Disclaimer: I do not own Once Upon A Time or the characters or settings therein. This is a work of fanfiction created for entertainment purposes only. No profit is being made from this story.
Author's Note: Oh my gosh! Look at where we are. The battle is about to commence! Also, today's chapter title brought to you by Julius Caesar. Translation: "The die has been cast."
Chapter 16: Alea Iacta Est
The sun was still high when David called the troops together. The militia army they had acquired and trained in the last few weeks had trickled into the manor throughout the day, and Lady Ella had graciously provided places for everyone to sleep for a few hours. Killian saw thick, down-filled cushions and pillows, and heavy duvets piled in the floor of the large dining room and salons as he made his way outside. Their hostess had also provided a hearty lunch of thick-cut meats, savory cheese, fruit, vegetables, and brown bread.
Killian joined the men and women who had volunteered to fight on the front lawn of the manor, listening while David went through the plan and everyone's duties again. He stifled a sigh, knowing that this endeavor needed to be flawless if they were to succeed, but the interminable preparation and endless repetition was one of the things he had been glad to leave behind in the navy. Piracy was much simpler: attack the other bloke and take his money.
From the bored expression on most of the faces of the Merry Men, they felt the same. Except for Roland, who appeared to be tracking the Princess Alexandra as she assisted her mother and the servants as they handed out handkerchief-wrapped provisions. He would have made fun of the younger man, but Killian soon spotted the white form of Emma-swan settled into the shade of a tree, Henry beside her with his arm slung over the swan's back, and Killian found himself trying to judge what the swan was thinking as she inspected her troops. Was she pleased with the turnout? Did she think they were ready? Her swan's face was impossible to read, but from the way her head moved constantly, allowing her a full view of the rows of fighters ready to head out, he thought she was pleased with what she saw.
He glanced around the contingent as well, and allowed himself a smile at how far these men and women had come in so short a time.
"The first group leaves now to clear our way," David announced, calling Killian's attention back to the proceedings at hand. "Red, you're clear to take your pack. Clear as many of the castle guards and patrolling knights as you can."
"Can you maybe not kill all of them?" Henry called out. "Some of the knights are okay. They just needed a job, and, well, being a Black Knight does keep the Queen from killing your family, usually."
Red smiled at the boy. "We'll do what we can. Anyone who willingly stands down, we'll spare. But if they fight back, my people will defend themselves."
Henry nodded, frowning, and slumped back. Killian felt for the boy. He had survived several battles, but clearly he had not allowed himself to think that the opponents they fought had been real people, and their deaths were permanent. It was quite a moral quandary for the lad, and one that Killian hoped would not scar his optimism and faith in humanity. Those qualities were far too rare, and when Henry eventually did take the throne after his mother, optimism and faith would ensure that he would be a beloved king.
Red, Jeb, Link, and Fay led the way into the forest followed by the dwarves. The wolves had their extraordinary strength and speed to aid them in the fight, but knowing that the Black Knights could be armed with silver, each also carried a short dagger to help them block an attack. The dwarves were each armed with their pick-axes and an assortment of mining tools—hammers, shovels, and spikes—that could be converted into weapons. According to Lady Ella, the magical loop was only a quarter mile into the trees, and it would deposit them within easy distance of Crystalline Lake and the castle.
"Emma, you'll need to leave soon, as well," David reminded her. "Since you won't have the advantage of traveling the magical loop, you'll need to have as much time as possible today to make the castle by sunset."
Emma opened her wings slightly to signal Henry to let go. Once the boy scooted back to sit cross-legged in the grass, she waddled to her feet. Killian backed up a pace and nodded to her.
"Good luck, Swan," he said. "We'll see you soon."
She nodded her long neck, and then tossed her head to indicate that they move away. Once a space had been cleared, she started her run-off, and in a moment, she was in the air and gaining height. Killian felt his chest tighten as he watched her go, and the muscles in his neck stretched with tension. He chalked his anxiety up to battle readiness, but he kept his eyes on Emma's form until she had disappeared behind the trees, wishing he could call her back.
"Hook," David called his attention back to hand. "I see you aren't ready yet."
