Sooooo guess who's not dead! Sorry this chapter was so late in coming you guys, but I'd lost my muse for a little while there. I'm hoping to hold onto it a little bit longer this time . . . most likely by tying it up and locking it in a closet or something. Anyway, I doubt you guys are even still reading this little note, so. Go ahead and read, I know you want to.
Chapter Twelve: There For You
The silence through the dark forest hit both girls like symbol crashes. Ice sparked its way down Rapunzel's spine, chilling her body from the inside out. It was her mother, no doubt about the fact in her mind. The dark-haired woman in the form-fitting red gown stood calmly before the two girls, showing no sign of surprise at the sight of the big black dragon baring his teeth at her. The woman stepped forward, patting him once on the head and offered them both a small, bright smile.
Merida lifted her hand as Pascal cowered away from the voice, and she was quick to pick the little guy up and tuck him safely into a pocket in her skirt. Rapunzel stood quickly off the fallen log and stepped back, shaking her head. Gothel made her way around Toothless toward them. "B-but- how did you-" Gothel took her arms and pulled her into a hug, just a bit too long and a bit too tight. "How did you find me?"
Gothel hummed, smoothing her hand gently down the back of Rapunzel's head. "Oh, it was easy, really," she said easily, completely ignoring Merida and Toothless as they stood awkwardly a few steps away. What else could they do? "I just listened for the sound of complete and utter betrayal and followed that."
Rapunzel sighed. It was fess time, she supposed. "Mother . . . "
Gothel pulled away before she could finish. "We're going home, Rapunzel," she said firmly, and took her wrist in an iron grip. "Now." Rapunzel stumbled a few steps forward as her mother yanked her forward. She pulled her arm free and stepped back.
"N-no, mother, wait," she insisted with a light shake of her head and a weak smile. "You don't understand. I've been on this incredible journey and I've done and seen so much! I've made new friends, and I . . . " Merida stood as Rapunzel gestured to her. "Look! See? This is Merida, and that's-"
"Yes, yes," Gothel cut her off quickly. "The wanted thief, two dirty runaways, and a couple lizards. I'm very proud. Now," the woman reached for Rapunzel's wrist again and when she caught it, managed to pull her another few feet away from their small campsite. "We. Are. Leaving."
Toothless lowered his body to the ground, lips curling back from his teeth. A low growl rumbled out of him, and this time Merida heeded his warning. She inched step-by-step to where she had left her sword. Both girl and dragon could sense that something was off, and neither liked it.
"Mother, please!" This time when Rapunzel pulled free, she used such a force that it nearly knocked Gothel off her balance. "Just, just listen to me, please." She begged. "These are . . . they are my friends, and they . . . they're helping me. They promised to take me to the see the lanterns and get me home safe, so you don't have to-"
Gothel's eyes narrowed slightly. "And . . . you trust them."
"I do," Rapunzel said honestly. "They . . . they wouldn't hurt me. Right, Merida?" She turned to the red-headed princess, who bowed her head in an honest nod. Gothel's scowl deepened. "Everyone's been so nice to me, mother. Hiccup and Merida, Toothless . . . even Eugene . . . " She turned her gaze downward and her smile became shy. "Mother," she whispered. "I think . . . I think he likes me . . . "
There was a trace of hope in her voice. A hope in her eyes and in her heart that had never been there before, and Gothel pounced on it quick as lightning and fully intending on tearing it to shreds.
"'Likes you'?" She repeated, her voice sarcastic and sweetly toxic. "Please, Rapunzel, that's demented!" She stepped around her daughter and rolled her eyes, laughing.
Rapunzel's shoulders lowered slightly, and she sighed in a sort of long-suffering manner. It seemed too familiar an action for Merida's liking. "Mother," Rapunzel began, ready to try to try and speak her case again from the beginning.
"This is why you never should have left!" Gothel spoke over her daughter before she'd even fully taken the breath speak. It was becoming clear that the woman had no interest in hearing anything that Rapunzel had to say. "Dear, this whole romance you've invented around these strangers? It just proves that you're too naive to be here."
