|Another Time and Place
Author: Bad Faery PM
AU- When no Fairy Godmother shows up to save her from her impending marriage to Gaston, Belle decides to rescue herself and goes on the run. Fortunately, she meets up with a helpful sheep farmer and his son.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Adventure - Belle & Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold - Chapters: 2 - Words: 20,503 - Reviews: 79 - Favs: 262 - Follows: 23 - Updated: 02-02-13 - Published: 03-27-12 - Status: Complete - id: 7964300
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Belle wished on every star, spoke to every animal who would listen to her, and whispered her prayer to every rushing stream. Yet, no fairy godmother appeared to grant her wish and no friendly beast offered her help. She was to be wed the next day.
In between wishes and prayers, Belle had planned. She had a rucksack filled with travel rations, small denominations of coin, sturdy clothes, scrolls of notes, the three most useful of her books, and her favorite book of fairy tales. Sometimes, she thought that simply showing Gaston how practical she was would put an end to the wedding, but she was not Gaston's choice either. He was willing to make the best of it. She was not.
The night before her wedding, Belle retrieved her rucksack from its hiding spot and set out to rescue herself.
It was nearing daybreak when she released the borrowed horse at the boundary of her father's land, knowing it would be able to find its way back. She'd be slower on foot, but she wasn't a strong enough rider to be able to leave the roads, and if she didn't stick to the forest, she'd be wedded and bedded within the day.
Forest lore was different in practice than in theory, but Belle had been studying for months and her plans did not fail her. She traveled by night, relying more on her compass than the stars, and considered herself fortunate she had been set to wed in the spring. Had Gaston favored a winter wedding, she wouldn't have lasted a day. Relying on roots to bolster her food stores, she made her way across country as quickly as she could, all the time hoping no magician would be willing to give up his defense of the country's borders to scry for a wayward princess. The bit of vervain she kept in her pocket to shield her from common spells would be no help to her otherwise.
Of course she made her share of mistakes. Most plants looked alike at first after all, but fortunately she never managed to poison herself too severely, and spending a day dry-heaving was excellent incentive to learn to notice subtle details in leaves. Baths were actually harder for her to live without than regular meals, but the forestlands were generously supplied with streams, and Belle would take cold water and dirty clothes and hunger and freedom over marriage to Gaston any day.
She walked until days turned into weeks, and the plants she saw along her way became strangers to her. The book of herb lore she'd brought showed her what was safe to eat, and still she walked. Often she thought perhaps a friendly spirit was guarding her steps after all, because escape shouldn't be this easy for a princess who'd spent most of her life with her nose in a book. Then she saw the first poster.
It was an excellent likeness, clearly based off of her engagement portrait. King Laurent, Gaston's father, was offering a hundred gold pieces for her, the bit of paper proclaiming her a traitor against his throne. She assumed her own father was searching for her as well, but she hoped he would be more subtle about it. Shortly thereafter she started to run out of forest, and the sun dazzled her eyes when she saw the grasslands for the first time.
The rolling hills of green made her think of the ocean, and she smiled fiercely to herself. No matter what else happened, she had seen this. She had come this far and seen something a forest-born princess only read about. She succeeded.
She was torn between racing into the fields to roll in the lush green grass and darting back into the safety of the forest that had sheltered her so well and for so long. When she was making her plans, she knew her route would take her near the borders where the ogres skirmished with humans, through Duke Theobald's territory, but it was the fastest way to reach the kingdom of Cendrillion. Belle had heard Prince Thomas's father was both kind and wise. If anyone would shelter her, it would be he.
She'd never seen any open space bigger than a park, however, and the grasslands were more exposed than she'd been able to envision. She'd be impossible to miss, and anyone who'd seen the wanted posters would have an eye out for her. Still, she couldn't spend the rest of her life hiding in the forest.
Belle had never thought of herself as brave, but she thought that if she continued doing brave things, perhaps someday she would be. Bending down, she dirtied her hands in the forest soil and smudged her face, hoping to obscure her features as much as possible. Drawing up the hood of her cloak, she took a deep breath and took her first step out of the forest that had been her home for the past twenty-four years.
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As Rumpelstiltskin came in from the fields in the gathering dusk, a sense of unease stopped him in his tracks near the door of his cottage. Something was wrong. Someone had been in the house. Outwardly it looked undisturbed, but he could taste the subtle wrongness on the air. A coward always knew when danger was afoot. Oblivious to his father's concern, Bae darted off toward the well, leaving him staring at the rough-hewn door.
For a moment he wanted to do nothing more than seize Bae and flee. Whatever this was, they'd put it behind them and find somewhere safe to hide. There was nowhere to go though. With no money and no resources, they wouldn't make it a mile. What little they owned was in that house. Bae's house.
A flicker of anger broke through his fear. Someone was in Bae's house, touching things that weren't his to touch. Swallowing hard, Rumpelstiltskin forced himself to open the door.
His breath caught in his throat when the girl looked up at him, and for a moment he thought his desperate prayers had been answered. A fairy sat perched beside the hearth, the most beautiful sight he'd ever seen, her deep blue eyes reading his every thought. She would show him how to make Bae safe, and he would bless her name every day of his life for the gift.
"I'm so sorry," the fairy said softly, her magical accent lilting over the words, and it took him a moment to realize that she was saying the wrong thing. Why would a fairy need to apologize? "I was being followed- at least I thought I was- and your door was unlatched. I touched nothing."
Slowly he managed to look away from her astonishing eyes, taking in the smudges of dust on her face and her somber clothes, finer than his but certainly not something a fairy would wear. She was mortal then. "Ah-" he began, not sure how to finish the sentence.
"Papa," He heard Bae come in behind him, "The bucket's starting to crack-" he too faltered when he saw the not-fairy, and her face lit with a warm smile at the sight of him.
"Hello. I'm B-Verna," she tripped a bit over the name, "I'm sorry to intrude."
"It's good to meet you, Verna. My name is Baelfire, and this is my father, Rumpelstiltskin." Bae bowed to her as politely as any proper gentleman, and Rumpelstiltskin followed suit, realizing his manners were sorely lacking. "Are you lost?" Bae asked her, "Is that why you're here? I've never seen you before."
"I'm not lost, exactly," Verna answered, looking thoroughly charmed, "I'm passing through on my way to the kingdom of Cendrillion."
"Oh, no. No," Rumpelstiltskin fumbled for a moment when her eyes lit on him again, "The front lines have moved. You can't get to Cendrillion from here without going through the ogres. Not directly."
Her face fell. "It's gotten worse," she breathed, biting her lower lip. After a moment she gathered her composure. "Thank you for your words. And for your shelter. I'll have to find another route."
She rose gracefully, gathering her bag, and Bae rushed forward, protesting, "You can't leave now; it's nearly dark. Papa, tell her to stay!"
Bae turned to him imploringly, and Rumpelstiltskin found his tongue again. "It's much too dangerous at night, especially for a young lady. Please, you must stay. We have little, but what we have, we'll share."
Verna glanced around the small room that comprised their home, seeing their poverty for herself. "I have some coin-"
A thread of humiliation wormed through him that he should have so little to offer a woman in need. "You are our guest."
She blinked, her eyes glassy for a moment, then she dropped a graceful curtsey. "I thank you."
As Belle seated herself at the small table, she reflected on how fortunate she was. For two days in the grasslands, she hadn't seen a soul. Then on the third day a troupe of soldiers had come galloping through. Unsure if they'd seen her, she'd walked with purpose to the village she'd been planning to avoid, trying to look like she was gathering herbs. Angling her path to stay out of their way, she'd actually made it to the village without being waylaid, but still they came, mirroring her steps. She'd headed straight for the first cottage she saw, trying to look like she belonged there and heaving a sigh of relief first when the door opened for her and second when she hadn't walked in on the true inhabitants.
She'd meant to leave again as soon as the soldiers moved on, but they showed no inclination of doing so, and she'd had no choice but to sit in someone else's home and wait to be called out as a thief. Instead, she'd been welcomed like an expected guest.
The boy, Baelfire, joined her at the table as his father busied himself with preparing the evening repast, a simple meal of stew and unleavened bread. Belle's heart ached for the little they had, guilt filling her at taking from them. Perhaps she could leave something for them in the morning, arrange a few coins like they fell out of her bag. That wouldn't be charity, just good fortune. "You're from somewhere else, aren't you, Verna?" the boy asked her, distracting her from her plans.
"Why do you think that?" she countered. The boy meant no harm, anyone could see that, but she was still wary of saying too much. She felt guilty simply for giving them a false name, but she wasn't sure if she had any other choice.
"Your accent is different. And your clothes are a different style than the ladies around here wear, not much different but a little. And your hands are too soft." Baelfire spread his own hands, letting her see his callouses by way of example.
"You're right," Belle agreed, impressed by his observational powers, "I'm from the forestlands, not the grasslands. I've never been here before."
She hoped this would be an opening to get him talking about his home, but Baelfire still seemed more interested in her. "Are you a princess?"
She hadn't been anticipating the sudden question, and her stifled gasp was no doubt answer enough. She looked from the son to the father who had stopped his preparations to watch them, leaning heavily on his staff. They wouldn't betray her. Somehow she knew that as completely as she knew the sky was blue and magic was real. She was safe here. "Can you keep a secret?" she asked, primarily to Baelfire.
He nodded, eyes wide. Getting up from the table, Belle retrieved her rucksack, having to withdraw all four of her books in order to find the one she wanted. Opening the book of fairy tales, she withdrew the Wanted poster she'd torn down on her way out of the forest. Taking a deep breath, she unfolded it for them to see.
