Cora had inherited her castle from her late husband - the foreign prince who had been sent to this realm to be forgotten by a father who placed little value in his son. Her husband may have been a disempowered prince, but the home he left his wife and daughter was palatial. The main building of the castle was a keep five storeys high, topped by various slanted tiled roofs, and protected by a small barbican that stood flush to high walls and narrow battlements. These walls enclosed acres of sweeping lawns and grounds that had been meticulously tended to by generations of gardeners, and a workforce of serving men and women.
Regina materialised at the castle gates, feeling the warning sting of Cora's protective spells against her skin. Her mother always strengthened her warding spells before a coven meet, when there would be many visitors in and around the castle. Regina knew these wards would wrap around the walls, and stretch upwards and curl over into a giant dome of protection. Any spells made by an outsider would flounder against these shields. No over-eager visitor would be able transport directly into the castle without passing through the gate and being vetted by Cora's guard.
Other queens may have had knights and soldiers, uniformed and bearing sharp-edged steel, but Cora relied only on her magic and a handful of carefully selected witches to keep her castle safe. As a young woman, Regina had spent many a coven meet secretly testing the limits of her mother's warding spells until she had worked out how to break them. She could have done it now - shredded the protections and stormed through the castle until she found Cora, so she could deliver her message and leave. She was nervous enough about facing her mother that she stood and considered this course of action for several minutes. She wanted nothing more than to be done with this confrontation and return to the Blackwoods, back to where Amanita and Emma waited for her.
But in the end reason prevailed; she did not want to do anything that would push her mother into a defensive or attack position. She needed her mother to be in a reasonable frame of mind, not a combative one. She drew a deep breath into her lungs, squared her shoulders, and reminded herself why she was doing this - for Amanita's well being (and Emma's safety); steeled with those thoughts, she approached the barbican and announced her presence.
The gates did not part for a few minutes.
When they did open, she found Cassandra waiting for her, four guard witches at her back.
Regina's relationship with her mother's lieutenant was a contentious one. Cassandra had joined Cora's coven when Regina had been away finishing her own training, traveling the realm and seeking out all manner of witches and other adepts of magic and power to learn from. When she had returned, she had found Cassandra installed at Cora's right hand.
Young Regina had so little interest in political dominion, it hadn't bothered her to find a witch of such obvious power and ambition so close to her mother. But Cassandra had not felt the same way about Regina, and she had responded to Regina's return with thinly veiled disdain. The coven had seen the lines drawn, with a powerful but naive Regina on one side, and Cassandra, cold and calculating, on the other.
Regina made it obvious she had not returned to fall at her mother's feet and beg forgiveness for the audacity of her independence. Cassandra countered with an almost stomach-turning obsequiousness, flooding Cora with obedience and loyalty.
To Cassandra's irritation, Cora still pinned her hopes for the future leadership of the Dark covens on Regina. So even though Cora was annoyed that Regina had chosen to travel her own path so early, instead of completing her time as an apprentice and staying under her mother's shadow, she had been prepared to allow Regina back to her place as Cora's heir apparent.
Things may have gone poorly for Cassandra's ambition if Regina had not taken up with a stableboy.
Regina had been too inexperienced to properly hide her feelings; she had flitted around the gardens sighing and writing poetry! She had been seen sneaking into the stables to spend hours mucking out stalls and braiding manes, apparently just so she could be with the boy. And all that may have been forgiven too - for Daniel was not unattractive and Cora acknowledged that a young woman had needs - but then Regina claimed to have fallen in love with him! She had given her heart to a boy with no power or ambition. She had said she would go live with him in a little hovel somewhere and practice the meanest of magic - Cora Mill's daughter, a village witch!
When Cora had learned this, she had sworn that no heir of hers would ever throw away their potential on curing warts and pedaling love potions. Regina was born to power, and Cora was not building an empire of Dark covens only to have her heir throw it all away over a pretty-faced boy who spoke gently to her.
Soon after that, Daniel had ended up dead in the river.
If Cora had thought that Daniel's death would pull Regina back to her, she had miscalculated how deeply her daughter's grief and fear would run. All she had succeeded in doing was hardening Regina's heart against ever falling in love again, and causing her daughter to withdraw even further from Cora's circle of influence. But Cora could be patient. She was sure that, in time, Regina would discover she shared her mother's objectives - to rule the realm of magic. Cora believed that Regina was too fascinated by the power to not grow to want to govern its practitioners.
But, just in case Regina did not come to her senses soon enough, Cora would allow Cassandra to think she would be Cora's second choice. So Cassandra and her chosen witches were permitted to treat Regina as though she were a powerless fledgling witch. Cora encouraged these humiliations, wagering that Regina's pride would soon get the better of her, and she would strike at Cassandra, destroy her rival, and take her place.
The continuing failure of this plan had begun to rankle; but then Regina had taken an apprentice, and Cora's hopes had rekindled. With a follower, someone who looked to her for guidance as an all-powerful witch, surely Regina's ambition would be awakened. And then Cora could fan the flames and her daughter would finally show herself a worthy heir.
(Cassandra, of course, was hoping for a quite different outcome. And Regina had only helped by choosing poorly again, and delivering herself to the judgement of Cora's cold fury.)
"Regina," Cassandra's voice was almost syrupy, which made Regina frown. "We did not expect you so soon."
"I do not need to check my schedule with you," Regina replied dismissively, making to brush past Cassandra.
The taller witch moved to block her path; the four other witches pulled back a little and separated to cover the pathway. They had not called up their magic but their stance and demeanour spoke of threat. Regina sneered but made no other reaction - she knew this was just another calculated insult and there was no reason to give in to Cassandra's attempts to call her out.
"We are still readying ourselves to receive guests," Cassandra said, her voice still laced with a poisonous sweetness.
"I am not a guest," Regina spat. "Where is my mother?"
"Preparing herself," Cassandra responded. "She is not seeing-"
"I will find her myself," Regina snarled.
Regina may have seen the wisdom in not directly challenging her mother today, but she felt no such compunction when it came to Cassandra.
"Wait!" Cassandra cried out. The sweetness had dropped from her voice now, but she smiled, showing teeth. "I will go and let her know you are here. Perhaps she will make an exception...for you."
Regina stood and waited, tapping her foot impatiently on the footpath. The four witches Cassandra had left behind stood ranged awkwardly around her - trying to not look as though they were guarding her. No one doubted Regina's power, and with Cassandra gone, the other women were not so keen to provoke Regina's temper.
Regina gritted her teeth as the minutes lengthened. Experience had taught her how much Cassandra enjoyed taunting her with small humiliations, but experience had also taught her how to hide her irritation behind a sneer and disinterested air. She could take solace in the fact that this would be the last time she would have to put up with Cassandra's power plays, but she found the irritation served her well as a shield. Her anger gave her something to focus on that was not Emma and Amanita. In the back of her mind was the image of Emma holding Amanita, her daughter's hand raised sleepily to wave farewell; Emma's eyes had been dark with the depth of whatever she'd been feeling, but she had smiled at Regina with such soft affection, she felt her chest tighten with the memory of it. She wanted to be back with them. She wanted it so much, her entire body yearned. It made her weak, this longing; she stood surrounded by enemies, and all she wanted to think about was going home; hugging her daughter; standing shoulder to shoulder with Emma while they prepared a meal; sitting in the orchard, while Amanita chased Kitty between the trees and Emma sprawled on the ground with her head in her lap. Regina needed her magic close to the surface, ready to strike out and defend, but allowing her thoughts to turn to the cottage and what waited for her there made her soft. It was difficult to think about hurling fire balls and attack spells when your mind was filled with memories of cuddles and smiles. So she clung to her irritation, armed herself with her anger, and buried the feelings that threatened to weaken her.
"Cora will see you," Cassandra said, seconds after she re-materialised. "She is in the rose gardens. Would you like me to show you the way?"
"I know how to find my way around," Regina snapped back.
She transported towards the gardens, materialising at the boundaries, where the stone walkways met the high hedges. Behind the austere hedges, Regina knew, was a riot of colour and scents. Cora Mills loved roses, but she hid her obsession away behind high green walls, in a distant part of the the castle grounds. Step through the simple gate, and you found yourself already lost in a maze of flowers - growing from pillars and posts; in bushes rising up from the ground - either clipped and well tended, or allowed to run wild; dripping from green arches to make cool, shaded walkways. Cora did not appear to have a preference when it came to the cultivation of roses, unless it was a preference for patternless excess.
Regina stalked between the flowers until she found her mother, sitting at a small table at the end of the garden, overlooking a dense stand of trees growing along a gently flowing stream. There was a pot of tea on the table, and two cups; one was steaming, the other still empty, awaiting Cora's companion.
"Regina," Cora said when she heard her footsteps behind her, "Daughter. Sit. Take some tea with me."
"Thank you Mother, no. I just wanted to-"
"Sit." It was no longer a request. "I hardly see you anymore, and coven meets are always such...time consuming events. I feel we don't talk any more."
"We haven't talked in years," Regina muttered.
"Precisely. And I'd like to change that. Sit, Regina. Before the tea grows cold."
There was iron in her mother's voice that was not to be denied. Regina sat.
