Part II: "ne'er to be a damsel fair"
"You foolish, foolish child!"
Try as she might, Belle could not contain her wince as her father's voice fell like a lash upon her ears. Over the years, no matter how brave and right she may have felt when embarking upon a course her father would not approve of, there never was a time when she could feel anything but sheepish when he stood before her at that path's end. In her mind, she tried to tell herself that this was just like any other time she had invoked her father's anger – the blush on her cheeks, her place kneeling before her father's throne was all familiar to her. She kept her head downcast, careful to lower her eyes to stare at the floor. By her side, Gaston too was kneeling, but his eyes were not on Maurice, but on her, cross and accusing and so I-told-you-so that she wanted to reach over and elbow his him in his side.
Her father's glare burned, yet if she tried hard enough, for a moment she could imagine that she again wore stolen breeches, her cheeks muddy as her father raved over her stealing a horse she could not control. For a very short moment, that was.
"Do you have any idea what you have done?" her father continued to rage, not still upon his throne, but rather pacing before her. She could see his boots clear in her line of vision, but little else. The marble tiles were glazed over and scuffed, dull with their neglect. Still, they were cool under her hands. "Do you realize the danger of invoking the aid of such a one? Did you think the ogres to be a nightmare on our borders? What better would it be to be indebted to one such as him?"
"I only ask you to meet with him," finally she raised her voice. Still she kept her eyes down - demure and respectful, even as her blood pumped hot and mighty through her veins. "No deal was struck, no bargain was made. He cannot, and he will not, act without that deal in place." For creatures of magic had their codes, even if they were not the codes of mortal men.
"The girl speaks true in that sense," came a sniff of a voice from the man who stood at her father's right hand. Marquis D'Arque was chief amongst her father's advisers; a tall and too lean man with long graying hair which he had drawn into a queue at the back of his neck, even though the very top of his head was balding. He had long, strong features punctuated by hooded eyes and a hawkish beak of a nose. He wore rich grey and blue tones in a last semblance of vanity - for jewels and other such totems had been done away with in the times that they faced. Her father trusted his word implicitly. Unfortunately. "But it is a foolish thing to invoke the Dark One's name. He can bring nothing but ruin and damnation, even in aid."
Belle cared little for the adviser. D'Arque was a self righteous and rigid man, puffed up on the idea of his own holiness. Half of her father's scoldings came from D'Arque's mouth into Maurice's ear, which would be but a mere annoyance to her, had Maurice not held so close to any other word of advice that came from the Marquis, as well.
His low opinion of her mattered little to her, but she would not see D'Arque's prejudices – his strict ways and his disdain for the unholiness of magic – do harm to her kingdom when she could see otherwise.
"I fail to see what other options we have left to us," Belle still insisted. "We cannot survive another fortnight of not feeding our troops -"
" - we have found ways around that," D'Arque interrupted. "Not that it is required of us to inform you, your highness, but Avonlee has offered their aid in the form of food, and -"
" - begging your pardon, your grace," a third voice interrupted, this voice belonging to the captain of her father's guard – Sir Le Fou, a strong and steel boned man with dark skin and even darker eyes. "But Avonlee has taken significant losses of their own. Their numbers dwindle even quicker than ours do – it would not be wise to count upon those routes to remain open to us as they now are."
Maurice blinked. "You would see this path taken for aid, then?" he asked Le Fou.
Le Fou frowned, his lips tight. He wore chain-mail and armor, even in the high morning hour, and the early sun glinted off of the steel plates. "I would see any path taken that may preserve the lives of my men, yes."
D'Arque sneered, but Le Fou held his gaze.
Maurice's eyes turned heavy, falling away from Belle. Upon seeing so, Belle cast a pleading gaze to Gaston by her side. He had been there with her during those long nights in the library when she had done her research. He had listened when she pleaded their case, and he had personally heard the Spinner's answers in return. He understood her reasons better than any other, and even if he held his own reservations, he had not stopped her when she summoned the deal-maker to her mirror. He knew as well as she did that this was their last chance – their only hope.
Gaston inhaled deeply, his chest expanding before her gaze. He was still kneeling, his cheeks flushed from having taking a tongue lashing of his own for not having stopped her – and before speaking, he got to his feet. With his head still bowed respectfully, he defended her, "I believe that Belle's actions were the only option left to us that would let this kingdom escape without destruction."
Maurice looked at him, holding his declaration in his eyes. Besides Gaston, Le Fou stood up straighter – both taking up her argument as their own. "I was there when she summoned the Spinner – he spoke of an ogre army as one may speak of brushing away a fly. He would have no problem turning the war to our favor."
"And what of the price he would demand?" D'Arque's voice was harsh in return. "For too long have I seen wielders of the dark arts such as he wreck havoc on our lands. The mirrored Queen in the West, the Black Lady Maleficent in the South, the Witch of the Sea in the East, and the very Dark One himself just north of our own lands - they and their kind are a scourge, and if we wish to rid the kingdoms of this plague, then we must not indulge them, even in times like these!"
