He wanted only for you to be safe and happy, and I am sorry that I did not confide in him sooner, so that he might know, before he passed, how many others loved you and sought to protect you,' said Marco quietly as a tear fell from his eye.

'I do believe that my father was aware, on some level, of the importance of your presence in the Kingdom, even if he knew not the exact details, ' offered Regina as she reached to take Marco's hand in support. 

'He had hunted in those very woods since he was a child.  He knew every path, tree, domicile and resident.  Your presence was a mystery to him, but he forbade me and himself to speak of you to anyone, lest they become too curious at your presence and motivation. 

Marco, you saved his daughter, without question and without any expectation of return.  He trusted you completely with my well-being and care in the times of his absence.   

He loved you as a brother and looked forward to the times when you might be together to talk and laugh over a shared meal or drink. 

You were forever on his mind and in his heart, ' she reassured strongly, 'Please do not despair.   I assure you that he understood that there was a specific reason for your silence and secrecy, and he preferred that you keep both, if need be...'

Collecting himself, Marco nodded his head in acknowledgement before continuing,

'I sensed a change in the air on the day of your and Emma's first meeting, and I knew that you had finally found each other, though neither might recognize the significance of the encounter, yet,' offered Marco. 'I would have preferred to remove you both from the Kingdom then, but I needed there to be no hesitation in either of your commitments to leave.

You can imagine the challenge that I faced in that particular moment. 

I would be asking you, Regina, Freyja and daughter of the High Queen, only heir to the Kingdom's throne, to abandon your birth right and place your full trust in me and a love which had only just taken root.'

'You know that I would have followed, Marco, ' assured Regina.   'As trusted my father, so do I....'

'Yes, well, ' sighed Marco, 'you were actually the lesser of my worries.  I knew the strength of our trust and bond.

Emma, however, was unaware of anything; including my existence.  She had lived her life in the land as an unfree.   You can imagine the lack of conviction that a strange, old man's argument might have when peppered with talk of magic, kidnap, birth right, predetermination and true love.

No.  It was not the right time to act, and so I waited and watched for a sign, hoping that I might be privvy to it before any other.

On the night of Emma's transformation, I too heard the eagle scream, announcing the birth of a great and just warrior.  It followed swift on the same vision that your mother had recounted in her message to Killian's father.  

I knew of your mother's gift of sight thanks to your father.  He believed it folly, but I was not as convinced as he and could take no chances.  If your mother had seen as I had, then she would come to the same conclusion:  not only did Emma live, but she would seek out her own daughter to form an alliance.

Now, your Mother, while highly intelligent and cunning, has a certain expectation of formality and selfishness that is not always exhibited by those around her.  It can make her blind to fact and incorrect in assumption. 

In particular, she likely assumed that your alliance with Emma would be politically motivated.   For, if her own interest lie in the acquisition of power, then so must Emma's.

She most probably also assumed that Emma would remember and exploit more of her past position and title than she was actually able. If that was the case, then the High Queen would have been looking for someone who presented themselves more assuredly than an unfree.

Lastly, she under-estimated her daughter's kindness and predilections in matters of the heart….

I was in Ravndal on the day of Emma's punishment. Of course, I recognized her at once upon the scaffold, but could tell that your mother did not.  

In fact, when that day started, I believe your mother knew only of only three things: your transgression against the laws of your Kingdom, Emma's participation in the same and Emma's alleged actions against the Blacksmith of Ravndal.

The severity of Emma's sentence was meant more to remind YOU of your Mother's authority and control and put an end to what she had declared a forbidden relationship than it was about punishing Emma for her accused crime or subordinating her to your mother's will.

If Emma were to survive, then she knew that you would give her up before you would risk her life again.  If she did not survive, well, your mother's concern was solved all the same.'

'She told me as much afterwards…' sighed Regina with tears in her eyes as she remembered the abuse suffered by her beloved at her Mother's hand.

'Well, what she did not tell you was that, in Emma's moment of healing, she recognized her as much more than just your lover, and I can imagine that she was, at once, both terrified and elated….'

'Yes, there was something in my mother's eyes as Emma fled that told me that her interest in finding Emma had changed.  I have never heard the High Queen's words or commands so desperate, ' pondering further Regina added, ' She no longer just wanted her returned; she NEEDED her returned….'

'I saw it as well from where I stood, ' replied Marco, 'and your words are correct.  Emma holds power, and power can beget more power.  

Your Kingdom's people, while strong, are disorganized and scattered.  To bring them together into a single army that can crush more than another small Kingdom would be almost impossible. 

Harnessing Emma's powers alone, your mother can realize the expansion of her reign and her Kingdom and, I assure you, she will not tire until she gets what and whom she wants....'

Marco could see the concern rising in Regina's face and he patted her hand gently to reassure her.

'Worry not, My Child, you are safe here...I assure you, ' he paused for a moment, watching her eyes to ensure that his words has calmed her before continuing.

'I knew Rocinante would bring Emma to your father's cabin after their escape from the village.  As he serves you, he also serves her and would endeavor to bring her to the most secure place that he knew. 

I left immediately to prepare the cabin for their arrival, unsure of how badly she was hurt and unsure of her ability to invoke her own healing.  I had no idea how long her journey would be, though I knew that they would try to cover their tracks, even if that meant several hours or days further journey.   

Your destination was certain as well.  You, too, had seen her gravely injured, and I knew that you would seek me for assistance before seeking her, so I returned to my home.  That is, of course, where you found me before you returned to the cabin to tend to Emma.'

'And she did heal.... except then...there were children...' groaned Regina as she buried her face in her hands and shook her head.

Blushing slightly, both men gave Regina a moment to collect herself, looking everywhere except at her or each other while trying to figure out what to say

'Yes.....well.....about that.....' struggled Marco as he attempted to rationalize the situation without being too explicit, 'medicine or none, I knew, as Emma was also learning, that your touch would instantly heal her.  Your self-sacrifice and request for mercy in front of so many left no doubt that your love and commitment had reached an undeniable depth.  A love as strong as the one you shared also came with the distinct possibility of conception were not the proper precautions taken.  I doubted Emma or you were aware of either....'

'Obviously, ' murmured Regina while rolling her eyes.

Finally, chuckling softly, Marco took Regina's hands, 

'It was an honor and privilege to watch you become a mother. I do not believe I have ever met a woman so strong.  Henry and Eva are lucky to have you....'

'And I them...' offered Regina almost defensively, 'Please do not mistake my regret of having not been more cautious for regret of their existence...'

'No one doubts your love for them, Regina, ' soothed Marco, 'of that, you may be certain.  In fact, I understand that the instructor had to physically pry them from your arms on the first day of classes...'

'Yes, well, perhaps, ' offered Regina as she pursed her lips, twisted her mouth guiltily and avoided Marco's eyes.  

There were a few more moments of awkward silence before Regina spoke again softly.

'Marco?'

'Yes, Regina?'

'Did I.... die?'

'What might have appeared to Emma as death was nothing more than a temporary stasis as your body prepared itself for an abbreviated pregnancy and your impending motherhood.

You cannot blame her for leaving you that day, Regina, ' sighed Marco, 'she would not have known any of this.  She truly believed you dead and grieved deeply your loss....'

'Which is why she abandoned her power....' whispered Regina quietly.

'Yes, but it was her enduring love for all of you that allowed her to recover that same power, and it was her actions on that day in the wood that gave Henry and his men enough time to arrive and intervene on your behalf.  All of you are alive today because of her.'

'All except Robin, ' offered Regina as she squeezed Marco's hands gently. 'I am so sorry, Marco.  I know that you loved him too.'

'Both of our relationships with Robin were more complicated than you may want to know, Regina.'

'What do you mean?'

'Robin was as much a stranger to your land as me.  In fact, he, too, was from the Enchanted Forest, but his reason for being in Ravndal was somewhat different from mine.

Killian's older brother, and less favored son of their father; Robin had been sent to Ravndal at fifteen years with no means, but with a quest of great importance and secrecy.

He stumbled upon my dwelling in the wood, before I had established adequate protection, however, he knew me not. 

While Killian resided at the palace with his father and would have immediately recognized my face, Robin was rarely seen within its walls; relegated to living with his mother in a more distant village of the Kingdom.

He was not unfamiliar to me, however, and I began immediately to question the nature of his business. 

Being younger, he lacked much discretion in his speech, and I soon learned that he had been sent to find a woman of blonde hair and green eyes who had been taken from his Kingdom, and that she was considered to be of very significant value to more than one person, though he would not provide me with any names.

It was during this same conversation that I learned that the Queen, herself, was dead.

Of course, I was devastated at the loss of my Queen and my friend, but dared not reveal my sadness for someone that, to me, should only be a stranger.   Instead, I showed the proper ambivalence as my heart wept soundly and my mind struggled to establish fact

Henry knew that Eva had sent me to Ravndal.  We had been in contact recently, so he knew that I was alive and still seeking you, exactly as my Queen had asked.  

There would have been no need for Henry to send another as he knew me to be more than capable of searching for both of you, so I began to wonder who else from the Kingdom would have such interest in Emma and know, so well, her possible location.  

It was not long before I received additional information from Henry on the matter. 

Interestingly, the Counsel suspected strongly that the intelligence needed to penetrate the castle had come from inside the walls itself.  

Of course, I guessed immediately who the informant might be as his own son stood within my home, invited to stay, with an offer of my assistance in finding this girl, as I sorted out his intentions.  

I wrote as much to Henry, but without sufficient proof, there was no grounds for dismissal or trial, so Brennan remained in the shadows, well aware of our suspicions and equally aware of our inability to take action.

I had no intention of truly assisting him in finding Emma, but I needed to keep him close.   If, for some reason, he was lucky enough to stumble upon any information regarding her whereabouts, I hoped that I might be privvy to his discovery, find her myself and thwart any additional action he, or others, might take.  

His ability to focus on any task was most definitely put to the test, however, when he met you.

At first, you were an amusement and a diversion to Robin; someone with whom he could while away the hours between his unsuccessful excursions to find some...any... information about Emma.  

As you matured into womanhood, however, your beauty,  intelligence, wit and personality became too compelling to be denied. 

I could see the seeds of attraction growing within him, and his interest in you turned to something more....romantic... for lack of a better word. 

If you only knew the times I pulled that boy away from the riverbank as you bathed or swam, ' sighed Marco, rolling his eyes.

'Your rejection of his proposal came as no shock to me.  While your lips had told me many times that you did not believe in love and commitment, I knew that your heart felt differently, and you would never accept anything less than a bond that defied both logic and explanation.  To accept Robin would have been to settle, and that, My Dear, you would never do, ' chuckled Marco as he brushed his index finger once against the end of Regina's nose.

'You have not done that to me since I was a child, ' smiled Regina.

'Then, it is well past due, ' smiled Marco before touching his finger to her nose once more, causing Regina to breathe a soft laugh.

'Of course, Robin was heartbroken at his rejection, but what he saw as loss, I saw as opportunity.  

As you have probably realized, my title as 'Master' was invented solely to as a means of disguise, and my practices of alchemy, medicine and herbology merely a diversion and an alternate means of providing care, as I found my magical ability greatly diminished due to my isolation from others in our Kingdom.

Robin needed focus; something to take his mind off matters of the heart and off his search for Emma, so I offered to take him as my Apprentice, under one condition, he must take a vow of celibacy....

Much to my surprise...he agreed...'

'Is abstinence a requirement for the practice of those crafts?' asked Regina confused.

'I should hope never!' laughed Marco. 

'But if I had to live in secrecy and without companionship, I might as well have company in my misery.   Plus, it made Robin easier to watch.   Before his proposal, he was constantly off to the village doing... well... who knows what.  Afterwards, he had no interest or reason to go anywhere.  He was completely focused in his work, though, I could still be assured of finding him by the riverbank anytime you visited, ' sighed Marco while shaking his head.

'He only learned the entire story of your importance and connection to Emma on the night that you came for the medicine.  He was distraught with worry for your safety, and I could no longer keep the truth from him.

I could see in his eyes, again, the devastation of lost love, but he asked only how he might help to see you returned, with Emma, to security of our Kingdom; away from the hands of your mother and his father, who he was unaware had died many years before, having been left for dead himself.   

I doubt his own brother even recognized him before he took his life....'

'I know he did not...' whispered Regina sadly.

'Regina, no matter who he was or the original reason for his journey to Ravndal, he fell in love with you, and he tried to protect and care for you as best he knew how for his entire life.....'

Regina held her head in her hands and shook it slowly releasing a deep sigh.  She had been deceived and misled by so many over the years; the Master, Robin, her Grandfather, her Mother.  She wasn't sure that she even knew lie from truth anymore.

Stepping away, Regina wrapped her arms tightly around her torso and looked out into the garden as she tried to make sense of everything that she had just been told.

'I feel as if only two people have ever truly been honest with me,' whispered Regina sadly as she continued looking out the window. 'One of them is dead and the other, I am quite certain, no longer loves me as she once did...'

'Regina, I know that it may be hard to believe, but my masquerade was carried out only to assure your protection, and Robin's affections and care were always sincere.  

If you feel deceived and hurt by our actions, I understand, and I may only apologise, beg your forgiveness and try to make it right.   I truly am sorry...'

Pausing for a moment, Marco furrowed his brow. 

'Wait.... you believe Emma no longer loves you?' he asked astonished.

'We fought... on the ship... I said so many horrible things to her....' sighed Regina as she brought her fingers to each side of her head to rub her temples which were now throbbing, 'I have not seen or heard from her in almost a month...'

'Regina, Emma has separated herself because she believes that she has failed you, not because she does not love you. 

For the past month, she has barely eaten or slept as she sequestered herself with one of the most esteemed Masters of the Kingdom, trying to learn everything there is to know about this Kingdom, her duties and her magic. 

I have never seen someone so dedicated in the pursuit of their studies for the sole purpose of protecting their family.  Believe me when I tell you that, no matter what she feels that she failed to do in the past, it, most assuredly, will not happen again.'

'Marco, my friend, ' exclaimed Henry with a clap on the back after a minute of silence, 'I do believe we have regaled Regina enough for one day with our reminiscences and confessions, and I am quite certain there is some moldy cheese and wine calling our names from the kitchen.  

Perhaps we should take our leave to partake of that feast?  I have a feeling that these gardens may hold a particular interest for Regina which she should discover privately...'

'Yes, Henry, wine and a well-aged cheese.  Nothing could be more welcome on a crisp, Fall eve such as this, ' breathed Marco happily.

'Regina, we will  take our leave now, ' offered Marco with a tip of his head. 'I do agree with Henry, though, the gardens are filled with wonder and surprise on an evening such as this.   Words cannot describe it adequately, and you would do well to see it with your own eyes, ' he nodded encouragingly with a grin.

Laying their arms across each other's shoulders, they took their leave of the library as the first rays of twilight were cast across the gardens.

Unsure of what she would find but emboldened by their encouragement, Regina stepped through the doors of very the library and began her journey through the garden.....

 

Chapter Text

Regina walked slowly through the doors of the library, taking in all that the garden had to offer.  

The scent of late blooming flowers hung heavy in the air and the leaves were resplendent with their deep, rich hues of red, gold, green, orange and yellow.  Regina had experienced more than her fair share of season changes in Uvihr, but none was as striking as what was now laid before her. 

Despite her returned sight, she touched every leaf and plant, wondering at the textures as she was urged further into the depths of the garden, eventually reaching a tall hedge with only one opening.

Stepping quietly into the divide, Regina paused to take in her surroundings.  The space beyond her position was open, save a single, large apple tree that was laden down with fruit of a deep, burgundy color.  

Beyond the tree was the low wall of the terrace which overlooked the forest floor below, and Regina drew a soft breath through parted lips as she realized who stood at the banister. Emma looked so familiar, yet so different from what she remembered, and she was not disappointed.  

Her body, once toned nicely was now chiseled solidly, and quite apparently, through the fabric of her clothing.  Gone were the ragged clothes of an unfree, replaced by dress more appropriate of a soldier. 

Brown suede pants clung tight to the thick muscles of Emma's thighs while brown leather boots were strapped firm around solid calves.  A thick, brown, leather belt holding a sheath, sword and several leather bags encircled a small waist; the weight causing her pants to settle quite low on her hips. 

An evergreen-colored, long-sleeved shirt was unlaced low in front revealing both the striations of the muscles in her upper chest and the soft curves of the tops of her breasts.  

Clinging tightly to her torso, the thin fabric strained against her nipples, that had hardened into firm peaks from the chill in the air, before revealing the clear separation of every muscle of her stomach which contracted and twitched as she breathed in and out slowly.  

The hem of the shirt barely reached the waistline of her pants, and as Emma swayed a bit from foot to foot, Regina's eyes were alternately treated to a view of the top curve of her rear and the dimples of her lower back or her tight lower stomach and the dip of the muscles at the tops of her hips which pointed toward the apex of her thighs before disappearing beneath the line of her belt.  

The muscles of Emma's broad shoulders, biceps and triceps contracted and relaxed strongly beneath her tight sleeves while her forearms were covered in thick, high bracers of brown leather.

Her presence was imposing, but Emma looked weary.   Her eyes showed exhaustion and deep sadness even as she watched a small hummingbird of green and blue florescence bouncing upon her upturned palm.  She smiled gently as she stroked its small, soft breast with the tip of a finger before sending it on its way, only to have it return again to her hand. 

They continued this interaction several more times before Emma waved her fingers closed over him gently.  When she opened her hand again, he had disappeared.  Turning back to the overlook, she laid her palms against the railing, bowing her head and closing her eyes as she released a heavy sigh.

Still unsure of what to say and hesitant to break the silence, Regina spoke barely above a whisper as she took a few, tentative steps toward Emma,

'He was beautiful.  Perhaps you might show him to me again someday?'

Surprised by the voice behind her, Emma jumped whirling around to face Regina. 

Stumbling backwards a bit, she bumped hard into the banister with the back of her thighs, wincing a bit before catching herself more solidly with her hands.  

Emma saw Regina take a few steps forward in concern before abruptly stopping her progress.

Emma's eyes seemed desperate, and she opened and closed her mouth several times before realising that she could not find her voice or her breath.

Regina looked stunning in the evening twilight, though Emma's brow furrowed slightly in confusion as she noticed the scar on the right side of her upper lip and wondered how she might have been hurt so badly. 

'In sorry that I bothered you, ' said Regina quickly as she gathered her skirt in her hands so that she could run and escape the uncomfortable situation, 'I should never have come here...'

Emma could see the tears falling from Regina's eyes as she turned and took her first, quick steps.

'Regina.... wait, ' implored Emma as she stepped forward and held out her hand as if trying to catch her, even though she knew her to be too far away.

She watched as Regina stopped and dropped the folds of her skirt slowly, though she remained facing away from her.

'Please....Please don't leave me...' Emma begged, 'I am so sorry that I failed you.  I promise that I will be better for you and Eva and Henry...if you will but give me another chance...'

Turning slowly, Regina used the pads of her fingers to wipe the tears from her cheeks before standing more confidently and looking directly at Emma, determined to say the words that she wished she had said one month prior.

'Emma, there is nothing for me to forgive.  I was foolish and cruel.  I should never have said the things that I did that day.  I need you to know that you did not fail us.  I did.  And I stand here now begging YOUR pardon. 

Please tell me that it is not too late and you can find it in your heart to love me as I still love you.  I have missed you so much, My Svan....'

Regina trailed off quietly looking for any sign that Emma might be willing to try to make things work again.

Emma stood for a moment, watching Regina before lifting her hand and waving open her fingers.  There in Emma's palm rested the small hummingbird that Regina had seen before.  His eyes were closed, and he breathed heavily adjusting himself slightly as he nested further into Emma's warm hand.

Emma did not take her eyes from Regina's as she brought the bird to her lips where she whispered softly to it.  Almost immediately, it stood at attention shaking its tail with great excitement and puffing out its chest proudly.  

No sooner had Emma's lips stopped moving than it flew from her hand toward the closest part of the hedge. Darting into the thick boughs, it bounced about the branches several times before exiting and reentering a bit further down the row leaving spots of iridescent blue and green in its wake.  It was relentless in its work and with each visit, a soft glow grew around them on the terrace.  

Biting her lower lip, Regina grinned and blushed slightly looking at the ground shyly as she realized what Emma had asked it to do.

After completing its work in the hedge, it flew to the apple tree in the center of the terrace.  It wasted no time entering the branches from below performing the same ritual as before.  This time, however, it made special effort to circle some of the fruits as it made its way to the top of the tree. 

Intrigued by the lights, Regina stepped over to stand beneath the apple tree.  Looking closely at one of the fruits, she realized that the bird was not leaving residual light; it was leaving a duplicate of itself with each bounce and thousands of hummingbirds now darted amount the branches, extracting sweet nectar from the remaining blossoms and fruit.

Having completed its work, the small bird flew toward Regina and flapped its wings rapidly to hover by her face, occasionally darting toward her hand before returning to its place in front.

Finally understanding its silent request, Regina held her hand out allowing it to alight on her palm.  She stroked its soft feathers watching as it immediately fell fast asleep, exhausted from its work. 

Out of habit, she drew it close nuzzling it against her cheek to feel its softness and warmth.  Her actions were rewarded with a gentle nudge against her skin, and she smiled at its antics before directing her gaze again at Emma. 

Stepping forward, Emma joined Regina under the lights of the apple tree, carefully taking the bird from her grasp and helping it to perch comfortably on a nearby branch before tickling the feathers on its breast.  It opened its eyes only briefly, but it was long enough to catch Emma's wink and grin.

Turning, Emma cupped Regina's face in her hands drawing them close as she closed her eyes and brushed their noses together tenderly.

'I told you that I would always love you, Regina.  I am sorry that I have stayed away for so long, but I needed to gain control of this power that lies within me.   I couldn't risk hurting you again and I am eternally grateful that my Father was able to restore your sight.  I owe him a great debt...for so many things.'

Drawing even closer, Emma's lips brushed Regina's softly with every word spoken.

'Believe me when I tell you that my days and nights have been filled only with thoughts of you. I have missed you, my Regina...'

Emma had barely spoken her lover's name before she placed a passionate kiss on her lips.  Immediately, Regina's arms wrapped around Emma's waist and she drew her hands up and down her back gently, tracing her strong muscles and spine softly with her fingertips. 

Emma could feel Regina relax as she pressed her tongue forward only to find Regina doing the same. 

They explored slowly, deepening their kiss with each stroke, and she heard Regina moan quietly before sliding her hands further down Emma's back.  The warmth of Regina's palms on her bare skin caused Emma to shiver, and her eyes rolled slightly in pleasure as fingers massaged deeply and sensuously into the tops of her rear; tips slipping further under her belt with each press.  

As the fabric of Emma's pants became saturated with the wetness that was collecting heavily between her thighs, the pulsing of the lights in the tree grew more frequent and the movements of the hummingbirds more frantic.

Noticing the change, Emma broke their kiss immediately with a groan as the lights returned slowly to their normal, soft glow. 

Resting her forehead against Regina's, she shook her head whispering,

'No, no, no, please no.'

'Have I done something wrong?' questioned Regina fearfully as she tried to catch her breath.

'Absolutely not, my Regina.  It's just that....I have made a vow that I will not be with you....in that way....until I have completed my studies.  I am sorry...' offered Emma with a frustrated sigh.

'You what?!' panted Regina incredulously as she looked at Emma.  Her cheeks were flushed with color and her lips slightly swollen and red from the intensity of their kiss.  Her eyes already had the sultry, dark color that they took whenever they made love, though Emma's could tell that it was now morphing more into a glare of severe annoyance.

'I can see how this committment may not be amenable to you....'

'MAY NOT?'

'All right....IS NOT...but you weren't talking to me at the time anyways, so....' implored Emma.

'It's a bit hard to talk to someone when you can't find them and even harder to find someone when you are BLIND!!' offered Regina through gritted teeth as she stomped her foot indignantly.

'All good points...' shrugged Emma.

'And, how long until you have completed your studies?' asked Regina exasperatedly.

'Ummmm...'

'How.  Long.  Emma?'

'One more month...' Emma offered with a wince before twisting her mouth and looking at the ground trying to figure out what else to say.

'On the bright side, ' she piped up after a moment, 'there will be no chance of unplanned children...'

She smiled feebly as she was met with Regina's unamused glare.

'We haven't gotten to that lesson yet, ' mumbled Emma as she rubbed the back of her neck and looked at the ground awkwardly.

Taking several deep, cleansing breaths, Regina attempted to calm herself so that she might speak in a more composed tone.

'We CAN still see each other, can't we? Please tell me that we do not have to be separated for another month...' she inquired with a cocked brow.

'No.  No.' Emma reassured her.  'We can still see each other.  I have gained enough control that I may be assured that you will be completely safe in my presence. 

That being said, the Master has determined that my magic is linked quite strongly to our...ummm...intimate, physical connections, and until I have the means to control my....well...outbursts....we simply cannot allow things to go too far....'

'Can you please clarify how far is 'too far'?'

'We are not exactly sure...' sighed Emma.

'I see, ' responded Regina a bit more slowly and thoughtfully than Emma expected.

She furrowed her brow a bit at Regina's response wondering what she might be considering.  Assuming that she was reading too much into Regina's response, Emma took her hands and became more serious with her words.

'When my studies are complete.  If you still believe me worthy, I would like for us to take our vows to be bound forever.'

'You have always been and will always be 'worthy'.... And I would be honored to be bound to you...in this life and all others...'

Pausing for a moment, Emma asked quizzically,

'Regina, have you seen the children yet?'

'I was with them this morning, but I came immediately here and have not yet looked upon their faces...You?

'Not in the month, so let us not delay.  You have waited too long and have missed too much already....'

Regina watched as Emma held out her hand and the hummingbird hopped down from its branch. 

Grinning, Emma brought her lips to its ear speaking loud enough for all of them to hear.

'I thank you for your service, my friend.  I do believe she thinks you more handsome than me, so I suspect you may be called upon in the future to show your beautiful plummage and talent, if that is amenable to you?'

Regina smiled as the bird situated itself proudly and confidently, and she could almost swear that she saw it tip its head in deference.

As Emma closed her fingers, Regina watched amazed as the bird disappeared and the lights faded from the garden.

Grasping Regina's hand tightly in her own, they took off running for the castle in search of the children.

 


 

Emma stopped suddenly in the middle of the corridor, halting Regina's progress with a tug of her hand.  Pulling Regina tightly against her she placed an index finger to her grinning lips to silence their laughter.  Just for good measure, she pressed her lips against Regina's to extinguish any remaining sound. 

Breaking their kiss, Emma pointed to her ear and then down the hall where the faint voices of Eva and Henry could be heard.

Slowing their pace, they crept up quietly upon the door of the kitchen, standing hidden to each side, so they could observe what the children were doing and talking about.  

They were the lone occupants of the small room, standing with their backs to the doorway and huddling in front of the fire, as they studied something in Eva's hands.

'We should keep him, ' declared Eva.

'I don't know...' said Henry skeptically.  'He seems upset...'

As they separated slightly, both Emma and Regina caught a glimpse of what they were talking about.

Squirming and struggling hard, but unsuccessfully, against Eva's grip was a Nordic gnome.  

Barely larger than half the size of Eva's hand, his rotund body, short legs and stubby arms were covered by a plain, dark, heavy cloak which was barely visible behind a bushy, full, grey beard which covered his cheeks and hung long and thick to his full height.  Equally impressive eyebrows draped over his temples to join his beard and held aloft his dark, pointed hat which was as tall as he was high, leaving visible only a bulbous nose and small, beady, black eyes that sparked with fury at his captivity

His language was foreign, but the message was clear from the tone and rapidity of his voice and the shaking of his fist.  Eventually, Eva placed her thumb over his mouth to quiet his outbursts which had him shaking and panting.

Covering her mouth, Emma's shoulders shook with silent laughter which immediately stopped when she noticed Regina had pursed her lips and stared at her very unhappily.

Pointing at Emma directly, she mouthed the words, 

'THEY GET THIS FROM YOU!'

'WHAT?!' mouthed back Emma in shock.  'How is this MY fault?!'

Standing at her full height, Regina stepped quietly inside the door motioning for Emma to remain hidden but watching.  Crossing her arms over her chest, she cleared her throat to get their attention.  

Immediately they turned, hiding the gnome behind their backs as Eva kept her thumb over his mouth to silence him.

Regina caught her breath as she looked upon her children's faces for the first time.  They were more beautiful than she had ever imagined and their resemblance to her and Emma was undeniable. 

She had known Henry to always be the more timid of her children and she could see, quite obviously, the trepidation in his huge brown eyes which stared at her, wide open, surrounded by soft, long lashes. 

His dark brown hair was tousled and fell over his forehead, almost covering his eyes, and Regina instantly resolved to have it trimmed so that she might see him better.

His clothes, while neat, hung somewhat baggy over his more delicate frame, and his small mouth twisted guiltily, though he remained silent, prompted by a hard nudge to the ribs by his sister's elbow which caused him to 'oomph' and teeter on his feet slightly.

Eva, who was slightly taller and more athletic than Henry, stood a bit more confidently, watching her Mother's face intently with emerald-colored eyes.  Her golden hair was a bit disheveled and the porcelain skin of her face was smudged a bit with ash and dirt, most likely a result of her efforts to pursue and capture their prisoner.  Eva preferred Emma's style of clothing to her own, and Regina knew immediately that she would follow closely, and well, in the footsteps of her Mother and Grandmother, if they could get her more adventurous and mischievous nature in hand.

For an instant, Regina felt a pang of sadness at having not been able to look upon their faces since their birth, but she immediately took solace in the fact that she had a much deeper connection with her children than most mothers ever would; their smell, touch, sounds and emotions as familiar and apparent and distinct to her as their faces now were.

'I thought I heard an argument.  Is everything all right in here?' Regina asked innocently.

'Ummmm... we were just eating dinner and talking, ' replied Eva skeptically as she continued to watch her mother's eyes.

'So, you would NOT be hiding anything behind your back currently?' inquired Regina further.

'Noooo, ' responded Eva slowly with a furrowed brow.  

At almost the same moment her response ended, the gnome's patience wore decidedly thin.  Opening his mouth, he bit down hard into the skin of Eva's thumb, drawing blood and causing her to release her hold.  Eva drew a strong breath but remained silent, wrapping her other hand quickly around her thumb to try to stop the bleeding and to dull the intense pain created by the mild toxins in his saliva.

Dropping to the floor, he collected his sack, which had fallen sometime during the scuffle, and threw it over his back stomping towards Regina.

Standing directly in front of her, he shook his fist, yelling in anger while pointing between her, Henry and Eva.

Looking directly at him, Regina addressed him firmly.

'If you will allow the room a moment's peace, I will, myself, apologize to you and will demand that my children do the same.  You will, however, wait until I have had a chance to tend to my daughter's thumb.  Am I understood?' 

Immediately, the gnome fell silent and nodded his head grudgingly.

'Eva, ' said Regina quietly as she knelt upon the floor, 'please come here so that I may look at your finger.'

'But, I am not hurt, ' Eva replied quietly as she looked at the ground and twisted her mouth.

'Yet, I can see the blood and can tell from the tears in your eyes that you are in pain....'

Gasping, Eva looked up, eyes wide, and studied her mother's face, receiving only a gentle smile in return.

'Please?' asked Regina again quietly.

Stepping to her mother, Eva held out her hands and Regina gently unwrapped her daughter's fingers from around her injured thumb watching her face intently the entire time.  Finally breaking her gaze, she reached to take a clean cloth from the counter above, dipping the fabric in the pitcher of clean water before wiping softly to clean her wound.

'There.  That wasn't so bad was it?' asked Regina softly as she looked into her daughter's eyes and pressed her hair behind her ear.

Her response was her daughter's arms wrapped tightly around her neck, and Regina hugged her close in return kissing her cheek firmly. 

Crooking her finger at Henry, Regina grinned at him playfully before opening her arm and feeling him run into her embrace as well.  She laughed at his exuberence as he placed a very wet buss upon her cheek.

'I cannot believe how beautiful you are, ' smiled Regina with tears in her eyes as she cupped their small faces in each of her hands.

'Now, I need to find a bandage quickly...'

'Perhaps I can be of some assistance here, ' offered Emma as she stepped from behind the door frame.  She was almost knocked over by the small bodies that crashed into her legs hugging them tightly.  Kneeling upon the floor, she opened her arms wide to embrace them warmly and lovingly.  

Finally finding herself released from their hold, Emma took Eva's hand holding it up to inspect her injury.  A soft glow was cast as she brushed her own thumb against Eva's leaving no trace of a wound or blood.  Smiling, she winked at her daughter who looked at her with awe and admiration.

'AHEM!!!'

The sound of a throat clearing came from the floor as the gnome attempted to draw their attention back, so that he might be on his way.

Standing back on her feet, Regina bowed slightly before delivering her words,

'I apologize for any inconvenience that you were caused in the course of this evening, Sir.  I assure you that this will not happen again, ' offered Regina who received the acknowledgement of a tipped head in return.

'Eva, do you have something to say?' prompted Regina.

'I am sorry, if I made you upset, Sir.  I should not have bothered you.  Please forgive me?'

She too received the tip of a head.

'Henry?'

'I'm sorry if we hurt you, ' he mumbled quietly and shyly.

Bowing deeply, the gnome lifted his sack once more which jingled softly as it landed upon his back.

He had only taken two steps before Emma spoke.

'Just a moment there, my friend.  Exactly what do you carry in that sack?'

Turning slowly, his eyes darted about shiftily as he stood in silence.

'Since you are within the walls of my father's castle, I assume that you will permit me to look inside?' 

Not willing to wait for a response, Emma relieved him of his burden, grasping it with her thumb and index finger.  Releasing the tie, she opened the top and turn the bag over shaking it gently.  Several full sized objects dropped to the floor including a pewter goblet, a full flagon, a beautiful, silver, signet ring inset with an emerald and heralded with Emma's family crest on each side and Regina's silver and leather hair gather.

'Well, you certainly have been busy, ' fumed Emma as she stood at her full height. 

'THIS, ' she exclaimed holding up the ring, 'is my mother's wedding ring which I believed lost and THIS, ' she stated handing the hair tie to Regina, 'belongs to HER!'

Looking at the ground once more, Emma declared in amazement,

'And exactly how much do you drink? You should really get some help.  I think you have a serious problem....'

Hanging his head, the gnome sighed dejectedly at the loss of his bounty.

'Just be gone, ' said Emma exasperatedly extending her arm to point her finger towards the door.  

Turning slowly, he dragged his feet looking around to see if he might find something small to pilfer on the way out.

Sweeping her foot sideways, Emma caught the side sole of her boot under his rump, lifting him off the floor and launching him down the corridor about ten feet.  Landing on his feet, he turned around and glared at Emma, grumbling and rubbing his bottom before continuing more swiftly on his way.

'Feel better?' asked Regina with a cocked brow and disparaging look.

'I forgot you could see that, ' mumbled Emma.

'Yes, well, I can also see that he probably will not be sitting down for a week.'

Pausing a moment, she whispered,

'He deserved it....'

Grinning smugly and feeling slightly vindicated, Emma pocketed the ring before clapping her hands together and turning her attention to her family. 

Bending at the waist she tickled playfully at the childrens' growling tummies,

'Now did someone say something about supper?' she asked with a grin.

'I am starving and could do with a hearty meal...' Trailing off, the smile fell from Emma's face as she straightened to standing realizing she might have invited herself too soon.  '....if you will have me, of course...'

Three sets of eyes looked expectantly at Regina awaiting her reply.

'I should hope that you would join us every night, ' smiled Regina warmly.

The children squealed and laughed as they found themselves picked up and thrown over each of Emma's shoulders.  

Settling them at the table, she helped Regina serve the meal before sitting down to enjoy an evening of talking, smiling and laughing with her family.

 


 

Emma walked quietly down the corridor beside Regina; each of her arms supporting a sleeping child as they rested their heads against her shoulders.  The excitement of the day and evening had exhausted them, and they had barely made it through their dinners before falling fast asleep in their chairs.

Reaching their room, Regina lifted the latch quietly before opening the door and allowing Emma to step inside. 

Carrying the children over to the first small bed, Emma kissed Eva's cheek before passing her into Regina's arms.  Stepping back, she watched as Regina tucked their daughter warmly under the covers, pressing her hair neatly behind her ears and gazing lovingly at her face before placing a gentle kiss of her own upon Eva's forehead. 

Moving to the second bed, Emma lay Henry down, herself, kissing his temple softly before stepping back to allow Regina to cover and bid him goodnight.

They stood watching their children for a moment before Regina looked over at Emma.

'Even though they are asleep, it is still early for me.  Perhaps you can stay just a little while longer?' she asked hopefully.

'Of course, ' sighed Emma with a thankful smile.  She had truly hoped that the evening would not end quite so soon.

'If you will allow me to hide my hair gather in a much safer place, I will join you in a moment on the terrace...'

'I look forward to it, ' said Emma quietly as she exited the large glass doors of the chamber and walked onto a terrace that glowed faintly under the light of the full moon and a million stars.

Walking to the stone banister, she breathed in the night air deeply and smiled to herself.  She could not imagine a more perfect evening.

'May I offer you some wine?' called Regina softly from inside.

'Yes, please, ' responded Emma quietly over her shoulder before returning her gaze across the forest where could see the lights of the villages, large and small, nestled amongst the trees.

Hearing footsteps behind her, Emma turned smiling, watching as Regina walked slowly toward her, a single goblet of wine in her hand.

Her smile faded, and her mouth fell open slightly as their eyes locked and Regina offered her a smoldering look.  Caught completely off guard and unsure how to react, Emma backed up slightly until she felt the press of the banister against her backside, finally bending her body back slightly in an effort to gain more separation.

Regina stopped her approach only when their breasts were about an inch apart.

'I'm sorry, ' said Regina as she traced the tip of her index finger slowly around the top edge of the goblet, 'did you say you would like some wine?'

'Y-y-yes' stuttered Emma gulping hard as her eyes flicked from Regina's face to her finger and back again.

Dipping her finger into the goblet, Regina wetted the tip to the first knuckle before withdrawing it and bringing it to her own mouth. She watched Emma's eyes intently as she parted her lips and pressed her tongue forward slightly to catch the drop of liquid that threatened to fall from the pad of her finger.  

She savored the taste for a moment before taking the tip of her finger between her lips and sucking softly.  Swirling her tongue, she moaned quietly and closed her eyes as the flavor filled her palate.

'Unnnhhh, ' moaned Emma in return as she stood, mouth slightly open, mesmerized by the scene being played out before her.  She could feel a familiar tingling extending from her core into her limbs as a warm wet spread copiously between her thighs.  Her cheeks were flushed and she panted slightly while her pupils were blown wide and darkened with lust.

Opening her eyes at the sound, Regina withdrew her finger, watching Emma's eyes intently while slowly tugging her bottom lip seductively.

'Holy Odin, ' breathed Emma.

'Would you like some?' asked Regina with a smirk as she dipped the tops of her index and middle fingers back into the goblet.

'I....Uhhhh....' was all that Emma managed to offer before Regina's wetted fingers found her mouth.  Her eyes fluttered closed and she groaned low as she felt the tips trace her upper lip, lightly and slowly, from corner to corner; her body shuddering at the contact.  

Emma shook her head a bit trying to clear it, but it was already spinning, and she could feel her willpower and control slipping away from her quickly.  She had made a vow.  She knew the potential consequences, but all she wanted was to feel Regina's caress on every inch of her skin.... to feel the closeness and comfort of a touch that she had craved every day that they were apart.

Slowly, Emma became vaguely aware that Regina's fingers no longer grazed her lips, and she drew a sharp breath opening her eyes wide immediately wondering what she might have done.  

