Back in the Woods
Emma had a headache. She had hardly slept the night before because of all the thoughts buzzing through her mind like flies around a dead body in summer. It was mostly Regina, of course, the things they’d talked about, the way she had looked at Emma, smiled, looked sad, walked in front of her as they made their way back to camp.
She was worried about her own behavior toward Regina, too. She didn’t want to give her any sign of what she felt, not until she was ready to tell her about it or to do something about it. But that was the hard part, to know what she wanted and be ready to act on it - no matter what the consequences might be. And Emma wasn’t there yet, so ‘Operation: Cinnamon’ was on hold, indefinitely.
What had actually occurred to Emma at four in the morning, however, had nothing to do with Regina. Her mind had drifted so far off that she’d thought about the mission they’d come into the woods for, to apprehend the men who terrorized the realm. While the questioning of the six men they’d caught the day before had yielded nothing, her mind had danced around the question why there had been so few men in that camp. She came across a possible answer quite unexpectedly and was so relieved by it that she fell asleep a moment later. Considering this, it was probably a miracle that she had remembered it at all this morning. But she had and now she was walking toward the tent where she knew Robin would be at this hour. He liked to talk to some of his men and Mulan in the morning, organizing the search parties and consult about how to proceed. Emma had missed it the morning before and Robin had blind-sided her with his plans, she wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again.
Emma walked into the tent as everybody was already huddled over some maps of the surrounding areas. Robin didn’t even notice her as he talked in low tones to Azeem. Mulan, however, looked up at her entering and nodded at her. Emma gave the same greeting and then cleared her throat. Now everyone was looking at her.
“Emma,” Robin said, surprised but it seemed pleasantly so. “Good morning.”
“Good morning. Are you talking about the plan for today?” she asked.
“Yes, we were about to decide which parts to search today. Mulan told me that you haven’t gone very far yesterday.”
“I know it was my fault. I guess I’m not used to spending a whole day in the saddle, not to mention two in a row. But... I was thinking about something. May I?” Emma pointed at the table with the maps, asking permission to step forward. Given, it felt a little formal but she wasn’t sure if she was even allowed inside this tent or whether Robin would take offense at her interfering.
“Of course,” he said.
Emma stepped forward, looking at the maps that were lying before her. There were individual maps of each of the kingdoms and she pulled four of them together to form one map of the area they were searching. Azeem had already added something that looked like an abandoned camp site on the map of her father’s land.
“I was thinking about... how there were only six men in this camp.” She put a finger on it. “From what Azeem told me, there were always about thirty men raiding any given place, so, where are the rest of them? This morning I remembered that there have been some attacks that had been fairly close in time... and...” She looked at the maps, pointing to the middle where the four kingdoms in question met. “What is here? What kind of terrain? It looks hilly?”
They all looked at the spot where Emma rested her finger.
Robin looked at Azeem.
“There is a mountain here on Eric’s land, it falls off in a cliff. At its base, there is supposed to be a valley. I have never seen it, that’s why the space here is blank. As you can see, there’s hills on your father’s side and on Phillip’s. I’ve never traveled Regina’s kingdom and it could be that all there are more hills and that the valley is a myth.”
“I don’t think it is,” Emma said. “Look, there are supposedly four camps of these marauders, one in each kingdom. But the last attacks, they were a day apart. One here, on Eric’s land, one on my father’s. There’s no way thirty men could have traveled from here to there in one day, especially not with the kind of terrain you’re describing. What if there’s a camp right in the middle, in that valley? Something like we have here, a base camp where most of them live. These surrounding camps would act as decoys where a couple of them stay, maybe just to draw attention away from their base,” Emma explained her theory. She was glad that it still made sense in the light of day, she had feared that she had been delirious the night before. But by the thoughtful expressions on everybody’s faces she was onto something.
Robin scratched at his beard while looking at the maps, then he looked up at Azeem who also seemed thoughtful.
“What do you think?” He asked the man who seemed to be his advisor.
“Emma could be right. It makes sense. They wouldn’t have to have a lot of men in the camps, just about the six we found in one yesterday. Then they would send about twenty out for a raid...” Azeem’s voice trailed off as his mind stumbled across something.
“Which would mean, we don’t know how many men there are in total. There could be any number of them living in this valley,” Robin voiced what had Azeem stop mid-sentence. Azeem nodded.
They all grew eerily quiet.
“What’re we gonna do?” Emma asked the obvious question.
“I’m gonna send a message to your father telling him about all this. The wounded men and the prisoners are about to leave. I want for you and Regina to accompany them and...”
Azeem interrupted Robin with a hand to his shoulder and then he leaned in and whispered something to him. Robin looked thoughtful, frowning at whatever Azeem had told him. It didn’t seem to Emma that it had been good news to Robin.
“We’ll send a message with them and then set out, all of us,” Robin said and seemed to include Emma and Regina in his plan now.
“All of us?”
“Regina seems to be the only one who knows that part of this land and I don’t think you would leave her with only about a hundred men for protection, would you?”
Robin fixed his blue eyes on Emma.
“Not for a second,” she answered him.
