Regina stood at the front of the men on horses. It was part of her job as the young queen to wish the men well on the hunt. Anticipation hung in the air as she waited to see if her favorite hunter would show up. He didn't always. The Hood sometimes joined the hunt late, snuck in unbidden but usually could win the whole thing. If he were to show, she would offer him a token.
A kiss (a chaste one) from the queen is also the prize, another reminder that Regina is chattel for her husband to use to his advantage.
Mother's plans for her life were likely unfolding exactly as her mother had wished. Her own plans for her life, so far, had not. Impatient whinnies and soft pawing made her wish that she was astride a horse rather than standing on the ground. There were times that she was allowed (allowed) to ride out with the hunt. Today, however, there were men she would not trust with herself on a saddle. She could take care of herself but if any sought to hurt her horse it would be a difficult gambit.
"Hello, Milady," her friend's voice whispered in her ear as if from the wind.
A blanket of relief settled over Regina and she smiled. It wouldn't do to let him see. "I thought you were not going to show up," she reproved, not turning to look at her favored hunter. "Or crash the hunt and win anyways."
"I cannot have others stealing a kiss from my queen," his tone deepened, and he kept his volume low. Regina turned to look at him and was warmed by the fire lighting his eyes. This man was more than any she had ever laid eyes on. "You know that the right belongs to me."
He was an arrogant thing, her man of the hunt. Standing and talking to him only put him further in the sight of the other hopefuls who wanted to win the kiss from the queen and the seat at the king's table as they ate the stag that was to be released. It was best to keep him on his toes and not thinking that he held her heart. It was not something Regina wanted to let others know.
Arching a neat eyebrow at him, she kept her voice remote. "Technically, they belong to my husband, thief."
"I have never taken a kiss that was not granted to me by your husband," he reminded her, a devilish glint in his eye.
"More's the shame."
"You don't mean that."
Plucking the ribbon from her breast, Regina carefully lifted it and began tying it to Robin's arm. The embroidered lion matched his tattoo and the sigil of his father's house. She had given it a green eye to match his own. The crest danced neatly around the black beast and kept him neatly framed. Her knot kept being thwarted by Robin lifting his arm to get a glimpse of her handiwork.
"Stop moving," she chided, "or it won't stay on."
Unable to listen, he flicked at the end of one of the ribbons as she struggled to tie it in place. "What is this frippery?"
She tugged the knot tight, pulling hard enough to yank his arm to the side. Her mouth bowed in a slight frown. "It's a token of my esteem."
"A favor from the queen," he noted, arrogant voice turning soft. She felt young again watching the way his whole face softened. As young as she used to feel hen Daniel would sneak out to meet her in the barn. "There will surely be a target on my back now."
"I wish you all the luck, Thief." Her hand smoothed his doublet, and came to rest over his heart. "Not that you need it."
"I never do."
He mounted his horse and she let the flag flutter in the wind as the trumpets bleated out their call to action. The stag was released; panic flowing from the poor beast came at her in waves as it bounded into the forest. Regina knew what the fate of the beast was to be, surely as she knew what her own fate. Neither was a kind one. Next the men, including her husband, followed on what they would call a merry chase.
Regina could hear Cora's voice hiss "weakling" in her ear at the way her stomach churned over the fate of the stag, and herself.
A puff of smoke to her left and a twittering laugh set her teeth on edge. His fingers brushed at the air around him as he brought his hand up in a flourish. "Hello dearie, having a pleasant day?"
"What do you want?"
The twittering laugh came again. "You know he cannot save you."
"Your hunter," Rumpelstiltskin reminded her with another flourish of his hand while he danced around her back to stand on her right side. "The Hood." Thin green fingers steepled on his chest over his heart. "I am the only one who can offer you a way out of your current situation. I don't want you getting any ideas, dearie."
Regina snorted and wished her teacher away. Any warm feelings that had been rising in her died swiftly. Rumpelstiltskin was just as unyielding and tricky as her mother. The sight of Daniel's face going ashen as her mother crushed his heart, and her own with it, came into her mind. There was no escape, not from his watchful eye.
Rather than showing her full hand, Regina sniffed, "What makes you think I am getting ideas?"
"The gift you bestowed upon him," "You have grown attached to this man. Your attachment will only weaken your power. Your power is in your rage, Regina."
"I know that." The anger that Rumpelstiltskin always seemed to pull from her bones hovered near the surface. She gave him a wave of her hand rather than turning on him in fury. "Be gone. It will not do for you to be seen with me here and have it get back to the king."
"Don't think you can order me about, dearie," he reminded her, the silky tone a warning.
