Out of the valley, the temporary army structures surrounded by smoke gave way to temporary army structures surrounded by trees and he could just make out the brightening sky as dawn approached. He could finally take a breath of clean air, and immidiately he started caughing.
Guards joined their parade as they marched, falling into step around Flynn and taking hold of his arms and shoulders. They dragged him into a tent with a rippling flare of heavy cloth as they burst their way in. Before he could take in his surroundings, they shoved him to his knees, hands on his head and shoulders pressed him into the ground, dirt biting into his face as his neck screamed against the unnatural folding of his spine.
His instincts surged to fight back, to shrug the hands away, to run, but he forced himself to hold still, to calm his breath, to listen. This was what he wanted and he wouldn't ruin it by fighting.
"We searched him. He doesn't have the battery, and he's not armed."
He guessed that they would bring him to some blunt, burly general, but the voice that answered was feminine. He was reminded of Rapunzel. "And his chameleon?"
"No sign of it, ma'am."
The woman hummed, then Flynn could hear soft footsteps as she came forward. The men holding him tensed, their grips tightening in his jacket and his hair, against his arms and the collar of his shirt.
Abruptly the hands fell away and he took a breath to settle the protesting cramp in his shoulder before raising his head. He was met with Rapunzel's eyes.
No. Not Rapunzel's. He blinked and refocused on the queen. God, he must be going crazy.
"We meet again, Mr. Rider."
The corner of her mouth quirked with a kind of harsh amusement. "The major says you have something to say."
He straightened his spine as much as he could while still kneeling. "I have demands."
The major snorted behind her, but the queen remained impassive. "You're hardly in a position to bargain, Mr. Rider."
"I know where the battery is and you don't. I think that's a pretty good position."
"We know it's in the tower. It's only a matter of time before we find it."
"That's true. But my way is faster and it'll get us both what we want."
"Cutting a deal will hardly get you leniency."
"I don't expect it."
She tilted her head to the side and considered him a moment. "State your demands."
"There's a girl in the tower. She was poisoned by one of your chameleons. Send a doctor and heal her. My chameleon will let you in. I think you've already met him."
The queen didn't flinch, but the major behind her turned bright red with anger. "That creature is a menace! It's a trap. They'll have an ambush planned the moment we enter the tower."
"What would I get out of killing a bunch of doctors?" Flynn shouted. "Use your brain."
"I am, you worthless piece of-"
"Gentlemen." The queen held up a hand, signaling an instant silence. "Continue, Mr. Rider. How are we to get into the tower."
"Tell the chameleon you've brought a doctor and he'll let you in. He's freaked out that she's so sick and he'll let you heal her, but don't expect him to be happy if you try anything funny. He'll tell you where the battery is, once she's healed."
"And what about you?"
"You can do whatever you want with me. You get the battery, she gets to live. That's it."
"Why should we aid one of your friends?"
"She had nothing to do with this. She just lives in the tower and I took her hostage. She was a brat and a pain and now she's dying."
"You would trade your life for someone you met less than a week ago. How noble."
He rolled his eyes. "Look, do you want the damned thing back or not? This is the deal."
The queen turned away from him to adress the major. "Throw him in irons. I want a guard of six men on him at all times. We know he has collegues, so be prepared for a resuce attempt. If he's here it means something's gone wrong in the tower, and this may be our only chance to catch them without a counter attack prepared. We're wearing them down and we should strike quickly."
"It could also be a trap, ma'am," the major said.
"It could," she agreed. "But this is an odd time for the rebels to change tactics. We will be prepared for deception, but we wont let this opportunity slip away. I want the wrecking balls ready within the hour."
"Wreking balls?" Flynn tried to stand, but hands pushed him back. "You're going to bring down the tower? You can't. You'll kill her."
"Mr. Rider, you have given us no reason at all to believe a single word you say. Even if this girl exists and even if she is injured, I'm not putting my people at risk to save the life of someone who helped you try to rip my empire to pieces."
"She didn't have anything to do with the battery. I dragged her into the whole thing. She's innocent. She had nothing to do with it."
"She harbored a traitor."
"She didn't know I was a traitor. And like I said, I took her hostage."
"Take him away."
"No!" He lurched forward, grabbed instantly by the soldiers behind him. He'd thought this would work. He'd thought he could do something. "We're running out of time." For the first time in a long, long while he wanted to set things right. He needed to set things right. "You have to save Rapunzel!"