She breathed a deep sigh of relief when she noticed Regina, in the center of the terrace, turning in a slow circle and studying their surroundings intently.

Clematis, wisteria, trumpet vines and honeysuckle, all of which had dropped their leaves and gone dormant in anticipation of the winter's onset stood, once again, laden with foliage and blooms of vibrant color.

Not even noticing, Emma ran towards Regina grasping her by the upper arms and inspecting her frantically from head to toe. Releasing her grip, Emma waved her hands back and forth in front of Regina's face.

Finally catching the look of disdain and cocked brow, Emma slowed her movements allowing her arms to fall to her sides as she twisted her mouth in embarrassment and looked at the ground shyly.

'I thought you might be blind again, ' mumbled Emma.

'I assure you that I am not, but I believe you might be.  Do you not see what you have created around us?' offered Regina encouragingly, trying to catch her eyes.

Emma groaned in exasperation wondering what she might see when she looked up, and she breathed a heavy sigh of relief when she noted a terrace that was in full, fragrant bloom versus some later stage of destruction and turmoil.

Shaking her head, Emma attempted to temper Regina's hope with some reality.

'What I 'created' here, Regina, was luck, not skill.  For as beautiful as this is, there was as much chance of it being unpleasant.  I may only be thankful that we fared better than the Master has....' offered Emma with a slightly nauseated look.

'What exactly has 'happened' to the Master, Emma?' asked Regina perplexed.

'My latest accomplishment has been to turn his dining table and supper to cinder.... in the middle of a feast with friends.   Believe me when I tell you that he was less than amused when I confessed what I was doing at the time that it happened....'

'What exactly WERE you doing at the time of this.... incident?' asked Regina quizzically.

'I was only thinking of you...' mumbled Emma while avoiding Regina's eyes.

'And....'

Emma could hear Regina's foot tapping as she awaited the remainder of the story.

'And....perhaps...touching myself to find some relief to my incessant ache, ' she offered quickly before wincing slightly and looking at Regina like a child awaiting punishment.

Instead, Regina studied her curiously.

'You said 'outbursts' before.  Has something else happened in the past month?'

'Yes, ' shrugged Emma with an exasperated sigh.

'And what were you doing each of these times, Emma...the same?'

'No, Regina.  Many times, I was simply thinking of kissing your lips or brushing my fingers over your skin or...' Emma trailed off quietly before finishing her sentence.

'Or what, Emma?' asked Regina gently.

'Thinking of our wedding night....'

'I see, ' whispered Regina as she smiled softly and reassuringly at Emma.

'And what have been the consequences?'

'It rained heavily on the Master.'

'I highly doubt we could blame that on your magic.  That could happen to anyone at anytime, Emma.'

'Not when you are under a solid roof lying in bed.'

'Oh.  I suppose you may be right.  Go on.'

'He couldn't speak for a day....'

'Laryngitis?'

'He was wrapped in a cocoon...' sighed Emma.

'And, for the life of me, I cannot figure out where his cat went...it was sitting right there, then... well... poof....'

Regina covered her mouth to stifle a laugh not wanting to embarrass or discourage Emma further.  After a moment, she spoke softly.

'Emma, could we try something?'

'I would honestly prefer if we don't, ' groaned Emma wondering what Regina might possibly have in mind.

'Emma, I have every faith that you will keep me safe.'

'I blinded you, Regina.  Do you not remember?' pleaded Emma frightened.

'Yes, ' responded Regina calmly, 'and, at the same time, you gave us the gift of two beautiful and incredible children.  Your magic has as much capacity to produce good as it does harm.  Please.  I trust you, Emma.' 

Sighing heavily, Emma nodded her head hesitantly in agreement, and her brow furrowed as she watched Regina step back a few paces so that she might be more hidden from view. 

'Take a deep breath and relax.....for me?' 

Drawing her hands to the top of her dress, Regina rolled her fingers about the ends of the leather tie, watching Emma's eyes to make sure that she had her full attention before pulling one side and releasing the bow.  

She could see Emma gulp, her eyes fixated on Regina's fingers as she withdrew each binding from the eyelets, and Regina's lips curved into a sensual smile as she felt the tightness of the fabric release from around her torso.  

Finding the edge of the left side of the bodice with her fingertips, she pulled it back to reveal a plump, smooth breast and she could see Emma catch her breath through slightly opened lips; any remnants of hesitation or fear having fallen away to be replaced only by desire.

Cradling the weight of her breast in her left palm, Regina brought the fingers of her right hand to her lips, swirling her tongue over the tips to wet them as Emma flicked her eyes from Regina's mouth to her chest and back again.

Reaching down, Regina pinched her nipple between her thumb, index and middle finger before tugging slightly and rolling it gently. 

It took no more than a moment for it to raise into a stiff peak and for the surrounding skin to harden under the ministrations of her skilled fingers.  Pinching and pulling harder, she bit her bottom lip and moaned quietly allowing herself to indulge in her building excitement and that of her lover. 

They were both startled from their experiment, however, by a cat dropping from no where to land on its feet between them.  Immediately, he sat adjusting his fur which had, based on the fury of his cleaning, been quite messed upon his arrival.

'Morgenfrisk?' asked Emma surprised.

The large orange cat stopped its cleaning to look at Emma offering a terse, but belligerent, meow before strutting over to the banister and disappearing silently through some of the foliage.

'The Master's cat?' grinned Regina as she pulled the bodice of her gown together once more to cover herself.

'Uh huh, ' responded Emma looking into the air perplexed trying to figure out from where the cat had come.

The gentle nudge of a hand upon her cheek caused her to return her gaze to Regina who stood smiling softly as she held tight to the top of her dress.

'You see, ' sighed Emma frustratedly, 'I lack control and am dangerous...'

'Aside from being slightly out of sorts, the cat seemed none the worse for wear, ' offered Regina with a quiet chuckle as her thumb stroked Emma's cheek softly.   Almost immediately, she could feel Emma's head lean into her touch seeking comfort from the conflict that raged within her.

'Emma, ' said Regina more seriously, 'all that I can see is that your Master is either extremely clever or an utter fool.  Either way, I believe that he does you no favours.'

'What?' asked Emma perplexed as she lifted her head to address Regina directly.

'Your magic is not triggered solely by our physical connections, but also by the anticipation and remembrance of our unions. If your Master truly believes that it is only our physical touch that creates this magic, then he is sadly mistaken and he will not solve this 'problem' by separating us like children.  Although, I suspect he is already quite aware of this fact.  I had my own doubts earlier when you told me that you had experienced 'outbursts'.  To date, I have been privy to only one such occurrence, so I assumed there must have been others incidents during the time when we have not been in each other's presence. 

I apologize if I teased earlier, but I needed to confirm my suspicions, and I assure you that this foliage started to spring from the vines before I even laid my fingers upon your lips.  It was our touch, however, that created the amazing beauty that surrounds us now.'

'This is not beautiful.  This is horrible and worse than I imagined it could be, ' spat Emma as she ran her fingers into her hair frustratedly, collecting some of the strands within her fists and holding tight.

She paced furiously in front of Regina talking to herself, Regina and no one simultaneously as she attempted to sort out the situation.

'Your touch I might have avoided, but I can't get you off my mind, and now that I have seen you again, it will only be worse, Regina...for everyone.

I can try to focus my thoughts through greater and longer concentration on my studies, but I don't know what I will do when, each day, you will be this close to me.   I know that eventually I will lose my resolve and someone will suffer the consequences.  

Being apart is excruciating, but it might be for the best.  I don't want to see anyone hurt, but perhaps it is better him than you.  With his magic, he might be more able to defend himself....' 

'Do you even hear the words that you are saying, Emma?' asked Regina perplexed.

'Desiring the closeness that we have shared is nothing to be ashamed of and certainly not something to be avoided. 

Although your Master already seems to be trying his best to do exactly that with this ridiculous vow and by working you to exhaustion so that you have little time to think of anything but your studies.  I have no idea how much more you can take or expect of yourself.

Do you believe for one moment that I do not crave your touch every moment of every day?'

'But your thoughts and desires do not manifest in injury, Regina.'

'Flowers?  Rain?  A cocoon?  A lost cat?  This is hardly what I would call injury, Emma.'

'Blindness.'

'Children...., ' said Regina exasperatedly. 

'Odin, Emma, how quickly you forget my words...You are not the same person that you once were.  You must believe that...'

Closing her eyes, Emma simply bowed her head shaking it in denial. 

'I cannot protect you from me, Regina.  I should go.'

Keeping her eyes focused on the ground, Emma brushed past Regina walking quickly towards the terrace doors.  She had made it only five steps before she was stopped dead in her tracks by Regina's angry words.

'Dammit, Emma, if you so much as take one more step in that direction then I swear to you that there is no magic in this world that will match the hell that I will unleash upon you!'

Regina could see Emma's hesitation as she considered her words and watched as she rocked forward slightly as if to resume her progress.

'Emma, you do not want to test me on this.....I assure you...'

Regina waited a moment and saw Emma settle, resigned, into her position.  Satisfied that she was not leaving, Regina spoke again, less harshly but still very directly and almost pleadingly.

'Emma, how can you ever hope to control or protect me from something that you will not allow yourself to understand or experience?  Your Master, however well-intentioned you may believe him to be, takes advantage of your fears to protect only himself.  If he bears the brunt of your frustrations when you can no longer tolerate our separation, then it is his fault alone, not yours. You use words like 'deny' and 'avoid' when you speak of us.... of me....He has made you so afraid of my touch that you recoil each time I come too near.   Do you think that I don't notice?  Do you think that it doesn't hurt to know that I cause you this much fear and pain when what we had was once so beautiful and safe?  I see the exhaustion in your eyes.  You barely eat and work yourself mercilessly as some sort of punishment for an ACCIDENT that neither of us could have foreseen or prevented.  And, even if I had known the outcome of that evening, I assure you that I still would have been with you. 

My need for you; mind, body and soul, is too strong to deny, and I would rather live blind, deaf and mute, knowing that you will be beside me day and night than to live able-bodied and separated like we did for so many months, listening to the foolish advice of others instead of following our own hearts and facing these challenges together.  Look at the beauty that surrounds us...inside and out....This is what you create when WE are together.  Can you not see the difference?' implored Regina as her chest heaved from the emotion of her words.

'I am afraid, Regina....' offered Emma quietly.

Stepping forward, Regina took Emma's hands gently in her own.

'Then let us face this together.  Let me help.  Please do not hide yourself from me, because I refuse to be apart from you any longer.  I will not walk away from this relationship or run from you in fear, and I will live with the consequences of that decision whatever they may be.'

'I made a vow...'

'Yes, one that we will not break, Emma, but, in one month, when we give ourselves to each other on our wedding night, I want it to be completely and without fear or hesitation.'

'So what do we do, Regina?'

'We go too far....'

Chapter Text

Day 1

Emma smiled contentedly to herself as Rocinante clopped slowly through the forest. 

She held his reigns loosely in one hand which rested on Regina's outer thigh, while her other arm wrapped tight around Regina's back and waist as she sat side-saddled in front of her.  The fur coat that Emma had pulled from one of the saddle bags in the late afternoon was wrapped tightly around both of them to stave off the chill of the evening air that heralded the onset of Fall.

Regina had relaxed her side comfortably into Emma's front, eventually laying her cheek against Emma's upper chest and humming softly as they rode; her hand stroking lazily up and down Emma's right thigh.

Before long, Emma heard the sounds of a brook and she looked up to see the first star of the evening through the trees.  They had traveled almost three kilometers from the palace that afternoon so that Emma might introduce Regina to some of the wonders of the Kingdom, and she could not have asked for a better day. 

In a field of lupine flowers and tall grasses, they had come upon some fairies that were gathering pollens and preparing to mark the blades with morning frost.  They had beckoned for Emma and Regina to dismount and rest awhile, sitting Regina amongst them so that they might weave a wreath of flowers and wheat into her hair and paint her lips with a beautiful color of nectar that sparkled even without light.  They giggled as they worked, happy to see two people so much in love that they noticed almost nothing but each other. 

They stayed almost an hour before taking their leave with a bow and a wave, allowing the fairies to go about their business that had fallen far behind.

At the entrance to the wood, they stopped again so that Emma might aquaint Regina with some forest sprites which were all but indescernable to the unaware and unobservant. 

A cross between an insect and a flower, they flitted about the mosses and leaves gathering materials to expand their abodes which existed higher in the trees, connected by swinging bridges and catwalks that looked, at a glance, like nothing more than vines and gossamer threads. 

The sprites stopped their work to offer their hellos and to congratulate Emma on her return to the Kingdom, but it was a very, harried mother that had already caught Regina's attention. 

Resembling a praying mantis, but with the wings and collar of a deep, burgundy iris, she held her crying child in a swaddling made from the trap of a pitcher plant, looking nervously at Regina hoping that she was not disturbing her visit. 

Kneeling down, Regina smiled gently at her before offering to hold her baby.  Resting it in the crook of two fingers, she rocked it gently while singing softly, watching it fall fast asleep almost immediately, much to the relief of the mother who thanked Regina profusely in her native tongue as her sleeping baby was returned to her arms.  Not a word was spoken among any one of them as they watched the interaction with reverence and awe. 

At the edge of a stream, a female unicorn had brought her newborn to drink.  She nudged it gently towards Regina who watched it approach with wobbling legs and a careful, slow gait.  Sitting cross-legged on the forest floor, she held and stroked it gently as it lay down, resting its upper body in her lap.  They would have remained together for longer had it not been for the indignant snorts of Rocinante who feared he might shortly be replaced as favorite. 

Laughing softly and getting the hint, Regina helped the foal to its feet holding it close until she was confident it was steady enough to return to its mother who returned Regina's bow of thanks and humility at the mother's trust.

Regina easily returned to Rocinante's good graces, when, together, they won a race to which they had been challenged by five, massive, centaur males who, much to Emma's disgust, had been ogling Regina for quite some time before approaching. 

Emma had offered to run the race on Regina's behalf, knowing the centaurs' reputation for rough play and trickery, but she had been refused by a very determined Regina who was also quite aware of their condescending and lecherous looks.   The chance to engage with the centaurs in a competition that might temper their arrogance and sense of superiority had clearly sparked a fire within her. 

Emma had bitten her nails to the quick after losing sight of Regina shortly after the start of the race, sick with worry for her safety.  She stopped only when the competitors emerged as a group from the tree line; Regina only slightly in the lead and involved in a struggle with one of the larger centaurs who banged into the side of Rocinante repeatedly trying to throw him off balance while pulling hard at Regina's dress trying to yank her from the saddle.

Dropping the reigns, Regina grasped her wrist with her own hand and twisted her upper body hard, catching the centaur in the nose with her elbow and causing him to fall back, hands to his face, laughing heartily at Regina's guts and spirit.

Losing her balance, she dropped sideways, grasping the front of the saddle just in time to avoid falling completely and swinging her right leg over so that both feet were on the left, one stirruped, one not.  Ducking low, she kept her eyes on the finish line trusting in Rocinante to guide his own path and keep them safe.  They crossed unharmed and without further incident; Regina remounting the saddle only as Rocinante's pace slowed sufficiently.  

Almost immediately, she returned to the field to apologise and tend to the wounds of the centaur whom she had struck.  It was her compassion and concern for him, not in gloating over her victory, that sealed their admiration and favour.   Gathering about her, they answered her questions readily and respectfully allowing her to inspect their forms more closely, some of them maneuvering hard to ensure that they were the object of her scrutiny.

Emma suspected that the centaurs might have been willing to remain in Regina's presence all night answering her questions, sating her curiousity, offering her compliments and flirting heavily had Emma not finally guided her out of the circle that they had made around her.   

The suggestive and seductive way that each had settled about, lying on their sides, propped upon their elbows was more than slightly disconcerting and off-putting to Emma, and she offered each a quite disparaging look which was met in turn with nonchalant shrugs, blown kisses and smug smirks. 

Emma was pulled from her musings by the sensation of warm, wet, open-mouth kisses being placed upon her chest causing the skin to rise into bumps and her nipples to harden instantly.

'R-r-regina, ' Emma stuttered quietly as she brought Rocinante to a stop beside the brook, 'perhaps we should allow Rocinante a well-earned drink before we return to the castle for the evening.'

Emma could feel teeth scrape against her skin and her body shuddered before Regina raised her head to look into Emma's eyes.  Biting her bottom lip, she nodded very slowly with a seductive look in her eyes.  

'Whoa, ' offered Emma on a shaking breath as she brought Rocinante to a halt by the small steam.  Carefully, she helped Regina slide from the saddle before dismounting, grabbing Rocinante's reigns and walking him to the stream.  Emma patted his shoulder several times before resting her head on his neck and shaking her head slowly whispering,

'Please help me, Odin, not to completely burn this forest down as a result of these experiments...'

Looking up, she could see a hint of alarm in Rocinante's eyes as his skin twitched and he stamped his foot.

'I do think you understand entirely too much of what I say....' said Emma as she regarded Rocinante skeptically.  'Regardless, I promise that I will do my best to be careful, ' offered Emma more encouragingly with another few claps on Rocinante's shoulder.

Returning to Regina's side, she could already see her shivering slightly in the evening air, and Emma reopened the coat which she wrapped tightly around Regina again.  She had only a moment to collect her thoughts before her legs felt weak, and she groaned as Regina found her chilled skin once again with a warm mouth, tongue and lips.

Clamping her thighs together, Emma tried unsuccessfully to minimize the inevitable and immediate saturation of her undergarments and leather pants.  Threading the fingers of one hand through Regina's hair, she held her head gently, scared of what might happen, but unwilling to stop the tender ministrations of her lover.  Occasionally, she would crack an eyelid to check their surroundings making sure that the trees around them still stood.

Satisfied that all was well, she finally abandoned herself to the feeling of Regina's touch, relaxing and sighing heavily as she leaned her back against a nearby tree; a throaty moan escaping her parted lips as her hand reached to cup and massage Regina's breast.  The flicking of her thumb across Regina's nipple through the fabric of her gown earned a quiet gasp followed by a series of kisses that trailed up her neck slowly culminating in the lobe of her ear being teased and sucked softly.  Guiding Regina's head gently, Emma brought their mouths together for a series of deep, passionate kisses before they both broke to catch their breath.

'You see, Emma, ' whispered Regina, 'All is still well.'

Looking around, Emma breathed a sigh of relief, but her sentiments were short-lived when she realized something was amiss.

'Regina, where is Rocinante?' she asked alarmed as she looked to the location where she had left him and saw nothing more than his saddle, bags, blanket and harness lying on the forest floor.

'He may have wandered a bit, Emma, ' reasoned Regina trying to ease Emma's worries as well as her own.   She had never known Rocinante to remove himself from her sight when they were together, and it was more than a bit alarming to not see him at all.

'Damned centaurs, '  growled Emma as she ran to the location where he once stood.  She lifted every piece of equipment on the ground trying to find some indication of their arrival, presence or departure, but found nothing more than the faint remnants of her own tracks.

Hearing the breaking if a branch behind her, she spun taking a defensive position immediately. 

'Dont move, Regina, ' ordered Emma holding up her hand to bid her to remain in place.

In the shadows, she could see the glint of two eyes and readied herself for the inevitable confrontation.  

She had heard no struggle or attack, but she feared the worst.  There were tales of animals in these woods that could kill instantly and silently, and she prayed for Regina's sake that Rocinante had escaped, and that Regina would as well, if she, herself, was taken by this beast. 

There was a crackle of branches as the thing moved towards her with a heavy gait. 

Squinting her eyes, Emma groaned exasperatedly when it finally revealed itself to her, and she pulled her palms down her face heavily while shaking her head.

Rocinante's protestations were definitive as he stamped feet that were miniscule compared to what they had been previously.  They matched well to the rest of his body, however, which had shunken proportionately.  No larger than a medium-sized dog, he brayed and huffed obstinately at his current state, snorting and shaking his head angrily.

Seeing Emma's posture was noticeably more relaxed, Regina ran to Emma's side.  Her eyes went wide as she looked down to see at what Emma was staring.

'Well, that is.....unexpected...' stated Regina as she looked towards Emma who seemed to be a mix of nauseated and exasperated.

Kneeling down, Regina called to Rocinante who stepped over to her, slowly and measuredly, trying to maintain an air of regality and importance despite his diminished size.

'Always so debonaire and handsome, ' offered Regina encouragingly before reaching out to scratch between his ears.  Settling him somewhat, Regina stood to address Emma.

'I assume your Master has given you the tools to reverse this?' she asked with a nervous smile.  She didn't want to sound accusing since they had agreed to test the limits of Emma's control together and Emma had been, only hesitantly, on board to the plan.  She was starting to see why but was unwilling to give up so soon.

'Uhhhhh, ' was Emma's sickly, non-committal response. 

'I see.  Well, we should probably begin our journey back to the palace.  It grows dark and colder and I know not what lives within the shadows of these woods.  We can sort this out upon our arrival. Surely someone will know what to do.'

'I'll hide the saddle and reigns and come back for them tomorrow, ' said Emma ducking away quickly so as not to have to continue looking upon the mess she had caused.

Finding a substantially sized, hollow tree trunk, Emma stuffed the tackle inside, bringing a heavy coat back for Regina to wear to protect her from the evening cold.  Without a mount, they would have several hours' walk back to the castle picking through dense forest on uneven trails.

After helping Regina to put the coat on her shoulders, they began their journey, Rocinante following close behind, unwilling to be separated by a significant distance due to his vulnerable stature.

They had traveled only a bit over 45 minutes before Emma heard Rocinante's pace slow considerably.  He was tired from jumping or walking around some of the more substantial, felled trees and Emma assumed he had ready walked twice the distance that she and Regina had, still, they needed to press on and could not risk being exposed to the dangers that lurked in the forest.

It was no more than 15 minutes later that the clopping of hooves was no longer heard and Emma turned to see Rocinante standing, head bowed dejectedly, unable to go on.

'He cannot keep this pace, Emma, ' sighed Regina, 'we walk twice the distance in one step that he does.  He is tired and cannot go on.'

'What would you have me do, Regina?  I cannot reverse this.  If I knew how, it would already be done and we would already be at the castle.'

Emma drew a breath as Regina looked between her and Rocinante hopefully, and her mouth fell open slightly as she realized what Regina had in mind.

'I cannot carry him, Regina!'

'We cannot leave him!  He is loyal and steadfast and has saved both of our lives more than once!'

Softly, she added, 'He is my friend....'

Emma could see the tears welling in Regina's eyes as she considered that she might be asked to leave her lifelong companion.

Sighing, Emma lowered her shoulders and skulked over to Rocinante placing one arm under his haunches and one under his chest.  Her knees wobbled, and she grunted as she lifted his weight like a shepherd carrying one of his flock.

'He must weigh four stone, Regina.  What do you feed him?'

'He is a Shire, Emma.  What did you expect?'

'I expected for him to be bigger and for me to be mounted on his back, ' mumbled Emma as she took a few tentative steps trying to figure out the correct distribution of weight.  

They found themselves locked in a slight struggle after only a short distance as Rocinante squirmed in her arms, and Emma stopped to look at Regina exasperatedly for a translation.

'I don't think he likes being held in this position.'

'Well, what would His Majesty prefer?' Emma scoffed.  Her retort was met immediately with a disapproving snort.

Using her arms, Regina showed Emma what a more soothing position might be.

'Surely, you are joking....' asked Emma as she looked towards the heavens for strength and patience.

Receiving no response, she maneuvered their positions so that Rocinante was now cradled on his back in her arms.  Almost immediately, he stopped fighting and relaxed into her embrace.

'Do NOT get used to this, ' mumbled Emma quietly into his ear.  'I consider us quite even now.'

Her words were met with Rocinante pressing his head under her chin as he nuzzled further into her arms, releasing a content and relaxed breath through his lips as his eyes grew heavy.

They made slow but steady progress through the forest and, finally, the fields, stopping occasionally so that Emma might rest and drink from a stream. 

The irony of their reversal of position was not lost on Emma as she leaned over the bank to shovel handfuls of water into her mouth trying to quench her thirst, and she resolved that they would no longer 'experiment' so far from the castle or in Rocinante's presence....for everyone's sake...including that of her back and thighs which had lost most sensation over an hour prior. 

It was well past midnight before they arrived at the castle, and they were met in the courtyard by a half-asleep stableboy who had run from the barn to help them dismount and to care for Rocinante.

He looked at them shocked when a sleeping horse was placed in his arms causing his knees to buckle and for him to stagger about to catch his balance.  Finally able to stand without swaying, he furrowed his brow and opened and closed his mouth several times in complete confusion.

'Don't ask, ' grumbled Emma as she rolled her neck from side to side and shook her arms; thankful to be rid of Rocinante's weight.

'Take him to the stable and put him in Rocinante's stall.  Someone will be along in the morning to.....ummmm....address his slight issue...and to speak to you about his diet.'

The stable boy nodded slowly as he looked from Emma to Rocinante, who had fallen asleep once again, completely unable to form even the most simple question or response.

'Ok then, ' said Emma as she clapped her hands together and turned to Regina.

'I will bid you goodnight here so that I may go home and spend the remainder of the night soaking myself in the scalding water of the hot springs, trying to get the smell of horse from my skin and attempting to return some feeling to the lower half of my body which I believe I lost somewhere back in the forest.'

Patting Regina's head, Emma limped off wincing as the stableboy looked from one woman to the other trying to make sense of their exchange, rocking Rocinante gently so as not to wake him.

'It could have been worse, ' called Regina with a grin.

'Yes.  I will definitely mark today's experiment a success as soon as I can raise my arms high enough, ' retorted Emma sarcastically without stopping and without turning around as she made her way through the gate of the castle and to the safety of her own forest home.

 

Day 7

 

'Emma!' said Henry with a smile as he saw her enter at the far side of the dining room.  

Rising from his chair he met her half way across the room, embracing her warmly and placing a kiss on her cheek before motioning for her to take a seat at the end of the table opposite him, which she did after stopping to kiss Regina's cheek and whisper in her ear how beautiful she looked.

They were joined by several guests, including Regina, at Emma's immediate left, and the Kingdom's staunch, humorless ambassador and his equally haughty wife who were seated between Regina and her father.  Marco had taken his honorary place to her father's left followed by the very unattractive wife of one of the dignetaries of another kingdom and the dignetary, himself, who sat opposite Regina.

More homely than his wife and of a weasley and oily demeanor, the dignitary cocked his brow and smirked at Regina, pursing his lips and blowing kisses at her each time the other occupants of the table were otherwise engaged. 

He seemed to care little of Emma's notice, and the frequency of his advances was quelled only slightly when Emma shot him an unmistakeable glare of disapproval and cessation.

She was considering punching him when her father addressed her directly.

'Emma, I have not seen you at the castle these last few days.  The Master tells me that you were quite unwell and have barely eaten or left your residence.  Have you recovered?'

'Yes, Father.  I was injured participating in some rather strenuous exercises, ' she offered shooting a look at Regina, 'but I have now recovered adequately and am quite in the mood to eat so that I might find myself, once again, at full capacity and strength.'

'I am glad to hear it!' clapped Henry happily calling forth the staff to begin the service. 

The smells alone had Emma's mouth watering, and the sight of the food elicited an ache in her jaw so that she could not wait to sink her teeth into the succulent tastes from the kitchen.  

For several days, she had subsisted on little more than nuts and berries that had been squirreled away in her cottage to sustain her during long nights of studying.  Stiff and sore beyond rememberance from her herculean labors of coddling Rocinante back to the castle, Emma had gravitated between bed, the the hot springs outside her cottage, and, she suspected quite strongly, death over the past several days. 

Feeling better than she had in a week, the message from her father inviting her to dinner was too tempting to ignore, and she had accepted the offer readily, though she had expected it to  be somewhat more intimate, limited to close friends and family, versus what it had turned out to be.

Table and plates finally heaped to overflowing with foods and desserts, Emma readied herself to dig in, not noticing that Regina had been watching her intently and had scooted somewhat closer. 

Turkey leg in hand, she lifted it to her mouth at the same time she felt the top of Regina's bare foot rubbing slowly up and down her calf.

Swallowing hard, Emma attempted to ignore the blatant seduction.  Opening her mouth and closing her eyes, she grinned excitedly as she bit down sinking her teeth into....absolutely nothing.

'What the...' Emma mumbled as she looked at her hands that were now empty.  She proceeded to look up, down and behind her wondering if her days without sustenance had caused her to begin hallucinating.  Surely the turkey leg had just been there....

'Emma, is everything all right?  Is there something else the servants might bring you?' Asked Henry as he noticed her searching for something. 

'No, Father, thank you.  I was simply admiring the beauty of this room.  I have not been lucky enough to see it previously.'

Pursing her lips, Emma shot a very annoyed glance at Regina who was making her think harder and faster than she cared to this evening.   Her response was an innocent shrug of shoulders and a smirk.

Stomach growling loudly, Emma selected a large sausage from her plate.  Stabbing it with her fork, she lifted it to her mouth.   It had barely reached her lips when she felt Regina's fingertips run slowly up and down her inner thigh. 

A slight remnant of grease from its skin was the only taste remaining for Emma to savor as it too disappeared from her fork.

'Oh for Odin's sake, Regina, I am begging you.  Can you please wait until after dinner before caressing my thigh like that?  I am so hungry, and my food alludes me, thanks to your touch, ' whined Emma a bit more loudly than she had intended.

Immediately, the table fell silent and all eyes turned to look at Emma who groaned, blushed a deep crimson and then provided a sickly smile.  She could hear her father and Marco snickering slightly, but their laughter was not shared by the other occupants of the table who shot condescending looks at her for what they considered to be a profane outburst. 

Flicking her eyes to the right, Emma became slightly concerned that the dignetary might cry when he realized that he had absolutely no chance with Regina, but her thoughts turned quickly back to her own awkward situation leaving him to fend for himself.

Emma opened and closed her mouth several times trying to find any words that might salvage her father's dinner, his reputation and any shred of her dignity.  She was offered her assistance from a very unlikely source.

Arising from his chair, Henry walked over to his daughter who averted her eyes in embarrassment.  Laying his palm against her forehead, he announced with great concern,

'Just as I suspected, she is burning up with fever and likely hallucinates.  She should be tended to immediately.'

A murmur arose around the table as the emotion shifted from judgement to concern.

Kneeling down beside his daughter with his back to the other guests, the King addressed her directly.

'Emma, if you can understand my words, please look at me.'

Turning her head with a very furrowed brow, she raised her eyes slowly to look into her father's, and she could see the hint of mirth and playfulness dancing there.

'Oh, thank Odin, ' he declared, 'there is still hope...do you know who I am?' he asked louder than necessary and Emma looked at him quite baffled wondering what he was doing.

'F-father?' she stated slowly trying to determine if this was the right answer.

'Yes! Exactly! She still remembers me!' he cried as he lifted her hand to kiss it giving her a sly wink in the process.

Almost immediately, she realized that her father was trying to help her out of this uncomfortable situation while smoothing things over with the other guests on her behalf.

'Do you know where you are?' he implored.

'My cottage in the wood, of course, ' she lied and she could see him smirk and huff a quiet laugh of approval.

Clicking his fingers, Marco appeared immediately at his side.

'My dearest friend, can you please see my daughter to the healer?  As you have just seen and heard, time is of the essence.'

'Of course, ' responded Marco already urging Emma to her feet and leading her out the door.

Turning to Regina, Henry addressed her in turn.

'You should be with her.  She needs you more than ever right now...' his final words deliberately staccatoed.

She grinned barely as she caught his wink and waggling brow and arose from the table.

'I truly apologize for the interruption this evening.  As you can see, my betrothed is more ill than we have been led to believe. 

Please accept my apologies for her outburst...' she offered humbly with a slight bow.

Murmurs of concern and understanding issued forth from all sides of the table urging Regina to be on her way as quickly as possible. 

Outside in the hall, Marco slowed a bit, drying the tears from his eyes that had collected from his laughter.

'I do believe that was the most entertaining and enjoyable dinner that your father and I have attended in years.

Ahhh, to be young and in love again, ' stated Marco whimsically with a sigh and a chuckle.

'My father may very well kill me...' responded Emma in a nervous tone

'Quite the contrary, my Dear.  There is a better chance that he will pin a medal on your chest or erect a statue in your honor.  We can decide those details later.  

For now, your father and I must tend to the guests, so I must leave you.  There should be more than enough food and privacy in the kitchen down that hallway.  Be on your way quickly before someone sees....'

'Thank you, Marco, ' offered Emma with a peck on his cheek.

'If this is my reward, ' he said touching his face, 'then you may consider me your eternal accomplice....'

Bowing slightly, Marco took his leave to return to the dining room while Emma walked swiftly in the opposite direction towards the kitchen.

'Could my luck get any worse this evening?' grumbled Emma as she stubbed her big toe on the large table in the centre of the room for about the fifth time. 'Ten kitchens in the castle and Marco directs me to the only one that has not been utilised to deliver something for the banquet....'

Leaning back out the door, she looked both ways before heading down a few of the ancillary hallways.  She returned to the kitchen each time, however, as she was finding that each was leading her either further away from her intended target or to complete dead ends. 

Unfamiliar with the intricacies of the castle, the only way that she knew to access the other kitchens was back down the hallway and past the main, open doorway of the dining room where the previously, mortified guests had re-engaged in food, drink and conversation.  

Her hunger gnawed at her gut causing her stomach to growl loudly, and the prospect of getting at least some food caused Emma to briefly consider taking her chances in trying to make her way to another kitchen. 

She could only imagine what her father's guests might think when they saw her sprinting past; her condition so severe, and she now so confused, that she was even trying to escape the healer.   She would be eternally marked as 'not quite right', but she strongly suspected that she might have already achieved that goal after her previous outburst. 

No sooner had she entertained the thought than her legs began to ache in protest, so she was forced to consider a different option.

Running her hands along the top of the mantle, she searched for matches, determined to light the hearth and cook, at least, something to hold her over.  Once the guests left, she could always find her way to the other kitchens and eat her fill of remnants and leftovers. 

Finding no kindling, flint or matches, Emma returned to the table placing her hands on top before hanging her head in defeat. 

'How is your fever, ' asked Regina as she came up behind Emma and wrapped her arms around her waist.

'I am in no mood to play this game right now, ' offered Emma bluntly in return.

'Have you any idea how foolish I looked? How foolish my father looks? I am supposed to be the heir of a kingdom, yet all I resemble is an incompetent arse.'

'I'm sorry, ' stated Regina softly as she laid her cheek against the back of Emma's shoulder. 'I should not have done what I did.  I went too far, too fast, in front of too many.  I want so badly to help, but all I manage to do is hurt you and upset you and make you more afraid.  Perhaps we should allow the Master to deal with this in the way that he believed appropriate....'

Releasing her embrace, Regina turned to the door pausing before exiting,

'If you will wait here, I will bring you whatever you desire from the other kitchens...'

'Regina, wait, ' sighed Emma without turning around.  'It is me that is sorry.  The way you acted tonight...was perfect....it is exactly how I wish for us to be for an entire lifetime.... unpredictable, spontaneous, bold, adventurous....

When we see each other, I want the world to fall away as if we are the only two people breathing in that instant. 

I want to sit at a table with the people of a thousand Kingdoms and know that I will be the only one privileged enough to receive your glance, to feel the caress of your hands, to know the touch of your fingertips....

Your actions remind me that I am not just your companion, but the object of your deepest desires....and I want to be reminded of that every day, just as I will remind you of the same. 

If I am upset tonight, it is because there is a heightened seduction and arousal in knowing that what we are doing is forbidden and secret.  I do not wish for our games and teasing to be revealed through my foolish words or actions. 

I want to be able to put on a facade of control to others, even when every fiber of my being is crying out to take you to bed and worship your body.  I want you, and only you, to know that my desire and love for you is my weakness, and I want you to be able to exploit that as you wish without fear of condemnation, repercussion or judgement. 

Right now, it is only me that fails us.  I know not how to fix this, and it is frustrating, ' offered Emma as she slammed her right fist into the top of the table.

Shaking her head, she sighed.

'I know not anymore if I even make sense.  Perhaps I do suffer from a fever....'

'Your words make perfect sense, Emma, ' responded Regina as she wrapped one arm, once again, around Emmas waist using her other hand to draw Emma's right fist to her lips and kiss every bruised knuckle, 'because I feel the same. But a few people having seen our desire for one another tonight is not failure, ' adding with a chuckle, 'In fact, I think it might have been the most excitement that the Ambassador and his wife have ever experienced.  Given that, we might even call it a success....'

'Oh.... You think so, do you?' asked Emma as she turned quickly in Regina's arms.  Lifting her lover easily, Emma spun them so that Regina sat on the table facing her.

'Yes, I do, ' said Regina quietly.

Placing her forehead against Regina's, Emma brushed their noses softly as she grasped her lover's hips tightly.

'Have I told you how beautiful you are tonight?' whispered Emma as she lifted one hand to press Regina's hair behind her ear and cup her face caressing her cheek with her thumb.

'I can't recall, but I will say 'no' so that I might hear it fall again from your lips, ' smiled Regina.

'You are everything that I need to sustain me and everything that I desire, Regina, ' whispered Emma as she closed her eyes and grasped Regina's hips again in her hands. 'You are elegant and stunning and you take my breath with every glance.  You are perfect, and I never want you to change.  I am committed to figuring this out together.  I promise.'

Tentatively, Emma brushed her lips against Regina's and a fire sprang to life in the hearth.  She didn't even notice as she captured Regina's lips lovingly praying that she might convey the depth of her emotion and commitment.

Breaking their kiss, Emma placed her forehead again against Regina's and grinned as she saw her smile back.

'WHAT?!?' cried Emma in surprise as she leaned back slightly with a huge smile, flicking her eyes about the room as she finally noticed the increased light.

In addition to the warm glow of the fire, the table sat ready, heaped with plates of food; chicken, sausages, potatoes, fruits, vegetables and sweet desserts all lay untouched just waiting to be tasted.

'Where did this come from, Regina?' she asked almost dumfounded.

'i would venture to say...your heart, ' whispered Regina as she lifted a plum from a plate taking a bite before holding it to Emma's mouth.   They watched each other's eyes intently as Emma savored the sweet flesh still warm from Regina's lips.

Withdrawing her offering, Regina leaned forward slightly, kissing Emma's bottom lip and swiping her tongue to gather the residual sugars.

'I don't believe that I have ever tasted anything so delectable, except you, ' moaned Emma quietly, 'I think that it is your touch that makes it all the more sweet...'

'Then let me feed you so that I am sure that you are completely satisfied, ' offered Regina as she stood from the table and took Emma's hands.  Leading her to the edge of one of the dining benches, Regina sat Emma on the narrow edge before lifting her gown above her knees and straddling Emma's lap.

Reaching to a different plate, Regina pulled a piece of chicken from the bone laying it on Emma's tongue before kissing her lips.

Regina relished the feel of Emma's hands on her hips and waist and backside and she teased with some bites, offering them only to take them away at the last moment and pop them into her mouth with a grin.  Her reward was a firm, encompassing embrace and a laugh that she could not help but join. 

It was a moment of simplistic perfection that they could only hope would be repeated throughout their lives.

 


 

After an hour of having eaten, laughed and smiled their fill, they retired to sit on a pile of furs in front of the fire.  

Emma's back was propped against the table while Regina was seated in front of her, nestled between her legs, lying back against Emma's chest.

'I wish to stay like this forever, ' smiled Emma as she hugged Regina tightly to her and felt her relax back further.

Reginas fingers trailed thoughtlessly over Emma's right leg and she offered only a hum and a nod in response.

'Definitely.... tonight.... success, ' whispered Emma as she placed a kiss into Regina's hair releasing a heavy sigh before falling asleep; Regina safely in her arms.