Cora poured, the amber stream of tea glowing richly in the morning light. Regina picked up her cup, but did not drink.
"You're alone?" Cora asked conversationally. "Your apprentice is unwell again?"
"No. Amanita is well. She is at home."
"A pity you did not bring her. I was so looking forward to meeting her. Seeing how her training has progressed."
"She is progressing well."
"Hard to believe, Regina. When you will not let me see for myself."
"I have no reason to lie to you," Regina said, just managing to restrain herself from snapping.
"Of course not. She's mastered the fireball then?"
"No. That remains difficult."
Cora glanced over at the sudden pain in Regina's voice.
"You remember how I taught you?"
Regina remembered. Remembered the helpless fury that had filled her until it spilled over, igniting in her palm. In her mother's presence, that fury was never far from her.
She shook her head. "Amanita does not do anger."
"Everyone is angry, Regina. You just have to know how to show them."
"I am not here to talk about Amanita, or my failures as her teacher."
"Indeed. We would be here all morning that in case."
Through gritted teeth Regina said, "Mother, I need to tell you-"
Cora got abruptly to her feet.
"Walk with me."
"I grow restless, Regina. Sitting still was never my forte. Come. Walk with me. It'll be cooler by the water."
"I will say what I have come to say, Mother."
"And I will hang on your every word. But walk with me while we talk? Is that too much to ask, Daughter?"
They made their way down to the trees. Cora was right, it was cooler here, and the shadows softened her mother's piercing gaze.
Regina squared her shoulders and tried again.
"I wanted to talk to you, about my future with the coven."
"Are you ready to accept a position of leadership?" Cora asked, her voice suddenly eager.
Regina shook her head.
"No, Mother. I still have no interest in ruling after you."
"You were born to be a queen, Regina!"
"I don't want to be a queen! I want what I've always wanted - to be left in peace so I can learn and understand magic!"
"What is the point of all this knowledge if you will not use it?!"
"It doesn't need any further point, Mother! I am a Dark witch - I seek out knowledge, nothing more!"
"You are a witch of great power! Why do you refuse to use that power!"
"I do use it!"
"To do what? Exactly? What do you do with all your knowledge, Regina?"
Regina clawed the words 'help others' back into her throat only by the greatest of efforts. "I collect it," she said instead, her voice sullen. "And I teach my apprentice. That is the way of the Dark, Mother."
"That version of the Dark died long ago, daughter. I should know."
"I have no interest in ruling, Mother," Regina said again. "Please. I never have. I just want...I want to be-"
"You want to be a commoner," Cora said, her voice cold. "Allow others to make decisions that govern your life. You are a daughter of a noble house, and yet you choose to hide away and bury yourself in dusty books, in forgotten corners of the realm!"
"I am a Dark witch! That is what we do!"
"Not my Dark witches!"
"I don't want to be one of your Dark witches!"
Cora took a deep, shuddering breath.
"And so we come to it."
"Mother, please. I want...I need to leave your coven."
"For what purpose?"
"No purpose but my own need - for Amanita."
"For your apprentice? How does your apprentice benefit from not being part of a coven? Of my coven."
"Amanita will not...I won't let you...you won't do to her what you've done to me, Mother."
She cursed her voice for sounding pleading, when she had been trying for strength and firmness.
"What I've done to you? And what is that, exactly, Regina? Made you powerful?"
"My power has nothing to do with you!"
"Nothing! I owe more to Nan Locket-"
Cora's slap came out of nowhere; her hand snapped across Regina's face, leaving the reddening mark of her fingers.
"The core of your power is due to me," Cora said coldly. "You will not give that credit to some simpering Edge witch."
Regina clutched at her cheek, shaken more by surprise than by any pain her mother may have inflicted. Cora had never laid a hand on her before; she had always relied on magic to curb and control Regina's outbursts.
And Nan Locket had been no simpering village witch. She had been a woman of power, but also one of compassion. She had taken a terrified child and shown her that life could be so much more - so much different - than what she had been led to believe. Nan Locket had not saved Regina's life, but she had shown her how to build herself a new one; a life that was entirely as Regina wanted it to be. Regina felt Nan Locket's presence so strongly it was as though she stood at her shoulder as she stared Cora down.
"I will credit you for giving me birth, Mother. But nothing more than that. My power is my own. Just as Amanita's power will be her own. I am leaving your coven. Amanita will never be one of your Dark witches."
"What will she be then, Regina? A witch of the Light?"
"What?" Regina spluttered, feeling the cold clutch of a sudden fear. "Why would you think that?"
"Oh Regina did you think I wouldn't find out? About you and the village witch? A woman of so little power she flies everywhere on a broom! After the stableboy, I would have hoped you would pick your companions a little more wisely."
An image flashed into Regina's mind, of Daniel's bloated corpse. His body had been in such a state when it was found, she had been denied even the most basic comfort of touching him one last time. He had died alone and probably terrified, and left to the river like so much flotsam.
She could not risk the same fate befalling Emma.
Cora's cold, knowing, smile was a blade that twisted into Regina's gut, churning her emotions even more than the image of Daniel did. The growing panic made her voice high pitched and tremulous.
"She is no threat to you! She just wants to raise our...our apprentice in peace."
She barely caught herself from saying 'daughter'; her mind was spinning, calculating and searching for a way - any way - to keep Cora from realising the full extent of what Amanita meant to her. Cora had shown herself far too willing to destroy what Regina cared for. Emma was already at risk; she could not allow Amanita to fall into the fire too.
"Our apprentice. You share Amanita with her?"
"That was the price the magic demanded!"
"What, that you betray your coven, and your queen. Betray your mother?"
"I am not betraying you, Mother! I am only leaving your coven, not starting one of my own! I am not challenging you!"
"Do you know, Regina, I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. When Cassandra came to me and told me that you had taken up with a Light witch, I thought to myself 'Regina may be foolish, and far too eager to follow her heart, but she is no traitor.'"
This was everything she had feared being made reality - Cora Mills finding out about her affiliation with Emma Swan, and thinking that Regina was maneuvering to overthrow her.
"I am not!"
She could think of no way to convince her mother. What could she do to prove she was not challenging her? Tell her how completely she loved Amanita, how desperately she longed for her to grow safe and happy, how much she was willing to sacrifice to protect her child? She did not think Cora would understand these sentiments; she had certainly never given Regina any indication she felt this way about her.
"But it turns out that Cassandra was right," Cora continued speaking, oblivious to the turmoil of Regina's thoughts. "You are conspiring with the Light."
"No. Nothing like that!"
"Oh Regina, you should never have turned your back on me. You should never have given yourself over to the Light."
"Mother, I don't know what you think is going on between Emma-"
She slammed her mouth shut, terrified of naming the other woman and making her even more vulnerable to her Mother.
Cora sneered at her.
"You're still trying to protect her! Even now! Fear not, Daughter, you've not given anything away. I know all about Emma Swan. And your little cottage in the Blackwoods. Did you really think Nan Locket's ghost would protect you?"
Everything was lost now. Their lives were laid bare before Cora Mills. There were no further shields to hide behind. The only thing left to her was to throw herself on her mother's mercy.
"Mother, please. I swear to you. I have no interest in opposing your rule. The Dark covens are yours. I want nothing to do with them."
"Do you think that makes me feel any better, Daughter? Do you think I have worked so hard - sacrificed so much - for you to simply turn your back and walk away from it all?"
"Is that what you want from me? Then fine! I'll stay!" It would be an easy sacrifice to make if the outcome was to keep Emma and Amanita safe. Better Regina live under her mother's thumb than permit Emma and their child to bear the brunt of Cora's wrath. "I'll be your right hand! I'll rule your covens after you! But please, please Mother. Leave them alone."
"Too little too late, Regina. Your Light witch dares to think she can oppose me."
She could not understand why her mother refused to see. Emma had no interest in power - even less interest than Regina did. She did not want to tear Cora Mills down. Yes, Emma did keep offering to stand by Regina's side when she faced her mother, but that was an act of friendship rather than an attempt to overthrow Cora. Regina had to make her mother see that, at any cost.
"I swear she is no threat to you! Mother, please, do you want me to beg? I will. I will do anything. Please."
"I don't want you on your knees, Regina! A queen does not beg! The fact that you would even offer shows me how dangerously far you have fallen. Emma Swan will be stopped."
The open, direct, threat was what finally stilled her fear and calmed her panic, allowing the reserves of her anger to bubble protectively to the surface. Cora wanted a fight; she'd find one standing before her.
"Not by you!" Regina snarled.
"No," Cora said airily. "I wouldn't sully myself with fighting her. Cassandra however - she is eager for the opportunity. And she will make a better mentor for Amanita than a weak witch of the Light."
And the fury came roaring back in full force, flooding Regina with its heat and power.
"Cassandra will go nowhere near them!"
Cora dared to smile, syrupy sweet in the face of her daughter's fierce rage.
"Ahh. I wonder where Cassandra has got to? While we have been drinking our tea and strolling through the woods."
Consumed as she was by the heat of her anger, it took Regina a moment to realise what Cora was hinting at. But when the import of her mother's words did finally strike home, her body froze over. She felt the terror flow through her, magnified; she realised she was feeling more than her own dread. The binding spell she and Emma had woven between them began to tug.