"We won't have a kingdom left if we don't seek his help," Le Fou said, his voice a blow.
"And we can pay him," Gaston insisted. "We are second only to Midas in wealth – we can see that the price he demands is one we can pay in gold." For what they lacked in royal lineage – having made their fortunes as merchants and working men – they made up for in riches enough to stand toe to toe with any other kingdom in the land.
Maurice turned the arguments over in his mind, his eyes heavy and his shoulders slumped. Already he looked like one defeated, and if he would not see reason . . .
"We have people depending on us," Belle spoke her last argument, her voice soft, her tone pleading. "There are families that look to us to deliver them. Not all of the outlying villages were evacuated before the first blow was struck, and thousands of farmsteads are still fending for themselves. The city right beyond us teams with those seeking refuge, and we have no future to offer them – no food for their mouths, and no work to replace that what they have lost. It would be unthinkable – unpardonable, even, to let our silly prejudices spell the doom for those we were sworn to protect."
Maurice sighed, the breath torn from the deep of him.
"Being indebted to the Dark One will ruin us as surely as standing on our own against the ogres," D'Arque still whispered, his voice silky ad pressing. "Is that a fate you would wish for your people?"
"All magic is not for ill," Belle insisted. "It is the wielder who makes the magic black or bright. This salvation we seek need not be viewed as the most vilest of enchantments."
"They call him the Dark One for a reason, my dear," Maurice snorted, his eyes soft when he glanced at her. "Do not forget that when setting up a kindness in your heart."
Belle looked down. Her palms were still flat against the cold marble. "His deals are grey of nature," she still claimed. "He does not force his schemes. None have suffered at his hand who did not know full well who and what they were dealing with when agreeing to his terms."
"He makes deals only with those who have their backs against the wall," D'Arque returned. "They have no choice but to accept his conditions – no matter how hellish they may be."
"And we are now one of those who have no choice," finally, Maurice spoke his decision.
All looked to him.
"Sir?" Le Fou questioned.
"I will see the Dark One," Maurice said slowly, stopping his pacing when he stood behind his throne. When he curved his hands over the back of the chair, his fingers were white at the knuckles. "And I will pay his price. No matter what the cost."
Upon hearing so, Belle stood, her smile stretching across her face as hope bloomed in her heart. "And it will be a decision you shall not regret," she immediately went to assure.
Maurice snorted ruefully. "You say so now, my child. Those may not be your words upon the morning hour."
"Always will they be my words when our people are safe," Belle insisted, moving to stand by her father's side and take his hands in her own. They were cold upon her own. Faintly, they trembled.
And still the Marquis seethed. "Then they will strike you, as a fool's words often come back to do," he said. His voice was a low simmer, even after the King had spoken. Belle felt her mouth set at the imprudence of him speaking so.
"That is your opinion, and not one for you to voice after the king has decided our way," she finally spoke directly to the Marquis.
"And in any other land, you would not even be permitted to speak in a man's council," D'Arque's voice swam dangerously.
Belle squared her jaw. She narrowed her eyes. "And yet I have spoken. And I have been heard – where you have not."
She saw the exact moment where her words struck where aimed. The Marquis advanced upon her, his gaze menacing. Gaston stepped before her, a firm hand pushing her behind him. She glared at his back, stepping instead to his side. If he ever did claim her hand as he wished to, that place would be hers and always hers. She turned her chin up, and watched the Marquis approach with unblinking eyes.
Le Fou and his men stepped forward at the same time, their hands on the hilts of their swords – daring the adviser to come any closer. D'Arque balled his hands into fists by his side. He stayed his course.
Instead, he turned to the King. "She undermines your authority, your majesty, don't you see? She mocks your position, just as Claire did -"
" - You," and finally Maurice's voice was sharp upon his favored, "will speak not of my wife. Claire was an asset to our kingdom. And her loss is something we all still suffer from."
"Of course, your Majesty," D'Arque bowed, low and deep from the waist as he respun his words. "I mean only to say that Claire suffered a most grievous fate for her headstrong ways. I would hate to see the same fate befall your dear daughter. She is, after all, such a light in these dark times."
Belle stared at the adviser's sweet words, feeling them rot in her ears. But her father was soothed as he always was. He waved a hand, sending the Marquis and his convoy away.
Maurice watched D'Arque go before turning to Le Fou. The knight instantly took to one knee under his king's gaze, bowing his head respectfully. And Maurice said, "Make your men ready. We have a visitor coming this eve, and I don't want him to make a single move that we do not control or dictate ourselves, am I understood?"
Le Fou finally raised his eyes. "My men will take their arms – they will be stationed at every entrance, and positioned upon every wall. We shall be ready."