Chapter Text

Day 12

'Emma!' called the King from across the terrace.

Emma groaned inwardly at the fact that she had been seen, having tried, successfully until now, to avoid her Father after the dinner incident.

Waving his hand, he called her over to where he stood.  He had already turned back to look upon the forest when she arrived behind him.

'It is beautiful is it not?' he asked as he breathed in deeply and smiled.  Drawing his arm across, he presented the view to his daughter.  'Someday, this land will be yours to rule as you choose.'

Stepping to the railing beside her father, Emma looked upon the deep gold, green, red and orange hues that the leaves of the trees had assumed.  She did not address her father directly with her answer choosing, instead, to continue looking upon the vast, still mostly unfamiliar land before her as she offered her quiet reply.

'My only choice will be to try to rule with as much grace, fairness, compassion and concern for our people as you and Mother have shown them. 

Throughout your reign, you have cared for your subjects as if they were your own children, offering them guidance, sustenance and protection. They trust your decisions without concern or question, because they know that you act only with their best interests in your mind and in your heart.  I can only hope to be considered worthy enough to take your place.'

'You think that you are not worthy?'

'I think that the people do not know me.  Who am I to them but a stranger from a distant and wild land?  What reason do they have to believe that I will not bring the same plague of hatred and fear to which I have been exposed?'

'Emma, ' said the King softly, 'I did not ask if you believe the PEOPLE think you are worthy.  I KNOW the answer to that question.  I asked, instead, if YOU believe that you are worthy...'

Receiving no answer, Henry turned and began to walk toward the garden.

'Emma, would you be so kind as to join me?  I need to check on something....'

Leading them from the terrace, he entered the garden where Emma had reconciled with Regina after their month apart, however, her father wandered much deeper into the space than she had been before, or even knew existed, eventually entering an area with a medium-sized, crystal clear pond around which were placed several, small benches. 

Lily pads floated atop the mirror-like surface; their long roots extending almost onto the smooth stones below while a dense area of grasses extended from the water at the far corner, sheltering very small fish that darted amongst the shafts and blades.

'Hello, Peter, ' offered Henry with a wave. 

Looking up, Emma saw a lanky, young man with tousseled, light-brown hair, huge, doe-like eyes, relatively prominent ears and a jovial smile waving back from the door of a hut with a sheltered pen beside.

'Any news?' asked Henry excitedly.

'Yes, Sir, they have appeared this morning just as you'd expected, ' responded the boy with equal exuberence.

'Excellent!' exclaimed Henry clapping his hand together.  'Come, Emma, I would like you to see this as well, ' encouraged Henry as he stepped just inside the small hut. 

It was relatively dark inside, lighted only by a small fire in the hearth.  A table that might fit two, if squeezed, sat directly in front of the flames while a small bed was nestled against one wall, obscured completely by a ragged, thick curtain of burlap. The long wall was open to the sheltered pen and fresh straw lay scattered about the floor. 

Stepping closer to Peter, Emma noticed that he had more than his fair share of scratches on his arms, neck and face, and she wondered what beast he might be harboring in the confines of his hut.

'As you can see, Sire, they have become a bit more diligent in their protection, ' offered Peter warily. 

Stepping further into the space, Emma realized that the noise that she had believed to be a kettle or cauldron was actually a steady stream of hisses and scrabbling coming from beyond her father and Peter, and she wondered if she, too, was about to face Peter's attacker.

'I would recommend that you do not get to close, ' Peter warned.

'Agreed, ' offered Henry pensively, 'though I am slightly curious regarding the potential recollections... on both sides.'  

As Henry stepped to one side, Emma was finally exposed to the origin of the noises that had not abated since their entrance.

In front of her, two, massive, white swans stood protecting a nest where a clutch of eggs had recently hatched.  They bobbed about threateningly as they kept an intent watch on both Henry and Peter. 

Each time the men moved too fast or too close, the swans renewed their hissing, flapping their wings before charging and retreating in turn.

Eventually, both swans turned their eyes and caught site of Emma.  Almost immediately, they fell silent and stopped all motion. 

Spreading their wings broadly, they stood tall before leaning forward and resting their breasts against the ground, wings still splayed grandly to their sides covering a huge portion of the floor around them.  Bending their long, elegant necks, they each tucked their head beneath a wing in supplication, remaining absolutely still as if waiting for some sign or signal.

'They wait for your approval and greeting, Emma, ' offered Henry quietly.  

'W-what?' asked Emma confused, unsure of what to do. Looking to her father, he motioned her forward making a sight bowing motion.

Stepping forward, Emma hesitated for a moment before bowing awkwardly to the swans.   Recognizing her salutation, they stood back to full height before the female stepped forward.  Emma remained in place but watched her actions cautiously as the swan drew closer.  Finally upon her, it grasped the suede of her pants pulling hard to tug her forward. 

Looking back at her father for direction, he simply nodded, and Emma stepped forward, finally released as the swan realized that she understood the request. 

As she approached the open wall of the hut, she counted seven, downy balls of grey fluff  bedded down in a substantial nest that had been created by the adult swans.  They peeped loudly as they searched for the warmth of their mother. 

Without thought, Emma knelt near the nest to observe the chicks more closely, realizing too late that she might be considered a threat.

Looking up quickly at the female, she saw no danger, only the inquisitive eyes of a mother as they looked from her to the nest several times. 

Noticing that Emma was unsure what to do, the mother swan approached her again, this time, taking Emma's hand gently in her bill and pulling it forward before releasing.

No longer looking to her father, but to the swan for guidance and reassurance, Emma reached tentatively toward the nest; the chicks' excitement increasing with every inch. 

Placing her hand in the center of the clutch, they swarmed her fingers immediately trying to brush them against their small bodies and attempting to find shelter and safety beneath her palm.

Turning again to the mother, Emma saw her bow and lift her head in a scooping motion, so, one by one, Emma lifted each chick, petting their soft bodies and nuzzling them against her face ensuring none were missed.

Finally done, Emma rose to her feet, confidently, bowing in turn to the male and female in thanks. 

Feeling another tug on her pants, they urged her outside to the pond, leading her to a small bench on the far side of the water where Emma took a seat,  both stunned and fascinated at their behavior.  

Certain that she was waiting and watching, the adult swans finally moved their brood to the pond where they paddled about stirring up tubers and grasses for their young to eat from the surface.

Sitting alone on the bench, a mix of joy, sadness, fear and anticipation washed over Emma with such strength that it threatened to overcome her and she bent over, slightly nauseated, head in her hands and elbows resting on her knees as she rocked gently to comfort herself.  She didn't even notice that her father had sat down beside her.

'Are you all right, Emma, ' he inquired quietly.

'I don't know, ' she whispered without lifting her head so that she might hide the tears that were falling on the ground at her feet, 'My head swims with a confusion of feelings, and I understand not from where they come.  I cannot make it stop.....'

'Perhaps it would help you to know that, on the day that your mother found out that she was with child, she came to this very bench to sit.  She was overwhelmed with emotion and she wanted some time alone to think and, I believe, to keep me from seeing how afraid she truly was at the prospect of becoming a mother...'

Huffing a quiet laugh, he shook his head in amazement.

'She had protected and cared for thousands of people in this Kingdom with ease and grace since the age of 16, so I could not imagine how she might be so terrified of a small babe.  Suffice it to say, however, that it was the first time I had ever seen your mother plagued with so much self doubt in her abilities or capabilities.

As I said, on that day, she came to this very bench.  She was not here long before two swans landed on the pond; the same two adults you see before you now. 

They stayed not long in the water before they approached, laying to each side of her feet. 

Now, your mother could be bold and quite curious, so eventually, she reached to pet them which only caused them to draw closer, eventually hopping upon the bench and snugging themselves against her hips as if trying to protect and comfort her.

As your mother's belly grew, so did her bond with the swans.  On those days when she felt overwhelmed or needed more reassurance than I might offer, she need only come here to seek their solace and comfort.

Sitting close beside, they would extend their necks to encircle her stomach, one above, one below, resting their heads such that a perfect, unbroken circle was created.

Their own children hatched on the same day that you and Fredrick were born and your mother was as diligent in their care as yours. 

Having done some research on their habits, she assured that the pond had already been stocked with tubers and other water plants on which they could feast, and she had built the small hut that you see, appointing a keeper that assured their protection during the times when she was not present.

Peter, the boy that you just met, is the grandson of the man that your mother selected for this service, and the family considers it a true honor to perform this duty for the swans, your mother and yourself.

'Why for me?' asked Emma looking up from the ground with slightly swollen and red eyes and a furrowed brow.  

'When you were born, you could not have been more different from your brother.  You were a quiet, shy, pensive child who seemed hesitant to grow an attachment to anything or anyone, including us; always pressing back against my  or your mother's chest strongly when we tried to offer a hug or a kiss and refusing your mother's breast from the moment you were laid in her arms. 

Your mother wanted so badly for you to let her in....to be able to share some... any... kind of bond... because she loved you so deeply, but despite all of her efforts, there always seemed to be a distance.  

Two weeks after your mother gave birth, she brought you here wrapped in blankets and asleep in a basket.  She thought that introducing you to the swans might be a way to help you feel less overwhelmed by interactions.  They had always brought her great joy and comfort and she hoped they might offer the same to you.  

Settling your basket on the ground in front of the bench, it was not long before you were snuggled in with seven cygnets and guarded by three, very watchful parents, ' chuckled Henry. 'It was, truly, a site to behold, and it was the first time we actually saw you smile, Emma.

Of course, you all grew quite rapidly and, eventually, you too formed a very close and special relationship with these swans. It was through them that a fragile bond with your mother was realized.  She had hoped that it might be more, but you had found your smile and laugh with these creatures, and she learned to be content in that fact.

When you were old enough to stand, you would greet the male and female each day with a warm embrace about the neck that they would acknowledge happily with spread wings, very similar to what you saw in their greeting this evening.  

It was not unusual, also, to find you wading in the pond with the cygnets; quite comfortable with your place among them.'

Sighing a bit, Henry continued his story.  

'When your mother began to have premonitions of your abduction, they were intermingled with visions of the cygnets.  At first she thought it circumstance, but soon,  she began to wonder if there was some message of hope that she might glean from their appearance in her dreams, just as she had received their reassurance in reality. 

I cannot tell you the hours that your mother spent, consumed in extensive research about these animals and she learned much about them... and, in turn, I think, you.

You see, a cygnet is fiercely independent and strong at birth.  They look to their parents for some protection and help, but are not doomed to death without it.  After only a very short time, they may prefer to find their way alone as a means of self-protection against becoming too reliant...as you can see.'

Pointing to the pond, he singled out a cygnet that had moved far into the weeds in search of food.  It could dip for only a moment, but each time, it returned with a morsel of food which it gobbled proudly.

'Perhaps, it is simply to protect themselves from the loss of family which will be imminent after only a brief time together...' sighed Emma.

'Funny that your mother said the exact same words to me once....' offered Henry gently in return.

'It is not uncommon for physically weaker cygnets to bear the ire of both parents and siblings if they are deemed incapable or unworthy, but they can and do find the strength to persevere and, sometimes, even retaliate strongly. 

They will hold their own against rivals who may seek to harm them or their family and will fight to the death, if need be, when challenged. 

And, as you can see from the two before you, when they manage to overcome all of this adversity, they emerge a beautiful, fearless, elegant, amazing creature that is all the stronger for having gone through those things to which it was subjected.'

Pausing he added,

'Your manner since birth had been so similar to these creatures that your mother could not help but believe that, even if you were taken, you would survive and persevere to return someday; stronger than anyone could ever imagine.  

She made me promise never to stop looking for you, Emma, and she could not have been more right in her judgement and expectation of your fortitude and capabilities.  You are every bit as remarkable as she told me that you would be when you found your way back to this land.'

Receiving no reaction, Henry brought his hand to his pocket and withdrew a wide ring of silver which had been inlaid with an oval of swirled red and black stone; the depiction of a swan with a crown embossed in each side of the metal.  

Showing the ring to Emma, he explained its significance.

'Until a few weeks before your mother's death, this Kingdom had never known a sigil that resonated strongly in the hearts of its people.  

Most of these emblems had been arbitrarily selected by the previous rulers due to tradition or, in some cases, for purely decorative purposes.

On the day that your mother declared that the sigil would be changed such that a swan and crown would be displayed on every breast plate and shield, the people found a renewed bond and hope. 

Your mother did not share with them the reason for the choice, but I don't think it was necessary either.  Word of your beautiful, but quiet, demeanor, and your love of these animals was well known and adored by all.   In their hearts they knew that she had selected the symbol for you, their future queen, and I have never before seen them so diligent in carrying out orders.

Overnight, this symbol of strength, persistence, independence, self-reliance, self-sacrifice, protectiveness, beauty and grace was embraced. They are the same qualities that have defined and described your life to this very day, my dear Emma..... 

It was the people that actually created this ring.  Every newborn in the kingdom is given one at birth and they wear it proudly until death. 

This particular ring that I hold, however, is special.  Combined into this metal is a strand of your hair, your mother's hair and a single feather of the female swan before us.  It was upon your mother's finger on the day she died, and it was upon that same day, the day that you were taken, that these swans left this Kingdom not to return until the day we located you in Uvihr. 

I hope that you will wear this ring proudly and draw strength from the bond that it shares with all others in the kingdom, just as your mother did during her remaining days.'

Taking Emma's left hand, he slipped the ring into her index finger where it resized itself perfectly to her hand.

He did not let go of her grasp, however.

'Now, Emma, I can appreciate the fact that you have been trying quite diligently, and successfully, I might add, to avoid me, but I would like to speak with you about dinner the other night.....' said Henry with a wickedly playful grin as he caught Emma's eyes and watched her blush deeply.

'Regina is an amazing and beautiful woman.  It is your love and passion for each other; especially your physical contact, needs and desires that draw forth your magic so strongly.... but I think you both already know that.... yes?' he asked with a cocked brow.

'Ummmm, ' offered Emma non-committaly as her redness only deepened.

'I will take your lack of response and paleness of color as affirmation, ' chuckled Henry quietly.

'Emma, ' offered Henry while shaking his head slightly, 'whatever scheme the two of you have concocted to try to remedy your magic's unpredictability in these situations, while highly entertaining and amusing to both Marco and myself, is entirely too complicated.

I assure you that the solution to your issue is simple in theory, but will be very difficult for you in practice, my daughter.'

'Celibacy?' groaned Emma with a sigh.

'Oh, heavens no!' laughed Henry heartily.

Almost immediately, he became very serious and looked at Emma with wide-eyes.

'Wait!  Please tell me that this is not the foolish plan that you two have established!'

'Possibly.... It is what the Master suggested as well....'

'Oh for Odin's sake! That man, while quite learned in the intricacies of magic, has no experience with matters such as these.   I seriously doubt he has ever even known the touch of a woman.  If he has, then counsel such as this would never pass his lips.  Do you honestly think avoidance is the appropriate course of action?'

'I lack control, Father. I almost killed her!'

'You gave her two, beautiful children that she loves with all of her heart because they are a part of both of you...'

'I blinded her!'

'And do you know why?'

'I have already told you why!' retorted Emma with increased volume and frustration as she stood from the bench pacing back and forth and pressing her hands into her hair over and over.  Her head was swimming from the swell of negative emotion that had started to resurface rapidly and she was finding it hard to catch her breath.

'Because I am dangerous!'

'No, Emma!!' said Henry sternly.  'It is NOT because you are dangerous!! It is because you are AFRAID!!

'OF COURSE I AM AFRAID!!' screamed Emma.  She felt like she had said these words too many times to too many people, except this time, she could stop herself continuing.

'SHE WILL LEAVE ME!!  JUST LIKE YOU AND MOTHER DID!!'

Emma's eyes went wide as soon as she said the words, and she drew her hand to cover her mouth, fearful that he would take her words as accusation of abandonment, instead of an admission of loneliness and need. 

Immediately, she dropped to a knee in front of her father, bowing her head, ashamed to look in his face.

'I am sorry, My Father, I did not mean....' she whispered desperately in apology, but she was cut off by the sound of his voice and the feel of his fingertips beneath her chin urging her to stand and look at his face.  

'It should be me apologizing to you, Emma.  It is you that has borne the brunt of the failures of those around you for far too many years.

I realize that I may never regain your faith, Emma.  I cannot expect you to believe in a person that has failed you in every possible way. If you hate me, then I assure you that ire is well deserved and you are blameless for having that resentment.

That being said, however, I would ask of you only one thing: please do not suspect Regina's motives nor hold her accountable for my sins. 

When I met her, she did not even have the benefit of the dim recollection of an emotional bond. We were nothing more than complete strangers.

She had no reason to trust me and no idea what her future might hold, and yet, she followed, without question or hesitation, from the only life and home that she has ever known for no other reason than to remain at your side.'

'She had no choice but to come, ' shrugged Emma as she looked down at the ground to avoid her father's eyes.  'She had run away from her mother, and Robin was dead.  Who else was there to help her?'

'Look me in the eye, Emma,' said Henry gently as he raised her chin with his fingertips, 'and tell me that you honestly believe the words that you speak. You believe that she followed you because she considered herself incapable of living independently?

If that is so, then I most STRONGLY suggest that you do NOT say that to her EVER, or you may well end up with the same fate as Claudius, the Captain of my guard, whose nose was broken at her hand when he failed to announce his presence behind her in the stables. 

I have never met a blind person with such deadly accuracy, and I would daresay that I prefer not to see what she is capable of with her site restored...' gulped Henry as he huffed a nervous laugh.

Grasping both Emma's hands in his own, he dipped his head to catch her eyes with his own.

'Tell me why you believe that she should leave you, Emma.'

'Who am I compared to her, Father?

I am an unfree and a blacksmith.  It is all that I am and all that I know how to be, ' she implored. 

'I am not a warrior.  I have made a thousand swords, but have never wielded one in my hand to take the life of another.  I don't even know that I would be able.

I am not a scholar.  I struggle through my lessons because I have only recently learned to read. I sound out words, not understanding their meanings.  I do not read to my own children because I am embarrassed and afraid that they will laugh at my inadequacy.     

I do not have grace nor elegance. When I enter a room, people turn to watch only because they wish to laugh at my awkward clumsiness, like I am some court jester.  

I do not know how to lead.  Not even animals of the barn will follow me without extreme protest or trepidation.

She does not have these foibles.  You said it yourself, she is both fierce and fearless capable of living without me or anyone else for that matter.  

She is learned in so many subjects with a curiosity that cannot be quenched and an intelligence that cannot be equalled.

When she enters a room, heads turn in awe and respect and the people are drawn to her like moths to a flame

The people rally behind her mercy and kindness which knows no bounds, and I am thankful and privleged to have been a recipient, but how much longer before she tires of being in love with nothing more than an incompetent fool?

I watch the people whisper to each other when I pass.  I see the judgement in their eyes. 

You asked if I believe that I am worthy and my answer is 'no'; not of you, not of this Kingdom and, most certainly, not of her.'

Emma looked at her father for a reaction, but received none.  Instead, he remained silent studying her carefully.  Despite the difficulty in saying the words, she was thankful that he finally knew the truth.  Perhaps now they could stop playing this game of believing she was fit to be anything more than what she had always been.

'Emma, a warrior is not defined by the number of lives taken, but by their ability to rise again and again in the face of adversity despite everything in their being telling them not to get up.  How many beatings and lashings have you sustained throughout your young years, and yet, you stand here today?

Books do not always make one learned.  True knowledge comes from experience.  I have seen men that have spent their lives in a library, esteemed as scholars, but unable to function outside of the confines of its walls due to a lack of common sense and exposure to those things about which they have only read.  I have seen the creations that you have made in the hearth.  The knowledge that you have of metal and fire and art must be vast to create items of such intricacy and beauty.  From what book did you learn that, Emma?

When eyes turn to you and whispers fall from lips, how do you know what is their motive?  Perhaps they look and wonder because they have never seen someone so strong and resilient. 

I know that you are capable of returning the same mercy and kindness that Regina has offered to you and others.  You almost died on the scaffold of Ravndal to keep her safe from harm.  Even with the power to deliver death in your hand, you spared Killian's life and the life of his men.  

Do you not realize that, right now, there are thousands of men and women with your sigil on their breasts that long for your leadership?  You need only ask and they will follow you to the ends of the earth.  

The people of the Enchanted Forest want to find their strength in YOU, but you hide yourself away because you have convinced yourself that you are undeserving and incapable.

Just like you did with us as a child, you distance yourself from Regina in self-preservation and self-protection anticipating a separation that, this time, will only happen if you continue to push her away.

She is here, Emma, because she wants only to be with you; it matters not to her if you are a warrior, unfree, scholar, blacksmith, fool or heir.  She did not fall in love with a title.  She fell in love with your beautiful, strong, resilient heart and she asks only that you give it to her without reservation.  Once you do that...once you remove any doubt from your mind and heart of her intentions, fidelity, commitment and devotion .... you will no longer need fear your magic.  Those you love will be safe and protected by it under all circumstances....'

He waited for a moment for his words to resonate before continuing.

'As I said, it is simple in theory but will be quite difficult for you in practice.  It will require a level of trust and faith that you have never given to anyone, but the rewards will be beyond imagination.

I will leave you to think upon it awhile. Perhaps you will find clarity and peace here just as your mother had.'

After taking a few steps towards the break in the hedge, Henry stopped and turned,

'Oh, and Emma?'

'Yes, Father? ' she responded quietly.

'Happy birthday, ' he offered before disappearing from view leaving her to stand by the edge of the pond.

She watched the water, unfocused, considering all that her father had told her.

She was pulled from her thoughts finally by the voice of Peter who had been standing quietly at the door of the hut.

'If you desire a swim, I am quite certain that they will not mind your company.

I must take my leave for an hour to replenish their food from a more distant pond, and I assure that you will not be disturbed.'

'Thank you, Peter, ' replied Emma softly.

Bowing cordially, he stepped from the space leaving Emma completely alone.

She watched the swans and their cygnets floating about the surface making only small eddies as they rested, having eaten their fill.   Without thinking, she began to undress, compelled towards the water by some unseen force which told her that she would find comfort there.

Standing naked, Emma could feel her nipples harden and her skin rise into bumps from the cool of the air and she could only imagine that the water would be even colder.   Stepping forward into the shallows, she was amazed at the warmth that she found enveloping her skin which was equivalent to that of a hot spring.  Wading further, she soon found herself comfortably submerged to the waist and then to the middle of her chest.  

Closing her eyes, she lay back, spreading her arms to the side and floating upon the surface; ears submerged so that she could hear only the silence of her thoughts and the beating of her own heart.  Bringing her left index finger to her mouth, Emma placed her lips against the red stone of the ring that had been placed upon her finger.

'Please, Mother, ' she whispered to a memory, ' give me the strength to be everything that Regina needs and desires.  Let me be a role model and an inspiration to my children.  Allow me trust as I have never done before so that I might know the depth of their love and they mine.  Help me to remove any doubts of Regina's commitment so that I may offer myself to her completely.  What I could never bring myself to give to you, let me give to her, and let me not be consumed again by my fear of loss.  I beg this of you, my Mother, please help me....'

Emma smiled as she felt a soft tickle of fluff against the skin of her stomach.  Cracking her eyelids, she watched as the male and female swans dipped their heads up and down into the water helping each chick in their brood onto her torso in turn.  Their children safely upon Emma's stomach, the adult swans swam silently into the crooks of Emma's arms laying their heads upon her chest above her breasts.

Drawing them in close, she encompassed the clutch protectively before whispering into the Fall air,

'Thank you, my Mother, I miss you....'

Chapter Text

Day 12

 

'I am so sorry, Momma, ' cried Eva as she crashed into Emma's legs hugging them tightly.

Emma stood at the entrance of Regina's chambers having barely made it inside before almost being knocked over.  Reaching behind, she closed the door quietly while wrapping her other arm around Eva's shoulders, trying to provide some comfort. 

Immediately, Emma looked to Regina, shrugging confusedly and trying to get some sort of explanation regarding why their daughter might be so distraught.  The only response she received was a tip of the head, indicating that she should ask Eva

Grasping her shoulders gently, Emma pressed her daughter back so that she might have room to kneel in front of her and address her more directly.  

Eva's eyes were filled with tears and her bottom lip stuck out slightly as her chin quivered.  She drew quick breaths, sniffling occasionally and passing the sleeve of her nightgown under her nose to wipe it.   The skin was raw and bleeding so Emma could tell that she had been crying for quite some time.

'Eva, ' asked Emma softly, 'can you please tell me what has you so upset?'

No sooner was the question asked than Eva's tears started to fall anew, and she began taking sobbing breaths

'I cannot forgive if I know not what wrong has been done. Will it help if I promise that I will not get upset?  I simply want to help if I can, ' encouraged Emma soothingly as she placed her palms against her daughter's cheeks and used her thumbs to wipe the tears from under her eyes.  Smiling gently,  she waited patiently for Eva to give some indication of what had instigated this torrent of tears.

Looking at Emma with sad eyes and a furrowed brow,  Eva opened her mouth several times to speak.  Unable to find her words, she finally closed her lips completely, twisting her mouth as she avoided her mother's gaze.

Lifting her fists, Eva opened one palm to reveal her silver replica of Rocinante; completely legless.  In her other palm lay the jumble of appendages that, Emma guessed had been unceremoniously and unexpectedly separated from their rightful owner.

Flicking her eyes to Regina, Emma had to work hard to suppress the grin that threatened to cross her lips as she considered the amount of drama that had unfolded over the 'tragedy' before her.  It was even harder to hide when she caught Regina's rolled eyes, grin and shaking head.

Looking back at Eva, Emma considered the chaos before her. 

'Rocinante seems to have had quite the day...'

She received only a sniffling nod in reply.

'Was he in a horrible battle?'

Eva shook her head.

'And accident perhaps?'

Eva's tears were abating and she was now responding much more quickly, but, again, the question was answered with a shake of her head.

'Did he meet with a terrible monster?'

This time, Eva nodded vigorously.

'And does this creature have a name in this Kingdom?'

'Henry, ' whispered Eva quietly, but angrily.

'I see, ' chuckled Emma unable to hide her amusement any longer.

'Well,  it so happens that I must see the blacksmith tomorrow about another matter.

Perhaps he will be so kind as to lend me his forge for a moment so that I might tend to Rocinante's ill health.  With a bit of rest and recovery, I am quite certain that he will be as good as new in very short order.

For now, however, the hour is late, and I can see that your eyes are tired from the weight of the day....'

Collecting the pieces of silver from Eva's hands, Emma moved to place them onto the round dining table near the fireplace before returning to stand in front of her daughter. 

Immediately,  Eva wrapped her arms around Emma's waist in a tight hug of relief which was returned warmly. 

'Now,  off to bed with you!  Rocinante's arch nemesis is already tucked in warmly, and you should be as well!' grinned Emma as she released herself from Eva's grasp and turned her in the direction of the bed.  

Taking off at a run, Eva jumped onto the mattress and scampered quickly under the covers.

As Regina and Emma walked over to bid her and Henry good night, Eva pulled a book from beneath the covers.

'Will you read to us?'

Almost instantly, Henry was wide awake and had propped himself higher on his pillow grinning in anticipation.

'Only a short story,  ' responded Regina as she reached to take the book from Eva, finding it immediately withdrawn from her fingertips. 

'We want Momma to read to us, ' offered Eva sheepishly as she presented the book more specifically to Emma.   From his bed,  Henry nodded happily in agreement. 

'I....ummmmm....' said Emma hesitantly. 

'Perhaps you should ask instead of insist, young lady, ' interjected Regina with a cocked brow.

'I'm sorry, Mother, ' said Eva dejectedly as her hand and book fell into her lap, and she looked down sadly. 

Stepping forward,  Emma slipped her fingers under the book and brushed her thumb over the cover several times. 

'I-I c-cannot read very well, Eva' whispered Emma as she continued absently stroking the cover, focusing her eyes down at the bed linens embarassedly looking up only when she felt the touch of a small hand atop hers.

'That's all right, Momma.  We can all read it together.  Henry and I can help you.'

Looking up, Emma could see the sincerity and hope in her daughter's eyes.

'Please, Momma?'

'Yes, please?' implored Henry earnestly from his bed.

Giving a soft smile, Emma realized that she would never be able to resist her children's pleas. 

'Where shall I sit?'

Emma climbed into Eva's bed as she scooted to one side.  In an instant, Henry had joined them and both children nestled tightly into Emma's sides. 

Smiling gently, Regina stepped out onto the balcony far enough to give them space but close enough to hear their interactions.  

Opening the book, Emma placed her index finger on the page beneath the first line.  Slowly, she started,

'O-once upon a t-time, there was a p....p.....pr....'

Sighing, Emma furrowed her brow as she stared at the unfamiliar word.

'It's all right, Momma. Sound it out, ' encouraged Henry.

'P-r-i-n-k-e-s-s, ' said Emma uncertainly.

'Almost, ' encouraged Eva,  'except, the 'c' is like an 's'.'

'Princess?' asked Emma.

'Exactly!' smiled Henry proudly.

'See, Momma, you can do it!' smiled Eva as they both snuggled in closer against her eagerly awaiting the rest of their adventurous tale.

 


 

'They are both fast asleep, ' whispered Emma with a smile as she joined Regina on the balcony.  Gathering the side of Regina's hair with her fingers,  she pulled it over her shoulder before wrapping her arms tightly around Regina's waist from behind and placing her cheek against Regina's to look over the forest floor.

Regina hummed and smiled as she relaxed back into Emma, thankful for her touch and enjoying her warmth and protection against the Fall chill.

'That was probably the longest, short-story that they have ever heard, ' said Emma with a huffed laugh. 

'And, for that, I am sure they are thankful.   They ask about you always and crave having you near so that you may share in their lives and adventures...' responded Regina as she reached back to rub the outside of Emma's thighs and buttocks with the flat of her palms.

Turning her head, Emma placed her lips softly against the shell of Regina's ear breathing in deeply to take in the scent of apples and lavender that clung lightly to Regina's skin and hair.

'And you?  What do you crave? ' whispered Emma as she felt Regina's hands wandering over the outside of her legs.  As she awaited her answer, she placed wet, open mouthed kisses over Regina's exposed shoulder, sucking softly and flicking her tongue before releasing each kiss and moving closer to her neck.

'You.....in every possible way, my Svan, ' moaned Regina softly as she lay her head back against Emma's shoulder turning her head to the side to expose her neck.

Without hesitation, Emma trailed her lips over the soft flesh of Regina's neck, groaning slightly as Regina's hands grabbed and kneaded at her buttocks strongly in encouragement.

'Happy Birthday, my love, ' panted Regina as her right hand reached back to tangle in Emma's hair urging her to continue her ministrations.  She was rewarded when Emma's hands found her breasts, massaging strongly through the fabric of her velvet gown. 

Grasping Regina's waist,  Emma turned her so that she was pinned between her body and the banister; rear pressed tight against the cold stone.

Immediately, Emma captured Regina's lips with her own plunging her tongue deep into her mouth, exploring strongly and needfully; hands finding her breasts once more.

Breaking their kiss, Emma dipped her head to scrape her teeth against the skin of Regina's collarbone, chest and top of breasts whispering between each kiss,

'Beautiful... amazing... intelligent... strong...'

As she drew her last breath to speak, Emma was interrupted by a whisper.

'Yours...eternally...'

Placing a gentle kiss upon Regina's heart,  Emma whispered back, her warm breath ghosting the skin of Regina's chest,

'I know that I am not worthy of you, my Regina, but I am yours complete, if you will have me....'

'Emma, ' said Regina quietly as she placed her fingertips under her lover's chin and raised her head to look into her eyes, 'I crave you more than air in my lungs, water at my lips and nourishment on my tongue.  The fire you have created in my heart burns stronger than any forge and gives me the strength to wield a thousand swords against any foe that dare threaten you.   Yet, it takes only one reassuring glance from you, and I am at peace; one touch, one caress of your fingers and I can barely think; one whisper of my name from your lips and I fall even more deeply in love than I ever though possible. You are my everything, my Svan, now and forever...'

'I am yours, My Queen, ' whispered Emma as she crashed their mouths together with fiery intensity.  She pressed her fingers into Regina's hair as their tongues swirled deep in each other's mouths, exploring frantically. 

Breaking their kiss, Emma felt Regina's head lull back into her hands and she wasted no time leaning in to suck and kiss the soft skin of her throat feeling the cartilage move under her lips as Regina swallowed hard and gasped for breath; her moan low and never-ending as her fingers gripped tight to Emma's back.  

Emma shivered as Regina's hands slid down the fabric of her shirt slowly massaging the bare skin and firm muscles of her lower back a few times before slipping her fingers under Emma's belt and waistband.   Fingertips pressed strongly into the firm flesh of Emma's ass, causing her to groan and rendering her unable to do anything more than pant hard against the skin of Regina's neck.  Her pants were saturated and even the slightest movement of her hips as Regina massaged was setting her on a very tenuous edge.

'Please, My Regina, please, ' she whispered softly as Regina looked down and their foreheads touched. Moving her hands to cup Regina's jaw, Emma brushed her thumbs over the flawless skin of Regina's cheeks as she closed her eyes and shook her head.  'We must stop, or I will most certainly break my vow tonight.'

'And I would beg you to lay with me in every way possible tonight, ' offered Regina quietly as her eyes closed as well.

Emma winced and groaned quietly as she considered Regina's words, simultaneously cursing the Master for placing her in this predicament.   Still,  she had made the vow, and her word was her bond. 

'I must be away for the week, Regina.  My training intensifies and the Master is relentless in completing our work within the month.  I am sorry.'

'This separation takes its toll, but we will do what we must to get through the minutes.'

Pausing a moment, Regina ran the tip of her index finger from the hollow of Emma's throat to the top of her cleavage and back again before asking with a sexy, seductive smirk,

'Will you....ummmm....think of me while we are apart?'

'In every possible way....during every minute that I may be alone....'

Biting her lower lip, Regina closed her eyes drew a deep, calming breath as she thought about her lover in that position.

'And you....?' asked Emma curiously with a soft smirk of her own.

Her only response was a cocked brow and upturned corner of Regina's mouth which told her all that she needed to know.

'I will take my leave now as I sense that this 'alone time' may need to start as soon as possible for both of us this evening, ' smiled Emma as she huffed a quiet laugh and then turned on her heel.  She had only taken a few steps when Regina called out to her.

'Emma?'

Turning, Emma looked to Regina to await her next words.

'I know it is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but will you be able to fix the horse for Eva?  She will be heart broken if you are unable to keep your promise...'

Without even glancing at the table, Emma smiled before responding confidently with a tip of her head,

'It is already done, My Love.  Goodnight.'

Walking quickly to the door, she took her leave of the chamber, closing the door softly behind.

Curious at her response, Regina walked to the table where the broken pieces of the horse had been placed previous.  In their place, was the original silver statue of Rocinante; as pristine as the day it had been given.  Beside the horse was a dragon of intricate detail and equivalent size, and it gleamed as if it had only recently been forged.   Picking up the horse, Regina held it in her upturned palm to inspect it and was surprised when it reared to its full height before settling down and releasing a snort as it stomped the heel of her hand with one leg.  Settling it back on the table, it became still once more and she lifted the dragon holding it the same way.  She watched in awe as it stalked about her palm sniffing at her fingers before stretching its neck out and releasing a small burst of flame that was smaller than the size of a match tip when flared.  Satisfied that it had made its point, the dragon lay down and curled tightly to rest its chin on its tail closing its eyes as it drifted off to sleep.  Lifting it gently, Regina replaced it on the table watching it turn again to solid silver just as Rocinante had done.

'You are amazing, my Svan.....' whispered to no one as Regina retired to bed.

 


 

Day 18

 

'THIS IS ABSOLUTELY UNACCEPTABLE!!' fumed the Master.  'FIRST IT IS MY CAT, THEN MY DINNER PARTY AND THEN.....'

'To her credit, she did manage to get the cat back....' interrupted Henry calmly trying to diffuse the situation.

'BY WHAT MEANS?!?!? We both know FULL WELL what prompted his disappearance in the first place!   Morganfrisk is likely scarred for life!'

Standing out of site behind the door frame, Emma covered her mouth to hide her laughter, getting an occasional side eye and rib nudge from Regina who was attempting to keep a straight face despite the conversation that was currently ensuing within the room.

'It's entirely natural.....'

'NATURAL?!?! It seems to be every free moment for her.  I am surprised that she still has adequate use of her hands and fingers given their OVERUSE!'

Outside, Emma furrowed her brow and her mouth fell open slightly before she pursed her lips in indignation.  She'd had enough of his exaggeration, and she intended to settle this situation.

'It only took one amazing time, you sniveling...' she said louder than she had intended through gritted teeth as she reached to each arm, pushing up the sleeves of her shirt before clenching her fists and starting to stomp past Regina.  She was stopped by a firm hand grasping the waist of her pants and pulling her backwards; a finger lifted to Regina's lips to urge her to be quiet and to stay calm.

'What was that?' demanded the Master as he bobbed his head looking towards the door where Regina and Emma stood hidden behind the wall.

'It is naught but the wind in these drafty corridors.  I am quite sure it will not happen again, ' assured Henry loud enough to be heard outside the door.

The Master bobbed his head skeptically several more times before his attention was redrawn to the conversation at hand.

'Come now, Charles, it cannot be THAT bad.....' sighed Henry.

'Not bad?  NOT BAD?!?!  LOOK AT ME!!' cried the Master.

Peeking around the doorway at the same time, Regina and Emma were aghast, fascinated and nauseated all at the same time.  It was not so much WHAT they were seeing, but HOW it was being displayed.

In front of Emma's father and Marco, whose backs were to the doorway, was the Master.  He had turned to face the same direction as Henry and Marco and was bent at the waist, robes hiked up around his middle, underwear around his ankles.  Across his ample and wide bottom, upper thighs and lower back was tattooed a perfect, and very detailed, map of the entire Kingdom; including an arrow that pointed to his crack with the words 'Here be dragons...'.

'Huh....' huffed Henry while rubbing his chin in thought, 'I didn't realize that Kvivik was so close.  It always seems to take forever to get there.....'

'THAT IS ALL YOU HAVE TO SAY?!?!?' bellowed the Master as he pulled up his undergarments and lowered his robes.  He was red-faced as he turned to Henry and Marco again suddenly, requiring Regina and Emma to jump out of sight as a tangle of bodies and limbs.

'OF COURSE NOT!!' declared Henry as he walked over and clapped the Master on the shoulder, catching him off guard and causing him to take one step and then another towards the side door.    Keeping his hand on the back of the Master's shoulder, Henry guided him gently to continue walking while he spoke in a praising tone.

'I should offer my congratulations on your fine tutelage.  Even our cartographers have never created such an exquisite and detailed map.  Your work in teaching and training my daughter should be commended and rewarded!'

'W-what?' answered the Master bewildered; his anger replaced by pure confusion.

'Yes, you shall be amply rewarded, indeed!' exclaimed Henry as he all but pushed the Master out the door.

Backing through, the Master bowed profusely; a 'thank you' issuing forth from his lips at the bottom of every dip until the heavy wood and iron door was closed on his face.

Sighing in relief at the departure if their guest, Henry turned back to Marco asking quizzically,

'Did you know that Kvivik was this close?'

'Not at all. It DOES seem like forever to get there, though!'

'Yes, we should consider finding a different and faster road to save our aching backs, ' he offered before delivering a wave of his hand to dismiss his random thoughts.

Chuckling softly, he shook his head before calling out more loudly,

'Emma...Regina....if you have not injured yourself too severely while attempting to remain hidden, you may come out.  The Master is gone, and I would so like to speak with you if I may; especially you, Emma.'

