The Once Upon a Time Virtual Series
Virtual Season 3
Executive Producer: Silverbluemoon
Story By: RebelByrdie and Silverbluemoon
Written By: Korderoo
Illustrators: TheCecilz, ArtByJoana, and Fox
Edited By: Silverbluemoon
Advisors and Consultants
Research and Development Assistant: Archaeomedic
This series is Rated M for language, violence, drug references, and adult situations.
It is not intended for all audiences. Please use discretion.
Publication Date: Christmas Day, 2015
“In the criminal justice system, magical crimes are considered especially heinous. In Storybrooke, the men and women who investigate these crimes are known as the Sheriffs Charming. These are their stories. BUNG BUNG.”
uby sighed as she lowered the front legs of her chair back to the ground and took in the pile of paperwork in front of her. She had imagined police work would be exciting – catching criminals and busting heads like her favorite TV detectives. It seemed like the only excitement around Storybrooke came in the form of amnesia-inducing purple clouds, magic-wielding villains, and pitchfork-happy mobs.
She cocked her head. Put that way, it did actually sound fairly exciting. And she did appreciate the opportunity to protect the people she cared about. Recently she felt as though she had found her place in the community – the protector of her pack.
“They do say the pen is mightier…” she sighed heavily as she picked up the ballpoint and worked her way through the pile of papers, each requiring her signature.
She arched her back as she stood and tossed the pen onto the desk. Feeling the need for fresh air, she opened the window wide and breathed in the cool air. While the sun had thawed the frosty morning the afternoon air was still chilly and brisk. She thought enviously of her deputy out in the field while she was stuck behind a desk. Leroy was on crossing-guard duty.
There had been some trepidation when she had appointed him to the post, but all things considered, Ruby could not dismiss the comfort of knowing her long-time comrade in arms was on patrol. While his disposition left much to be desired, there could be no doubting his loyalty.
Though three decades had past since they had stood in battle together, Ruby’s memory of it was crystal clear. The taste of thick, hot blood on her tongue. The sight and smell of a field of fallen warriors, claw marks and bites having rent their flesh.
Ruby’s shiver had little to do with the damp air. She disliked looking back on those times. She knew for a fact that Snow actively avoided any thought of them. Despite her own good memories of their friendship, Ruby could not blame her. Wartime was difficult and traumatic for many. For Ruby, though, it was the gaps between good times and bad that were the most painful to recall.
The Enchanted Forest, before the Dark Curse
As Red ducked into the Inn, she let down her hood and evaluated the crowd. The place was small but it had been familiar to her since she was a child – long before she had learned to fear the moon. Its location at the crossroads meant that it was constantly occupied, although the owners had changed three or four times since she and Granny had first stayed there.
Hushed conversation followed her as she made her way to a table against the wall and sat. Her cloak had once provided her the protection she needed to keep her secrets hidden. Now it identified her as Princess Snow’s Wolf. The moniker was not one she appreciated, but truth was, her loyalty to Snow was as fierce as her moontime growl.
The crowd this evening was mixed – families clustered around tables while travelers gambled or bartered in dark corners. Prostitutes wove through the crowd of men at the bar, primarily occupied by a group of soldiers.
In her years of friendship with Snow, Red had observed that royals fought for power and nobles for influence. Merchants profited by backing victors in wartime. Knights sacrificed profits and power in favor of honor.
The battles soldiers fought, on the other hand, were decided by others. They themselves sought only to provide food and safety to their families. As Inns were oft a place to obtain both food and safety, it was the soldier’s’ code that Inns should be neutral space even in the midst of bitter war. Of course the odd bar fight would occur on occasion, but they were typically petty and easily resolved.
Despite this, Red eyed the crowd warily as she ordered ale and a meat pie – her back to the wall and her eyes on the door. As Princess Snow’s Wolf, she was sure to be a target of the Evil Queen and a nearly irresistable ransom for any of the poor farmers and vagrants that frequented the pubs.
It was the soldiers that made her the most uneasy. They wore the crest of the Evil Queen herself. Whether she could thank their level of inebriation or the heady intoxication of the ladies of the night, she could not say, but they did not seem to have noticed her. She watched them intensely, her head lowered.
So focused was she that she almost didn’t see the real threat when it arose in the form of a farmer clutching a worn-out hunting knife in a trembling hand. As she raised her eyes to meet his she could see sweat beading on his brow even as he raised his hand with focused determination.
She was little threatened by the underfed and unarmored enemy. Even his knife was shoddily constructed.
In his hand, though, he held a worn and tarnished amulet on a tattered leather cord.
It swung toward her as he thrust wildly with the knife. She instinctively held her hand out to block it. Her palm blistered and burned where the amulet met the flesh of her palm.
She hissed in pain as she clutched her hand to her chest, her eyes tightly closed. She prepared herself for another blow but before it fell, there was the sound of chairs scraping against the floor and a disgusted grunt from the bar.
She opened her eyes to see that two of the Queen’s soldiers, their gleaming helms still on the bar, now stood and glared in their direction. The entire Inn, the farmer included, had frozen waiting to see what the Queen’s soldiers would do in light of the scene.