Baelfire glanced from her picture to her face, judging the similarity. Rumpelstiltskin frowned at the words, his lips moving as he tried to make them out. "What does it say, Papa?"
"Wanted," he recognized that immediately, then slowed down a bit, "For tr-treason against the... king."
It actually said 'for treason against the crown' but Belle wasn't about to correct him. "Reward: one hundred gold pieces," she finished quietly.
"Princess B... B... Belle," he managed to read at the top.
"Belle," she admitted, "Not Verna. I'm sorry."
"What did you do?" Baelfire breathed, wide-eyed.
"I ran away from my wedding." Holding up the poster, she tried to laugh, "My would-be father-in-law is not a forgiving man."
"Are you going to marry the king of Cendrillion instead? Is that why you ran away?" From the look on Baelfire's face, this was the most exciting thing ever to happen to him. Belle supposed having a runaway princess break into your home would make a good story to tell.
"No, I'm not. I've never even met him. But I've heard he is wise and kind, and I hoped he would give me sanctuary." As she folded the poster back into her book, Rumpelstiltskin placed a steaming bowl of stew at her elbow.
"Your highness," he murmured.
For some reason, the address broke Belle's heart. "No, don't," she pleaded softly, "Don't. I'm not a princess here."
Even so, he wouldn't meet her eyes. He backed away until he reached the fire, preparing another bowl for Baelfire, then seating himself at the hearth. "Won't you eat with us?" she pleaded; the thought of turning this man away from his own table when he'd shown her such generosity was too much to bear.
He shook his head, keeping his face lowered. "You're a princess."
"I'm your guest," she used his own words against him shamelessly. When that didn't work, she picked up her bowl and carried it across the small room, seating herself on the floor at his side, "All right then. I'll come to you."
Taking a spoonful, she made an appreciative noise that was completely unfeigned. The homespun cookery had nothing on what she'd been served in the palace, but after a month of foraging for her own food, it was ambrosia, "This is delicious."
He did look at her then, his face a picture of confusion, and Belle was reminded of a half-tamed animal, ready to fight or flee at any moment. She smiled gently, trying to show him he had nothing to fear from her.
He didn't know what to make of her. Belle was a princess; it was obvious in every line of her bearing and every gracious word she spoke. The only mystery was that he hadn't seen it immediately. She was a princess.
She was a princess who sat on the dirt floor of his home and complimented his simple cooking like he'd offered her a feast. She was a princess who insisted on helping him clear the dishes. She was a princess who answered all of his son's questions with a smile she wasn't putting on.
She was a princess who was reading his son fairy stories by firelight, pointing out the words as she went.
He busied himself at his spinning wheel, his fingers moving automatically as he listened to her tell a story about a hedgehog boy who married a too-chatty princess, and tried not to think about how right this felt. Bae had never known his mother. He'd never known a woman's soft touch or soft voice telling tales. Even if his wife had stayed, he couldn't envision her doing what Belle was doing right now. Sneaking a look at them out of the corner of his eye, his breath caught at the vision. They were sharing the book, pressed together from hip to shoulder, both pouring over the words on the page, Belle beaming every time he got one right.
Bae deserved this. He knew how bright his boy was, but his own education was spotty at best, and there never seemed to be enough time even to pass that much along. For a moment he allowed himself to pretend that this was a permanent arrangement, that Belle was Bae's mother and his wife. With her to teach him, what wouldn't Bae be able to accomplish?
He didn't let himself think about touching her. She was so far above him that even to have the thought would be to insult her. At his age, he was past redemption, but Bae still had a chance. If he helped her, maybe she'd be willing to send for the boy once she reached safety in Cendrillion. It would be better to lose him and know he was safe under the guardianship of a princess than to wait for him to turn fifteen and be taken away to the wars.
Belle seemed to enjoy the lesson as much as Bae, looking disappointed when the day finally couldn't be prolonged any more, and the time for sleep arrived. He made up his own pallet for her, Bae handing over the best blankets without prompting before throwing his arms around Belle, who laughed in surprise and hugged back like a mother, resting her cheek on his soft hair. "Good dreams, Belle."
"Good dreams, Baelfire," she echoed, watching fondly as he crawled into bed, asleep within seconds with the ease of youth. Her smile then lit on Rumpelstiltskin, and his heart stuttered in his chest as he selected a coverlet for himself and made his way closer to the fire. "What are you doing?"
"Good dreams, princess," he nodded toward the pallet, offering it to her.
"You're going to sleep on the floor?" she asked, and he nodded, thinking it was obvious.
"I'm not going to put you out of your bed," she informed him, her chin tilting with stubbornness, and if he'd had any doubts about her nobility, this would have put them to rest. Belle was a woman accustomed to being obeyed.
His natural instinct was to do just that, but some long-dormant sense of chivalry was asserting itself rather loudly. Belle was a princess- a lady- and ladies did not sleep on the floor. "I'll do fine on the floor-"
"If you will, then so will I," Belle overrode him, "I've slept on leaves for the past month. The floor will be fine."
"Princess-" he tried again.
"Belle," she corrected him, eyes flashing.
He opted for a compromise, "Princess Belle, please, you are a guest in my home. Let me treat you like one."
The unforgiving line of her shoulders softened a bit at his plea, and she shot him a rueful smile, "You'll find I'm a bit stubborn."
"Already found that," he replied without thinking, blanching when he realized what he'd said.
Belle laughed outright at that, and he found himself smiling back, her good humor somehow contagious. "A compromise then?" she offered, glancing from the pallet to him, "It's big enough to share."
In truth, it was. He'd shared the pallet with his wife for the few scattered months of their marriage before he'd gone off to war and come home to a woman who couldn't stand the sight of him or their son. It had served admirably for one ever since. He'd never thought to share it again, certainly not with a woman as lovely as Belle. In the face of his hesitation, Belle pressed, "You won't win. I once glared a gnome into submission."
Distracted from his objections, he gestured to her to elaborate on her story, intrigued that anyone could out-stubborn the notoriously crusty gnomes. "He was stealing roses from our garden, and I wanted him to stop. I slept outside for a week until I caught him doing it. I was six." Raising her hands, she mimicked the mincing walk of a gnome, grumbling to herself in a high-pitched voice before feigning surprise. Switching personas, she folded her arms in front of herself and puffed out her cheeks with an exaggerated glare. A moment later, she went back to her gnome impression, dropping her head and shuffling her feet like someone who was reluctantly leaving after being out-matched.
The little pantomime was so unexpected that he burst into laughter, pressing his lips together to muffle it for fear of waking Bae. Belle grinned back, clearly pleased with her achievement. "Now was that so hard? I knew you could laugh."
Still chuckling, he shook his head, "You win." He gestured toward the pallet, relieved for his sanity when she climbed into it fully-dressed. Conscious of her eyes on him, he made his way to her side, trying to downplay his limp as much as he could. Muscle memory failed him, and he had to think about every move he made, reminding his body how to extinguish the lamps and sit down and place his staff so he'd be able to get up the next day before stretching out beside her, staying as close to the edge of the pallet as he could get for fear of touching her accidentally.
A hand brushed his elbow, and he turned his head to look at her. Belle was curled on her right side, her hand stretched across the pallet to reach for him. Her eyes sparkled even in the dim light, and she looked like the creature of magic he'd first taken her for, so beautiful it hurt to look on her. "Thank you for helping me."
"You're welcome, Belle," he murmured, her name coming easily for the first time. He wanted to cover her hand with his own, so he resolutely laced his fingers together over his chest to make sure he didn't. Long after she drifted into sleep, he lay awake, half-afraid to close his eyes. He wanted to touch her, just brush his fingers over her hand and her face to see if her skin was as soft as it looked. Awake he could ignore the urge, but asleep he might reach for her, and although she'd enjoyed Bae's hug, he didn't even want to imagine how she would react if he dared put his hands on her.
He fought it off as long as he could, but eventually his own eyes fluttered closed and refused to reopen. Teetering on the edge of dreams, he offered a silent prayer to any gods hanging about that he'd be able to keep his hands to himself for the night before going unwillingly into the land of dreams.
She woke to the sound of clanking kettles being hurriedly shushed and smiled before she opened her eyes, remembering where she was. Truthfully, she couldn't remember the last time she'd slept so well. Even her comfortable featherbed hadn't been as soothing as this straw pallet, the impending threat of marriage to Gaston stealing her sleep most nights. Now, with soldiers hunting for her, she was in even more danger, yet she'd felt safer last night than she had in months. It would be hard to leave this place.
She'd awakened once in the middle of the night to feel a warm body pressed against her back, Rumpelstiltskin's arm about her waist, holding her against him protectively. The memory made her smile, and she wished he could be as relaxed with her when he was awake. The poor man had probably been horrified if he'd awakened in that position.
She clambered out of bed and met Baelfire's smile with one of her own as he knuckled the sleep out of his eyes. "Good morning, Belle!"
Her reply was cut off by the sound of booted feet outside the cottage, and all three of them froze, staring at the door. Belle's breath caught, expecting at any second for the soldiers to demand entry or simply storm in and take her. When the marching continued down the lane, the relief left her light-headed, and she sank gratefully into a chair. "Where are you going to go from here?"
Bae's question gave her something to focus on, for which she was grateful. Rooting through the bag she'd left by her chair the night before, she drew out her well-worn map and unfolded it on the table. "I was planning to follow this stream," she told Bae, tracing the marked route on the paper.
