A LEDGER SQUARED IN BLOOD
By Scribes and Scrolls
CHAPTER ONE: THE TRUCE
Emma Swan had been through every cupboard in Regina's bolt-hole cottage and had been unable to come up with anything remotely resembling alcohol. You'd think the freaking queen of apple cider would have a hidden stash somewhere. She growled, then paused in frustration when she felt the tears threaten anew.
Seriously? She could not stop crying. It was pathetic.
So big deal - she'd tried to tell herself - she'd had yet another one-night stand with another woman who had treated her exactly as she had predicted days ago.
Besides, she might have known the mayor six months but the woman, well she'd only really known her for a week. Emma's eyes lost focus.
Without all the pretence and the constant bad mood and jibes, Regina Mills was a very different woman to the uptight mayor Emma had locked horns with in Storybrooke.
Vulnerable, layered, intelligent, fascinating, funny even. That had been surprising. Her wry quips, when stripped of meanness, were enormously entertaining. More than once she had reduced the blonde to wheezes of laughter. And then she'd simply stood back with only the tiniest of curls at the corner of her mouth betraying how pleased she was with Emma's reaction.
She was thoughtful, too. Emma loved the breakfasts in bed, especially when served up by scantily-clad Regina. There was the way she always sprinkled cinnamon on her porridge without her having to ask. And her neatly repaired jacket.
Anguish rocked the blonde again as she remembered what had come with the jacket. Crap. She grimaced as her eyes teared up. God! She was like a girl with her first broken heart.
Who was she kidding? She WAS a girl with her first broken heart. Cora had not been lying. And the moment she'd said it, sneered it, to be more accurate, Emma had felt the truth of her words. She did love Regina Mills.
A tear headed mournfully down her cheek and she crushed it angrily with the heel of her hand. Oh for God's sake. She rolled her eyes. Enough! I am a bad-ass bounty hunter. I do not do ice cream in bed and sappy songs while weeping over crushes gone bad.
She paused. Ice cream. She gave a wistful sigh before the hunt for booze resumed in earnest.
An hour later, all she had concluded was Regina had bolted with very few supplies, even fewer clothes although, to her complete astonishment, those tall dominatrix boots were now missing. A part of Emma would have liked to have watched the incredible architectural feat of her getting those thigh-high beauties on. In the dark. Without waking Emma.
Another part of her, slightly lower down, would have just liked to watch, agog, without engaging the science part of her brain at all.
Emma growled at them both.
Meanwhile she had also discovered that Regina's father's beloved gardening shoes remained where they were. Her hand traced the plain brown, worn leather - why had she left these? Either she'd forgotten them, which was unlikely as Regina never missed anything, or no longer felt sentimentally attached to them. Or ... where she was going she couldn't take them.
And yet she could take her Worship Me Like The Evil Bitch I Am boots? What had she been packing for? A strip joint?
The satchel of photos of Henry were missing so Regina wasn't entirely heartless, Emma decided, flopping on the bed. Her nostrils flared. Jesus - she could still smell her. Everywhere. All of her - over the sheets and the pillows and ... Emma's eyes filled with tears again.
Shit. She really needed some hard liquor. This remembering business sucks and blows.
. . . . . . .
Emma wondered how long was left before the hatch would unlock. Regina had been very strict with not using magic. Cora, however, had been flinging the stuff around the place like confetti at a wedding. As she lay on the bed, the sheriff worked on a string of text messages to Mary Margaret.
She tapped out that she was coming home as soon as the lock opened, but she didn't know how long that would be. She figured some magic expert in Storybrooke would have to know what effect the various spells she'd encountered would have on the time remaining on the lock. So she was painstakingly listing every spell she had seen, and described in detail the burning one she had no name for. When she was done, she saved off the texts, ready to send when she got to the hatch. She peered at the corner of the phone. Barely any battery juice left. She had to get out of here soon. For so many reasons.
Emma put the phone down and sighed, staring at the ceiling. She was tired. Emotional. Fed up with her brain. And the endless questions.
She wondered yet again, as she had hundreds of times already, where Regina was now. Was she safe? Had Cora said something to her that Emma hadn't heard that would explain everything? Had she been kidnapped? Hope surged before Emma remembered the note. And the jacket. Both had Regina's unmistakeable fingerprints all over them.