The first, a short, stocky man with close-cropped brown hair sneered, “Trouble maker.” Red could not tell whether his comment was directed toward the farmer or her.
His companion, half a foot taller and slender but muscular with pale blond hair and watery eyes squeaked out, “It’s our night off.”
They made their way across the bar, the other patrons jumping out of their way as they approached. Red raised her fists and prepared to fight. The shorter soldier moved within arm’s reach and Red braced herself but instead of reaching for her, he landed a blow across the farmer’s chin. His companion stepped forward and punched him in the gut. The farmer doubled over and the soldiers grabbed both his arms to drag him outside.
Red stood watching, her mouth open until they reached the door. The adrenaline drove her forward as the door swung shut and she hurried to follow them outside. They dressed down the farmer with painful-looking, but passionless blows. He put up very little fight as they forced him to the ground. He lay in the mud coughing piteously as a cold rain fell.
“Stop it!” Red found herself crying out and running forward, placing herself between the soldiers and the farmer.
The shorter soldier glared at her and sneered, “Oh, shut up” but made no attempt to harm her.
His comrade added, “You’re the reason we’re out here and not back in there, enjoying our furlough.”
“Beating up the best pig farmer in the kingdom,” the stocky man kicked mud in the farmer’s face as he spoke.
The taller man followed suit, the mud filling the farmer’s eyes, but he never looked away from Red, “Monster”.
The shorter man spit, “Bitch”.
The taller man pushed her to the side and moved forward to kick the farmer. They continued to fling obscenities at Red as they methodically beat the farmer.
She felt tears of rage and confusion fill her eyes as she cried, “I don’t understand. I can take care of myself.”
The taller man gave a bark of laughter, “We know that, Wolf.”
His friend stepped away from the farmer now, walking closer to Red. “Saw you kill my cousin last Spring. Ripped him limb from limb.” He stopped directly before her.
“Hard to miss the red cloak.”
Red stammered, “We’re…we’re enemies.”
The soldier in front of her shrugged, though his face was anything but casual, “Her Majesty has rules and we don’t fancy a meeting with the lash.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The Queen’s protection of wolves extends to all wolves. Even monsters like you.”
“The last time our lot tangled with the likes of you, one wolf died. Just one. The Captain and his Lieutenants died. She snapped their necks with a twitch of her hand. The soldiers got the lash – ten apiece. The courtyard was awash in blood – our blood.”
As his friend spoke, the man before her held Red’s eyes, his own dark and full of anger. He added, “The Queen only has a few rules and you don’t break them.”
“But why wolves?”
“You’d have to ask Her Majesty.”
The taller soldier shivered, “I heard she is one. That the blackness in her heart is of the wolf.”
Red bristled, “The Evil Queen is not a child of the moon.”
The man in front of her grinned maliciously, “Maybe, maybe not. A lone wolf, perhaps – driven mad – sick with need of a pack.”
The taller man approached from behind Red now and growled into her ear, “A feral murderous monster. Like you.”
“Stop this!” A man’s voice rang out from the road.
All three of them looked up quickly to find a middle-aged man dressed in finery approaching them. “Get him out of here.”
The stocky soldier bowed his head in respect, “My lord.”
The taller lifted the farmer up as though he weighed nothing and set him on his feet where he swayed dangerously, “To the dungeons?”
The older man shook his head sadly.
“Back to his farm. The dungeons need no more residents.”
“Yes, Lord Henry.”
He tossed each man a satchel of coin. The soldiers bowed and then walked away, the farmer staggering between them. He watched them go, sighed, and approached Red.
“Are you alright, my dear?”
Ruby stepped back, unsure. The Evil Queen’s soldiers clearly treated him as an authority figure, which made her feel unsettled as to who he was and what his intentions were.
“I’m fine. Confused – but fine.”
Henry nodded, “You’d best run along. This Inn often serves soldiers and not all of them are so loyal.”
Red’s eyes narrowed, “The Inns are neutral.”
“Only if the owner decrees that it is so. And trust me when I say that the Bell and Crown’s current owner is anything but neutral.” His gaze lifts to the sign hanging above them where a black crown is emblazoned on a green bell.
“Who is the owner? For that matter, who are you?”
The man smiled at her gently. “I’m an old fool. And my daughter owns this inn.”
Red nodded, although she understood no more than she had before. “Right. Well, I guess I’ll be going.”
She turned to leave.
“She’s not a monster, you know.”
Red turned back and frowned, “What?”
His gaze was fixed once more on the crown above the door, “The Queen,” he turned to meet her eye and continued gently, “Neither are you.”
Red sighed, “What do you know about monsters?”
He chuckled humorlessly, “More than you’d think and more than I’d like to know.”
Present Day, Storybrooke
Of all the memories she had of the Enchanted Forest, that night was one she visited frequently in her dreams. The taller soldier she had never seen again. The shorter she’d killed that winter – his blood a crimson splatter in the fresh snow. He’d been one of many; too many to count after the first dozen. Still Ruby remembered vividly the moment she had leapt upon him. She wondered in that moment if he recognized her in her wolf form.