There was a moment of hesitation before both women appeared in the doorframe with their heads bowed; embarrassed at being caught eavesdropping.

'I assume that you heard what has just transpired with the Master?' Henry asked sternly.

'And saw, ' mumbled Emma under her breath before shuddering.

'Yes, well, that was unfortunate sight for all of us....' he replied in solidarity.

Turning to Regina, Henry smiled gently and tipped his head receiving a nod in return.

'Regina, if you might be so kind as to accompany Marco into the garden, I would like to speak to my daughter.... alone....'

'Uggggghhhhhh, ' groaned Emma softly as she realized that yet another VERY awkward and personal conversation was about to ensue.

'Of course, ' replied Regina quietly as she flicked concerned eyes at Emma who had taken on a pale shade of green.

Walking to Marco, she wrapped her arm around his before looking back over her shoulder and mouthing 'good luck' concernedly to Emma.

Emma could only gulp and manage something that looked like a snarl in return.

Henry watched Marco and Regina exit the room waiting a moment before turning back to address Emma directly. Motioning her over to the dining table, they sat facing other until he spoke again.

'Emma, ' he said calmly, but authoritatively, 'I have only one question for you.....'

'Father, I...' she began in her own defense, but she was cut off by an upheld hand which immediately silenced her, and she winced in anticipation of the question that she was trying to avoid.

'Was what happened an accident or intentional?'

'Intentional, ' murmured Emma as she twisted her mouth and looked down at the ground.

'Humph, ' he offered impressed.  'Very nice work.  Very nice work indeed!' 

'W-what?' asked Emma shocked.

'Oh, that old blowhard had it coming sooner or later, better by my daughter's hand, no pun intended, than by that of another, ' Henry declared.

Immediately, Emma turned crimson and her eyes widened.  Unwilling to let the conversation drift to easier topics, her father continued.

'So I will assume that our discussion the other day helped, and that you and Regina have been able to make....'amends'?' he asked with raised eyebrows.

The final word was drawn out for entirely too long for Emma and hinted at additional awkward conversation.

'Uhhhhhhh....not exactly....' mumbled Emma.  'I made a vow to the Master that I must now keep throughout the remaining month....'

'Well, that's....ummmmm.....inconvenient? '

'You believe?' Emma asked sarcastically.

'Well, the decision is yours, but your mother and I always subscribed to the theory that 'what he did not know would not hurt him'.  

That being said, and considering his new artwork, you might consider playing it safer than we did.....by the way, is that marking permanent?'

'Yes.'

'Well, at least someone will know where to return him should he become lost.  And, believe me, they WILL return him.  No one can take him for any longer than they absolutely must....' grinned Henry.   

'Look on the bright side, Emma, ' he added more cheerfully, 'it is only 12 more days before this nonsense will be over....'

Groaning, Emma rested her head in her hands and shook her head.

'Not helping....'

'Then perhaps I can take your mind off this particular dilemma by replacing it with another?'

'That would be wonderful, ' responded Emma dryly with a roll of her eyes.

'Now, normally, it would be your mother having this conversation and assisting you with this matter......'

'NO!!  Absolutely not!, ' stated Emma loudly as she pushed her chair back and rose from the table.  'While I appreciate your help, Father, the amount that you seem to know about what happens in my bed chamber is disconcerting to say the least.  In this particular case, I believe I would simply prefer to take my chances and feel my way along blindly.'

'Yes, well, I have always found that to be the most effective, and exciting, method for all involved.  That being said, I was merely going to ask.....do you know how to dance?'

'Oh.....' said Emma quietly as she retook her place at the table, looking around the room to avoid her Father's eyes.

'The guests will expect you to dance with Regina at the wedding, even if only for a few moments.'

Groaning, Emma lay her upper body onto the table, placing her forehead against the wood and stretching her arms overhead in defeat.

'I will take this as a 'no'....

He grinned as he watched Emma nod against the table.

'As I said, normally, your Mother would have helped you in this regard.'  Pausing, he added under his breath, 'We also would have had more than 12 days to achieve our goal....'

'No matter!' he offered with a smile as he pumped his fist valiantly.  'I have every faith in your abilities, Emma!  If your deftness of hand is any indication of the abilities of your feet, then I am quite certain that we can rectify this in the time we have available!'

'It was ONE TIME......' Emma groaned as she raised a single finger.   'All right, maybe TWICE....' she added as she added a second finger to the display.

Finally sitting up, Emma looked at her Father and heaved a sigh of acquiescence.

'What do I need to do?'

 


 

Day 24

 

The woman gasped through gritted teeth in pain as she furrowed her brow in anger and limped back.

'I am truly sorry, M'Lady, ' said Emma concernedly as she offered her hand in support.  'I did not mean....'

Her words were abbreviated by an upturned hand which halted both Emma's progress and her words.

'I swear that if you step on my foot again, I WILL hit you!!'

'Yes, M'Lady, ' offered Emma hesitantly with wide eyes.

Stepping towards the woman, Emma set herself in the appropriate position to lead the dance.  Moving into her embrace, the instructor counted off as she had already a hundred times,

'And.....one, two, three...one, two, three....'

 


 

'Emma....Emma....' came the soothing voice from out of nowhere.

Opening one eye, Emma tried to focus, finally taking in the concerned face of her Father.  She furrowed her brow confused as the last thing she remembered was the dance instructor counting off.

'W-w-what happened?' she asked groggily as she attempted to open her other eye which seemed to be stuck shut and throbbed painfully.

'You're dance instructor had to excuse herself, ' offered her father hesitantly.

'Ugggghhhhhh, ' groaned Emma, 'why does my head hurt so badly?'

Reaching to her temple, Emma pressed her palm hard against the skin to dull the pain while sitting upright with her father's assistance.

Looking to the mirrored wall of the room where they had been practicing, Emma saw her swollen, black and blue eye.  She groaned once more before dropping back into a prone position,  wondering if she was even going to survive to see her wedding day.

 


 

'What happened, Emma?' demanded Regina as she brushed the hair away from Emma's forehead and inspected the swelling and bruising that was now much more pronounced around her left eye.  Kneeling in front of Emma, Regina dabbed the cool cloth tenderly against her eye receiving a sharp gasp at each touch.

Emma sighed at the relief that the cold was offering and did not even think about her next words.

'Well, I was dancing with this girl when....'

 


 

'Emma?' came the male voice again out of the darkness.

'Father?' she replied quizzically.  Squinting, Emma could barely make out her father's face through both of her swollen and blackened lids.

'Your future wife is quite the fireball, I must say!' offered her father with a hearty laugh.  'I can see now what she is capable of WITH her sight, and I do believe that Claudius was the luckier of the two of you!'

Rolling her eyes under lids, Emma dropped back into a prone position with a groan, bouncing the back of her head against the floor for the second time that day.

 

Chapter Text

'Emma, please,' begged Henry, 'you will wear a hole in the stone itself if you do not stop pacing....'

'Hmmmm....'  offered Emma in reply. 

It was only the two of them waiting in the small, sparsely furnished ante-chamber at the back of the castle's cathedral.  Outside, Emma could hear the thrum of conversation and movement as guests arrived and were escorted to their seats.

He could tell that his words were falling on deaf ears as Emma continued to move back and forth furiously, biting her nails to the quick, eyes unfocused, muttering softly as she tried to recall every detail of what she had to say and do.  He could not help but marvel at how alike in manner she was to her mother, though she had barely even known her.

Stopping suddenly, Emma turned to interrogate her father causing him to startle and look at her with slightly widened eyes.

'You are CERTAIN that you explained to her the true reason for my injury the other day?' implored Emma as she looked at her father.  Despite the application of her makeup, both eyes still showed the faint remnants of bruises which she had received from two, very angry women barely one hour apart. 

'Yes,  Emma, but I would strongly recommend you avoid Regina's feet tonight, ' he responded,  'or you may very well end up making your bed in the stables with Rocinante...'

'Hmmmm, ' offered Emma distractedly as she continued to pace eventually finding her way to the window where she paused and closed her eyes allowing the cool breeze to lift her golden hair as the sun warmed her face.

Henry smiled softly as he considered the beauty that was his daughter.  Her blonde hair cascaded in loose curls over her white, high collared, velvet jacket that plunged deep into her cleavage, following the line of her white leather corset.  The fabric clung snug to her arms, back, torso and top of hips before separating into a paneled skirt, open on the sides, front and back.  It hung to the floor and dragged slightly, separating enough to reveal white leather pants which hugged tight to her thighs while white suede boots covered her calves and knees.  Her blonde brow was furrowed, and her lips turned down slightly on the ends as she pondered the day ahead.

'You are as beautiful and frightened as your mother was on the day that we married, ' stated Henry softly and reverently.

Opening her eyes, Emma turned towards her father, his words peaking her interest.

'She was afraid?'

'Terrified.'

'But she was so strong, ' replied Emma quizzically.

'Yes, she was, but she was also quite shy and not one for excessive attention.  She would have preferred a small gathering of friends and close family, but she was overruled by her father and mother, the former King and Queen, who insisted that every kingdom be represented in the audience to pay honor to their daughter.'

'Were you afraid as well?'

'Beyond words, ' offered Henry with a huffed chuckle, 'but I also knew that I was the luckiest man alive for having been chosen worthy enough to marry your beautiful mother, and, if every person in that room might share, even slightly, in my happiness, then that was all that mattered to me.  Knowing that I would finally be bound to your mother was stronger than any fear that I might have. 

Believe me when I tell you that time stood still and everything simply fell away when I saw her coming down that aisle.....' smiled Henry gently as he shook his head in remembrance. 'It will for you as well, Emma.  Just wait.  You will see....'

He was interrupted by a knock at the door and both of their heads turned to the source of the sound.  The door was cracked only slightly before the face of the cleric appeared.

'It is time, ' he offered calmly.

Immediately, Emma looked at her father with the frightened eyes of a small child. 

'Papa....' she managed to choke out quietly before her breathing started to quicken.  

Offering a soft smile, he walked over to take both of her hands in his grasping them tightly.

'You have not called me that since you were very young....' he whispered quietly, as his eyes threatened to brim over with tears.  

Taking a deep breath, he cradled his daughter's face in his hands and raised her head so that he might look into her eyes and assure that she would hear his words.

'Emma, you are a kind, fierce, humble, intelligent, shy, strong, independent, resourceful, compassionate, protective and gentle woman.  You are your mother returned anew to both me and this Kingdom, and we are all the better for it.  You have met your equal in Regina and, side by side, you will deliver to our people an age of peace and prosperity such that they have never known.

Until that time comes, however, I want you to do only two things:  love her more deeply than you ever thought possible and live each day as if it is your last moment together on this earth.  

I love you, my daughter.  Your mother would be so, so proud of you today.....'

'And I love you.  Thank you, Papa, ' whispered Emma quietly.

'Now let us go!' said Henry exuberantly as he offered Emma his arm patting her hand gently as she held tight to him, 'Let us not keep your beautiful bride waiting!'

Exiting the ante-chamber, Henry led Emma to stand between the closed, walnut and iron-adorned doors of the cathedral and the gleaming, silver statue of her mother that guarded its entrance.  

The memorial was twice the size of a man and was positioned such that it looked down the grand aisle when the doors were opened.  Stepping back a few paces, Henry moved to confirm last minute details with a few of his advisors, leaving Emma to her thoughts.

Looking up, Emma focused on the striking features of her mother's face.  There was no severity in her countenance, only a determined protectiveness that had been eloquently captured in her eyes.  It was offset perfectly by the gentle, warm and welcoming smile which graced her lips as she presided over this sacred place where, for hundreds of years, weddings had been celebrated, kings and queens coronated and ancestors given over to their eternal slumbers.

'Please, Mother, ' she whispered reverently, 'on this day, let your strength be my strength.  Let me be to Regina what you were to my father and he to you.  Look down and smile upon us, your daughters, eternally....'

'Your Highness, ' whispered a young squire of approximately seven years.

Emma continued focusing on the statue, barely registering the voice as she assumed it addressed her father.

'Your Highness, ' whispered the squire again.  This time the salutation was accompanied by a tug on Emma's coat.

Caught off guard by the greeting, Emma looked down curiously at the young boy who teetered and staggered as he tried to offer to her the heavy, silver sword that he half-carried, half-dragged in his arms.

'Your sword, Your Highness, ' he grunted as he tried valiantly to hold it out for her to take; beads of sweat dotting his forehead from his exertions.

Wrapping her palm around the hilt, Emma grasped it tightly before placing the fingers of her other hand delicately under the blade.

Lifting strongly, Emma found herself baffled by the actual weight of the sword that she hoisted.  What was so cumbersome to the boy was like air in her hands. 

Holding the blade closer, she could see that the cross-hilt was comprised of the slender bodies of two swans which faced the middle.   At the handle, their necks extended to the far side of the blade before turning back so that the foreheads touched creating a heart. 

Symbols were engraved from the middle of the blade to the top of the swans' heads which looked vaguely familiar to her though she could not recall immediately where she had seen them before.

 

                     

 

'Thy love is my strength always, ' offered her father softly.

'It is beautiful....'

'It was your mother's, and there are very few that have the ability to wield it.'

'I don't understand, ' said Emma quietly as she continued studying the intricacies of the sword.

'You see, the weight of the blade varies based upon the depth of your selflessness. 

At the start of her life, your mother struggled mightily under its weight, as her thoughts, just like the musings of most children, were concentrated on her own needs, wants and desires.  

Over time, her ascension to the throne and responsibilities to this Kingdom turned her attention more and more to the people; their welfare, their happiness, their safety, and the burden of the blade lessened considerably.   It was your conception and birth, and her complete dedication to you and Fredrick, that finally allowed her to swing the blade as easily as a shaft of wheat.

I have seen the strongest of knights and fiercest of warriors struggle and buckle under the weight of this blade, because they have lost their humanity in the pursuit of glory.

Always remember that the true measure of any man, or woman, is not in what they attain, but in what they sacrifice....'

'Yes, Papa, ' responded Emma quietly glancing at the sword one more time before sheathing it.

'Are you ready, Emma?'

Taking a deep breath, Emma turned to face the closed doors.  She waited only a moment before nodding her head definitively at the attendants that stood to each side; hands at the ready on the large, iron pulls.   Receiving their signal, they turned opposite each other walking apart, dragging the heavy wooden panels with them.

The stacked pews at the back of the chapel faced the aisle and were filled to overflowing with dignitaries, envoys, ambassadors and commoners alike from some of the smaller provinces and villages which made up the Kingdom of the Enchanted Forest.  Each man, woman and child was dressed in the finest attire that their station and wealth would allow to pay homage to their future Queens. 

The doors were barely opened when all heads turned to the place where Emma stood quietly, eyes averted to the floor taking her last deep, calming breaths.  

As the trumpets heralded her appearance, Emma stepped forward, walking slowly and measuredly down the aisle; eyes focused on the burgundy carpeting that lay about ten feet in front of her current position. 

Daring to flick her gaze to the side, Emma took in the faces of a few of the guests as she passed.   Each person wore a gentle and encouraging smile and murmured quietly and respectfully regarding the absolute truth of the rumors that she bore a striking resemblance to her beloved mother. 

It was those reverent whispers of Eva's name that soon carried Emma forward; her confidence building with every step, until she raised her head fully to look at the massive stone altar which had been inset approximately half way up the steps at the front of the cathedral. 

A velvet cloth of deep burgundy had been lain across the length of the slab and hung almost to the floor; almost one third of the face covered in a delicate and intricate embroidery of a white and silver swan wearing a crown of gold.  The top was piled high with white roses which had been plucked fresh from her mother's garden.

Several steps above the altar were positioned the thrones of the King and Queen where her father would be seated to oversee and preside over the ceremony.  In her mother's chair was a cascade of white and burgundy roses carefully placed in remembrance and honor.

Hundreds of candles, secured in their standing and hanging iron chandeliers, cast a warm and comforting glow which touched even the most shadowed recesses of the cathedral's grey stone walls and floors.

As she neared the end of the initial set of seating, Emma could see a smaller aisle which crossed, perpendicularly.  Beyond that point, hundreds of guests sat facing the altar.

A few had turned in their seats, too curious to wait for Emma to pass and wanting to look fully upon her.  Most, however, remained face forward, anxiously awaiting Emma's arrival from behind.

Taking her cue from the music, Emma continued moving forward solemnly at a slow, but steady, pace, and she soon found herself standing at the base of the steps at the front of the cathedral.     There she stopped, slightly to the right of the aisle's center, so that she might allow her father to pass and proceed up the steps to his throne.  He bowed deeply,  respectfully and reverently to Eva's throne before turning and taking his seat.  

Only a few more bars of the fanfare were heard before a deafening silence descended upon the space.  Emma's head shook slightly as she tried to keep her eyes trained upon her father's countenance, finally earning a brief and calming glance which was accompanied by a gentle smile and wink.

After what seemed like an eternity, a prelude began to play.  Placing his hands upon the arms of the throne, Henry pressed himself up to standing.  Immediately, his example was followed by every other guest in attendance, and they turned in unison to face the heavy doors through which Emma had recently passed.

Taking one, last, calming breath, Emma also turned around and looked toward the door.

It had been opened wide enough for Eva and Henry to enter the cathedral and they walked, single file down the aisle; Eva in front, Henry behind.  

In her hands, Eva carefully cradled a large bouquet of white roses which cascaded down the front of her knee-length, forest green gown. She kept her eyes focused intently on the floor in front of her, brow furrowed in concentration, as she attempted to carry out her role flawlessly.

Henry followed a few steps behind; his deep green waistcoat and black suede pants fitted perfectly to his small frame. He was biting his bottom lip as he attempted to balance a very large pillow in his arms which contained three rings, and his eyes remained fixed on these treasures as he took slow, careful steps, trying hard to ensure that they got to their intended destination safely.

Approaching the steps, Eva glanced up briefly and was greeted with a half-grin and wink from Emma.  At the sight of her mother, Eva's mouth fell open, and she slowed slightly as she looked upon Emma in awe.  Emma couldn't help but chuckle at her response as she had been just as shocked that morning by the transformation that she had undergone at the hands of her mother's former attendants.

Henry was next to arrive and his reaction was far less subtle.  Stopping stock still in the middle of the aisle, he simply stared at Emma  in complete disbelief and shock. Cocking her brow at him playfully, she nudged her head to move him on his way catching his embarrassed grin before he turned to place the pillow and its contents carefully in its place of honor. 

Prelude complete and children having taken their designated positions, the opening bars of a triumphant, processional march resounded through the hall, and the doors at the back of the cathedral were, once again, opened wide to reveal Regina and Marco, standing together, arms entwined. 

Instantly, Emma's eyes went wide and her breathing quickened at the beauty that was to become her wife.

Regina's coat was the exact same style as Emma's, but resonated of deep burgundy. 

The field of red was offset by black, leather lapels and a high-backed collar which was partially covered by the cascading tresses of her dark brown hair.  The richness, fierceness, softness and elegance of the fabrics was the perfect compliment to Regina's own personality.

The smooth, olive skin of her chest and top of breasts was showcased nicely by the black, leather corset that she wore beneath the bodice of her gown to accentuate her slim figure, and the thick, overlaid material hugged her torso tightly, adorned with large clasps of silver in the front.  The remaining velvet clung just as snugly to the rest of her upper body and hips, dipping and rising with her gentle and sensuous curves before accentuating toned arms, ending just below the line of her delicate wrist; her slender fingers bare awaiting their exchange of rings.

Black leather pants which slipped gracefully into black suede boots could be seen beneath the paneled skirt while an eight-foot train of burgundy velvet with black underlayment had been attached securely to Regina's waist and hips.  It was lain out behind her meticulously and bore the delicate embroidery of a white and silver swan wearing a gold crown, just as Emma had seen already upon the altar.

As Regina turned back to look upon the sigil of her lover, Emma could see that the sides of her hair had been gathered up by the silver tie that she had given to Regina right after they first met, and she couldn't help but smile softly at the sentimentality when she could have had any of the riches of the kingdom at her disposal.

Emma continued watching, mesmerized and awestruck, as Regina moved again to face forward, readying herself to begin the procession; eyes focused on the carpet before her. 

Seeing that Emma was watching intently, Marco leaned over and whispered a few words in Regina's ear, and Emma gasped as Regina raised her gaze slowly to look to the front of the cathedral. 

As their eyes met, any uncertainty or trepidation that might have existed in emerald or chocolate orbs was replaced by a sparkling of excitement and anticipation.

Talking a page from Henry's book, Emma simply stared, wide-eyed, delivering the word 'Odin' on a breath, and she watched as Regina blushed slightly and grinned before lifting her head confidently and smiling brilliantly in response. 

Immediately, the throng of people in the cathedral melted away as Emma looked upon the only person that mattered to her in that instant, and her embarassed grin morphed into an equally-brilliant, returned smile which was soon shared by every other person that was witnessing the exchange between them.

As Regina moved down the aisle, Emma couldn't help but marvel at her poise, grace and confidence, and she watched as heads bowed in awe and deference to her passing.

Her smile was like the sun as she moved closer to Emma,  hesitating only for a moment at the cross-aisle to wink and grin proudly at the mother sprite who was rocking her sleeping child gently in its pitcher plant cradle.

No longer the harried, new mother,  the sprite looked confident, relaxed and proud, and she blushed deeply at being offered such a unique honor by Regina on such an important day.

Bowing reverently, she mouthed the words 'thank you' to Regina as she continued down the aisle. 

Arriving at the altar, Regina and Marco stopped and looked to the King.

'Who gives this woman, Regina, Freyja of the Kingdom of Uvhir, to be bound to Emma,  First Heir of The Enchanted Forest, First Beloved Daughter of King Henry and Queen Eva, Revered Mother of Second Heir Eva of The Enchanted Forest and Third Heir Henry of The Enchanted Forest?'

'I do, ' stated Marco definitively and clearly before turning his head to place a buss upon Regina's cheek which she accepted with a gentle smile and a loving squeeze of his hand before untangling their arms.

Stepping to his position on the lowest step, Marco allowed Emma to take his place and he grinned as Emma and Regina moved closer; their eyes dancing with pure excitement and joy.  Raising her bent arm slightly, palm to the floor, Emma allowed Regina to place the weight of her right arm and hand atop her left.

Offering a gentle smile at Regina, Emma led her up the stairs to stand at the altar where the cleric was poised to complete their union. 

Feeling Regina's arm released from her own, Emma pulled her sword from its sheath placing the point into the carpet and standing it upright before tranferring the hilt to her left palm and holding it firmly.  Reaching forward with her right hand, Regina grasped the hilt as well entwining her fingers with Emma's.

They each took a knee as the cleric stepped forward to wrap an embossed leather strap loosely about their grip and the sword.

Finishing his work, he stepped back addressing Regina first.

'Regina, Freyja, First Heir To The Kingdom of Uvhir, do you willingly and without hesitation renounce your title and claim to the Kingdom of Uvhir to assume, instead, the title of Regina, Heir Betrothed of The Enchanted Forest, Second Beloved Daughter of King Henry and Queen Eva, Revered Mother of Second Heir Eva of The Enchanted Forest and Third Heir Henry of The Enchanted Forest?'

'I, Regina, do willfully and without hesitation renounce my title of Freyja, First Heir To The Kingdom of Uvhir, to assume my title as Heir Betrothed of The Enchanted Forest, Second Beloved Daughter of King Henry and Queen Eva, Revered Mother of Second Heir Eva of The Enchanted Forest and Third Heir Henry of The Enchanted Forest.  From this day forward, let it be known that I pledge my life and service completely and gladly to the Kingdom of the Enchanted Forest and all those who dwell therein.'

'And do you, Regina, Heir Betrothed of The Enchanted Forest, Second Beloved Daughter of King Henry and Queen Eva, Revered Mother of Second Heir Eva of The Enchanted Forest and Third Heir Henry of The Enchanted Forest enter willingly and without hesitation into this bond of matrimony with Emma, First Heir of The Enchanted Forest, First Beloved Daughter of King Henry and Queen Eva, Revered Mother of Second Heir Eva of The Enchanted Forest and Third Heir Henry of The Enchanted Forest?  Do you pledge your service, fealty and fidelity to Emma until your death?  Will you give everything that you possess in this world to her and ask for nothing in return? Do you vow to provide for the future of this Kingdom through the care and nurturing of its heirs? Do you.....

Emma furrowed her brow as she listened to the words of the cleric.  The expectations that they were placing on Regina were so different from what she would be asked, so different from what she wanted, so different from how she felt and how she hoped that Regina felt about her.   Shaking her head, Emma began to whisper 'no', softly at first, then increasing in volume until a 'NO' resounded clearly through the expanse of the cathedral.

The cleric stopped speaking immediately and both he and Regina looked at Emma confused, before the cleric turned to King Henry for guidance, unsure of what to say or how to continue. 

'Sire?' asked the cleric softly looking for some direction.

Looking at his daughter, Henry saw her eyes lift to meet his, a desperation and pleading apparent in her gaze, and he smiled gently and knowingly at her before holding up his hand to silence and calm the cleric.  Tipping his head, he deferred to Emma to say what he knew she needed to say.

Reaching to their hands, Emma unbound the leather strap before taking Regina's freed hand in her own and helping her to stand. 

Turning Regina gently, she could see the sheer panic in her eyes as they faced each other in the middle of the carpet for a moment, and she cupped Regina's face gently in her right palm, brushing her thumb over her cheek several times to calm her as she smiled gently.  Speaking loudly enough for all guests to hear, Emma ensured that her words and direction were clear.

'May it be known to all that, from this day forward, My Queen does not bow or kneel before me....she does not serve me,  but I her.... always....' 

Dropping to one knee in front of Regina, Emma, once again, placed the tip of the sword into the carpeting before taking Regina's right hand and encouraging her to grasp it firmly around the sword hilt and her own fingers.  This time, she bound the leather more snugly about their hands and wrists.

'Regina, My Queen, My Love, and My Life, today, I kneel at your feet, not as an heir of this Kingdom, but as the unfree and undeserving woman that could not help but fall in love with you from the moment of our first meeting.  Just as you did that day, I hope that you will, once again, show me your mercy and relieve my heart of this incredible emptiness that I feel every moment that we are not bound together as one body, one heart and one spirit.

I realize that I have very little that I may offer to you, but that which I have, I give freely and completely to you, with all that I am and all that I may ever be, and I do so without any expectation of return.  I know that I am damaged and flawed, but I will work every day to be the person that you deserve and of whom you may be proud; the person upon whom you may always rely to be your support and your champion.

I promise to love you for who you are, for what I have not seen and for what you are yet to become.  I promise to be patient with you, and, in return, ask only that you be patient with me as well.  

If you have a dream, I will nurture it and I will help you to reach it, no matter the sacrifice.  I will share my heart with you and remember to show you how deeply I care for you, every day, in my words, my actions, and my deeds.  

No matter the challenges that come our way, I will promise always to love you, and our children, loyally and fiercely, and to protect you at all costs even if it mean that I lay down my own life in exchange for yours. 

Let me spend an eternity proving to you that I am deserving and worthy of the love, mercy and happiness that you have already offered to me.  Let me honor and worship you completely.  Let me give myself to you in righteousness and justice, love and mercy, illness and health, wealth and poverty.  Let me promise to keep you and hold you, comfort and tend you, protect and shelter you, and our family, for all of the days of my life and beyond. 

You are the fire in my heart, the air in my lungs, the friend of my life and the mother of our children.   You are the strength that I did not know that I needed.  You are the joy I did not know was possible.  You are the dream that I dared not dream.

And, if you do deign to love me, then, together, I promise that we will bear whatever trouble and sorrow that life may lay upon us as we also share, together, whatever good and joyful things that life may bring us.

Without you by my side, Regina, I will forever remain an unfree, bound by the chains of an unfulfilled life and an unrequited love, and so, I humbly ask for your hand today, not until death, but for an eternity; until this world exists no longer and all of us are turned to dust once more. 

With these words, spoken and unspoken, I dedicate and pledge my life and love to you, My Queen, and I pray that you will tell me in return that you feel the same....'

Emma gulped and looked up with hopeful eyes as she awaited Regina's response.  She had bared her soul in front of a thousand people who now stared at her in confused wonder.  

In the course of only a few minutes, she had rejected her Kingdom's traditions and conventions,  rendered her heart exposed and vulnerable, and offered herself and her father for condemnation and ridicule.   

She knew that she must look the fool, but she cared not what these people thought.  She cared only that she would be wanted, needed and accepted by the woman that stood before her.   The woman for whom she had waited a lifetime and beyond. 

In the crowd,  a collective breath was being held as all in attendance looked to Regina for a reaction, but her faced showed very little emotion as her eyes looked curiously at Emma.   

Disheartened by the lack of response, Emma sighed heavily before closing her eyes and bowing her head in defeat.  So lost was Emma in the swell of emotion that threatened to consume her that she didn't realize how close Regina was until she felt the tips of her fingers lifting her chin. Opening her tear-filled eyes,  Emma furrowed her brow in confusion as she saw Regina kneeling before her looking lovingly at her face.  

'Emma, My Svan,  My Love and My Life,  if I choose to kneel before you it is because I revere and worship you....because you deserve my respect....because I have seen who you are, who you can be and who you will become.....because I want to be an example to OUR people.

If I have begged for or shown you mercy, it was never out of pity, but out of selfishness, because I could not bear to see you injured and could not imagine a life without you by my side. 

If you are damaged or flawed, then you should know that I am, once again, blind, because I cannot see it.   But if you believe it still to be so,  then let me be the one that assuages your fears and removes your doubts, because I will spend my entire lifetime reassuring you, until you truly believe.   

You are my protector, my champion and my perfection, and my only dream is to be bound to you today so that I do not have to live another moment without you beside me.   

I want it to be your voice that I hear reading to our children each night until their eyes grow heavy; your touch that fulfills my every fantasy and desire; your arms that hold me and protect me as I slumber; your smile that greets me in the morning before even the sun has peeked over the horizon; your laugh that rings forever in my ears; your tears that make me want to be a better person. 

If we are faced with adversity,  then know that I will stand beside and weather any challenge with you. If we are offered good fortune, then let us share in it together. And, be never afraid, for I would gladly give my life a thousand times for you and our children, if need be.   

You need not prove yourself deserving and worthy of my affections, Emma, for that was done the moment that our eyes first met.

Instead,  Iet me show you that the choice you have made to love me was not in error.  Let ME promise to keep you and hold you, comfort and tend you, protect and shelter you, and our family, for all of the days of my life and beyond.

We are already bound; one body, one heart and one spirit.  I have known and loved you for a thousand years, and I want to be with you and love you for a thousand more, in this life and any other. 

As you have so humbly asked for my hand,  I also so humbly give it, not until death, but for an eternity; until this world exists no longer and all of us are turned to dust once more.

With these words, spoken and unspoken, and by witness of our people,  I dedicated and pledge my life and love to you, My Svan.'

Regina watched as the tears of relief and happiness streamed down Emma's cheeks; her lips parting into a beautiful smile.  Regina covered her mouth with her hand to stifle, unsuccessfully, the joyful laughter that had started to resound merrily throughout the cathedral, joined by Emma's, as her own tears rolled over her fingers. 

After a few moments a soft voice came from Emma's right,

'Momma?' Asked Henry tentatively as he held out a small pillow that bore the rings that he had carried.   Nodding vigorously,  she reached to unbind her and Regina's hands from the sword before sheathing it and helping her wife to stand. 

Reaching to the pillow,  Emma found her mother's wedding ring which she held tightly in her fingers as she reached for Regina's right hand.   

Placing the circle of silver about the tip of Regina's ring finger, she offered, 

'With this ring,  may we be bound together as one....' before sliding the ring toward Regina's palm and feeling it resize perfectly.  Grinning,  she watched as Regina did the same for her,  placing a more simple band of gleaming silver on her hand.

Reaching again to the pillow,  Emma grasped the other ring.   In appearance,  it was an exact replica of the ring that her father had given to her not so long ago at her mother's pond; an exact replica of the ring that all people of the Kingdom wore to bind them together in hope, love and strength.  Yet,  in substance,  it differed slightly, even from her own. 

A delicate feather, offered to her graciously by the female swan had been braided meticulously together with one, single strand of hair from Regina,  Eva,  Henry and herself before being dissolved into the silver and formed by Emma's own hand. 

Placing the ring at the tip of Regina's left index finger, Emma spoke, 

'With this ring, may you be joined, as well, with the people of this Kingdom.   Let its presence upon your finger be a constant reminder of our collective strength, persistence, resilience, independence, self-reliance, self-sacrifice, protectiveness, beauty and grace.  As you pledge your life to all those who dwell within our borders, let them also dedicate their lives to you.   As they hold you in esteem,  may they also hold you accountable.  As they rely on you, rely upon them and hesitate not to call upon your people in a time of need....'

Seeing Regina nod her head, Emma pressed the ring upon her finger before taking both of her hands in her own and squeezing them tightly.  Releasing them once again, Emma placed her left palm against her own heart before holding her other hand flat against the center of Regina's chest.  Closing her eyes, Emma bowed her head before whispering words both beautiful and foreign to Regina's ears.

Regina watched intently as a silver glow began to build around each of Emma's hands.

Without thought, she reached to cover each with her own and felt herself immediately enveloped in a feeling of warmth and love.  

Within the swirling light, a pair of swans took form, one at each hand, before meeting in the middle where their necks entwined in recognition and greeting before separating and passing through the opposite hand from which they had come.

As the swan passed into Emma's heart she gasped and looked at Regina quizzically, surprised and unsure of what had transpired. 

Where Regina had been completely unprepared for how the transfer of Emma's magic might transpire,  Emma seemed to have been only partially prepared, and Regina could see in her face, the face of the cleric, the face of Marco and the face of the King that something unexpected, unrecognized, inexplicable and unprecedented had occurred.

Only an instant of uncertainty passed between all of them before Emma and Regina turned to face the altar again looking at the cleric expectantly and excitedly, and he kept a wary and questioning eye on both as he said his next words,

'With the exchange of vows complete.....'

Pausing, he cocked his brow at Emma trying to determine if he should expect further interruption and disruption.  Twisting her mouth, Emma flicked her eyes among the ceiling's stone arches to avoid the cleric's gaze as she nodded in affirmation.

May you live in happiness and prosperity forever.  Emma, First Heir of The Enchanted Forest....'

The words had barely begun to be spoken before Emma and Regina found each other's lips and embrace sharing a deep and passionate kiss which received the full approval and applause of the guests.

Sighing, the cleric simply aquiesced and threw up his hands in despair.

'Oh, nevermind.... 

Chapter Text

'I do not believe that I will ever match my daughter's eloquence of speech, ' stated Henry proudly as he stood from his place at the head table and lifted his glass to address the sea of people that had gathered in the banquet hall for the wedding feast.

'So I will ask you to forgive an old man's ramblings before I begin....

First, I would like to thank each and every one of you for joining us on this joyous occasion.  It is a day that, I am quite certain, we will not soon forget...'

Looking over at Emma with a grin, he winked and then chuckled as she blushed profusely and sank slightly lower in her chair, acutely aware of the unconventionality of the previous ceremony and her very prominent role in assuring the chaos.

Taking a deep breath, he became more serious as he looked to Emma with a soft smile.

'One day, when you were very young, I asked you what you would like to be when you grew older.  You told me very definitively that you would like to be your mother.

I did not press you at the time for a more detailed answer, and I do not believe you would have given me additional information, even if I had asked.  You were quite clever, though, and very resolute in your answer, so I knew that there was very just reasoning behind your response to which you alone were privvy.

I am not sure if you remember that conversation or if it is something to which you still aspire....'

'I do remember, my Father, and I assure you that my wishes have not changed.  I am more determined than ever to be the daughter that she, and you, will be proud of, ' interrupted Emma desperately.

'Emma, I assure you that, on the day you were born, you succeeded in reaching and far exceeding that goal, ' he reassured with a gentle smile, 'and since you have returned to me, I find myself awed and amazed each and every day by your beauty, strength, wit, humor, kindness, humility, compassion and capacity to love...and forgive.  

You are someone that we should all seek to emulate.  I know that I do, and I know that your mother would be so very proud of you, just as I am, today and everyday....

You are a survivor, a warrior, a leader, a wife, a mother, a teacher....You ARE your mother and more returned to us, Emma.  Of that, there is no doubt.  What you desired as a young girl, you have now achieved as a grown woman. 

Today, we celebrate your marriage and your safe return to this Kingdom.... your home..... which, I should also point out, would not have been possible without the help of the beautiful woman that sits beside you.

Regina, ' he offered as he looked directly into her eyes, 'your strength, compassion and love has, and will continue, to protect our family and this Kingdom.  Your selfless sacrifice and abandonment of all that was familiar to you to be here, beside my daughter, has not gone unnoticed and will be generously rewarded....'

'Nothing is a sacrifice when done for those that I love, Your Majesty, and following my heart is its own reward.  I need no other.  

I would die a thousand deaths to protect every heir to this Kingdom....my wife, ' she said definitively as she gasped Emma's hand in her own, 'and my children.... your grandchildren, ' she offered as she nodded in the direction of the smaller table that had been set in their honor.  

'Please, Father, never doubt that, ' insisted Regina with a respectful nod of her head.

'I have seen your skills in combat, blind and seeing, ' he considered thoughtfully and with a chuckle, 'I do not think that I will doubt or question your loyalty to any of us, lest I be the target of your ire...' he chuckled playfully, earning a grin and blush from Regina.

'Excellent strategy, Sire!' came the voice of Claudius from the back of the hall earning a hearty chuckle from the guests and a playfully, cocked brow and smirk from Regina.

'Careful, Claudius, she watches you!' offered an older, more senior soldier who was watching the exchange, earning a brilliant smile and laugh from Regina.

Raising his hands to hush the banter a bit, Henry continued.

'Before my daughter, Regina, takes all of us to task for our teasing, let me offer one thing more.....

Let it be known that, from this day forward, this Kingdom will no longer bow to a King, but to its Queens.'

'What?' gasped Emma quietly as her mouth fell open and her brow furrowed in confusion at the unexpected announcement.

'The people have waited far too long for your guidance, Emma.  Please, do not deny us any longer...'

Emma looked out across the crowd with unsure eyes, fully expecting to see the same looking back at her.  Instead, the face of every guest was filled with hope, excitement and anticipation as they eagerly awaited her response.

Looking to her right, she sought some assurance and confirmation from her wife which was immediately given in the form of a soft smile and an encouraging squeeze of her hand.

A deafening cheer arose from the crowd as she nodded her head once in acceptance and stood from her chair, offering her hand to Regina so that she might stand beside.

LONG LIVE THE QUEENS!!' declared Henry with a smile as he raised his cup.

'LONG LIVE THE QUEENS!!' was the resounding reply from the guests as each raised their cup in reply.

Grasping the silver goblet that lay before her, Emma looked to Regina and smiled as they too raised their glasses.

'LET US DRINK AND CELEBRATE!!' declared Henry as he drained the contents of his cup only to find it immediately refilled.

'KISS HER!' came a call from the crowd as the volume waned slightly.

'YES!  KISS HER!' offered another voice in support.

'KISS YOUR WIFE, QUEEN EMMA!' 

At the back of the hall, a tankard started slowly to be thumped upon the wood of one of the banquet tables.  Soon it was joined by another and another; the pace and volume increasing until a steady beat was echoing loudly through the space.

Huffing a small laugh, Emma blushed and looked down shyly before raising her eyes to look at Regina who also seemed somewhat embarrassed and unsure.

Tugging Regina's hand gently, Emma leaned over, urging Regina to do the same and the crowd erupted in applause as their lips met in a tender kiss which was broken only by their smiles and laughter as they leaned their foreheads together and brushed noses gently.

