In a land far, far away…
She sputters, her mouth lined with salt and the fishy tang of the ocean.
A stranger looms over her. "Oh, thank goodness you're alive!"
"Wha…where am I?"
"The sea," was the simple reply as she was hauled into a rickety boat.
The arrow twangs in front of the Queen, struck against an old, oak tree overgrown with moss. She whips her head about, greeted to an image of a young man. He runs to her and then stops, only slightly taken aback by the royal seal on one of her fingers.
The Queen grates from atop her horse, "How dare you."
He seems to think of an appropriate response but has none so he grins instead, telling her in a melodious voice, "I mistook you for a fawn, my lady."
Studying him more closely, the Queen realises the huntsman is not a boy but a cleverly disguised woman, with delicately shorn hair that falls to her shoulders. The Queen raises her brow at this new development, and feels pleasure at the woman's suddenly guarded expression.
"Your quarry has taken you quite far from your area of jurisdiction, huntsman," the Queen drawls.
"Huntswoman, Your Majesty."
The Queen waves away the other's words and says, "One of the few in the realm."
"One of the only ones who would dare," the huntswoman corrects and then adds noncommittally, "from the stories I've heard."
"Rumours don't befit a guardian of the wood," the Queen bristles.
The huntswoman smiles, lowering her bow to lean on it. She seems slightly less robust in stature but the Queen knows that those who lack in strength usually make up for it in sure-footedness and wit.
"Rumours brought me here." The huntswoman nods to her with a defiant smirk. "And they happen to hold a smidgen of truth."
"Angering the reigning monarch can cost you your head."
The woman is still smiling. "I also know that I'd already be dead if killing me was your intention."
Usually, the Queen's reputation precedes her, a tool that strikes fear and trepidation in the populace. This doesn't seem to be the case now.
"I don't suppose you're from here?" the Queen scoffs.
"No," the huntswoman replies. "I come from the sea."
Despite the sword strung over her horse's saddle and the bow already in her hand, the Queen suddenly wishes that she didn't leave her guardsmen kilometres away to deal with the fawn herself. Unnerved, the Queen listens in anticipation for the tell-tale sound of her hounds.
The huntswoman tilts her head sideways as though eavesdropping on the breezes that suddenly pass through the clearing.
She admonishes, "You've brought company. Hounds from the north have a distinct yelp." She nimbly crosses a throng of roots. "I guess this is goodbye. What is it that huntsmen say? Oh, yes. 'May the Hunt keep you and give you what you seek.'"
That's when her gestures become decidedly foreign. Everyone else prefers to say farewell on their knees.
The woman dips her head, her golden-curls spilling down her temple. She holds a hand to her chest as though it holds some precious rhythm. This subtle motion sinks a barb into the Queen's chest.
Swallowing, the Queen watches as she disappears into the tall shadows of trees, behind the thin tendrils of morning mist. When the Queen finally turns away, she hears a chime of laughter as the huntswoman weaves her way back into the secret trails paved by the guardians of the wood.
"You always come here."
The Queen stands, startled. She gives a fleeting glance at the empty spot she was leaning over then schools her expression into one of indifference.
The intruder enters the grove, leaning against a tree.
"You have an infuriating sense of timing," the Queen comments.
The huntswoman studies their surroundings, her expression turning inward. "A story is tied to this place." She eyes the Queen with renewed curiosity as one would an exotic, dangerous new animal. "About a young man who died for love."
The Queen begins to exude anger, unsettling the space around her as magic curdles from the ground. "Do you always make it a habit of poking a predator when it pleases you?"
"No," the huntswoman replies. "I make it a habit of discovering the truth." This time, the huntswoman's smile is tiny, nearly sympathetic. "So tell me. Why do you come to this wood when there are so many others to choose from?"
"I don't see how that's any of your business."
"But it is," the huntswoman says kindly. "I've happily accepted jurisdiction of these parts."
To irk her, no doubt! The Queen scoffs but the huntswoman's expression remains neutral, her blue eyes lightly expectant. It would have been infuriating, the Queen supposes, except the huntswoman seems entirely unassuming, graceless in her poorly spun coat.
The one thing the Queen is wary of is a glint in the huntswoman's eye; it hints at a deep and intimate awareness of the impetus underlying humanity.
"I dug this grave," the Queen says, gauging her reaction.