Rumpelstiltskin came to look over her shoulder, drawing a line with his finger on the map. "This is where the front lines are now," he told her, and Belle saw how thoroughly her route had been cut off. Next he drew an X. "This is where the soldiers will be encamped. You'll be caught if you try to go that way."
"I could backtrack through the forest," Belle said doubtfully, trying to find another route. "That area is dotted with ravines, but I could probably pick my way through if I'm careful."
The three of them studied the map, looking for alternates, when Bae suddenly looked up, "Why don't you just wait for the front lines to shift?"
At Belle's quizzical look, he expounded, "The front line moves every few weeks, and right now we're supposed to be winning. If you stay here until the army advances, you'll be able to walk right through behind them."
He was right, but that depended on quite a few different things all working themselves out in their favor: that the army advance on schedule, that the soldiers not look for her here, that Rumpelstiltskin was willing to harbor a fugitive for weeks on end, putting himself and his son at risk. Regretfully, she shook her head. "I couldn't possibly intrude on you for so long."
"We don't mind, do we, Papa?" Baelfire looked up at his father imploringly, like he was asking to keep a pet. He looked back to Belle, "And you can keep teaching me to read."
"Bae!" his father scolded, "We do not tell princesses what to do." Belle snickered at the expression on his face as he parsed what he'd just said. She'd bet everything she had that he'd never expected to need a sentence like that.
"I'd be putting you both at risk," she said, looking from one pair of dark eyes to another, "If the soldiers are looking for me-"
"I don't think they are," Rumpelstiltskin told her, taking the seat next to her, "I hadn't heard anything about you until you showed us your poster. If they were hunting you, it wouldn't be a secret."
From across the table, Bae was giving her a very effective pleading look, and Belle knew she was lost. "All right," she said, holding up her hand when Baelfire cheered, "On two conditions."
Rumpelstiltskin nodded at her to proceed, and Belle named her terms, "One: if you hear any word that they're looking for me here, you must tell me. I will not endanger you. And two: you have to let me earn my keep."
"You're a-" he started to protest, but she cut him off.
"Princess, I know, but I can be useful too. I know how to cook and clean and mend. I'll spin for you if you show me how. You must let me help." Falling silent, she stared at him, waiting for him to argue again.
"I was going to say 'guest,'" he corrected her mildly, and Belle blushed, "But I can see there's no point in arguing."
Baelfire nearly knocked her out of her chair when he hugged her, and Belle hugged back, feeling some of the tension she'd been carrying for months leaving her body. In this small house with these kind people she felt more at her ease than she ever had with the nobles she'd grown up around. There was a warmth and openness to them that she responded to like a plant feeling the sun for the first time. They didn't want anything from her beyond reading lessons and company; there was no thought of how they could advance their status by befriending her. All they saw was a woman in need of help they could provide.
She had to fight back tears of gratitude as they quickly outlined a plan for her stay. They spent each day in the fields from dawn to dusk, and she'd stay behind in the house. Short of spending the entire day sitting on her rump, it would be impossible to completely hide her presence, so Rumpelstiltskin would put around that she was his niece, his sister's daughter, come to stay due to a plague in her own village. The threat of sickness, he assured her, would keep people away, and if she went outside rarely and with her hood up, he didn't think anyone would approach her. He'd mention that she was terribly shy.
They put the plan into action that same day, and Belle was impressed by how well it worked. After her sojourn in the woods, it was hard for her to stay still in the small house, but the threat of the soldiers easily outweighed her restlessness. Even if they weren't looking for her, they'd be more current on news than the villagers and considerably more likely to recognize her.
She was surprised that no one came to the house to greet the new arrival or try to gawk at her. In a village of this size anything new was cause for comment, and a new arrival was cause for more than that even in Belle's larger town. She supposed that in a hard-working village such as this, no one had time to mind each other's business, but it did surprise her that Rumpelstiltskin never seemed to interact with anyone besides Bae and herself. There was a story there; she was certain of it.
Belle took readily to her own occupation, nearly turning the house inside out until she'd cleaned every bit of it and mended and laundered every scrap of clothing she could find. She took charge of meals, using the lessons she'd gleaned from the palace cooks and supplies quietly supplemented by her own coin, courtesy of Bae's willingness to go to the market for her. That had taken some doing, and it wasn't until she exclaimed in exasperation, "It's not charity, it's just dinner!" that she'd gotten him to agree. Both of her men seemed thoroughly impressed by her cooking, and Belle considered the money well-spent.
After three weeks, Bae was progressing so nicely in his reading lessons that she could give him a list to take to market as long as they read it over together before he left. He was so bright and showed so much promise that it broke her heart to think of him spending his life here in this little village. How many more children like Bae were out there? How much potential was being squandered by those who assumed a peasant could have no value? If she ever made it to safety, Belle decided she would do something for them, perhaps start a school so they'd have at least an approximation of the opportunities noble children had.
It was a good goal, and she worried it over in her head as she swept and scrubbed, determined to leave Rumpelstiltskin and Bae's lives better than she'd found them. They were risking much by harboring her, even though they hadn't spoken of it since that first day, and she would not let them regret the decision to take her in.
The sound of raised voices from the road caught her attention one day as she chopped herbs for soup. Hungry for any news, she listened in, quickly realizing she was the subject of discussion.
"His sister's girl? Why would any sister send her blood to him?" The voice was loud and harsh, and Belle could easily imagine the woman who went with it looking like the Dowager Duchess of Quirling who was a self-proclaimed expert on everything and constantly putting her nose places it didn't belong.
Another voice snorted with laughter, "What, you think he's got himself a sweetheart? She's got to be his niece; who else would have him?"
"Strange though, her just showing up. No one ever sees her." That was thoroughly untrue. She'd been seen at the stream just that morning, albeit not closely enough for anyone to identify her later, but they had seen her.
"Mayhap she's scarred if plague caught her. Or sickly." Belle brightened at the suggestion. If anyone ever did try to approach her, a good round of rough coughing might ward them off without her having to say a word.
"Could be," the first voice allowed. sounding disappointed.
"It's not like he's got some pretty young thing squirreled away in there. That'd be a laugh: the runaway princess bedding down with our Rumpelstiltskin!" The voices moved on after that, and Belle's heart sank. News of her flight had reached the village at last. It was only a matter of time before the soldiers started to look for her here.
Even with that in mind, Belle was more distracted by the women's mocking laughter at the thought of Rumpelstiltskin having found a sweetheart. Anger filled her, and she glared through the wall at the fading voices even as she was grateful that their story seemed to be generally believed.
Any woman would be lucky to have him, she thought resentfully. Rumpelstiltskin was good and kind, and his open face promised honesty and compassion. Those were traits few of the noblemen she'd met had ever mastered. He'd kept her safe when he didn't have to, and that spoke of a strength of character that was far more important than a weak leg. He was a good man, and his hesitant smiles filled her with more warmth than the most extravagant compliments from Gaston ever had.
Belle's face flushed as she thought about how many times she'd gone out of her way to provoke one of those smiles. Bae caused them easily, but it had taken her over a week just to get him to stop treating her like she was made of porcelain. It had only been in the last few days that she was sure he just saw Belle when he looked at her, not Princess Belle of Avonlea.
Sometimes when she was reading with Bae and he was spinning she thought she saw him watching her, something like longing written on his face. If she ever looked up from the book, he'd be focused on the wheel, but when she turned her attention back to Bae she would feel his eyes on her again. With a melancholy smile, she reflected that she would give much for him to look at her that way when he knew she could see him.
As he and Bae walked home from the fields that night, Rumpelstiltskin's step was lighter than he ever remembered it being. Light shone through the always-shuttered windows that hid Belle from prying eyes, and smoke curled out of the chimney, promising warmth and a good meal. She'd greet them at the door, her hair curling prettily about her face and her warm smile telling him without words how glad she was that he was home. That they were home, he corrected himself, Belle would be glad that they were home.
This day he had a gift for her, a bouquet of marsh marigold and spring heather he'd scraped together as they followed the sheep. The flowers weren't much, scarcely more than weeds really, but Belle had admired the sight of them in the distance yesterday, and he thought they might make her smile. She smiled often, but it still wasn't enough for him. Belle should smile always, should never know a moment's pain or unhappiness. He adored her smile.
He adored her, he admitted to himself. How could he not when her every act brought joy to his home and to his son? Belle was something far more magical than the fairy he'd taken her for at first sight; she was a woman who looked at him without disdain or mockery, whose smiles were freely given and lit up his world.
And she was a princess. And he had no right to think about her in such a way.
Hesitating near the cottage, he tried to hand the bouquet to Bae. "Here. She'll like them better if they come from you."
His son looked up at him like he'd lost his mind, "They're your flowers, Papa. She'll like it if you give her flowers."
"Bae-" Before he could insist, the boy took off at a fast clip, heading for the well, and he was within arm's reach of the door, and Belle had probably already heard the knock of his staff on the path. There was no turning back now. Inhaling deeply, he pushed the door open, Belle's sweet smile greeting him, "Welcome home."
The cottage felt more like home now than it ever had before. He and Bae had gotten by, but somehow Belle made everything warm and cozy and perfect. He flushed when he realized she'd spotted the bouquet in his hands and proffered it shyly, "For you. If you'll have them."