She remembered Regina's fingerprints. And her fingertips. Emma especially remembered how her fingers clenched against her and she rocked and moaned and gasped her name as Emma moved inside her. The sighs and sobs, her skin so soft. She vividly recalled what Regina Mills tasted like and the exquisite burning pleas in brown eyes when her tongue had loved her.
The smell of her hair - Emma had buried her nose into it and finally discovered why she smelt like apples. Her shampoo. Regina had laughed when she told her the mystery had been eluding her for months.
"You might have just asked, dear," the brunette had said with a seductive drawl and resumed nuzzling Emma's neck, nipping it cheekily.
"Yeah right, like you'd have answered when I said, 'So tell me Madame Mayor, I have been wondering why you always smell like apples?'," Emma huffed.
Regina's mouth had curved into a wide smile against her neck. "I would have concluded you were thinking far too much about me for a mere underling."
"And you would have been right," Emma retorted. "I was. Although I had presumed it was my blind hatred of you, not blinding lust that was driving my line of inquiry."
"Mmm," Regina had sighed, making that sweet contented sound the blonde now knew equated to happiness. Until their week together, Emma didn't realise she was even capable of that particular emotion.
"I always knew you wanted me," the mayor teased, eyes sparkling with mirth.
"Liar," Emma retorted, poking her in the ribs. "And 'sides, it was you who wanted me. Tell me you didn't want to take me under the apple tree when I chainsawed the branch off. I could see the fire in your eyes. You glared at me with such ... hell… you wanted me so bad!"
"Revisionist history, my dear," Regina declared. "I wanted payback, it's true, but I doubt you would have found much pleasure in it had I taken you under the tree in the mood I was in. Although, personally, I would have found it delicious. You, on the other hand, wouldn't have been able to walk straight for a week."
Emma's breath caught, imagining that little scenario. Holy... "Now I kinda wished you'd tried," she whispered reverently.
"And ruined my best work dress? Certainly not. You'd already annoyed me enough for one day."
"Annoyed?" Emma toyed. "Are you sure that's all you were feeling?" Her fingers began to trace Regina's ribs, sliding over towards her breast.
Regina's lips twitched. "Definitely annoyed." She dropped a kiss on Emma's head. She looked mischievously down at the blonde and her lips quirked. "Although that was the first time I wondered what you tasted like. Pure curiosity, of course, dear. Nothing else."
Emma choked. "Regina! You didn't?"
Regina pursed her lips, giving nothing away as Emma looked at her bug-eyed. "Did you?" she squeaked.
The brunette chuckled and whispered, "You'll never know." Her lips descended on Emma's and their passion began once more.
. . . . . . . .
Emma put her hand to her throbbing temples. They had been intimate. Regina had shared of herself in every sense. That much was not fake. It couldn't be. Could it?
Her anger rose anew and she shoved the cell phone in her pocket, jammed on her boots and strode to the door. She flung it open and the first thing she saw was a scout bird. Hovering. At eye level. Creepy little...
Fear and fury spidered through her head. Was this something Regina and Cora had planned together? Screw her over - literally - and then film the aftermath? News at 10?
With a ferocious growl Emma hefted the sword in her hand, smoothly brought it forward and viciously smashed its head in. The creature squawked as it pile-drove into the ground. Emma kicked it to one side and then glared at it. It eyed her back. Damned thing was still functional.
She picked it up and stared into the soulless face, realising from the whirring noise it was still probably recording everything for Her Majesty's pleasure.
She gave a chilling smile and leaned into the mechanical red eye, giving it a nice close-up of her. Then she swore: "FUCK YOU, CORA MILLS!"
She dropped it back to the ground and gave it a nasty kick.
She felt a little better but she was still shaken up. She slammed the door shut again and tried to steady her breathing. Her hands were trembling so she dropped the sword. She headed to collapse on the bed for another weepy cry. For God's sake.
Today was proving a hell of a lot harder to get through than she could ever have imagined.
. . . . . . . . . .
Much later, a red-rimmed, puffy-eyed Emma gingerly opened the door again, sword in hand and then immediately leaped back in shock. Shit!
A huge grey wolf was crouched outside, waiting, the half-crushed mechanical bird lying between its front paws where she had kicked it earlier. The wolf was watching the front door. And, now, Emma.
She gripped her sword and lifted it menacingly. The beast eyed it and shook its head. "I wouldn't," it said in a low growl. "I am faster than you."