"Mother," she whispered in horrified tones. "What have you done?"
"Oh look," Cora said cheerfully. "Here she comes."
Regina turned to see Cassandra striding down the path. She was dragging a protesting Amanita with her, the little girl stumbling behind the older witch as she pulled and strained ineffectually against the tight grip on her arm.
There was no sign of Emma Swan.
Regina reacted instinctively. Two fireballs blazed to life in her hands and she flung them in quick succession at Cassandra. Her aim was true, and her missiles flew directly at Cassandra's head; it was a killing strike, but more importantly, the fire would hit high enough to keep Amanita safe.
But Cassandra had been expecting an attack and had shields in place to deflect the fireballs.
Regina had already called up a second set of fireballs, and was striding forward to a better position to strike again. She did not see what moved behind her, but Amanita did. Regina's first - and only - warning was seeing Amanita's mouth drop open and her eyes widen in a look of horror. She spun on her heel, pouring more power into the fire that filled her hands.
It looked like a tall, slender, tree. A tree resting on five curved roots that showed above the ground; with a narrow trunk, fuzzy with a bright green moss; five leafless branches sprouted from the top like a green, serrated, crown. That five-branched crown was leaning rapidly over towards her, as though the tree was being blown by a strong wind; but there was no wind, and the movement looked controlled, like it was intentional, and not merely a toppling motion. Regina was flinging fireballs even before she'd seen the insides of the crown - seen the ridges of what could only be teeth.
Her fireballs connected with the creature, but then they seemed to be absorbed into the trunk - not turned away or dissipated, as they had been when they struck Cassandra's shield. This was more like her magical fire was being sucked into the body of the beast, leaving it unharmed.
She went for the roots next, abandoning fire for brute pushing force. She planned to tear the creature up from the roots, bring it crashing to the ground, then pound it into the dirt. But the force of her strike did nothing - did not even shake the creature. Her power was absorbed, and it still moved at her in that controlled curving fall. She tried to transport away, but she'd left it too late.
The crown - no - the mouth slammed into her chest, driving her to the ground. She felt the teeth pierce though her leather bodice. She heard Amanita scream.
Emma and Amanita had fed Kitty, taken a few minutes to change into clothes suitable for traipsing through the woods, eaten a quick breakfast, and then set out to hunt for Regina's favourite wild mushrooms. They had done this often enough that they had a system; Amanita dragged the basket out of the kitchen cupboard while Emma collected the little curved knives they used to cut the mushrooms. Recently, they'd started taking a broom along - the sample broom Emma had made, the one Regina called 'that deathtrap'. Emma had promised to never ride it again, but she wouldn't destroy it either; she was far too proud of her first broom for that. One morning she'd been hauling logs of wood back to the garden, and she'd somehow got the idea into her head to activate the broom's levitation spells, truss the logs to the handle, and walk them home. Regina had watched Emma coming, the log-laden broom floating along in mid air besides her as she guided it with one hand on the handle; the heavy logs may has well have been puffs of air for all the strain she needed to exert to keep them moving towards the cottage.
Emma had faltered when she'd noticed Regina watching, fairly sure some manner of teasing or ridicule would follow.
Regina had laughed, but it had been a delighted sound, and her eyes had shone with pleasure. She had told Emma that she never ceased to amaze her; her voice was so filled with affectionate pride that Emma had strutted around like she was ten feet tall for hours after. The broom came on all their excursions into the woods now; they'd use it to carry their equipment and haul heavy objects, or let Amanita perch on it when she was too exhausted to walk home.
They found the spot where the mushrooms grew easily enough. They weren't too far from the cottage, in a part of the woods where the trees grew thickly, but not so deep that they risked running into some manner of dangerous creature. The greatest danger here was the pond filled with magic-resistant mud, the one Regina had once fallen into. Amanita never tired of hearing the story of how Regina had returned home furious and covered from neck to toe in a hardened shell of mud that had resisted all her efforts to blast away with magic; and how Emma had to carefully peel her free while Regina had fumed and threatened both Emma and a hapless pond. Amanita did not get to hear this story very often, because Mother would glare at Mama when she began to giggle and then Mama would have to spend lots of time apologising while trying to suppress her giggles. So Amanita made sure Mama told her the entire story now, complete with sound effects and a fairly decent impression of Mother losing her temper.
They had filled the basket while they'd been giggling. Emma was shaking the worst of the dirt off the mushrooms, while Kitty lazed in a patch of sun. Amanita grew restless, until she caught sight of a bright flash of feathers.
"Mama! I think that was an alerion! Mother will be so sorry to have missed it!"
Emma glanced up from the mushrooms, smiling at Amanita's eager face. "Do you think it's nesting close by?"
"Maybe? Please can I go look?"
Emma glanced around; the woods were still and quiet.
"Okay. But don't go far."
Emma watched as Amanita hurried off into the trees, staying on the narrow path. She turned back to her task of cleaning the mushrooms. She knew Amanita would stay close. And Kitty would keep an eye on her.
That was when Emma noticed that Kitty had not followed Amanita. The helcat had stood, but he had stayed close to Emma. He was staring at the trees, in the direction of the cottage. His hackles rose slowly and he crouched, as though readying himself to leap.
Emma looked towards the spot the helcat was watching so intently, assuming there was an animal there that Kitty was preparing to pounce on. She stood; if there was a strange creature about, she wanted to call Amanita back to her side, until they knew more about what was out there.
She was facing the four witches when they materialised.
Kitty howled and leapt.
One of the witches gestured, sending her magic out to uproot a small tree and fling it at the attacking helcat. The tree was a physical object, not a direct magical attack, so Kitty had no protection against it; he was still too young and inexperienced to know how to alter his trajectory mid-leap. He could not avoid the tree and it smashed into him, knocking him unconscious and pinning him to the ground under its branches.
Emma spun away from the four witches; she was looking for Amanita, screaming her name.
She could see her daughter in the trees just ahead, but she was not alone. A tall witch had materialised besides her.
Emma cast a transport spell, desperately flinging herself towards Amanita. She reappeared standing between her and the strange witch.
"What do you-" Emma started to challenge, but the choking spell cut her off. She clutched at her throat, gasping for breath. She felt herself lifted until her feet dangled helplessly off the ground. She heard Amanita scream "Mother!" Then she was being thrown, unable to stop herself from slinging through the air. She hit the ground hard, just in front of the four other witches. She couldn't see her daughter, or what was happening.
All she could do was scream, “Run, Amanita! Run!"
She rolled to her feet in time to see Amanita cast her first transport spell. She'd aim for home, Emma hoped, and the safety of Regina's warding spells. The other witch - the tall one with the cruel eyes - she transported away too. That left Emma facing four witches.
If this had been Regina here in the woods, surrounded by four powerful attackers, she would have stood her ground. Outnumbered as she was, she would have faced her enemies with fury in her heart, and her palms filled with fire, and she would have fought.
Emma Swan turned and ran.
Amanita had not realised that anything was amiss until she heard Kitty howl. She turned back towards the sound; she was still close enough that she could see the four witches appear, and watch one of them pound Kitty into the ground with a tree. She had screamed and tried to run back towards her Mama and Kitty, but another witch had appeared before her, blocking her way. Mama had come to her, managing to cast a transport spell that would have made Mother proud. When the strange witch had attacked Mama, lifting her up into the air and making her gasp and choke, Amanita realised they would need more help. She had screamed for her Mother.
Mother and Mama had both explained to her about the spell they had cast; the spell that connected all three of them, so if she ever got in trouble, all she had to do was call for them, and her mothers would come. But something had gone wrong with the spell. She could feel it leave her, but then it was blocked, like it had run into an impenetrable wall. Wherever Mother was, her spell would not reach her.
The strange witch had flung Mama away, leaving Amanita to face her alone. She heard Mama scream at her to run, so she did, to the safest place she knew.
The little cottage where she lived with her mothers, protected by Mother's strongest warding magic.
Amanita had never transported herself before, but she'd been with Regina often enough when she had cast the same spell. She'd held her mother's hand so she would be drawn along with her wherever she was transporting to. She knew what to do to cast herself home.
She failed to get there.
She felt her spell slam into something. She had to materialise or be battered senseless. She reappeared standing just metres away from the safety of home. But someone had cast new wards - an invisible barrier that stood outside the shields Mother had placed around the cottage. She tried to cast again, towards the direction of the village - where there were people who knew her and would try to protect her. But the other witch was there, and she was casting spells to block any transport Amanita tried.
Amanita was alone, but she'd had six years under the tutelage of Regina Mills and Emma Swan.
She kicked the strange witch in the shin, and while the woman clutched in agony at her leg, cast the biggest storm cloud she could. It wasn't very large, but the lighting bolts that slammed into the woman were powerful enough to make her howl.
For a few moments, Amanita had the satisfaction of seeing her attacker falter. She must not have expected a small child to fight back with such ferocity and skill. But then the strange witch rallied and Amanita felt her throat tighten, as though a hand was clutching at her, cutting off her air. Her vision darkened. Her storm cloud disappeared. She felt the transport spell wrap around her and carry her away.