"I will come for our usual lessons. Now go."
He disappeared in a puff of smoke but Regina could feel his watchful gaze on her. Her teacher's insistence that he was her only option was a sign. For some reason Robin's interest in her was a problem for him. Why else would he risk them being seen together to tell her that she should keep herself away from Robin of Locksley?
Robin was the first man to look at her and see a person since Daniel. A wife, a step-mother, a student were the things she had become but Regina was slowly disappearing into these roles. The man who came to be granted the right to kiss the queen, however, he saw straight through to Regina.
Regina was slipping. The Dark One could feel his protégé slipping away. It was not to be born. She could not leave. Everything depended on Regina. She was a loose cannon but she was his best shot at getting to Balefire. Nothing was going to stand in his way, particularly not Regina and definitely not some son of a minor lord. His fingers drummed idly on the oak table while he waited for his current quarry.
Cora's mistake had been killing Daniel in front of Regina. Regina had been determined to get Cora out of her life from that moment on. To keep the strings taught on his puppet, Rumpelstiltskin would have to make her realize that no matter what she tried to do there was no way out.
So he waited.
When the heavy set man with graying curls entered with a torch, The Dark One was properly rewarded for his patience. He had already waited centuries, what was another decade in the grand scheme of things.
It only took a moment for the king to notice that there was a stranger sitting at his great table. The torch was lifted to light the path between the two men. Rumple never flinched but enjoyed the fear that jumped into the king's eyes. The Dark One's path of influence was well known, even in this kingdom.
"What are you doing here, Dark One? Leave now!"
The cackle came like a flood. Rumpelstiltskin still could not believe that Cora had loved this man once. He was a fool if ever Rumpelstiltskin had found one. "What are you going to do, your majesty, if I don't? I am here to offer my services."
The frown was expected as was the quick shake of the king's head. "I need none of your services."
They always thought that. Everyone was wrong. Everyone was in need of the Dark One's services sooner or later. It was why The Dark One was as old as time itself. "Of course you do," he cooed at the king. "You need me to help keep your queen."
Wouldn't do to tell the man to see their plans out to the end, he and Regina would likely kill him. Best not to ruin plans with such truths. The truth was a dark and twisted thing and rarely brought peace to anyone. Instead, Rumpelstiltskin wove his half-truths and exaggerations into a beautiful web. All the others would end up trapped in his web and their fates were of no consequence to him. He would get his happy ending.
"The queen is at no risk."
Rumple twittered at yet another denial. Thrice denied, next he would stay. He turned his lips down as if pretending to consider the king's statement. Instead he counted on his fingers. "She does not wish to be here. She does not wish to be queen. She does not love you." Then he offered his sharp teeth in his widest grin for King Leopold. "The queen will prove false, just like her mother."
"Odd how you marry the daughter when you cast the mother aside." Leopold was a blind fool who rarely saw the depth of the women that came into his path. He had plans for all of them, though: the queen, the princess, the baby. They would all be integral. "We both know that she is young enough to be your child easily. The kingdom sees how she looks at the young men who ride for their fathers in the hunt. There is one in particular. Locksley. She will leave you for him and take any chance for male heirs with her."
The seeds were planted and The Dark One could see the sprouts of doubt and fear growing within the king's feeble brain. He would shower them with more darkness and the hope of crushing another and reap the beautiful bounty.
"But," The Dark One crowed triumphantly, "I have a plan."
A dinner with courtiers was particularly boring. Rarely did anyone speak to the queen, unless it was to remark on her dress or the weather. Like most queens, she was an accessory meant to compliment a king. Her husband talked with many and offered up gifts and pardons and debated law. Things Regina knew she could likely do even better than the half educated fool she was married to. Instead, she pushed her food around her charger and tried to ignore the banality of her life.
When people were tucking into the fourth course, the sound of a horn bleated out three quick notes to call the attention of the room. Regina began making a pile of peas to entertain her.
"The next hunt will feature a special prize. The king has come across a second white stag. Two in one year is exceptionally rare. King Leopold has decided to bestow one request from the king on the victor of the hunt."
"Anything?" one voice called.
"What are the exceptions?"
"What is the timeline on the request?"
"Can we ask for anything?"
Voices became louder and louder until the whole hall was filled with noise. Regina tried to parse out just what her husband had meant by the aforementioned request. This reward was not one that was entirely a foreign concept to her husband. He always did like to be credited with giving things to those who needed them in his kingdom. Leopold was aging and could be a soft touch.