Emma took in the animal's enormous form, and quivering muscles, tense and poised. She could believe it.
"Fine," she muttered. "What the hell do you want," she snarled, diplomacy having deserted her.
"Her Majesty would like to make a deal."
"Her Majesty?" Emma mocked. "You mean your master The Twisted Psycho?" That did feel better.
"My master is not Queen Cora," the wolf growled, clearly offended.
Emma smiled coldly. "I notice you didn't disagree with my description of her though."
The wolf closed its mouth, nostrils flaring.
"Alright," Emma said, tapping the sword into the dirt in annoyance. "What does she want?"
"Stop killing her scout birds, and she won't kill you with the twitch of her finger. This week. She suggests you might want to use that time to ... flee her domain?"
Emma's eye fell to the valuable damaged bird the wolf was protecting. It quivered and tried to move its head. Perhaps the thing was salvageable. Given Cora had only three birds left; possibly two and a half now - no wonder she was getting a bit antsy.
"Can she kill me with a twitch of a finger?" Emma asked curiously. "Because, seriously, I find it hard to believe she hasn't already tried if she could."
The wolf's teeth parted menacingly and she could see their sharpness. "Her Majesty has a powerful enchanted trebuchet. It can hurl a fireball up to seven horizons away and destroy your cottage while you sleep. You would never know it was coming."
"And she hasn't used this super-awesome slingshot before now because..."
"Her Majesty does as she pleases."
"Right, she's recuperating you mean. After she wore herself out with magic tricks and I almost slit her throat."
If wolves could roll their eyes, this one very nearly did. "Do you accept Her Majesty's deal?"
"I have a better one - she leaves me alone for a month and in that time I won't come after her and raze her castle to the ground while she sleeps."
Emma put just the right amount of cocky on it, hoping the wolf believed her.
The wolf appeared to laugh. It came out like a snuffle. "You? You think you could take on two powerful witches? On your own? With just that?" Its head inclined towards the sword. "I have seen you use it, princess. You are not very good."
Emma ignored the slur as her world seemed to abruptly shift on its axis. "Two..." she gasped. "Two witches? What..." A sick feeling rose. "W-who is the other one?"
"I believe you know her quite well. You defended her from me not long past."
Emma felt faint. She sank to her knees. "No," she whispered. "Why would she go there? To her?"
The wolf stared unblinkingly. "It is none of my concern."
The beast seemed weary of the conversation and now growled at her: "Do you accept Queen Cora's deal or not?"
Emma gripped the sword tightly, head spinning. Well, she really did have nothing left in this world, it seemed. Regina had allied herself with the goddamned devil.
"Fine," she snapped. "But it has to be a month not a week. Tell her she can take it or expect to find two more feathery carcasses with my boot prints on their pretty little faces."
She stood and glared at the wolf. To hell with this. She turned, slammed the door shut, gripped her sword fiercely and stormed off towards the hatch, leaving the wolf gazing after her.
Her legs carried her shakily. She glanced back to see the animal carefully lift the damaged scout bird into its powerful jaws and lope off in a different direction.
A thought struck Emma and she stopped cold. She turned and stared long and hard, watching exactly the path the retreating wolf was taking and then swung her eyes up to the horizon for a landmark in line with its bearing.
One thing Emma was extremely good at was estimating heights and distances. It came in very useful when tracking someone, knowing whether to jump from a roof of a certain height. And as her eyes pivoted from the wolf's unwavering route, beyond and straight up, she saw the low peak of a small mountain. She calculated swiftly.
That would probably be about three hours' hard slog as the crow flies. Hmmm. Maybe closer if you were some sort of indefatigable super wolf – which might be able to do the distance in close to 90 minutes. If that was its destination, of course. But then, she realised as she turned back for the hatch, she had no way at all of knowing where it was heading. Pointless.
She scowled and tramped on.
. . . . . . . . . . .
After Emma had sent the stored texts, it didn't take long. Mary Margaret's messages were quick and to the horrified point. "EMMA! I was worried sick when you didn't text and now I get this! What on earth has Regina been doing? These spells are the most powerful in the realm. Even if she's just practising, doing these near you could get you killed! Tell her to stop! It is so irresponsible."
Emma texted back: "Not Regina's spells. We had a bit of trouble. Gone now."