Regina was no stranger to fear. It had been a common enough emotion in her childhood, especially as she'd never known when the next test of her magical abilities would come, or what form they would take. She'd been tested with darkness and cold and fire and loneliness and pain. She grew so familiar with these tests that she'd learned to conquer her response to all of them. Any threat to her own well-being was met with a contemptuous curl of her lip and as much power as she could muster to hurl. But there was one fear Regina had never overcome - the fear of being unable to protect someone she loved. She'd been tested with it once, and had failed; and that failure had cut her so deeply, she'd built protective walls around herself so she'd never be tested with it again. If she didn't love anyone, she'd never have to be afraid of losing them.
Her walls had crumbled before Amanita.
And now she was about to fail again.
Amanita was in Cassandra's clutches; Cora Mills stalked besides her, gloating; the thing that held her down, crushing into her chest, resisted all attempts she made to free herself. She felt herself grow weaker by the moment.
"Mother!" Amanita cried, as Cassandra dragged her nearer.
Regina felt her heart crack with the weight of her despair. She saw Cora's reaction - the startled, staring glare she threw at her daughter.
"What did she call you?"
"Mother, please," Regina begged. "Let her go. You have me. I will do anything you want. Please. Let her go."
"She called you mother," Cora spat, ignoring Regina's pleas. "Is this your heir, Regina?"
Cassandra had reached them now. She held Amanita back with both hands as the child wriggled and struggled to go to her mother.
"Emma Swan?" Cora asked.
Cassandra smiled with satisfaction.
"A memory. She's rotting in the woods by now."
It was a strange thing for Regina, that moment when she learned of Emma Swan's death. She was lying in the dirt at her mother's feet; a woman who considered her a rival had captured her daughter; some nightmare creature held her down, with teeth that pierced her flesh and seemed to be sucking the life force from her with every move she made. There were a lot of things going on to occupy her attention. But in that moment, when Cassandra pronounced Emma's doom, all Regina could think of was that she'd never again see that crooked smile, or look into hazel eyes alight with affection. Of all the things she could have focused on, Emma's smile and eyes were the only parts of her she could bring to mind. She was fairly sure her heart shattered. She had no fight left to give.
A sound finally permeated her despair. Someone was crying. Someone else was crying. Someone other than her. Amanita was crying.
She drew up every ounce of power she had, pouring into it every tremor of loss and despair that shook her. Her hands were still free, and she would blast Cora Mills and Cassandra Spindler to dust, even if the price of that much magic was her own life.
The magic surged from her in a blinding purple stream of power. It went no further than an inch from her fingertips.
The creature that held her pulsed and she felt the teeth dig deeper into her chest. Her power sputtered and faded.
"Do you like my little pet, Regina? We found it in the Blackwoods, oddly enough. I think it was a sort of caterpillar once. It would have grown into some nondescript butterfly or moth. But the fallout from the conflicts turned it into this. A creature that feeds on magic. Isn't it magnificent?"
She crouched so she could look Regina in the eye.
"Don't do this mother," Regina gasped. "Please."
"It has quite the appetite," Cora continued. She reached out and tucked some of Regina's disheveled hair behind her ear, smoothing it off her forehead. "It drained a quite powerful witch in two days. I don't know how long it'll take with you, but it will take all your magic. I'll let you go then. See if your friends in the Light still want you."
"Oh, and don't worry about your little heir. I'll take very good care of her. Perhaps she will prove to be a better student than you."
"You wont," Regina snarled, repeating the words over and over. "you won't, you won'tyouwont."
She called her magic forth again, driven by hatred and fear and all the despairing love she had for her daughter and the grief she suffered for Emma's loss. She was incandescent with power; her skin shimmered as the magic filled her. The creature moved, pushing harder into her, as though trying burrow into her chest so it could find the root of her power and drink from that source. Agony radiated out from where those cruel teeth were gripping into her. She couldn't stop the tortured scream that tore from her throat as she tried to cast a spell - any spell - pushing through the pain and weakness as the power drained from her, flooded from her in waves she could not curb.
Her eyes were fixed on Cora, but behind her she could see Cassandra, her fingers digging into Amanita's shoulders to try to still her struggling.
Her daughter was still fighting, and despite everything, Regina's heart swelled with pride.
She saw Amanita's face twist and snarl into an expression that Regina could not remember ever seeing on her.
"Stop hurting my mother!" Her voice echoed with rage.
Amanita curled her hands and Regina saw her little palms fill with ... not fire exactly. This was nothing like the bright orange flames that Regina produced. The substance in Amanita's hands was dark grey, shot through with flashes of bright light, like a fractured shadow passing across the sun. Amanita heaved one handful of the dark fire at Cora's back. If her mother had any wards up, they were useless against Amanita's spell, and the shadow flames took hold and started to creep up her back. Cora screamed and turned towards Amanita. She waved her hands frantically, wrapping herself in magic to try to extinguish the flames.
The green monster that held Regina twitched, sensing this new source of power.
Cassandra swore and hauled Amanita off her feet, shaking her to throw off her aim as she flung the second fireball. It struck the feeding creature, and Regina felt it hiss against her.
"Again, Amanita!" she cried out.
But Cassandra was hauling the girl away, and Cora was striding towards them, away from Regina and the creature that still fed on her; Amanita was struggling to produce more of her dark fire, but her palms remained empty.
Everything was chaos and pain. The blood pounded deafeningly in Regina's ears, and when she heard the high pitched whooshing noise, she at first assumed it was nothing more than another sign of her body breaking down. But the sound was familiar. She had heard it before. Heard it on a balmy night, when she stood outside their cottage watching Emma Swan test the first broomstick she'd ever built.
The broomstick came rushing between the trees. It flew lower to the ground than normal, but perhaps that was because it carried double the load it was designed for. There was a carrier basket slung under the broom, filled with a yowling helcat. The broom's rider was a strange creature - it looked like a badly melted clay statue.
Kitty leapt from his basket, catching Cassandra in the back and bowling her over. Amanita went rolling away from her.
The broom banked and turned, the rider angling its flight towards Cora. The Queen of the Dark stood her ground and flung spell after spell at the rider - fireballs, blows of pressure, explosions - nothing worked. The rider kept coming, low and fast. When the broom dashed past Cora, Regina saw the rider gesture. Her mother gasped and clutched at her face. She was labouring for breath, clawing at some invisible barrier that wrapped closely around her head, keeping the air from reaching her lungs. The Dark Queen fell to her knees and collapsed onto the ground.
Cassandra was trying to fight off an attack from an enraged Kitty. None of her spells would work against him of course, so she resorted to kicking him. Kitty sunk his claws into her calf, and Cassandra shrieked in agony. She could not run, not with a hundred-pound helcat lodged in her leg.
The rider landed behind Cassandra, took the broom in both hands, and whacked it across her face. The besom broke with the force of the blow. Cassandra staggered, dazed by the strike. The rider jabbed what was left of the besom into Cassandra's stomach, dropped the broom, and finished with a roundhouse punch to her face. Cassandra's stagger turned into a fall. She hit the ground and did not move.
Everything had happened so quickly, Regina barely had time to register that when the rider's fists had connected, great brown flakes had fallen away, showing glimpses of pale skin underneath.
The strange creature was besides her, and Regina looked up into worried hazel eyes. She finally allowed herself to see what she had known all along.
"Regina. Hold on, I'm going to blast this thing-"
"No! It feeds on magic. Get Kitty."
The helcat was not a creature of magic, but he did have sharp claws and teeth. He made short work of the giant caterpillar.
By the time the creature was dead, shredded from the roots up until it had collapsed, releasing Regina, Emma had trussed up the still-unconscious Cassandra and Cora. She'd tied and gagged them firmly with strips of material torn from their own clothes.
Regina was sitting propped up against a tree (brown, not green, and definitely not interested in feeding on her magic). Amanita was in her lap, sobbing against her shoulder while Regina stroked her hair and whispered soothingly. Emma came to kneel besides them. She checked Regina's wounds; the creature's teeth had left deep gouges in her chest, but she was not bleeding. Emma waved healing magic into Regina, watching her face carefully to see when she stopped gritting her teeth against the pain.
Regina stared at Emma while she worked.
There were so many things she wanted to do and say and ask.
She went with: "Why are you covered in mud?"
Emma Swan knew her limits. She may be a witch of great power, as Regina kept reminding her, but that power was still more a potential than an actuality. She needed a lot more training before she'd be able to use her magic to do something like fight off four Dark witches. But what she did have was cunning, and a plan. She ran.
Ran for the pond filled with magic-resistant mud.
The Dark witches chased after her, throwing attack spells with poor aim. Emma suspected they were toying with her. She dived head first into the sludge and rolled around, coating herself in a thick layer of protection.
When she rose from the depths, she looked like some sort of monster, dripping dark ooze and grinning manically as her attackers spells fizzled harmlessly against her. It was not hard to defeat a foe who could not land any blows against you, no matter how close you got to them. Unlike the Dark witches, Emma knew how to use her fists more than her magic, but the end result was the same. Four unconscious witches, slathered in mud to keep them from using their magic to free themselves, left tied to trees in the Blackwoods.
