The eaves of the forest closed over a cloaked and hooded figure, dark and solemn in the chilly autumn air. A black horse strode slowly but surely through tenuous flashes of morning sunlight, his strong body familiar with the path before them. His breath rose through patchy sunbeams, curling around branches still dripping with dew. He sighed, every now and then, as was his habit, and the woman riding him loosened her grip on the reins, rubbing a fond hand over his broad neck.
Her steed no more needed guidance than did the sun or moon. He knew the way and she suspected his heart ached for home as plainly as did hers. The crisp grasp of autumn pulled at her nose and she adjusted her cloak, curling into the rich fur with relief. She was warm and she was well-rested, her attention keen. Song birds flitted through the woods around them, brightening the air with their exuberant calls.
The rider, one Emma Swan, was known as an honest and determined woman. She had a reputation for trustworthiness, borne from years of carrying messages and parcels all over the inhospitable mountain range that sat at the center of a dozen nations. It towered, like a great pale ash tree, its grey roots cradling what had once been innumerable towns and villages. She had traveled farther than most, had seen more or the world than was probably wise, and had many stories to tell. She was taller than most women, with strong shoulders and legs, her eyes keen and her hands rough from work. Her fingers were delicate, though, and spattered with ink, more often than not.
The dour pine trees and occasional optimistic birch arched over her, muffling the sound of her mount's hooves. While his shoes could ring like silver bells over cobbled streets, needles and earth took them then, muffling their peal almost entirely as he went. The late autumn sky was brightening, the sun not yet fully risen, rendering the handsome trees around her in bold silhouette. All was expectant, poised in readiness, a world not quite ready for morning to break or for winter to fall.
Emma sighed and secured her grip on the bundle tucked against her tunic, trepidation building as the way stretched ahead of her. She hadn't felt so nervous on this road in a decade, unsure of her reception when she arrived. She tried humming a tune, but it did nothing to settle her.
“It's been ten years since I came this way for the first time, you know,” she muttered, her horse's ears flicking backwards at her words. She coughed, uncertainty building in her chest as she urged the gelding forward. He peered back at her with something approaching pity and she scowled at him.
“Will I tell you, to shorten the road?”
Silence met her, though was soon filled.
A scrawny figure in a threadbare cloak stumbled over a root, catching herself before she fell onto her knees. Spring sunlight caught the undergrowth in timid flashes, captured by the soft edges of beech leaves unfurling above. Emma Swan huffed a sigh and adjusted the pack on her shoulders, gripping the strap tightly.
She picked her way along the path, avoiding puddles and muddy spots, mindful of her thin boots and half rotten socks. She felt a frown knurl her brow as she trudged beneath the creaking eaves of the forest, ever conscious of the package on her back.
She didn't know what she was carrying, in truth. It wasn't too heavy and it didn't make noise as she moved. She doubted it was particularly valuable, as no one in their right mind would have entrusted it to an orphan barely seventeen, otherwise. It meant more than its weight in gold to her, though, if she could deliver it safely. A reliable courier in the mountains could earn enough coin to keep themselves in comfort, now more than ever since the end of the war.
Emma soldiered on, lengthening her stride as much as she could on the treacherous path. Her hair was tied back in a braid, though tendrils had escaped to stick to the back of her neck, catching in the collar of her rough-spun tunic.
Birds thrilled at her, warning her when she strayed too close to their homes, and every now and again she heard something larger moving through the woods. Elk and bears would be slow to approach the path at this time of year, but she longed for a glimpse of them as she went.
Delicate flowers waved in gaps where fallen trees had opened the forest to the sky and light penetrated to the ground. Purple and yellow seemed to predominate, though delicate little blue petals emerged from the grass as well. A thrush appeared in front of her in a complex thrum of wings, peering at her with beady eyes and she paused, taking a moment to catch her breath.
Water burbled over stone nearby and branches voiced their complaint, like old folk grumbling about stiff knees. It was a blessed place, high above the squabbles and the arguments of the villages nestled in the roots of the mountains. Emma let her eyes slide shut for a moment, enjoying the sun that warmed her face and the peace around her.
Peace that was shattered by a hoarse shout. She shook herself, heart thumping in her chest as she instinctively hopped off the path and into the undergrowth, crouching in the shade. A horse was protesting and several people yelling at one another on the path ahead. She swallowed thickly, creeping forward through patches of nettles and briars. She knew this particular trail well, it dropped down a steep bank before meeting the river road and there were few places where she could safely cross the fast water. A detour would not be easy.
Frowning, hoping that she wasn't coming across a robbery, she crept down the bank. She tucked herself against the side of a wide tree trunk and peeped around.
In that moment, she sucked in an amazed breath which may well have been the last she ever drew for only herself.
In a small clearing on the other side of the river, a girl with dark hair was standing guard over a fallen man. He was holding his hand to his nose, blood clearly visible. She had her back turned to him, her arms on her hips as she faced two other men. Her skin was sallow, clearly touched by the sun, and her long hair bound into a neat braid. Four horses whinnied nervously behind her, her left hand holding their guide lines with utter confidence.
She faced two large, hairy men. Their tangled beards and cheap jerkins marked them as the kind of scum that often bothered Emma in taverns, on the rare occasion she could afford to use them. One had a stout cudgel clenched in a fist and was tapping it against the palm of his hand with the casual authority of a born bully. The other was leaning against a tall stave, laughing at the girl.
Emma blinked slowly, crawling forward despite herself. The girl in front of her was tiny, smaller even than Emma, yet held herself like a noble. She was dressed in well-worn riding garb but stood like a queen in the clearing. She was scared, though she hid it well.
Emma frowned, clenching her teeth as the men advanced. The injured man on the ground touched the girl's leg, speaking in a language Emma didn't understand. His tone was pleading, soft and filled with worry. The girl snapped back with fire and frustration, stepping towards the thugs before her.
Several things happened at once, though Emma couldn't understand later why she'd moved. Why she'd risked revealing herself. The first thug raised the cudgel, aiming as though to hit the girl. Emma found her hand wrapped around a hefty stone, curling her fingers and testing the weight in her palm. The second man shifted his grip to lift his stave, glaring at the girl. He grumbled at her, words lost beneath his scowl.
As he took a step forward, Emma found herself standing with an arm outstretched, the stone gone. A grunt, a thump as the thug with the stave fell. Surprise on the faces of the girl and the other man. An opportunity snatched as she drew a knife, holding it to a grimy throat.
She spoke in words Emma didn't comprehend, but the threat was very clear. The big man raised his hands, cautiously flicking his eyes between them both. He stooped to gather his companion, clearly realizing that the situation had escalated beyond a simple robbery. Emma let out a breath as they retreated, standing out beneath the spreading branches of the tree she'd hidden behind.
Brown eyes lifted in the bright sunlight and Emma's heart squeezed itself into a tight knot as the most beautiful gaze she'd ever seen met her own, curious and full of life.
Emma regarded the pair of strangers after the thugs left. She knew she'd have to be careful going forward, they'd looked like the kind who'd hold a grudge. The girl was fussing over the man, whom she called papá. He seemed none the worse for wear, waving her away gently, gesturing to Emma and speaking to his daughter.
She blinked then, turning to face Emma, a slight blush darkening her cheeks as she approached. She spoke, a question in her voice, though Emma couldn't understand her words. The girl tipped her head to the other side, trying again. Those words seemed more familiar to Emma, but she still shook her head, unable to comprehend. She'd heard traders from the south speak similarly, though she'd never had to learn herself. The words sounded lyrical, lilting and well-suited to the spring air.
The girl sighed, though she smiled. She laid a hand on her chest, the light blue fabric of her coat worn but well fettled.
“Regina,” she said, the smile still on her face and blush still gracing her cheeks.
Emma felt her heart stutter a little in her chest at the sight of it, at the sound of her name rolling through the sunlit glade, over the burbling song of running water.
“Uh, Emma,” she replied, her own grubby hand raised clumsily to her chest. She was very conscious of her dirty nails and the torn cuff of her tunic. Regina and her father looked like nobles, though admittedly down on their luck. Why else would they be traipsing through the woods, after all?
Her appearance didn't appear to offend Regina, as she offered a neat curtsy and a wry laugh, waving for Emma to sit beside her father. He had kind eyes and not a lot of hair, the dome of his head tanned by the sun. He introduced himself as Henry, his voice polite as he nodded his head in a neat bow.
Regina was fussing with a bag and Emma turned to regard her. The sunlight caught strands of hair that had escaped her braid, warming burnished copper highlights. The music of birds and the breeze moving through trees sweetened the air and Emma felt her chest tighten.
Regina turned to her, holding out a bright red apple, eyes shining, and Emma wondered if one could fall in love at first sight.