Gothel held out her arms and Merida found herself scowling at how Rapunzel allowed herself to be hugged by the poisonous woman. Hearing that this girl had been forbidden from leaving such a secluded place had been plenty to tickle Merida's concern, but seeing first-hand how easily Gothel spun her wicked words around Rapunzel's mind made her sick. She had remained silent through this whole exchange simply because it wasn't her place to get involved, but it was becoming too hard to hold back her voice. So she didn't. "She is not," Merida snapped, the force of the word allowing her to push past her own accent and stress the sharpness of the 'T'.
Rapunzel's eyes widened at her friend's argument. Despite it, however, she was ignored. "Why would he like you, come on now, really?" Gothel asked. She caressed the side of Rapunzel's cheek upwards toward her hair, and pulled two handfuls of her blond mane out to shove in her face like it was an example. "Just look at you, do you think that's he's impressed?" Gothel all but threw Rapunzel's hair at her when the girl pulled away.
Merida grit her teeth, her scowl a fine imitation of the one Toothless was sporting.
"Don't be a dummy," Gothel cooed. "Come, with mummy." She stepped back, toward the trail in the woods. She stood silhouetted against the white of the fog raising up around and behind her, the stark cold darkness in sharp contrast with the glowing warmth of their small campfire. "Mother . . . "
The finality in Rapunzel's voice startled them all, even herself. Everyone's attention fixed on her for several tense heartbeats, on her furrowed eyebrows and clenched fists, until Gothel slowly lowered her arms.
" . . . 'no'?" Her voice drifted through the clearing dangerously low. "Oh. I see how it is."
The tall woman drifted her way over in a few short steps, her skirt swirling.
"Rapunzel knows best!
Rapunzel's so mature, now!
Such a clever grown-up miss!"
She pinched Rapunzel's cheek, a sharp pain that had the blonde quickly pushing away. Merida wasn't sure where the words came from, but the urge to say them was stronger than the will to stay silent. No, she would not stay silent. Refused.
"Rapunzel knows best!
Rapunzel's old enough, now!
She doesn't need to pass your stupid test!"
Rapunzel's eyes widened at the sound of Merida's voice, breaking into her mother's familiar song. She said the same thing Gothel had, but . . . it sounded different. Like they meant something else.
"Rapunzel knows best!" Gothel continued to mock.
"Fine, if you're so sure, then,
Go ahead and give him this!"
Rapunzel once again felt her blood running cold, heat prickling at the back of her neck. Gothel had reached into her cloak and pulled out the brown leather shoulder bag- Eugine's satchel. The one he needed. The one she'd hidden in her secret hiding place back inside the tower. Mother knew about the satchel. Mother knew about the hiding place. Shaking her head in disbelief, Rapunzel whispered, "H-How did you-"
"This is why he's here!" Gothel pulled the the shiny round hoop- the crown- out of the bag, and held it up in front of Rapunzel's face. So close that she could see through the blue clear gem in the center.
"Don't let him deceive you!"
"Eugine doesn't need it!" Merida tried to refrain from shouting. It was not a very enthusiastic attempt. She didn't like the thief, but she didn't like Gothel more.
"That's not what he's here for!
Don't let her lie to you!"
"Trust me, my dear," Gothel snapped her fingers.
"That's how fast he'll leave you!
I won't say 'I told you so!'"
She doesn't really know!"
Rapunzel kept looking back and forth between her mother and her friend, feeling that even though they were speaking to her, it felt more like they were arguing with each other. She didn't know who to listen to anymore.
"No! Rapunzel knows best!" Gothel shouted, throwing her hands into the air. She curled her way around Rapunzel, always in her space despite how hard the girl was trying to keep her distance.
"Fine! If he's such a dream-boat,
Go and put him,
To the test!"
She shoved away and tossed the crown at Rapunzel, who just barely managed to catch it. Rapunzel stood holding the crown, staring down into the crystals and jewels sparkling back at her. She swallowed and turned her eyes back up onto Gothel. "I will," she said, defiantly, and put back her shoulders. "I will!"
Gothel turned, and in a great sweeping arch of her cloak and skirt, she returned to the edge of their clearing. Her voice echoed through the darkness around her, hitting Rapunzel hard and making her flinch.
"If he's lying,
Don't come crying!"