'LET US CELEBRATE!' declared Henry as platters of food were hoisted upon the shoulders of the servants to be lain at every table.  Most of them made it only a few feet inside the banquet hall before the trays were  taken by guests and passed from hand to hand freeing the servants of their burdens so that they could be guided to the various tables to join in the revelry as well.  

Casks were rolled in and tapped along with barrels of ale and meade while a small group of musicians pulled out their instruments and began to play a soothing but lively tune as the guests settled themselves to feast.

 


 

'If you will excuse us, ' said Henry quietly to Emma and Regina as he wiped the remnants of food and drink from his mouth and pushed himself up from his seat, 'Marco and I should see how our guests are getting along.'

Both Emma and Regina bowed their heads with a smile before watching them walk away from the table arms about each others'  shoulders laughing heartily.

'I haven't seen him this happy since I was a very little girl, ' stated Emma distractedly with a soft smile as she watched her father smiling and clapping guests on the shoulders, shaking hands and laughing.

'He has every reason to be happy, Emma, as do I, ' stated Regina as she turned her head to watch Emma's profile and traced her finger tips lightly and slowly up the inside of Emma's knee.  Her hand continued moving up Emma's inner thigh slowly as Regina returned her gaze to the guests awaiting a reaction.

'Unnhhhh, ' was all that was offered as her actions were finally recognized.  

Looking about, Regina could see that the guests were oblivious to she and Emma, the remaining occupants of the head table, engaged instead in food, conversation and heavy drink.

Pressing the heel of her hand against Emma's core, Regina rubbed firmly several times against the fabric of Emma's pants teasing her slightly, and she could feel Emma press forward a bit seeking more contact than would be possible through the thick leather.

Sensing Emma's mounting desire, Regina slid her hand further up the crotch of Emma's pants, before slipping back down, her middle finger wiggling slightly to work its way between the lowest cross of leather strapping that secured Emma's pants.  Her fingertip teased thick, damp curls for only a moment before pressing boldly between slick, wet lips.

Reaching to the goblet in front of her, Regina brought it to her lips, taking small sips of wine as she subtly rocked her finger up and down against Emma's quickly hardening clit.

Out of the corner of her eye, Regina could see the fingers of Emma's one hand digging into the table top as her other reached for the goblet of wine before her, and she drank the contents in a few gulps trying to distract and calm herself.

'Dont get too drunk, My Queen, ' stated Regina nonchalantly as she continued to sip from her own goblet, running her tongue along the edge of the pewter, '....unless your intention is that we fuck tonight instead of make love?' trailed off Regina as she looked at Emma and smirked sexily.

Withdrawing her hand from Emma's lap, she brought a glistening, wet finger to her mouth before tracing the tip across her bottom lip several times, leaving a glistening trail of Emma's sweet cream upon her skin.

Emma's mouth fell open slightly, and she watched mesmerized as Regina rolled her lips together; eyes fluttering closed as she savored the taste of her lover for the first time in months.

Reaching to her plate, Regina picked up a small piece of plum between her thumb and still-glistening middle finger before turning to offer the bite to Emma.

'You really should try this, ' she purred.  'The taste is exquisite.'

Leaning forward, Emma's lips parted and she kept her eyes locked on Regina's.  As the fruit was laid upon her tongue, she made sure to draw Regina's middle finger in slightly and she quickly swirled her tongue before feeling the digit withdrawn. 

Chewing slowly, Emma moaned quietly as the sweet of the fruit combined with her own salty and tangy juices.  Leaning over, she placed her lips close to Regina's ear.

'I intend, ' offered Emma in a low voice, 'to ensure that you feel the aftermath of our wedding night well into tomorrow...'

A confident smirk graced Emma's lips as she heard Reginas sharp intake of breath. 

Relaxing back, she rested her own arms upon those of the chair, surveying the festivities, but entirely aware of the effects that her words were having on Regina.

'You should eat, Emma, ' responded Regina smoothly as she took a similar pose in her own chair, punctuating it elegantly by crossing her leather-clad legs; the side of her mouth turning up into a cocky grin, 'because I assure you that you are going to need every ounce of strength that you have, and more, to make it through tonight...'

Barely moving, Regina waved her fingers causing a full plate of food to appear in front of Emma once more.

'Impressive, ' responded Emma

'Oh, My Love, you no idea what I am capable of yet....' smirked Regina.

'Nor you, I, ' offered Emma in return.

Emma could hear Regina's wanton sigh and could see her fidgeting slightly in her chair as she felt the sensation of Emma's tongue tracing her spine from the small of her back to the nape of her neck.

'A taste of what's to come, My Queen, ' husked Emma as she reached to her plate and pulled a piece of chicken from the bone before popping it in her mouth.

'Also impressive, but I prefer to wait for the touch of your own skin and hands upon my body, if it pleases you, My Queen.'

'Nothing would please me more; this instant and for an eternity, My Queen, ' responded Emma with a bare tip of her head.

Their banter was interrupted by a frail and aged ambassador who approached the table bearing a gift.

'You Majesties, ' she offered with as deep a bow as she could muster as she placed a folded fur of considerable dimension upon the table, 'I come bearing a gift from the land of Ardglass.'

'The blanket that I bear is one that is used to guarantee fertility in our land.'

'Thank you, Ambassador, ' offered Emma with a bow of her head.

'I can attest to the effectiveness of this particular blanket myself, having conceived 33 children myself beneath its embrace....'

'Oh....uhhhh, ' responded Emma as she now cast a wary eye upon the gift unsure of how to respond.

'Your gift is most generous and much appreciated, ' replied Regina with a smile.

As the old woman hobbled away, Emma found her voice enough to mumble under her breath.

'As soon as possible, that thing needs to be boiled.'

'For hours, ' added Regina.

'Thirty-three?!' offered Emma, stunned.

'Do NOT get any ideas, Emma, ' stated Regina quietly, but firmly.

'But she looks so good...' declared Emma trying to stifle her laughter.

'Emma, seriously, I....' said Regina shakily.

Reaching over, Emma grasped Regina's hand in her own and squeezed it reassuringly.

'I promise that nothing will happen that we do not both want with all of our hearts, Regina.'

'And what if it IS what I want?' asked Regina as she turned her head to look at Emma.

'Then it is what I want as well.  You need not ask...' responded Emma as she looked into Regina's eyes.

'Though, we may want to stop at 32, ' added Emma with a chuckle.  

'She seems to enjoy having the superior hand, ' Emma finished with a wink as Regina joined in her laughter.

One by one, gifts began to fill the table.

Foods, textiles, crafts; all indiginous to their lands and all with a specific meaning (typically related to the newly married couples' fertility), were amassed before Emma and Regina on the table while well-wishes and thanks were exchanged.

Only the tops of their heads were visible by the time the procession was complete, and Emma and Regina sat back exhausted and overwhelmed by the mountain of items before them.

'Your father's lands seem to be quite concerned and adamant about our fertility...' observed Regina as she looked quizzically at Emma.

'If my calculations are correct, ' said Emma thoughtfully as she slumped in her chair and looked at Regina, 'we are destined for one-thousand, three hundred and ninety-seven children....you know....give or take...'

'Take, ' interjected Regina dryly with a roll of her eyes, 'unless you intend to contribute one-thousand, three hundred and ninety-one of them.'

'Let's discuss that plan when we get there, ' grinned Emma as she chuckled softly.

'Emma?' came a familiar voice from the other side of the mountain of gifts.

Standing from her chair, Emma saw her father smiling broadly at her.

'Perhaps, you would like to like to invite your wife to dance?' he asked.

'I....ummmm...' she hesitated before she saw him encourage her along with a few tips of his head towards the space that had been cleared amoung the tables.

'Of course, ' offered Emma as she extended her hand to Regina.

'I apologize in advance for anything that is about to happen, ' mumbled Emma nervously. 'Please don't send me out to sleep with Rocinante...'

Taking Emma's hand, Regina arose from her chair, pausing to cup Emma's cheek out of the sight of prying eyes

'Just breathe, Emma, ' soothed Regina before adding, 'because, if you honestly think I am letting you anywhere near Rocinante with that blanket, you are SADLY mistaken...'

Laughing and smiling, Emma shook her head in exasperation before following behind Regina who led them to the opening at the center of the circle of guests.

'Breathe, ' reminded Regina a last time before taking her place across from Emma.

Facing each other, Emma bowed deeply as she watched the beauty before her curtsey deeply in return.

'Just breathe, ' came the soothing voice of Regina in her ears one last time as the music began to fill the hall.

Stepping forward, Emma offered her hand to Regina confidently, and she raised both their arms together, high above their heads, lips almost touching as they drew their bodies close together to the first bars of a beautiful melody.

'I could dance with you forever, Emma, ' whispered Regina as she spun from her wife's grasp and stopped to face her again.

Grasping Regina's hands again, Emma turned Regina so that her arms encompassed Regina's torso protectively.

'Then, do not stop, ' whispered Emma in Regina's ear before she twirled her wife smoothly away again.

As others joined the dance, their focus remained solely on each other.  If Emma or Regina was a novice to dance, no one was the wiser.

Even during the exchanges, they refused to change partners and those around them compensated gladly, staring in awe at two people so in love.

As the music dwindled, both of them stopped to face each other again before bowing and curtseying deeply once more.

As Regina began to pass by Emma to return to the head table during the interlude, she felt a gentle grasp of her bicep.

'Dance with me, Regina...one more time, ' requested Emma.

'You certainly do believe in pressing your luck tonight, ' teased Regina.

'Why shouldn't I?' smiled Emma.  'Today, I became the luckiest woman in the world...'

Responding only with a brilliant smile, Regina stepped again to face Emma, curtseying once more to Emma's bow.

A beat was struck and the music started.

The song was much more lively, but the steps and gestures of the dance were even more intimate than the last.  

Squeezes and caresses were exchanged between them, imperceptible to others but unmistakable and arousing, as Emma and Regina twirled smoothly about the floor; two bodies moving perfectly and seamlessly as one.  

Quiet gasps and light moans meant only for each other's ears were followed by pleasured shudders as skin touched and lips brushed each time the steps brought them close enough.

Parting only hesitantly, several moments after the music died, they looked to each other with controlled and measured expressions.   

They appeared no different from the other guests; the exertion of the dance had left their chests heaving and their skin flushed.  It was their eyes, however, that told the true story.  

Green eyes had darkened with desire, arousal and craving to the shade of a fine emerald, while passion, laciviousness and salaciousness smouldered in brown.

'Perhaps, we should see to the other guests, ' whispered Regina as she drew close to her wife once more, trailing the backs of two fingers subtly against the back of Emma's hand, 'because, if I do not separate myself from you, I fear that I won't easily make it through the remaining evening...'

Tipping her head, Emma offered a soft smile and wink before moving in the opposite direction and engaging with a few of the more familiar faces that surrounded them.

Stolen, intimate glances were exchanged between them frequently as they laughed and talked with others, keeping an undeniable, beautiful tension between them for hours.

 


 

'Father, ' asked Emma as she bobbed her head about searching the crowd, 'have you seen Regina?'

'I have not seen her for some time.  I believe that, perhaps, she has taken her leave.  You should do the same, Emma.'

'But, there are still so many.....' started Emma as she looked around the room.

A significant number of people still remained in the banquet hall, though the hour was quite late.  Only a few had retired to their, or other's, nearby homes, while even others, from more distant lands, made their way through the halls of the castle to the various rooms that they had been appointed.

'None of which will notice or blame you for your absence.  

Worry not, my daughter, ' assured Henry.

'Marco and I will keep them placated with food and drink.  

Do not keep your beautiful bride waiting any longer.....' 

'Thank you, Father, ' smiled Emma as she grasped her father's hands in her own.  'For everything....'

Leaning in, she placed a soft kiss upon his cheek before slipping quietly from the hall in search of Regina.

Chapter Text

'Congratulations, My Queen.'

'Best wishes, Queen Emma.'

'May every joy be yours, Your Majesty.'

Emma acknowledged every well-wisher with a smile and nod before hurrying on her way to one of the more remote wings of the castle. 

As she turned the final corner into the empty hallway, Emma stopped for a moment, leaning her back against the wall and breathing a sigh of relief as she finally found herself in silence.  It was the only wing that was devoid of guests; intentionally left vacant to ensure her and Regina's privacy.

Reaching the end of the hall, Emma breathed in deeply, once more, to calm herself before placing her hand on the iron latch, lifting it quietly and stepping inside before closing the door behind her.

The chamber was the second most spacious in the castle after her father's and late mother's.  A large bed with a heavy wooden frame sat upon the stone floor to the left, two steps higher than the floor to Emma's right.  It was warmly covered in silk and soft furs and illuminated by the glow of a fire that burned lazily in the huge hearth to Emma's right.  Two, massive, leather armchairs sat facing the flames, separated by a small round table and fronted by an enormous, thick rug made of the fur of some creature that Emma was certain was indigenous to the some, more-distant land.  Beyond the dining table that separated the spaces, the windowed doors of the terrace stood open, and Emma caught her breath as she looked upon Regina who stood, back facing her, hands resting upon the banister of the terrace.

Gone was the heavy burgundy velvet and black leather, replaced, instead, by translucent, white, light, lace that accentuated Regina's figure perfectly.  The fabric and Regina's hair was lifted by a light breeze and she turned her head slightly to recognize Emma's arrival; a soft smile gracing her lips.

Walking onto the terrace, Emma stopped short of Regina.

'I thought you might never come, ' teased Regina quietly.

'Odin, himself, could not have kept me away from you, ' replied Emma quietly.

As Regina turned, Emma could see that her gown had been discreetly, but minimally, laced together.   The closure at the bottom starting at the very top of her thighs and the bow nestled in the middle of her breasts.  The smooth, olive skin of Regina's chest shimmered in the light of the full moon and the millions of stars that  hung in the sky, and her nipples strained against the fabric, hardened partially by the brisk night air, but more fully by the presence of her wife.

Holding out her upturned fist, Regina waved her fingers open to reveal a hummingbird.

'Traitor, ' smiled Emma as she watched it wiggle its tail feathers proudly in the hands of its new master.

Leaning her lips in close to the bird's head, Regina whispered to it softly before nuzzling it gently against her cheek and then watching it fly into the brambles that had entwined themselves in the banister of the terrace.  Gradually a soft glow filled the space, and Emma stepped forward boldly, wrapping one arm tightly about Regina's waist, drawing her close.

'Tonight, I intend to fulfill your every fantasy and desire, ' whispered Emma as she looked down to watch herself trace a single, index finger from the hollow of Regina's throat, between her breasts and back again.

'And what about your fantasies and desires, My Queen?' responded Regina quietly.

Placing her index finger under Regina's chin, Emma lifted her face so that she could look into Regina's eyes.

'Patience, My Love...all will be revealed in time...'

She awaited no response before capturing Regina's lips with her own and plunging her tongue deeply into Regina's mouth, and her actions were met with equal fervor as Emma pressed the fingers of her right hand deep into Regina's thick hair.  Her left arm tightened around Regina's waist to draw her even closer before she stooped to pick up her bride, cradling Regina in her arms, but never breaking their kiss as she walked back through the open doors of the terrace.

As they walked, the fingers of Regina's one hand found their way through Emma's golden locks while her other hand caressed her cheek and jaw.  She stopped only for an instant to click her fingers softly to close the doors behind them, and she could feel Emma smile proudly into their kiss, amazed at how naturally she wielded her new-found magic.

Gently Emma rested Regina's feet on the soft fur of the fireplace rug where they stood facing each other.  Her wife's skin glowed bronze, and the firelight danced in her eyes.  Reaching with an index finger, Emma traced slowly across Regina's mouth, watching her eyes intently, before tugging down gently on her lower lip.  She could see a desperation swelling in Regina's chocolate orbs as she reached to her breasts and found the delicate, thin ribbon that bound her gown.

'If I am not mistaken...' husked Emma as she toyed with the bow, 'my wife desires to be fucked tonight...' 

'If it would please my Queen, ' responded Regina quietly.

'Oh...it will please me very, very much, ' said Emma slowly.

Emma could hear the throaty moan of pleasure and frustration resonate in Regina's chest as Emma turned and walked over to one of the chairs, leaving Regina standing alone.  Emma stopped for a moment to release the clasps of her jacket before turning and taking a seat, draping her arms over that of the chair as she relaxed back comfortably; her white coat falling open to reveal her leather corset and pants.

A seductive smile graced Regina's lips as she realized what Emma wanted, and her hands drew to the bow that Emma had refused to untie, toying with it for a moment as she watched her wife's eyes.  Grasping one end between her thumb and index finger, Regina pulled slowly.  

Emma's eyes flicked between Regina's eyes and her fingers; the spark of anticipation growing in green orbs by the instant.  Despite Emma's calm and confident demeanor this evening, Regina was quite aware of who held the power, and she intended to use that fact to ensure that they were both incredibly satisfied by evening end.

Painfully slowly, she removed the ribbon from the eyelets, allowing the sides of her lace gown to separate enough to reveal the inside of her breasts, stomach and the dark, trimmed, triangular patch of curls at the apex of her thighs.  Regina slid her delicate fingers up and down her skin from navel to breasts teasingly, and she watched as Emma fidgeted slightly in anticipation.   

Gathering the edges of the fabric at her collar bone, Regina separated the sides of her gown slowly, finally revealing her firm breasts and taut, dark nipples before slipping the lace back over her shoulders.  The gown slid slowly over Regina's biceps and forearms before it pooled on the ground around her feet, leaving her totally exposed to Emma's gaze.

She stood confidently in front of her wife for a moment so that her eyes might get their fill, before moving towards her, swinging her hips enticingly with each step.  As she approached, Emma parted her knees so that Regina might stand between them and she felt Regina's palms rest atop her thighs as she leaned forward to draw her face closer to Emma's.

A sexy smirk graced Regina's lips, and Emma could feel her warm breath as she placed her face temptingly close.  Leaning back slightly, Regina looked down as she placed her index finger at the top of Emma's corset.  Dragging her digit down Emma's front slowly, they both watched as the fabric of Emma's vest and jacket melted away leaving the porcelain skin of her upper body exposed.

Regina's face flushed, and she chewed her bottom lip as she admired Emma's small, but firm, breasts; already hardened nipples surrounded by light pink coins of rigid skin.  She kept her eyes fixed on Emma's as she traced the tip of her tongue slowly over her red lips, and she could see Emma's body tensing as she lowered her head toward Emma's chest as if to capture one of the hardened buds in her mouth.  At the last possible instant, she winked sexily before moving to kneel between Emma's feet, and she could see the slight frustration flash in her wife's eyes though she fought hard to maintain her air of indifference.

Fingertips brushed the smooth, tight skin of Emma's abdomen, tracing every dip and ridge; the brushes causing her muscles to twitch and jump.  Only a single finger traced the dip at the top of her hips and followed the curve down to the leather ties that were Emma's last defense to her wife's touch.

Leaning forward to kiss Emma's stomach softly with an open mouth, Regina's fingers released the bindings of Emma's pants, and she could already detect the heady scent of her wife's arousal.

Pulling the crotch of the pants open, Regina placed tender kisses into the soft, blonde curls that tickled her lips, and she sighed as she felt Emma press her fingers into her hair to encourage her further.  Pressing her tongue forward brazenly, Regina moaned as she tasted the salty tang that was undeniably Emma, and she knew immediately that she needed more.

Grasping the waistband of Emma's leather pants, she wriggled the material to work it over Emma's hips and thighs and she could feel Emma rise slightly from the chair to help.  So focused was she on returning to the warm and comforting feeling of her lover on her tongue that Regina didn't even notice Emma's subtle wave of fingers and she gasped in surprise as she looked up.

Emma's waist and hips were crossed by a series of thick leather straps, all present for the sole purpose of holding in place the thick, sliver, smoothly engraved and decorated  phallus that extended from the apex of her thighs.  Emma smirked as she saw Regina's reaction. 

Her expression had been quite similar to Regina's when the whore in the village had described what she wanted Emma to fashion in the forge.  It was not hers to judge, so she created the design as requested and could only remember the look of amazement and gratitude on the prostitute's face after a week of having it in her possession.  It was quite apparent from the large over-payment that the item had produced the desired effect, but she prayed that she had not overstepped with Regina.

She found her fears dispelled quickly as she watched Regina lean forward eagerly and run the flat of her tongue from the base of the shaft to the tip.  Reaching the end, she looked directly in Emma's eyes before wrapping full lips around the thick tip.  She started by taking only a few centimeters, but soon enveloped a significant portion of the length.

Emma's breathing quickened, and her eyes blew wide as she watched Regina,  mesmerized.  

Again and again, the length and girth of the shaft was taken into Regina's mouth; her eagerness for the phallus quite apparent and unabashed.  

It took only a few moments for the wetness Regina had deposited with her mouth to glisten on the shaft, and Emma reached her hand out to hold the back of Regina's head, encouraging her to continue.

'So eager, ' Emma sighed as her own green eyes were greeted by brown.

'But I know that you want more...' she observed, and she watched as Regina nodded her head, never stopping the caresses of her mouth on the shaft before her

'Then pleasure yourself as I watch, ' encouraged Emma.

Arising from her position, Regina placed one knee on the seat of the chair close to Emma's hip before straddling her lap.

Her fingertips bit hard into the leather to each side of Emma's head as she felt the tip of the phallus sliding teasingly, back and forth through her slit, held at the base by Emma's right hand.  Her left hand squeezed Regina's hip firmly to so as not to allow her the stretching fullness that she sought almost desperately, rocking in anticipation and trying to settle each time the head teased her entrance.

'So eager to be fucked, aren't you, My Love?' said Emma in an almost awed whisper.

Regina's eyes were closed, and she bit her lower lip as she nodded her head and whimpered softly.

'Are you sure that it is not this that you seek?' asked Emma as she circled the tip several times around Regina's clit, earning a gasp of pleasure followed by a moan.

'It is you that must decide, ' offered Emma.

She could feel Regina's hand cover her own, pressing back, the tip of the shaft slipping easily inside Regina's entrance thanks to the dripping wetness that already coated her lips.

Slowly, Regina lowered into Emma's lap, allowing herself to adjust to the girth and length of the cock.

Regina's hips were held and steadied by Emma's hands; her own grasping the top of the chair as she began to grind and rock herself against her wife's lap, moaning quietly as she bounced slightly; her breasts following the same motion.

After only a few moments, her strokes became longer and smoother, and Emma watched as, time and again, Regina raised herself to the tip of the silver shaft only to have it slip fully and easily inside her again.

A constant, low moan came from her wife's slightly parted lips, punctuated at the end of each downward stroke, and Emma felt arms wrap tight around her shoulders and neck as she leaned forward to embrace Regina's waist and back, drawing her mouth to Regina's breast.

'Please, ' begged Regina as her fingers threaded through blonde locks, and she pressed against the back of Emma's head trying to draw her closer.

'Such impatience, ' breathed Emma teasingly, her breath cooling the skin of Regina's chest which carried a sheen of perspiration due to the warmth of the fire behind her and her unceasing exertions.

'I need it to be you, Emma, ' pleaded Regina desperately.

'As you wish, My Queen, ' breathed Emma reverently as she closed her eyes for a moment.

Almost immediately, a wave of intense pleasure washed over Emma as she felt the  warmth and tightness of Regina's walls pulsing and gripping.   

Gone were the straps and silver, replaced instead by flesh and blood that now stood erect and throbbing between Emma's legs.

'Fuck, yes, My Love, ' breathed Regina as her pace slowed a bit, and she adjusted to the length and thickness of Emma's cock which filled and stretched her deliciously; the smoothness of the skin soothing gently as the  bottom of the head tugged and massaged every rib of her eager pussy.

Emma groaned loudly as she closed warm lips about Regina's hardened nipple

Her tongue sucked and swirled urgently, trying to refocus her attention slightly, feeling Regina's nipple grow and harden even further in her mouth.  Teeth scraped and nibbled, almost painfully, spurred on by the breathless pants and moans of her wife, and it was not long before Emma could do nothing more than pant open mouthed against Regina's breast, wincing slightly as she tried desperately to prolong her and Regina's pleasure.

Sensing her wife's struggle, Regina slowed and stopped her movements before lifting herself from Emma's lap.

'Regina, I....' started Emma with desperation in her eyes, but she was silenced by the press if an index finger against her lips.

Kneeling again between Emma's feet, Regina grasped her hips to urge Emma forward to the edge of the chair before pressing her hands against the inside of Emma's thighs to spread them wide.  She licked her lips unconsciously and moaned lightly as she took in the cock that Emma had conjured for her, bathed in her own, delicious juices.

Starting at the base, she placed gentle open-mouthed kisses up the length, savoring her own sweet and salty taste that had been warmed by the incredible heat of Emma's erect member.

She could feel Emma's fingers pressing through her hair and she flicked her tongue gently to tease, careful to avoid the tip of the cock which seemed to be most sensitive.  

She could feel Emma relax slightly, and Regina looked up to see her wife watching her intently.  Satisfied that Emma was no longer teetering on a very precipitous edge, she wrapped her hand around the cock before using the pad of her thumb to rub gentle circles under the tip, watching as Emma eyes fluttered closed and her head fell back to rest against the back of the chair.

'My Regina, ' she whispered.

'Just breathe, ' responded Regina as she continued to suck and lick the shaft of the cock, greedily collecting her juices on her tongue and enjoying the feel of the smooth skin that moved and reacted to her slightest touch.

Slowly, Regina began to move her hand up and down the shaft, tugging and pressing gently at the head of the cock as each of her digits passed over.  The reaction was immediate but not overwhelming and she could hear Emma groan in pleasure as the cock hardened and engorged again.

Emma's eyes opened in confusion as she realized that Regina's ministrations had stopped, and she wondered if she had done something wrong. 

Looking to the chair beside her, she saw Regina, one knee on the seat, her other foot on the floor, hands grasping the arm of the chair as she looked over her shoulder at Emma.  Her eyes were dark and blown wide with desire.

'I need you to fuck me as your whore, My Queen, and then, make love to me as your wife, ' demanded Regina needfully; the firm, beautiful globes of her ass raised and her wet pussy open and ready.

It was the only prompting the Emma required and she stood from her chair; her own hand massaging her cock firmly to ensure that it would be absolutely ready to fulfill her wife's desires.

Stepping close, Emma slid her flat palm and splayed fingers down the tattooed side of Regina's back.

'Thy love is my strength always, ' she whispered reverently as she felt Regina tremble slightly beneather her touch; her skin raising into bumps.

Grasping Regina's hip firmly with her left hand, Emma took the cock in her right hand and rubbed the tip, up and down, slowly through Regina's slick, wet, swollen lips before positioning the head just inside her entrance.

'As you wish, ' said Emma as she grasped Regina's hips with both hands, pulling her back hard while she slammed her hips forward, burying the length of the cock deep in Regina's pussy.

Pulling back, Emma watched as the cock slipped out to the tip before she thrust forward again.  

Regina needed little additional tutelage or encouragement, rocking back hard to match each thrust forward, and quickly, they found a rhythm that suited them both; the globes of Regina's ass slapping hard and loud against Emma's hips.

Leaning forward, Emma's right hand gripped the arm of the chair beside Regina's hand, and, despite the fervor of their coupling, she bowed her head to kiss Regina's shoulder gently as she felt Regina's ring and little fingers move slightly to cover her index and middle finger.

The fingers of her left hand cupped Regina's breast, massaging firmly, before pinching, pulling and twisting her nipple.  Regina was so strong and sure, yet so vulnerable and exposed at the same time, and Emma realized that this was her Regina, the Regina to which she alone would be privy.

'Do not deny me, Emma, ' begged Regina as Emma withdrew the still-hard cock.

'Lay upon the fur, Regina, ' she demanded and immediately Regina moved to comply.

Kneeling between Regina's knees, Emma lifted Regina's legs to place her calves upon her shoulders before reaching down to position the cock at Regina's entrance once more.

Without hesitation, she drove her hips forward, the weight of her own body pushing Regina's knees and thighs back against her body.  

Reaching forward, Emma cupped Regina's cheek in her hand and brushed her thumb against parted lips tenderly.  

The stark contrast to Emma's incessant and urgent thrusting did not go unnoticed by Regina, nor did the look of pure adoration and protection that she saw play in the dark green eyes that kept her gaze, but fluttered occasionally, as Emma's excitement began to build rapidly again.

Wanting and needing to be closer to her wife, Emma moved Regina's legs to wrap about her waist and hips.

Lowering her upper body and head, Emma captured Regina's nipple in her mouth as her own hardened, aching peaks brushed teasingly against the skin of Regina's stomach.  Deftly her mouth and tongue worked, every reaction of Regina's body bringing her one step closer to that beautiful edge.  

Releasing her mouth with a pop, Emma  leaned forward further and captured Regina's lips with her own, stroking their tongues together over and over.

To each side of Regina, her hands twisted into the thick fur beneath them, and she broke their kiss, grunting and moaning loudly between gritted teeth as beads of sweat rolled down her spine and over her chest.

'Come for me, My Svan, ' whispered Regina as she wrapped her legs tightly about Emma's body and lifted her rear just slightly. 

It was the final nudge that Emma needed, and she cried out into the still of the room as the orgasm ripped through her body.  She kissed Regina desperately and needfully as she continued to rock inside of her wife, riding out waves of incredible pleasure until she could offer no more and the cock disappeared having fulfilled its purpose. 

'I'm sorry that I could not make you....' whispered emma.

Again, Regina's finger was placed upon her lips to silence her.

'We have a lifetime to learn, ' reassured Regina as she found her lips captured once again by Emma's, only this time it was different.  

Gone was any vestige of dominance, confidence or control from Emma's demeanor, and Regina could feel Emma's body tremble nervously beneath the brush of her fingers.  

There was almost a hesitance and uncertainty in Emma's touch as she wondered if she might even begin to bring the same pleasure to her wife that Regina had already brought to her.

Breaking their kiss, Regina looked at Emma with concerned eyes before brushing her fingertips lovingly through the side of her damp hair.

'Tell me what is wrong, My Love, ' asked Regina quietly.

'I want only to give you everything, Regina, ' whispered Emma shyly in reply.

'You already have, My Love.  You already have....' reassured Regina with a soft smile.

There was a moment's silence before Regina spoke quietly again.

'Emma?'

'Yes?'

'Will you show me what you thought about when we were apart for those months?' asked Regina hopefully as she looked into Emma's eyes and saw a spark of relief and confidence return.

'Gladly, My Queen, ' breathed Emma with a soft smile.

Regina's eyes closed as Emma's index finger traced over her forehead and down her nose, tracing the outline of her lips slowly and gently before her bottom lip was captured tenderly between Emma's.  She moaned quietly at the soft sucking as she felt Emma's hand beneath the small of her back, lifting her slightly so their bodies might be closer together.

Breaking their kiss, Emma brushed her nose playfully against Regina's, earning a beautiful smile before her lips traced lightly over Regina's jawline from her chin to her ear, taking the lobe between her lips and earning a soft gasp in return.

'So, so beautiful, ' was whispered softly before Emma moved to suck on the pulse point at Regina's neck, scraping her teeth gently.  

She could feel Regina's hand thread through her hair in encouragement, and, emboldened, she moved to leave a trail of open-mouthed kisses from the hollow of Regina's throat to between her breasts, lingering briefly about her heart.

As she worshiped Regina's body with her mouth and tongue, her hand slid down Regina's side and hip slowly, and she stopped to knead her fingers into Regina's ass several times, earning a pleasured groan before tracing her fingers further down, feeling Regina's knee raise.

Her hand squeezed gently and worked it's way back up Regina's thigh slowly as her mouth found Regina's nipple, sucking and teasing it into an almost painful peak before releasing it to offer similar, gentle treatment to Regina's other breast.

The kisses and flicks of Emma's tongue were light against the salty skin of Regina's abdomen and she could feel it rise into bumps as Regina arched her back slightly seeking more contact.

Teeth scraped against the fold of Regina's hip causing them to buck slightly, and Emma made careful note of the sensitivity before she brushed her lips over Regina's lower abdomen feeling the light bumps of the stretch marks that remained from her pregnancy.

'So beautiful, ' she whispered reverently, before breathing in deeply to take in the sweet, thick scent of her wife's arousal.

She nuzzled her mouth and nose into Regina's short, thick curls, feeling the dampness that had collected there as it dripped from her pussy during their previous fuck before positioning herself lower; Regina's knees propped as Emma wrapped her arms tightly about Regina's thighs.

A trail of kisses was placed on moist lips before Emma pressed her tongue forward, seeking Regina's hard clit.

She could hear Regina gasp and feel her back arch hard as the bare tip of her tongue teased the end of erect bud which hardened and swelled further with each flick.

Pressing further, the flat of Emma's toungue lapped greedily at the bath of wetness that had already been released at her slightest touch before moving to circle Regina's clit several times.

She could feel Regina tense and pull away slightly as she moved lower to tease Regina's entrance, and she recognized her wife's protectiveness at the soreness that was already present.

Her ministrations were slow as she soothed her wife gently, and Regina relaxed as she realized Emma wished only to provide her comfort.

Moving again to Regina's clit, she took it between her lips, jaw rocking to provide a gentle suction, trying to coax the sensitive bundle of nerves forward from their sheath.

Her tongue flicked and swirled, and it was only an instant before she could hear the increasing volume and frequency of moans and pants coming from her wife's lips.

Her hands grasped Regina's hips, pulling her against her mouth to heighten the pleasure she could provide. 

Fingers searched frantically through the thick fur to find purchase, finally finding Emma's hands offered instead; their fingers entwining both for support and encouragement.

Regina's hips bucked and rolled strongly against her mouth as Emma found the exact pattern and pressure that her wife needed.  

Emma opened her eyes to look up at Regina who was propped upon her elbows; watching Emma intently and desperately.  Their eyes met for only a moment before Regina's eyes closed and her head fell back in ecstasy .  It was a picture of pure perfection and beauty that Emma prayed quietly would never leave her mind and that she might be witness to as often as possible.

The movement of Regina's hips became more chaotic as her orgasm neared; her hands grasping tighter to Emma's by the moment.

'Please, please do not stop.  I am so....' begged Regina as she raised her head to look at Emma pleadingly, her chest heaving as she gasped for every breath.

The last word of her sentence was consumed in a cry of pleasure as she exploded into orgasm; arching her back and hips high off the ground as Emma gripped her thighs tightly, unrelenting in her teasing, intent on extracting every drop of pleasure from her wife which she lapped up greedily and hungrily until Regina relaxed, exhausted, into the rug.

Sliding her body back up Regina's, Emma kissed her wife's lips; Regina's tongue caressing every inch of her mouth as she sought to taste the remnants of her own pleasure.

Satisfied and exhausted herself, Emma moved to lay beside Regina, patting atop her breast to encourage Regina to move closer.

Resting her cheek against Emma's chest, Regina draped her thigh over Emma's hips; her foot moving lightly up and down Emma's calf and shin as her fingers traced nonsensical patterns upon the skin of her stomach.

Emma's own fingers traced lazily from Regina's hip to knee and back as a smile of contentment played upon her lips, and she sighed deeply, causing Regina to look up.

'Is something wrong?' asked Regina quietly.

'Quite the contrary, ' assured Emma.  'My life has never been so perfect as it is in this instant...thank you, Regina...'

'Are you certain?' asked Regina curiously.

'Well....there is one thing....' said Emma somberly.

'Oh?' she responded very hesitantly.

'I should like for my beautiful wife to recover quickly so that I might indulge in her perfect body again....'

'By all means, do not delay, ' hummed Regina with a sexy smirk, rolling over to lay atop Emma, feeling her soft, warm hands caressing down her sides and back, 'I assure you that my stamina is quite considerable...'

'As you wish, My Queen, ' smiled Emma as she rolled them over to begin again.

 


 

They made love all night and well into the next day, stopping only to eat and drink briefly, laughing and talking as they shared food from fingertips and wine from a single cup.

The hour was late the next evening before they finally retired to bed, bodies spent, but extremely and thoroughly satisfied.

 


 

Emma was roused from a fitul sleep by a tapping at the chamber door.  At first, she believed herself dreaming, and she raised her head from the pillow with heavily lidded eyes trying to sort reality from fantasy.  

Hearing nothing more, she lay her head back on the pillow, moving her front close against Regina's back, and she sighed as she felt Regina wiggle back tighter against her; held there by Emma's arm wrapped around her waist.

She had almost dozed off again, when there was, again, a rapping at the door and Emma's eyes opened; this time, recognizing the sound as being very real and very close.

Placing a light kiss upon Regina's shoulder, Emma slipped from beneath the covers, pulling them tightly around Regina's form to keep her warm.

She slipped on a heavy dressing gown as she walked towards the door with a furrowed brow, wondering what might be so important that they should be disturbed, let alone, at the current hour.

Opening the door slightly, Emma squinted at the dim light of the corridor before rubbing her eyes that she might focus.

Before her, one of her father's pages stood.  He was a tentative and shy young lad of about 12 who she had seen several times, but to whom she had not been introduced.

'M-m'l-lady, ' he stuttered out quietly with a deep bow.

'Yes, ' responded Emma very quietly as she looked over her shoulder to ensure they were not disturbing Regina with their conversation. 

Regina's only response to the interruption was a small moan and sigh as she adjusted herself further into the warmth of the covers and fell back asleep.

Turning back around, Emma noticed that page was still looking intently in the direction of Regina, eyes wide and mouth slightly open as he took in her bare, smooth upper back and shoulders, part of which was covered with the intricacies of her tattoo.

'Yes, ' asked Emma again as her brow furrowed and her mouth twisted into a scowl.  

She had been only slightly annoyed at the intrusion, but, her anger was growing by the second at his ogling.

Receiving no response and realizing that he was only going to continue to stare if she didn't intervene, Emma stepped outside the door, pressing the very reluctant page backwards with her proximity as his head bobbed and weaved trying to keep his view of Regina over Emma's shoulder.

'I assume you have some message of importance?' asked Emma again as he continued to try looking through the crack of the door.

Sighing in frustration, Emma took his chin gently between between her thumb and forefinger, turning his head so that he would focus his eyes on her face.  Speaking slower, she tried again.

'You have a message....' sighed Emma one more time with a cocked brow.

Awaking from his trance, the boy blushed bright crimson as he realized that he had been staring at the Queen as the other stood directly in front of him....and she looked extremely perturbed.

'Y-y-yes, Y-y-your M-majesty, ' he squeaked with a furrowed brow as his hand went to his pants embarrassedly, pulling at his crotch as he winced in both discomfort and desperation for relief.

Her annoyance turned quickly to a mix of amusement and sympathy as she realized the young boy's predicament, and she covered her mouth to hide her grin, waiting until the young man had gathered himself enough to speak normally.

'T-the K-king, I mean, the f-former K-king requests y-your audience....'

'Did he provide a reason?'

The page shook his head quickly, still pulling at his pants.

Emma suspected that there was more to the message, but it would take less time to simply get it from her father in person than to ask the page to recall anything beyond her wife's back side.

Closing the door completely, Emma grasped the page by his collar and turned him abruptly, signifying clearly that his luck had run out as she guided him gently to lead the way to the chambers.....

Chapter Text

'Where is my page, ' asked Henry quizzically as Emma entered the Council chambers alone.

'Your page....' drawled out Emma, unsure how to respond, 'is dealing with an....umm.... personal situation...at the moment.  However, I am quite certain that he will be along very, very quickly....'

Barely had the words fallen from her lips when the boy entered the Council Chambers, eyes heavy-lidded, a light grin and a slightly dreamy look upon his face.  Finding his seat in the corner, he slumped into it, oblivious to anything but his own thoughts.