Two days on foot found Emma in a small village, weary but relieved. It was the highest settlement on the western edge of the mountains, located at the confluence of both water and several of the dangerous trails that crossed the ridges of the great peaks above. It had been larger, once, rich with trade and visitors. It has suffered during the war, as had most places, though no battle battle had been fought within two hundred miles. She'd visited the year previous, and so spared no time to sight-see, hurrying to deliver her package and receive her payment. She almost shook apart with excitement at the feeling of three silver coins falling into her hand.
“You did well,” the local apothecary mused, setting the delivery on his table but not opening it. “Since the end of the war, trustworthy folk willing to cross the mountains have been in short supply.” He peered at her, eyes shrewd beneath a curtain of greasy hair. “I may have use of your services again, girl.”
“Swan,” Emma said, trying to keep her voice firm. “Emma Swan is my name and if you have work, I'll take it.”
He shrugged. “Come to me when the leaves are falling. For now, there's a wood carver from the south who may have use of your services.”
Emma left the little shop with a bounce in her step, her heart light. She treated herself to a bowl of warm stew and a mug of ale before she sought the carver. The serving woman clucked fondly at her, congratulating her on her good fortune and patting her cheek. She'd been generous enough to give Emma stale bread once or twice in exchange for kindling, and seemed as pleased with Emma's little coins as she herself was.
She entered the wood carver's shop as the sun was setting, evening light flickering through grimy windows. The scent of varnish and sawdust greeted her as she stepped through the doorway. The last of the daylight caught on the plentiful motes swirling through the air and she sneezed.
The dust settled around carved panels, leaves and animals intertwined. Around stacks of turned plates and bowls, the work practical while also beautiful. Larger boards, unadorned but sturdy, lay piled against one wall below a shelf filled with carved toys. Blocks of resin hung from the rafters, catching the sun in amber depths and sending it around the little shop, golden coins flung all around by a generous hand. Her perusal was interrupted by a soft voice.
“Ah, a visitor?”
“Hello,” Emma replied, wiping at her nose. “My name is Emma.”
A man stepped into the room, smoothing his hands over a leather apron. He was older, grey hair cropped close to the sides of his head. His eyes were kind, though mildly curious.
“I am Marco. How may I be of service?” His accent was thick, rich with the south and Emma's thoughts jogged back to pair she'd met on the road, Regina and her father. She glanced behind him, surprised to see fiddles and other instruments in various states of repair suspended behind the workbench.
Emma squared her shoulders and stuck her hand out.
“I'm a courier, sir, and I can carry your goods where ever they need to go.”
The summer was frantic, after that. Word of mouth spread quickly through the little villages on the edges of the mountains and Emma soon earned a decent reputation for herself. She was known to be swift, strong and certain. By the time they were harvesting the wheat, she had earned enough coin to buy proper boots and felt much less the ragged orphan than she previously had.
Marco had been one of her most consistent patrons. He produced small toys and idols, used in play and prayer. Emma had never seen such fine work and wondered how on earth she was allowed to carry them. But allowed she was, and she found herself returning to the quiet man's cottage frequently.
The light had long faded, autumn's dusk settling around them as they sat in front of a fire in Marco's little parlor. Emma had been caught in a heavy shower and soaked to the skin. He'd treated her to a mug of warm punch and a seat close to the flames.
“Where is your family? he asked, a frown tugging his bushy eyebrows together. “Does your father let you get wet in the rain? Does your mother not see how thin you are?”
Emma shrugged, sipping her punch. “No. They left me in the orphanage when I was a baby. I suppose they're dead.”
Marco was quiet then, studying her for a while. “The war, it did terrible things.”
She nodded, his lilting accent a reminder of how far he was from his own home and she wondered what calamities had forced him to leave.
When next she saw Regina, a dusting of snow had sighed over the ground. The muddy paths in the town had frozen solid after a hard frost, and Emma was hopping over ruts, making something of a game of it. A horse whinnied and her eyes lifted in curiosity.
Regina was mounted on a grey pony, wrapped in her blue coat and a dark cloak. She was guiding five horses behind her, her father bringing up the rear.
Emma's heart, often unreliable, tripled its dance in her chest. She missed her step, stumbling into a deep footprint. She watched the pair move through the little hamlet, one hand on the side of a wooden house to steady herself.
Regina was as beautiful as Emma remembered, even with her cheeks pinched red by the cold air. She was serious, though, holding her face still as she went. She was imposing, regal and confident even in her worn clothes. Emma pressed herself back, not wanting to be seen. She tucked herself beneath a low eave and behind a water butte, struck dumb.
To her surprise, Marco crossed paths with the pair, carrying a stack of planed boards. Regina held the horses still and Henry stepped to the side, nodding his bald head politely. Marco muttered a greeting, and the other man's eyes lit up. They spoke for a moment, Regina turning to regard the conversation with excited eyes, and Emma swallowed thickly.
She suspected the pair were staying in the inn, so she avoided it, shyness gripping her. She made her way to Marco's instead, heart filled with curiosity. He was, as always, glad to see her and fed her rye bread and cloud berry jam.
“Marco,” she asked, after a while, “do you know the girl and the man with the horses from earlier?”
“Ah,” he chuckled. “Not at all. But he lived a while in my country. The girl was born there.”
Emma leaned forward, feeling her eyes widen. “The south?”
“South,” he nodded. “He was from far, far away. A beautiful island just off the coast, in fact. But he married a woman from close to where I was born and moved to her family's home. She died,” he added, touching his forehead in reverence. “The girl speaks my language as well, better than her father in fact,” he laughed. “It's good to hear it again.”
Emma chewed her lip, frowning briefly before lifting her eyes to meet Marco's.
“Will you teach me your language, a bit?”
Eyes wide, but gentling to a fond kind of humor, he nodded. “Si, Emma.”
Emma spent the winter in the village, sleeping in the hayloft over Marco's workshop. He owned a pair of milk cows and an ass, whose gentle warmth kept her comfortable during the long nights. She chopped fire wood and fetched water by day, and pored over Marco's old maps by night. They were often incomplete, great swathes of the land left blank, and Emma found herself intrigued by those unknown places, especially when she realized she'd probably already visited some of them. She could probably fill those gaps in better than most.
The little village was nestled halfway down a slope, on the edge of one of the spreading fingers of the mountain. On a clear day, you could see the great western plains stretching into the distance, all the way to the horizon. The land below, where Regina lived, was shrouded in mist and fog for most of the winter. The air was more damp down there, the villagers said, not worth visiting.
Yet she yearned for precisely that. To visit and see Regina. To speak to the beautiful girl again.
So, ensconced with Marco by night, she learned her words slowly but surely. His language was lyrical and very beautiful. He taught her cradle songs and tavern ballads; numbers and the names of trees. The way he sang was different to what she knew, exciting and new, and she lapped up the chance to learn. He told her stories, too, though often in her own tongue, setting the desire to explore new lands aflame within her chest. He was patient and kind, generous as well. Not everyone would have given her use of their loft.
Eventually spring reached their little town, new light gripping the snow until it creaked underfoot and flashing ribbons emerged from beneath the great fields of ice. The sun grew warm once more and flowers returned, followed closely by the flies.
“It is beautiful,” Marco sighed as they walked to a promontory overlooking the plains. “So lovely.” He was quiet for a long moment. “Once, I didn't think I'd see another spring. I was your age, Emma, and taken for the dulce's army. None of the boys conscripted with me survived. But they knew I could work wood. They needed reeds for their flutes and spokes for their wagons. Furniture for the officers.”
He shook his head, sighing deeply. His breath rose in the crisp air, curling before him.
“I know it's tedious to listen to stories from before you were in this world,” he said, lifting a shoulder. “I never thought that kings would fall and nations collapse. The great cities are in ruins. Those of us lucky enough to survive ran. We are fortunate to have found somewhere to make a life.”
Emma blinked, frowning at the notion. At the implication that Marco should have considered himself lucky, given all he'd lost. He'd worked as an artisan in a city with paved streets and gilded spires, hosting lords and ladies in his workshop. She knew he'd once been married, and had once had a son. She couldn't imagine losing all that, having never had any family in the first place. She was a sympathetic person, though, and her heart went out to him.
“We have plenty of food here, and timber for fires. We didn't lose anything in the war, except trade,” she mused. “And the folk who work as soldiers, but they were never forced to fight.” She turned to Marco. “It's right to take people in when you have plenty. Besides, you can carve wood better than anyone here. It's good to have you here.”
Marco smiled at that, a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Oh, Emma. I was the most renowned maker of instruments in my home. Princes and duchesses sought me.” He laughed,his voice a little hollow. “These trinkets are nothing compared.” He was quiet for a long moment. “It's like your friends, you know? Once, they bred the finest racehorses in all the land.”
“I'd like to see that,” she confided, and Marco grinned.
He threw a hand out, gesturing to the horizon. “Walk five days that way, maybe four for my little hare here,” he grinned. “And there are warm fields with green grass as far as the eye can see. Fine horses and fat cows.”
Emma peered over the horizon, a fuzzy grey line in the spring chill. A storm was sitting there, still trying to decide which way to go. A thrill down her spine and a lump in her throat suggested where her destiny lay and she steeled herself, nodding firmly.