As it turned out, Regina was indeed the only person of their current party who knew that part of the realm, and she was certain that there was a valley between a vast area of hills that was accessible only from what had been her kingdom. But she made sure to mention that it had been a long time since she’d been there and that she wasn’t at all sure how to get there. The fact that there was a time lapse of 28 years between everybody in the Enchanted Forest remembering her having been there and her actually having been there, wasn’t something she could explain so she didn’t try.
Breaking up camp took longer than Regina would have liked. While the soldiers were prepared to start fighting a war within minutes, they had more leisure when it wasn’t an imminent matter of life and death. Only the Merry Men exhibited a high degree of discipline and haste.
When they were finally ready to head out, it was almost noon and Regina saw Robin riding among the trek to ensure that everybody was ready and nothing had been left behind. Finally, everything seemed to have been taken care of and the two parties left the base camp; one headed for King James’ castle, the other for Regina’s former kingdom.
The path led them uphill on a relatively wide road. There was enough space for three horses or five foot soldiers to walk alongside each other which made it easier to overlook the whole trek.
Robin was once again riding in the far back with Azeem while Little John took lead, Mulan by his side.
Regina and Emma rode somewhere in the middle since it would take them some time yet to reach the part of the realm only Regina knew. They rode in companionable silence for awhile, at least it felt like that to Regina. She was deep in thought and it took her some time to notice that Emma seemed nervous. She was looking around herself quite frequently, turning in her saddle to look back along the trek, then turning and looking toward the tall figure of Little John.
“Are you all right?” Regina asked.
Emma turned toward her. “I don’t know. I have a bad feeling about this,” she admitted.
“Are you actually quoting Star Wars at a time like this?” Regina asked with what she hoped was a calming smile.
Emma looked at her quizzically for a moment then she smiled back. “It’s a classic.” Once again, she turned in her saddle looking back toward the end of the trek.
“What is bothering you, Emma?” Regina asked.
“I’m feeling like I’m leading everybody into a trap. I don’t know, maybe it’s just nerves.”
“What makes you think it could be a trap?” Regina asked.
Emma shook her head impatiently as if wanting to shake off the notion.
Regina reached over to touch her arm. She could feel the muscles under her hand tense but she didn’t relieve her hold on Emma. Instead she squeezed to get her full attention.
Emma looked back at her; for a moment there was this easy flow of communication that sometimes occurred between them, quite unpredictably and without words, something like magic.
But then Regina blinked in confusion, looking away for a moment to escape the intensity of Emma’s stare. She touched her chest where her heart beat wildly beneath her rib cage.
“This is all taking too long,” she heard Emma exclaim impatiently beside her.
Regina turned to her but couldn’t detect anything amiss, anything that indicated that they had just shared a moment. Had it all been her imagination, was she the only one that had felt the current of electricity floating between them?
“Why do you think it’s a trap?” she heard herself repeat the question.
Emma’s look seemed guarded this time and it didn’t linger. “We’ve been here for two days now, searching these woods. We haven’t been exactly quiet and we have already found out one of their camps. And those weren’t there for protection, they were decoys set up to be discovered so that search parties would find them and think the threat was over.” Emma shook her head again. “This whole operation is too big, too elaborately planned for them to have not taken some kind of precaution.”
“You should tell Robin,” Regina advised.
Emma only looked grimly at her for a moment.
“Did I say something wrong?” Regina asked.
“I know that you’re quite taken with him but that doesn’t mean that I have to share that opinion,” Emma gave back testily.
Regina squinted her eyes at Emma. “Is this still about you thinking I would leave Storybrooke? We both know that’s not an option so would you please drop it?” she snapped.
It looked like Emma wanted to snap back, but instead Regina saw her clamp her jaw. It took Emma a long moment to finally answer. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just on edge and I guess I’m not used to confer with anyone on my haunches, especially not someone who’s been asked by my father to have an eye on me.”
“David is just worried about you. I was actually surprised that he didn’t join us, just to make sure you’ll make it home in one piece.” Regina sat up straighter in the saddle, trying to get back control of her emotions. She wasn’t sure why she’d snapped at Emma, why they were both so touchy about this subject.
It was so strange between them. There were moments when they were completely at ease with each other, like just now before... but moments of trust and easy conversation were usually followed closely by one of them shutting down, getting uncomfortably conscious that it shouldn’t be like this between them. It was a tug-of-war and it was exhausting. Regina didn’t want to build any more walls against Emma. She felt that this part of their relationship was over, should be over.
“I’m not as bad as all that,” Emma now said.
Regina looked at her puzzled, having almost forgotten what they’d talked about before.
Emma smirked. “David trusts me,” she added in explanation.
“Maybe you should trust yourself and follow that haunch,” Regina acknowledged and gave Emma a small trusting smile of her own. “There’s a fork in the road, I would say about half an hour from here where we will take the left downhill toward the ‘dark kingdom.’ The right one leads uphill and should afford a view of the valley now that my former kingdom has been burned. There’s no guarantee but maybe you could see something from up there,” Regina suggested.
Emma beamed at her. “We make a good team,” she said, then blushed.
Regina laughed. “Like it’s the first time we set out to save the world together. Why don’t you head back and talk to Robin about it and I will tell Little John to slow down when we reach that fork in the road?”
Emma nodded and they parted to do what Regina had suggested.