A pair of speckled brown horses cantered through the newly fallen snow, kicking up powdery clouds of white dust in their wake. The chill had come early this season. Prolonged weeks of summer had given way to a brief autumn before the cold hand of winter had taken it's hold over the realm. Occasionally a faint trill of birdsong echoed through the skeletal, leaf-less remains of the Enchanted forest. Most if not all of the birds had migrated to the Summer isles far to the south. There a tropical heat dominated all year around, and succulent fruits bloomed in great bunches, full to bursting with sweet juices.
The horses' two riders were a bit of an pair. The first of them was an old man with wrinkled skin that hung pale beneath the heavy folds of his winter cloak. His gray-white hair was thinning, and his bones weren't quite as sturdy as they used to be. Despite his advanced age, there was a mischievous glint to his cyan blue eyes that spoke of someone much younger. You couldn't tell by looking at him, especially garbed as he was in simple riding clothes of drab color, but he was really a king.
King Henry the Prophet, the son of Swan, and the bearer of another dozen or so titles he didn't like to list. For today he'd traded in the jewel encrusted circlet of his office for a plain black cloak. He didn't want to be noticed out an about, though it was unlikely anyone would recognize him in this far off part of the country. On any other day he'd of happily talked with one of his many subjects, hearing their complaints, their praises and whatever they had to say. But the day's errand was a solemn one which he didn't want interrupted by anyone.
Behind him rode Emma, his granddaughter. Her gold blonde hair was tied back in a low tail, dusted white by falling snowflakes. At twelve years old she was the king's eldest grandchild, the first born of prince August. Unlike the old king instead of a cloak she wore a red leather jacket that had once belonged to her namesake. It wasn't a perfect fit on her. Being in the earliest stages of adolescences her body had only the slightest of womanly curves, so the jacket's shoulders were a bit too big. However, heavily layer with enchantments as it was, the garment felt warm as a blazing fire, and would stop an oncoming arrow as good as the finest chainmail.
The jacket had been a birthday gift the previous year. Of all the various baubles, gowns and ever training swords she'd received, the jacket was by far her favorite. It was a piece of legend, and of her families history. That, and it looked incredibly cool on her.
An excited was plastered across the princess's face. This was the first time her grandfather had brought any of them on his yearly pilgrimage to the countryside. Being the oldest had it's privileges after all. Her father and his siblings had come when they were younger, but with age had come a number of royal responsibilities that occupied the majority of their time.
That morning he had taken her with him down into the depths of the palace. There, in the cavernous labyrinth that spread like a spider's web beneath the ground were the royal tombs. In particular, the tomb of Emma Swan. It was one of the more recent tombs built, set beside the tombs of her parents, Snow White and Prince Charming. The three of them were set together at the catacombs mouth, carved into a magnificent stone dais in the bedrock of the castle. There the grandfather and granddaughter had lit a candle in reverence, and read pages from the storybook chronicling the savior's battles against evil that ended the long exile in the world without magic.
They'd laughed in the candle's flickering light, gazing up at the wonderful stained glass images hanging above the sarcophagi. Those were young Emma's favorite stories. They were mythical, incredible tales straight out of the pages of myth. Yet they'd taken place only seventy years ago, and were events central to her family's legacy. Spending time with her grandfather was perhaps her favorite thing in the world. He showed her a pure, untainted sort of affection that only a grandparent could show, lacking the disciplinary obligations of a parent. Henry would never punish her. More likely, her mischief had been his idea in the first place.
Now however there was no such laughter or merriment. No storybook readings or fond memories. Now they went to visit the resting place of the king's other mother. Regina, the Evil Queen, whose terrible rage had cursed the peoples of this world to live in a place where they were denied not only magic but their very selves.
Henry didn't speak of her much. Of course she came up when he told his grandchildren the old stories, but he usually skirted around the details of her villainy. What she'd done and why. The people she'd hurt. The people she'd killed. All he ever said of her was "She was my mother, and she loved me" that was all.
During the week of Remembrance, the celebration commemorating the return to the homeland, the lords and ladies of the court would speak harsh condemnations of the queen under their breaths, whispering with scorn and hatred clear on their lips. When Henry overheard these he said nothing. All he did was give a harsh, piercing look completely uncharacteristic of his personality. That usually stopped the whispering at once.
"Are we almost there, Grandpa?" Emma asked. The rhythmic swaying of her roan mare was starting to irritate her legs even through the thick material of her riding breeches. Much more of this and she'd surely develop saddle rash. She could really do without saddle rash. Saddle rash made her sword lessons harder by a thousand fold. Moving dexterously required a pair of lithe, stable legs, and a rash of any kind would sting painfully as she practiced her techniques.