'I recommend, perhaps, sending a different page should you ever need to summon Regina in the middle of the night.... '

'Was she harsh with him?' asked Henry, baffled, still trying to make sense of the situation.

'Oh, quite the contrary, Father.  He seemed to be more than....ummm...pleased with their encounter, despite the fact that she was sound asleep....with her bare back to the door....'

'Oh, ' said Henry with a furrowed brow.  

'Ohhhhhh, ' he said in a slightly lower tone as he finally put two and two together.

'Ummmm... yes.... well.... duly noted, Emma...' he added as his face blushed crimson as well.

They stood in an awkward silence for a moment before Emma decided to hurry things along, eager to return to the warmth of her wife and her bed.

'I could not get much from the page regarding why I was being summoned.  Perhaps, you can explain?'

It was the first time Emma truly looked around the room, and she noted several of the Queen's Guard, including Claudius, standing along the outside wall dressed in their standard, leather armor.  Her father, Marco, the Ambassador and several other advisors, previously unintroduced to Emma, stood around the circular table that took up much of the center of the room.  The top was covered in a heavy, brass relief map of the Kingdom which had some markers containing very familiar sigils placed upon it already.  

The information that was provided to her over the next half hour only managed to confirmed what she already suspected.

Turning to Claudius, Emma addressed him directly with a sigh.

'Captain, if you would be so kind as to awaken the Queen.  We need her here at once, ' sighed Emma as she watched him salute and exit the room.

 


 

The mood was somber as Regina entered the Council room, arms wrapped tightly about her waist as she tried to keep herself warm and guarded from the drafts of the castle.

She had been awakened from her sleep by a pounding at the chamber door, and she realized quickly that Emma was no longer beside her.  Jumping from the bed, she opened the door to find Claudius who assured her that Emma was not in danger, but that her presence in Council chambers was of utmost importance.

She had intended to apologize for being clad only in her heavy dressing gown, but realized quickly that most of those around her...Henry, Marco, Emma, the Ambassador...were all in a similar state.

'Unnnhhh, ' could be heard from the page as Regina stepped inside the door, and he bolted from his chair, sprinting from the room.

'Is he all right? ' asked Regina concerned as she turned to watch him exit the room.

'He is perfectly fine and will be back momentarily, ' sighed Emma with a roll of her eyes. 'I do suggest, however, that you do not make eye contact with him, lest we lose him permanently....'

'W-what...?' asked Regina, thoroughly perplexed.

'It is a long story, and one best left for another time....'

'As you wish, ' replied Regina, still looking at Emma in utter confusion.

She stepped to the edge of the round table directly across from Emma, and the look that was now in her eyes told Regina that something was very wrong.

'My Queen, ' addressed Emma somberly and formally, 'we have received word that a sizeable army from the Kingdom of Uvhir has mobilized.  They are a thousand strong and are led by...' Emma hesitated for a moment as Regina finished for her.

'The High Queen...' 

'Yes, ' sighed Emma in confirmation before continuing.

'The ships are expected to make landfall here, ' stated Emma as she placed her finger upon a port that was closest to her on the map.

'From there, it will be a day, two at most before they reach the castle walls....'

'My Queen, ' implored Claudius, 'we are two thousand strong.  Surely, we will stop them before they reach the castle walls....'

'Do not underestimate them solely because of their numbers, Captain.  Each of these men has the strength of three.  The forests will not deter or delay them.  In fact, they may well become their advantage.....'

'Nevermind, that they are well united behind a single, common goal, ' added Regina.

'Yes, to find me, ' added Emma definitively.

There was a somber pause before Regina broke the silence.

'She does not seek you, Emma, ' offered Regina quietly.  'This time, it is Eva and Henry that she desires...'

'What? Why? For these many years, it is me that she has pursued....'

'Yes, but foolishly, she forgot that as the years passed, you grew into adulthood and independence.  Your experiences made you strong and resilient, capable of withstanding cruelty unimaginable.  She saw that with her own eyes on the scaffold.

No.  She needs someone who has never known fear or neglect....someone that she can break easily and then remold into whatever likeness she desires....she needs a child, Emma.'

'Well, it will not be ours, ' raged Emma.  'We will protect them!'

'Of that, we are in vehement agreement, ' responded Regina before taking a calming breath.

'Captain, ' requested Regina softly.

'Yes, My Queen, ' Claudius responded as he stepped forward and crossed one arm across his breastplate in salute.

'You will have one of the young officers under your command take our children from this castle tomorrow night and hide them in a distant village, far in the opposite direction from where we anticipate the ships will make landfall.

The officer will tell NO ONE, not you, not Queen Emma, not myself, of their whereabouts, and, only you will know the identity of the officer.'

'WHAT?!?!' cried Emma incredulously. 'SHOULD EITHER BE KILLED, THE CHILDREN MAY WELL BE LOST TO US!!'

Regina could see the pain and desperation in Emma's eyes as she realized that her own childhood story had the potential of being played out again before her, only this time, it was happening to her own children.

'Regina, there must be another way, ' she pleaded, though she understood in her heart her wife's decision.

'Emma, the danger to their lives increases with every person that knows.  She will seek those in power first to gather this information.  She is blind to those that she deems unworthy....'

'Regina, please...' begged Emma quietly.

'Emma, my Mother will not bargain and her cruelty knows no bounds.  She is not my Grandfather, and she has seen the repercussions of his indecision and inaction. 

She has seen you and what you are capable of with her own eyes, and she will know Eva's and Henry's potential.  

With them, she can become invincible, and we will all suffer greatly for it.  

She comes to take both of them, but she needs only the strongest.  She does not know yet who that is, so she will keep them both alive only long enough to make the determination.  However, once she has her answer, she will make the weaker to suffer unspeakably, if for no other reason than to punish me for my own insubordination.  I WILL NOT bury one of our children, Emma....'

Emma nodded her head in defeat and acquiescence.

'Captain, ' commanded Regina quietly, 'your officer will come, alone, to our children's chamber when the moon reaches it's apex.  They will be ready to leave.'

'Yes, M'Lady, ' he said as he saluted again and bowed his head.  He moved to retake his position at the door of the chamber, when Regina reached out her hand to touch his arm.

'Claudius, ' she whispered, and he stopped to look at her.  Her eyes brimmed with tears and he could see her chin tremble.  

'Choose well.  Please.  I need them kept safe.'

Patting her hand gently, he nodded reassuringly at her before stepping back silently.

They stood in silence for a moment as the full weight of the situation hit them, and it was Emma who spoke next, turning their attention from her immediate to her extended family within the Kingdom.

'Ambassador, ' offered Emma quietly, but definitively as she rechanneled her fears and doubts into creating a plan that would lead to the loss of as few people as possible, including her children, 'you will send envoys to every village in the immediate path between the port and the castle.  They will take with them orders from the throne.  They are to evacuate the villages immediately and move to more secure locations taking only that which they may easily carry....'

'Your Majesty, ' interrupted Claudius again, 'the people will not leave.  They want to fight for their Queen....'

Emma bowed her head with a sigh before looking back up at him through her lashes.

'And should they try and fail, the men will see their women raped and their children taken as slaves before they are slaughtered like animals....'

'But, Your Majesty, ' implored Claudius.

'DAMMIT, CLAUDIUS, ' shouted Emma as her body shook with rage and she slammed her fist down several times into the bronze relief, cutting and puncturing the skin of her knuckles until the blood flowed down her fingers, dripping onto the table top from her fingertips.

'I WILL NOT HAVE DONE TO THESE PEOPLE WHAT WAS DONE TO ME!!  

IF I HAVE TO DRAG EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM FROM THEIR HOMES WITH MY OWN BARE HANDS, THEN SO BE IT, BUT THEY WILL LEAVE.  

I CONCEDED ONCE ALREADY TONIGHT.  I WILL NOT DO IT AGAIN!!'

Subtly, Regina motioned to Claudius to let the matter rest, and she watched him nod before she looked at Emma with concerned eyes.  

Her wife's face was conflicted with so many emotions.  She wished only that she might be alone with Emma to provide some comfort, but that was a luxury that they could no longer afford. 

'What now, ' asked Henry calmly as he looked to Emma.

'Now....we prepare for war, ' sighed Emma.

 


 

They worked throughout the night and well into the next afternoon, until no more preparation, planning or anticipation could be done.  Every scenario had been considered; every counter-scenario offered.

Emma left the council chambers first to review final details with Henry, Marco and the Ambassador, while Regina stayed behind for awhile longer to discuss with Claudius her mother's potential strategies and the methods of warfare commonly used by those of her former Kingdom.

Bringing their discussion to a close, Regina arose from her chair and stepped to the door where she stopped, placing her hand upon the frame before looking back over her shoulder.

'I beg of you, Claudius, ' said Regina softly, 'judge me not by what you have heard or by what you will see.  I have nothing to offer, but my word, that I am not like them....'

'Rest easy, My Queen.  There are many among us that still remember well the brutality of the Uvhir.  There is no doubt that you were as much a stranger in that land as Queen Emma, and we are happy that you, too, are now safely home...'

Regina nodded her head in thanks and acknowledgement before exiting the council chamber, walking briskly to her and Emma's  chamber where she hoped she might find a moment's peace with her wife....

 


 

Their room was dark and deserted when Regina opened the door.  Only the fire glowed steadily, continually tended despite their absence.  

She briefly considered changing into something more appropriate for midday, but her heart knew exactly where Emma would be, and she wanted only to be in her presence; to have some sort of normalcy.

Returning down the hall, she entered another corridor where she saw Eva's and Henry's bedroom door half-open.  The fire was slightly higher, and the flames danced upon the brocade carpet of the hallway in front of her.

Regina could hear a mumbled, but recognizable, voice coming from inside, and she slowed her pace to approach the entrance to the room more quietly.  

Looking inside, Regina could see only Emma's back and partial profile as she sat at the edge of Eva's bed, but it didn't matter; it was her voice that told the tale.

Regina crossed her arms over her chest before leaning her shoulder and head against the door frame to listen; a soft smile of  happiness and immense pain playing on her lips.

'My beautiful Eva, I am so sorry that I have not been there for you as you have grown.  And once again, I will fail you, by being unable to protect you adequately.  It hurts so badly to let you go, but I know that your mother is right, and I know she suffers greatly as well with this decision.  

Believe, though, that we will find you.  No matter the circumstances, no matter the danger to ourselves, no matter the distance, no matter the time passed....we will be together again.  This I promise you.'

Placing a gentle kiss on Eva's forehead, she whispered 'I love you' before moving to Henry's bed to sit beside him for a moment as well.

Brushing the hair from his face, she sighed.

'Those that look at you and know you, Henry, will forever be in the presence of your beautiful mother... something of which you should always be proud.

It is our undying love for you that separates us, nothing more.  Were I a better person, I would be able to keep you safe, but, your mother is right....I cannot.

I offer the same pledge to you as I did to Eva.....

Where one of us goes, all will go, but none will suffer.  

I will destroy this plague with my own hands before I will see you harmed, and we will not be apart for longer than is necessary. This I promise you.'

Tucking his covers under his chin, Emma kissed his forehead as well, whispering a gentle 'I love you' before standing to look upon her children one more time.

Believing she heard a noise at the door, Emma turned quickly to find no one standing there, and she returned one more time to look at her children, trying to form an imprint of their perfect features in her mind, before turning and exiting their room, closing the door softly behind her.

 


 

Regina sat in the chair of their bedroom chamber, staring at the fire in the grate.  

Thoughts and questions danced through her mind like the flames upon the logs; chief among them the fate and safety of her children and the heartbreak and anger of her wife.  

She was oblivious to the sound of the door behind her, only pulled from her trance when the shadow of a figure appeared upon the fur, and she had no time to react before she found her wife kneeling at her feet, head upon her thighs, weeping.

'They are not even away from me, Regina, and I feel already like they are lost, ' whispered Emma as she wrapped her arms tightly about Regina's waist.

Regina's fingers pressed gently through the side of her hair repeatedly as her other hand pulled the strands away from her face and neck so that she might look upon her wife more fully.

The remnants of tears clung to Emma's lashes and bathed her cheeks; her face flushed from her emotions.

'I have failed them, Regina, in every way, since the day that they were conceived, and now, I fail them again....'

'Emma, ' stated Regina quietly, 'it is not failure to want to protect our children.

We both know that we must be fully focused on this war.  Their presence here will create a rift in our attention.  If we believe they are safe then we may turn our attention solely on the matter at hand....'

'And how do we know they will be safe, Regina?'

'Because I trust Claudius, Emma... I feel it in my heart.  He will not betray us....'

She could feel Emma relax, but only slightly.

'I can tell that something else troubles you, My Love.  Please, tell me what that is so that I might help you.  I will not judge.  Of this, I swear....'

She could feel Emma hesitate slightly and she waited a moment before whispering again,

'I will not judge you, my beautiful Svan...'

'I simply wonder if this is how my mother and father felt….' pondered Emma quietly.

'Do you believe that they would have felt differently, Emma?' asked Regina quizzically with a furrowed brow.

'They barely knew me... nor I them.  It would not have been like this. …'

'Emma, I assure you that your mother and father loved, and still love, you more fiercely than you will ever allow yourself to believe.  What greater testament to that fact could there be than for your mother to have given her life to try to save yours?  I cannot imagine the pain and fear that she lived with every day knowing that you would be taken from her, and it wasn't just an hour or a day that she suffered.  It was months that she lived with this uncertainty.  And when the time came…. well…. I doubt that the pain of her death could even compare to her pain at your loss.

As for your father, Emma, forget not that he lost two of the great loves of his life that day.  He spared a throne and lost a son to find you, because, like your mother, he knew who you were and of what you were capable.

If you believe that you have failed, then think for a moment what he endured for almost 30 years, wondering, if he had been more diligent in his protection...if he had been more vigilant in his security....his daughter may not have suffered so....

At least we have the benefit of deciding and knowing the hour of our children's departure and have the means of ensuring their safety with a trusted guardian from our own Kingdom.

The path behind us is always clearer than the one before us, Emma, but it will serve no one for you to dwell upon it.  Instead, I suggest we find a way to end this war quickly and with as little loss of our peoples' lives possible so that we may ensure our children's safe return.'

'Are you not afraid, Regina?' asked Emma softly as she looked up at Regina's face, marveling at her wife's calm and composure.

'I don't have the luxury of fear, Emma.  I am a mother...and a wife...' responded Regina quietly with a soft smile.

'And this, ' asked Emma as she traced the scar on Regina's lip, 'is this the price of motherhood?'

'Yes, Emma.  And one  that I would pay gladly again...for any and all of you...'

 


The soldier entered the bedroom to find the children sitting solemnly up on their mattresses.

Almost immediately, Henry arose, offering a letter to the man.

He looked at Henry quizzically as he took the folded piece of parchment from his fingers.  It was sealed with wax bearing the sigil of the Queens.

'My mother wishes that you read it before leaving, ' offered Henry softly, sensing the man's confusion and hesitation.

Breaking the seal, the soldier read the words twice before walking to the fireplace and laying the paper upon the embers, careful to watch it until he was certain that all had been consumed and turned to ash.

'Come, Your Highnesses, ' said the soldier as he hoisted their small packs upon his shoulders.  'We have one thing that we must do before starting our journey, and then we must be on our way....'

 

Chapter Text

'You see, Thorin, ' huffed the High Queen boredly as she waved her hand about lazily at the houses before them, 'they run like vermin on a sinking ship.  They are no match for our army, and they well know it...'

'The men hunger for a battle, not a chase, My Queen, ' grumbled Thorin as he looked around at the empty village that surrounded them.

'Patience, My Dear Thorin, ' soothed the High Queen with a sadistic smirk as she trailed her fingers suggestively across his cheek, 'I assure you that war will be upon us soon enough....'

Her playfulness quickly abated and her lips moved to form a scowl as she turned her gaze to the tops of the trees where the tallest spires of the castle were barely visible.

'I must admit that even I am quite disappointed by our lack of welcome...'

Turning to the men behind her she provided terse, but definite orders.

'Take what you will and then burn these houses to the ground.  Let them know that we are here...'

 


 

'Your Majesties, ' panted the soldier who was out of breath from his ride and the subsequent sprint through the castle, 'they are upon the shore....'

'Yes, ' responded Emma solemnly as she looked across the forest from the terrace of the castle.  In the distance, a great cloud of smoke rose into the air from the burning of the abandoned dwellings of the port village.

'How many on the ground?' asked Regina.

'Ten, at most, Your Highness....'

'And the High Queen?' followed Regina.

'She is with them, M'Lady.'

A final nod of her head both acknowledged and dismissed the soldier.  Turning around, she addressed a small group of Captains that remained with them on the terrace.

'Soon, the remaining men will amass ahead of them.  As they advance, the army will break into raiding parties that will attack and subdue the surrounding villages.  They will be cautious at first, but will soon become emboldened by their own impatience.   

We are fortunate that the villages further from the castle are more dispersed. This will scatter the High Queen's men and make it more difficult for them to travel quickly to each other's aid or to send word of their success or failure.

However, these parties very rarely, if ever, fail in their endeavors, so the High Queen will not hesitate to press forward, confident that all in her wake is falling under her control.

Once she believes enough time has passed for her men to have subjugated the majority of the villages, she will advance to the castle, with only a few, to negotiate her terms.  The contingent may be small, but, make no mistake, the men that she will have with her are some of the strongest and most skilled among them. 

Their duty is simple: protect the High Queen at all costs and attain her desired prize, and they will be merciless in that endeavor.

If we are taken, do NOT attept to interfere. 

You will likely only make it a few steps....and that is only if you are very lucky....

No matter what you hear or what you see, concentrate only on staying alive.  The High Queen believes that Queen Emma and I have vital information.  Until she feels that she has it, she should not kill us, though she will not make it easy on us either....'

Pausing for a moment, she turned to address Claudius directly.

'Captain, are your men in place?'

'Yes, Your Majesty, ' he saluted.

'Then we should move into position as well.....'

 


 

The sun had barely risen in the crisp, blue sky when the first raiding party reached their intended village.  It was not deserted as the port had been, and the Uvhir smirked at their good fortune. 

Smoke rose from the openings in the roofs, and the smell of food hung in the air as the residents took their morning meals.  Only a few women, bundled tight against the cold, moved about the yards and barns tending their livestock.

'Fools, ' smirked one of the Uvhir with a low chuckle, 'they make it too easy for us.'

Motioning with his hand, a few men, enough to match the women present in the yard, moved forward silently.  The others watched as each subdued their quarry from behind, dragging them off to one of the barns.

Their path and cover secured, the remaining men positioned themselves, one outside the door of each residence, all watching their commander and awaiting the signal to attack. 

On his mark, each kicked hard with a heavily booted foot, easily splintering the frames around the locks and slamming the doors against the inside walls.

Almost immediately, the cries of attack filled the air, mingling discordantly with the screams of surprise and the sounds of the ensuing scuffles in each of the homes.....

 


 

'It is fitting that we are in the barn, considering we intend to fuck you like animals, ' growled one of the Uvhir as he grabbed the back of the scarved neck of the woman that knelt before him and pressed her face roughly into the hay.

'I have been denied for too long on that ship.  I hope the sorry cunts of these women are at least better than the ones of the last Kingdom....' 

Kneeling behind the woman, but keeping her upper body firmly pressed into the hay, the Uvhir warrior released his belt; his pants gathering about his knees on the ground as he pressed her skirt up.

Her skirt was barely upon her waist when he looked down.

'W-WHAT IS THIS?!?!' he cried as he released the neck of the woman before him in disbelief, stumbling and falling as he tried to stand.  

In the ensuing confusion, the two other women jumped to their feet simultaneously, wheeling around as they extracted knives from their cleavage, immediately holding the blades against the necks of their captors and relieving them of their weapons which had been pocketed away in anticipation of their 'fun'.  

The third woman followed in short order, waiting patiently as her former captor rolled about on the ground, tangled in his own breeches.  

Finally on his feet, a blade was placed at his neck as well.

Reaching to her face, the first woman pulled her scarf down to reveal a full beard.  

'You are not women!' cried the Uvhir warrior.

'No, we are not, ' was the response delivered in a rough, deep voice, 'and you should consider yourselves lucky.  

Had you tried this with a true woman of the Enchanted Forest, you would found yourself upon the floor with your neck broken by her bare hands before your belt had finished falling open.....

Our women will not be treated like animals, and they will they NOT be insulted by your mens' sad excuses for cocks...'

Turning to the soldier beside him, the commander wondered,

'You didn't wear anything under the skirt, did you?'

'I thought the element of surprise might work to our advantage, Sir, ' responded the soldier proudly.

'Well, I can tell from the look on this poor bastard's face, ' offered the second soldier with a wave of his hand at the Uvhir warrior who still stood, mouth hanging open in disbelief, pants wrapped around his feet and ankles, 'that the sight of your hairy balls and arse must have been damn shocking....'

The superior officer rolled his eyes at the absurdity of the entire situation before turning his full attention back to their captors.

'OUTSIDE...ALL OF YOU!!'

 


 

'WHAT THE....' growled the Uvhir warrior as three blade tips pressed into the flesh of his neck at the front, side and back.

Expecting a surprised family upon his entry to the home, he was, instead, met by the swords of three soldiers who were disguised, quite convincingly, as villagers.

'Turn around slowly and walk into the square....' said one of the men as he relieved the Uvhir of his weapons and nudged him firmly to be on his way.

 


 

'Report, ' was the single command of the Captain who stood in the center of the space into which the Uvhir prisoners were being directed.

'Twelve Uvhir dead, seven soldiers, Captain, ' replied the soldier before him who was removing straw from the chest of his village dress and throwing it on the ground before lifting the fabric over his head to reveal his true armor.

'HALT!!' screamed another disguised soldier as one of the younger Uvhir broke away from his guards and sprinted towards the edge of the forest.

Reaching over calmly, the Captain took the bow from the hands of the soldier beside him and drew a single shaft from the man's quiver.  Drawing back, he released a deep breath and focused his aim before letting the arrow fly.

Only a single foot had touched the forest floor when the Uvhir fell over dead; an arrow embedded in his skull.

'Anyone else want to run?' he asked loudly of the remaining Uvhir prisoners.  'My aim is quite poor compared to that of my men, and I could use the practice....' scowled the Captain.

Receiving no answer, he sighed 'too bad' before shoving the bow back into the hands of the young soldier beside him.

'TIE THEM TO THE FENCE!' he ordered loudly watching the soldiers around him scramble to fulfill the request.  

In short order, the seven, remaining Uvhir found themselves secured to the outside of the thick posts of a pig pen, arms tied behind them as they sank slowly into the mud and feces that had sloshed out during the last, heavy rain.

The Captain kept his eyes focused in contemplation over the shoulder of the Uvhir commander as he squatted in front of him, only giving the satisfaction of eye contact at the last possible moment when he addressed him with icy coldness.

'I have been asked by our Queens to deliver a message...'

The commander held the blade of his knife tight against the neck of the Uvhir commander who glared back at him, unblinking, refusing to beg for mercy.  

'It will be an honor to die for the High Queen, ' he growled defiantly.  'At least she is not the coward and whore to which your people bow. 

That traitorous bitch does not deserve the title you have bestowed upon her.  The same can be said for the unfree trash that buries her face in the slut-Freyja's cunt each night......'

Without warning, the Uvhir commander drew a breath and spat directly in the face of the Captain who provided no reaction, except to keep his stare, as the thick saliva slid down his face.

'Make sure to deliver my return message to your slag Queen...' he said with a huffed chuckle as he bared his stained and rotting teeth.

Grasping the Uvhir's long, braided beard in his left fist, the Captain flicked his wrist quickly, cutting the swath of hair from the Uvhir's chin and casting it into the mud beside him.

Standing again, the Captain began to walk away towards his men.

'I would send word to your men to kill her now.  It will be more merciful, ' the Uvhir called out behind him tauntingly, 'because, every man on that ship will get a turn at her whore cunt should she be captured and returned to Uvhir....' the chuckle still issuing from his lips. 

'Don't worry, we will make sure her unfree and children get a good view....we would not want them to miss out now, would we?....'

Again, the Uvhir laughed tauntingly, causing the Captain to slow his pace slightly.

Noticing that his words were having great effect, he continued with a more confident and increased volume to ensure his soldiers could hear clearly.

'Her resulting children may be 'the bastards of a thousand men', but we will, at least, ensure that there is a clean, Uvhir bloodline to assume the throne upon the High Queen's passing.  You, and your unfree, bitch Queen, will be able to do nothing more than live out the rest of your lives contemplating your inadequacy and ineptitude.

All of this assumes, of course, that the slut-Freyja even survives the journey....and her constant violation with our 'sad excuses for cocks'....

Don't worry.  When one hole is worn out, we will use the others......maybe even at the same time, ' he added with superiority causing the other Uvhir to laugh along with him.

The Captain continued walking towards his men, but his face had twisted into rage mingled with significant concern.

'Pray, for our Queens' sakes, that our brothers have secured the other villages.  I do not believe for an instant that the Uvhir exaggerates their intent.'

Turning to his second in command, the Captains orders were clear and concise.

'You will remain here with the prisoners.  If they move, kill them.  You, ' he indicated to three of his most highly skilled soldiers,  'will ride with me to the port and we will wait there in shadow.'

Sighing, he added, 

'We will kill the Queens and those children with our own hands, if we must, before we will allow them to be defiled and degraded on one of those ships....'

Turning to the soldier beside him, the Captain opened his mouth to deliver a request but closed it without a sound as he found the soldier's bow and quiver extended into his hands.  The soldier retained four arrows in his grip as the other items were passed.

Holding the shafts horizontally, in the center of their circle, he uttered softly,

'Should it come to pass, may your hands be steady and your aims be merciful and true.   We beg of you, bring peace to our beautiful Queens of the Enchanted Forest and their children before any harm befall them.'

Every soldiers' hand pressed forward to touch the arrows in solidarity, willing the words to be imbued into the wood with their hearts, minds and souls.

'Save them, if you can, Captain, but kill them, if you must. We rely on and trust in you now to protect them as they have protected us.....' said the soldier with a tip of his head as he handed the arrows to the Captain who took them gently from his hands, placing a single arrow into a separate part of his quiver before handing the remaining arrows, one each, to the other men who would ride with him, watching them tuck the sticks separately and reverently into their own packs. 

'They will not suffer as long as we still draw breath.  I promise you this....' declared the Captain with tears in his eyes as he considered the beautiful lives now in their hands and the depth of his commitment for a displaced Queen and a Queen returned, both beloved deeply by the people before they had even been introduced.

Grasping the reigns of the horse that had been brought beside him, the Captain mounted the steed, pausing only to ensure that the three, other soldiers were ready to ride.  

Kicking firmly into the sides of the horse with his heels, he spurred him forward, riding swiftly towards the port village; the three other soldiers close behind.

'May the gods guide you....' the last words they heard before disappearing into the forest.

 


 

The small squad of soldiers and Captains clopped slowly and somberly through the path in the woods.  Their destination was not far from the castle, but the tense vigilance they were required to keep made it feel like a lifetime of travel.

The Queens were safely ensconced among them, riding atop their horses, and there was a wary, but proud, confidence in Rocinante's gait as he carried his courageous rider into battle.

Emma watched her wife in amazement from a few steps behind.  Her thoughts and emotions felt as jumbled as the sticks and leaves upon the forest floor, yet Regina seemed so focused and sure.  The men respected her.  Emma respected her.  

Her paisley, dark brown and green, high-collared, leather riding coat draped elegantly over Rocinante's haunches and covered a brown, leather vest and brown, leather breeches that fit her flawlessly.  It was less feminine than what Regina typically wore, but utilitarian, and it allowed her to blend easily I to the trees, leaves and wood.

'Do not leave my side, ' whispered Emma, 'ever....'

Her words were temporal and eternal simultaneously.  

A gentle, almost indistinguishable, sad smile graced Regina's lips as she continued looking forward; tipping her head in acquiesence and acknowledgement.

'Promise me, ' insisted Emma though she received no additional response before Claudius' hand was raised to stop their progress.

'Leave the horses, ' he husked quietly, ' we walk the remaining way...'

The entire party dismounted, slapping their mounts on the haunches to scatter them to the trees before advancing forward slowly to achieve to the vantage point that they sought.

 


 

The road meandered through the forest approximately two and a half meters below the 20 soldiers' positions on the heavily-foilaged slope.

Looking across to the hill on the other side of the path, both Emma and Regina squinted, barely able to make out the forms of the men that had accompanied them, as they nestled themselves among the briars, fallen trees, leaves and brambles of the forest floor.

Satisfied that all were in place, they commenced to wait; eyes trained down the path, in the direction of the port, from which they expected the smallest Uvhir contingent to arrive.  Occasionally, soldiers in various locations would stand, silently, craning their necks to see further down the road, only to shake their heads to signify the 'all clear' before resuming their crouched position.

'Please, My Queens, ' implored Claudius quietly for a last time, 'I implore you to return to the castle with a small group of these men, so that you might be better protected...'

'I cannot ask my people to give that which I will not, Claudius.  If we are captured, let it be together.  If we are judged, let it be together.  If we die....then there are no people, apart from those around me, beside whom I would want to fall...'

Reaching to the side, she grasped Emma's hand firmly in her own before turning to look at her; the tears pooling in her eyes, threatening to spill over as she offered an reassuring, but forlorn smile.

'My Queen, I.....' whispered Claudius with a shaking breath one last time, but his words were cut off by the distant sounds of the rhythmic tamping of feet.  He wasn't sure what else he could offer, however, that would adequately convey the depth of admiration and love that he had for the woman beside him.

Under any other circumstance, he would not dare to touch his Queen, but boldly, he reached across, taking her hand in his own, and he felt only a squeeze of gratitude, understanding, warmth and protectiveness in return.

It was several minutes before the first warrior came into view far down the road.  Slowly, others followed until the space was filled with a small contingent of men, clustered about an, as yet unseen, center point.  

The Uvhirs' gaits were purposeful, but unhurried, as they attempted to conserve their energy for the ensuing negotiations and possible, last-ditch, fighting that these Kingdoms so often offered in a futile and feeble attempt to retain their control.

Releasing Emma and Claudius' hands, a bare nod from Regina was quickly passed to each Captain and soldier in turn and they rose slightly to draw their bows, holding steady until the first Uvhir had passed the established mark beyond which they knew their arrows would be lethal.

The High Queen would be targeted first, along with her most proximal and dangerous guards.  From there, the soldiers would work outwards systematically until the remaining Uvhir were incapacitated or eliminated.

A few steps closer, and the Uvhirs' protection point was revealed.  It was a slight, cloaked figure that walked among them, head bowed to prevent clear identification and recognition.

'No.  No.  No.' whispered Regina skeptically.  'This is not right....'

'It is not the High Queen, ' confirmed Emma, fully aware that the High Queen's arrogance and conceit would never allow her to bow her head in such a moment of assumed triumph.

'Give the signal to retreat immediately!' hissed Emma to the Captains that surrounded them. 'We must go NOW!'

She knew that they would be seen immediately, but the Uvhirs' close combat weaponry, size and current distance might offer them the head start they needed to make it safely back to the castle....in whole or part.

Ducking back, Emma grasped Regina's hand, spinning her around and then pulling her, roughly and fearfully, along behind as she scrabbled for purchase on the steep slope.

Emma's head had barely broken over the plane of the upper plateau when she ducked again, drawing Regina close and curling around her in protection; the axe missing its mark by mere centimeters.

Clambering sideways quickly, Emma leapt onto an unoccupied part of the flattened hilltop before pulling Regina up behind her; placing her own body between her wife and the massive Uvhir warrior that now faced them.

She was barely aware of the other battles that were raging about them; bodies of dead and dying Uvhir warriors and Enchanted Forest soldiers scattered among the felled trees.

Emma leaned far back as the axe was swung again; this time at her face, and she used the momentum to push Regina far away from her where Regina fell to her hands and knees.

'GO!' she screamed at her wife as she jumped sideways to avoid a downward swing that buried the axe head deep into the earth.  

'DO NOT LOOK BACK!' Emma ordered as she looked briefly towards Regina who stared stunned at her with wide eyes.

'EMMA, NO!!' pleaded Regina tearfully.

She saw Emma mouth 'I love you' desperately before diving again to avoid another axe swing.

'PLEASE....GO!!!!'

Jumping to her feet, Regina sprinted away reluctantly knowing that her presence would only serve to distract; refusing to look back as Emma instructed, even when she heard the scream...

 


 

The axe was raised above the Uvhir warrior's head as he prepared to deliver a final blow.

'Don't kill her, ' screamed an Uvhir commander as he sprinted by their position and noticed the blonde-haired woman curled upon the ground.

He slowed his pace a few feet past the pair, lifting his chin in acknowledgement at something in the distance towards which Regina was running.

Satisfied the situation was under control, he turned back to his report.

'The High Queen wants them both alive, you damn fool, ' he growled. 'You should start praying to Odin that this one stays alive long enough to participate in her games....'

Placing the sole of his boot against Emma's side, he pushed hard to roll her onto her back and she groaned heavily at the change of position.  

Blood from her nose and mouth mingled with dirt and leaves to form a thick paste that coated Emma's clothes.  Bruises and cuts covered her arms and she guarded her stomach and sides, injured from the strong kicks of a heavy boot.

'Wrap these fucking wounds and then get her on a horse, ' gruffed the commander.  'We ride for the castle....'

 


 

Regina gasped for breath, scrapes and cuts marking her face and hands as boughs of the trees and thickets grasped at her from all sides.   Her eyes were filled with tears, and she ran with arms outstretched trying to half-feel, half-see her way along.

She was so focused on her immediate surroundings that she did not see the hulking Uvhir warrior that had stepped into her path approximately ten feet ahead.

The pain was excrutating as his forearm hooked across her face, breaking her nose and throwing her backwards onto the ground where she writhed in agony, hands to her face.

Through sheer force of will, Regina rose to her hands and knees, gagging and coughing up the blood that was running down her throat as it simultaneously coated her cheeks, lips and chin

'Learn your place, Bitch, ' snarled the Uvhir as he swiped his foot against her cheek, knocking her unconscious and spinning her body like a rag doll so that she lay face up upon the forest floor.  She gurgled for breath for a moment before a sack cloth was thrown over her head and she was tossed face down over his saddle; his fingers indulging greedily and roughly in her tight warmth as they rode towards the castle that awaited them in the distance.

Chapter Text

'WAKE UP, YOU STUPID GIRL!' insisted the High Queen as she slapped again, even harder, across Regina's cheek, wiping her hand against Regina's coat afterwards to remove the residual blood that threatened to stain her skin.

Regina's head lulled lazily, eyes closed, as she attempted to pull herself from her stupor; recognized and strange voices intermingling in a strange cacaphony around her.  

Her position was unnatural, yet familiar, wrists bound together and pulled above her as her head hung forward.  She sagged against her restraints, swaying slightly upon her toes, and almost sighed in relief as she heard footsteps retreat and approach.  

They stopped suddenly, and she waited patiently, and almost excitedly, to feel the strong arms of her father wrap around her, hoisting her up to relieve and release her from her mother's preferred form of punishment.  It was the same arms that would soothe her as she wept, exhausted, afterwards, just as they had done every time before.

Regina's blackened eyes opened to slits and her body tensed in fear when, instead, she felt the slender fingers of the High Queen's hand tightening, and she winced and gasped in pain as fingertips dug into the sides of her swollen and bruised jaw, lifting her face, so that it might be studied more carefully.

'You can end this.  Just give me what I want....' offered the High Queen smoothly but impatiently.  

'Where are your bastard children?' she demanded, tightening her grip on Regina's jaw even further, forcing her mouth open and leaning in close so that she might hear anything that her daughter would offer.

Regina watched her mother's eyes intently, refusing to answer. 

Bored of waiting, the High Queen threw Regina's head violently to the side, and Regina watched as she strutted to Eva's throne where she settled herself comfortably, rubbing her palms upon the velvet arms before leaning back and sighing in self-congratulations at her conquest.   

She strummed her fingers upon the arm of the throne with a scowl as she regarded her daughter and considered her next move.  The Freyja's stubbornness and stupidity ran deep, and she would not be easily broken.  Perhaps a different strategy was in order....one where the Freyja need not even be touched...yet.

Taking advantage of her brief respite, Regina struggled to clear her mind and sort out the myriad of sensations that currently wracked her body.  Every inch of her seemed to be steeped in some level of pain or downright agony. 

She vaguely remembered the origin of most of her injuries, but was most acutely aware of two things for which she had no recollection of source.

The first was the soreness between her legs, and she gagged several times as she looked at her smirking captor and considered what may have transpired in the previous hours; finally vomiting violently onto the floor which earned a scowling eye roll from the High Queen and the howling laughter of the Uvhir men who watched her predicament with too much interest and excitement.

The second was an unexpected, confusing, but beautiful wash of calm, innocence and love.  Regina's widened slightly as she realized that she did, indeed, recognize the exact source and she almost gasped aloud as she considered how everyone's circumstances had now become even more precarious.   Should the High Queen find out what Regina just realized, she would no longer even need to know the location of Eva and Henry....  

Regina gulped hard as she looked across the throne room to see Claudius and several other Captains bound and gagged, kneeling upon the floor, helpless onlookers to the spectacle laid out before them. 

Claudius' brow furrowed as he caught Regina's expression which was vascillating between panic and, almost seething, protectiveness and determination.  He had seen the latter expression on her face only one other time, right before his nose had been broken by Regina's fist in defense of her children.  He knew this look well.  He had seen it before on his mother and it was reserved only for her offspring...no other.

Still, she had already offered Eva and Henry almost impenetrable protection. They were safe.....who else was there to protect?

His face paled and fell and his eyes widened slightly as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place for him as well, and he prayed that none of the others around him saw or knew what he now did.  He would go to his grave, if he must, to protect the secret that had just been entrusted to him in a glance. 

Flicking his eyes left and right, he saw no indication that any of the men around him recognized their new-found predicament, and he offered Regina a steely gaze, blinking his eyes slowly to reassure her while breathing in deeply to encourage her to do the same.  The High Queen must remain convinced that Regina did not know the whereabouts of her children.....any of them.

He could see her calm slightly, but knew she must be terrified.  Her injuries, both seen and unseen, were severe.  He knew that she could not be ignorant of the humiliation and degradation to which she had been subjected during their ride, though she may not know the exact nature of it.  His own blood had boiled as it happened, but, bound and gagged, none of them was able to do more than avert or close their eyes out of respect.

Catching her gaze, he flicked his eyes to her captor and shook his head almost imperceptibly.  

The effect was immediate and cathartic and he watch tears of relief, disguised as tears of pain, fall down her face. 

Their brief, silent and clandestine exchange was interrupted by the sound of the High Queen's voice.

'Perhaps now would be the perfect time to take the additional 33 lashes of which you and your whore deprived me in Ravndal...'

Immediately, Regina glanced to the point where Emma knelt, hunched slightly, head bowed, hands bound in front of her, haunches to heels, exhausted and covered in blood.

'Please, no, ' Regina begged quietly as she realized that no more than ten would likely send Emma to her grave.

Arising from the throne, the High Queen returned to face Regina, grasping her jaw again between her fingers to ensure the Freyja's full attention.

Her mouth frowned as she studied her daughter's face closely, and Regina averted her eyes, knowing that, if she kept her gaze, her mother would easily see the one thing that she, now, most needed to hide.

'There is something else that you are not telling me....' she considered slowly.  'Even as a child, you could not hide things from me.

You are weak, just like your father, both incapable of keeping your secrets.  How these people deigned to annoint you their Queen is beyond me...' she sighed with a roll of her eyes, 'you are barely able to be a commoner.

No matter....one way or another, we both know that I always get from you what I want in the end...'