There was a long pause. The minutes ticked by. Finally the phone beeped again. "Oh, Em. The Blue Fairy says you have another nine days there. Sorry. Stay away from magic and you'll be home soon. Right?"
SHIT! NINE MORE DAYS?
Emma sat back on her haunches and wanted to cry. Again. Out of the corner of her eye she saw another scout bird approach and circle and it took all her energy not to leap up and attempt to wring its spying little neck. She turned her back to it and hugged herself.
Her phone beeped again. "Em, still there?"
She texted back: "Y"
"We love you. I'm sorry you have to wait. Please stay out of harm's way. And I am glad Regina's with you if that sort of magic is around. Obviously she has been able to keep you safe. Thank goodness!"
If only she knew.
She texted back another "Y".
"And James and I have been talking. Maybe she's not completely evil anymore? Henry is proof, isn't he? We've loved getting to know our grandson. People can change, sometimes? Right?"
Mary Margaret sounded a little too desperate to convince herself.
Emma buried her face in her hands. Right.
She finally texted back: "Battery low. Not sure how long I can still text you. C U in nine days."
Emma sat there, brooding. She felt the sun rise higher and the wind shift. But still she sat, holding her knees, her brain going crazy with competing thoughts. What was Regina doing going back to that?
Did she feel she had no other option? Emma had been clear at the outset she'd leave her and go home to Storybrooke and Henry. Did Regina just decide to get in first and leave? But why do it the way she had? And why go there? Surely she had other options? Or did she?
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shape growing bigger. Ah. The wolf was back. She checked the time on her phone. It had been gone for well over three hours on its round trip. It slowly trotted towards her, its cargo obviously dropped off with Cora. It proved Cora's castle was indeed located near that mountain.
Score one, for me.
"You have a month's amnesty," the wolf growled by way of introduction. "The queen agrees to your terms."
Emma stared at the animal. "Tell her I'll abide by them. Oh and if I hear she is hurting her daughter I'll track her bony ass down and kick her head in – please quote me accurately," she added sweetly. "And if you see her daughter..." she faded out.
What to tell her? Thanks for breaking my heart? Come away from the psycho, dear? Please come home ... to me?
I love you.
The wolf looked at her, waiting.
"Um... never mind. Nothing. I don't care." She wiped her nose.
The wolf's eyes narrowed. "You are like her."
"What, who Regina?"
It inclined its head.
"So I'm an abandoning cruel bitch, too? Thanks. You're so kind."
The wolf stared and shook its giant grey head. "Salty."
Emma blinked. Salty?
The wolf turned and trotted away.
What the hell?
She shook her head in confusion and finally stood. She needed to go back to bed. Her head freaking hurt.
. . . . . .
The days passed slowly. Her phone battery had run out now but Mary Margaret had already agreed to meet her on the ninth day at Regina's mansion so Emma wasn't too worried. Assuming it was still there, Emma mused. Last she'd seen of it, rioters were working themselves up into a frenzy.
The blonde had been feeling too low to do much. She was sick of the food, she was sick of the memories and she was particularly sick of Regina's torturously scented bed. She had taken to sleeping on the couch. Absurdly small and uncomfortable as it was, it was still better than her intoxicating smell.
She was now thoroughly annoyed with herself and completely over the sight of the four walls of the cottage. The days were beginning to blur. One thought kept looping through her head. It wouldn't hurt to go check out the mountain. Just to see. Nothing more. A reconnaissance mission. Maybe even get a glimpse of Regina?
Her heart quickened and before she knew it, she had flung on her clothes, boots, had a sword in one hand, an apple in her jacket pocket and a canteen of water tied to her hip.
After all, doing something was better than just sitting around feeling sorry for herself. Right? It's not like she was dying to see the woman who ran out on her after the most freaking fantastic night of passion or anything.
. . . . . . . .
Emma set out at a brisk pace, but she was careful to make note of any landmarks she passed, well aware that while she might be able to easily see the mountain, finding her way back to a little cottage would be much harder. Hell, they didn't call it an Infinite Forest for no reason.
At any other time she might have noticed how pretty the area was, the vegetation slowly turning from pale green to deep emerald the closer she got to the mountain. The air had started to get colder and she was beginning to worry she was under-dressed. Occasionally she would pass wildlife, ranging from deer to rabbits, but each animal scampered away on her approach.
At the two hour mark she stopped for a break in a small clearing. She had a sip from her canteen and was biting into the apple when she heard a terrifying roar.