Merida stepped forward, placing herself beside Rapunzel. Her shoulders were strong and her grip around her sword was tight. Yeah, that woman better be leaving like she thought she was.
Gothel turned on her heel, her song over and done. Rapunzel tightened her hold on the golden edges of the crown as her mother turned her back, but didn't move or say a word until her cloaked form disappeared into the fog and darkness.
Merida waited a few heavy heartbeats before she turned her head slightly, chancing a cautious look at her friend. Rapunzel's spine was straight and stiff, her eyes wide and unblinking. She was holding onto a breath to say something; to Merida or to Gothel was anyone's guess. The red-headed princess hesitated before lifting a hand and placing it on her shoulder. "Rapunzel?
That touched crumpled her. Rapunzel's shoulders sagged and she fell in on herself, chest heaving with the effort of her breaths. Confronting her mother like that, without any time to prepare herself mentally had taken it's tole on her. Merida was quick to catch the taller girl and steady her again. She looked pale, staring down at the golden tiara and gripping it between white-knuckled fists. It was so startlingly unlike her that Merida felt a strong urge to say something. The words come on their own, from a place deep in her heart where love and hatred have always been at war.
"Mothers . . .
Know what's best . . . "
The corners of Rapunzel's lips twitched upwards in a sad attempt at a smile. She squeezed Merida's fingers. "Thank you," she murmured, and turned back to watch the empty shadows before them. Toothless lumbered his way toward them and bumped Rapunzel's other shoulder with his head, and nuzzled her neck gently. That actually got a small giggle out of her. "Thank you." she said again, this time with a bit more of her usual cheerfulness.
Eugene's voice caused both girls and lizards jump. Rapunzel and Merida's eyes fixed on each other before snapping to the crown in Rapunzel's hands.
"Settle an argument for us, will you?"
The two girls came to an agreement in seconds. Merida snatched up the satchel from where Gothel had tossed it to the ground, and took the crown from Rapunzel's hands.
"Is there any chance that I'm going to end up with super strength in my hand?" Eugene asked them as he approached, a large bundle of large dry sticks in his hands. Hiccup followed not far behind, rolling his eyes and carrying a smaller but still plentiful pile of his own. "Because, I'm not going to lie, that would be stupendous."
The boys stopped by the campfire to drop off their firewood. Rapunzel was keeping her back to them for a few minutes too long and after a quick search they found the top of Merida's wild hair poking out from behind a low tree stump. Hiccup dropped his sticks and rubbed his hand against Toothless when he bound his way over to greet them. "What's going on?" He asked slowly. "Are you guys alright?"
Rapunzel turned and Merida stood up, both a bit too quickly. "Hm?" Rapunzel blinked, then broke into a wide smile. "Oh, sorry. Merida was just, um . . . We were-"
"I was showin' her the different kinds of trees!" Merida cut in, nodding enthusiastically. "An' what different things ye can make from 'em!"
"Yes! That's it!" Rapunzel bobbed her head in a few quick nods.
Hiccup and Eugene shared a look. Then they simply shrugged.
"I mean, here's the thing!" Eugene continued, kneeling down to start putting their firewood into some semblance of a reasonable pile. "Superhuman good looks? I always had 'em, born with it!"
"You're not that good-looking," Hiccup muttered dryly, and sat down on the sitting log with a wry smile playing at the corner of his lips. Toothless walked around behind him and placed his large head into the boy's lap.
"Shush." Eugene glared at him. "But superhuman strength? Can you imagine the possibilities of it!?"
Merida sat down beside Hiccup and the boy leaned toward her, one hand held up over his mouth like he was sharing a secret. "I've already told him that it's not going to happen."
"Excuse me!" Eugene snapped, and jabbed a stick in the younger man's direction. "You have a dragon, she's a princess, and her hair is magic! Who knows what else is possible around here!"
Rapunzel giggled along with everyone else as they laughed, and picked up her skirt so she could sit down in the grass by the fire. She smiled and listened to her friends as they talked . . . but no matter the strength of her willpower, her eyes kept drifting to the stump with the hidden crown. Her mind kept circling back to all the things her mother and Merida had said. Their voices were at war inside her mind, but she managed to hide it well behind a cheerful smile. Her thoughts were a scramble of things she'd always been told . . . and things she was just beginning to think.