She shook herself from the memory of death and destruction, but her mind redirected her to consider Lord Henry. She remembered his face and name so clearly. A face she had never seen again and a name later given to a baby boy. Regina’s father, whose grave she visited weekly, had been small and soft-spoken, but he had given Ruby hope when she truly needed it. His assertion that she was no monster had played like a familiar melody in her mind as she carried out the terrible deeds called for by war or the madness of the moon.
Ruby mused that perhaps his relationships with his wife and daughter were proof that he was blind to the monsters within. Still, another part of her wondered whether his love had been a factor in preventing Regina from becoming consumed by the darkness – the beast that her soldier had described. Just as she had Granny to love and accept her through the worst of times, Regina had had Henry Sr. He was her pack.
Ruby frowned as she recalled that the storybook said that Regina had killed her father. It had always been Ruby’s greatest fear – that she would be unable to control her own monster within and would turn on Granny or Snow.
It had already cost her her true love and her mother. She winced as she realized that turning on their mothers was another parallel she and Regina shared. She would never admit it aloud, but at times Ruby wondered whether she didn’t share more in common with Regina than Snow.
“Might as well make her a member of my pack while I’m at it.”
She had meant the words sarcastically but as she spoke, the truth within them startled her.
She had a pack. Perhaps not the Children of the Moon she had once sought to surround herself with, but a pack nonetheless.
Granny, Snow, David, the Dwarves, Belle, Emma, Archie, and yes, even Regina and Henry, had become her family. The people she cared for and would fight to defend. Her pack.
Despite herself, a broad smile spread across Ruby’s face. She no longer felt the burning need to roam – Storybrooke was her home. She had a pack to protect and despite the occasional magic catastrophe or villain of the week – she was happy. Perhaps the happiest she’d ever been.
“Only I could turn an evil curse into a happy ending,” she chuckled.
“What are you yammering on about, sister?” Grumpy piped up behind her.
Ruby jumped and spun around to look at the clock. She’d been lost in her memories and musings for nearly an hour. Recovering, she grinned at the deputy.
“All the kiddies get home safe, Leroy?”
He took off his bright yellow vest and hung it beside his hand-held stop sign on the wall hooks.
“Yup. Any more problems here?”
Ruby shrugged, “No more protests or rocks through the windows. No more burning effigies, though that last one of me and Regina looked pretty good.”
Grumpy snorted his laughter, “I like that one speech Midas gave calling you and Belle rebellious despots. Big words make everything sound scarier.”
Ruby grimaced. Despite the lighthearted nature of their banter, the town was on pins and needles waiting for the next conflict to erupt.
“How is our new Madam Mayor doing anyway?”
Ruby smiled, “She’s fine. Working hard. Pretending all this shit isn’t getting to her.”
Grumpy grunted his understanding before clapping his hands together, “Well, I say we close it up and hit the Rabbit. Drown our sorrows.”
Before Ruby could respond, Nova walked briskly in. She caught Grumpy’s eye and grinned, “Hey.”
Ruby watched as Leroy turned beet red and his face split in a wide grin. If he kept doing that, she was going to have to challenge his dwarf moniker. No one called Grumpy should have such a goofy lovelorn grin. His voice softened from it’s usual gruff manner as he stepped toward the fairy-turned-nun.
“Hi Nova. What brings you to the Sheriff’s Office? Are you okay?” Realizing that she might not be, his face crashed into first worry and then determination to destroy whoever had hurt her. He rushed over to her and looked her over for injuries. “Has someone hurt you?”
Nova smiled prettily and shook her head, “No, I just needed to get out of the convent. I thought I’d come see how our newest deputy was settling in.”
Ruby shook her head as she watched. They were so adorable it was almost sickening. Leroy led Nova out with a hand on her elbow solicitously. They passed by her without even noticing and just as they passed Ruby sneezed. They didn’t even look away from one another.
Ruby chuckled as she wrinkled her nose and wondered why Nova smelled like magic and brimstone. She dismissed it as more fairy nonsense and grabbed her jacket.
When she walked into the diner ten minutes later, Granny handed her three to-go boxes with barely a glance up from her crossword puzzle.
“Belle didn’t come in for her lunch today. Girl is working herself into the ground,” she looked up at Ruby meaningfully, “You, too.” Granny’s face was such a strong mix of worry and pride that Ruby felt an immediate swelling of affection for her.
“I put some pie in there. Apple. But don’t tell Belle that the apples are from Regina’s tree.”
Ruby’s eyebrows lifted, “Raiding the mayor’s tree while she’s away?” Ruby shook her head dramatically and reached out to hug Granny. “You’re a brave old wolf,” she said quietly.
Granny returned the hug for a moment before swatting Ruby with the dish towel and sending her on her way.
Ruby breathed deeply the sweet fall air as she made her way over to Town Hall. She loved the feeling of the sun on her face warming her, despite the chill in the air. The crisp air made her feel renewed and invigorated. She found herself whistling as she entered the building and made her way to the mayor’s office.