Emma kept her ears open and discovered that Regina and her father likely lived in a little valley to the south and west. When spring found firmer feet, she manufactured an excuse to go, stubbornly tramping through barely thawed drifts of snow. Her boots were warm and her step sure, though, and so she moved quickly.
She left her delivery at a farm just beyond the tree line and asked after the horse breeders. She was pointed west and ambled down the path, bouncing along the grassy verge. Half a day later, she spied a collection of buildings, half pulled asunder by time, straddling a glinting run of water.
She paused, a bit uncertain. This was no home for nobility! Even those who'd fallen from grace would surely live somewhere more grand? Half the buildings needed new thatch and all needed lime wash. A pair of rangy goats grazed in front of the only building issuing smoke from a chimney and Emma found herself wondering if she had lost her way. A greyhound barked at her, the nervy dog hardly threatening and she felt her heart sink with disappointment at having come to the wrong place.
However, she still made her way to the front door but found herself surprised by a wide smile and shining dark eyes when it flew open of its own accord. Regina stepped outside, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Loose, it reached almost to her waist and Emma found herself utterly entranced and completely delighted.
“Regina,” she breathed, swallowing her nerves. “Mi chiamo Emma,” she said, her voice trembling and a bit uncertain as she introduced herself as Marco had taught her. Her accent was horrible, she knew, but Regina's eyes lit up and she stepped forward, offering a delicate hand in greeting.
Warm fingers met her own as Regina returned her greeting and Emma felt her heart flutter with joy. The sense of something beginning, something inexorable and wonderful, filled her chest as she entered the little house.
Marco had taught her phrases, ways to explain who she was and what she did. She spoke haltingly and without confidence, and sometimes Regina couldn't understand a particular word or idiom. But they adapted quickly, the household welcoming her warmly. Regina was an intelligent person, well able to parse Emma's broken speech. Señor Henry was as bright as his daughter, well able to understand his departed wife's language, and the old woman who cooked for them seemed tickled with amusement. She didn't speak the language that Emma was learning, though, and they communicated exclusively in stolen morsels and wooden spoons. She was truly ancient and seemed to treat Regina's father more like a little boy than a noble man.
The evening found them in front of a blazing fire. They were sipping a pleasant, warm drink and chatting as best they could. Regina was patient, teaching Emma the names of objects in the kitchen. She seemed happy to see her, which softened Emma's heart more than she could say. They sat close together, the fire warm against their shins as they learned about one another. Señor Henry even treated them to a couple of songs as the night wore on. They were different, again, to those Marco had sung, strange and lilting but no less wonderful to Emma's ears.
Eventually though, yawns interrupted conversation and the Señora Rosa brought a cot into the room, fussing with blankets and linens. A bed was prepared in front of the fire in short course, Señor Henry and the cook retiring with smiles.
Regina hid a yawn behind the back of her hand, tipping her head in apology, which Emma waved away.
“Sweet dreams,” she said, suddenly cursing her lack of softer phrases and gentle sentiments. Regina understood the intention, if not the words themselves, and placed a hand on her shoulder. Warm lips pressed to her cheek and if Emma had thought she might be in love already, she was now utterly certain.
Regina and her father kept horses, Emma knew, and yet the reality of being near the beasts was still quite intimidating. After a quick breakfast, Regina had brought her to the stables, introducing her to eight fine animals. They were all tall and strong, with elegant legs and graceful necks. Emma didn't know much about horses, being unfamiliar with any other than the stocky ponies the foresters used to move timber. These were so big and she couldn't understand how Regina could move so confidently amongst the giants. The scent of straw and animal was strong, but pleasant, dust floating in the tentative spring sunlight that lit the pale timber of the walls.
The horses all had names and all clearly adored Regina, reaching out to muzzle her hair or nip her shoulder as she introduced them. Emma was wary, but couldn't help but relax when Regina took her hand. That relief was short lived, however, as her host saddled a big mare named Argento and led her from the stall. They made their way into the yard, where Regina turned to her with a mischievous smile before hoisting herself into the saddle with no apparent effort. She then reached down and guided Emma to sit behind her, tucking her feet into the stirrups.
Emma was taller than Regina, her chin able to rest on her shoulder comfortably. She wasn't quite sure where to place her hands, not wanting to cause offense, but Regina settled them firmly on her sides, patting her reassuringly. A click of her tongue and they rolled into a gentle walk, Emma wobbling a little at the unfamiliar sway of the beast below. They exited the old mill and followed a path through an overgrown orchard, the sound of bird song filling the morning around them. Emma peered through the bare trees, spying a grey stone wall around the periphery, hinting at the former grandeur of the estate. The first hints of blossoms had begun to appear on the apple trees, twisted limbs brightened by the pinkish buds. It was truly beautiful, more so because it drew a happy sigh from Regina, who relaxed in the saddle, leaning against Emma.
They passed through an archway, iron gates lying open on rusted hinges, and through a small copse of ash trees. The plains soon opened before them, catching Emma's breath in her chest. She wrapped her hands more securely around Regina's waist, entranced by the vast acres ahead. She had glimpsed them from the mountain but they seemed much more expansive, much more real, from where she sat. The grass was yellow and brittle, very much on the wrong side of winter, but Emma noticed green stripes crossing the flat ground. There were paths, grass short but green, cutting across winter's mark with aplomb. Spring was showing signs that it was approaching, in the soft green shoots that teased their way into the light.
Regina leaned forward and eased the horse beneath her into a canter, her backside leaving the saddle as Emma bounced like a sack of turnips. Emma gave a yelp of fear, flinging her arms around the slender waist in front of her. Regina made a sound half fond and half annoyed and slowed to a walk again. Sheepish, Emma tried to draw back but her hand was held firmly, fingers made to curl around Regina's, fine leather gloves warm against the cool morning air. Regina patted her hand, murmuring that it was alright, or so Emma thought. She settled back into the saddle and turned Argento to the side with a gentle click of her tongue.
She led them to a field with a post in the center, where the grass had been flattened in a wide circle. It was a practice ring, Emma supposed, having seen similar layouts before. Regina clucked once more and Argento ducked her head, allowing her rider to dismount over the her neck with a graceful kick. Regina turned to Emma, halting her attempt to dismount with a gentle pat to the thigh. Regina adjusted Emma's feet in the stirrups and her hands on the reins, firmly instructing her to straighten her back. With simple commands, and firm hands shoving her up out of the saddle in a bouncing motion, Emma learned how to trot.
It wasn't the most comfortable experience, but Emma was not one to shy from a task. She leaned into the bobbing rhythm of the horse below, cautiously bouncing out of her seat with. Regina jogged at her side the entire time, guiding Argento and clucking her tongue. She kept bright eyes trained on Emma, teaching her with enthusiasm. Her voice rang clearly in the spring air, a light sweat shining on her brow as she went. Emma found herself laughing as well, incredulous when she actually began to feel confident in the saddle.
When Emma was able to trot around the field by herself, Regina deemed the lesson finished. Happy with her progress, Regina helped her from the saddle and threw her arms around her, clearly delighted. Emma wrapped her arms around Regina's waist, legs slightly unsteady, marveling at the sensation of quickened breathing and the hint of moisture where their cheeks pressed together. Regina drew back and lifted a finger, urging Emma to wait at the edge of the field before she glided back into the saddle. She made a soft sound and shifted her weight, not flicking the reins as Emma had seen some riders do.
And oh, she was glorious in the saddle! A picture of grace and skill unsurpassed. She barely touched the reins, barely rested in the saddle. She straightened her legs and lowered her head, trusting her mount and moving with her. They cantered around the practice circle twice before Regina let out a happy laugh and made for the main path, playful eyes sparkling as she glanced over her shoulder at Emma.
Emma scrambled after them, a grin pulling her face as she found a spot to watch Regina's antics. She'd made her way to one of the straight tracks, turning Argento onto the smooth path with an easy tug at the reins. Regina lifted her gaze to the path, pausing for a moment before easing forward over the mare's neck, the pair building to a flat out gallop faster than Emma would have expected. Regina met the explosion of energy and thudding gait with utter confidence, absorbing tiny changes in balance into her posture. Her knees were flexed and thighs taught, muscle visibly working as rider and mount ate the distance beneath them. There was a broad smile on Regina's face, and she called joyfully to the horse below her, voice high on the chilly spring air.
Hooves thudded over the sleeping turf, echoing through the quiet morning, and Emma Swan felt herself once more in awe of the girl before her. She guided her mount with complete confidence, flying over the cold ground with aplomb. The great plain, empty but for a few sheep, proved a perfect canvas for her artistry and Emma was only delighted to act as a spectator.