A blur flew through the air directly at her. Emma could make out feline teeth, a maw so wide it could swallow her head whole, wide white eyes and sleek white fur. The snowlion-type beast was almost the size of her VW.
Fear and adrenaline flooded her body and her hand reached for her sword. Even as she did so, she knew it would be too late.
As images of Henry, Mary Margaret, David, Ruby and Granny flashed through her head, she realised her mind had called up a picture of Regina to settle on for her last moments, brown eyes laughing at her, a smile as beautiful as it was wide. Loving her. She was leaning in, to nuzzle her neck, and Emma felt tears prick her eyes.
Everything slowed down. She could smell the beast's fetid breath now, feel its warmth and hear ragged breathing. Spittle flew from its mouth. Her sword was still rising but it was nowhere near high enough.
Regina's eyes watched her fondly. Emma smiled sadly back in goodbye.
An almighty WHUMPH knocked her flat. And then nothing.
Suddenly savage and vicious snarls were all around her and she realised the snowlion had been intercepted mid-air by a wolf. It had used her chest to springboard off her and then used its weight to smash the much larger snowlion off target.
The wolf and snowlion were now ripping and biting at each other. There was a howl, Emma felt her blood chill, and suddenly everywhere she turned, there were wolves.
The snowlion began to retreat as the pack started to circle it, lashing out with a vicious curling paw lined with razor-sharp claws. One wolf was swatted away like a child's toy, yelping in pain.
But there were too many. Emma lay flat and made as small a target as she could, hugging the ground, watching with wide eyes as the wolves drove her attacker away.
As if by some unspoken command, nine of the wolves pounced at once, snarling and tearing at the giant white beast which gave a furious bloodcurdling roar and then flew off into the woods, chased by most of the pack.
Most. Not all.
Emma rose slowly to her shaking knees, fingers now white where they clenched the sword handle, never taking her eye off the animals stalking up to her.
One of the larger wolves dipped its head.
"Saviour, it is an honour to meet you."
The wolf blinked.
"Sorry, I um," Emma squeaked. Gah.
"We heard you were in the area. Our pack is aligned to King James and Queen Snow. When we learned you were about to pass through the deathclaw's territory, we thought you might like an escort. Or, as it turns out, more than that."
"I am glad you did," Emma swallowed, her mouth insanely dry. She fumbled about for her canteen and took a long drink.
"We are surprised to see you out of your lands. Wouldn't your family normally roam the Enchanted Forest?"
"I, ah, sure. But I wanted to see someone here," Emma said, wondering when her heart's racing would drop down to merely express-train speed.
"The only humans around here are at the dark one's castle. Surely you would not be going there?" The wolf looked afraid even as it said it.
"Um, perhaps. Why?"
Several of the other wolves were beginning to return and word of Emma's travel plans were clearly being passed around. The fur on all their backs was beginning to go up.
"Demons and darkness dwell within, Saviour. There is great cruelty. All the realm suffers under that reign. Perhaps we could escort you back, away from there? Somewhere safer? What about the Mighty Falls of Iscobar? They're very pretty at this time of year."
Emma stood, dusted off her jeans and retied her canteen to her hip. She held the sword loosely at her side.
"No, I really think I would prefer to scout out the castle, for future possible, ah, sortees," she said, hoping that sounded Saviour-like.
The wolves at the back of the pack were now staring at her with a mix of fear and horror. Several turned tail and slunk off.
"I am afraid we cannot assist you in that," the lead wolf said uncomfortably. "We strongly urge you to change your mind. And if not, at least stay clear of the devil's escarpment. And the thorn pits. And the swelter pools. And the blasterclouds."
Emma's mouth dropped open. "The what and the what now?"
All the other wolves had now disappeared.
Only the one who spoke remained. He looked at her almost sadly. "It was nice having met you," he said, as though he suspected it would be the last he would ever see of her. "We all admire your parents very much. They were kind rulers. We hope they'll return soon and free this forest from the tyranny of the evil two."
He nodded and then turned and left.
"Uh OK, um thanks," she called out after him. But the wolf was gone. The evil two? Did he mean Regina and Cora? Seriously?
And what the hell had she gotten herself into? What on earth had made her think she could navigate fairytale lands without help? She was like a babe in the woods. Tracking might be one skill she had, but seriously – deathclaws and blasterclouds and, and … shit!