She knocked quietly before poking her head in only to find Belle fast asleep at Regina’s desk, her head resting on her folded arms on top of a pile of documents.
Ruby set the bag down on the desk and quietly said, “Belle.”
Belle sat up instantly, her eyes heavy with sleep. She rubbed her eyes like a small child upon waking and Ruby’s heart skipped a beat. Belle had smeared her carefully applied makeup, although instead of ruining anything, it made her eyes look smoky.
Ruby swallowed thickly and wondered how Belle managed to look so completely effortlessly adorable just after waking up. The same could not be said for Ruby – she looked and acted like a wild beast until she had at least two cups of coffee in her belly.
The spell broke when Belle twisted her neck with a crack loud enough for Ruby to hear, causing her to wince and grimace.
“I will never again complain about how boring it was transferring the card catalog to the computer. How Regina did this for twenty-eight years is beyond me.”
Ruby chuckled wryly, “Her own curse.”
“The most terrible of all,” Belle grinned at her, and they looked at each other, caught up in each other. Belle broke the moment first, “And what can I do for Storybrooke’s finest?”
Ruby lifted a take-out container from the bag on the desk. “Dinner.”
Belle moaned at the smell of the food. “My hero.”
Ruby moved the food over to the coffee table and unpacked it as Belle went to grab two root beers from Regina’s mini fridge.
“I hope you’re going to replace those before they get back from Neverland.”
Belle shook her head, “No. Regina owes me a few sodas, at the very least.”
Ruby grinned at her wolfishly. “Vindictive. Sitting in the Queen’s chair has rubbed off on you.”
Belle lifted one eyebrow in an unmistakable impression of the mayor and spoke in a deep, throaty voice, “I shall destroy you while keeping a perfectly balanced budget, Miss Lucas.”
Ruby laughed until she cried, causing Belle to dissolve into giggles of her own. Each time one of them started to calm they would look at the other and start to laugh again. That is, until Ruby had a very sobering thought. She looked around for a moment.
“Let’s hope she doesn’t have this place wired.”
Belle nodded her agreement and could wait no longer to reach out for the food on the table before her. They both began to eat. While they ate, Ruby filled Belle in about the Darling brothers and Regina’s house.
As Belle finished her meal, Ruby reached in the bag to pull out dessert. She lifted the lid to show Belle the pie.
“Granny took the apples right off of Regina’s tree,” she stated, conspiratorily.
Belle’s eyebrows rose, “Scandalous.”
They smiled at each other as they dug into the pie.
Ruby felt deep contentment crash over her in waves. She had long ago accepted that she may not ever have the kind of devoted love that Snow had, but now she began to believe that she didn’t need that. Her “happily ever after” might be made up of a thousand tiny moments like this.
The comfortable silence was broken by Ruby’s cell phone blaring the bridge to Lady Gaga’s “Marry the Night”. Ruby sighed and answered it – immediately deflating.
Belle looked at her in concern as her face fell and then set into a determined frown.
“Yeah. I’m on my way.”
Ruby ended the call and smiled apologetically at Belle. “The McDonalds and O’Dells are at it again.”
Belle frowned, “Do you need my help?”
Ruby shook her head, “Grumpy is already on the way, but with those two he might need backup.”
Belle leaned across the couch and kissed Ruby’s cheek. “Be careful, Sheriff Lucas.”
Ruby smiled broadly at her before turning to leave – and kept on smiling the entire walk back to the Sheriff’s Station to get the cruiser. Every few minutes, her fingers ghosted the spot where Belle’s lips had touched her cheek.
mma pulled her hands inside the sleeves of her flannel shirt and wrapped it more tightly around her. It seemed that the night air in Alabama could get seriously chilly. Surprising, really, since she was pretty sure it was an actual portal to Hell. Her experience of the southern states had lacked the customary hospitality she had been taught to expect. As an ex-con with barely any possessions and no friends, she had been roughing it for almost a year now. It was hard to find work with no work record, no references, and a correspondence-course GED. She didn’t even have an address to write on a job application.
Alabama was just the latest stop in a long line of backwater towns with crappy, under the table jobs stretching back to a brief stint in Arizona. Her last job as a night clerk in a motel that rented rooms by the hour in Tupelo had earned her just enough cash to get to the outskirts of Birmingham. Gas prices were better here, but she still had only amassed enough cash to fill her tank, get some food, and maybe afford a room somewhere. More often than not, she slept in the bug, but when she could find a hotel room for under forty dollars, she could not resist sleeping in a real bed.
She headed over to the Texas Roadhouse. It was a local steakhouse with peanuts on the floor and she imagined they might not need to see references for the person washing their dishes or bussing their tables. In the time since she had been released she had learned many skills in the foodservice industry. She hated waiting tables, but she needed the money.
Judging by the parking lot, the dingy restaurant did a fair trade in the town. She parked behind the restaurant and headed for the kitchen door. As she raised a fist to knock, however, the door swung open and a young woman stormed out. She threw her apron into the open doorway at whoever was there behind her.