She found Kitty, struggling to get free from under the branches of the fallen tree. The helcat was not badly injured, and Emma gathered him up into her arms so he would be carried with her when she tried to transport home, where she hoped to find Amanita safely hidden in the cottage.
She'd run into the same barrier Amanita had, and realised what must have happened. Cora Mills had sent her witches against them. She'd have taken Amanita.
Emma got on her broom and flew towards Cora's castle. She carried Kitty in a basket beneath her. Between her coating of mud, and the helcat's natural shielding against magic, they were able to pass through Cora Mill's wards.
The rest of it was simple; fly low and fast, following the tug of the spell that bound her to Amanita and Regina. Unleash Kitty against Cassandra while she took on Cora; she used the spell Regina had taught her once, to harden the air to shield against falling rain. 'Don't curve the shield around you,' she'd remembered Regina saying, 'it will keep air out too'. She'd canceled the spell once Cora had fallen unconscious. Emma Swan was not a killer. Besides, she thought the decision of what was to be done with Cora Mills should be left up to her daughter.
She summarised the details for Regina, leaving out the terror she'd felt when she'd found Amanita gone and the cottage barricaded against her, or the thoughts that had overwhelmed her when she'd seen Amanita being manhandled and Regina pinned and helpless in obvious pain. She’d managed to use that terror, to turn it into an anger that sharpened her reactions and helped her focus her power during her attack.
The worst of it seemed behind them now, although Amanita was curled up into Regina, sobbing and clinging to her mother. Regina was dry-eyed and grim faced, her eyes fierce as she held and comforted their daughter. All Emma wanted to do right now was gather her family into her arms and never let any of them go.
But Regina was struggling to her feet.
"We need to leave.”
“Regina, you’ve been hurt-“
“Mother and Cassandra will wake soon. These woods will be filled with Dark witches. We have to go. Now.”
Emma looked ruefully at her broom; with the besom broken and tattered, it would not fly again.
“I’m not sure how to get us out,” she admitted.
Regina followed the line of her gaze and sighed.
“I’m sorry about your broom.”
“It’s a small price,” Emma said earnestly. She clasped Regina’s hand, her eyes burning with tears she refused to let fall.
“There is another way,” Regina said, looking away from the intensity of Emma’s gaze. “But I’ll need your help.”
They stood shoulder to shoulder, Regina with Amanita still wrapped around her, and Emma’s arms filled with Kitty. Emma called forth her power and poured it into Regina, shoring up her depleted resources. Regina cast the spell that would break through her mother’s wards, and then transported all four of them away.
They re-materialised outside the gate of an unfamiliar cottage. It was an odd dwelling. Built of a rough-hewn yellow stone, it consisted of two sections; a tall narrow hall with a slanted roof was connected by a small, covered, balcony to a squat tower. The tower was topped by a metal roof, almost half the height of the tower itself, that looked like the pointed hat favoured by some witches. The yellow walls of the hall were covered with a bright green ivy; the walls of the tower were bare, but inset with several long, intricately carved, window frames. Three shallow steps led up from the ground to the main door of the cottage; it appeared that living branches had been shaped and formed into the railings of the steps and balcony. The cottage sat in open fields, with a single pathway leading away into the distance. There was no sign of any other dwellings nearby.
“This isn’t the Blackwoods,” Emma said, stating the obvious.
“No. We couldn’t go back there. This is Maggie Horner’s patch.”
“Maggie Horner? The midwife?”
“The Edge witch who brought Amanita into this world, yes.”
Amanita perked up at that. Her sobbing had ceased, but she still clung to Regina like she had no intention of ever letting go. But her mothers had told her stories about her birth for as long as she could remember. She still had the little blanket that she’d been told had been her first gift, and she was curious to see the woman who had given it to her.
As they stood talking, the door to the cottage had opened, and a woman was approaching them. She looked more like a farmer’s wife than a witch; she wore a loose linen dress and a rough cotton apron, dusty with flour. Her dark, tightly-curled, hair was covered with a neat square of white cloth. She was round-cheeked and had crinkles at the corners of her eyes that showed she laughed easily, but her face as she approached them was cautious.
Emma set Kitty on the ground, and Amanita allowed her mother to place her besides him. She kept hold of Regina’s hand.
“Regina Mills. What brings you to my doorstep?”
“You gave me some advice once, Mistress Horner. You told me that I should not be so proud that I did not ask for help.”
“I did,” Maggie Horner agreed, nodding; her face was still cautious.
“I have come to ask your help, Mistress Horner. For my family.”
Maggie Horner looked at the strange little group of people that stood at her gate. She barely recognised Emma Swan under her coating of mud; Regina Mills looked like she’d walked through a battering storm; the little girl - Amanita - while she stared fearlessly back at her, had obviously been crying; and -
“Is that a helcat?!”
“This is Kitty,” Amanita made the introductions.
“What comes behind you, Regina Mills?”
“My mother,” Regina replied honestly, “and all the force of her Dark covens.”
Maggie Horner nodded. “So be it then. You had best come inside.”
She opened the gates, adjusting her wards in the same moment to allow the four newcomers to pass unhindered.
Emma walked through the gate first. Maggie wrinkled her nose when Emma drew close.
“There’s a pump and bucket around the back,” she pointed the way. “Why don’t you go and wash the swamp off you? And take the helcat with you. My cottage isn’t ready for familiars.”
“He’s very well behaved,” Amanita said seriously as she followed Emma through the gate.
Maggie Horner examined the girl for a long moment.
“Amanita Buckle,” she said at last. “I am happy to see you child.” Her face suddenly creased into a huge smile. “The last time I saw you, you just about fit into the palms of both my hands.” She held up her large hands, rough and worn, and gestured briefly; there was a flare of pale green power. “Why don’t you go with Mistress Swan? You’ll find a plate of sweet cakes on the grass. Don’t let your Kitty eat all of them.”
She turned finally to Regina, the last one through the gate.
“I assume you and I will want to talk?”
Regina nodded. “Thank you, Mistress Horner.” She squared her shoulders. “I have come seeking your help.”
“Let’s go inside.”
The inside of Maggie Horner’s cottage was a tidy clutter; books and magical implements sat cheek-by-jowl with gardening tools and other, stranger, instruments. Regina looked them over with distracted curiosity while Mistress Horner brewed a pot of tea.
“You look like you need something stronger,” she said, as she placed the cup in front of Regina, “but let’s save that for after we talk. Tell me what has happened.”
“My mother believes I have deserted the Dark in favour of the Light.”
“No! But she will not believe me. And she has threatened Emma’s life. And Amanita’s.”
“And you came to me because you need to place to hide,” Maggie stated. “How much time do we have - before she tracks you here?”
“I don’t know,” Regina replied with a sigh. “I tried to mask the transport spell, but I was weakened. I can’t be sure how long it will take her to break through my defences.”
“So we’ll work fast,” Maggie said firmly. “There is a Light coven I could send you to; they’ve stayed hidden since-“
“No, Mistress Horner. No coven on this world would be safe enough from my mother. I have come to ask for magic. Magic that will send my family through the Sisters to somewhere they will be unreachable. Safe from Cora Mills and all her Dark covens.”
“All magic comes with a price,” Maggie said, her voice wary.
“I will pay it,” Regina said firmly.
“You do not know what-“
“I do not care what the price is. I will pay it. I will pay anything.”
“The magic you ask for, no one has done anything like it since Nan Locket passed on.”
“I know,” Regina replied. “And I know that you are Nan Locket’s chosen heir.”
“I am a shadow of her, Mistress Mills.”
“You are all I have, Mistress Horner. Please.”
“The price for what you ask, it will mean your life, Regina Mills.”
“I told you. I do not care what the price is. I will pay anything.”
Emma stood in the doorway, damp but clean of mud.
“What is going on?”
“I’ve just been assuring our daughter that we are safe. That you are safe. What is this about, Regina?”
“You aren’t safe yet, Emma. My mother won’t stop -“
“What price are you paying?”
“Mistress Mills has asked for magic, to send you and Amanita somewhere safe.”
“Send us? What about you?”
“I’ll stay here, for Cora to find. If she has me, she won’t care about you.”
She stormed away.
“I’ll see to the child,” Maggie said. “You go and set things right with Mistress Swan.”
Regina found Emma pacing in the herb garden on the far side of the cottage. She was muttering to herself as she stalked up and down between the rows of strong-smelling plants and flowers.
She turned on her.
“How dare you!” Her eyes flashed with barely contained fury, and her voice grated harshly through gritted teeth.
“What gives you the right, Regina?” Emma demanded angrily, gesturing wildly. “You can’t just send us away!”
“Emma, please, it is the only way to keep you safe!” Regina cried. “My mother won’t stop coming after us. We’ve humiliated her.”
“And where will you send us, Regina, to hide us from your mother?”
“Through the Sisters.”
Emma’s eyes widened in shock. “What - to one of your other worlds?”
“Yes. My mother does not know enough about Edge magic to follow. Others have done it. To escape her during the conflicts. Nan Locket-“
“You’re going to make us run?” Emma demanded in an incredulous voice. “And leave you behind?”
“I have no choice!”