"Not much farther Em" Henry called over his shoulder. He pointed into the distance. "See that?"
Using a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, which shone glaringly on the new fallen snow, Emma peered past her grandfather's destier stallion into the swirling winter whirlwind that swept across the plains. Looming on the horizon was a dark, boxy structure made almost invisible by the snow.
"Yes, I see it" Emma said.
"That's Miller Manor, or what's left of it. It's where the queen grew up...and where everything started. Come" he gave his reins a snap, urging his horse to a faster pace. "We're nearly there. Just a mile or two left to go."
Without another word the pair quickened to a gallop and the frozen terrain flew by them in a flash. The edge of the forest was visible on either side of them, trying vainly to creep out onto the hillside. Here and there a shrub or two sprouted from the hardened earth, shabby piles of twigs and rotted brambles. Occasional rocks broke the sea of rolling snow, oversize pebbles standing sentinels a midst the frozen crystal flakes. This was obviously horse country. Beneath the snow were vast planes of browning green grass, perfect for riding.
With each fall of her horse's hoof Emma's anticipation grew. It wasn't the usual kind of anticipation, overflowing with excitement and butterflies. Rather it was a melancholic sort of anticipation. She didn't know what she'd learn upon arriving at their destination. And, she didn't know if she'd like it.
After nearly ten minutes of steady riding the pair arrived at the remnants of the once glorious manner house. The architecture had long since started to decay, once ornate columns were crumbling beneath the weight of a hole filled roof, and bits of aged shadowed glass still hung in the windows.
Instead of dismounting here they rode wide of the house and began ascending a gradual hill that rose steadily upward. Off to the right Emma could see another building that had fallen into similar disrepair. A stable. Half of it's foundations had wasted away, giving the structure a slanted stance. Years of neglect had left the wood beams a dark blackened brown. A good push might send the entire thing toppling over.
What surprised the young princess about the hill was that at it's peak an apple tree stood full in bloom, in the dead of winter. Plump, perfectly ripe apples hung in bright clusters along the branches. They looked incredibly tasty. At the tree's base laid a pair of gravestones. The sight of them sent foreboding shivers down Emma's spine. This was the queen's grave site.
When they reached the hilltop the pair dismounted. Henry took the reins and secured them to the apple tree's trunk. This close up Emma could see faint sparkles hanging about it, floating among the leaves, giving them a strange, almost ethereal texture. The tree was enchanted, obviously. Otherwise it could never survive in such cold temperatures. Old king Henry stepped towards the graves. His eyes were full of emotion as he stared down at them, thinking. Nervously, unsure of what to say or what to do, Emma took a step forward and examined the grave stones herself.
The left one was obviously much older. It's stone had been bleached an almost white shade of gray, and the inscription was faded almost to the point of being unreadable. 'Daniel' Emma read to herself. Who is Daniel, she thought. In all the stories she'd hear, not once had the name been mentioned. The stone on the right was much newer, though still decades old. Beneath the inscription was stamped a sigil, a hand grasping an apple. That was the queen's mark.
'Regina' the inscription read. 'Queen and Mother'.
The space between the two stones was devoid of snow, instead occupied by a short stretch of blank soil.
Henry sighed, his breath a cloud of mist in front of his face. Tears glittered in his eyes.
"It always make me sad, coming here" he said. "I come every year, but I always end up crying."
Emma remained silent for a moment.
"What was she like?" she finally asked. She gestured to Regina's grave. "Your other mother, I mean. You've...you've never said much about her." Henry shook his head.
"I haven't, have I?" he said almost to himself. "I supposed I haven't. Her story isn't one I wanted told to young children. It's...not for the faint of heart to say the least. But, you're getting older, and I think now perhaps you're ready to hear it. You're probably wondering who he is, aren't you?" he pointed to the 'Daniel' stone. Emma nodded, her curiosity smothering her nerves.
"Who is he?"
"He was the queen's one true love" he answered honestly. Emma's eyebrows shot up her forehead like freshly loosed arrows. Henry chuckled.
"You weren't expecting that, were you?"
"No" Emma shook her head. "I never thought her the kind of person to have a true love, honestly. I know you've said that she loved you, but you were her child. Romantic love just seems..."
"Out of place for her?" Henry finished. Emma nodded. "She wasn't always the evil queen you know, no matter what the story books or the bards have said. She was once a girl much like you. Loving, full of life, good and true. As she would say, 'evil isn't born, it's made." He paused. "What ultimately twisted Regina's fate was her mother, Cora, a powerful witch. When Regina was young she fell in love with Daniel, the family's stable boy. Needless to say Cora didn't like that one bit. Marrying beneath her station was something no daughter of hers would ever do, not when she was around. At first they managed to keep their relationship a secret. The only person to ever discover them was Snow White, my grandmother, and she swore not to tell. But Cora was cunning, unbelievably so, and weaseled the secret out of her, convincing her she was on Regina's side and that she'd let her and Daniel marry."