When the mare's legs had been stretched, Regina led them all to a stream and took the saddle from the horse, giving her a quick brush before guiding Emma to the grass. It was still chilly, the spring dew yet heavy on new blades. They sat on Regina's spread cloak, pointing out things in each other's language and watching the interplay of clouds and light. Sunlight came in teasing flashes, warming them one moment and retreating behind thick banks the next. In the distance, miles away, the sky seemed to melt into the land, rain falling over low hills. The mountains were visible, though obscured more often than not.
Regina laughed, having pointed out a flock of jackdaws, and Emma retaliated by naming the watercress. Regina seemed unimpressed by that so named Emma's nose, touching it gently. Her fingers lingered perhaps a moment longer than strictly necessary, her eyes flitting over Emma's features, a smile curling her lips. She gazed up at her from beneath shy lashes, wanting but a little uncertain, no more than Emma herself.
Emma's heart, half crazed after the morning, almost leapt out of her chest at that. She lifted her own hand, running her thumb over the proud rise of Regina's lower lip.
“Mouth,” she said, her touch reluctant to leave, lasting far longer than was proper. She glanced down at Regina's lips, aching to kiss her. She moved to draw away, but a gentle hand stopped her, Regina holding her close.
Framed by hooded eyes and pulled into a small grin, that mouth met her own, the day soon lost to soft sighs and the laughter of joyful discovery.
“I knew, though, that I couldn't stay,” Emma said, shifting in her comfortable saddle. “They had so little then. The mill was in a rotten state. There was only one building fit to sleep in.”
Her mount chuffed beneath her, clearly not very impressed. She smiled at the sound, idly toying with his dark mane.
“So I left, taking braids from the horses to tell people in the villages about them. It almost broke my heart, leaving her, but they had barely enough for themselves and I had nothing to offer. I was small and pretty weak, then.”
The track widened now, turning onto what passed as the main road in these parts. It was broad and more or less flat, able to convey carts and wagons if needed. A noise of complaint broke the air and she spoke again, attempting to distract and soothe.
“So I decided that I needed something to offer, before I could go back. Marco was wonderful. He taught me well and gave good advice. I spent the summer running errands and practicing my words with him. I saw some wonderful things, but the best was after the summer had ended.” She closed her eyes, a fond memory surfacing.
“It was the Harvest Festival when I saw her next.”
The sun was slow to descend into the west at that time of year, lingering to warm stone walls and scorch the grass. It took on a golden hue as it sank, burnishing each hedge and tree it touched. The cloudless sky hung over all, robins egg at the horizon deepening like the coldest depths of a mountain lake it its height. Cattle lay chewing their cud in the warmth, peering at the sky with disinterest, as though such evenings would last forever.
Emma found herself consistently entertained by how short memory could be as she trotted through the square. The servants and stable boys, the accountants and the farriers were perched on benches and barrels against a wall, soaking up the last of the sun. As though snow didn't exist and winter would never come again. Laughter, song and the scent of wine welcomed her to the little festival. She waved at some people in the crowd, smiling when several folk called her name. She'd spotted Señor Henry earlier and suspected she knew where his daughter could be found.
Emma crept into the stables, her heart thumping with delight at the sight of Regina. The familiar beats of caring for her beloved mounts seemed effortless against the scent of warm hay and horse. Goldie, one of their new geldings, butted her belly cheerfully, his great head gentle against Regina's body. His coat was heavy with the road as she ran her fingers through it, following the tracks with a soft brush. She hummed as she worked, an idle ear catching the songs and mirth outside. Her cheeks were flushed from happiness and her hair rumpled, her face relaxed and happy.
Despite the fact that Emma would have gladly watched her all day, she cleared her throat and Regina turned, blinking with surprise before a giant smile lit her face. She strode forward, flinging her arms around Emma's neck and gripping her tightly.
“Mio amore” Emma greeted her, cheeks stretching into a fond smile. “Bellissima!”
Regina drew back and rolled her eyes, shoving Emma's shoulder gently, muttering something that may have involved accusing her of flattery. She still pressed a soft kiss to her cheek, though, as she handed Emma the curry comb to tidy away. She selected a pick from the wall, clucking her tongue as she lifted Goldie's foot to examine his hoof. She was gentle but certain in her movements as she navigated around the big animal. Emma took in the sight of her lean body, the elegant curve of her neck and the softness of her cheek. She looked older, somehow, more an adult than she had that spring. It suited her well, her movements hinting at strength and experience.
Emma grabbed a shovel and began mucking around the proud steed, earning a very fond glance. Within half an hour, the beasts were clean and the stables deemed acceptable. Regina handed her a saddle and lifted a pile of tack, beckoning her to follow.
They walked shoulder to shoulder, Emma delighted that her practice with Marco allowed them to share a proper conversation. The way that Regina excitedly told her about the new garden they'd planted hinted that she was pleased with Emma's progress, too. They ambled through the sunny afternoon, approaching a whitewashed cottage surrounded by rose bushes. Little naked children pelted around, screeching and giggling with joy. They were watched by a crone smoking a pipe, her beetled eyes glinting in the light. She nodded and pointed the stem towards a little shed.
In the doorway, a young man with ferocious sunburn was chewing a piece of thread, working it off one spool and onto another. Behind him, a toothless man with glittering eyes and a stooped back was oiling a beautiful saddle. Regina sketched a curtsy, while Emma clumsily attempted a bow. The young man smiled too, crinkling the same kind eyes as the older man.
The folk here were from even farther north than even Emma, and she had a hard time following their words. Regina was at a complete loss, but the saddler was clearly used to not being understood. He scratched a piece of charcoal against a slate and pointed at the tack they carried, showing Regina the numbers. Regina spent a moment considering his offer, her brow furrowed and eyes lit with concern. She swallowed and left their gear for repair, motioning for Emma to do the same.
She seemed a little subdued then, though she still tucked her hand into Emma's as they wandered back towards the fair. It was something Emma was all too familiar with, the uncertainty that she could afford what she needed. She chose not to bring it up, though, rather enjoying the excited air with her companion. From what little she'd gleaned, it seemed as though Regina and her father had been forced out of her mother's estate shortly after she'd died, a cousin with a few dozen soldiers having arrived to evict them. It seemed that Henry's home had been utterly destroyed during the war, so with few options available, they'd headed north and used the last of their wealth to buy the crumbling mill.
Regina seemed to be craving distraction, though, unwilling to dwell on their very tenuous financial situation. They took in the sights around them, the stalls overflowing with crafts and foods from many neighboring lands. Leather shoes and belts; glazed pottery; bronze buckles and tin pots. Folk from all over bustled, talking loudly as they wandered. Emma was glad to see all the activity, in honesty. She was growing rather fond of the village, her base of operations in recent times. The little town was well-placed to host travelers, or couriers for that matter, and as word spread more people gathered. Life returned, the little town reinvigorated. It was so different from the long, lean years after the war, the hungry winters of her childhood. There was a sense of enthusiasm and hope that had been absent for as long as she'd been alive.
Regina's fingers were warm in her own, her head of dark hair bobbing from side to side, exclamations of delight escaping at frequent intervals. Surely, Emma supposed, Regina had seen grander and more wondrous sights on the journey from her homeland? The lands to the south were said to be warm and fruitful, with endless summers and so much game you could become fat in your own garden. It was charming, though, Regina's untarnished enjoyment of simple pleasures. Emma longed to treat her to some of the trinkets, to provide her with a little gift, but her own purse was light.
The sound of music caught their ear and Emma found herself pulled along. A broad man with a messy grey beard was standing on half an overturned barrel, a felt cap adorned with a pheasant feather perched on his head. He held in his arms a beautiful, complicated device which issued music the likes of which Emma had never heard. He turned a little wheel with one hand with with the other tapped keys as though he was playing an accordion.
She blinked, not quite able to understand how one man was creating all these sounds. Regina seemed equally entranced peering forward.
“Guarda, Emma!” she laughed, commanding Emma to look. “Che cos'è quello?” Emma didn't have a clue what it was, either, so she just shrugged. They sat on the grass, shoulders touching as they listened. Young men and women danced in front of them, sweethearts stealing kisses as they went. A girl with hair the color of summer barley tripped over her own feet, only to be caught by a man with dark skin and a halo of black hair. They laughed together, spinning in the little space in front of the music man. Locals and visitors mingled, sharing wine and laughter in the sunshine.
Regina shifted, placing her chin on Emma's shoulder and she reached for her, tugging her hand into her lap and playing with her elegant fingers. As much work as she did in the stables, Regina still had the most beautiful hands Emma had ever seen. Still had the softest touch she'd ever felt. Regina wrapped an arm around her waist fondly, pressing a kiss to the side of her head.
Regina was strong, but still petite behind her, no more free from the shadow of adolescence than Emma herself. The sun warmed their backs and they watched the music man play and the revelers dance around. One or two eyebrows were raised at the sight of the pair of girls wrapped up together, but no remarks were passed.
Emma turned, eyes full of life and mirth catching her own, and she placed a long kiss on full lips, her heart fit to burst from joy.