“Yes, you do! We can stand and fight!”
Emma’s tone lay between shocked and disbelieving. Regina always stood and fought. Everyone who knew anything about the Dark witch knew this.
“My mother will turn every Dark witch against us! I will not risk Amanita’s safety, Emma. Or yours!”
“Your mother does not scare me!” Emma shouted, her fury rising with her suspicion that Regina still did not think she was strong enough, or brave enough, to go to battle with Cora Mills.
“She scares me!”
The admission tore from her, and Regina’s face crumpled into desperate tears. She turned away from Emma to shield herself from the dawning realisation and tenderness that chased the anger from the other woman’s face. She could not be weak about this, not now. Not when so much of importance was riding on Emma realising the danger she and Amanita were in.
But Emma folded her arms around her, pulling her against her body, and breathed her name against her ear.
Her voice was soft and warm and gentle, and it made Regina want to turn her face into Emma’s neck, cling to her, and sob. She took a deep shuddering breath before she could trust herself enough to speak. The words spilled from her, urgent and anguished.
“Oh Emma, please. She’ll hurt you. She’ll hurt you both. To punish me. I’m not strong enough. I can’t stop her. I can’t let it happen again. I won’t. I’ll do anything.”
“Regina, we can be strong enough. Both of us. Together. You know how strong we are, when we work together. Your mother won’t stand a chance.”
Emma shone with that swaggering confidence that Regina found so endearing. And yes, when their magic melded together, Regina felt their power grow and deepen; it was like striking out from shore and diving into the bottomless depths of a warm ocean. Unknown and exciting and welcoming all at once, it felt like coming home to a place she had not recognised she’d been yearning for her entire life. But she could not be sure even that much power would be enough of a defense against Cora’s Dark covens.
“I can’t risk it Emma. If you’re wrong. I’ve seen what my mother will do.”
She felt the brush of Emma’s sigh against her forehead.
“Amanita needs her mother, Regina. Not her sacrifice! What do I tell her? When she asks why you aren’t with us. What do I tell her?”
Regina felt her throat tighten. Emma was no longer angry, and she sounded more despondent than challenging, but her questions cut Regina no less deeply for that. She realised that some of Emma’s sadness was drawn from the unexplained loss of her own mother. She knew how deep those scars ran, and she felt the guilt twist and burn in her gut.
“Tell her that I love you!” she blurted unthinkingly, pulling away from Emma’s arms. “Both of you! And I will not see either of you in danger!”
“If you love us, then why are you sending us - wait. You love us. Both of us. You love me?”
She was staring at Regina as though she had suddenly grown a second head - wide-eyed, slack-jawed, and her hands clenching at her sides.
“Emma, please can we focus on the-“
Emma laughed bitterly.
“I can’t believe this is how you choose to tell me you love me.”
“Emma. I’m sorry, okay.” Regina held a hand out in a placating gesture. “You’re right to be angry. I should have discussed this with you first. Not just made the decision to send you away from your home without talking to you about it. But-“
“Do you think that’s what I’m upset about, Regina?” Emma snapped, “That I’d have to leave this place? I don’t care where I live, Regina! I don’t care what world we’re on! As long as you and Amanita are with me, that’s where home is. I’m not angry because….” Her voice was spiraling higher and faster with frustration, and she broke off, forcing herself to stop and regroup her thoughts.
When she started speaking again, her voice was a forced calm measure.
“Do you want to know what I had planned, for when you came back? After you’d told your mother you were leaving her coven, and you came back to us?”
“Is this really-“
“I was going to cook your favourite meal. Then we’d go out for a walk. Sit under your favourite tree and watch Amanita and Kitty play. And I was going to tell you how proud I am of you, and how important you are to me.” She took a deep breath before continuing in a matter-of-fact tone, “And how very much I love you.”
“Emma-“ Regina tried to interrupt, but Emma took hold of her hands to silence her, and forged on, her tone now coloured with an earnest passion.
“All I want is to be with you and Amanita. A family. The three of us. I don’t care about the Dark and Light, or what the covens may think. I just want us to be together. That’s what I was going to tell you.”
By the time she’d finished speaking, Regina’s eyes were wet with tears, and her hands had curled into Emma’s, trembling within her grasp.
“Were you really?”
“Really. I love you Regina.”
This should have been more surprising. This was a revelation that in theory should have shaken the foundations of her beliefs about their relationship. But as Regina stood there, with her hands clasped in Emma’s firm grasp, looking up into eyes that were bright with an affection and warmth that was all-too-familiar, she realised that none of this felt incongruous. All sorts of things fell into place - little moments and reactions and feelings they’d both shown. She suddenly realised that they’d been moving for years in this direction, and now that they had arrived, it was pointless to look back in shock and say, ‘I didn’t know we’d been walking along this path’.
“Please, Regina. Don’t send us away from you. There must be another way to fight back against your mother.”
Regina heaved a deep sigh. She loved Emma Swan, and Emma Swan loved her, and Emma hardly ever asked for anything, and Regina had made herself a promise, that she would do whatever she could to give Emma what she asked for.
If Emma wanted them to stay together, then they would stay together. They would find a way.
“We cannot do it alone.” That much could not be disputed. Even with their combined power, there was little chance they could resist the entirety of Cora’s Dark forces. They would be outnumbered and overrun, and the outcome of their defeat did not bear thinking of. “We will need the protection of a coven. Maggie Horner mentioned a hidden coven.”
“Yes. Witches in hiding from my mother. Witches of the Light. We can go to them now, for a while. They will find other safe havens for us when we need them.”
And they would need them, because Cora would not stop hunting them. If she had managed to find them in the heart of the Blackwoods, with all the precautions Regina had taken, there was no place on this world where they would remain undiscovered for long.
“You mean…we’d stay moving,” Emma said, her voice shaking. “From one hiding place to another?”
“We can’t stop in one place, Emma. That would be too risky - for us and for those who would shelter us.“
Emma’s face was troubled. She could see the way their future would unfold - a repeat of her past - and she did not like it.
“That’s no way for Amanita to live.”
“We’ll make it work. We’ll find a way,” Regina promised, understanding what was at the root of Emma’s concern. “She’ll have both of us. It won’t be like … like your childhood.”
Emma shook her head.
“She deserves a stable home, Regina. To not always be looking over her shoulder, always wondering when she’ll have to pack up and move again.” She dropped Regina’s hands and stared up at the sky; it was still daylight, so she could not see what she was looking for. But she knew the ring of stars was up there, waiting. “Going through the Sisters - it will give her that?”
“Yes. I believe so,” Regina said evenly. “You won’t be hunted. And you’ll have time, to finish her training. You can come back again, when Amanita has learned how to properly use her power to protect herself.”
Emma looked back at her, confused; Regina remembered that Emma had not seen Amanita cast the dark fire.
“In the woods today. She allowed herself to be angry, and the magic she produced…it was like nothing I’ve ever seen before, Emma. It was a shadow. It slipped past all of Cora’s defences. Who knows what she’ll be capable of, once she’s learned to govern that power.”
“So - we can come back? It’s not a one-way trip, going through the Sisters?”
“No, no. You can come home. When she’s stronger. When she’s ready.”
Emma nodded, then said stubbornly, “I’m not leaving you here, Regina.”
“No. You don’t need to stay here, and put yourself in harm’s way. If your mother can’t follow Amanita and me through the Sisters, then she can’t follow you either! So you can come with us.”
Regina sighed. Of course Emma had been paying attention to the little details like that.
“I asked for the magic. The price must be paid.”
“No. Not by you. Not by you alone. We’ll share the price. We’ve done it before. And look how well that worked out.”
“I heard her, you know. Maggie Horner. She said the price would be your life. And I’ll be damned before I let you sacrifice yourself to save me, Regina Mills. We do this together, or we don’t do this at all.”
Regina found herself wondering, if Emma was any less stubborn, would she love her less, or more. It was a moot question. Emma Swan was rigid with stubbornness, and Regina was tired of arguing.
She pulled Emma to her and kissed her, her mouth fierce.
“Fine. Let’s find Mistress Horner and get this done with.”
Maggie Horner found Amanita sitting cross-legged on the lawn behind the cottage. Kitty was stretched out besides her, rolling on his back to expose his belly to the warming rays of the sun. Amanita’s hands were lying palm-up in her lap, and she stared down into them as though she were trying to read the secrets of her future.
“There is a skill to that,” Maggie said, as she lowered herself carefully to the grass. She arranged her skirts primly around her ankles. “My coven mother taught me. Well…she tried. I was never very good at reading the palm lines.”
“Mother says reading palms is more an art than real magic.”
“Mother … that’d be Regina Mills?”
“Yes. Mama is-“
“She’s right, your Mother. Telling the future is an art. And often women who read palms, they make suggestions more than anything else. And too many people follow those suggestions, instead of their own lines.”
They heard raised voices coming from the herb garden - Emma’s voice low and grating, and Regina’s desperate and pained.
“Mama’s cross with Mother again.”
“It’s happened before?”
Amanita nodded, cautiously, unsure how much she could share with this strange witch; but Mother seemed to respect her, and her eyes were kind.
“Once. She was very cross. But they made up.”