Something flashes across the huntswoman's face. "So," she says, her brows furrowing. "A lover dead, a marriage only in name, and the betrayal of a daughter; how much more can a single person take. You are that Queen."
"My wrath knows no other."
"So I'm told. The enchanted forest has ears."
"If you've seen her in your wood," the Queen begins.
The huntswoman tilts her head sideways, regarding the Queen with amusement as though she has been anticipating her words. "I would never tell you. Revealing the secrets of the wood isn't part of my trade in much the same way I would never reveal why you visit this place every fortnight, looking like you'll find what you've lost."
The Queen sneers. "Huntsmen have never been so insolent."
"I know some who have been in your employ but this one can't be bought. So, I suppose I'll see you here more often? I'll be sure to keep my arrows in my quiver next time."
The Queen narrows her eyes. "If I had any power over your kind," she threatens.
It means nothing, of course. The wood is a realm of its own and the purest of its guardians are impervious to her magic. Then again, those who rank highest in the enchanted forest's mysterious hierarchy have never meddled in her affairs. Until now.
What little satisfaction the threat gives her is crushed by the huntswoman's laugh.
Something moves at the corner of the Queen's eye and she's momentarily distracted. A fawn emerges into the grove, alert and staring at her with a startled, dark gaze. When the Queen turns back, the huntswoman is gone.
Maleficent's domain dwindles from her sight while the artefact that holds the key to the rest of her machinations feels heavier and heavier. It licks at her consciousness like a thing alive, tucked safely beneath her bosom.
She knows the price it wants of her. It is more than she has ever been willing to give.
When she arrives at her castle, the man who has stood by her through loss and everything beyond it looks at her pleadingly. He tells her that there are other ways. Alas, she knows that she has trodden over all the avenues except one. There is no turning back. Not now.
I'm sorry daddy.
It's nearly mechanical, the way she curls her fingers. Her father recognises the gesture, his eyes widening in dismay. It's reminiscent of another witch, one whom they both loved, to their doom.
"Stop!" The voice is lush like the wood and strong like a wide river.
A thorn tears through the Queen's palm, nearly splitting it in half and halting the spell. She realises too late that it is in fact an arrow fletched by a Guardian of the Wood.
Her father sinks to his knees, relief all too evident on his face.
"How dare you!" the Queen screams at the intruder. "What gives you the right!"
"I was sent," the huntswoman says simply. She stands tall, her greaves and pauldron emblazoned with the silver tree. "And I have promises to keep."
She loosens another arrow and it hits the Queen squarely in her shoulder. The Queen screams for her guards, her expression slowly changing into a shameful rictus of dread as she sinks to the floor of her own fortress. Injuries inflicted by a huntsman cannot be healed by magic and utilising the dark arts has always required the use of her hands.
She howls in frustration, anger, and something else that chills anyone who hears. The sound is otherworldly, the screech of a woman being severed from her magic.
The guards barge into the hall.
The huntswoman runs to the balcony. Sparing the Queen a glance, she jumps and shouts an ancient, powerful invocation:
In stories grim and castles dark,
In places where I'm robbed of sight,
May I prevail and Guardians hark
My call and summon all the Light!
The ensuing flash is sudden, jarring and bright, accompanied by the searing image of a silver tree –the veritable insignia of the White Knight.
She vanishes, the hounds of change baying in her wake.
They search for her for days. She is elusive like the morning mist and the forest chimes with her laughter.
When dozens of the Queen's scouts vanish into the wood, leaving behind the acrid smell of horror, the Queen yields. It's a sure enough sign that the enchanted forest is displeased with her mindless encroachment into lands that do not belong to her.
All the Queen is left with are her wounds and the long, dreadful months of brooding that come with being incapacitated.
She has been given time –too much of it –and she begins to realise, however slowly, that the huntswoman could have killed her if she wished.
As she recovers in her tower, the Queen watches the old miller roam the courtyards, tending the rosebuds that had once belonged to her mother. They have matured into a white and iridescent bloom instead of the usual red she reaps.
When the Queen is well enough to ride, she sets out alone and takes her usual route.
She arrives at the grove and approaches the grave. She grimaces; it has become a misshapen symbol of what she has been trying so hard to achieve.
Her voice sounds rough as though it hasn't been used in years. In so many ways the princess who owned it is lost. It takes all of the Queen's will to lift this former self from a thick, unyielding layer of hopelessness, fear and remorse.
"Daniel," she whispers.