Still, it was something powerful. Something useful. If she had something to hold over the old goat's head, possibilities could open up. Regina could use it right away or she could take some time to save it. If Robin had it, he could also put it to good use. She thought about the kiss that Robin had taken as his prize after the last hunt. It had been full of promise and heat and things a kiss hadn't held since Daniel had last taken her lips.
Regina was starting to burn for things other than revenge against the dainty princess. The chance to be loved again was something she could not ignore. Love had come so infrequently into her life and she did not doubt what she had told Snow, that love created happiness. What would happen if she chose happiness; chose a chance at love?
The details of the award were hammered out and Regina catalogued them all. The details of the hunt and the request of the king tumbled in her mind as she began to listen to the boasts of the men about her, of what they would accomplish and what they would demand from their king in return.
Not wishing to hear more, Regina slid into the shadows and slipped off the dais. A request of the king would be quite the prize. Perhaps the one that they were looking for.
Upon the day of the competition, Regina stood on the platform behind where the horses lined up. There were men from nearly every part of her husband's kingdom and even some from the lands beyond. A request of Leopold was apparently an attractive prize. One man, however, was studiously missing.
Regina tried to keep her searching eyes from being anything but obvious. Still, the king is watching her watch the crowd and it makes her unease grow. There is a crisp autumn wind and everyone seems restless. The prize is too large. The want is too great.
Where was Robin? They had a plan.
"Looking for someone," her husband asks, with a perceptiveness that is unusual for the king.
"No. Just looking at the crowd," Reigina turned away and told herself not to look back. The king was unusually interested in her and it would not do. She gave her husband a smile and if he didn't notice how it only touched her lips, he gave no notice. "The hunt will be quite the competition. You may have set the prize too high."
"What is a request in the grand scheme of things?" he asked, giving one of those casual shrugs that made Regina hate him. So little of what happened bothered or affected him. It was enough to turn her stomach. Instead, she turned away.
Walking up the steps to the raised seats for the king, queen and princess, Regina took a seat next to her husband. Her eyes continued to absently scan the crowd for a man she was waiting for to materialize. "Your power is a potent reward."
"I suppose it is."
If Robin was not coming she would have to handle things on her own. Once she gave the signal to the men to begin the hunt and leave the stag she would sneak out and go get Rocinante. Her riding clothes were tucked safely in their usual spot in the stables. It would take but a moment to join the hunt. Finding the stag would be trickier, but having a ticket for her release from her marriage was worth anything. She would do what she needed to.
Rocinante was the best steed a girl could ask for. They had plunged after the others into the forest a scant quarter hour after they had left. He was willing to jump streams and traverse rivers and deal with the difficulties of forest riding. Daniel would be proud of her riding, she was certain, particularly when freedom was on the line.
Regina had stayed out of sight of the majority of the other riders, keeping the hood of her cloak over her head so none should spot the queen amongst them. Returning with the white stag astride Rocinante would be a fitting surprise. All of these men bested by the queen with a request of her husband that she could wait a year on to redeem. It would give her enough time to plan the next steps in detail. She would have herself ready before she made her move this time.
A flash of white caught her eye, which seemingly no one else had noticed. The stag bounded freely through the forest. Hope bloomed in her chest. She nudged Rocinante with her foot and headed after the great, bounding animal at just enough of a distance that she could see him but not so close that he would become scared.
That led her to this moment.
The bow string was taught in her fingers. The stag had not made her and stood eating leaves off of a low hanging branch. Shooting a living thing was not something Regina took lightly. Closing her eyes, Regina decided that if it still stood within the clearing, that she would consider it fate.
The stag remains when her lids lift and it looks her dead in the eye as Regina let the string go. Her arrow flew true and lodged into the animal's heart. As the animal fell, Regina gave a thought of thanks to the animal and the gift it is going to give her. Clicking her tongue, she pushed Rocinante forward.
The stag began to fall to the ground, its large crown of thorns taking it down. As it tumbled, the body shifted from that of a great, white stag into the body of a man. A man Regina was all too familiar with.
Dismounting Rocinante in a flash, Regina dashed across the forest to the man whose hand has come up to touch the arrow protruding from his chest. There is a keening whipping through the trees and it takes a moment for Regina to realize that it's her own voice making the odd noise.
"No, no! Robin!"
Not caring for anything but the man lying in the leaves, she slides on her knees next to him, taking his head in her hands. Fat tears welled in her eyes and cascaded down her face as she strokes his cheek. "I…I'm sorry. I didn't…I couldn't…I didn't know."
Rattling breaths were all Robin could seem to take. His hand, tinged red with his own blood, comes up to touch hers on his face. "Re-Regina."