Killian scanned the trappings worn by David and Roland. Both were in the blackened armor and chainmail of Regina's fallen knights. The three of them were designated to escort Henry to the castle and breach the walls to allow their forces entrance once the battle began. Killian flat-out refused to wear one. He had killed the knights who wore that armor, and he knew the disadvantages that came with being weighed down by dozens of pounds of hammered and braided iron.
"Sorry, mate," he apologized, shrugging. "I've an allergy to official uniforms. Besides, if I stand in the back, one all-black ensemble looks much like another in the dark."
"At least take a helmet," he grumbled, tossing Killian one of the plumed helms the Black Knights were known for. Killian scowled at the ridiculous headwear. It looked like a black chicken, half plucked. It was doubtlessly as uncomfortable as it looked—heavy, hot and with a tendency to slide about. Besides, it would hide his devilishly handsome features, making it practically a crime to wear the thing.
"I'll carry it until we reach the castle," he decided. Henry snickered at the look of disgust on his face, and Killian raised a brow at him to share the joke.
David rolled his eyes, and turned to the rest of the advance guard. Roland's face hardened into angry, determined lines, his square jaw tight, and his eyes shone with suppressed violence. The dark clothing and armor he now wore complemented the thief's new look in a way that the browns and greens that had allowed him to blend into the forest never could. He tugged on the black leather gloves and adjusted the gauntlet around his wrist as Killian watched.
His father stood with Mara and Tanner. Robin had insisted on joining them in the first wave to infiltrate the castle. He still wore his forest camouflage and carried his bow. The quiver was slung across his back. He and the wolves would be both scouts and secret back-up, for Mara would be wearing the enchanted slippers, allowing the three to slip inside behind David, Roland, Killian, and Henry.
Killian watched Robin adjust the fit of his leather gloves, lacing his fingers together to ensure a snug fit at his knuckles and palms. His breathing was deep, but a bit fast, and Killian frowned. He flicked a glance at David, who had apparently also noticed, as he frowned at the thief.
"Robin?" David prompted. "Are you ready for this?"
He pulled in a deep breath, filling his lungs, and nodded. "For my wife, yes." He licked his lips, nodding again. "Yes."
"Roland?" David asked.
Roland clenched his jaw and gave one sharp inclination of his head. "For my mother."
"Alright," David conceded. He turned back to the rest of the waiting troops. "Then Little John will lead the second wave out at dusk, and the Fairies will join us shortly before midnight."
"Princess Alexandra has also offered the guards she brought with her," Roland reported. Killian raised his brow and smirked at him, noting the slight reddening of Roland's ears. But to give the man points, he did not fidget or try to explain why the Princess made the offer to him and not to David.
"I did," the lady in question confirmed, joining the huddle of men. She was dressed in a pretty, albeit simple, yellow dress, complementing her milk-and-honey coloring. Almost as one, the gentlemen bowed a greeting, Killian included, though he kept his eye on the interaction between the Princess and the young thief. Princess Alexandra acknowledged each of the men with a general nod, but kept her gaze on Roland. "I wanted to contribute something more to the campaign than just a pair of shoes and wrapped sandwiches."
"The shoes will be put to good use, and food is always appreciated," David reassured her.
"Even so," she said. "I may not be capable of fighting alongside you, but at least my guards can. And if the Dark One and the prophesy about Emma is correct, this may be my only chance to ever save my father." Her eyes filled and she rolled her lips between her teeth as she pulled in a deep breath. "I've always felt horribly guilty…I always felt like it was my fault he was taken. The Dark One wanted me…"
"Don't think that," Roland told her. "The Dark One is the only one to blame. He took your father. He is the guilty one."
"He usually is," Killian muttered, but it was clear neither one was paying attention.
Princess Alexandra smiled at Roland. "Thank you for that, but it doesn't change the way I feel. So please, take my men. Defeat the Evil Queen, and save Emma from her curse. Then perhaps she can help me bargain with the Dark One for my father's release." She glanced around the circle and offered a last nod. "I hope to see you—all of you—back safe and victorious."
"And with that, I think we'd best head out," David said.