Regina gasped, drawing both her hands to her face with excitement as they watched one of the highlights of the day. Ten jockeys lined up to gallop around the town, circling from one church to another. They faced many obstacles, fences and ditches in particular, as well at the occasional drunkard. Emma and Regina were close to the start, and had watched as the rope pinning them back was dropped. Time seemed to halt for a long moment, before the riders urged their mounts forward, as muscle bunched and the proud creatures flung themselves into a flat run.
Regina stayed for a few moments as the racers retreated, watching with a knowledgeable eye, before she grabbed Emma's hand and pelted away. She was wearing her worn blue coat, her hair escaping from its long braid, and she was much faster than Emma had expected. Given the fact that she spent a good portion of every day out with the horses, mind, Emma really should have expected no less.
They dodged around knots of people, flying over ruts in the path and errant chickens. Regina shrieked when she narrowly avoided colliding with a woman carrying a basket of bread and Emma whooped, pulling her to one side and opening her stride beneath snapping bunting.
Emma was faster on foot, she knew, though Regina seemed surprised as she proved the fact. They bolted over the ground, past burned out homesteads and cottages with new roofs. Past minor nobles and peasants alike. Wood smoke and the scent of spices filled the air, the sounds of the festival loud around them as they raced across town towards the finish line. They reached the crowd, elbowing their way as close to the front as they could manage.
Hooves thundered, the ground shaken by the screams of people around them as three horses flew towards the finish, foaming at the mouths. A great cheer went up as the race finished, glasses clinking as bets changed hands and condolences were offered. The victor wheeled his horse in a wide circle, flinging his fist into the air and cheering his victory. Grooms ran to him, helping him from the horse and taking his mount off to cool down.
“They are capable,” Regina sighed, “but I would have beaten them all, on the right horse.”
Emma blinked, eyeing the coin purse at stake, hefted by the winning man in one hand, the other waving to the gathered crowd. “Well, find the right horse, then, and beat them all next year.”
Regina laughed. “Oh, you make it sound easy.”
Emma shrugged. “You make it sound difficult, so we're even.”
They spent the night together in the stables. Regina and her father had secured a room in the inn and though he had raised a dubious eyebrow when Regina had claimed she wanted to watch the horses, he allowed it.
They spread a blanket on soft straw in the loft, then added Regina's coat and Emma's ragged cloak. The soft happenings below were soothing, the animals happily going about their business. They had cleaned the stables before bed, fetching fresh straw and water and leaving very content horses below them.
Regina had gently turned Emma around, braiding her hair for her with expert fingers, before pressing her into their little nest with a kiss. They curled together, limbs entwined and lips close enough to exchange gentle little touches.
“Come home with us, Emma,” Regina said, her short nails stroking just below the hem of Emma's untucked shirt. “We have little money, but our name is respected. It will be hard work, but I think we can breed good horses here. Almost as good as back home.”
Her sable head shifted, a long kiss pressed to the crease beneath Emma's jaw. “Come with me.”
Emma frowned for a long minute, desire flaring within her. Wasn't this what she'd always wanted? A place to stay and decent people to be around? She ran a hand over Regina's own braid, tracing the rise and fall of the twists idly.
She knew, though, that she was no more than another mouth to feed. Ultimately a nuisance. If she stayed with them, how long before they realized? How long before they turned her out? Wasn't it better to ration these moments of happiness, to spread them out rather than lose them altogether? Besides, Regina would surely marry someday, find some handsome boy who'd give her children.
Regina lifted herself on an elbow, an eyebrow raised. “Emma?”
“I have nothing to bring,” she said, her words stilted and hesitant. “No skills. No money.”
“There is more to life than money,” Regina said, hotly. “We can feed another person. We are not impoverished.”
“I am, though,” Emma said, biting her lip. “So I will come back, to you, when I have money, or a trade.” She frowned at that. “Maybe my letters?”
Regina frowned, her eyes watery in the low light. She cupped Emma's face and kissed her tenderly.
“Pride. How awful.” Emma wound her fingers into Regina's soft hair, sighing into her warm skin. “You've made a promise, Emma Swan. Mind you keep it.”
“It was six months before I saw her again,” Emma chuckled. “It had been busy. I had spent the winter on the other side of the mountain, running over the marshes. But she'd been busier!”
Emma spent the winter in an area to the southern end of the mountain. The great rivers and cascades that drew the snow to the sea widened quickly there, leading to marshy land that spread for miles. It was inhospitable, except at the very edges, where willow and hazel could grow. The water was high at that time of the year, pools of molten silver covering dead grass and fallen trees. At the edges of the woods, the trees dipped their roots into the cold water, trunks black and covered in moss. The sound of little waves lapping against bark and dripping from branches was never absent, accompanying the herons that stalked through on long, spindly legs. Basket weavers and fisher-folk dotted the landscape, nestled in turf cottages. The recent arrival of a family of ferry folk allowed for salt to enter the region and delicate preserved fish to leave it.
With the arrival of the ferries came easier passage through the marshes. Certain plants grew there that were valued by apothecaries and Emma found herself trained and dispatched with waxed linen and glass vials. She had a pair of waxed trousers but they were little help against the pools of water and running streams that covered the ground.
It had been miserable. The flies, which by rights should have been dead, seemed to sustain themselves on her blood alone. She was constantly covered in itchy bumps and the damp permeated every part of her. She spent the winter cold, lonely and generally miserable and as soon as the mountain pass back home opened up, she practically ran up it.
The apothecary's eyes had fallen out of his eyes at the sight of her, though he'd been pleased with the fruits of her labors. She must have surpassed his expectations, because he didn't even make a token effort to swindle or underpay her.
“My, I must send you back next year, Miss Swan!”
Emma grunted. “If you want that, it'll be three times the price.”
He rolled his eyes at that but still gave her a little tub of ointment to soothe the worst of the bites. Marco had taken one look at her and offered to burn her clothes, to which Emma had almost agreed.
She spent a couple of days resting in the village, catching up with acquaintances and friends. She ordered a new tunic, though, treating herself to a better fabric than she would have previously dared. She waited until her welts had gone down and sped down the mountain. She'd even paid for one of the village women to trim her hair, smoothing out the worst of the snarls and neatening her unruly curls. She was fully able to admit that she wanted to look nice for Regina, to impress her after her long absence.
The road was busy, she noted, once she emerged into the foothills. The higher paths she frequented were still the exclusive domain of the birds, but she found herself meeting a few other wanderers as she descended. They were, they revealed, headed to the south, where some baron or another had declared a huge wedding feast to celebrate his daughter's marriage.
“There'll be jousting and all!” a woman told her, dragging a mule after her. “I spent the whole winter crocheting, so perhaps I can sell something to the southerners.”
Her work was lovely, Emma thought, from good wool. She didn't doubt she'd part with her wares for a pretty penny. She didn't think there was much point in heading herself, though. Couriers outside the mountains were able to use horses, after all. She'd never compete with them on foot.
She came to rest in a little inn, deciding to camp outside beside their wood pile, as she sometimes did. The pair that ran the way-house were fair, sometimes giving her food in exchange for chores. That said, she did have her winter wages and was willing to part with a few copper coins to fill her belly.
The inn was busier than normal and she was amazed to see five big, burly men at a table. They wore leather armor and she saw swords leaning against the wall. Eyes wide, she blinked at them in what must have been a fairly rude manner.
“Stop staring, Emma Swan,” a voice scolded. An old woman scowled at her, drying her hands on her apron. “You'd think you'd never seen a knight, before.”
In fact she hadn't, had only heard stories about them. Squaring her shoulders she marched over and introduced herself, much to their surprise. They clearly weren't used to young women approaching them but they took her appearance in stride. They'd greeted her warmly, fascinated by her tales of the mountains. She was equally enthralled by their stories of fighting and adventuring.
One of them, a tall man with sandy hair named David, was on the receiving end of quite a ribbing from his companions. The long and short of it was that he's spotted a herd of feral horses a day previous and had tried to capture one. He'd failed rather spectacularly, ending up in the bottom of a ditch with torn trousers, and his friends weren't going to let him forget it any time soon.
The hair rose on the back of Emma's neck and she grilled the knights for any details they could remember, her mind spinning. It sounded like the horses were to the north of Regina's farm, likely in the foothills of the hills she'd seen from the lake. She drew out a scrap of linen, drawing a map as the knights described the area, much to their fascination. They provided her with another scrap, asking for her to show them the best way to reach their destination and she obliged. She was quite surprised when they paid for her dinner, as well as a few mugs of ale, in thanks.
Belly full, Emma still slept fitfully that night, head spinning with possibilities and carefully guarded hopes.
She arrived at the mill late the next day, Regina embracing her for a long time, her arms firm and desperate. She smelled like straw and soil, rich brown earth clinging to her boots and dusting her forehead. Emma's heart sped up, and then slowed. A sense of peace and belonging settling into the deepest parts of her. Her reasons for staying away, for keeping her distance, were growing more difficult to recall, she was willing to admit.