The name is foreign to her ears, laved with laughter and crushing joy.
Unexpectedly, an answer slips into the clearing. The huntswoman stops, surprised to see her. Her hand finds her quiver, fetching an arrow and drawing her bow. Behind her is a boy of nearly fourteen summers. The upturn of his lips are reminiscent of the huntswoman's smile, his stance attentive as though he's guarding a secret.
At his prompting –a brief exchange of words, the huntswoman lowers her weapon. She tells the boy to sit where she can see him and he obeys.
"You're here," the huntswoman tells the Queen lamely. Then, with her usual aplomb, "State your intentions, Queen."
The Queen does not look up. "As you've so carefully observed," the Queen murmurs, "I come here looking for what I've lost. Perhaps I was looking for the wrong thing. Or maybe it's something that can't be found."
She feels old and very tired and at the end of a long, agonising road. She rolls her shoulder as it aches and she glances at her hand, which will never be the same again.
Sensing the Queen's reticence, the huntswoman approaches, stooping down across her to look her in the eye. "I'm the Huntswoman of the Wood, the Lady from the Sea. But you can call me Emma."
"Emma." The name tastes foreign on her tongue. The untroubled ring to it lingers longer than the Queen expects.
"Yes," the huntswoman smiles.
"My name." The Queen swallows. She supposes that surrender has many forms. "My name is Regina."
The boy shifts and Regina thinks that she sees the arch of jubilation on his brow. He studies her intently, listening for more.
"Well then, Regina. I have promises to keep," Emma confides, her eyes clearer and bluer than they ever have been. Regina looks at her askance and Emma presents an open palm. "Come, take my hand."
"You're no ordinary Huntress," Regina accuses.
"Would you feel differently if I said I was a Knight?"
"With no spell to break?" Regina laughs.
"Not anymore," Emma says gravely and Regina's mockery dies in her throat.
"How did you know about the spell?" Regina asks, nearly choking on her own confusion. "Why did you stop me?"
Emma smiles sadly. "I knew magic just like it once. It cost me too much. My wife, my son. But I'm very, very glad that I've found you."
The huntswoman gestures for the boy to join them. He stands and approaches, his long limbs and slightly awkward gait revealing that he's at the cusp of adulthood.
Emma tells her, "In one way or another, we've all been lost. Who's to say that we won't find our way?" Then in a gentler fashion, she addresses the boy, "Go on. Introduce yourself."
"Hello…Regina," he says, pausing before her name as though it has never been spoken quite that way before. He reaches out to her, urging her to take his hand. "I'm Henry."
A long, long time ago…
"Promise me," Regina breathes, fear crawling over her irises as the ground beneath them shifts. "Promise me!"
"Regina, I can't!" Emma pushes against the hands that are forcing her into the hollow carved into a tree. She's been told that her parents had one made just like it once before. For her. "How will I find you again? And Henry…" She glances at the boy who stands at the threshold of yet another wooden gateway, wide-eyed and frightened.
"Mom?" he calls, addressing both of them with a trembling voice. "I don't want to close the door."
"If you don't do this," Regina tells them, "I will lose you." She cups Emma's face. "I won't allow him to take you or Henry. This is the only way."
"I'll fight!" Emma protests.
"You'll fight, but not here. You'll do it in a world where he holds no power, where you can learn to fight and do it on your terms. Now, promise me!"
As though reminding them of the destruction outside Regina's home, sinister laughter drifts from beyond the room. "Oh, Reginaaa!" he trills. "Come out wherever you are! Isn't it so nice to finally remember?"
Emma pulls Regina to her, kissing her desperately. Henry can't contain himself and runs to them. His tears stain both their cheeks.
"Mom, Emma," he cries.
Already, Emma's heart is breaking as she embraces them. "I'll find you both. I promise. Be brave."
Henry nods and quickly takes his place, his hands white against the door as he pulls it closed. He has a suddenly determined look –painted on by courage that reminds her all too much of her father. It takes an act of will keep from surging out and doing something foolish.
Regina puts a hand on Emma's chest and Emma takes it, squeezing.
"I love you."
"I know." Regina smiles and then says firmly, "Now, go. You'll find me. I know you will."
The door closes and it isn't long before Emma is sinking in a distant, timeless sea.
A/N: Prompt by mirror-mirror-onthewall: Swan queen, Emma finds out why Regina hates snow white.
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