Once again, the Infinite Forest—if it truly did possess some sentience of its own—seemed to look kindly upon their cause, and in a few hours, they reached the pebbled beach of Crystalline Lake, and Killian found himself looking up at the imposing, white-washed castle backlit by the crimson and orange of the setting sun. The sky in the east was already dark and sprinkled with stars, and the west was burning with the last light of the sun as heavy purple clouds boiled over the horizon. Smoke curled from several of the tall chimneys, but most of the windows were dark, even with the encroaching night.
"Either no one is home, or the Queen is stingy with her candles," Killian mused.
"Probably the latter," Roland muttered.
"Mother doesn't keep a court at any of her castles," Henry explained, his own voice barely above a whisper. It was as if all of them were afraid the Evil Queen would hear them, even from the lakeside. "She'll do whatever she wants, whenever she wants, without input from a council of morons, and she's not about to hand out honors or accolades to a lot of imbecilic toadies."
"Good," David murmured. "That means we won't have to worry about collateral damage."
He led the group deeper into the woods surrounding the lake. The land rose up sharply from the beach until it joined the rocky outcrop upon which some ancient king or queen had built the paved causeway. All seven of them were out of breath by the time their boots touched the paving stones of the road—even the two werewolves. Poor Henry, with his shorter legs, had fared the worst. Killian steered him to a convenient tree stump and urged him to sit.
"Rest a bit. We've a few hours until the fairies join us."
Or until Emma could reach them. Even knowing that it would be a longer journey for her, that the magical shortcuts only existed under the ancient, towering trees and within the ground saturated by centuries of sorcery, not high in the air above them, he kept scanning the forest looking for the pure white form of a swan. They had only been separated for a few hours, but already he missed her. Which was both pathetic and troubling, and not something he wanted to dwell on with both her father and her son about and a battle looming ahead.
Time crept on. The last light of the sun faded from the west and the clouds that had been amassing on the horizon crept over the twinkling stars visible through the leaves every time a gust of wind forced a window through the canopy to the heavens. David kept a silent vigil through the trees, staring at the home that he had once shared with his family. Tanner, Mara, and Roland took turns wandering through the trees to ensure they were not being tracked by the Queen's men. Robin, thankfully, pulled out a deck of cards, and entertained Henry with a quiet game. Killian played for a while, but the itchy anticipation that crawled under his skin made it impossible for him to sit still and concentrate for long. He strained to hear any sound that might announce an ambush, but no sound came from the forest around them except for the occasional chitterling of a bat. He supposed that meant that the wolves were doing their job and clearing the forest of any Black Knights.
At last, the gonging of huge bells run out from the castle announcing the time. Nine echoing reverberations. It was time.
Mara pulled off her boots and slipped into the sleek glass slippers. As soon as her second heel settled into the cup of the second slipper, a shimmer of silver mist and sparkle swirled up from her toes, and where the magic touched, suddenly the woman was gone. Killian felt his brows fly up to his hairline, and he stifled a gasp. A slight distortion of the trees and undergrowth behind where Mara stood was the only indication she moved, presumably raising her hand.
"Whoa," Henry said.
"This is a very strange feeling," she reported from seemingly empty space.
"I'm…glad to see they work," David said, cocking his head this way and that, as if by changing his perspective, he could distinguish Mara's form through the sorcery. Satisfied that she was truly invisible, he nodded. "Robin and Tanner, I guess all you have to do is keep hold of her, and you'll be fine. Let's move out."
Tanner waved his hand about until he hit his packmate, prompting a growl from the lady wolf. An invisible grip on his flailing hand caused a new stream of sparks to engulf Tanner, and then he, too, was gone from sight. Robin was gentler, carefully placing his hand on Mara's shoulder until he disappeared, as well.
David and Roland, dressed in their stolen uniforms, took the lead with Henry between them, and Killian, rolling his eyes, donned the feathered helmet and fell into step behind them. Now that the hour was upon them, time seemed to speed up. It felt as if they only walked for a few moments through the darkness made deeper by the growing cloud-cover before they reached the tall portcullis at the castle gate.
"Identify yourself," the castle guard ordered when they approached.
"We found the young Prince," David reported, pulling Henry—who was doing his best to look meek—forward to show the man. "Let us in so we can deliver him to Her Majesty."