Everyone froze. It was as if his words were fish hooks that caught at their chests and yanked at their attention. The queen's eyes widened, her face turning pale. She snapped her head to face him and pinned him with a look so sharp and fierce that he would have shrunk back had he any idea what was happening.
The question was simple, but there was a weight and an urgency hidden in that simplicity and he could feel the guards behind him waiting with racing hearts and baited breath.
He couldn't fathom what their issue could be and shrugged it off in his haste and fear. "The girl in the tower! I told you! She doesn't have much time."
The soldiers tightened their grip on his shoulders as the queen came forward again and bent to lean close to him, shrewdly searching his eyes. That flare of familiarity lit again in his mind. "Describe her."
The major gasped. "Ma'am! You can't-"
She held out a hand to silence him, still pinning Flynn with her overly green eyes. "Speak quickly, Mr. Rider."
Flynn remembered her face lit with the green tinge of the battery the last time they met. It called to mind Rapunzel, standing in her bedroom, staring down at the battery in her hands, face filled with awe as green swirls of energy twisted about her wrists.
"Skinny little thing. Too much blonde hair. Great big goggles. Makes watches. Doesn't get out much. And, oh yeah, the whole dying thing."
"How old is she?"
Rapunzel's mother had been so afraid of someone seeing her. She'd been terrified. She'd been dangerous.
"Her eyes. What color are they?"
The queen's eyes were all he could see, demanding and authoritative and so very much like Rapunzel's, and he answered automatically as a part of his mind wondered if the queen also had secret healing abilities. "Green."
It was like his blood stopped pumping through his veins, as if he hung suspended, staring into the queen's face as a great revelation wrapped around him, poised to break across his mind. Something clicked. Shifting from an anticipatory and off center state to resolve itself with perfect clarity. A gear clicking into place in one of Rapunzel's watches.
The queen's daughter had been stolen, and Rapunzel looked like the queen, and the battery hadn't burned her.
His face slackened and fear scraped across his heart.
"She- She- Oh my God."
The queen stood abruptly with clipped orders for her men. "Take a team of doctors. And your six finest shots. Bring her here at once."
"But ma'am, surely it's a trap! He's lying! Fabricating a story about his magical transformation through the power of love and- and- and-" The major waved his hand as his speech deteriorated into stutters.
What nonsense. The transformation thing, okay, he'd give them that, but it was more a perfect storm of variables at which Rapunzel was the center, rather than entirely her doing. And, yeah, when she wasn't being obnoxious and crazy, she was kinda cute and kinda sweet and in desperate need of some affection, but he'd hardly call that love. He'd only known her a few days and she'd spent that time lying to him and keeping him prisoner.
And now he had to save her.
The queen seemed to think this was a stupid interpretation as well and crossed her arms over her chest. "Then tell your men to be prepared for a trap. This is far too serious an accusation to ignore."
"I have to protest, ma'am."
"I don't need to remind you that if we don't find someone else with enough royal blood to fuel the battery, we'll lose its power eventually anyway. I don't need to tell you what will happen to the empire," she snapped. Then she turned away from Flynn to face the major. He shrunk back under her glare. "I don't need to tell you what I would do o see my daughter again."
The major had trouble finding his voice again, and his voice sounded weak and defeated. "Your enemies know of this weekness. They'll use it without any sense of chivilry."
"Good for them, and their strategic brilliance to remember that I'm a mother. You have your orders."
Flynn kind of liked the queen's sarcastic streak, even if he was still upset that she hadn't just taken his bargain and had completely dismissed his plan, even though he was annoyed that he'd needed Rapunzel to come save him again. And even if some rational part of him could recognize the major's concerns as valid, Flynn had to admire the queen's ability to throw her weight around and do exactly what she wanted without giving a shit about what anyone else thought.
The major gave up with a slump and a sigh and a "Yes, ma'am." Flynn smirked at him, and the man bristled but didn't say anything.
"Now take Mr. Rider away. Give him a quiet place to pray that things in the tower are exactly as he says they are." The queen didn't look at him as she spoke, already heading towards a table covered in maps on the far side of the tent.
The guards hauled Flynn to his feet by his elbows, spun him around, and shoved him towards the door.
"Watch out for her mom. She's running around here someplace. I fought with her earlier. She'll put up a fight if you try to take her."
The queen still didn't look at him. "So now you feel the need to give information about a counter attack. Interesting."
Flynn frowned, but didn't come up with a response before he was shoved outside and would have to shout it, breathless and undignified, over his shoulder.