Turning to her men, she ordered,

'String up the unfree so that her back faces the Freyja.  I want to make sure that she can see clearly.'

Emma was yanked from the ground by the bindings between her wrists, and she half-walked, half-stumbled behind the Uvhir warrior who lifted her up, throwing her bindings over the iron wall sconce so that she dangled, much like Regina, facing the wall.  Using his knife, he made a sloppy cut through the leather of her vest and cloth of her shirt, nicking her skin deeply in several places and causing her to draw breath through gritted teeth.

'Thirty-three lashes will be taken by the unfree whore,' commanded the High Queen as she turned to address everyone around her. 'No respite or mercy will be given, until you, Frey-ja, ' offered the High Queen condescendingly, 'reveal the location of your bastard children......or, ' she finished with a shrug of her shoulders, 'the worthless bitch dies....'

Turning back to Regina, she addressed her directly.

'You do realize that it is well within your power to stop all of this before it even begins.  All you need to do is tell me where they are hidden...'

'My children will not be used as bargaining chips.  They are not expendable to me as I once was to you.'

'Oh, my dear Frey-ja, ' taunted the High Queen with mock sadness as she walked back towards her new throne 'fear not.... for you are still quite expendable to me.....'

'I have a name, ' countered Regina, 'and it is not Freyja...'

'and I seem to have forgotten it... Frey-ja...' tisked the High Queen.

'And despite your traitorous insubordination, you will retain that title until you can offer to the Kingdom of Uvhir a full-blooded heir to ascend the throne upon my death; your existence all but forgotten.'

Sweeping her hand about the room grandly, the High Queen presented her selection.

'You may choose from any of those before you to be the father.  If you refuse, I will allow the entire army to take their turn.  It really matters not to me which of them impregnates you...as long as the bloodline is pure....'

Walking over to Regina's captor, the High Queen trailed the back of her fingers over his cheek.  

'I understand that you and Brondulf have already been...shall we say...partially acquainted?' she smirked.

'I am quite sure he would enjoy fully consummating your union....' she laughed sadistically.

'I have it on good authority that he has been quite....shall we say....blessed...by Odin, ' she added as she cupped her hand against the front of his pants, massaging gently and suggestively as he smirked proudly, arms across his chest.

Regina could feel the bile rising in her throat again.  She needed to turn the conversation back to the more pressing subject of her wife's 'punishment' (or avoidance thereof) before she vomited again.

'I do not know where Eva and Henry are, ' offered Regina slowly as she looked up through her lashes defiantly, 'nor does my wife...even if I did, I would not tell you with my dying breath...'

'What about her dying breath?' smirked the High Queen as she cocked her eyebrow and  returned to her seat on Eva's throne.

'Proceed with the punishment, ' she ordered with a wave of her hand, 'and count the lashes aloud....I want to know which one finally breaks the unfree whore...or the Freyja...'

Pausing for a moment, she added,

'Ensure that the Freyja watches every lash being given, Brondulf....'

'Gladly, My Queen, ' he growled as he moved into position behind Regina, grasping a fistful of her hair before jerking her head back so she was forced to look forward.  Grasping her hip with his opposite hand, he pulled her tight against him, grinding his stiff member blatantly into the side of her ass.  Pressing his lips to her ear, he growled to her quietly.

'I WILL get my fill of your cunt, whore, and you WILL produce an heir for the High Queen's Kingdom.  My cock will be thickly coated with your juices and saliva every night, and you will take it, willingly or unwillingly; it matters not to me. You will carry my son in your belly, but he will know you as nothing more than my whore and slave.   You are not worthy of being called 'Mother', so he will call you 'bitch', just as I will,  and he will be placed upon the throne of Uvhir in your stead...this I promise you...'

Shaking his hand a bit, he studied her blackened eyes to make sure they were open, watching as a few tears rolled down her cheeks.

'Do not close your eyes or I assure you that I will give you something to cry about .....

You are lucky that your face pleases me... even with your blackened eyes.   I guarantee that you will wear the color often should you even slightly displease me or my children.'

Huffing a laugh, he added,

'Luckily, I don't need to look upon your face to fuck you like the bitch that you are...'

'ONE!' came the booming voice followed by a loud crack which caused Regina to startle slightly, and she saw Emma's body jerk violently as she cried out through gritted teeth; her hands wrapping about the ropes that bound her wrists to give her purchase.

'Stop, ' whispered Regina as she closed her eyes and prayed to Odin that his might be over soon, for all of them. 

'I TOLD YOU TO KEEP YOUR FUCKING EYES OPEN, BITCH!' screamed Brondulf as he jerked Regina's head back.  

Balling his fist, he punched hard into her side, and she anticipated the location enough to turn herself slightly so that her ribs and back, not her stomach, took the brunt of the impact; her eyes fluttering as she felt her ribs crack.

Drawing back his fist again, Regina pleaded in a hoarse whisper through her tears,

'Please stop.  It will not happen again.'

'You will learn to do as I say.  I will not be so generous next time, bitch, ' responded Brondulf as he again jerked her head to look in the direction of Emma who stood, almost calmly with her eyes closed.

'TWO!'

Another resounding crack filled the hall.  Then another.  And another.  And another.  Until Emma's back was criss-crossed with open, bleeding wounds that were barely distinguishable from each other.  Yet, she remained standing.  And Regina remained silent.

'You useless fool, ' spat the High Queen as she rose from her chair and yanked the whip from the hands of the Uvhir warrior; delivering three more lashes in quick succession to no substantial effect.

'CUT HER DOWN, ' screamed the Queen, frustrated by their lack of progress.

As the rope was cut, Emma slumped to the ground in exhaustion.   It had taken every ounce of her energy to concentrate on her beautiful memories of Regina; knowing from her encounter with Agni that they might just be able to give her the strength she needed to endure the untenable. 

Now, the wave of pain she had kept at arms length washed over her, and she raised her eyes feebly to look at Regina, finding only minimal relief as she took in fully the sight of her wife.

Regina hanged by her wrists by a rope thrown over a rafter, held tight by a cleat on a wood post.  Her face was most unrecognizable behind her bruised eyes, cut lips, broken nose and swollen jaw.  Her hair was held tightly by the Uvhir behind her, but her concerned eyes were locked with Emma's. 

She managed a slight, tired smile of support, relief and encouragement, despite the awkwardness of her position and circumstance, which Emma acknowledged with a tired blink.  She could only wonder what Regina had already endured and from where her wife's continued strength came as she felt herself slowly succumbing to her own injuries.

Noticing their interaction, the High Queen snapped.

'GIVE ME WHAT I WANT!' she screamed as she grasped Regina's face hard with a hand that trembled with rage.

'Never, ' responded Regina quietly but coldly.

'TAKE YOUR SWORD AND DEFEND YOURSELF, SLAVE!' the High Queen screamed at Emma who did not react, but remained kneeling upon the floor.

'PICK HER UP AND PUT THE FUCKING SWORD IN HER HAND IF YOU MUST!' ordered the High Queen to her men.

Several hands grabbed Emma, jerking her to her feet and she shrugged them off, glaring at the High Queen as she shuffled slowly to where her scabbard lay on the floor; the belt having been cut from her waist as she was brought into the throne room.

Reaching down, she extracted her mother's blade from the sheath, and a tear fell from her eye as she consider the inscription for the last time.

'Thy love is my strength always, ' she whispered with a gentle smile as her fingers traced the runes.

The blade was lighter than air, but her injuries had made her movements and reactions sloppy and slow, and she looked at Regina sadly, knowing this was a fight that she would not win.

Taking the hilt in both hands, she lifted the blade over her right shoulder and moved into a defensive stance.

Turning back to Regina, the High Queen drew their faces close together, whispering through gritted teeth as her fingernails pierced the skin of Regina's cheeks and jaw.

'When she dies, there will be no one else left to protect you, and I will tear you apart piece by piece with my own hands, if I have to, until I get what I want....'

Not taking her eyes from Regina's, the High Queen addressed one man by name.

''Thorin, ' commanded the High Queen.  'Kill this unfree bitch!  NOW!'

'Nothing would please me more, My Queen, ' growled Thorin as he stepped forward, raising his axe before running at Emma.

At the very last second, Emma jumped to the side, using all of her strength to bring her sword down to deflect Thorin's axe head into the ground.  

Emma stumbled slightly as she attempted to reposition the sword over her shoulder; struggling hard against her exhaustion and the simple weight of her own arms.

She was barely in position when Thorin attacked again, but he did not raise his axe as she anticipated, instead, grasping the handle and swinging up hard from the ground.

Emma's eyes went wide and her arms dropped to her sides as she stumbled backwards.  Her hand released the hilt of her sword which clattered to the floor beside her before she fell heavily; the back of her head bouncing against the floor, limbs askew, as she gasped for air.  

The upward swing of the Uvhir's axe had created a stuttered gash from Emma's knee to her shoulder; the protrusions and shallows of her physique determining the depth of the cut in those places where contact had been made.

'EMMA!' screamed Regina as she twisted and fought against her restraints.

'Cut her down, ' huffed the High Queen boredly with a wave of her hand.  'Let her go to her whore's side.  She can do nothing more than watch her die.....'

An axe was swung, cutting the rope by the cleat, and Regina crumpled to the floor as the tension in her arms was relieved, and her legs were shocked by their new-found responsibilities.  She shook off the ropes that had loosened about her wrists before crawling over to Emma's side on her hands and knees; shaking hands hovering over her wife, unsure where to even start to try to stem the flow of blood.

Emma's face was ashen as she struggled for even shallow breaths.  Her thigh had taken the brunt of the impact and the white of her bone showed between severed muscle.  Raising her eyes, Regina followed the line to Emma's chest and shoulders which had not fared much better.

'I-I-I d-don't know what to do, ' whispered Regina as the tears ran, almost blindingly, from her eyes and her hands pressed desperately where the blood was spreading fastest.

'Shhhhhh, ' was the response given as she felt Emma's shaking fingers press into the side of her hair. 'You can't fix this Regina....'

Regina placed her hand against the back of Emma's, drawing Emma's palm to her cheek where she kissed it tenderly before allowing it to cradle her face.  Her heart didn't want to believe what her eyes told her was truth.

'W-will you s-sit with me for a w-while?' whispered Emma through gritted teeth.

She could feel Regina's head nod barely against her hand, and she relaxed slightly.

'You have always been s-so b-b-beautiful, ' offered Emma in a struggled whisper, and she smiled as she felt Regina kiss her palm again in response.

Closing her eyes, Regina allowed herself to indulge in her memories of Emma; her touch, her scent, her laughter, her smile; everything that made Regina fall in love with her wife came flooding in at once, but she paused for a moment as she found herself enveloped in a scene that she did not remember.....

 


 

A blonde-haired girl stood at the edge of a pond where she faced two swans with their wings outstretched.  Regina thought it Eva at first, but recognized her mistake quickly.  There was such similarity, yet also distinct difference.  

The young girl hugged each swan warmly before turning to face Regina and focusing on a point further beyond and to her right.

Turning her head to look behind her, Regina could see that she was not alone.  A young woman, covered mostly in shadow, sat upon a bench, and she smiled warmly at Regina, tilting her head in welcome before patting the bench beside her to encourage Regina to sit.  

As Regina approached, more features of the beautiful, regal, blonde woman were revealed, and Regina realized that this was the woman from the painting in the library.  It was Eva.  Emma's mother.  Her mother.

Taking her seat, Regina watched as the young girl ran towards them, barely crawling into Eva's lap before finding herself encompassed in a warm embrace.  Tilting her head, Eva rested her cheek against the crown of the young girl's head and regarded Regina carefully with a soft smile.  

Leaning down after a few moments, she whispered a few words to the young girl who slid from her lap.  Arising from the bench, Eva disappeared for a moment before reappearing with a scabbard from which she withdrew a sword.  

It was the same sword to which she and Emma had been bound at their wedding; the same one that now lay, stained with Emma's blood, on the floor beside her.

Sitting again upon the bench, Eva lay the gleaming blade across across Regina's lap, as she traced the runes gently with her fingers.

'Thy love is my strength always...' she said in a smooth and dulcet tone that calmed Regina's soul.

Turning the blade over, Regina saw a second set of runes that she had never noticed before.

'With this love, we will conquer all darkness...' finished Eva as she looked at Regina.  

Taking Regina's hand, Eva helped Regina to wrap her fingers around the grip before laying her own hand atop and squeezing gently.

'It was forged for both of you, My Daughter. Do not be afraid.  I am always right here beside you.  Allow my hands to guide yours when she cannot....'

Leaning over, Eva placed a gentle and loving kiss on Regina's cheek.

'Now come, Emma, ' requested Eva cheerfully as she arose from the bench and held out her hand to the little girl who took it tightly in her own.  'This beautiful woman still has much to do today.'

Turning, they walked towards the pond, their voices still carrying to Regina's ears.

'I think I love her, Mother, ' said Emma as she jumped about excitedly.

'I know you do, Emma, ' responded Eva with a beautiful laugh. 'I love her too.' 

 


 

'I-I love you, ' whispered Emma; her voice more mature, yet still the same, and Regina opened her eyes, once again, to the grimness of their reality.  

'D-do not be afraid, my Regina....'

'I am not afraid, My Svan, ' answered Regina as she leaned over to kiss her wife's lips gently, 'not anymore....'

Standing calmly, Regina turned to face the High Queen who had stood quietly till now, watching the interaction with a sadistic smirk on her lips.

'Oh my....how touching...' she drolled with a roll of her eyes.  'Please tell me that she is dead so that we might get on with more important matters.'

Boldly, Regina took a step towards the High Queen so that they stood no more than a few inches apart.  Hearing the approach of her soldiers behind her, the High Queen raised her hand to stop them.

'Don't not interfere, ' she commanded. 'I am not afraid of this little bitch...'

Any more words that she might have intended to say were immediately silenced by Regina's hand as her fingers gripped tightly around the High Queen's throat, lifting her onto her toes.

'You should be, ' stated Regina definitively as she looked up through her lashes into the High Queen's eyes.

There was a rage and fire in Regina's eyes that the High Queen had never before seen, and her face fell as she realized the truth of Regina's words.

'You cannot take on all of us, ' spat the High Queen defiantly as she flicked her eyes about the room taking in the bound and gagged soldiers who knelt on the floor, useless to the Freyja.

Extending her free arm to her side, Regina waved her fingers closed, and the High Queen watched as the bindings and gags fell away from Regina's soldiers and Captains who turned immediately on their captors to keep them at bay.  Only three to four of the High Queen's soldiers stood in the middle of the room unprotected by Enchanted Forest guards, and they remained in place frozen in shock and disbelief.

'I believe that my odds have just improved significantly, ' responded Regina cooly as her grip tightened further.

'Come now, Dear....I am your mother, ' reasoned the High Queen nervously.

'I have a mother, ' responded Regina confidently, 'and that beautiful woman is not you...'

Enraged, the high Queen spat in Regina's face.

'YOU UNGRATEFUL CUNT!! MAY ODIN DAMN YOU AND YOUR WHORE TO THE ICES OF HELL!'

'You first, ' ordered Regina.  

Opening her right hand, Eva's sword sprung from the stone into her palm, and she wrapped her fingers about the hilt before driving it forward into the High Queen's chest.

'I told you before that I have a name, ' said Regina calmly as she pulled the High Queen further onto the blade, twisting the sword at the same time, 'and that name is 'Queen'....BITCH!'

Regina released her grip on the High Queen's throat as she withdrew the sword from the her chest and watched as the High Queen sank to her knees on the floor; black, smoking tar oozing from her heart, as she fell sideways onto the floor, writhing like a serpent that had lost its head.

'FUCKING WHORE!' screamed Brondulf as he finally shook off his surprise and shock and ran towards Regina with his axe raised.

Her sword cut the air the air easily and elegantly as she stepped to the side, severing his wrists, and he watched as both his axe and his hands fell to the ground at his feet.

'YOU WILL PAY FOR THIS, CUNT!' screamed Brondulf as he held his arms up in front of his face, seeing nothing more than bloody stumps.

'I already have...too many times...' offered Regina coldly as she placed the tip of her sword under his chin to lift it so that he might hear her words clearly.  'Now, you will be forced to live with the memory, and consequence, of your actions, because from this day forward, I assure you, I will think of you no more.'

'Does anyone else wish to challenge me?' questioned Regina as she looked to the remaining men. 'Forget not.... you call me 'traitor', but I once lived and trained amoung you.    Consider well.  I will not be so lenient with the next man...'

The arrival of more soldiers prevented the Uvhir men from providing a definitive response, and soon, each Uvhir was guarded securely by two guards, all turned towards the center of the chamber where Emma lay.

Regina handed the sword immediately to Claudius, who now stood protectively at his Queen's side.  His arm sagged a bit under the weight of the sword, and he looked confusedly at Regina, wondering how she managed to wield such a heavy sword so effortlessly.

Kneeling at Emma's side, Regina brushed the hair back from her forehead gently.  

Her face had paled even further and her breaths were fast, shallow and irregular, but Regina thanked the gods that she was, at least, still breathing.

'You are safe now, My Svan.  I won't let anyone harm you.  I promise, ' said Regina with tears in her eyes.

Grasping Emma's hands, she placed one heavily and sloppily upon her chest and one upon her thigh, struggling to hold them in place as she covered them with her own.

Closing her eyes, Regina concentrated, hoping to feel something...anything...that might give her hope.  Instead, she felt nothing more than Emmas last breath being expelled.

'DAMN YOU, EMMA, ' sobbed Regina as she pounded her fists into her chest. 'I FORBID YOU TO LEAVE ME AGAIN!!  DO NOT FUCKING LEAVE ME!!'

'My Queen, ' said Claudius softly as he watched Regina massaging Emma's face desperately looking for any reaction to her adamant words.

Receiving no response, he tried again, this time placing his hand upon her shoulder.

'Regina....'

'DON'T YOU DARE, CLAUDIUS!' screamed Regina through her tears as she shrugged his hand from her shoulder.  'DON'T YOU DARE TELL ME THAT THERE IS NOTHING THAT I CAN DO! DON'T YOU DARE TELL ME SHE IS GONE!'

'Regina, ' he tried again, 'Fear not.  She will be in darkness for only a little while before she enters the Halls of Valhalla....'

'What did you say?' demanded Regina.

'She will be in Valhalla soon, ' said Claudius, confused.

'What darkness?'

'We believe the path to Valhalla is cloaked in darkness so that its location remains secret, ' he shrugged as he wondered was Regina might be concerned with something so inconsequential.

'With this love, we will conquer all darkness, ' whispered Regina.

'My Queen?' asked Claudius, unsure if this was a statement or question or if it was even directed at him.

With renewed determination, Regina grasped Emma's hands, placing them again upon her heart and thigh before placing her in hands again upon them.

Closing her eyes, Regina did not even hesitate to ask for the help that she knew she needed and that had been so generously offered her.

'Mother, I need you now more than ever.  I love your daughter with all that I am and all that I may ever be.  I beg you.  Please help me so that our children, and I, do not have to live out our days without her.  We have been without her for far too long already.  Allow her to see, with her own eyes, the children that we have created; the children that live inside of me now and that already miss her beautiful presence....'

She waited for several moments, but heard and felt nothing, so she placed her forehead against Emma's stomach, sighing in defeat, realizing that what she had thought was so real was nothing more than a dream.

'Please help me, ' she whispered one last time before she felt a gentle hand petting her hair softly.

Looking up, Regina saw the figure of Eva, enveloped in shimmering silver, kneeling on the other side of Emma, and she felt the light weight of ethereal hands being placed upon her own.  She smiled gently at Eva, receiving a soft smile in return.

'Thank you, ' mouthed Regina, and she felt the warmth of one of Eva's hands upon her face, brushing her tears away before it returned to tend to Emma's wounds.

Around them, every soldier bowed in reverence at the site of their former Queen, though none could bring themselves to lower their eyes as they could not help but marvel at the sight.

'My beautiful, amazing Emma, ' soothed Eva as she brushed the hair from Emma's face and smiled at the beauty that was her grown daughter.

'I have wished for so long that I might be able to look upon you again.  There are so many things that I would like to say to you and share with you, but my opportunity will come sometime far in the future, not today.  

There are too many here that still need you desperately.  

Take our hands and allow us to lead you from the darkness, so that you may return to the amazing light of those that love you.  

And until we meet again, my gift to you is the happy memories of your childhood.  They have sustained me for so long, and now, I shall return them to you, in the hope that you will include me in your future by sharing with your wife and your children, my grandchildren, who I once was....'

'You will always be a part of our lives, Mother, ' assured Regina.  'You promised me that you would always be beside us, and I now hold you bound to that pledge.   Share in our future, just as we will revel in your past.... please?'

'Always, ' answered Eva with a brilliant smile as she touched Regina's cheek and then her belly.

'They will be strong, ' offered Eva.

'Of course....they are your daughter's, ' responded Regina.

'No.  They are my daughters', ' corrected Eva as Regina tipped her head in deference.

'Emma?' called Eva, and the room watched as a young, blonde girl of three appeared, as if from nowhere, bathed in a silver light.

'Yes, Mother?' she replied as she looked at Regina shyly.

'This beautiful woman would like to get to know you better.  Would you like that?'

'Very much so, ' responded the little girl excitedly.

'I thought you might, ' laughed Eva as she smiled.

'You know what to do, ' said Eva, and she kissed the little girl's cheek before nodding at Emma's mature form.

Smiling, the little girl looked once more at Regina before laying down; her shimmering form sinking into Emma's physical one as her laughter lingered in the air.

Emma's body arched strongly off the stone floor, and her eyes went wide as she gasped for lungs full of air.  Her wounds were still significant but no longer life-threatening, and a mix of joyous laughter and relieved sobs fell from Regina's lips as Emma slumped back to the floor exhausted and unconscious, but very much alive.

After a moment, Eva rose to her feet, followed by Regina, and they faced each other quietly.

'I could not have asked for anyone more worthy of my little girl, ' stated Eva proudly as she held her hands out, palms up.

Reaching forward, Regina grasped Eva's hands with her own.

'Thy love will be our strength always, ' whispered Regina reverently as she squeezed Eva's hands tightly and lovingly.  'In that love and with that love, we will conquer any darkness, and, I promise that we will keep our people safe.'

'Of that, there is no doubt, My Daughter, ' smiled Eva before releasing Regina's hands and turning to Henry who stood watching the love of his life with tears in his eyes.

Walking over to him, Eva cupped his face in her hand, brushing her thumb gently over his cheek.

'I am sorry that I failed you, My Queen, ' he offered sadly.  'Forgive me?'

'There is nothing to forgive, My King.  She was lost to us at their hands.  She was returned to us by yours.  Thank you, Henry....not just for that....but for everything...'

'The pleasure was always entirely mine, My Love, ' responded Henry with a soft smile as he felt his wife's lips touch his own in a tender kiss.

'Someday?' she asked hopefully.

'I look forward to it, My Queen, ' 

Her fingers slipped from his as she turned to walk away, pausing briefly to look back over her shoulder.

'Henry?'

'Yes, My Queen?'

'It was well-aged....' she said with a wink and a playful grin, leaving him, open-mouthed as she faded into nothingness.

'She always did have a flare for getting in the last word with you...although this had to have been her best showing yet!' said Marco jovially as he clapped Henry on the shoulder, earning a marked glare before they both burst out in laughter.

'My Queen, ' offered Claudius to Regina, 'we should move you both to a more secure and private location so that your wounds may be tended by the healer...'

'Select three men, two to guard and one to carry, and get the Queen to our chambers so that she may know the comfort of familiarity.'

'What about you, M'Lady?' asked Claudius concerned, but he was cut off by the sight of a young, Uvhir soldier who had broken free of his guards and was running towards Regina.

'Stop him!' ordered Claudius to the men from which he had escaped, and he stepped to place himself between the warrior and Regina.

'My Queen, please....mercy!' begged the young man as he ran, falling to his knees some distance away.  Immediately, he was grasped under the arms by his guards and hoisted to his feet to be taken back to the perimeter of the room.

'Wait!' said Regina as she looked at the young man curiously.  'I know you...'

'Yes, yes, My Queen.  I carried the Queen, your wife,on my horse on the day that she was so badly injured by the whip.  My name is....'

'Gravnik....' Regina finished for him.

'Yes, ' he responded quietly.

'She told me your name.  She said that you fed her and provided her comfort on a day when she needed that kindness most, though you knew that she was unfree and the penalty of that kindness was death.'

'I cared only that she was in pain and that you loved her...'

'How would you even know?'

'What is obscured to one can sometimes be quite obvious to another.  The flicker, albeit brief, in your eyes and hers was undeniable; especially to those of us that have truly known love...'

'And yet you told no one....'

'Who was I to deny you your true happiness?  You deserved her love.  You needed her love.  I saw your treatment; the insults, the punishments, the beatings....  Those things meant to break you, you bore with such grace and dignity and reservation.  The frustration and pain that you could have taken out on others, instead, made you more compassionate and kind.

What this woman and these men saw as weakness, I, and so many other Uvhir, saw as hope.  We prayed to Odin that you would someday embrace the strength that lay quietly inside you, so that you might lead us to be a Kingdom of prosperity and happiness, not war and loss.    

Why would I take from all of us the one thing we needed most....you....Please. Allow me stay by your side and serve you.  I joined the army of Uvhir, so that I might provide a better life for my little girl, and, now, I have that opportunity.

Allow me to raise my daughter among you in peace, so that she may no longer be afraid each night.  Allow her the opportunity to see you and Queen Emma every day with her own eyes, so that she will know that to be strong and intelligent and brave and a woman is not a sin, but a gift to be cherished and nurtured...'

'And what of the rest of your family?  do you have a wife?'

'She...she died in childbirth, M'lady, ' sighed Gravnik as he hung his head mournfully, 'but I know in my heart that she would have rejoiced in this day.'

'You have no other?' asked Regina with a furrowed brow.

'Only my mother who cares for my daughter when I am away, but she is old and grows tired.  She has fulfilled her duty, and I wish only now that she might rest...'

Regina considered his words for a moment.  There was no malice in his eyes, no ill-tempered, only the desire and hope for a brand new beginning.

'Captain, ' said Regina.

'Yes, My Queen, ' answered Claudius.

'I ammend my previous order.  Select two, additional men from your ranks;  one more to guard and another to carry.   Find new armor for Gravnik so that he might guard the Queen's door in peace, and please locate a quiet village which might sleep even more soundly under the protection of the Queen's guard.  

There, he will find a new home and protect our people....his people...as he watches his daughter to grow and his mother to finally rest.'

'As you command, My Queen, ' offered Claudius with a salute, bow and muted, but proud, grin at his Queen.

'Make haste, men!' ordered Claudius.  'The Queen requires immediate attention.'

Regina watched as Emma was gathered carefully and gently into the arms of a massive, muscled soldier who retreated from the throne room with Gravnik and another  guard to ensure her care.

'And what of you, My Queen?' begged Claudius quietly.  'Please let me help you to get the care that you need for you and the children that you carry...'

'In due time, Captain, ' responded Regina.  'For now, bring Rocinante.  Our work is not finished until these Uvhir have been returned to their lands, and I will see to it, personally, that they are on those ships.  In the meantime, have your men ride ahead so that they might gather the remaining Uvhir at the port shortly after our arrival.'

'Yes, M'Lady, ' responded Claudius with a salute and deep bow.

 


 

Regina rode solemnly among the captured Uvhir warriors, head bowed, as she considered all that had transpired and wondered about her wife's condition.

Her hand rubbed soothing circles upon her stomach in reassurance for both her children and herself, and she smiled gently at the thought of bringing, with Emma, new life into the Kingdom.

Her head raised tiredly as she saw the port ahead.

The ride had become uncomfortable and exhausting.   Her own wounds had healed barely, if at all, as their concentration had been directed fully towards Emma.  The pain was still intense, and Regina wanted nothing more than for all of this to be over so that she might return to her chambers and hold her wife in her arms as they slept.  

The forest around them was quiet, almost too quiet, and Regina focused as much as she was able to detect any sign of danger.  The Uvhir around her seemed oblivious to the unnatural calm, looking straight ahead defiantly and grudgingly as they were led to their ships by their new Queen.  

Despite their former allegiance to the High Queen, Regina knew herself not to be in danger from them.  While they experienced it rarely, the Uvhir understood well the consequence and price of their defeat and would acquiesce and bow to their new Queens, despite their previous hatred or resistance.

 


 

'Sir, ' whispered the soldier in the ear of the Captain as he tried to catch his breath after his climb down from the tree, 'they approach, and only the Queen rides, severely injured, amoung them.'

'How far?' asked the Captain.

'No more than 100 meters, Sir.'

'Understood, ' sigh the Captain as he withdrew a single arrow from his quiver.

''Odin, forgive me for what I am about to do....'

 


 

The Queen and the small contingent stopped almost directly in front of the Captain, and, almost immediately, the Uvhir knelt upon the ground to await their commrades and acknowledge the authority of their new Queen.

It all happened at the same time that the arrow left the bow, and the Captain's eyes went wide as he realized their mistake...

 


Without thinking, Regina raised her hand, catching the arrow in her fist, though not before it lacerated the back of her scalp deeply.

Ignorant of the pain, she looked to the wood to determine the source of the makeshift attack, seeing four of her own soldiers running towards her from the underbrush; exactly as she had suspected.

'My Queen, are you all right?' asked the out of breath Captain as he dropped to his knees at Rocinante's feet.

'We thought you their captive.  We know of what they are capable and of their intentions upon that ship and....'

'You hoped to spare me from their degradation?'

'Yes, My Queen, ' whispered the Captain.  'We were prepared to do what was necessary to spare you, and your family, even a moment of fear, sadness or pain.  

Please do not hold the men beside me accountable.  They followed only as I commanded, and it was I that took the shot, ' he mumbled sadly, knowing the punishment for the attempt on his Queen's life was his own death.

'And what would you have me do should I want to hold you in esteem for your bravery?'

'M'Lady?' asked the Captain confused.

'Captain, I do not doubt that the intentions of you and your men were nothing more than honorable.  Were the circumstances different, you would have done for me, and my family, a great service by preventing us from boarding that ship.  For that....I may only thank you.

Come, ' she encouraged.  'We have only a bit further to go before we will reach the port and can cast these men from upon our shores.'

'Yes, My Queen, ' acknowledged the Captain before rising to his feet and ordering his small detail into a position to provide escort.

 


 

'My Queen, ' offered Claudius with a tip of his head as they approached the docks. 'All of the remaining men have been gathered...'

'Very well, ' responded Regina as she slipped from her saddle.  As her boots hit the ground, she paused for a brief moment, grasping Rocinante's reigns and the side of his saddle tightly, as a wave of light-headedness washed over her.

'My Queen?' inquired Claudius with a furrowed brow as he noticed her whitened knuckles.

Looking over her shoulder, she offered a soft smile of reassurance which did nothing to quell Claudius' concerns.

Releasing the reigns, Regina walked slowly, but confidently, over to stand directly in front of Thorin.

Without a word, she grasped his long beard.  

Unsheathing the knife from her belt, she cut the hair from his chin and cast it to the ground beside him.

'Take only the boats that you need to carry your remaining men and leave these shores.  Tell the people of Uvhir that the High Queen is dead.  They are now beholden to the rule of the Kingdom of the Enchanted Forest and its Queens.  The ambassador that travels with you will carry out our orders until OUR children, ' emphasized Regina as she glared at Brondulf, 'are ready to assume the throne....Make no mistake.  There will be change.  The life you have known and indulged in far too wantonly and for far too long exists no more.'

Turning to the Captain from the wood, Regina's orders were sure and swift.

'You will see these men on their way, then help the villagers rebuild and reclaim the homes that they have lost.'

'As you command, it will be done, ' responded the Captain proudly, honored to have been entrusted with such an important task for both the Queen and his people.

Turning sharply, Regina stumbled a bit again, and she found herself steadied by Claudius.

'My Queen, please, ' he implored. 'You must allow me to get you to the healer.'

'I assure you that I am fine, Claudius, ' said Regina, but she took only a single step before collapsing to her knees.  

Reaching down, Claudius touched Regina's upper arm and back to help her stand but pulled his right hand away quickly when he felt the warm wetness.  Looking down, he could see that it was covered in blood....her blood.

'This no longer a request, ' he stated matter-of-factly as he bent and gathered Regina from the ground, cradling her in his arms.  

There were already two men at Rocinante's side; the only horse capable of carrying them both with speed, and Claudius stepped on the bent leg of one soldier as the other ensured that his searching foot found its way securely into the stirrup.  Swinging his leg over the saddle skillfully, Claudius settled them both into place, holding Regina across his lap, one arm around her waist, supporting her back, and one arm over her thighs as he took the reigns.

'The Queen needs you, Rocinante.  Make haste to the castle....'

It was all the instruction that Rocinante needed, and he took off a pace that was a perfect combination of quick and smooth.

Reaching up, Regina twisted her fist tightly into the shoulder of Claudius' shirt.

'Does it hurt, My Queen?'

His only response was the nodding of her forehead against his neck.

'My Queen, ' whispered Claudius.

'Regina, ' was the tentative reply.

'Regina, ' started Claudius again with a gentle smile, 'there are no eyes but mine upon you now....'

And he felt her finally release her fears and exhaustion as tears upon his chest as they rode towards the castle.

Chapter Text

Regina snuggled further down into the thick blankets enjoying the feel of the soft fur on her naked body.  She was vaguely aware of strong arms embracing her from behind and the soft caress of gentle fingers upon her slightly protruding tummy.

Groggily, she threaded her fingers with them drawing both hands up to nestle between her breasts, and, as light kisses were placed upon her shoulder and neck, she wriggled back slightly, feeling the form of another mould perfectly against her. 

Sighing, Regina released a quiet moan of contentment.  She was exhausted, yet sated with sleep at the same time, and she considered the last memory that she could recall...

She had held tight to Claudius as they rode through the forest....he had carried her upstairs to a room...he had lain her on the bed...

Regina's eyes flew open wide, and she sprang from the covers, stumbling and tripping over herself as she attempted to gather one of the furs around her; her back to the bed.   She spoke definitively, even as she continued her physical argument with the blanket, trying to get to a point that she might be comfortable turning around.

'Whatever may have happened between us, I assure you that it was an absolute mistake, ' she stated as she pulled herself to her full height and turned.  

Immediately, she furrowed her brow, looking at the occupant of the bed with surprise.

'What part?  The marriage, the sex or you saving my life?' asked Emma teasingly as she lay propped upon her elbow, regarding her wife with a smirk. 

Emma's scars were thick, pink and slightly hollowed as they were still in the infancy of their healing, but her body looked strong and her eyes danced with a playfulness and youth that Regina had never before seen.

'Oh, ' said Regina with surprise, 'I-I thought you were someone else...'

'Oh really?' responded Emma with a cocked brow, still smirking, 'And who exactly did you believe I was?'

'Absolutely no one, ' responded Regina defiantly but flustered. 'I must have been dreaming...'

'You were dreaming of someone else?!' inquired Emma thoughtfully.  'I must have been out longer than I thought, if you have already replaced me....'

Unwilling to concede the upper hand, Regina offered, what she hoped, was the final word on the subject.

'Keep going and I might just go back to sleep so that I may join him again...'

There was a brief pause before Emma's eyes went wide.

'AH HAH!' she exclaimed as she figured it out.  'You thought I was Claudius!'

'Absolutely not!' countered Regina with a slight blush on her cheeks.  

'How could you mistake me for Claudius?' asked Emma quizzically.  

'He was the last person I remembered seeing... '

'He is incredibly hairy...'

And how would you know, so definitively, that he is hairy?' asked Regina as she cocked her own brow at Emma.

'Dammit, ' whispered Emma as she felt the balance of power shift.

'Just trust me on this one, ' offered Emma.  'I've seen enough hairy men in my lifetime...'

'And what else do you know for a fact?' smirked Regina.

'I know that I am much more well-endowed and much better able to satisfy my wife than he will ever be....' offered Emma smugly as she drew back the furs and looked down to her hips, where a perfect, thick, long cock stood at attention, ready to please her wife.

''We'll see about that....' said Regina as she dropped the fur from around her body.

Patting the bed beside her, Emma invited Regina to lay down again, and she readily accepted the offer, barely sliding between the blankets before her lips were captured in a deep kiss.

'I though I lost you, Emma, ' whispered Regina as she broke their kiss and pulled back to look at her wife with moist eyes.

'How could I ever be lost, as long as you are with me...'

Regina pressed her palm gently into her wife's sternum to encourage Emma to lay back and allow her to take control; a position to which Emma gladly acquiesced.

Stradling Emma's hips, Regina watched her wife's eyes intently as she guided the stiff cock into her ready and waiting entrance,  lowering herself onto the full length before withdrawing to the tip and falling again, over and over, slowly and rhythmically, biting her lower lip as she enjoyed and indulged in every inch that her wife had created just for her.

'I don't know....' teased Regina as she rode her wife's cock purposefully.

Raising her eyebrows in astonishment, Emma was rewarded with a breathless 'oh fuck yes' as she concentrated on thickening and lengthening her offering, feeling Regina's motions slow significantly as she both adjusted to and enjoyed the new pleasure being presented to her.

'Care to reconsider?' she asked as she grasped Regina's hips and pressed her heels into the mattress, meeting each of Regina's downward strokes with an upward one of her own.

Falling forward, hands to each side of Emma's head, Regina continued to rock her hips strongly as her lips found the scar at Emma's shoulder.  

Her kisses were soft, a direct contrast to the fervor of their lovemaking, and she worked her way slowly down to Emma's heart, watching the remnants of her wife's injuries disappear completely from her skin as her own were simultaneously healed.  

A final drag of gentle fingers from Emma's thigh across her torso was all that was required to remove every trace of an unwanted and unwelcome memory, and Regina captured Emma's lips again as they could focus, now, on much more carnal matters.

Regina could feel Emma's body twitch and shudder, and she gripped Regina's hips tightly trying to maintain some sense of control; her kisses soon becoming nothing more than warm pants against Regina's lips.

'Please....not yet....not without you....'

Sensing Emma's desperation, Regina sat up, bouncing upon her knees, circling her hips strongly at the bottom of each stroke, quickly finding the exact pressure needed to bring her as close to that beautiful edge as Emma already was.  

Reaching behind her neck, she lifted her hair, allowing it to cascade softly down her back as her face looked to the heavens, mouth slightly open, eyes closed; her soft palms sliding down her chest, over her breasts and across her stomach before two fingers found her hard clit, circling and strumming both fast and slow, teasing until she could feel her walls tightening, achingly, around Emma's beautiful, thick cock.

Raising her head, Regina looked down, eyes blown wide with lust only to see her lover in the same state of complete ecstacy, and she allowed herself to immerse, momentarily, in every sensation that was Emma: the sound of her faltering voice, the grasping of her desperate hands, the taste of residual salt from her damp skin, the scent of her arousal combined with woodiness of her perfume, the look of raw vulnerability as she abandoned every defense and gave herself to Regina's safe keeping.

Everything that Emma was offering to her, and only her, in that moment, was pure perfection to Regina, and she cried out as she felt Emma's upper body lift from the bed, embracing her in strong, safe arms; Emma, too, releasing the sounds of her own pleasure against Regina's heart.

Wrapping her arms about Emma's neck and back, they rode out multiple waves of orgasms until their bodies were spent, and Regina fell exhausted to the mattress where she was held again by the same strong arms that had welcomed her into the morning light.

Despite the beauty of the shared moment, there was almost an ominous silence as they lay together, and she heard Emma draw breath several times to speak before releasing nothing more than a sigh.  She already knew what Emma was going to say before the words finally fell from her lips.

'The young soldier is dead, Regina, ' whispered Emma.

'I see, ' responded Regina with a sigh.  