“Emma,” Regina whispered, her voice thick with emotion, trembling with joy and relief. Emma buried her face in her soft neck, kissing the fragrant skin gently. Regina responded by pressing a long kiss against her lips, sighing happily. She drew back and spent a long moment just looking at her, taking in her face and hair, even smoothing a gentle hand over her new tunic.
“Come," she murmured, eventually, "you must be hungry.”
She'd been greeted warmly by Señor Henry and Señora Rosa, immediately handed a plate of stew and fresh bread. She was eager to tell them about the horses, repeating the story as best she could. Regina was, predictably, incredibly excited at the prospect of the feral horses. So much so that she decided on the spot to head out to look for them in the morning.
An argument ensued, Señor Henry looking worried. He gently tired to dissuade her, switching to his mother tongue when his protestations fell on deaf ears. Regina softened then, taking his hands gently and kissing his cheek. She was firm though, insisting in rapid, rolling words until he acquiesced. He headed to bed not long after, leaving Regina to settle Emma in her bed beside the fire.
“He's worried,” Emma said, softly. She was, as well. They were settled side by side, hands entwined as they studied the flames leaping in the hearth. Two of the dogs were asleep at their feet, snoring softly in the warm air. Emma lifted their hands and pressed a kiss to Regina's knuckles.
“He is,” Regina agreed. “But it will be fine. I asked him to come with me.” She was quiet for a moment, eyes cast down, biting her lip. “Can I ask a favor, Emma?”
“Of course I'll go with you,” Emma breathed, leaning forward.
Regina blinked, a guilty expression crossing her face as she grimaced.
“Emma, mio amore, you might not be able to keep up with us on horseback,” she said, delicately. Emma frowned, though Regina wasn't wrong. She could barely canter, still, despite her lover's best efforts to teach her. She was improving, slowly but surely, though Emma's pride was slightly stung to have so fine a point put on it. Ego bruised, but not battered, she kissed Regina softly, tasting the warmth of her mouth and sighing happily. They parted after a long moment, Regina running a hand over her cheek.
“You're not wrong, love. How can I help?”
Emma grumbled a bit as she mucked out the stables the following morning. One of the bays, whose name Emma could never recall, was regarding her with something approaching amusement and she almost stuck her tongue out at him. The favor Regina had requested had been much less heroic than Emma would have preferred, if she were honest. Regina had already readied the horses, rushing back inside to get some food. Señor Henry ambled into the stables, a dark cloak around his shoulders and a smile on his face.
“Good morning, Señor,” Emma said, politely.
Señor Henry nodded at her, smiling with amusement. "Good morning, Emma. You're doing mighty work here!" He grinned at her, eyes twinkling. "Did my daughter beg a favor?" Emma didn't bother responding to that, merely lifted an eyebrow. They shared a fond smile, the camaraderie of two people who would do anything for Regina. “She is good, no? At making us do what she wants us to.”
Emma laughed a little, chagrined. “I don't mind helping, and you'll have a grand adventure.”
Señor Henry chuckled at that, running a hand down his mount's neck and glancing fondly at her. “You are good to her,” he said, kindly. “She smiles when she sees you.”
Emma blushed, ducking her head and pausing in her efforts. “I am always happy to see her, too.”
He stepped forward and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Before the war, I think I would have worried about her loving you.” Emma swallowed thickly at that. “She would have been raised a princess, to marry a noble man. That life is hard to escape, you know? Much is expected of you.”
He stepped back, gesturing to the stables and the walls. They were well-built, from fine seasoned timber and the windows even had panes of glass in them. Regina had taken to hanging scraps of ribbon and little curios around the stalls, as well, suiting the personality of the animal within each. It smelled of horse and straw, strong but not unpleasant, and was very clean and cheerful. There were, Emma mused, much worse places one could end up.
“But fortune brought us here. No one cares that my father was a king, here. It is good.” He smiled at Emma, affectionate and kind and more noble than she could have imagined. He seemed every inch a prince then, proud and magnanimous as he stood in the stable. "And my daughter can be happy with her horses and with her Emma."
Emma's grip clenched on the shovel, not sure what to say to Regina's father. He almost seemed pleased about the state of affairs, his face light and unburdened. They were interrupted by the woman herself, who smiled brightly at the pair, grabbing her father's elbow and steering him out. She paused at the door, holding out a hand for Emma.
“Be safe,” Emma urged, kissing her smartly. “I'll be here when you come home.”
Regina kissed her back, a moan emerging as she had to pull away.
“I'll be back soon.”
They returned two days later, Regina sporting a black eye and a horrible cut over her lip. Henry had a gash on his cheek and and they were both filthy, but triumph shone from their faces. Walking behind them, glorious and proud, was the finest stallion Emma had ever seen. He was eyeing them warily, ears flicking back, though he gentled with a touch of Regina's hand.
“Emma, meet Rocinante.”
Emma sighed, the road finally tilting downwards. “We must stop to eat soon,” she murmured to herself, peering down with concern. “I'm so distracted remembering that I forgot!”
She led her steed to the side of a stream and carefully dismounted, stiff after a morning in the saddle.
“Rest, now, after lunch I'll tell you about the next festival.”
Emma and Regina sat eating candied nuts as they watched the hurdy-gurdy man play. Emma had been treated to a long tutorial that morning, after he'd arrived in Marco's studio to replace a cracked key. He was an eccentric man, but well traveled. He and Emma had gone over some of her maps, him pointing out routes she'd not yet found and her mind was bright with excitement.
There was something about the freedom of the road that she adored. She could head out, under her own power and explore to her heart's content. She'd found waterfalls hundreds of feet high and glaciers that creaked and shrieked in the sunlight. She'd seen eagles soaring and watched wolves hunt deer. She'd encountered a cave filled with sparkling white stone, its walls painted with mysterious figures. She'd met the reindeer herders from the furthest north, who'd traded her beautiful woven bracelets for plants that calmed fevers. On her easternmost journey, she'd met a tribe of women horse riders who bore intricate tattoos and had shown her how to navigate using the stars.
And yet all these wonders, all these treasures of the eye and heart couldn't be compared to Regina. At times, she longed more than anything to bring her love with her, to share in these places. In fact, it was something she craved more than anything else, despite its impossibility. Regina couldn't leave the farm for more than a day or two, after all. The horses would not mind and the ever increasing gardens wouldn't weed themselves, after all.
Regina rooted in the bag in Emma's lap, tapping her foot along with the music. Several small children were dancing in front of the musician, clapping with delight and trying to figure out how his strange instrument worked. “Here,” Regina said, “give me your hand.” Emma obliged, and Regina dropped a handful of hazelnuts into her palm. Emma's cheeks flushed at being treated to her favorite. She bussed a kiss against Regina's cheek, earning a happy sound.
In all her travels she'd never seen anything or met anyone quite as wonderful as Regina. Though she adored her adventures, and was growing more confident that she'd someday have something to offer her beloved, part of her longed to follow Regina home and never leave. Perhaps it was pride, she mused, but she couldn't bear the thought of being a burden to them. She'd grown up knowing she was a burden after all, the orphanage barely able to feed or clothe her. She was loathe to inflict herself on the people she loved, until she had something substantial to offer them.
So she'd seek her fortune, before she accepted the invitation to live at the mill. She chewed her treats idly, enjoying the sunshine and the entertainment. It was her third year coming, now, and the second spending it with Regina. She hoped they'd live to see a great many more together. She wrapped an arm around her beloved's belly, sighing happily as they sank together in the sunshine, listening to music and trading affectionate caresses.
A horn sounded, breaking her from her little cloud of contentment, and she blinked sleepily.
“Emma,” Regina said, standing and dusting her trousers off, eyes lit with excitement, “come on. It's time!”
Regina took a deep breath, settling herself above Rocinante's restless back. He was not happy to be surrounded by so many other horses, cranky and aggressive in the midday sun. Emma had pressed as close to the barrier as she could without getting her toes trampled by the milling steeds. Rocinante wasn't the biggest horse there, by any means. He wasn't the most graceful, either, and Regina was by far the slightest jockey.
Emma felt concern gnaw at her chest and churn her guts. Regina was an incredibly talented equestrienne but in the chaos of the steeplechase, accidents often happened. If any harm befell Rocinante, they'd lose one of stud's most important members. He was a beautiful creature, swifter by far than any of the other horses in the stable and had the potential to be a champion. He was also sturdy; strong and powerful in the jump. If he could sire offspring like himself, Regina and her father would be secure for life.
And if anything were to happen to Regina... It barely bore contemplation. Emma steeled herself, folding her arms across her chest as she drew herself to her full height, finally reached after many years, and squared her shoulders. The last few years of hard work had left her strong, filling out her arms and back with firm muscle. Nerves danced along her spine, though, as Regina exchanged words with a cocky young man beside her. Several of her competitors had sneered at the notion of a woman competing with them, too. A horn blew again and the riders turned, facing forward and marshaling their mounts. Regina bore a look of ferocious concentration on her tight features, the scar on her lip standing out in marked contrast to her tanned skin.