“You can’t keep my tips! I need them!”
“Lady! You don’t work here!”
“I had a deal with the manager. Please! Call Bobby. He said I could work.”
Shit, Emma sighed, it looked like work was out of the question.
The woman, thin with dark hair and eyes looked to be about the same age as Emma. She stood for a moment swearing before walking back to a battered station wagon. The wood paneling and powder-blue paint job would have made it a popular model decades before when it was in its prime. Now, the hood and fender were spray-painted to roughly match and the rust patches clashed sharply with the color palette. It was also loaded full of cargo in the back third. Garbage bags and boxes full of possessions were piled to the roof.
Through the cracked passenger side window, Emma saw the face of a small boy watching her as she approached the car. He was only a toddler, maybe a year and a half, and bundled in a dingy blue coat and hat.
“What are you staring at?”
Emma startled. She had not realized that the woman had noticed her there. Her voice was hostile, defensive, ready to attack. Emma recognized the caginess that she herself felt in this woman. No matter the state, or the age, system kids could recognize other system kids.
Emma jerked her head toward the kitchen door, “No luck on under the table work?”
The woman sighed, “No. Bastards took a night’s worth of tips.”
Emma nodded slowly and then looked toward the station wagon again. “Cute kid.”
The woman looked toward her son and Emma watched as her face softened into a small smile. “Thanks.”
“Name’s Emma. Emma Swan.”
“Annabelle Salt.” She walked around to the passenger side and lifted the boy into her arms, “And this is Jayden.”
In lieu of saying hi or waving, the little boy sneezed, coating his nose, upper lip, and chin in a mist of snot. His mom wiped his face with a ragged Kleenex from her back pocket.
Emma stared as a sharp pain hit her chest. This could be her. She was alone and she had little to nothing to her name, but at least she was only screwing up her own life. Baby Boy Swan was somewhere safe and warm. He was loved.
Suddenly Motel Six didn’t appeal to her.
She pulled the crumpled bills out of her pocket and held them out.
“Here. For you and Jayden.”
The momentary understanding between them passed as Annabelle stiffened.
“Listen lady, I’m not asking for a hand out.”
Emma shrugged. “It’s not a hand out. Let me cover your tips tonight.”
Annabelle stretched out her hand to take it before pulling back and regarding Emma with narrowed eyes. She pulled her son tightly against her.
“What do you want in return?”
Emma held her free hand up, placating, “Nothing. I’m just passing through.”
Still not sure, the girl shifted from foot to foot, “So why?”
Emma smiled, a small little smirk, “It’s my kid’s birthday.”
Annabelle’s eyes darted over to her car and back again. They were on the same page now. “Where you headed?”
Emma had no idea why now, after all this time, this destination would come to mind – it simply came out of her mouth. As soon as it did, though, she grasped onto it. Seemed as good a place as any.
Annabelle took the money with a small smile and loaded the boy carefully back into the back seat before leaving as quickly as she could.
Emma stood there for a long minute. She never went inside the steak house. Instead, she drove to Gold’s Gym. She kept a membership mostly for the opportunity to have a place to shower wherever she ended up. She got on the treadmill and ran until her chest felt it might explode, showered, and drove to the Wal-Mart parking lot nearby. She settled into the backseat of the bug knowing that nobody would bother her here.
She tucked her jacket tightly around her torso to ward off the cold of the night and thought about Annabelle and Jayden.
She knew without a doubt that she had made the right decision. Many times she had wondered about him, her own son. She pictured him having unruly hair and bright green eyes. She imagined what it would be like to see him smiling up at her and wrapping a tiny fist around her finger.
She knew now that she had been right to give him his best chance. She laid there as tears streamed down her cheeks. She had given him up but it was time to let him go.
She had a destination now. In Tallahassee she was going to build a life for herself. Nobody to hurt her or hold her back. Emma Swan, a one woman army. Alone against the world.
Present Day, Neverland
One woman army. Emma mentally mocked herself. She was in Neverland with a bunch of fairytale characters trying to rescue Baby Boy Swan after all.
Henry Mills sounded much nicer. She had never considered Henry as a name. She recalled from the baby book she’d read from the prison library that Henry meant “ruler of the home”. He had always had a home. A safe, warm home full of love. She was sure that Regina had never wiped his face with a crumpled tissue, but she knew that Regina would do anything for Henry. From the time that he was a baby until the time she drew her last breath. The woman in question was currently curled up in the rowboat balcony but Emma was sure that sleep had not found her.
Looking back on that night so many years ago, it was unbelievable to think that she, lone wolf, army of one, would find her place in this family. Two fairytale parents, her brilliant son, and the woman who’d raised him. Regina had been his mama wolf, his protector and provider, when Emma had not been able to. Now, as she had many years ago, Emma vowed to make things right again. Not for her own sake, but for Henry’s. He needed them all so she would pull her odd little family together and they would save him.
She settled back into the hammock and closed her eyes.
“Good night, Regina.”
She waited only a moment for a reply.