"Are you sure it's the right one this time?" the guard muttered sourly. "The last two were just some village brats sold off by their families hoping for a reward. The Queen was not happy."
David snorted. "Unlike some of those incompetent idiots, I know Prince Henry when I see him."
Killian gave credit to both David and Henry's performances. David tugged Henry into the light of the torches with just enough care so that the guard would not be able to report to the Queen that he had been rough with the boy, but forcefully enough that it was clear this was an unwanted duty. Henry, meanwhile, shrank back while simultaneously angling his face into the light. He even offered the guard a tiny smile and a limp wave.
"Hi, Tom," Henry greeted him.
"Hello, Prince Henry," the guard—Tom, apparently—returned. "The Queen will be glad to see you returned." He turned and began cranking open the gate.
"I thought you were on tower duty," Henry observed.
"Her Majesty was very upset that Gibbs and Marlow let you get past them," Tom said, weighing the words with enough meaning that Killian understood that Gibbs and Marlow would not be a problem for them tonight or any other night.
"Oh," he sighed. This time, when Henry shrank back into David's side, the emotion was real.
As soon as the portcullis boomed into place at the top of the stone wall and the second guard looped the rope in place to keep the iron gate from crashing down, Tom waved them inside. He turned his back to call to another guard patrolling inside the baily who had come forward at the sound of the gate opening that Prince Henry had returned. But before Tom could get more than a word out, he lit up with a bright pink puff of magic powder and dropped to the ground. The second guard jerked in surprise, reaching for the hilt of his sword and pulling in a deep breath. But he, too, was engulfed in pink sparkles and fell clanking to the flagstones.
Killian quirked a brow, his own hand on his sword. He was sure there was going to be a scuffle, and his heart still pounded with unused adrenaline. Everyone look up and found the tiny, glowing form of Nova, hovering before them with her wings buzzing in excitement and a wide, almost savage grin on her piquant face.
"Nice!" Henry complimented her, grinning.
"He'll be out for hours," Nova assured them. "Go! We're working to take down the rest of the guards."
Killian craned his neck to look around the inner bailey, and laughed when he spotted several more brightly colored puffs of magic illuminating distant corners of the yard followed by the clatter of armor hitting slate. He hoped no one inside noticed the ruckus.
Inside the bailey, save for a prone guard or two, the area was completely clear. There were no stalls along the outer walls to house the artisans and craftsmen needed to support a castle of this size—bakers, tanners, blacksmiths, chandlers, carpenters, wainwrights, farriers, hell even armorers. Nothing. Killian could see the empty braces in the stone walls where wood beams had likely been in times past, and many of them were blackened with soot where the wood had burned away, but the supporting community for the castle was long gone.
The clicking echoes of Mara's glass shoes on the paving stones behind them made the silence of the castle even more pronounced. Mara's common upbringing was clear; she had no idea how to step lightly in the glass heels so as not to make noise. It increased the unease tightening Killian's shoulders and making ropes of the muscles in Killian's arms. He knew that there were at least three people in the castle watching him that he could not see—Mara, Robin, and Tanner following invisibly behind—but knowing made him wonder if there were others watching.
Apparently he was not the only one. He drew his sword, using his hook to remove the ugly helmet from his head. David and Roland followed suit, each glancing around them to scan for guards or Knights left awake as they hurried across the open space to the shelter of the castle's second wall, Henry jogging to keep up with the longer strides of the men.
"Is it always this empty?" Killian asked the boy.
Henry shrugged. "I told you the Queen, doesn't like company."
As they approached the wall to the inner bailey, another flare of fairy light came from the high wall above as the fairies took down another guard. One man already sat slumped at the base of the wall, snoring softly, a faint periwinkle shimmer coating his black helmet. Even so, they edged quietly past him into the inner bailey, each man scanning the area for anyone still awake and likely to accost them. The flagstones in this court yard were blackened unevenly, a further testament to the blaze that David had once said burned through the castle during Regina's attack. The Queen did seem to love fire. He could almost still smell the charred wood.
As in the outer bailey, the space here was completely barren except for two notable features. The first was a circular hearth made of pure black basalt that simultaneously meshed with the burned stone and appeared completely foreign. Embers glowed from inside, but the light barely made it out of the high walls of the hearth.