Suddenly, with two blasts from the horn, the rope dropped and they were off.
That night, they celebrated their win with Señor Henry, Marco and Paulo, the hurdy-gurdy man. They ate a hearty meal and drank enough wine to flush their cheeks and raise their voices. Regina had won the race by a mere whisker. A bay mare had fallen while coming over one of the fences and only some very tidy riding on Regina's part had prevented a pile-up. Rocinante had been lagging until the home straight, where Regina had given him free reign and stood over his neck. Emma had never seen anything like it, the power coiling in his muscles; the utter determination on Regina's mud splattered face. The roar of the crowd and the trembling of the ground as the horses flew over it.
Flecked with spittle and covered in sweat, they'd pounded over the line just ahead of a tall grey, leaving the other rider astounded. Regina's chest had been heaving, her eyes bright as she'd trotted Rocinante in a wide circle, letting him cool down. She'd bounced out of the saddle when she spotted Emma running over, throwing her arms around her and kissing her soundly to friendly whoops and ribbing.
They'd been crowded, then, by well-wishers and the other jockeys and Emma had urged Regina to go and speak to them, while she tended to Rocinante. She deserved to bask in her victory and Emma's heart had been fit to explode as her beloved had been crowded by well wishers and potential customers. Rocintante had nipped Emma twice as she'd rubbed him down but even his usual antics couldn't dull her delight. They'd all met in the tavern afterwards, washed and tired, but happy.
They'd toasted Regina and Rocinante both, drinking to their health. They'd stayed long into the night, singing and chatting with locals. A number of folk had asked about bringing mares to stud and Regina had readily entered into negotiations. Despite the crowds and attention though, Regina had kept close to her all night, either by means of a gentle hand or a careful eye.
When they retired, to a room Emma had rented in a fit of frivolousness, they'd collapsed into feather pillows and made love for the very first time. It had been a revelation for both of them, urgent and intimate and much more light-hearted than Emma had expected. A celebration of each other and the love they held between them.
Curled together, legs entwined and hair mussed, Regina dropped a soft kiss to her lips.
“Will you come with me, now?” she asked, dropping her head to kiss Emma's lower lip alone. “Or do you still need to travel, to seek your own fortune?”
Emma was silent then, torn. The pressure was off, after all. Regina had assured the stud's fortunes for at least the year to come, if not longer. She could be of use there, too. She could dig the garden and muck the stables out. She would have a place. But something called to her yet, the great blank spaces on the maps she drew and the adventures she knew awaited.
Regina, bless her, clearly knew her better than she knew herself. She turned her attention to Emma's throat then, curling a hand around her shoulder.
“When you are ready, come home to me, then,” she whispered. “I'll be there, waiting.”
“I suppose that was the turning point, for Regina and the stud,” Emma signed, their journey resumed. “She used some of the race winnings to buy a mare, Bella. With her, Rocinante and some of the other mares, they began to breed healthy young creatures, such as yourself.” She slapped his neck fondly, earning a snort from the dark horse.
“I took a trip up to the deer herders' village after that, then spent that winter with Regina,” she revealed. “For the first time. I helped fix the roofs and we made two of the other homesteads livable.” She ducked her head, laughing softly. “It's something I'll never forget, out of everything I've seen and done, falling asleep and waking beside her for weeks at a time.”
She cleared her throat, cheeks flaring as she reaslized that perhaps this wasn't something to speak of aloud.
“The next spring, Maria and Isabella arrived, to help Señora Rosa and Hosam came the next. He's from the east, a place where turquoise litters the beaches like pebbles! They use it to decorate houses!” She laughed. “Then Frederick, the year after.”
She rolled her neck on her shoulders. “Having all of them helped, certainly. They tended to the orchard properly again and could brew cider to sell.”
She closed her eyes, a smile stretching her face.
“Even though it was in ruins the first time I visited, I still think it was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. And as time went on, and repairs were made, it only grew more lovely. I actually can't think of a better place to grow up. To grow old.”
She closed her eyes, the afternoon light warm as she drifted once more into memory.
Time seemed to stand still in the depths of summer. Once the frantic, chloric spring leaves settled into more mature shades of green and once the invasion of summer flies had been defeated by migrating nightingales. The demands of the stud waned, as well, as the fodder shed filled to a reassuring height and as the first crops of tubers were heaped in the cellar. The world relaxed, a little, as the snows of winter and spring's fury were forgotten.
Emma found herself sprawled on her belly beside Regina, close to the mill pond. A pair of noisy coots were making their presence known, harsh voices an affront to the dignified coo of a wood pigeon. The evening sun was slanting to the west, the cloudless sky paler than a robin's egg. The grass was cool and short, neatly trimmed by the little flock of sheep Señor Henry fussed over so fondly.
Children played on the flat ground nearby and a pair of young men were trailing their tired toes in the cool water, grubby and tired from a day in the threshing yard. A bell tolled, its usual tinny call deep and sonorous in the rich summer air. There must have been a breeze, because the reeds at the southern end of the pond were swaying but Emma couldn't feel it.
Her eyes drifted shut, a contented sigh escaping her lips. She had no pressing engagements for a week, at least, her little purse quite heavy with coppers. She suspected she'd be venturing west again, up into the remote wilds and across the high passes, now briefly open as endless day fought against ice and snow. There were precious herbs and minerals that needed brought to the deer herders there, in the few weeks summer allowed safe passage there and back.
She put those thoughts from her mind, then, too comfortable in the setting sun and her delightful company. Regina shifted beside her, retreating a bit before moving close. A touch, lighter than air, teased her cheek and Emma shied away, tickled. A soft laugh and a brush down her neck followed, raising goosebumps.
She jerked away, rolling onto her back and away from her mischievous beloved. Eyes snapped open to glare, a pout on her lip.
Regina was leaning on her elbows, a feather in her hand. Grey and stubby, it didn't seem like much of a weapon, though she regarded it warily. Near the quill delicate fluffy strands waved in the tiny breeze, over Regina's delicate fingers. Emma flicked at it, causing a scandalized expression to cross Regina's face.
“Now, love,” she chided, “not so rough.” She set to combing the barbs, laying them flat against one another until the feather was restored. Her brown eyes were soft, relaxed and open in the evening light. She set the feather aside, carefully, once she was satisfied. Fixing Emma with a fond gaze, she approached again, her arms crossed on Emma's chest. She dropped a soft kiss to her lips before rising on her elbows, taking in the scene.
A wheeze, a whistle, filled the air along with toneless honking, drawing her lover's attention. Her full lips parted in wonder, her golden eyes dancing as she watched whatever was happening. Emma couldn't imagine anything more beautiful than the sight above her, so she didn't move for a long while.
“Emma,” she laughed, “guarda!”
Emma had no intention of moving, so she rolled her head back, twisting her neck to regard the scene upside down. A flock of swans had arrived, an adult pair and half a dozen well-grown cygnets. Their necks held in elegant curves, their gaze cunning. The pen rose up, stretching her body and beating her mighty wings, shaking her tail before settling into repose. The cob glared, appearing to frown at her as she gawked. His leathery feet were splayed apart, much less elegant on land than in the water.
The cygnets chirped, still, to Emma's surprise. They were grey, no white lightening their ponderous bodies and no color to their bills. But they were big, more than half grown, though still gangling and awkward. Yet they still chirped softly, their little voices soft for a while yet.
“Swans,” Regina said, sighing happily. “They come every year.” Emma rolled her head back into a more normal posture, waiting for Regina to finish enjoying the regal birds.
“They nest here, every year,” she informed Emma, her eyes still watching the birds, a wry tone coloring her words. “The cygnets leave, but the parents stay.” She turned her attention back to her, eyes dancing and light. “This place is good for swans,” she said, gently, raising a hand to stroke Emma's cheek with reverence.
Emma took her hand, kissing her fingers delicately. “It is,” she agreed.
“Will you stay, some day, as you promised?” Regina asked, her voice soft, somehow managing to keep sorrow and longing at bay.
“I will,” Emma assured her. “When I have a bag of coin and have made something of myself.”
Eyes gentle, though edged with exasperation, Regina kissed her again, lingering for a long moment. They had this argument before. Emma did have some money. She could read a bit and her maps were sought far and wide. But she felt as through it wasn't enough. That she was still lacking, insufficient and only another hungry mouth to feed.
They'd had fights about it, more than once, when fatigue nipped them both or when many months had passed between visits. Emma stroked her cheek, eyes closing as she luxuriated in the feel of Regina's soft skin. A curious mouth touched hers again and they tasted each other, softly and unhurriedly. Regina held her face in both of her own hands and Emma dropped hers to Regina's waist, stroking as though her fingertips were feathers.
“One day soon,” Regina sighed, her voice high, “you'll stay for good?”