After a moment she added.

'Let us rest and recover.  It is a beautiful day, and I believe it would be perfect for an afternoon ride....

 


 

'I will take a few soldiers with me.  We will ride to the borderlands and work our way back to the castle, inquiring at the villages, until we find Eva and Henry.  Someone must know something, ' implored Emma as she rode alongside Regina.

'Have I already been disinvited from this quest?' asked Regina.

'Regina, you are pregnant.  I cannot expect, nor ask, you to follow.  The ride will be arduous, and we have but two weeks at most before their birth....'

'And where do you intend to be upon that day?'

'Wherever is necessary to make our family complete again.'

'Then I will follow, because I will not do this without you ...'

'Regina...'

'Emma, your passion for our children's return is well noted, but do not treat me as an invalid, lest you find yourself, again, needful of care....'

Stopping Rocinante's progress at the edge of the forest, Regina dismounted.

'Regina, please, we waste precious time...'

'M'Lady, ' declared the Sprite ambassador happily as he darted about in front of Regina with a deep bow.

'Good day, Ambassador, ' acknowledged Regina with a tip of her head in return. 'I seek Ruby.  Is she about so that I might have a word?'

'Of course, My Queen.  I shall summon her at once....'

Turning, Regina could see Emma still fidgeting  in her saddle, anxious to he on her way to the distant reaches of the Kingdom.

The Ambassador was gone only for a moment before returning with Ruby, who was easily recognized by the burgundy iris of her collar.

'My Queen, ' she bowed deeply as she hung in the air at face level.

'Ruby, ' breathed Regina with a smile as she held out her hand, feeling her index finger grasped warmly by small hands, 'it is so good to see you.  How is your baby?'

'Very well, My Queen.  Soon, there will be two, ' she offered shyly while rubbing her tummy.

'My congratulations, Ruby!   You must be so excited!' declared Regina with a brilliant smile.

''As excited as I hope that you are with your good fortune, My Queen, ' offered Ruby as she nodded at Regina's ever-growing tummy.

'Yes, ' chuckled Regina with a roll of her eyes as she rubbed her own, extended belly.  'I expect no less than two....'

'Quite a handful...'

'Indeed....' responded Regina.

After a brief pause, Regina continued.

'Ruby, I believe a young soldier may have left with you a message that was meant only for my ears.  You must forgive me for drawing you into this deception, but I knew not to whom I might turn....'

'I understand, My Queen.  You needed someone invisible....' sighed Ruby as she looked down dejectedly.

'Yes.  But I also needed a friend and a mother,' responded Regina.  'I needed someone that would understand....

Do not be ashamed of your size and perceived invisibility.  It is one of your greatest assets and does not define, nor reflect, in any way, the depth of your courage and strength....'   

Looking up, a proud smile graced Ruby's lips as she considered Regina's words.

'I cannot thank you enough, Ruby, ' sighed Regina gratefully as she kneeled reverently before her friend.

Flitting close to Regina's ear, Ruby delivered her message while Regina nodded earnestly.

Raising from her knee, Regina bowed again to her friend. 

'Perhaps, you will bring your children to the castle someday, so that they might play with mine?'

'Would it please you, M'Lady?' asked Ruby in surprise.

'Very much so.  I would be most honored...' smiled Regina as she mounted Rocinante's saddle.

Turning him quickly she kicked into his sides and they took off across the wheat field that had been shorn low for winter.

'Regina, WAIT!' called Emma as she drove her horse hard to catch up.  'To where do you ride with such haste?'

'To Tenimor...'

 


 

The sky had darkened to a deep, but clear, azure and a few stars were already suspended therein, twinkling lazily, when Emma and Regina arrived at the outskirts of Tenimor.

It was a relatively small village of around 20 modest cottages and businesses nestled deep within the forest, approximately halfway between the borderlands and the castle.  

It had proven itself difficult to locate and would have remained undiscovered had it not been for the specific guidance of one or two of the people in the neighboring, but still somewhat distant, villages.

The dirt lanes were nearly empty as most of the occupants had returned to their homes for their supper and to rest.  

In the distance, a small group of children played, working off their remaining energy, so they might find themselves exhausted and ready for a fitful sleep.

As the horses drew closer, all of the children stopped their play and lifted their heads curiously, revealing amoung them the two familiar faces that Emma and Regina longed to see. 

Recognizing the riders, Eva and Henry ran towards them, and Emma jumped from the saddle, sprinting to close the remaining distance before scooping them into her arms for a tight hug. 

Pressing them back gently, she cupped their faces in her hands, one after the other; her eyes darting all over their small forms looking for any signs of injury or illness.

'Are you ok? Are you hurt?' Emma asked each one frantically, barely noticing that Regina had finally joined them.

'They look quite well to me, Emma, ' offered Regina reassuringly.

'In fact, I do believe that you have gotten bigger and stronger, Henry, ' pondered Regina with an impressed look which caused Henry to puff out his chest proudly. 

'And I must say that brown hair looks quite becoming on you, Eva, ' smiled Regina in recognition of her daughter's disguise.

Holding her arms open wide and lowering to one knee, she invited them into her warm embrace, hugging them tightly and placing a kiss on each one's cheek.  She couldn't help but laugh and smile at her childrens' exuberance over their actual arrival, as well as the imminent arrival of new brothers or sisters, and she thanked Odin that they had been found safe.

'You will stand up slowly and step away from those children, if you know what is good for you, ' came a gruff, female voice from behind Regina and Emma, causing them to freeze.  

Unprepared and unwilling to engage in a confrontation in front of her children and the children of the village, Regina did as she was told.

'Henry, Eva, you get into the house to eat  before supper gets cold, and the rest of you run along to your homes...'

Immediately, all of the children scattered, leaving Emma and Regina alone with the woman in the middle of the dirt lane.

'Both of you.... turn around slowly, so that I can get a good look at you....'

Regina and Emma did as instructed, only to find themselves facing a crossbow which was being held level at their chests by an older woman of close to 70.  

She was dressed in the typical, winter clothing of the village: several layers of long linen skirts were covered by an apron which was smudged with the soot, dirt and food of the day's chores, while her upper body was covered in a thick linen shirt and a heavy shawl made of soft fur. 

The shawl covered most of her back, arms and shoulders, leaving only her hands exposed, and Regina watched as sure and steady fingers gripped the stock of the weapon tightly.

Thick, grey hair was drawn up into a loose bun atop the crown of her head allowing a few curls and waves to fall forward and frame her full face.  

She squinted a bit, moving forward a few steps, so that she might get a better glimpse of the strangers that were now partially obscured by the shadows of twilight.

'Humph, ' she offered as she finally lowered her crossbow, draping it over her opposite arm so that the arrow pointed into the sky.

'You best get inside, ' she said to Regina.  

'You need to get some food for those babies as well...'

Pausing for a moment, she looked at Emma with a displeased scowl,

'I guess that means you too....' she growled as she jerked her head toward the cottage door.

Emma didn't wait to be asked twice and took off at a jog, leaving Regina to wonder if her wife was more compelled by hunger or by a desire not to be shot.

She was stopped immediately in her tracks, however, when she felt her ear grabbed, and Emma twisted her head and body, unsuccessfully, trying to lessen the sting of strong fingers.

'I cannot believe you are half way to nowhere without food or winter clothing in those packs.  What is wrong with you? Your wife is pregnant!  What do you have to say for yourself?'

'Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ' was all that Emma could manage as she winced in pain and tripped over her own feet trying to free herself.

'That is pretty much what I thought you might say, ' huffed the old woman. 'Do not think for one minute we are not going to talk about this more later....'

'Y-y-yes, Ma'am, ' stuttered Emma as she finally wretched herself free and took off towards the house, looking back fearfully to make sure she wasn't being followed...or targeted.

Walking past the old woman slowly, Regina tipped her head gratefully as she attempted to stifle a smile, receiving a huff and quick wink in return.

 


 

'Now, I do not want to see a scrap left on these plates, ' lectured the old woman as she dished a heaping ladle of piping hot stew into each of Eva's and Henry's plates and provided them with a crust of fresh bread.

'Yes, Granny, ' they answered in unison as they dug their spoons deep into the meaty gravy and vegetables.

Standing at the fireplace, Regina watched as Emma looked longingly at the plates of food; her stomach growling loudly in protest.

'Now, let me get a better look at you, ' stated the old woman known as 'Granny' as she hung the kettle of stew back over the fire.

Stepping close, she studied Regina's face carefully.

'Absolutely not, ' she said definitively as Regina looked back at her quizzically.  'You are far more beautiful than what was described in those letters.'

'I'm sorry?' said Regina quizzically. 'What letters?'

'The letters from Uvhir.'

'Ma'am, ' started Regina but she was interrupted immediately.

'Eugenia....'

'Eugenia, ' began Regina again, earning a nod of approval at the use of her first name, ' I am afraid that you have me at a disadvantage.  I truly don't understand...'

'The letters from Robin.'

'You knew Robin?' asked Regina quizzically with a furrowed brow.

'Of course I know Robin....' stated Eugenia matter of factly, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.  'He is my son...'

'Oh Odin, ' gasped Regina as her eyes went wide and one hand flew to her mouth.   

Her other hand searched frantically for something, anything, to hold as her head spun uncontrollably, finally finding Emma's offered hand.  

'I didn't realize....I thought...Are you...Do you...' 

Regina's words were jumbled, almost incoherent, as she tried to find something meaningful and comforting to say.  

'Come now, ' ordered Eugenia.  'Let us all sit over here at the table, before you fall down, or before this one, ' she said, jerking a thumb in Emma's direction, 'collapses from starvation...' 

Turning, she hobbled towards the hearth, and Emma shot her a perturbed look from behind, too intimidated to do it blatantly.

'Did you get enough to eat?' Eugenia asked the children as she inspected their plates.

'Yes, Granny, ' they piped up in unison.

'Good, then off to bed with you, ' she ordered sternly but lovingly.  'And I want to see those eyes closed.  No talking....'

'Yes, Granny, ' said Eva and Henry as they moved from their seats to give brief hugs to their mothers before returning to give Granny her own hug and kiss goodnight.

They were each rewarded with a tight, encompassing embrace that lifted them off the floor briefly before they were shooed on their way.

'Have a seat, ' she said to Emma and Regina as she motioned to two of the empty chairs.  

Clearing the children's plates away, she stepped to the cauldron that still simmered and bubbled fragrantly over the fire and spooned out two more bowls of stew.

'Here, ' said Granny in a slightly annoyed voice as she set a bowl that was filled to almost overflowing in front of Emma.  'I can barely hear myself think over the noise your stomach is making...'

'And, this is for you, ' said Eugenia much more gently as she laid the other bowl in front of Regina.

Moving to the head of the table, she took her own chair which faced the two women.

'Ma'am, ' started Regina when they were all settled in and she finally found her voice.

'Eugenia, ' corrected Granny.

'Yes, ' sighed Regina, 'I'm sorry....Eugenia, I don't know how to tell you this, but I am afraid that Robin is....'

'Dead.  Yes.  I know.  I was told by, Claudius.'

Regina sighed in relief as she nodded her head.

'I am glad that it was Claudius that they sent to tell you.  He is a good, gentle and kind man.'

'He better be, ' huffed Eugenia earning a confused look from Regina. 'I don't care how big or old he is....he knows damn well that I will still take him over my knee, should I find out otherwise....'

'What?!?' gasped Regina in astonishment.

'He knows the rules of this house and my expectations.  He needs to act accordingly and set a good example for my grandson...'

'Wait!  Claudius is your son?!' said Regina incredulously. 

'He is my third, and it was to my fourth, and my youngest, Graham, that he entrusted your children.'

Emma chewed her mouthful of food slowly as she looked back and forth between the two women silently, wondering what else might be revealed this evening and how much more complicated and convoluted this family tree might become.

'And before you say anything more, I know, too, that Graham is dead.'

'I am so, so sorry, ' whispered Regina as she considered what this woman had endured in so short of a time.  Three sons dead, and all of those deaths connected in some way to herself and Emma.

'Don't be, ' Eugenia offered as she addressed Regina directly.  'Two of my sons gave their life for the Crown and, yet another, still defends it.  I am proud of those boys...'

'As you should be, ' offered Regina with a soft smile.

'I only wish I could say the same for my second oldest...'

'Killian, ' said Regina softly.

'Yes.  That's the one, ' grumbled Eugenia. 'I can only say that I am sorry for what he put you both through and assure you that this was never how I would have raised him to be, but by the time he was eight, his future was no longer in my hands.'

'What do you mean?' asked Regina curiously.

'From a very young age, it was apparent that Killian had the inclination and desire to walk in the shoes of his father.   Occassionally, he would visit the castle with Brennan, always to return with stars in his eyes.  

He was enamored and awed by the respect, admiration and power that his father wielded as advisor to the King, but I knew there was more to it than just that.  The opportunity for wealth, the lack of back-breaking work, the ease with which one's desires could be fulfilled....it all had its appeal.'

'I assure you that it is not like that...' said Regina defensively as she considered the number of lives that hung in the balance of her and Emma's every decision, every day.

'Oh, I know, ' assured Eugenia.  'I am well aware of the heavy responsibilities and burdens that your title brings, but all of that is masked to the eyes of a child, and they see only that which they want to see....

Never the less, Brennan recognized quickly those youthful, foolish ambitions and desires, and decided to capitalize on them.  Soon, he began to devote his full attention to Killian, and Killian alone; taking him to the castle more and more frequently, and finally to live, while Robin and I, and later, Claudius and Graham, were left here, alone, to fend for ourselves.

Once they were away from prying eyes, both father and son indulged heartily in the wealth, prestige and pleasures that environment can so easily bring to bear, and it made them drunk with power and all too mindful of their impunity.

Brennan would return, occasionally, out of some misguided sense of marital obligation, but never with Killian, and he had good reason to keep him away, too.

As Killian grew older, tales of his misdeeds became more and more frequent and numerous; the rapes, the abuses, the drinking..... 

Of course, all of the accusations were squelched; dispelled and discounted as rumor, time and again, by Brennan's powerful hand, but I knew, in my heart, it was all truth.

Should Killian ever return to this house, Brennan knew that I would take my own son's life before I would allow him to continue in this lifestyle of depravity, and there would be no one left to carry out my husband's twisted plans and legacy. 

As Killian's behavior spiraled further out of control, Brennan's visits became less and less frequent, until, eventually, they stopped altogether.  It was on Graham's second birthday that I saw Brennan for the last time.'

Sighing heavily, Eugenia shook her head.

'I wish i could tell you that Killian had no fault in becoming the monster that he was, but I am not foolish enough to believe him innocent. 

No fire can kindle without a spark, and both he and his father did their fair share of fanning those flames until they burned out of control....

In the end, I can only take comfort in the fact that Killian didn't achieve what he wanted, but he got what he deserved, and I won't mourn his loss.....I just wish he hadn't taken Robin with him....' finished Eugenia sadly.

Pausing for a moment, she asked,

'Do you think they each knew who the other was when they met?'

'I don't believe so, ' lied Regina as she clearly remembered the hint of recognition in both Robin's tone and words.

'Probably for the best that Robin didn't know that, in the end, it was his brother that betrayed him....'

'Yes...probably...' assured Regina quietly. 

Rising from her chair, Eugenia walked to a small trunk that was nestled away beside the hearth.  Opening the lid, she extracted a stack of letters, bringing them back over to the table.

'He truly loved you and wished only that you might be happy....'

'I know, ' said Regina softly.  

'You should probably take these, ' said Eugenia, sliding the stack over to Regina.

'I couldn't possibly, Eugenia.  Those are yours and yours alone.'

'Take them.  They are a testament to love, devotion and friendship, and I want his memory and words to live on long after I am gone.'

'I assure you that his memory and words will always be with me, and we will speak of Robin, Claudius and Graham proudly to our children.'

'I hope that you do, ' offered Eugenia with a gentle smile. 

'Well, ' exclaimed Eugenia as she looked out the window, 'the hour is too late for you to think about going anywhere else tonight.  

There are two more beds and a few of Claudius' clean night shirts in the chest over there.  I think you will find one of them that can fit you well enough to sleep in....'

'Thank you, Eugenia, ' breathed Regina as she rose from the table, followed closely by Emma.

'Where do you think you're going?' questioned Eugenia, looking directly at Emma.  'Those horses aren't going to take care of themselves, and I promised you a little chat....'

'Uhhhhhh, ' was all that Emma managed as she looked desperately at Regina.

'You don't need her permission.  I will come out to the barn and show you where everything is, ' Eugenia volunteered as she got to her feet and grabbed the crossbow that she had leaned against the wall near the fireplace. 

'Just in case, ' said Eugenia, patting the stock and chuckling a bit as Emma's eyes widened in panic. 'Now, follow me...'

 


 

Emma moved about the barn, gathering items from the locations that Eugenia indicated. She worked quickly and silently, keeping a wary eye on their host, hoping to limit their 'alone time' as much as possible.  

Eugenia settled herself on one of the tack boxes, crossbow propped beside her as she regarded Emma carefully.

The silence was almost as stifling as the warmth of the barn, and Emma finally stopped to remove some of her layers, leaving her in her tight, leather breeches, boots and a sleeveless shirt that was untied and open to mid-chest.  

She gathered her hair into a tie before resuming her work, but it did little to cool her, and the sheen of perspiration on her skin eventually caused the loose fabric to cling to her torso while drops of sweat rolled down her face, neck and chest.

'Well, ' said Eugenia, 'your face and hair may look exactly like your mother, but there is no doubt from the looks of the rest of you that you came from my brother.....'

She paused as she waited for her words to sink in, finally seeing Emma step out from behind Rocinante.

'What did you say?' she asked quietly with a furrowed brow.

'Your father wasn't always old.  When he met your mother, he was incredibly strong and handsome, though he would never admit to it.'

'I-I meant the other part....'

'Yes, ' said Eugenia knowingly, 'well, someone like Brennan doesn't get to be the King's Advisor without some sort of well placed connections.  Unfortunately,  I was the foolish, naive, nineteen year old girl that he used as a means to that end.

I had come only to wish my brother well in his marriage to your mother when I met him. 

He was so confident, so charming, so handsome.  He was the first man that had truly shown me any attention, and he was more than willing to lavish it upon me.  Before I knew it, I was head over heels in love and pregnant with Robin, so I stayed, and we married.  

I thought he felt the same about me, so I had no reservations introducing him to my brother...your father....and your mother.  Just like me, they fell for all of his promises and lies, and just like that, Brennan had the position he coveted.

I curse myself every day for the part I played in starting this mess.  Had it not been for me, your mother and your brother might still be alive.  Maybe someday you can forgive me, if not, then at least you know, so you can damn me to Hel....'

As Eugenia spoke, Emma had edged closer until she stood directly in front of the tack box on which she perched.  Crouching down, Emma took Eugenia hands in her own, squeezing them tightly.

'Is that what you want?  For me to damn a 19 year old woman to Hel because she made a mistake?  I do not believe you need any more help in that....'

Pausing a moment, she added,

'When was he last time you spoke to my father?' Emma asked quietly.

'It has been many years, Emma.  Since before you were born.

A life like the one he had never really appealed to me, so I saw him very rarely.

When I finally recognized Brennan and Killian for what they were, I was ashamed and embarrassed.  This was my husband and my child who were bringing disgrace upon this Kingdom, so I distanced myself even further, eventually, cutting off any contact.

Your father called on me several times, but I ran, hiding with the boys in the forest until I would see him leave.  Eventually, he just stopped trying....

Upon Brennan's death, Claudius, Graham and I moved to Tenimor, a place where I knew we would not be recognized, and it is here that we have remained for many years...'

'Do you not think that it is time to put aside this heavy burden of undeserved guilt...this solitary life...so that you might be reunited with your brother, with me, with Regina, with your grand nieces and nephews... with the family that loves you?' questioned Emma adamantly. 

'I wish it were that simple, ' offered Eugenia.

'The only person that is making it complicated, ' reasoned Emma as she caught her Aunt's eyes with a soft smile, 'is you....'

'You definitely got the best of both of them in you, Emma, ' said Eugenia as she patted her niece's cheek lovingly, '....and you are most definitely going to need it, ' she sighed sympathetically.  'From what Robin has told me, and from what I can see for myself, that wife of yours is a handful; strong-willed, beautiful and with a complete mind of her own.' 

'Which is why, ' emphasized Emma, 'we didn't have any food or winter clothes.  As soon as she knew where Henry and Eva were, Odin, himself, let alone me, couldn't have stopped her.'

Eugenia looked her up and down skeptically before speaking again.

'I will let you off with a warning this time, but, in the future, you will be prepared... for anything.'

'Yes, Ma'am, ' responded Emma with a grin.

Emma collected her things before opening the barn door and allowing Eugenia to pass.

'Why were you so mean to me when we arrived?'

'Because you are family...'

'Does this mean I can shoot the crossbow?'

'Not if you want to see tomorrow...'

'Got it.'

 


 

'Oh, thank Odin you're back....' breathed Regina as Emma and Eugenia walked through the door of the cottage.

'Were you afraid that I might not be?' teased Emma, but she grew serious and concerned instantly when she realized that Regina's eyes were filled with fear and she was gasping for air.

Throwing her cloak on the floor, Emma ran over to her wife, grasping her strongly by the shoulders.

'Regina, what's wrong?!'

Emma followed her wife's gaze as she looked to the floor where a substantial puddle of liquid had collected at her feet.

'I don't think we will be going home in the morning, Emma, ' she panted.

'Ummmm, Eugenia?' said Emma nervously as she looked to the doorway.

'Get her into bed and then take the children next door to sleep, ' ordered Eugenia.  'When you get back, roll up your sleeves.  We got some work ahead of us....'

 


 

'One more push and you will have this baby in your arms as well, ' said Eugenia as she waited to receive the second of Regina's and Emma's two children.

Bearing down, Regina dug her heels into the mattress and arched her back, gripping Emma's hand tightly and releasing a scream as she slumped back exhausted into the bed, finally relieved from her pain.

Within a moment, her second baby was laid upon her chest, and she laughed and smiled tiredly as she heard their strong cries fill the room

'Another beautiful boy, ' said Eugenia proudly.  'Do you know what you will name them?'

Regina looked briefly at Emma who tipped her head knowingly.

'If it pleases you, Eugenia, I would call the first, Robin, and the second, Graham....'

'Hmmm, ' considered Eugenia as she nodded her head, 'Two strong names for two strong and handsome boys.  I believe nothing would please me more...'

 


 

The sun was on the cusp of its second rising since Emma and Eugenia had returned from the barn to find Regina in labor, and Emma smiled as her thumb brushed gently and soothingly against Regina's temple.  

They lay facing each other, Emma still in her breeches, socks and shirt, and Regina a bit more comfortable in one of Claudius' clean nightshirts that now fit her much more loosely.

Emma watched as Regina's eyes fluttered open, and she pressed her finger to her grinning lips before pointing to the bed between them where their sons, just hours old, lay snuggled together, fast asleep.

Emma breathed a quiet laugh as Graham released a tremendous yawn, before furrowing his brow and pursing his lips, moving them in and out rhythmically.

Reaching down, Regina loosened his tight swaddling so that his hands and arms were freed before turning him towards her and supporting his back.  Releasing the ties at the collar of her nightshirt, she pulled the side back to reveal a breast that was firm and full, and it took only a light brush of warm milk upon his lips to encourage him to capture her hardened nipple in his mouth.

Emma watched fascinated as her son watched Regina's eyes, sucking vigorously and grunting hard as his small hands and fingers grasped and kneaded eagerly at the soft skin of Regina's chest and breast trying to coax even more of the warm liquid onto his tongue.

Closing her eyes, Regina used her fingertips to trace delicately and meticulously over each of the tiny features of his face, stopping for a moment to wipe away the small, cream-colored bubbles that had collected at the corner of his mouth. 

She smiled softly as she recognized all of the differences and similarities that he shared with his older siblings, finally opening her eyes when she was satisfied that she had memorized his features for an eternity. 

She blushed as she noticed Emma watching her intently with a gentle, but curious expression.

'I don't think I have ever truly realized how beautiful, strong and amazing you are until this very moment, ' Emma breathed reverently causing Regina to blush to an even deeper share of crimson.

'And I don't think I have ever felt as exhausted, overwhelmed and unattractive as I do in this instant, ' joked Regina.  'I guess it is a good thing that you love me as much as you do, ' she added with a tired smile and wink.

'Teach me.  Tell me what to do so that I might lessen the burden.  You are not alone in this, Regina....'

'Perhaps we should start with something simple?' asked Regina with a gentle smile, acknowledging her wife's inexperience, but appreciating her sincere desire to help and be a part of what she had missed once before.

'Yes, please, ' responded Emma; a wave of relief passing over her face.

'Could you please take this little one to Eugenia?' asked Regina, nodding her head at the baby that now lay sated at her breast, mouth open around her nipple, sleeping soundly, having eaten his fill.

Crawling carefully from the mattress, Emma approached the side of the bed hesitantly, standing behind Regina who still lay on her side facing the wall. 

'H-he is quite small, Regina, ' observed Emma as she twisted her mouth nervously.  From her chair, Granny rolled her eyes and shook her head as she watched the events that were unfolding.

'They arrived a bit earlier than anticipated. It is to be expected, ' assured Regina.

'Hmmmm, ' pondered Emma as she continued to look at her son.  'He seems quite comfortable.  Perhaps he would prefer to stay with you...'

'I am sure that he will be perfectly enamored and content with Eugenia's company while I feed his brother.....'

'Ummm, ' offered Emma again.  'Maybe...'

'Oh for Odin's sake, ' interrupted Eugenia as she stood from her chair and stomped across the room.  

'He will be a full grown man, and I will be dead by the time you finally figure out how to pick him up, ' she groused as she bumped Emma out of the way and snatched the baby from the bed, settling him onto her shoulder and bouncing him lightly as she snuggled him back into his warm blanket.

'I am sorry, Regina.  I just do not know...' said Emma frustratedly.

'Shhhhh, ' soothed Regina who had turned to face Emma and the larger room, bringing their second son to lay between them again.  'There is no reason for apology.'

'You raised two children, alone, and blind!  I am neither, and yet, I can't even pick up my own son!'

'Sometimes, it is our sight that can make us most afraid.....' offered Regina quietly

'Come.  Lay behind me.  He is small, but he will not break.  I promise...' she assured her wife with a gentle smile.

Emma had never been so unsure of herself as she slipped back into the bed behind Regina.

'I promise that I will not break either, ' teased Regina.  'Come closer, ' she encouraged as she wrapped Emma's right arm around her waist and snuggled back into her wife's strong embrace.

'Would you like to help me feed him?' she asked as she felt Emma nod against her shoulder.

'Do you remember what I did first?'

Reaching forward, Emma began to loosen the blanket from around their son taking his arms from the fabric gently, but she froze immediately when he began to cry.

'I didn't...'

'Do anything wrong, ' finished Regina.  'He's just a bit surprised by his freedom and the cold.   I believe he is also quite hungry by now, and probably jealous that his brother got to eat first, ' she teased as she brushed her fingertip on the end of his nose.  'We are about to fix all of this though, ' assured Regina.

'Now just relax and let me guide your hands, ' whispered Regina to Emma.

Turning Robin on his side, Regina took Emma's left hand and placed her palm firmly against his back to hold him.

Slipping her right hand under Emma's, she guided their hands to her breast, squeezing her nipple gently between their index and middle fingers which were soon coated with sticky, rich, thick colostrum released readily in anticipation of his feeding.

'Shhhh, ' soothed Regina as she worked with Emma to press him forward slightly while brushing her nipple against his lips just as she had his brother.  

His face was reddened and his brow furrowed strongly in frustration as he cried loudly in protest, and it took them several attempts before he realized that his objections had produced the desired effect.

Muted cries quickly diminished to whimpers which soon changed to hungry, excited grunts as he too enjoyed his breakfast; Emma's and Regina's hands moving to rub and pat his back soothingly.

'Wow, ' breathed Emma in relief and fascination at having accomplished, successfully, her first, true task as the mother of an infant.

'This little one seems to have quite strong opinions, ' observed Regina.

'I cannot imagine where he got that from, ' teased Emma, earning a soft jab in the ribs from Regina's elbow.

'Owww, ' she offered playfully in return, but their happy exchange was short-lived as the clop of several horses hooves was heard outside.

Emma looked to the door before looking to Eugenia quizzically who shook her head to indicate the arrival of uninvited guests.

'Emma, ' said Regina in a concerned voice.

'All will be fine.  I am simply going to see who it is, ' assured Emma as she slipped out of bed so as not to disturb her son's feeding.

She stopped to place a soft kiss on his head and upon Regina's forehead before starting towards the door.

'Take the bow, ' ordered Eugenia.

Nodding in agreement, Emma took the weapon from its place at the hearth before opening the door and stepping outside.

 


 

The sun had not yet risen and much of the area was still bathed in the shadow cast by the surrounding wood, making it hard to see but easy to hide.

'Who goes here?' demanded Emma as a figure stepped toward her, still obscured by darkness.

'If you are holding my mother's crossbow, then I may only believe that one of the following may be true: she is with Odin, you wish for an untimely death or she adores you....' smiled Claudius as he stepped to a point where he could be seen more clearly.

'Claudius, ' breathed Emma with a relieved smile as she lowered her weapon and grasped his forearm in welcome, feeling him return the gesture warmly.

'Greetings, My Queen, ' smiled Claudius.

'Father!' greeted Emma with a warm embrace as he, too, stepped from the shadow.

'Did we frighten you?' asked Henry.

'We simply were not expecting....well....a lot of things....' chuckled Emma.

'When we saw that you had not returned to the castle, we grew concerned and followed your path.  Luckily, we found Ruby who told us where she believed you to be.  We meant only to verify your safety.'

'We thank you for it, ' acknowledged Emma with a tip of her head, 'and I assure you that we are fine...'

'The Queen?' asked Claudius, nervous that he had not yet seen Regina.

'She is safe inside, ' chuckled Emma at his overprotectiveness of her wife.

'If she is alone with my mother, ' he mumbled, 'there is no guarantee of that....'

'Why don't you join them, Claudius, in case she needs protection, ' chuckled Emma. 'Father and I will take the horses to the barn and join you shortly....'

'Yes, M'Lady, ' said Claudius with a terse bow before he turned and walked to the door of his childhood home.

'It is twin boys, Father, ' said Emma with a brilliant smile.

'If I didn't know better, I might mistake you as excited, ' teased her father, causing Emma to blush.

Laughing, he placed his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close and placing a kiss upon her temple.

'I am proud of you, Emma, and you have every reason to be over-joyed with their arrival! I am quite certain that they are just as amazing as their two mothers, and I cannot wait to meet my new grandsons!  Now, let us get these horses to the barn so that I can do just that!'

 


 

Claudius knocked softly at the door, awaiting a reply before daring to lift the latch and open it.

He smiled as the gruff, but familiar, voice gave him the confirmation that he required.

He pushed the door slowly and cautiously, and was greeted immediately with the sight of his mother, standing by the hearth, feet planted firmly, a second crossbow aimed at his chest.

'It is me, your son, ' he said quietly before taking a step forward into the warm light of the room.

He kept his eyes trained intently on the weapon in his mother's hands from force of habit versus any real fear of harm, shutting the door behind him without looking.

'Humph, ' she responded as she finally lowered the crossbow.  'Well, come over here and let me get a good look at you, ' she ordered, and Claudius took a few quick steps towards her, so as not to be called out for dawdling.

She gave him one last scrutinizing look before leaning the crossbow against the wall and gathering him in for a warm hug which was somewhat awkward given their half-meter difference in height.

'You are too thin!' Eugenia declared.  'Don't they feed you in that army?  Or are you just too busy to eat?'

'I....uhhhh...' started Claudius as he looked down at the floor and rubbed the back of his neck shyly.

'Will you please see to it that my boy eats every so often when he gets back to that castle, Regina?'

'Gladly, ' came the familiar, soft voice from behind Claudius who immediately turned on his heel, head already bowed.

'My Queen, I....' was all Claudius managed before he raised his head to see Regina lying in bed, nursing her newborn son.

His eyes went wide and he blushed a deep crimson as he whirled around again to return them to their privacy.

'Your Majesty, I'm sorry....I didn't....I wasn't....I shouldn't.....uhhhhhh....' he groaned, unable to figure out the exact thing to say in this situation.  He hadn't seen much, but it was enough, and probably more than he should have of the beautiful woman to which he had devoted his service.

Regina couldn't help but grin as she stifled a laugh at the awkwardness and shyness of the man sworn to protect her.

'Come with me, Claudius, I think we should go outside and get you some fresh air before you pass out, ' stated Eugenia as she took him by the elbow and led him towards the entrance.

As she opened the door, however, Eugenia stopped in her tracks.

'Henry, ' she gasped as she stood face to face with a man she had not seen in over twenty five years.

'Eugenia?' whispered Henry in amazement.

Receiving no response, he looked to Emma who offered him a gentle smile and a nod of affirmation.

His chin trembled as the tears filled his eyes and ran down his cheeks.

'All these years, I have thought you dead....'

'And I have thought you angry and disappointed with me....'

'I guess we are both mistaken, ' offered Henry with a gentle smile.

'My sister, ' he breathed as he laughed joyfully and wrapped his arms around Eugenia, 'how I have missed you!'

Eugenia stood stunned and stiff for a moment before relaxing into her brother's embrace and wrapping her arms about him as well.

'I have missed you too, Brother, ' she sighed.  'It has been far too long.....

'Now, come inside, out of the cold.  We all have quite a bit to catch up on....'

 


 

In the cozy warmth of the cottage, they talked and laughed for most of the day and evening, sharing meals, wine and tales, heretofore unheard or unspoken.  

With each story told and each moment passed, they bonded as friends and reunited as family, lives intertwined in both heartache and joy.

It was well past the apex of the full moon when Claudius finally arose from the table.

'I should retire to sleep.  I will be nearby in the barn should you need me, ' he offered with a tip of his head as he turned towards the door.

'Claudius, ' said Regina as she rose from the table as well, touching his arm to stop him. 'Why do you sleep in the barn when there are ample beds here in the warmth of this cottage?'

'My Queen...' sighed Claudius in protest, '...it would not be appropriate...'

'We are but guests here.  It would be more appropriate that I should sleep in the barn, so that you might have your bed.'

 

'Do you think me so cruel that I would cast you to the barn with two, newborn babes?' he asked with surprised and wide eyes.

'And do you think me so cruel that I would allow you to sleep in the cold with animals?' she smirked as she countered his arguement.

'Your Highness....'

'You may call me whatever formalities you wish in front of your men, ' interrupted Regina, 'but in the presence of those around us, you will call me 'Regina''. 

'Please, Your Highness, ' protested Claudius.

'No.  We are family now, and I expect to be treated as such, so you should simply resign yourself to do as I have asked, ' Regina challenged with a cocked brow.

'I would do as she says, Claudius, ' supported Eugenia.  'Not even I can match this one's fire and sass...'

'As you wish, M'Lady, ' resigned Claudius.

'If you would do 'as I wished', then that entire sentence would have ended much differently, ' stated Regina tersely.

'As you wish.....Regina, ' mumbled Claudius through gritted teeth, throwing in a roll of his eyes.

'My name and an eye roll? How far does this rebelliousness go?' teased Regina. 

'The switch is over there, Regina, ' offered Eugenia, 'feel free to take him over your knee....'

Immediately, Claudius blushed deeply.

'My pleasure, ' smirked Regina.

'From the look in his eyes, I am fairly certain that it would be his pleasure too, ' mumbled Eugenia to Henry before both broke out into laughter and clinked glasses.

Recognizing Claudius' embarrassment and discomfort, Regina stepped closer and became more serious.

'I tease only because I enjoy your beautiful smile and laugh.  Forgive me?' asked Regina, receiving a nod of Claudius' head in return.

'Goodnight, Claudius, ' said Regina softly as she stood upon her toes and kissed him gently on the cheek before turning and crawling into bed with Emma who held the covers open for her to join.

'Goodnight, Regina, ' he responded in a whisper as she walked away, holding his hand to his face as if trying to keep her kiss on his skin forever.

Turning, Claudius hesitated for a moment before removing his traveling shirt and replacing it with a nightshirt.

'See, I told you he was hairy...' whispered  Emma in Regina's ear cockily, noting the brown hair that covered his heavily muscled chest and stomach, earning an elbow to her ribs.

'Let us hope he does not remove his breeches so that you may also see the sad truth of his inadequacy...' she added smugly.

'From the feel of him against my hip just a moment ago, I believe, quite adamantly, that you are correct only in your first observation, ' smirked Regina.  'Though I should be quite happy to debate the matter further, with both of you, should you be so inclined...'

Reaching up Regina lowered the flame in the lantern by the bed before settling back into Emma and falling into a deep sleep, leaving her wife with a gaping mouth and a brow furrowed with intrigue.

 


 

'Can you see them well enough, Regina?' asked Claudius as he secured Robin and Graham's improvised cradle over the front of the saddle.

'Most definitely, ' assured Regina, amazed at the cleverness of the sling that Claudius had fashioned to allow her newborns to travel safely back to the castle on horseback.

'And you sit comfortably upon the saddle?' he asked, well aware of the recency of their birth.

'Well enough....'

'We will take it slow and stop as you require.  You need only ask.

Robin and Graham should rest comfortably against the saddle, and Rocinante's sway should rock them into a very sound sleep for most of the journey.'

'Your wife must be quite impressed by your ingenuity, ' smiled Regina.

'I am afraid that my wife died twelve years ago in childbirth, Regina.'

'I am so sorry, Claudius.  I did not know.'

'Do not be sorry.  She was a good woman...a gentle woman... of whom I will always have many fond memories...'

'Perhaps it is time that you find someone with whom you may build new memories?'

'Should I ever find someone as amazing and as beautiful as you, Regina, I might someday consider it, ' offered Claudius with a wink and a grin.

'Now then, ' declared Claudius as he turned to Henry and Eva and clapped his hands together, 'let us get you situated!'

One by one, Claudius lifted each of them into the saddles of two ponies which were tethered to their grandfather's mare.

Seeing everyone situated, Claudius deftly mounted his own horse, bringing it between Regina's and Emma's horses so that he might speak to them privately.

'You should know that I am quite willing to debate my perceived inadequacy whenever both of you should feel so inclined.

I assure you I will do my part in ensuring that the conversation is thoroughly engaging, satisfying and...shall we say...fulfilling?'

Clicking his tongue, Claudius prompted his horse to trot forward and assume his lead position, leaving both women to regard him, impressed and intrigued by his newfound confidence.

'I probably should talk to him about this, ' stated Emma with a chuckle.

'You most certainly should, ' agreed Regina whole-heartedly with a wink and a smirk as she spurred Rocinante to catch up, leaving Emma shaking her head with a grin.

Further away, Henry addressed his sister.

'Promise that you will come to visit, and I will do the same, Eugenia.  Please, do not hide or be a stranger to us, ' implored Henry.

'Not anymore, ' assured Eugenia as she waved them off into the wood.

Chapter Text

'I should have killed him that day when I had the chance, ' said Emma definitively as she paced up and down the worn rug in the great hallway.

'He was twelve, Emma, ' responded Regina, trying to calm the situation.  'I hardly think that would have been an appropriate thing for you to do...'

'You're right, ' responded Emma as she considered it further.

'I should have asked Claudius to take care of it, ' said Emma as she looked over to where the Captain of their guard sat in a chair, bouncing his leg and wringing his hands nervously.

'Emma, ' sighed Regina with a roll of her eyes, 'I seriously doubt that Claudius would have agreed to kill his own son...'

'Everyone has a price, Regina, ' offered Emma distractedly.

'Dav