In front of the west wall, the second feature stood. It, too, was black stone, but it glistened like glass. Obsidian, Killian guessed. Sharp, black volcanic rock that shone from within, illuminating the features shaped from the stone. It was a statue of Regina in full court dress, an imperial crown on her head, face triumphant and proud, and holding in her hand a huge ruby carved into the shape of an apple. Beneath the figure was mounted a silver plaque. As if it had some magical power, it drew Killian, David, and Henry close. He heard David's breath hitch and rasp as they read the engraved message in the light of the sorcerous fire from within the rock.
"Here lie the bones of the traitor Snow White,
charred black by dragon fire
in righteous retribution
for the wrongs she committed in life."
David gripped his sword tightly, took a step back, and Killian saw he was about to swing the blade at the statue. The shepherd had tears in his eyes, and the muscles in his jaw jumped as he tried to restrain the cries he was barely choking back. Killian swallowed down his disgust at the Queen's gloating and the horror that David had seen it. He placed a hand on David's arm, pulling the sword down before he swung.
"Not now, mate," he murmured as gently as he could. "Save your anger for the battle. We'll care for your wife's remains after we've defeated Regina."
"He's right," Robin's voice whispered from behind them. "I know exactly how you're feeling right now, my friend. But destroying the statue now would cause too much commotion, and surely the Queen would come to investigate."
David pulled in two quick breaths, and Killian briefly tightened his grip on his friend, letting the other man know he was there. He understood exactly what David was feeling, but he also knew that now was the time to focus. He had to hone that anger. Killian was guilty enough of letting his temper get the best of him, but only when he was at a dead end and feeling helpless. They had a plan. They needed that rage contained for now.
"I swear to you," Killian swore. "Once we've defeated Queen Regina and freed Emma, I will help you topple the damn statue myself."
"We'll make sure that Grandmother has a perfect place to rest," Henry assured him. "Somewhere nice, with lots of flowers and birds."
"But first, Regina," David rasped. He pulled in three deep breaths, and rubbed his knuckle under his eyes. He nodded to Roland, who reached out to pat his shoulder.
They made it through the courtyard and into the castle easily. The fairies had proven to be competent vanguards, and the few guards that had been posted were unconscious under a sparkle of fairy dust. Once inside, they climbed a stone stairwell that in daylight probably glowed white, and seemed to shimmer under the illumination of the torches burning in sconces along the walls. At the top was a huge hall that had clearly been designed to impress. The vaulted ceiling soared twenty feet above Killian's head, and two parallel rows of tall windows that in the day would provide a view down into the inner bailey and just over the top of the outer walls where. Currently, the huge gold and glass lamps set in the narrow wall space between the windows, provided additional illumination as the low-burning flames reflected off the glazing, turning the windows into dark mirrors. Outside, occasional lightning flickered in the distance, allowing Killian to see past his own image into the night.
But aside from the reflections of Killian, David, Henry, and Roland stalking the flesh and blood men, the halls were clear. Oh, there were a few statues of the immortal beasts of the Infinite Forest done in marble, precious metals, and gems; several additional statues of Queen Regina in various poses, both regal and battle-ready; and the requisite ancient suits of armor from long-dead knights of the realm, but no guards, awake or asleep. Empty corridor stretched before them.
"Where are all the interior guards?" Killian wondered.
"We don't normally have many," Henry explained. "Who would try to attack the Evil Queen in her own castle? Besides us, I mean."
A new noise—the sound of hard-soled boots running toward them—spun Killian around, sword raised, Roland and David with him, accompanied by the sound of Mara in her glass slippers tugging Robin and Tanner aside. But Emma, dressed in her blue doublet and black canvas trousers, emerged at the top of the stairs. She stopped, almost skidding on the polished floor. Her eyes widened in surprise at seeing the swords drawn on her, and she held up her hands, now encased in a pair of long grey gloves he did not recall her acquiring.
"It's me! I just got here a few minute ago."
Killian sighed, allowing his shoulders to slump, as David and Roland allowed the points of their swords to lower. Once she was no longer faced with a trifecta of sharpened steel, Emma walked forward and stopped in front of her son, resting her hands gently on his shoulders.