A smile was pulled from her with force. At least he was still present. He knows her. "Yes. Yes, it's Regina." His eyes developed a glassy look that she knows all too well. It was happening all over again, but today, today would be different. It had to.
She crooned promises at him, ones she hoped she could keep. "It'll be okay. I will fix this. We'll fix this."
"I want…" he gasped, struggling to form words, "to know…"
"Shhh. Shhh. Please, Robin, don't say anything."
Blood had trickled out of the corner of his mouth and his hand was reaching for her face, dripping dark liquid on her riding pants. "Love you," he rattled.
Her breath caught in her throat and Regina nearly choked on it. Swallowing the lump, Regina bellowed, "Rumpelstiltskin!"
With a plume of smoke and a flourish of hands, her teacher stood before her. His skin looked a particularly sickly green in the autumn sun. "You rang, dearie."
Through her tears, Regina choked, "I need you to help me save him."
Rumpelstiltskin spun in a circle and pranced his way around the small clearing in which she and Robin lay. Vulnerability flooded her chest at the way he watched her. "Oh, now, dearie, why would I do that?"
Why had she called him? Why had she ever called for him?
Regina looked down at the face that she had come to hang her hopes on. There was little left within his eyes. Returning her gaze to a man who could do far more than she could at this stage, she tried to figure where she could touch him that he might help her. "Because, you are my teacher. Because this is what I am learning to do."
"Can't raise the dead, Regina. You know this. We do not give life," he reminded her, in his sing-song tone before giving her a wolfish grin. "We take it."
The self-satisfied smirk she was coming to know was secure on his face. "This is what you are." Horror filled her as her teacher shrugged, "You killed him, just as you killed Daniel."
The growl flew from her throat as she strained towards Rumpelstiltskin. "Snow and my mother killed Daniel." They had to. It wasn't just her and her love. If he hadn't loved her though…
His laugh was the sort one might offer a foolish, petulant child. The words that followed were just as patronizing. "My mistake, dearie, my mistake."
Another man had professed to love her and now he lay lifeless in her lap. Regina could not let it all happen again. She could not let Rumpelstiltskin's words be true. Just once she needed to be the one who won.
"Please," she asked in a broken whisper.
Nudging Robin with a boot, Rumple shook his head. "He has already rattled out his last breath. If you want to keep him, stick him among the stars."
With a final chuckle, Rumpelstiltskin vanished in a puff of purple smoke, leaving her alone with what had once been her second chance. His head remained in her lap and she stroked at his tawny hair, trying to infuse him with all of the comfort that she could, knowing full well it was all for naught. Tears fell until her eyes ran dry and she could see nothing but the loss.
As the dusk started to settle, Regina heard the trumpet of horns signaling that the stag had been caught and the hunt was over. A new wave of pain flooded her body and she cursed her husband and Rumpelstiltskin. They must have worked together and sent out two stags, one for the real hunt and one for her to kill.
This had to be their doing. He had warned her. Rumpelstiltskin had warned her at the last hunt, to not think she had an escape. He was the escape. Leopold had been far too observant of her watching the crowd. The king had known. They were in this together, against her. There was no way out any longer. Robin had paid the price for her belief that she could be happy again.
They had all stolen it from her. Stolen her happiness. Stolen her love.
She talked to Robin of the castles in the clouds she had foolishly allowed herself to build for them. While he lay in his bed of fallen leaves, she too them through the life they had almost had, in a way she hadn't been able to with Daniel in his bed of straw. As she spun the story, she tore the bricks of that future down, leaving nothing but the broken rubble amongst them.
Once darkness settled and the stars began to twinkle out of their hiding places, Regina went to work. She used her magic to make the stars dance and rearrange and once she was done, the outline of a great archer stood out in the sky. The body of the man had vanished with her work and taken his place amongst the stars where such hope belonged, far out of the reach of a person such as herself.
"They will all pay for this, Robin," she promised the archer that stood before her.
"They will all pay," she promised herself.
Taking with her the burden of her destroyed futures, she headed home. No one had noticed the missing queen and none would as she headed to her own vault. Regina used the stones of her futures to build a wall around herself that no one should ever breach again. To ensure her future, she plunged her hand into her chest and grabbed her own heart.
Pain flooded her body as she pulled the organ out and felt it beat within her own hand. Tucking it into a box, she placed it within her wall of hearts. No one would ever touch her heart again. She would get her revenge on all of those who had stolen from her. The world would regret stealing her future and the major players would suffer far worse than she had.
She just needed to be patient.