“Go to sleep, Miss Swan. You’re no good to Henry exhausted.”
Emma smiled. “Same to you, Your Mayorness.”
A single heartbeat later she heard it.
“Good night, Emma.”
he was losing the fight. Mulan knew that she could not sustain this. She knew her body and her abilities and they were failing her.
Mordred knew it too. He grinned manically at her.
“You are going to die here. Alone, unimportant, unremembered.”
Mulan gritted her teeth, “I am not dying today.”
Certainly not with Aurora still in the maze-like tomb with this maniac.
Mordred swung wildly at her and she took several steps backward. It seemed like a move of desperation, but despite his madness, Mordred was a strong swordsman and her steps had cost her stability. He struck as quickly as a snake. His sword arced down on her shoulder and sliced between her breastplate and shoulder pauldron. The blade bit into her flesh and she twisted away.
“Not even a true warrior. A woman. You are absolutely worthless. You should feel honored to die at the hands of a king.”
“You’re no king.”
Mordred gave a deeply frightening growl and howled, “I am king! I am the King of Camelot! It is my birthright.” Spittle flew from his lips as he screamed.
His outburst allowed Mulan time to regain her footing and switch her sword to her uninjured hand. Her left hand was not as strong but she had taught herself to use it for situations like this. Her right hand dangled uselessly at the moment. A quiet voice in her head, Chin Po, whispered that there could be nerve damage.
She took up her stance once more, “King of a pile of rocks and a few errant bandits. Congratulations, Your Majesty.”
Her goading worked. He flew at her, technique abandoned in his rage. He hacked at her like a child with their first wooden toy sword.
“I am a king! You are nothing! A filthy animal. Your people didn’t want you. No one does. You’re a lone wolf – diseased and ready for execution.
China, Before the Dark Curse
After a long, hot, rainy, miserable, but ultimately successful campaign in the southern provinces, a journey to the mild and dry capital city should have been a joyous occasion.
The Hun army was closing in, though, and it felt anything but joyous. The Huns had shown remarkable resilience – each time they were beaten back they returned. Ping felt as though he had spent his whole life fighting Huns.
In many ways, he had. He scowled at the thought.
Ping had ridden ahead leading his best-trained cavalry. The rest of the battalion remained with the general and the army. The need for reinforcement of the royal guards was too urgent for such a large force to get to the palace on time. Ping would be the highest ranking soldier in the city. Rather than feeling bolstered, he felt intimidated by the notion.
“Do you have the general’s messages?”
Yao grunted and responded in his gravelly voice, “You know I do. Stop fidgeting and being a worry-wart. You’re reminding me of that kid I knocked in the water trough.”
Ping shook his head at the memory, “That was years ago. I was young.”
“You’re still young. Young enough to get out of this crazy mess and settle down. There’s got to be a million girls that would throw themselves at a handsome war hero like you.”
“Too bad for them I’m already married to the army.”
“All the better for me then,” Yao chuckled. Ping laughed with him. Yao’s terrible luck with women was legendary.
Their laughter echoed through empty streets. The citizens had fled or were hiding. The stalls and carts that usually lined the bustling streets had been turned into makeshift barricades. The shops and homes had been shuttered and sealed with whatever was handy.
Most of the cavalry had stayed to reinforce the city guard patrols. He and Yao were riding to the palace to deliver the general’s report and to report in themselves. Ping had never before visited the palace.
Yellow flags emblazoned with the Imperial Red Dragon flapped in the slight breeze as they approached the gates.
Ping rode Kahn forward with a confidence he did not feel and dismounted at the palace gate. A young man came immediately to take the reins of Kahn and the sturdy black and white gelding Yao had been riding. The guards, dressed in gleaming armor that rarely saw battle, looked them over carefully and examined the seal upon the scrolls that Yao presented.
Upon passing the inspection of the guards, they were led into the palace by a silk-clad bureaucrat.
“Can’t believe those stuck up guards didn’t recognize you.”
“Why would they?”
Yao snorted, “You’re Fa Ping! People write ballads about you. I’ve heard there are even plays. All of China knows your name.”
Ping lowered his head uncomfortably, “I’m just a soldier.”
Two men awaited them in the grand entry way. One was tall and thin with a trim beard. He wore heavy and rich looking yellow robes – Prince Zhuang, heir to the throne.
Ping and Yao bowed low before him.
The other man, shorter and older than the prince, was dressed in the armor of the royal guard. An old soldier, his face bore a jagged scar. He stood beside the prince with his feet planted and his shoulders squared. He was the captain of the Royal Guard, Gao Chao.
“Just a soldier? Even old men like me have heard about you,” Chao smiled at him, “Just like your father. You’ll be a general by the time you’re thirty. Just wait and see.”
The prince lifted his chin, “Captain Gao, I am very glad that you know who these soldiers,” he sneered as he spoke the word, “are, but I do not and unless they have the general’s orders, I do not care.”
“Apologies, Your Highness. This is Lieutenant Colonel Fa Ping and Sergeant Yao. They have brought the general’s reports and Colonel Fa will be taking command of the troops at the city gates.”