“And they’ll make up again, I’m sure,” Maggie Horner said, the corners of her eyes crinkling as she smiled confidently. “I suspect they’ll always make up, those two.”
Amanita nodded sagely; this was a not a contention she could find any argument with.
The girl stared into her hands again.
“Is Mother going to be okay? Mama said-“
“Your Mother is a strong woman, Amanita Buckle. And your Mama is right. She will be fine. Already, her power is returning and her strength is growing.”
“I couldn’t stop her.” Her voice was very small, and Maggie leaned forward so she could hear. “I tried. But I couldn’t make more fire.”
“It’s a difficult spell, to make fire.”
“You did well if you managed it, even once.”
“That’s what Mother said.”
“And she would know.”
Amanita looked Maggie Horner firmly in the eye.
“Am I an Edge witch?”
“Why do you ask, Amanita Buckle?”
“When Mother makes fire…it’s red and orange, and it burns like fire. Mine was … different. It felt different. Not like Mother’s magic. Or Mama’s.”
Maggie sighed. “We would be proud to claim you, Amanita Buckle. But you do not stand on the edge. Your power - it is different. But I am not the one to teach you about it.”
“So I am still their apprentice? Mother and Mama?”
“Oh, yes. I would not dare claim you from them, child. That’d be more than my life is worth.”
Amanita smiled, a small, relieved smile. She hadn’t had a chance to tell her mothers yet about her fears. When her anger had driven her to manifest her power in the strange dark flames she had known that this was neither Dark nor Light magic; she had worried that perhaps she would have to have another mentor, someone who stood on the Edge, and could understand her power. But Maggie Horner had said her mothers would not give her up. And she believed her.
Amanita couldn’t hear her mothers argue anymore, but knew they were still talking. Their voices were quieter, but she recognised the sound of love and affection. They’d have worked things out soon, and she still had questions she wanted to ask Mistress Horner.
“Were you really there, the day I was born?” Amanita asked.
“Yes. I helped your mother … that is, Constance Buckle-“
“I know about Constance and Ambrose Buckle. But I don’t know about the day I was born. Mother and Mama can only tell me about what happened after they collected me. Can you tell me? Please?”
Maggie Horner smiled down at the eager little face that was turned up to her.
“I can, child. And it’s a fine tale. You were stubborn - you didn’t want to come right away. Oh, you kept your parents waiting before you made an appearance.”
Amanita grinned happily and settled against Kitty’s warm side while she listened to the story of the very short period of time that was her life before she met her mothers.
That was where Regina and Emma found them. Amanita was laughing at something Maggie had told her, and Regina and Emma both paused for a while to watch their daughter caught up in the simple joy of the moment.
Maggie noticed them first.
“Ah, Mistresses Swan and Mills. Have you reached an agreement?”
“We have something to ask you,” Emma said, her voice slightly cold. “This magic that Regina has asked for, can we split the price between us?”
Maggie’s eyes narrowed in surprise. “No one has ever asked the share the price, Mistress Swan.”
“You’re not taking Regina’s life!” Emma snarled, moving to stand in front of Regina, as though there were a present danger she needed protecting from.
Amanita stiffened besides Maggie.
The Edge witch sighed.
“You have walked too long with the dark, Emma Swan. And I do not mean with Mistress Mills. The Edge does not take life.”
“I heard you! You said-“
“I said the price would be her life. And it would. Regina Mills wished to send you before her, thinking she would stay here and distract her mother from trying to hunt you. But that is not how the magic works. It has always been this way. Whomsoever asks for the magic to send someone through the Sisters, they must give their life over to accompanying that person - or persons. They must pass through the Sisters too. They must give their lives over to protect the people they send, keep them safe on the other side.”
“But…that is no price,” Regina said. “I would do that, gladly. It does not have to be asked of me.”
“You are lucky then, Regina Mills. I have seen too many others who have had to choose - to decide whether it is more important to send someone through the Sisters than to stay with those they would be leaving behind. It is not so easy for some.”
“Everything in my life worth protecting stands before you now,” Regina said stiffly.
“I am glad the choice will be easy for you, Regina Mills,” Maggie said with a soft smile. She looked at Emma.
“Do you still wish to challenge-“
“No,” Emma said hastily, “No. Forgive me, Mistress Horner.”
“Good. Then, the magic has been asked for. The price has been told, and accepted.” She got slowly to her feet. “I will go and prepare.”
“When?” Emma asked. “When will we go?”
“When the Sisters have risen, and are aligned in the correct position. Midnight or thereabouts. I’m never quite sure of the timings and positions.” She sighed. “I am not as adept at this as Nan Locket was.”
“Wait,” Regina said. She snapped her fingers, but frowned when her magic met resistance. She concentrated, sent out a stabbing spell, then tried again. Away in the Blackwoods, Cassandra Spindle’s warding spells crumbled around the cottage. Regina’s transport spell located Nan Locket’s old diaries and brought them to her in Maggie Horner’s garden.
“Here. These are Nan Locket’s notes, on the movements of the stars. They may be useful. As her chosen heir, they should by rights go to you.”
Maggie took the old books from Regina and smiled brightly at her.
“Thank you, Mistress Mills. Now, if you need me, I’ll be in the tower, preparing.”
Emma and Regina sat on the grass besides Amanita.
“We have something to tell you, sweetling,” Emma said gently.
“We are going to have to go away. Somewhere very far from here. It will be very different than anywhere you have been before.”
“But we’ll be together. And your Mother and I, we will keep you safe. No matter what.”
“We love you very much, Amanita. And we would not be doing this - we would not be leaving our home - if it was not important.”
“Will we be far away from Cora Mills?”
“Yes, my darling. My mother will not be able to reach us where we are going.”
“Good.” She paused for a moment. “Kitty is coming too, right?”
Emma glanced at Regina, slightly worried. They hadn’t considered the ramifications of taking a helcat to a different world. She wasn’t even sure if he could travel between the Sisters; would his resistance to magic keep the Edge witch’s magic from working on him? If it was like a transport spell, then they could hold on to Kitty and drag him with them, but she’d never even heard of traveling between worlds before, and she didn’t know what the magic would entail.
But Regina was thinking of Kitty launching himself at a witch to protect Amanita, and how fiercely he had fought, even as she had kicked at him.
The helcat rolled over in the grass, chasing the sun, and his head landed in Regina’s lap. His eyes were closed and he huffed a deep contented sigh. She scratched absentmindedly behind his ears.
Family was family. And all her family would make this trip.
“Of course, my darling. We’ll find a way.”
They had put Amanita down for a nap. She had wanted to stay close to her mothers, and they’d sat in chairs besides her bed so she could hear their voices as she fell asleep. She kept one hand on Regina’s arm, even in sleep.
Regina covered her daughter’s hand with her own and sighed.
“She’s so worried.”
“It was pretty scary,” Emma allowed. “I was…it was terrifying, Regina.”
She couldn’t say what was really on her mind, not yet. She couldn’t tell Regina that seeing her powerless had felt like the bottom had dropped out of her world. In Emma’s mind, Regina was an immovable force, unshakeable, untouchable. To see her helpless and in pain, and at the mercy of Cora and Cassandra - Emma was still recovering from the shock of it. And, like Amanita, she wanted to keep touching Regina, to reassure herself that she was really there, and safe, and whole.
But she couldn’t tell Regina this, because a fireball would hurt. Regina would want no reminders of her vulnerability. She’d accept it from Amanita, accept the clinging and the closeness and the worried eyes. But Emma was not sure that Regina was ready to accept the same sort of behaviour from her.
“It was,” Regina was saying, agreeing with Emma’s earlier statement.
Emma mentally shook herself to pay attention. Regina sounded … different. She sounded hesitant and unsure of herself.
“I couldn’t see a way out. I was ready to give up. I thought you were gone, and that I had failed Amanita, that we were all lost. And then you came, Emma Swan. On your ridiculous broom, covered in mud, unstoppable and so, so powerful. I don’t think I have ever been so thankful in my life.”
She smiled a watery smile at Emma, and lifted her hand to her lips and kissed it fervently.
“I love you, Emma Swan. And I may not be very good at showing that love, as you have already noticed, but I do. Love you, that is. Very much.”
“Hey,” Emma said softly, her own voice teary now. “I’ve been thinking about it, actually. And I realise that the truth is, you are pretty good at showing it. I’ve just been really blind about seeing it.”
“I could say the same thing about you.”
“We are a pair, aren’t we?” Emma grinned. She leaned forward and kissed Regina softly. “I’m glad we worked it out.”
Regina hummed her approval and deepened their kiss.
Amanita was asleep, and Maggie Horner had a spare bed set up in a small alcove, and Regina wanted nothing more than to take Emma to that bed so she could curl up in the safety of her arms and spend the hours until midnight kissing her and telling her how much she loved her. She felt she had rather a lot of lost opportunities to make up for.
But as she stood and started to draw Emma to her feet, Maggie Horner descended from her tower.
“We have a problem,” she said, her face creased in worry.
Regina had once tried to explain to Emma just how many other worlds there were out there beyond the stars. The Edge witches of ancient times had perfected the magic that allowed them to move between the worlds. The Sisters were a giant doorway in the sky, and doorways were a kind of edge; so it made sense that this sort of magic became the domain of the Edge witches.