Emma continued on but now with extreme caution. She could not believe she hadn't even heard the deathclaw until its frightening bulk was sailing through the air towards her, its jaw open.
She had been incredibly lucky.
The ground had begun to rise, and the vegetation was beginning to thin out. The mountain was closer than she had realised, but she now had to try and work out which way the palace might be.
As she stopped she saw a strange white material across the ground in front of her. It looked almost like sand, but that was absurd this high up. As she put one foot forward onto the odd scatterings she felt a whoosh. The air temperature changed immediately, jumping up 20 degrees, and her hair flew up as though she were standing over a grate.
Every part of her body screamed danger, but she could not work out where it would come from. With only a second to spare she remembered the first piece of advice Regina had ever given her when training her in magic – most attacks come from above or head height.
She dropped to the ground like an anvil and felt a blast come out of nowhere of superhot air, filled with particles that would sandblast the skin off any poor creature caught in its path. Anything three feet above her or more would have been blasted and cooked.
In a moment it was gone, and the sandy matter dropped out of the air and landed harmlessly on top of her.
She sat up, coughing, sweating with the heat, although the temperature was now dropping back to normal. Holy crap!
Well, I guess those were the blasterclouds.
At least she now knew the warning signs, and what to do. And based on the colour of the ground, she also now knew exactly what their flight patterns were. She stepped deliberately onto brown soil and continued on.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see something glinting and turned to realise she could just make out a structure. Dark and grand, the windows were catching the sunlight. Well if THAT'S not an evil storybook castle, I don't know what is, Emma mused.
She now had a destination.
Emma headed towards it for the better part of half an hour, mindful of exactly where she was going and the strangeness of the land around her. The air smelled different – sulphuric and just plain creepy. And the birds had stopped singing some time ago, not filling her with hope she was going anywhere remotely safe.
The land began to dip, forming a channel leading up to the castle, with sheer rocks on either side and craggy boulders and scatterings of tundra all around. To the left, near the easier path, she could see a strange rocky overhang. If she went there, it would shave quite a bit off her journey. She stared at it, feeling a strange sensation. Everything in her told her not to do it.
Did that, or did that not, look like an escarpment, anyway? She was sure the wolf had warned her off some sort of evil escarpment. Decided, she chose a longer path that wound along the channel on the right.
As she passed by in line with the outcropping, but well away from it, she watched in horror as an enormous ebony-black vulture-like creature flew from behind the rock, swooped down and snared a thrashing boar in its talons and flew back up to the rocky plain above. An unholy sound of boar squeals and bird caws erupted as the larger creature shredded its prey alive. Emma shut her eyes and turned away. OK, Swan, glad not to be prehistoric-vulture food today. She paused for a sip of water.
"Please Miss Knight, a drop if you will?"
A small voice surprised the blonde who looked around. A small creature with a bulbous hairy back and ugly pinky-grey face was staring up at her, with an expression that could only be described as pitiable.
Emma dropped to her knees. "Yeah, sure, why not," she said and tilted the canteen towards its open mouth.
The creature drank greedily and Emma stopped, conscious she had to preserve the water for her own journey. "Please, Miss Knight – a few drops more. I'll save your life."
Emma raised an eyebrow. She'd heard plenty of lines before in her life, but never one so obviously absurd. This creature barely came halfway up her boot. Still, the poor thing looked parched. She poured some more.
Finally the marsupial had its fill and leaned back. "Thanks, Miss. You are very kind."
Emma grinned and rose, but its small front arms reached out and snagged her boot with tiny spindly fingers. "Don't you want to know how to save your life?"
She looked down. "Um, sure. OK?" she said.
The animal pointed to some small pebbles scattered around. "Take those, as many as you can, fill your pouches. And it will save your life."
Emma laughed. "It will, huh?"
"I am serious, Miss. Do as I say. And when you come to the fallen log, you take them out and use them. Yes? You see?"
Emma really didn't see, but it seemed so earnest that she decided to humour the creature and scooped up as many pebbles as she could. "Enough?" she asked it.
She crammed a few more into her pockets just to be sure and turned to ask how to use them at the "fallen log" but the creature was already gone.
Oh well, she was probably about to be the topic of much mirth in the animal world. But being the butt of jokes she could handle, if that's all this was.