The prince looked at him sharply, “Command? Isn’t that why we have you?”
“Of course, Your Highness. I will be here, at the Palace Gates. Fa’s men and horses will be more useful where they have room to maneuver.”
“Do I look like a fool to you, Captain?” the prince spat, “I know where cavalry is utilized. I am questioning the wisdom of allowing a child to command it.”
Yao scoffed. He had never been particularly deferential to authority figures.
Gao, accustomed to the nature of the prince, winced but quickly schooled his face.
“Colonel Fa has proven himself in battle time and again. I have the utmost faith in him. This young man will be your general one day, Your Highness.”
Ping, hands locked behind his back in a rigid parade rest, shifted uncomfortably. He was just a soldier: a sword, a shield.
The preparations for the battle moved swiftly. Ping calmed and readied himself by sharpening his sword upon a whetstone. When it was as sharp as he could make it, he pulled the chain around his neck and examined the jade and gold pendant he’d worn since childhood. It bore his family’s crest. It was his only remaining tie to them. He rubbed his thumb over the intricately carved pattern and reminded himself of his purpose. Of tigresses and shields. Of duty and family. Yao and the Captain’s words echoed in his ears. He was a good soldier, celebrated. The idea of being a general caused pride to well up within him.
The smell of horse dung, unwashed blood and death heralded the Hun army before he could even hear the hoofbeats of their horses.
Yao’s gravelly voice grounded Ping in the moment, “Been here before.”
“Not at the capital city’s gates.”
Yao grunted, “So it’s nicer than usual. Still the same ol’ fight. Don’t get dead, Ping.”
Ping smiled at his companion. “Don’t get dead, Yao.”
The battle was a clash of armored bodies. Ping slashed and held ground beside his men as the cacophony of weapons crashing filled the air. Kahn, sturdy beneath him, reared and bit.
“Do not let those bastards through the gates. For the Emperor! For China!”
The men roared and rallied to his call. He pressed forward, leading the cavalry into the fray once more, cleaving through the opposing army. He could hear the whistle of arrows around him, fired from the wall above. He hoped the guard’s archers were as accurate as the army.
“Form up, men. Stay strong!”
A hot flash of pain tore his attention away from the battle. A spear had penetrated his armor just above the knee. He grit his teeth as blood poured out from the wound. An iron staff cracked across his chest. Another struck the back of his helm.
Ping fell from Kahn and hit the ground hard but he did not stay down long. He clambered to his feet and raised his sword to defend himself.
Sweat mingled with blood beneath his armor as he thrust and slashed at the men around him. It was impossible to tell if the battle continued for hours or minutes before horns sounded. The retreat of the Huns was abrupt and unsettling. Their leader was dead and the men scattered quickly leaving their dead men and horses alike. Ragged pennants lay forgotten in the rancid mud.
“Fall in! Find our wounded! Find our dead! Fall in!”
His sword dangled from his hand as Ping surveyed the battlefield around him. There was a man missing from view.
“Fall in Sergeant Yao!”
“Don’t think I can follow that order, Fa.”
Yao’s usually gravelly voice had taken on a terrifying gurgle. He sat a few yards away from Ping against the wall, two dead Huns lying around him and his uniform smeared with blood. He coughed as Ping approached and more blood sprayed from his mouth.
“Get a medic!” Ping’s cry was desperate now, panicked.
Ping took his friend’s hand.
“I gave you an order, soldier. I very specifically told you not to get hurt.”
Yao smiled, his teeth crimson, “It’s just a scratch, boy.”
Ping sat with Yao, hand in hand as they spoke of old times. Stories of old friends and happier days. When Yao went quiet, Ping lowered his head, his heart heavy. Yao had been a good man, a friend.
“Yao,” he whispered reaching down to close sightless eyes.
In his grief, he had not noticed one of the Huns, left for dead, getting to his feet. The Hun’s sword stabbed Ping in the gap at the side of his armor. A guttural scream was dragged from his lungs. He dispatched the Hun – a quick slash to the throat – before falling to the ground.
The medics that he’d called for Yao and the others came to him along with a handful of guards and the Prince.
“Your Highness,” Ping forced out. He spat blood as he spoke.
“A glorious victory, Lieutenant Colonel, for all of China.”
The medics moved around the prince to Ping. He tried to push them away – ordered them to help the others.
It was no good. They removed his armor and the silks below. The cut was deep. Long and ragged. It had cut through flesh, muscle, and worse, the wraps that compressed his chest.
“What is this?” The prince growled moving closer. He shoved the medics out of the way, grabbed the clothes and tore them away.
Mulan was bared, naked, in the blood and dirt; surrounded by men both living and dead.
“What is this treachery?” The prince was enraged.
Mulan squared her shoulders and raised her chin.
“My name, my true name, is Fa Mulan. I am the same soldier as I have always been. I am a Lieutenant Colonel in the Imperial Army.”
A swift backhand knocked Mulan’s head to the side.