She took them with a look of pure delight, burying her face in them to inhale what little scent they had. She held his clump of weeds like they were the most extravagant bouquet she'd ever seen, and he felt like she was doing the same thing to him as she looked up from the flowers with a smile. "Why thank you." She actually curtseyed to him like he was a nobleman, then leaned up to kiss his cheek before swirling off to place the flowers in an earthenware pitcher, arranging them with loving care so each blossom was displayed to its best advantage.
"Do you like your flowers, Belle?" Bae asked as he joined them, and it was for the best that he did, because Rumpelstiltskin was so distracted by the memory of her lips against his skin that he couldn't have made conversation to save his life, "Papa spent all day picking the best ones."
Belle's eyes flashed to him, and he didn't even have time to be embarrassed by Bae's revelation, because he'd never seen that look on her face before. It was somehow happy and serious and hopeful all at once, and it made his heart pound in his chest. "I think they're wonderful," she said, not looking away, and he couldn't help but think she was talking about more than flowers.
Dinner was a quiet affair. Everything Belle cooked was delicious, but this night he didn't have the slightest idea what he was eating. She could have butchered a rat and put it before him, and he would never have noticed, because he couldn't stop staring at her, hope clawing at his breast no matter how much he tried to suppress it. Belle was staring too, her eyes soft and warm, and he tried to tell himself that it was gratitude that made her smile at him so, but his traitorous heart refused to believe it.
Bae kept glancing back and forth between the two of them, and as soon as the meal was over he grabbed the fairy tale book off the table. "Can I try reading by myself tonight, Belle?" he asked quickly, "I'll come ask if I need any words." Without waiting for a reply, he darted off to sit by the hearth, burying his nose in the book so far it was like he was trying to make himself invisible, his posture loudly proclaiming that he was blind and deaf to everything but his book. Rumpelstiltskin closed his eyes in mortification. Sweet and well-meaning his boy was, but subtle he wasn't, and he could only assume Belle would think he'd put Bae up to this.
They sat in silence for long minutes before Belle's soft voice finally asked, "How did you hurt your leg?"
It was the last thing he'd ever expected her to ask, and he started, his eyes automatically sliding away from her. "Why do you ask?"
"Everyone has a story to tell," she said simply. "You know all about me, Rumpelstiltskin. I would like to know you." It was true. She'd told so many stories over the past weeks- mostly to Bae, but he'd listened in- that he could have given a fairly complete account of her life. He'd never returned the favor.
"There isn't much to tell," he replied, and it was a lie. There was plenty to tell; he just didn't want to tell any of it, because she would look at him differently once she learned he was a coward. Women did not like cowards. He knew that well. Belle would stop smiling at him once she knew, and he wasn't sure he could survive a day without having that smile turned on him.
She kept watching him, her eyes pleading, and he couldn't deny her the only thing she'd ever asked of him. "I fought in the Ogre War. The first one. I was young, newly married, foolish. I thought war was about honor." He'd been so deluded, but he'd learned fast.
Belle's eyes softened, "How did you meet your wife?"
If she was hoping for a romantic tale, he was about to disappoint her. "She lived in the village too." He shrugged, "Her father owned a field my father wanted, so we were betrothed."
He wasn't sure what to make of her expression at that. Commoners couldn't afford to marry for love, but he didn't think the nobility could either. Perhaps she judged him for going through with an arranged marriage when she'd had the courage to flee from hers. Her hand covered his on the table, and she sounded sad when she asked, "You didn't love her?"
For the life of him, he had no idea how to answer that. He had very simply never thought about it. She was his wife, and he would do his duty, and there was nothing more to it. "I didn't not love her," he finally managed, wondering if the words sounded as meaningless to her as they did to him. It had been nice to have someone who was his, and unpleasant to lose that when she left. Her leaving had just been one more example of how he was a failure though. His heart had remained whole.
"So, you went away to war," Belle prompted, scooting her chair closer to his and bringing them back to the original story.
"I thought I'd be a hero," he said quietly, his mouth twisting with derision at the memory. "It's not like that."
She squeezed his hand and kept silent, letting him find his own way to explain what he'd seen. "It looks so tidy on paper. The ogres are there. We are here. They mapped out the movements before every battle, told us where to go and what to do. And then it started, and the ogres were everywhere, and there was screaming and blood and pieces of people..." He was breathing fast, bile rising in his throat as he remembered the feel of blood splattering against his face, getting in his mouth. "And when it was over, half the people were just gone, and there'd be another meeting and more charts, and it just kept going-"
His voice broke, and Belle put her arms around him, pulling his head down so he could bury his face in her neck, sobbing like a child. She stroked his hair, crooning to him, and he burrowed closer, trying to lose himself in her. Her touch eased some of the remembered horror, grounding him in a reality where there were still things like compassion and tenderness. When he'd cried himself out, he lay limply against her shoulder, and she held him close, her cheek resting on his hair. "I ran," he whispered, closing his eyes so as not to see her censure at his confession, "During one battle, I just lost my mind and turned tail and ran. Afterward, I learned my entire unit was killed. I don't know if it was my fault or not."
He took a deep breath, inhaling her sweet scent. Any second now she'd shove him away, unable to tolerate being so close to a coward. She'd tell him how pathetic he was, and he'd agree with her. Brave Belle would be disgusted by him and rightly so.
"Of course it wasn't!" she said fiercely, gripping him tighter, and her words were so unexpected he could barely understand them, "You would have been killed too if you'd been there. Thank the gods you had the sense to run."
"Sense?" he repeated, feeling strangely numb. Maybe she'd misunderstood him. "Belle, I ran. I'm a coward. They hobbled me for it." He winced and sat up, the last part of his secret emerging without his permission. He'd said quite enough. The memory of the captain's club shattering his knee was not something she needed to hear.
"They hobbled you?" Belle said in disbelief, her eyes flashing fire, "The bastards." Her voice was a snarl, and Rumpelstiltskin rapidly realized that making Belle angry would be a very, very bad idea. Fortunately, her anger in this case didn't seem to be directed at him.
"It's the law-" he tried to explain, but she cut him off.
"It's ridiculous. This whole war is ridiculous." She threw her hands in the air, looking infuriated with the universe. "There has to be another way."
"I wish there was," he sighed, relieved that they weren't talking about him anymore. Ogres couldn't be negotiated with, couldn't be beaten in open combat, and even the Dark One couldn't destroy them by magic. Rumpelstiltskin couldn't think of any other options.
"There has to be," she repeated, getting up and clearing the table with a vengeance. She attacked the dirty dishes in silence, clearly lost in thought. Trying to end the war, no doubt, he thought. If anyone could figure out a way out of this, it would be Belle, but he couldn't help but think it was hopeless. They'd fight, and they'd die until they were overrun. All he could do was hope it wouldn't happen in his lifetime or Bae's.
Belle seemed to calm down as the evening passed, but it wasn't until Bae was tucked into bed that she spoke again. "How bad is it? Your leg?" she asked. She was already under the blankets, clad only in her chemise. They'd both given up on shyness weeks ago when they'd realized that sleeping fully dressed wasn't even psychologically comfortable any more, much less physically comfortable. Even so, he'd continued sleeping in his breeches, but at her words he paused before he could extinguish the lamp.
"Do you want to see?" he asked softly, unable to believe his own words. What was he thinking, offering to show her that?
After a moment's hesitation she nodded, and he carried the lamp over to the bed with him, placing it on the floor as he stripped to his small clothes. The shadows kept her from getting a clear view, but as he lifted the lamp, he heard her gasp.
He looked down at his knee, not wanting to see the revulsion on her face. It wasn't as bad as it had been, not nearly, but it was still a misshapen lump, bulging oddly in places no knee was ever meant to bulge and discolored to an almost greenish hue in places where the blood and fluids had never reabsorbed properly. He'd lived with the pain so long he could no longer remember what it was like not to feel it. He tried to reassure her, "It's worse on some days, better on others. I don't mind it so much anymore."
Belle stifled a sob, and he hurriedly extinguished the lamp, not wanting to upset her more by making her look at it. He nearly dropped it when he felt her hand on his thigh just above his knee, then she leaned over and pressed a gentle kiss to the shattered joint.
He sucked in a breath, every nerve ending sparking suddenly, and if it meant she was going to touch him, he blessed his bad knee. Belle pulled him down beside her, resting her head on his shoulder as her arm went around his waist. "I'm so sorry," she murmured, "That should never have happened to you. It was wrong."
Hesitantly, he wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. Despite her actions, he still half-expected her to slap him, but she just sighed and nestled closer. He buried his face in her hair, inhaling the scent of woodsmoke and lavender that clung to her and allowed himself to imagine that they would be like this always.
When Belle woke the next morning, she was still in Rumpelstiltskin's arms. While he'd always held her in his sleep, he'd never remained in the bed one second past daybreak, leaving her to wake alone. She lifted her head from his chest- vaguely embarrassed to realize she'd been using him as a pillow- and her breath caught at the sight of his nervous eyes. "Good morning," she whispered.
"Good morning," he murmured back, reaching up with a trembling hand to brush her hair away from her face. Once he'd done that, he cradled the back of her head, urging her closer to him. Belle's eyes fluttered shut, thinking that he was going to kiss her, but at the last moment, his lips found her cheek instead. Even so she couldn't bring herself to be disappointed, not when it was the first time he'd ever reached out to her.
Despite the intimate greeting the morning progressed normally, although Belle was aware of Bae watching the pair of them like a hawk. She hoped he approved, then remembered how eager he'd been to give them privacy the previous evening and decided that he must.