On this world however, Edge magic had changed over generations; it had grown fainter, its practitioners fading, more and more of them becoming true hedge witches - village witches of little power. Only a few women still practiced the old Edge magic, and even with them, the power was waning. The last truly great Edge witch had been Nan Locket; Maggie Horner had power, but she did not come close to Nan Locket. She would never be able to stare down Cora Mills, as Nan had done, and fight her to a truce.
Maggie Horner did know the magic that would open the doorway and allow Regina and her family to pass through. But it was a powerful spell. And powerful spells left residues. Residues that a motivated witch of power would be able to track.
“If she finds me,” Maggie explained, “I do not know how long I will be able to hold out, before I tell her what she wants to know.”
“Come with us,” Regina said.
Maggie smiled ruefully.
“I will not leave this world unprotected, Mistress Mills. I may be a weak shadow of she whom I replaced, but I will not abandon my duty.”
“Is there a way to mask the residue?” Emma asked.
“That is what I have been trying to work out. But I fear - I cannot do it. I cannot hide the traces well enough.”
“So…we will not be as well hidden as I thought?” Regina asked.
Maggie shook her head.
“Is there nothing-“
“I can think of only one thing. But it will make it more difficult for you.”
Maggie placed a parchment in front of Regina. It was covered in strange symbols that glowed and seemed to blend together and separate as the eye tried to read them. She pointed out a section of the parchment, where the ink glowed between blue and green, and the symbols seemed to consist of several interconnected spirals and circles that folded in on themselves. It went on for several inches of parchment, and it left a wobbly feeling in the brain when you tried to pin the symbols down to any sort of permanence.
“This part here, this is the part that shows which of the worlds the spell is sending you to. It prepares you for your new world. Memories and histories. Language, foods - all sorts of things that will help you fit in.”
Regina nodded her understanding seconds before Emma did.
“Now, I can remove this part,” Maggie continued. “Leave the choice of the world random. You could end up anywhere - in any of the thousands of worlds out there. And there would be no way for Cora, or anyone else, to trace exactly which one from the residue of the spell.”
“But we would arrive…unprepared.”
“Yes. Utterly. You’d be alien to the world. And that could be problematic. It has happened before, where this part of the spell was poorly constructed. The travelers ended up branded as mad women, imprisoned and restrained until they were able to learn enough to be accepted.”
“That’s not much of a choice,” Regina muttered grimly.
“It’s a pity we’re not chameleons,” Emma said, trying for humour to lighten the mood. Regina glared at her. “You know, we could blend in..to our surroundings…” Emma added falteringly.
Regina glared at her for half a heart beat more, but then her face suddenly lightened, and she stared at Emma in delight.
“This is why I love you,” she said at last.
“Because I know a lot about animals?”
“No. Because you are brilliant.” She kissed Emma soundly, and turned to Maggie. “Is it possible? To write in adaptation to this section?”
Maggie looked scared for a moment, but then she nodded. “I believe so. But I will need your help, Mistress Mills. I cannot do this alone.”
Regina climbed into the tower with Maggie, leaving Emma curled up in the chair by Amanita’s bed.
Declarations of love and other romantic promises would have to wait a while longer.
Maggie and Regina worked through the evening and into the night. Emma fed Amanita and Kitty, brought tea and bread and cheese to the two witches in the tower, played with Amanita and Kitty for a while, then left her daughter reading while she went to check on her… she realised she wasn’t sure what to call Regina yet, how to name this thing that existed between them.
‘The woman I love’ was truthful, but took far too long to say. Regina was more than a lover - Emma wanted, and knew she would receive, more than physical intimacy now - and she felt the word ‘lover’ was inadequate to encompass all that Regina meant to her. What Regina meant to her. That was a complicated thought. It was all tied up with being Amanita’s other mother, and Emma’s friend and confidant, the person she trusted most in the world, the person she’d want standing besides her in times of difficulty and to share her joys, and the woman she wanted in her bed, the one she wanted to wake up next to every morning, until she was old and wrinkled, and had forgotten everything else but how much she loved her.
Emma could not think of one word that meant all that.
She went to check on Regina.
She found the two other witches bleary eyed but cautiously triumphant.
“I think we’ve worked it out,” Regina told Emma. And with a couple of hours to spare. “We’ll have to explain to Amanita, about how to keep Kitty with her.”
“And it will take more power than I believe is possible for one witch to generate,” Maggie added.
“That’s where we come in. You and me,” Regina smiled tiredly up at Emma. “We combine our magic and fuel this spell. Between the three of us, we’ll have enough.”
Emma nodded. “Okay. Good. But first, you will rest. You look asleep on your feet, Regina!”
She led her to the bed in the alcove, and made her lie down. She held her hand while Regina muttered sleepily about wanting to tell her she loved her, and then she kissed her forehead when Regina’s eyes finally closed. Amanita came to sit on Emma’s lap, and they watched over Regina while she slept.
Maggie threw herself into a nearby chair, and watched the three of them broodingly.
“Thank you,” Emma said. “For helping her.”
Maggie shrugged. “It is my duty, Emma Swan.”
“Will you be all right? When Cora-“ she broke off, uncertain how to continue.
“I will do my duty, Emma Swan. And not just because it is the right thing to do. Your child - Amanita - one day she will be a force to be reckoned with. I am glad to have seen her at her start, and play a small part in helping her along the way.”
Her face softened.
“And Regina Mills…she will always be a favourite of the Edge witches. I may be Nan Locket’s chosen heir, but only because Regina is too impatient to ever be a good Edge witch.”
Emma grinned. She leaned over and kissed Regina’s forehead. She reminded herself to try to never be upset with Regina’s impatience again. It had kept her a Dark witch, and if it hadn’t - then none of this would have happened, and Emma Swan would never have found this little family of hers.
Midnight was approaching.
They were in the tower, all of them, including Kitty. They stood in a rough circle. Maggie Horner waved at the ceiling, and the hat-shaped roof was suddenly invisible. The stars blazed above them, clearer and closer than Emma had ever seen them. Regina gasped in pleasure. They located the Sisters, the ring of stars that Maggie’s spell would send them through.
“Positions,” Maggie ordered.
Regina and Emma stood shoulder to shoulder, their hands lightly clasped. Amanita sat on the floor before them, her arms wrapped tightly around Kitty. A faint haze of magic surrounded them both - not touching Kitty, but encompassing him, holding him in the same circle of influence that Amanita sat in. A wider circle of influence went around the four of them; Maggie Horner stood outside this circle, looking back at Regina and Emma.
“Ready?” she asked.
“Mistress Horner - Maggie,” Regina said brokenly. “I cannot thank you enough. I wish-“
“I know, Mistress Mills. Now, are you ready?”
“Call forth your magic.”
Regina’s magic manifested first, the bright purple glow of it filling the space between the fingers and palms of their hands. Emma’s came next, a shining white light that wrapped around Regina’s magic. They could feel their power build and intensify; could feel the depth and strength and familiarity of it fill them until their skin glowed with a pale red light.
Maggie Horner nodded. Regina had been right when she had said her and Emma’s magic combined produced an immense power. She unrolled the parchment and started to read, her voice pitched low and guttural as she worked through the dancing, shifting, symbols.
The spell produced a green oval glow, as tall as Maggie was, in the middle of the larger circle of influence. It was close to the little family, but there was not nearly enough power in Maggie to keep the portal from wavering, let alone opening.
“Now,” she groaned, trying to hold the spell so it would not dissipate before-
Regina and Emma were pouring their power into the portal, and Maggie Horner gasped. This was a pure, elemental, magic; untainted by any dark or grim emotions, it was light and buoyant, and so beautiful, if she hadn’t been so busy she would have stopped to weep for the perfection of it. She wondered if Emma and Regina realised how powerful their love was.
But as powerful as it was, Maggie registered with a sinking heart that it would not be enough. The portal was firming and stabilising, but it was not growing. It would not be big enough for them all to pass through. Perhaps just Amanita -
As though she had heard her, Amanita frowned. Maggie Horner saw the child begin to fill with power. It flowed out of her in a dark stream shot through with sparkling flashes of light, reaching up to combine with her mothers’ magic.
Oh yes, there was enough power now. More than enough.
Maggie Horner growled the final incantations that would make the portal pulse and glow and grow until it filled the larger circle of influence.
She watched until the glow grew too bright and she had to close her eyes. She could see the lights dance against her closed lids.
She felt the flow of power cut off abruptly, leaving only her meagre magic pouring out of her. She stopped the spell. She opened her eyes.
She was alone in the tower.
The little family had gone.
Maggie Horner sighed. That was probably the greatest piece of magic she had ever, and would ever, perform; and she could tell no one about it. She cast a little spell, one she had prepared earlier; a forgetting spell, it would wipe from her memory all knowledge of the adaptations she and Regina had made to this spell. She would not be able to recreate it, but that meant that neither would Cora Mills.
And Cora Mills would come for her, Maggie was sure of that.
But Regina Mills and her little family would be safe. As safe as their power and unwavering love could make them. Perhaps it would be enough.