"Henry, are you alright?"
Henry nodded, smiling up at her. "Yeah, I'm fine. We ran into some guards outside, but the fairies took care of them. We haven't seen anybody inside yet."
"Good," Emma said. "Then let's go. We still have to find Regina and make sure this is ended once and for all."
"We aren't killing her, though," Henry insisted.
Emma stopped, leaned down over her son, and took his face in her hands, smiling softly at him. "Of course not, Henry."
Killian met Emma's eyes over Henry's head, but something is off. Instead of feeling drawn in by her, as he always had before, he felt no connection at all. He had expected to share a look of dismay that Henry still believed there was a peaceful resolution with his adoptive mother, but Emma's soft reassurance to her son sounded genuine. Had she had a change of heart? Had she thought of a bargaining chip on her flight that they could use to coerce the Evil Queen?
She reached down and took Henry's hand, leading him further into the echoing chamber, not sparing a second look at her father or Killian, and his sense of unease deepened. There was an almost indistinguishable sway to her step. Emma seemed eager for the fight to begin, and far more confident than she had been the night before, as if she had a secret weapon that none of them knew about. But then, he supposed that now the time to face Regina was upon her, she could be experiencing the adrenaline rush prior to the start of combat. And despite Henry's hopes, he felt the crackle in the air around them that preceded a battle. He had known this feeling for all of his adult life, and the approaching storm outside is doing nothing to settle his nerves. A distant growl of thunder rolled over the castle sounding like an approaching predator.
As they neared the center of the vast hall, David turned his head to glance about, and whispered, "Are you three still with us?"
"We're still here," Robin assureds him from the apparently empty space behind them.
David paused, causing the rest of the party to stop. "Mara, could you and Tanner shift into wolf form and track Regina by scent? It would save us having to search all over the castle for her."
"Not tonight, we can't," Tanner scoffed.
"What?" Killian demanded, his hand tightening on his sword even though he only had a vague idea of where the invisible twat lurked in the darkness, hidden by the Crocodile's magic.
"It's the new moon," Mara explained. "Any other time of the month, we could change into wolf form, though it requires more concentration as the moon wanes. We still have our sense of smell, our speed, and our strength, but the dark of the moon is the one time we're stuck in human form."
"Emma is the reverse of a werewolf," he said, stating the bloody damn obvious. She would be stuck as a swan. And if Emma was forced to remain a swan tonight…
His ears started ringing, and his stomach churned. He nearly gagged as his whole body went cold. David and Roland realized the same thing in the same instant, and they all rounded on the false Emma with swords drawn. David lunged forward and pulled Henry put of her grasp, pushing him behind him, and Killian stepped closer, shielding the boy from the back as his grandfather protected him from the front.
"Emma" laughed with a sensuous shrug of her shoulders, throwing back her head and raising her arms. A brief swirl of dark, violet smoke rose up over her head, staying close to her body, and when it cleared a racing heartbeat later, Regina stood before them dressed in a body-hugging velvet gown, the one strand of silver in her hair rose over her left eye like a dramatic punctuation. For an instant she was illuminated by the flash of lightning outside—closer now followed almost immediately by the accompanying boom.
The sound of metal on metal drew their attention to the statues along the corridor before and in back of them. The presumed empty suits of armor clearly had inhabitants, and those statues of chimera and griffons melted away to reveal even more armed men. Twenty Black Knights had their swords out and held ready to attack. Their leader, a tall man with dark curly hair who did not bother to wear a helmet but did boast a quiver on his back and a bow slung over his shoulder, held up a hand to signal them to halt before he stepped closer to the Evil Queen, his sword drawn but pointed toward the floor.
They were surrounded. Damn and bloody hell. Killian pulled in a deep breath and forced the lump in his throat down.
"Mother," Henry breathed.
"Hello, Henry. When I've taken care of this little problem, you and I will be having a long discussion, young man."
Post-script: This chapter used to be longer, but that was such a perfect place to stop. Just remember, I've been warning you all fic that this is a slightly darker take on the Enchanted Forest we've seen on the show. Also, yes, that Black Knight at the end there is exactly who you think it is. More from him next chapter.