“Forever, bellissima,” Emma breathed.
“And now, she's the most respected horse breeder in this region and she has a safe, secure home.” Emma sighed. “She has her own money and her own property. What freedom, eh?”
Her horse snorted and Emma sighed. “And look at me,” she grumbled. “I still don't think I have enough coin, you know. If a horse gets sick or a roof collapses, all of this might vanish,” she sighs. “So I hope your family are healthy, boy.
“But I have you, and I can draw a map. I have good clothes and boots. I'm much stronger than I was.” She cleared her throat, annoyed by the nerves jangling there. “If nothing else, I'll be a good groom.”
The beast below her whickered in a manner that made Emma suspect she was being mocked. She straightened her stance and peered down.
“You wouldn't mock me though, right?”
Regina of the mill dipped her head, claiming a seat close to the fire. A round of raucous laughter rose from the head of the table, her ancient, toothless cook lost in hysterics. Her head was tipped back and her hand tapping her generous bosom. She composed herself enough to wallop Bastien on the shoulder, still bellowing from a very silly joke.
Regina had missed the jape but there was enough mirth to share. The boys jostled and Señora Rosa calmed herself, eventually. The scullery women had lived there long enough to laugh along with them, one laying a sympathetic hand on Regina's shoulder.
“These fools will bring the rafters down around our ears, boss.”
“I doubt it, Maria,” she laughed, “these poor walls have suffered much worse nonsense.”
Maria looked dubious, but raised an elegant eyebrow in concession. Bastien and Jean joked and laughed with Señora Rosa still, not allowing the elderly woman to eat her supper in peace. She bore it in good grace, only rapping them with her spoon once each. Hosam and Frederick chuckled at their antics, the older men digging into their stew with enthusiasm.
Regina sat back, her bowl clean, and regarded her friends. The kitchen was warm and bright, filled with friendly chatter and welcoming aromas. Isabella lifted a kitten from the ground and tickled its chin, sheepishly offering it a splash of milk from a saucer. The absence of her father seemed less keen on days like this, when joy and mischief filled the air and she truly thought that was a wonderful legacy. Her mind briefly flitted to the morning the previous spring when they'd buried him, snowdrops hanging their mournful heads in the chilly air. Emma had stood with her, holding her and weeping along with her.
A dart, often felt and forcibly ignored, struck her heart. Her hand was cold, her arms empty and her heart sore. Autumn was upon them now, a season when all with an ounce of sense would retreat to their homes and bunker down. Not her lover, though, not since she'd grown older and stronger. Not Emma. She'd trudge over ice and deep snow to deliver messages and trinkets. To explore the blank places on the maps she filled in with her careful hand.
She bit her lip, though. Emma was not a person overfond of one place, no matter who or what was to be found there. As much as she craved her lover's presence, she dreaded her eventual boredom. How could she, a glorified farmer, ever keep the interest of a journeyed adventurer? Emma was intelligent, kind, resourceful and tended towards cheerfulness. She was a rare soul and Regina felt utterly privileged to have her in her life, even if it were only in fits and starts.
That she longed for something different went without saying. Who would't? She would have pulled the stars from heaven to keep her love with her, but it was not to be. Emma was a creature of the road and it would take something enormous to keep her in one place. Regina shuddered at the thought. Being crippled or maimed would keep her here, after all, she mused darkly. That said, she lit a candle to the memory of her parents every morning, wishing for her love's safe passage.
Melancholic, but not overly grim, she tidied her bowl and headed for the yard. The rest of her household showed little inclination to move, but she didn't begrudge them the rest. The last few weeks had been manic and they'd all worked hard. She tugged her cloak about her, sinking into the rich fur lining her collar. A gift from Emma after an adventure with a den of mink and a misplaced foot.
Rocinante, the glorious bastard, was lounging in his stall as though he owned the world. His chestnut coat gleamed in the low light, his breath steaming in the evening air.
“Good evening, handsome boy,” she cooed.
The stallion, who usually devoted every ounce of his attention to her, tossed his head and tried to turn towards the road. Regina soothed him, running a firm hand down the length of his face and shushing him with low noises. She frowned and headed into the yard, whistling for the dogs and wondering who was approaching. She wasn't expecting anyone until after the full moon.
To her utter amazement, Emma and Taccola were ambling through the gate, unhurried despite the cold. Concern gripped her. Emma had left, not a week previous, riding Taccola and guiding Klimp, the placid little mountain pony, after her.
“Emma?” she breathed, rushing forward and pressing a hand to Taccola's broad neck. “Are you alright? What happened? I thought you'd be gone west for the winter by now.”
Emma lifted a hand and brushed her hood back, eyes a little tired but easy with fondness. She didn't look sick or wounded, thank goodness.
“Not pleased to see me?” she drawled, her accent still heavy even after all these years. Regina felt her chest burn with both adoration and consternation, drawing an emphatic eyebrow up her forehead. Emma didn't bother dignifying that with a response, rolling her shoulders instead. Her gaze caught the horizon, brows drawing over bright eyes.
“Emma, is everything alright?”
Emma sighed, dipping her head sadly and offered a hand. Regina frowned, holding it carefully. There was a tremor there and Emma dismounted a bit awkwardly. She wasn't using her right arm and Regina's heart shot into her throat. Had her idle musings of maiming been prophetic?!
Emma frowned, dipping her head. “I can't speak well,” she sighed. “Words don't come easier in my language than they do in yours, you know. I have my letters, almost, and I can read most things but I can really only write my name.”
“And draw maps,” Regina chided. Emma Swan, perhaps the most respected cartographer in the region, merely shrugged, as though her talent was lessened by virtue of being possessed by her. She paused for a moment, running Emma's words through her mind again.
Regina felt her chest clench and her heart flutter, the memory of a promise made long ago flitting through her mind. “Emma?”
Emma bit her lip and nodded. “I said I'd come here, to stay, when I had coin and my words. I have little of either,” she sighed, reaching to unbuckle her heavy cloak. “But I have someone who needs help.”
Regina felt her heart race into a gallop as Emma revealed a tiny head, tucked against her chest. It was an infant, maybe days old, eyes firmly shut.
Emma closed her eyes. “When I got to Granny's inn, his mother was there. She had run away from home after getting into trouble with a local lad. He denied he was the father and her parents kicked her out,” she bit, her cheeks flaring with anger. “She gave birth there, but she didn't survive it.”
Regina reached for the baby, drawing him into her her hands and feeling her heart stutter as his sleepy eyes parted.
“Granny asked me to bring him to the orphanage,” Emma confessed, “but how could I?” she asked, her face stricken. “I never knew what it was to be warm or happy when I was there.” She shook her head. “Granny is too old for a baby. I left Klimp with them,” she said, almost an afterthought.
Troubled eyes met Regina's as she shifted the little creature to her shoulder, as he rooted from side to side. Emma shook her cloak, a sock flopping out, folding it and draping it over the baby. She stooped and lifted her sock, carefully brushing dead leaves off it. She studied it for a moment before reaching for little creature, stretching it over his head. Regina bit her lip. Clearly, her lover had improvised.
“I was never warm or happy until you, Regina,” Emma confessed. She reached into her tunic, drawing forth a heavy purse. She placed it carefully in Regina's apron, attention turning back to her and the baby as soon as she had.
“I have little enough money for him, but I can leave and make more.”
“Oh, darling,” Regina, sighed as she stepped forward. “No. Please, stay with us now.” A smile fought its way over her face as she tipped her head back to the main house. “With them, with the horses and with me. With him,” she said, tenderly tipping the baby into the crook of her arm, gazing at his face. The shock of affection and love that ran through her at the sight of him was enough to steal her breath. His tiny fingers brushed her own and she blinked in wonder at the tiny nails at the end of them. She'd wondered, in idle moments, about motherhood, but had never expected to feel so much, so profoundly and so quickly.
Emma sagged in front of her, relief softening her limbs. “He'll stay here? With you?”
“With us, Emma,” Regina stated, very firmly.
Emma moved closer, taking in the tiny mouth and the faint crease on his forehead. He seemed very serious, Regina noted, and Emma seemed somewhat at a loss. “You'll take him as a foster child?”
Regina leaned back and regarded her lover, her beautiful wanderer, with serious eyes. “I will take him as my son, Emma.” She drew a deep breath, her spare hand lifting to Emma's cheek. “The son you gave me.” Her hand moved to Emma's cheek, cupping it gently. “Stay with us, love. Children do well with two parents.”
Oh, and the sun couldn't have been brighter in the sky than the joy in Emma's eyes, at that moment. The weariness of the road fell from her shoulders and her face relaxed. Warm, firm lips pressed to her own and arms wrapped around one another, cradling the snuffling baby between them.
They stood in the orchard the following spring, surrounded by friends and a laughing baby, and promised themselves to one another as apple blossoms blew around the ancient trees. Many adventures followed, journeys to the blank edges of Emma's maps, but the little family always found their way back to the mill, together.