She continued along the canyon for 15 more minutes and came to a white twisted downed tree trunk. It was conspicuous by its presence as there were no trees of any kind in the area. Just rocks all around, mushy grey ground ahead, and some dense vegetation beyond that.
She was about to keep on trudging when a voice inside of her reminded her of the animal's words.
Well, what could it hurt?
She grabbed a handful of pebbles and held them up. Nothing happened.
She dropped a few at her feet. Same result.
Emma peered at the canyon before her. She wound her arm back and flung the pebbles as far as she could.
To her astonishment, as each hit the ground, enormous scalding mud pits opened up swallowing them, sucking them into the hidden holes. The ground slowly rose back up to normal height, but that delay gave Emma enough time to mentally map where the pits were, and where the ground remained solid.
She quickly scrambled along a safe route, pausing only when the ground was now solidly flat all around. She grabbed another handful of pebbles and tossed, watching closely where the mud pits were hiding and ran through the gaps once more. She repeated the routine four times until no more holes in the land opened up before her.
I am betting those were the swelter pools, she thought, with a tight grimace. Would have hated to meet those without warning.
The castle was almost upon her. The fastest route was through a prickly passageway that seemed to go almost directly to it. Emma had learned her lesson from the escarpment and deduced this was almost certainly the thorn pits the wolf had warned of. No way in hell was she going to tangle with those. She chose a rocky cliff face up the side, which completely avoided the path and jagged foliage, tucked her sword in her belt, and began to climb.
She was halfway up when she saw a scout bird. It was the first sign she was in the right place. It was however a very vulnerable spot to be, should Cora decide to check its surveillance footage.
Emma's arms were starting to ache. She had done some rock climbing back in her early days, when she wanted to learn everything she could to be an efficient bounty hunter. But she hadn't kept it up. Her legs were quivering with tension and she was beginning to doubt her sanity for even doing this for a woman who had bolted in the middle of the night to return to the most cruel person Emma had ever met.
But before her dark doubts could overrun her, she was slithering over the top. A series of large boulders lay between her and the front of the castle. But the castle was shaped in an L, and the side of the castle, a bleak black structure seemingly made of granite, rose up behind the boulders.
She could see some guards at the main door, but she had no intention of getting that close. She pulled her sword out and gripped it tight, just in case. She sprinted over to the giant rocks, taking cover and then looked around her. Above her, she could see a balcony. If she could just climb the rocky pile, she would be high enough to catch the corner of ornate stone feature work and scramble up it. Then she would be able to hoist herself on to the balcony and then…
Emma froze. She hadn't actually worked out what the hell she was going to do when she got there.
The scout bird was back and circling conspicuously. Shit – if one of the guards got it into his head to wonder why, she'd be roadkill. And even if he didn't, at this rate Emma wouldn't have time for indecision if Cora got hold of the footage in the next few minutes.
So she quickly scampered up the lower boulders, finding the largest one at the top extremely hard to get a handhold on. More than once she found herself sliding down its smooth side.
Finally, she decided the problem was she was trying to do it one-handed. She threaded the sword through the belt at her back. Then she took a step back and jumped as high as she could.
After much scrabbling, skinned hands and bloodied scraped knuckles, she managed to make it up the curved rock. Now on top of the boulder, she pressed her stomach flat against it as she eyed the guards at the gate some distance away below. To her relief they weren't looking in her direction.
She glanced up. OK – there was a buttress support, with some fancy stone lattice work. If she leaped, she might just be able to hook her hand in and pull….
Emma heard faint talking from the balcony above and flattened herself to the rock, inching as far to the edge she could so she was in the building's shadows. Carefully she eased the sword out of her belt and lay it beside her. She rolled over as quietly as she could and looked straight up the line of the building, barely visible in her dark corner.
It was Regina, standing at the balcony staring directly out over the canyon Emma had just trudged through. Her eyes were faraway. But it was not her eyes that had Emma agog.
What in the hell was she wearing?
Leather, leather and more leather. Her hair was now curled and twisted in an ornate design, stacked on her head. It made her look years older. Her makeup was dark to the point of severe.
The jewels on the hand which clenched the balcony were glinting in the sun. Emma wondered for a moment if these were what she had seen from far away. But that would mean Regina had been standing there for at least an hour. Not exactly something the efficient woman would ever do.
But none of these changes were what had completely stunned the blonde.