Maybe mothers . . . really didn't always know best.
Thunder rolled over head, but not a single drop of rain found a way inside their circle of golden warmth. A child played on the floor, carved horses and soldiers waging playful war against each other in her hands.
A hearth crackled and popped behind her, spilling comfort and warmth around the stone room. A woman was sitting in a high-backed wooden chair, humming a light and familiar tune under her breath as she worked. Her voice was soft and light, fingers moving with thread through a long drapery thrown across her lap. She didn't stop her song even as she finished with the thread she was using, just reached down into a wicker basket at her feet for another spool.
The child looked up at the woman and smiled, giggling as her horses and soldiers charged imaginary enemy forces. She cheered when they claimed victory, looking away from the battle just in time for the thin glass windows in their stone walls to flash bright, blinding white.
Thunder crashed above their heads, louder than a tree trunk snapping and falling to the forest floor. The child screamed, sure the tree would come down through the walls and the windows to crush them. She abandoned her soldiers on their battlefield and scrambled for the edge of the woman's tapestry, flinging herself underneath it for protection.
The woman chuckled and set down her needle and thread. She could feel the child clinging to her, and lifts the tapestry so she can look down at her. "Oh, darling," she cooed lovingly, brushing away a fiery red curl. "Little Merida, my brave wee lassie, I'm here."
She drew her daughter into her arms and held her against her tightly. "I will always be here." She promised her, and gently ran her hand down the back of the child's head. She starts her song anew with her daughter clutched to her chest, and this time the child sings along with her.
The horses and soldiers would win the battle fine without their general, and with the song drowning out the sound of the storm, the thunder wasn't so scary anymore.
"I love you, mummy . . . "
A scream shattered the dream before Merida had the time to really reflect on it. She lurched upright, sending Rapunzel's chameleon Pascal flying off of her head.
A pure white horse had one of Eugene's feet in his teeth, as was dragging him quickly away no matter how hard he was digging his hands into the dirt to slow the horse down. "Help!" He shouted at her. "Help help help!"
It took her a moment, but she realized what was going on. The princess grabbed her sword and kicked Hiccup. "Up!" She yelled, startling him and Rapuzel awake. "Up! Up up! C'mon!"
They were quick to scramble to their feet and give chase, close behind Merida as she ran. She was the first to reach Eugene and grabbed his wrists, pulling with all her might. Rapunzel was next to offer her help, wrapping her arms around Merida's waist while Hiccup brought up the rear. Their combined strength really wasn't all that much, between two thin girls and a lanky boy like Hiccup, but they definitely gave the horse a run for its money.
"Give . . . me . . . him!" Merida grunted out from between her teeth, and with one last sharp yank from behind them, Eugene's foot came popping out from inside his boot. The four humans immediately went flying backwards, and landed in a pile at the base of a tree.
"Thanks, bud," Hiccup said weakly, and Toothless grunted his reply.
The horse shook off his surprise, tossing his mane and whinnying with disapproval. He got back up onto his feet and charged at them, both ears back in fury.
Merida dropped her sword and flung her hands into the air. She remembered this. The horses at the castle were usually well behaved, but that didn't mean nothing ever spooked them. She knew how to calm her horse Angus down whenever he went into a tizzy, and she hoped with all her might that it would work in this situation too.
"Woah!" She shouted, hands up to ward the horse away. "Woah woah! Easy, laddie, easy!" She made sure to keep herself in between the horse and her friends. He weaved left and right and tried to get past her, but she was stubborn and knew what she was doing. "Easy! Easy, laddie, calm down now! C'mon!"
Eventually, the horse stopped trying to get past Merida to Eugene and finally focused on the girl in front of him. She smiled widely, now sure she could do this. "Thatta lad, yeah. Easy, calm down."
The horse stopped moving, staring at Merida. Or, rather, what was directly behind, Merida. Toothless, easily twice the horse's size, had left Hiccup's side to instead loom over Merida's shoulder and give his best dragon stare. The horse stared at the dragon, and found he had no urge to try and get past the girl any more.