"It didn't end that way, did it?" Emma asked, though she knew the answer.
"No" Henry said gravely. "It didn't. Cora discovered them trying to flee from the stables. That night she ripped out Daniel's heart and crushed it into dust." He turned to his granddaughter's stricken face. "That's where the queen learned that little trick. She made liberal use of it over the years. After Daniel's death, she became fixated on Snow White, directing all of her hatred and grief at her. She knew it was truly her mother's fault of course, but a childhood of abuse left her unable to express her feelings towards Cora, so she used Snow as a scapegoat. Those misplaced emotions brought about untold havoc. Pain, death, destruction." Again Henry paused.
"As for what Regina was like, as a parent and as a person, she was always distant. In my younger days, when I was just a toddler, things were alright. She loved me like any mother should. She bathed me, clothed me, fed me. She was my best friend. But as I got older things changed. I began to see what she was really like. Even from the beginning I could see that she was the evil queen. She took pride in causing misery and in the pain of others. Her hobby was torturing the townsfolk. I saw her for what she was, and so I grew away from her. That is perhaps my biggest regret. I...I treated her terribly. Bluntly put I was a spoil brat. Regina cared for me all those years, and I was only to happy to rub my love for my savior birth mother in her face."
Emma was beyond confused.
"But she was the evil queen!" she insisted. "Why would you treat her any differently?" Henry's smile turned sad.
"Yes my dear, she was the evil queen. She did terrible, terrible things, things that some would call unforgivable. But does her behavior really justify mine? Even with everything she did, she loved me. More than anything else in the world. Her problem was that she couldn't express it properly, and as a little boy, with a child's view of good and evil, I didn't understand that. In my eyes, evil was completely evil. Irredeemable, with no good qualities whatsoever. This isn't the case, Em. Being evil didn't make her love for me any less real, and it doesn't make the way I treated her any more right." For a final time the king paused, gazing skyward, hands twisting together in contemplation. "Despite everything she did, I loved her too. I didn't understand that as a boy either. Emma did, that's why she wouldn't let the people execute her once the curse was broken. She could see that I loved her deep down, and that Regina loved me as well...I loved Emma as well of course, just as much. She and her parents were the family I'd always wanted, but the queen was my family as well. I didn't understand that...Whatever Regina did, I've long since forgiven her. Because she was my mother, and that fact matters more than any of her sins. I only hope she can forgive me as well. Wherever she is."
"I'm...I'm sure she already has, Grandpa" Emma whispered. "She has to have. You were just a little boy." Henry's smile turned wane.
"She's held grudges on small children for far less my dear...but I hope you're right."
Reaching into the fold of his robes Henry brought out a large candle. It was shaped like a knight on a rearing horse, and it's wick sprouted from the tip of the knight's lance. He placed it in the blank soil between the graves, and using a hastily thrown together box of tinder, he lit it.
At once the knight sprang to life, the horse kicking beneath it. At blinding speed it began to gallop around the graves. As it went the flame ate it's way down the lance, melting the knight into a pile of bright pink wax that hardened around the gravestones.
"What was that supposed to do?" Emma asked. Magic candles usually had a much more spectacular effect that just moving about and then melting. Henry grinned.
For a few moments nothing happened. Slowly the wax continued to harden, and a few birds chirped in the apple tree above. Then the wax began to glow. An azure light shone of it's surface. The wax became a shining pane of brilliance in the surrounding snow, and then, in a great explosion of color, the wax disappeared. Where the wax once lay was left a blooming bed of flowers. Lilies, roses and poppies sprouted in great bunches. Butterflies fluttered between the stems, and the scents of spring times assaulted the cold hair. Emma gasped. Henry chuckled.
"Well" the old king said, straightening up to a standing position. "We'd best be off. You have a sword lesson this evening, don't you?" Emma nodded. "Then let's go."
Together the pair moved back towards their waiting horses. One last time Henry gazed back at the graves. The flowers would keep all winter. The blue fairy had made the candle herself, and the enchantment was a strong one.
"Goodbye, mother" he whispered softly as they mounted. Emma felt her heart swell.
Perhaps there really was more to her witch great-grandmother's story then she'd thought. She had loved, so, in the end, she was family. And that earned her a place in the young princesses' heart. Past crimes aside.