For a start Regina's chest now boasted two plump, bulging, magnificent mounds which had greatly swollen from the adorable handfuls Emma had so delighted in playing with. They were squeezed together, barely contained by a severe black bodice that dropped into a cleavage so deep it probably ended at the mayor's boots.
Correction, Her Majesty's boots.
Emma was transfixed. Had Regina taken a wrong turn at an S&M party?
There was no doubting that with the change in appearance came a different bearing, a stiffer, formal posture (how could she not with that cinched waist?) – Regina Mills was now every inch a royal.
Emma couldn't work out who the brunette was speaking to, but it was enough to prevent the blonde from trying to call up to her. Although she doubted she would have heard her anyway.
A moment later Cora joined her daughter at the balcony, and Emma hissed in a breath. She looked even creepier than she remembered, her smooth face hiding the cruel sneers of a sadistic torturer. Regina pointed to something in the distance. It seemed to be where the vulture had been dismembering the boar. Cora would doubtlessly enjoy that floorshow.
As Emma stared up, she studied their body language. Cora had come to stand right beside her daughter, both arms ramrod straight, hands curving across the balcony's low stone rail in a proprietary grip. Her fingers twitched and moved constantly.
Cora was speaking softly and Regina nodded. And then … Emma stared, appalled, as Regina gently placed a hand over her mother's and gave it a squeeze. The other woman nodded back and turned, leaving.
Regina stood there for a while, gazing out. Her face was a stony mask. All joy sucked from it. She looked hard and cold. Just like her mother.
Emma's heart broke.
Her Regina was gone.
She waited a few minutes more and Regina finally turned from the balcony and went inside.
Emma immediately rolled back to sitting position, gathered her sword, shimmied down the rock, and headed for home.
She had been right, she thought bleakly.
There was nothing for her here.
. . . . . . .
Emma's return to the cottage had been uneventful. She had memorised the path well, and wolves had reappeared at deathclaw territory to escort her through it. The leader seemed extremely impressed to even see her again.
When he bowed his head in farewell once they had exited the area, this time it was deep and with respect.
Emma didn't bother going into the cottage when she saw it loom ahead. She went straight to the hot spring and had a long soak. She tried to get the cold, bleak face of Regina out of her mind. But all she could see was her small hand, snaking across to Cora's. A gesture of tenderness. A daughter showing allegiance to a mother.
Any hopes she might have had that Regina was being held against her will were snuffed out. The brunette had made her choice. And this was the future she had selected. Without Emma.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Finally the day to go home had arrived. Emma pulled out a small sack and began to pack. She was wearing the clothes she came in, and slid on the red leather jacket very slowly.
She put a canteen of water in the sack, knowing the tunnel walk was a long hike. She put in a few apples. And then ... she looked at Regina's father's shoes. On impulse she tossed them in the bag.
She looked around, eyes landing on Regina's black tailored vest. Her fingers dusted across the quality cotton fabric. She sighed. She dropped that in the sack as well.
Green eyes flicked across the wardrobe rack. The brown lace-up leather vest. How hot had Regina looked in that? She smiled. It faded after a moment. She was being ridiculous. She left it where it hung.
Finally she closed up the cottage, knowing that after a week of inactivity the biometric lock at the front would put it in lockdown and, without Regina's handprint, no one else would be able to enter it again later.
She felt a pang. She'd had the best of times and the most crushing of times here. She looked slowly around. The blue bedspread lay folded on the couch. The cupboards with the jars of pickles and preserves were as they had been when she arrived.
Emma picked up the sword and closed the door. Her last glimpse was of the bed. Unmade and rumpled. Sheets strewn. She had never been able to face touching it to remake it again ... after.
The door gave a final 'snick' as she pulled it shut.
. . . . . .
Emma crouched down in front of the fake rock hologram, slid her hand through it to the handle and twisted sharply. To her enormous relief, the hatch lit up bright blue and the lid opened. She exhaled. She dropped the sword and sack through the hole, hearing the thud and clang below, forgetting a moment too late her apples wouldn't appreciate the fall. Oh well.
She almost scrambled down in her haste to leave.
The very last thing she saw of the Infinite Forest as she felt her way down the rungs was an inquisitive scout bird, hovering. Watching her through the hole. Recording, no doubt.
Emma reached up and slammed the lid tight and twisted the handle viciously hard to lock it.
She only exhaled when her feet hit the rocky floor.