"There we go," Merida praised him cheerfully, completely unaware of scaly fire-breathing backup. "Ain't that better, yeah?"
Rapunzel perked up, encouraged by Merida's success, and edged her way around Toothless to stand up front with the horse. "Now sit!" She ordered, trying to mimic Merida's authoritative stance.
Merida furrowed her eyebrows. "Eh, Rapunzel, tha's not how ye . . . "
"Sit!" Rapunzel repeated, and this time, the horse obeyed. He folded his back legs and sat, looking not at all pleased with the situation.
"What?" Eugene exclaimed from the back.
"Now drop the boot!" Rapunzel ordered. The horse gave her an annoyed glare. "Drop it," she repeated warningly.
The horse gave another grunt of annoyance, but eventually gave in to Rapunzel's orders if only because of the dragon still perched over her shoulder. Eugene's boot now safely on the ground and no longer in any danger, Rapunzel was free to say her friendly hellos to this new strange creature. "Aw," she cooed, cupping the horse's face and rubbing his brow. "You're such a good boy!" She praised. "Ooh, yes you are!"
Merida stepped back to watch the scene play out, and didn't quite look like she knew exactly what to make of it. She'd never seen or heard of a horse act so much like one of her Da's hunting dogs. This was new . . . and weird.
"Do I . . . want to know what's going on right now?" Hiccup asked her.
"Dunno," Merida replied softly. "Not sure I want to neither."
"Aw, he's just tired," Rapunzel informed them. "Spent all day chasing the big bad man all over the place, didn't you, hm?"
"Excuse me?" Eugene snapped, offended. Rapunzel chose to ignore him.
"Nobody appreciates you, do they?" She asked the horse, hugging him around the neck as far as she could reach. "Do they?" The horse shook his head and hugged her back to the best of his ability.
Random songs and oddly intelligent horses. Really. What else was there around here that was unusual?
"Oh come on!" Eugene complained. "He's a bad horse!"
"Isn't this the horse that we were sword fightin' with?" Merida asked the thief. She immediately decided that sentence was the strangest thing she'd ever said.
"Oh stop," Rapunzel rolled her eyes as she scratched the horse under his chin. "He's just a big sweet heart . . . isn't that right, boy? Huh?" She lowered her gaze and noticed a clasp on his saddle straps. The clasp was decorated with the star burst symbol of the kingdom, as well as the name "Maximus", written in shining gold letters. "Maximus," She repeated, the horse neighed in response. "Huh? Maximus? Yeah, that's your name, huh? Aw, good boy, good boy!"
"You've got to be kidding me," Eugene huffed and dropped to the ground, crossing his arms and legs and pouting. Rapunzel once again ignored him, and stepped back to give the horse another wide smile.
"Listen," she began, tilting her body around to hang upside down and look the horse in the eye. "You're with the guards, right? Well . . . see I know you've been chasing Eugene for a really long time, but we kind of . . . need you to help us keep him from getting arrested."
The horse neighed in disapproval.
"I know! I know, that's probably a lot to ask," Rapunzel continued with a sigh. "But this is . . . kind of the biggest day of my life. It's not for forever! Just . . . twenty-four hours. That's it, that's all." She stepped back and urged Eugene to stand back up by grabbing his arm. The man stood, brushed off his pants, and turned to the horse with an expression clearly saying 'I can't believe I'm doing this'. He held out his hand for a handshake.
Maximus the horse glared at the offered hand and turned his head away. Rapunzel bit her lip and leaned forward a little bit. "And it's . . . also my birthday . . . just so you know."
The horse huffed again, but was only able to keep up his tough charade for a few more seconds before he blew his lips and grunted, accepting his fate. He turned back to Eugene and held up one of his front hooves to shake.
Rapunzel beamed. There! With the threat of Eugene's arrest mostly out of the way, she was able to focus solely on her birthday and seeing the lanterns with her friends.
A distant bell chimed the hour. The sound echoed through the trees, and no one really payed attention to it until they noticed Rapunzel's smile go slack. Her eyes were wide with wonder at the sound she'd never heard, slowly making her way toward a break in the trees.
Maximus used this distraction to kick Eugene in the stomach.
Hiccup sighed. "This is going to be a loooong day."