She saw them both off with a smile and set to work putting the cottage to rights, her mind preoccupied with both the war and her own hopes for the future. She would have to return to society eventually- she couldn't leave her father to spend the rest of his life wondering what had happened to her- but she hoped that when she did Rumpelstiltskin and Bae would be willing to come with her. If she could make a home for herself in their world, she could make a home for them in hers.
Of course, none of that would matter if the wars continued to rage. Nowhere and no one would be safe if they did. The ogres had to have some kind of weakness that could be exploited, but if they did, they hid it well.
Lost in her thoughts, the day passed more quickly than Belle expected, and she soon heard the knock of Rumpelstiltskin's staff as he approached the cottage, more distinct even than the ever-present sound of soldiers in the streets. Her heart melted as he opened the door and she saw he once again had flowers in his hand. Before he could offer them, she stepped into his arms, relishing the feeling of his arms going around her with no hesitation. "Welcome home."
"Papa!" Bae's distressed voice had them jerking apart as he ran in, "Papa, they're taking Morraine; they lowered the age again."
"She's fourteen," he murmured, his eyes focusing on his son in horror. Bae himself was thirteen, Belle knew, but she wasn't sure how far he was from his name day. If it was close, if they took Bae... Belle put her hand to her aching throat and shook her head, denying even the possibility.
"There's more," Bae said, turning to her. Hesitantly, he held out a familiar poster. "They're looking for you."
She took the paper from his hand, seeing that the reward had been raised to five hundred gold pieces. No wonder the search had picked up. "Papa, what are we going to do?" Bae whispered, his voice fraught with terror.
Rumpelstiltskin looked from his son to her and back, then his shoulders squared. "We're leaving."
Belle exchanged a glance with Bae, who was clearly as surprised as she was. "You'll be safe in Cendrillion even if we have to go through the forests," he told her, then looked to his son, "And they can't take you if they can't find you. We'll take what we can carry and leave tonight."
The next few hours were a silent flurry of panic and packing as they tried to gather everything they would need without weighing themselves down so much they couldn't move easily. Once they'd assembled the bags, they huddled together near the fire, Belle's eyes searching out every inch of the cottage where she'd found so much happiness, trying to commit it to memory.
They waited until long past moonrise until the village was dark and silent, then set out on their journey, Rumpelstiltskin leading the way and Belle in the rear with Bae between them for safety. Despite his knee, he walked quickly, heading for the nearest outcropping of forest with a speed borne of necessity. They followed the road as the most direct route, relying on darkness to shield them until they reached the forest proper.
Belle's heart hammered in her chest with every step, convinced she'd see soldiers rising up out of the darkness to ride them down. Every moment that she didn't see something only made the fear worse. It wasn't until near dawn when they reached the first trees that she started to relax a little bit, thinking they might perhaps make it after all.
A shadowy figure loomed up beside her, and Belle swallowed a shriek, striking out instinctively and knocking a bag from the hands of an old man. "Alms for the poor?" he asked in a wavering voice, and Belle's face flushed with shame.
"I'm sorry; I'm so sorry," she said frantically, bending down to pick up the old man's scattered belongings as Rumpelstiltskin pressed a few coins into his hand. "Go ahead, I'll be right there," she urged them on as she stepped off the path to capture the bits of paper that were in the process of blowing away.
"I didn't mean to frighten you," the beggar told her as she helped him gather his things, but before she could answer she suddenly heard the clip of horses' hooves on the road and a rough voice demanding to know Rumpelstiltskin's business.
A hand caught her upper arm, and the beggar pressed her further back into the shadows. Belle was grateful for his intervention, because if he hadn't she would no doubt have gone charging out in fury when she heard the way the voice was speaking to Rumpelstiltskin. She craned her neck, seeing a tall soldier sneering down. His mocking, taunting voice raised her ire as he called Rumpelstiltskin a coward and threatened to conscript Bae, and her heart broke for him as he pleaded for Bae's life. She had no authority over these men even if it had been safe to reveal herself, but at least Baelfire was not yet fourteen; by law they couldn't take him yet.
The soldiers didn't seem to be concerning themselves with the law however. In horror, she heard them preparing to take the boy, mocking Rumpelstiltskin's attempts to dissuade them. "You have no power, no influence, no money, no honor, nothing but your fealty," the soldier sneered, and Belle's mind raced. Rumpelstiltskin did have one card to play, and she was about to force his hand.
"If they ask, you're taking me to the king," she hissed to the beggar, hoping he would follow her plan as she cried out, "No, stop! I will not be silent!"
She pressed her elbow into the beggar's grip as she stumbled into the road, trying to make it look like she was struggling against him. "I am Princess Belle of Avonlea, and I demand you have these ruffians release me!" She looked at the soldiers imperiously, trusting she'd judged them correctly. These men were no gentlemen; they wouldn't set a young woman with a price on her head loose, and they were certain to be distracted by a bigger prize than simply bullying a poor shepherd and his son.
The captain's eyes lit up at the sight of her, running over her like she was a prized horse or juicy cut of meat. "Princess Belle," he purred, and Belle had to repress her shudder.
Arms grabbed her from behind as another soldier seized her. "Leave the peasants," the captain commanded, "We just found ourselves five hundred gold pieces."
Rumpelstiltskin was staring at her with agony scored in every line of his face, and she tried to smile at him. Perhaps she'd be able to escape along the road. Laurent's kingdom was far, and much and more could happen along the way. At the very least, she'd bought him and Bae time to disappear. He looked from her to the soldiers, weighing his options, but he didn't have any. She knew that even better than he did.
"No!" Bae shouted, stepping forward even as his father tried to hold him back, "She's our prisoner! We're entitled to a cut of the reward!" Belle shook her head at him, trying to will him to be silent, but he just folded his arms across his chest, staring at the soldiers stubbornly.
"The lad's right!" the beggar boomed, voice surprising loud for an old man, "King's law says we get a share."
"I demand you take us with you," Rumpelstiltskin added, looking like he couldn't quite believe what he was saying. Belle couldn't either. What was he doing?
The captain grunted, looking at the miniature uprising happening in front of him, then gestured to his men. "Take them all."
Belle didn't have to feign her dismay as the soldiers took hold of all four of them, hauling them over to the wagon already filled with conscripted children. She couldn't do anything for Bae and Rumpelstiltskin right now, but perhaps she could at least save the children. Digging her feet into the dirt, she tossed her head and turned up her nose. "You expect me to ride with ragamuffins? I demand they be removed at once." Laurent's kingdom was the opposite direction from the front line, and Rumpelstiltskin's village was only a few miles back. Surely the captain would see the sense in not dragging the children along on the journey, and they would be able to find safety in the village. Surely anything was better than being sent into a war they could not win.
"You're in no position to give orders, girlie," a solider sneered, grabbing her jaw in his hand insultingly. Belle jerked back, drawing a weapon she hadn't used in years. Tilting her head back, she took a deep breath, then opened her mouth and screamed.
It took her a few moments to hit just the right register: an ear-piercing note that had been known to get courtiers to clutch their skulls and drop to their knees. Even these hardened veterans weren't immune, she noticed as she snuck a look around. They were instinctively backing away from her, faces tightening in pain. The beggar too was edging away, although Rumpelstiltskin and Bae remained at her side, Rumpelstiltskin looking a bit horrified. Bae, on the other hand, seemed impressed.
She drew it out as long as she could, breaking the sound off crisply when she started to run out of air. Making a show of taking another breath, she opened her mouth again-
"Let the brats go!" the captain bellowed, and she immediately turned her brightest smile on him.
"Thank you," she said sweetly, as though she hadn't been screaming like a banshee mere seconds earlier.
In the resulting confusion, she was able to catch a few of the children as they streamed past, hissing directions in small ears, "There's a village. Follow the road. Stay together." It wasn't much by way of help, but she hoped it would be enough.
They were loaded onto the wagon in the children's place, the soldiers handling them a bit more carefully now as they eyed Belle warily. Rumpelstiltskin leaned against one side of the wagon and the beggar sat opposite as Bae snuggled into his father's left side. Belle opted to sit on his right, careful not to jar his leg. Still he made a pained sound as the wagon lurched into movement, and she took his hand with a comforting squeeze.
"You shouldn't have done that," Bae whispered to her, leaning around his father to look her in the eye, "You could have snuck away."
"And leave you to the ogres? I was trying to give you a way out." She sighed, leaning a little harder on Rumpelstiltskin. The rush of excitement at their ruse was wearing off fast, leaving her feeling leaden. Hesitantly, he wrapped his arm around her, pulling her into him.
"He's right; you shouldn't have," he whispered into her hair, "But thank you."
"Papa, what are we going to do?" Bae asked, echoing his words from earlier, only this time no one had an answer for him.
Rumpelstiltskin sighed. "We'll find a way."
The beggar leaned forward, his eyes fixed on the three of them. "We need help. Powerful help."
He was right, but Belle couldn't imagine where they'd get it. If she could somehow get word to her father, he would save them, but she didn't know how she could do that. She'd once heard that Snow White could talk to birds, and she desperately wished that was a skill she possessed. Bribe a soldier perhaps? She doubted she had enough money to make it worth anyone's while.
The beggar waited until he had their attention again. "The Dark One could do it."
Rumpelstiltskin shook his head. "Why would the Dark One help us?"
"There's a dagger with his name on it. Whoever has the dagger controls him. All you need to do is find it." The man's voice was hushed and intense, clearly believing every word he spoke.