The prince hissed, “This treacherous snake, this harlot, this charlatan, this woman has dishonored us all,” He raised his head to address the men around, medics and guards alike, “On this, the night of my great victory, she has been found out for the snake she is.”
Not one word of support was spoken. Not one voice among her men, loyal to her for almost a decade, was raised. No one defended her. She was naked and alone with only her family’s pendant swinging between her breasts to shield her.
The prince sneered in disgust, “Treat her. She has fought for us and we are not without mercy despite her trickery and lies. Save her life, nothing more. From this day, Fa Mulan, you are banished from the Empire of China on pain of death.”
Without another word the prince and his guards turned and strode away leaving the medics to provide her basic care. She watched as her life, her career, everything she had fought to build went up in flames. She watched her future burn like the funeral pyres burning the Hun dead around her leaving only shame and disgrace. They took her rank, her name, her life.
Mulan had been banished. Her reward for her years of loyal service was that she was allowed to return home first.
Dressed in her armor and riding Kahn as well as she could with partially healed wounds she returned to her home and family. It was far from the homecoming she’d always imagined. She was a prisoner bringing her family no honor – only shame.
The guards who accompanied her led her into the family courtyard. Her sister, Lian dropped her basket of fruit in shock. Mulan gritted her teeth against the pain as she dismounted.
Lian’s twin sister Ju cried out as well.
Mulan watched her mother walk out into the courtyard and stop before her. Mulan bowed.
“What is this?”
The mounted guard spoke from behind her, “Fa Li. Your daughter has been charged and found guilty of high treason against the Emperor and all of China. Her service in the Army has saved her life. We are escorting her to The Wall. His Excellency has given her the mercy of returning here before her banishment commences.”
Mulan, too ashamed to raise her head as he spoke, gathered her courage to look up into her mother’s face.
Li turned her head away. “My daughters are both here. I have no daughter named Mulan.”
“She has been masquerading as a man named Ping.”
“I have no son named Ping.”
Mulan felt desperation well inside her and cried out, “Mother, please! I did this to save Father. He could not go. I was brave, strong and true! I was a good soldier!”
Li finally turned to look at her and Mulan wished she would turn away again. Her face was filled with disgust.
“Your betrayal, your dishonor, killed my husband. His heart could not handle the crushing blow. Both arranged marriages to my daughters were dissolved. They have no prospects,” her voice began to shake, “My son will never be able to wear his father’s armor nor wield his sword because you have tainted them with your dishonor.”
She turned to leave, “Take her away.”
Mulan cried out to her sisters, “Ju! Lian!”
They turned away from her. For a brief moment she saw a face peeking out of the door. Her brother. He turned quickly away.
Li spoke without turning to look at her. “Go. Go Mulan. And never return.”
Mulan did not speak. Her shoulders slumped, she turned and lead Kahn away.
She passed through her family’s gate and after many miles speaking no words found herself on the outside of the Great Wall. The Wall she’d once patrolled now locked her away from everything, everyone and everywhere she’d ever loved.
Present Day, Camelot
“You are nothing. Dung on my boot. Your own family probably regrets your birth.”
Mordred hacked and stabbed at her, driving her backwards.
“I am a king. I will rule Camelot and eventually the world.” He pressed his advantage with every step forcing Mulan to retreat further and further. Mulan knew that she was moments away from losing this battle. “Perhaps that princess you brought along will be my queen. She’s quite pretty isn’t she?”
Mulan’s head snapped up.
Her father’s words rang in her head. She was a tigress. A tigress was most dangerous when defending its family – when defending those she loved.
Mordred’s words had damned him.
She twisted her left wrist and brought the sword around in a tight arc. This was not the first time she had fought wounded. She had fought more challenging foes and worse odds. She was a warrior. More than that.
Mordred laughed darkly, “I’m never wrong.”
Mulan smirked as adrenaline flooded her body and her heart rallied in her chest.
“I am not nothing. I am a warrior.”
She tilted and pivoted using her speed and dexterity to avoid his blows. He was growing tired and frustrated with her movements and his reactions had begun to slow. She whipped her sword around and sliced him across the chest. A red line spread across his tunic. He stumbled back.
“I am a sword.”
She leapt into the air and kicked out – her boot striking his midsection. As he doubled over she kicked up her steel capped knee into his chin. He fell back hard against the stone and she stood above him.
“But above all, I am a shield. I protect those I love.”
“And you love her?” He snorted with derision, but his words had lost their bite. Fear had entered his eyes now.
Mulan wasted no time. She brought her sword down swiftly and beheaded him. A hot arc of blood hit her cloak as she stood in position above him.
“With all that I am.”
Mulan was a tigress and she was not alone. She had lost much but she had gained something priceless as well. She had Aurora and for her, the princess was the whole world. Mulan had been banished but in Aurora, she had finally found her way home.
She looked toward the passageway Aurora had fled down. A large silver mirror now barred the entrance. Mulan stared at her reflection. For the first time in forever, her reflection showed exactly who she was – a tigress, a warrior, a woman in love.
. . . To Be Continued in Episode 19
Total Word Count: 8434 words