"Command the Dark One?" Rumpelstiltskin's voice wavered, and Belle shuddered at the thought. Bae had told her about the Dark One, and the mere thought of being near the creature was chilling.
"You could save your boy," the beggar's eyes flicked to Belle, "And your lady. It's in the Duke's castle. All you have to do is take it."
Rumpelstiltskin swallowed hard, then turned to her, his eyes searching hers as the beggar continued, "If you don't want to control him, all you have to do is stab him with the dagger. He won't be able to fight you. Then you'll have his powers."
"We have no choice," he whispered, his voice rough.
Belle wanted to protest- no plan involving someone called the Dark One could be a good idea- but she couldn't. "No, we don't."
It went against his every instinct to leave them, but he had no choice. One of them had to steal the dagger, and of the three, he was the most expendable. Besides, Bae and Belle were both strong, intelligent. They'd be fine without him. He was a coward, no matter what Belle said, but for them he would be brave. "I'll command the Dark One to rescue you. After that..." he trailed off, unable to contemplate having that much power in his grasp. Perhaps he'd give the dagger to Belle once they were reunited. She would use it wisely.
"After that, we'll think of something," Belle finished for him, reaching up to pull him close. He wrapped his arms around her, needing the comfort of her embrace to give him strength. Warm lips pressed a gentle kiss to his cheek before she murmured in his ear, "Be safe. I'll take care of Bae for you."
Tears stung his eyes as he forced himself to release her and turned to his son. "Be careful, Papa," his boy said intently, burying his face against his chest, "And don't worry," he whispered, "I'll take care of Belle for you."
Despite the circumstance, he chuckled. They were so alike, Bae and Belle, both so brave that it put him to shame. He couldn't find words for either of them, and before he had the chance to gather some- stay safe, don't take risks, I'll come for you, I love you- the beggar was raising his voice to attract the soldiers' attention, "You are a fool, Rumpelstiltskin! We didn't need your help to capture her, and we don't need you now. Be gone!"
"Keep the money!" he shouted back, and now the soldiers were riding closer, curious to see what was happening among their captives. "It's worth the loss to be out of your company."
He pointed to the nearest soldier, aiming for the same haughty tone he'd heard Belle use to order the captain about. "You! Stop this wagon and let me down. I've had enough."
To his shock, his orders were obeyed, and before he knew what was happening, his feet were on the road again. Biting his tongue, he forced himself not to look back as he heard the wagon start to move. Instead, he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, his heart screaming as he increased the distance between Bae and Belle and himself.
It was agony to be parted from them, but he didn't have time to think on that now. Shoving those feelings to the corner of his mind, he tried to plan, knowing he would need a distraction in order to get into the Duke's castle. The beggar had told him where the dagger could be found, but it was sure to be guarded. So, what would bring every able-bodied man running no matter what he was supposed to be doing?
The answer was blindingly simple: fire. The castle might be made of stone, but the floors and ceilings and tapestries would all burn. All he needed was to start a blaze, and he'd be able to walk in and take what he wanted.
Hurrying his steps as much as he could, he made his way back to the cottage, knowing exactly what he needed. He just hoped he had time to make it. Lanolin could be time-consuming, and he only had until nightfall. He would not wait longer than that, not with Bae and Belle counting on him.
Belle strained her eyes to keep him in sight as long as she could as he limped off into the foggy morning. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bae's stricken face and put her arm around the boy, offering what comfort she could. As she did so, the look on the beggar's face finally registered with her. He didn't look concerned or even the slightest bit wary. Instead he looked downright self-satisfied.
It could be nothing. He could simply be confident Rumpelstiltskin would succeed and save them all. Yet her tales were filled with beggars who were more than they appeared to be, and Belle hadn't gotten this far by ignoring her instincts. Resolving to keep a close eye on the man, she set to work distracting Bae, telling him stories from her books and her own past until she'd lulled him to sleep.
It was still too dark to read, and soon the rocking of the cart had her drifting off too. She jerked awake every few minutes, her eyes searching out the beggar each time. For his part, he seemed to be asleep, but Belle refused to trust appearances.
The snatches of sleep she caught were scarcely enough to keep her going as the day brightened and then dragged on and on. The soldiers provided them with reasonably fresh bread for their luncheon and a brief period to stretch their legs and take care of necessities. Once finished, she found Bae standing near the road, looking back the way they'd come. "What do you think Papa's doing now?"
She put her hands on his shoulders, feeling the fine tremors. "He's getting ready to rescue us," she said with as much authority as she could muster.
Bae nodded. "I think so too. He'll save us."
His simple faith gave her the strength to climb back into the wagon that was slowly and inexorably carting her towards a man who wished her dead. "Come on. It's time for your lessons."
The beggar said little as the sun approached then overtook its zenith, slowly making its way through the sky. His eyes seemed to turn inward, his face serene, and as dusk fell Belle grew steadily more convinced something was about to happen. Obeying some instinct that she was afraid to question, she kept her arm about Bae's shoulders, one hand lying on the straw near the beggar, ready to reach out at any moment. Just in case.
As night descended completely, her only warning was a sharp intake of breath from the beggar before his lips curled into a triumphant smile. Tightening her grip on Bae, Belle grabbed the beggar's arm, and the bottom fell out of the world.
Only her grip on the others kept her from falling to her knees as her head swam sickeningly, her stomach feeling like it had been wrenched out of her body. Beside her, Bae was gagging, but the beggar was completely still.
When her vision cleared they were back in the same forest they'd left that morning, and Rumpelstiltskin was standing before them with a torch in one hand and an ornate dagger in the other, staring at them in disbelief. Even through her sickness, her heart lightened. He'd done it and escaped unscathed. Not trusting her voice, she reached up and wrenched the beggar's hood back, letting him see just who he'd summoned.
"You?" the word was strangled, as the beggar's face twisted into something inhuman, "You're the Dark One? You told me how to kill you!"
Looking frantically at Bae and Belle, he brandished the dagger, "Let them go!"
It was Belle hanging onto the beggar, so he obeyed the order by putting his hand at the center of her back and shoving her forward. Balance still off from the sudden trip, Belle staggered, and Bae caught her before she could fall as Rumpelstiltskin gestured at them to get behind him.
"If you're the Dark One, why did you want me to kill you?" he demanded. The beggar smirked at him, and Rumpelstiltskin added, "I command you to answer honestly and completely."
The Dark One inclined his head in recognition of the intelligent order. "I've lived a long time and done horrible things without number. My will is not my own. I wish to pass on my curse and rest."
"If you can do anything, why don't you end the wars?" Bae piped up.
"Answer him." Rumpelstiltskin lowered the dagger slightly, still keeping it pointed at the Dark One, but he looked more inclined to talk now and less likely to attack.
"I can only do as my master bids me. Your duke enjoys the glories of war."
His word choice turned Belle's stomach. To have the power to save so many lives and do nothing with it... It was inhuman. "But you could force the ogres back if you were commanded to?"
The beggar smiled darkly, and for the first time, she understood why he was so feared. "I could incinerate them all where they stand," he hissed.
Rumpelstiltskin's shoulders tensed, "Do-" he started to say before Belle cut him off.
Her mind raced. The Dark One seemed far too happy about dangling the offer in front of them after what he'd said about being forced to do horrible things. "It's a trap," she said slowly as Rumpelstiltskin looked back at her, his face perplexed, "And even if it's not, we can't command him to commit genocide."
"They're ogres, Belle," he protested, and she shook her head. The ogres had destroyed his life. They'd cost her family and friends. She didn't blame him for wanting revenge, she did too, but some things should not be done.
"It's wrong," she said quietly, holding his gaze, "And I will not be party to it." If he decided to do this, he would be going on alone although her heart would break to leave him and Bae.
He stared at her like he'd never seen her before, his face anguished. Then he took a step away from her, and Belle's heart turned to lead within her breast. He'd made his choice then. Turning to face her, Rumpelstiltskin held out the dagger, and her eyes went wide. He certainly couldn't mean to kill her, could he? Before she had time to react, he awkwardly flipped the dagger, catching it by its blade, and held out the hilt to her. "Here."
"But-" Belle took a step back of her own.
"Take it." He closed the distance between them, trying to press the dagger into her hand, "You'll use it better than me."
"Because I'm a princess?" she asked, wondering if he assumed that her background made her fit for commanding sorcerers.
"Because you're Belle," he answered, and that made all the difference. She took the dagger from his hand, and although she didn't feel any different now that she commanded the Dark One, she could see the tension leaving his body as he embraced Bae.
Belle stepped forward, thinking back over every tale she'd read with a genii, and tried to choose her words carefully. She started with the basics, unable to improve on Rumpelstiltskin's earlier order. "If any of the three of us ask you a question, you will answer it honestly and completely."
The beggar nodded, his eyes dancing with amusement. Belle continued, "If we are overlooking something relevant to the issue at hand, you will point it out."
Some of the amusement faded from the beggar's eyes at that, replaced by a grudging respect. "We want to end the Ogre Wars without further bloodshed. How can we do that?"
From behind her, Bae asked, "Can you make some kind of shield? Something that will protect the country?"
"I can put a dome over the country," the Dark One replied, "Nothing will get in or out."
"When you say nothing," Rumpelstiltskin began, "Does that include things like sunlight and air?"
"You three are smarter than you look," the Dark One chortled, "Not that it would take much."
Belle rolled her eyes. For all his powers, he was talking like a petulant child. Thinking out loud, she tried to specify what they wanted, "We want a boundary between the human lands and the ogres' lands. It needs to be something that the ogres cannot pass through nor any weapons that they might launch. Humans must be able to pass through it if they need to, but they shouldn't be able to attack the ogres through it. It must allow the passage of animals and air and sunlight and everything else we need for life."
She glanced behind her at her two men. "Am I forgetting anything?"
"Any ogres currently on human land must be able to pass through it once in order to leave," Bae suggested, and his father nodded in approval of the idea.
"And that too," Belle turned to the Dark One, "Can you do that?"
"You ask much, princess. I can." He inclined his head, looking almost respectful in that moment.
"And is there any way this can backfire and hurt our country?" she asked, hoping the commands of openness and honesty meant he would tell her.
"No," he replied, a bit grudgingly, "You've chosen well."
"Then do it," she commanded.
Belle wasn't sure what she expected, but she'd assumed something more dramatic than the Dark One looking to the sky for a long moment before shuddering would occur. "It is done."
"That's it?" Rumpelstiltskin asked, voicing the surprise they were all feeling.
"Would you prefer thunder and explosions?" the Dark One demanded.
"No, that's fine," Belle said hastily. She stared down at the dagger in her hand, not sure what to do next. "Now what?"
"Now I submit to a new master. Although at least this one has some sense." He looked tired, Belle realized, terribly tired, and his words from earlier came back to haunt her. ''I've lived a long time and done horrible things without number. My will is not my own.' She'd fled her home for fear of losing her freedom. How long had he lived without his?
"If I gave this dagger to you," she began slowly, not quite sure what she was offering, "What would happen?"
The Dark One's eyes widened in surprise. "I would be my own master."
"And what would you do?" she pressed.
"I would hide the dagger somewhere no one would ever find it," he grinned wolfishly, "Then I would find some quiet place to make my home and live peacefully."
"Would you hurt anyone?" Bae asked, and the beggar shook his head.
Rumpelstiltskin had the next question, "Would the boundary still stand?"
Again the beggar shook his head, "What is done cannot be undone."
"If I return the dagger to you, will I regret it?" Belle asked, and the beggar grinned.
"You'd be giving up great power. Of course you'll regret it."
Shaking her head, she reworded her question, "If I give you the dagger, will you cause any trouble for the people of these lands?"
His grin softened into a more melancholy smile. "None deliberately. It is human nature to cause trouble though, and I was human once."
Belle nodded, her decision made. However, she wasn't the only one who had a say in this. "What say you?" she asked, looking to Bae.
He looked at the Dark One for a moment, then nodded, "Do it."
Turning to Rumpelstiltskin, she asked, "And you?"
He echoed his son's words, "Do it."
Belle turned the dagger to read the name, then moved it so she was holding it gingerly by the blade. "Zoso, I release you." She held the dagger out to him, hilt-first.
He looked at it for a moment as though he couldn't believe what she was doing then seized the dagger out of her hand. A change came over him as soon as it was in his possession. He stood taller, and some of the lines of weariness dropped from his face. "I thank you," he said roughly, and he actually sounded sincere. "But I have a debt to pay first," he said, pointing his finger at Rumpelstiltskin.
"No!" Belle exclaimed, jumping in front of him, but it was too late. Behind her, he cried out, and she whirled around, dreading what she would find. Bae was already there, and Rumpelstiltskin clung to his son's shoulders. As she watched, her hands covering her trembling lips, he slowly straightened, his face a picture of confusion. "I... He... He fixed it."
He dropped his staff, shifting his weight onto his bad leg. It held, and there wasn't a glimmer of pain in his face. Belle turned back to Zoso, tears glinting in her eyes. "You're a suspicious girl," he told her indulgently, then waved his hand in her direction, "But I think you'll find your father-in-law no longer wishes you dead. You are no longer a wanted woman. Well, not in that sense." He glanced at Rumpelstiltskin as he made that last remark, and Belle blushed.
"And you," Zoso looked at Baelfire for a moment, then his brow furrowed. "You I will just have to owe a favor." A heartbeat later, he was gone as though he'd never been there at all.
Actually, it was they who had moved, she realized. They were still surrounded by trees it was true, but these were a completely different variety. Belle blinked, feeling like she'd just been woken out of a sound sleep, and she was half-tempted to dismiss the entire thing as a strange dream, but Rumpelstiltskin was standing without his staff to support him. As she watched, he picked Bae up, pulling the boy into an enormous hug, and she started to laugh, tears prickling in her eyes at the sight.
He put the boy down and held his arms out to her, and she ran into them with a glad sob, gasping as he picked her up bodily and twirled her around. Slowly, he placed her back on her feet, letting her slide down his body, and Belle pressed closer, tilting her head back for the kiss that had to be coming. His face softened, wonder in his eyes as he bent down.
Before their lips could meet, Bae's voice broke the silence, "Where are we?"
Rumpelstiltskin had relied on his staff for so long that he could barely get his balance without it. He felt like a child learning to walk for the first time, but he was too happy to be embarrassed about the way he was reeling like a drunken sailor, because for the first time in longer than he could remember, he could walk without pain. He could pick up Bae. He could hold Belle in both arms without having to lean on her for support. He was whole again.
Still, he hoped he'd catch his balance soon, because Zoso had deposited them on the outskirts of Belle's father's gardens, and according to her, they would reach the palace itself shortly after daybreak. He doubted that staggering like a drunken man would make a good impression on the king.
Just as the sun was rising, they crested a small hill, and the palace rose up before them in gleaming gold and marble. Bae gasped audibly at the sight and Rumpelstiltskin, who had spent his entire life in the same small village, nearly echoed him. Between them, Belle beamed with delight, raising her hood as protection against the wind as she caught both of them by the hand. "We're almost there."
As they drew closer, he could make out a long set of steps that once would have filled him with dread, but now he felt like he could take them two at a time. Then again, he'd probably fall on his face. His steps were surer now, but stairs were still a foreign proposition.
They were nearly to the base of the steps when two guards stepped in front of them, blocking their way. "State your business." Although their countenances were stern, Rumpelstiltskin detected no cruelty in the men.
Before he could respond, Belle stepped forward. "We seek audience with the king," she replied, reaching up to push back her hood and reveal her face.
The change that came over the two men was immediate and astonishing. "Princess!" the older exclaimed while the other turned on heel and took off at a dead run up the steps. "You're safe! It's been so long... we feared the worst."
"I have quite a story to tell," Belle admitted with a smile, "And I have news that everyone will welcome, but first I must see my father."
"Of course, highness," the guard stepped back, bowing his head in respect, and Belle led them up the long steps leading to the palace, walking inside with supreme confidence.
Somehow, Rumpelstiltskin had nearly forgotten that she was a princess, but this moment brought it all rushing back. These grand halls with their stained glass and priceless works of art were where Belle had grown up. Every servant he caught sight of as they walked had bowed to her. Belle was a princess, and he'd never felt more distanced from her.
A large man dressed in velvet and fur appeared around the corner in a rush, and Belle broke into a run, leaving him and Bae behind. "Papa!" She threw herself into the man's arms, laughing joyously as he spun her around and around.
"Belle! Oh, my Belle!" The man- the king's voice was choked like he was trying to laugh and cry at the same time. "Oh, I should put you over my knee; what were you thinking? We've been worried to death; Laurent wanted your head, but your idiot fiancee's gone and fallen in love with a witch, so he has bigger problems now, and thank all the gods you're back at last!"
Belle pulled out of her father's arms, laughing in earnest at his torrent of words. "I'm back now, Papa. And I have news: the Ogre Wars are over."
He looked at her, clearly trying to make sense of her extraordinary statement. "The Ogre Wars... Belle, what in the name of all the gods have you been doing?"
She laughed at his look of shock. "We met... a very powerful sorcerer and did him a favor. In return, he created a boundary along the borders. We can pass if we need to, but the ogres can no longer get through." It was a gross oversimplification of what had actually happened, but they'd be there the rest of the day if she decided to tell the whole story. Knowing Belle, she would at some point, probably incorporating sound effects.
With a smile, she beckoned him and Bae forward, "Papa, this is Baelfire and his father, Rumpelstiltskin. They gave me shelter and helped me find my way home. Rumpelstiltskin is the one who found the sorcerer, and having him create the boundary was Bae's idea."
Having the king's attention suddenly on him was unnerving, but the man was nodding in approval at both of them. "You're clearly a very brave and intelligent young man," the king praised Bae, and pride warmed Rumpelstiltskin's heart. He'd always known his boy was exceptional, but he'd never dreamed that his qualities would be recognized by one of the rulers of the realm.
The king patted Bae's shoulder, then held out his hand. "And you, Rumpelstiltskin, thank you for protecting my daughter and our lands. I owe you much. Name your reward and you shall have it."
Rumpelstiltskin shook the man's hand, his words washing over him like something out of a dream. Name his reward? If he'd expected anything, it had been to be handed a handful of coins and sent on his way, but the king was looking him in the eye like they were equals.
A position for Bae, he thought at last. Perhaps they could apprentice him to a scholar, something where he could use his talents, something respected and safe. Maybe they could find work for him too. Surely there were sheep somewhere around here. Perhaps he would even be allowed to see Belle from time to time. He wouldn't be able to speak to her, of course, but if they'd just permit him to look at her sometimes, even from a distance, he'd be content.
Belle placed her hand on her father's arm, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "I think the traditional 'save the kingdom and rescue the princess' reward is in order, Papa."
"Oh, do you?" the king's eyebrows raised, and he looked at Rumpelstiltskin a bit more intently, which was unnerving because he'd just forgotten how to breathe. Belle wasn't really saying- couldn't possibly be saying- what he thought she was. He looked back to Belle. "You're quite sure? He is a commoner."
Belle's smile widened, turning wicked, "Well, it is a family tradition. I think commoners make wonderful kings."
The king laughed like she'd just told an excellent joke, and Rumpelstiltskin smiled weakly. Bae was looking between the three adults, apparently bewildered. A strong hand landed on his shoulder, the grip companionable. "I was a blacksmith's apprentice when Belle's mother found me. You'll do fine, lad."
He stepped back, taking in the appearance of all three of them. "And you all look exhausted." Waving his hand, he beckoned a livery-clad servant over, "Find rooms for our guests, make them comfortable."
When Belle moved to follow, he caught her arm in an affectionate hold, "Oh no, not you, young lady. I'm not letting you out of my sight so soon. You can rest after you've told your tale."
He escorted her off in the opposite direction from where the servant was leading them, and Belle shot them a helpless, amused look over her shoulder and blew a kiss before they disappeared around a corner. Bae was tripping over his own feet, trying to look at everything at the same time, but Rumpelstiltskin kept his eyes squarely on the servant's back, so overwhelmed he felt like he'd shatter. "Would you like to bathe first, sir, or would you prefer me to show you to your rooms at once?" the servant asked, and it took him a second to realize that the 'sir' in question was him.
The prospect of a bed sounded divine, but he was conscious of how filthy and shabby they were in comparison to the grand surroundings. "A bath first, please," he managed, his voice echoing strangely in the high-ceiling hallway.
"Of course, sir." The servant led them to a smaller room- which meant it would only hold his entire home three or four times over instead of a dozen- lined with blue and silver glass tile and containing six large bathing tubs, two of which were already filled to the brim and steaming. Rumpelstiltskin felt like he'd been transported under the sea, and beside him Bae's mouth was hanging open like he was trying to catch flies.
"Would you care for help, sir?" the servant prompted politely, and he snapped back into reality.
"Ah, no. No, thank you." The servant inclined his head.
"If you'll leave your clothing on the chair, I'll take it to be laundered. You'll find robes in this closet." He opened a door, revealing more expensive fabric than Rumpelstiltskin had ever expected to see in one lifetime. "Ring if you need anything, sir."
With that he was gone, leaving Rumpelstiltskin and Bae staring at each other. Finally he shook his head and undressed, folding his clothes neatly onto the chair with a wince. Take them to be laundered? Burned was more likely considering the state of them. Belle's neat mending had come completely undone after the adventures of the past two days, and the unmistakable aroma of sheep lanolin still clung to them.
It clung to him too, he realized as he lowered himself into the deep tub, the hottest water he'd ever felt instantly soothing every aching muscle. In the next tub over, Bae was completely submerging himself, coming up every minute or so for a gasp of air. "I feel like a merman."
"You look like one," he chuckled at the sight of his son, wet hair plastered to his face. "Try not to drown."
Bae went back to playing as he soaked, and his heart lightened even as his bone-deep weariness made itself known. It was like something out of a tale to be welcomed in a king's castle and treated like an honored guest. At any moment he expected to wake up and find the past month had just been an especially vivid dream.
"Papa?" Bae's voice intruded on his thoughts, "Are you going to be a king?"
In truth he'd been trying not to think about that last part of the interview with the king. Somehow he'd misunderstood them, he was certain of that. There was no way they'd truly been saying what he thought he was hearing. He'd be content if they merely allowed him to see Belle occasionally. They couldn't really be proposing to make her his wife. "I don't know, Bae," he said slowly, not sure what it meant that his son had misunderstood in the same way he had, "I doubt it."
He nodded, looking thoughtful, and Rumpelstiltskin set to work cleaning himself up, trying to scrub away any last trace of the lanolin. The soap was finely milled and smelled faintly of sandalwood, a far cry from the harsh lye he was accustomed to, but it seemed to work just as well. He finished by cleaning his hair as well, faintly horrified by the shade of brown the water was turning as he rinsed himself.
He dried himself with the thick towels that had been left out for them, then selected robes for himself and Bae. He'd meant to choose something simple, but every single one was brightly colored and decorated with ridiculously ornate embroidery for a piece of clothing that was only meant to be worn when getting out of the bath. As Bae splashed around behind him, finishing his own ablutions, Rumpelstiltskin went to work on his hair with a silver comb he found on a low table. There was a mirror he tried not to look in as he attacked the knots. He might be clean now, but he was still rough-hewn and as common as dirt. What was he thinking, imagining they would ever give Belle to him?
The same servant was waiting outside the bathing room when he opened the door, looking like part of the palace. He wasn't sure if he should apologize for making him wait, but before he had a chance the servant beckoned them to follow,
The room they were shown to was certainly grand enough to be the king's own, but it seemed it was meant for their use. The bed alone would have filled his entire cottage, and he had no idea what he was supposed to do with the multitude of pillows at its head. The servant left them to explore after demonstrating the bell pull that would summon a page. Rumpelstiltskin wasn't sure what he'd need it for unless he managed to get lost.
Clothes had been put out for them: tall boots for both of them, dark breeches, a gold shirt made of silk, and a heavily embroidered burgundy vest for him and a similar outfit for Bae only his vest was green and more simply styled. They'd both look thoroughly ridiculous. There were also simpler, looser clothes next to the fine ones, and he thought that only in a palace would clothes designed for sleeping be made of silk and tinted with expensive dyes. Nevertheless, the fabric felt good on his skin, and the look of wonder on Bae's face was a reward in itself as he stroked his fingers over the silk.
Huge the bed might be, but it was inviting, and neither of them even bothered getting under the covers. Bae stretched out face down on the left side, his face pressed into the heavy satin, asleep almost instantaneously. Rumpelstiltskin took a moment to choose one of the pillows for himself and had just enough time to wonder how Belle's interview with her father was progressing before he too succumbed.
He woke what could have been moments or hours later to the sensation of a finger tracing the bridge of his nose. Eyes flickering open in the gathering gloom, he made out Belle sitting on the edge of the bed next to him, clad only in a blue silk chemise, and if they weren't planning to make her his wife, sending her into his bedchamber half-naked was not the right way to break it to him gently.
She smiled once she saw he was awake and bent down to kiss the tip of his nose before prodding him in the ribs. "Move over."
He scooted closer to Bae who was still in the same position, sleeping like one who'd been enchanted. Belle curled up on his right with her head on his chest. "My father is delighted that we've saved the world, and he's ready to give you half the kingdom to thank you for bringing me home. I told him just to give you my hand in marriage, and we'd call it even."
Belle raised her head to look at him, and all he could do was stare at her. She'd said it again, only there was no room for misinterpretation this time. Belle was to be his wife- his wife. It was what he'd wanted practically from the day they'd met, and it was far too good to be true.
Her smile faltered a little in the face of his silence, and she glanced away, her cheeks tinting crimson. "Or... you could have half the kingdom. Or whatever else you want. You don't have to-"
"Belle," her name was all he could think to say, but it was enough to stop her nervous flood of words. She thought he didn't want her? He would have agreed to any condition simply to be allowed to see her, having her as his wife was more than he'd ever dared dream.
He pushed himself into a seated position, reaching for her hands. "I know I'm not worthy of you," he began hesitantly, groping for the right words, "But nothing would make me happier than to have you as my wife."
Her smile lit the room as she visibly relaxed. "Of course you're worthy, don't be silly," she scolded, and there was such utter faith in her eyes, that he couldn't help using his grip on her hands to pull her closer. Belle exhaled, and he could feel her breath on his face, warming every part of him. Carefully, he slanted his mouth over her own, worshipping her lips with his and swallowing her sigh of pleasure.
Nothing had ever felt like this before. Her light filled his soul, taking all the fear and doubt away. They were together now and always would be, and they were going to live happily ever after. He tangled his hands in her hair as he deepened the kiss, unable to get close enough to her. Belle pressed herself against him, her arms sliding around his neck as she kissed him for all she was worth until she suddenly yawned into his mouth.
He pulled back with a muffled snort of laughter, taking in her affronted expression. He'd at least gotten a few hours of sleep, but Belle hadn't been so fortunate, and although she looked happy, her exhaustion was clear. Lying back down on the bed, he pulled her down with him, deciding everything else could wait until later.
"It will take some time to clean everything up from the wars," she yawned, once again ignoring the plethora of pillows in favor of his chest. "And I want to start a school for children like Bae, maybe in your village..."
He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her closer as she continued, her words more yawn than sense, "Or we can open a few in the grasslands and the forests... I want to put the soldiers to work rebuilding..."
"Hush," he soothed, stroking a hand over her hair. Her brilliant mind was always so full of plans and ideas, but even she needed to sleep sometimes, "It will keep until tomorrow."
"And I... I..." An enormous yawn cut her off, and he couldn't suppress his smile, which fled immediately at her next words, "And I love you."
He pressed his lips to her hair, tears prickling at his eyes, "And I love you, my Belle."
Her arm tightened around his waist, holding him closer, and her breath deepened in sleep, her overtired body finally forcing her mind to rest as well. Rumpelstiltskin kissed her hair again, then reached out to brush his fingers over Bae's. The two people he loved best were with him, happy and safe and content, and for the first time in his life, he expected that when he woke up tomorrow things would be even better.