"I know you will," Maurice smiled kindly.
The knight too bowed, and took his leave.
Belle and Gaston were left with her father, who once again took his seat upon his throne. His head was heavy when he laid it into his hand, but hope had lit a final spark in his eyes. It was the same hope that Belle felt knot by her heart – felt it as it spun about her bones like ivy.
Beyond them, the front lines continued to burn. But not for much longer.
Not much longer, indeed.
That night, she decided to wear gold as if preparing for dancing, rather than war. There hadn't been a ball held in her father's court in nearly a year - no finely dressed ladies and sharply tailored lords, no music on the air, no colorful partners spinning in time to the steps older than them all. Chef Bouche's kitchens had been absent of their bustle, and the halls were dead of their souls minus those who wore chain-mail and scabbards.
The dress she had chosen was made up by layers and layers of golden yellow fabric – delicate and gauzy, the cut of it dropping off of her shoulders and clenching at her waist, flattering in a way that none of the practical gowns she had been wearing as of late were. The skirt of the dress was full and voluminous, bustling to trail behind her without impairing her step. The intricacy of the dress was grand – even for the gowns Belle had had from before the war. Even for her, who preferred simple garments (and man's breeches when she really could get away with it), the gown was stunning, and it had hung in her closet for far too long.
At first, parts of the dress were slightly too big on her – she had lost weight over the past year, from stress and simpler meals than she was accustomed to – and she had needed to call on the hours her tutors had insisted she learn her needlework to actually do something more practical than weave handkerchiefs or loom tapestries. In the end, the dress fit her as if she had never parted from it, and her stitches were even straight enough to impress her strictest tutor.
After slipping into the dress (tying her own corset was a bit of a pain, but she managed), Belle twisted up her hair before her mirror – the same one she had broken with her invocation the night before, and painted her lips. The motions were foreign to her, nearly forgotten over the months, and even odder still when she had no maid to help her. It was just her and her own hands, and yet, in the end, that only heightened her satisfaction with the image that stared back at her.
She had long been told she was beautiful, but she didn't quite believe it until she looked into the mirror. She looked like her mother's reflection, cast from her childhood memories - with her rich chestnut hair, and her crystal blue gaze. She had her mother's eyes, her father had always told her; wide and just short of being too large for her face. Her memories of the Lady Claire had softened and faded over the years, and yet, all it took was a looking glass in order to restore them to her. The necklace she wore about her neck had the diamond that had once sat within her mother's wedding ring – not the whole band, for the metal of the ring had been damaged in the attack that took Claire's life. The diamond was small and modest, and still Belle knew the exact shape of it under her fingers.
It was a weight, anchoring her as she readied herself to leave.
She picked up the grimoire from the night before, and took one last glance about the room, assuring herself that there was nothing she was forgetting. That was it then. She had no further cause to delay.
She breathed in deep, and finally, she walked into the hall beyond. At the end of the foyer before the grand staircase, Gaston was already waiting for her. His eyes widened at the sight of her in her finery, but he schooled his expression away quickly enough. Still she caught the dip of his eyes over the creamy expanse of her shoulders; the clench of her waist that the corset created. The appraisal sat oddly against her skin, and she had to force herself to keep her hands at her sides, rather than cross her arms over her chest, as if she were hiding.
"You look lovely," Gaston said, his voice sincere. "I almost didn't recognize you without ink or mud staining your face."
She darted a glance up at him. "Thank-you," she said, the two syllables holding awkwardly between them.
He offered her his arm, and she looped it through her own. "It is odd," he said as they started to walk, "that you chose this night over any other to dress so."
She tilted up her chin. "I wished to look my best, in order to reflect well on my kingdom."
A moment of silence. "Of course," Gaston said, dancing around the thoughts that were in his eyes.
She exhaled through her nose, and concentrated on walking down the stairs without tripping over the long fall of fabric spilling around her. "You too, are wearing your best," she pointed out, noting the blue velvet of his doublet, and the black lace that clung to his collar and sleeves. His boots were polished to a high shine, and the sword holstered at his hip gleamed.
"Trust me," Gaston said, "there is a difference."
She darted her gaze up to him, but they were kept from further conversation by Maurice and his advisers at the bottom of the stairway. A dozen familiar faces smiled somberly and inclined their heads, and when Belle searched their faces she was pleased to see that Marquis D'Arque was not amongst them. As the councilman and knights filed into the room, Maurice stopped, and took her hands in his own.
"For a moment I had thought that it was your mother floating down to me," Maurice said, his gaze warm upon his daughter. "You are a vision tonight, child."
Belle stood on the tips of her toes to kiss her father's cheek. "Thank-you, papa," she breathed warmly.
Maurice smiled one more time at her before taking her hand. Together they entered the council chamber.
The chamber was a small one, filled with a long rectangle table, and an ornate chair that served as her father's throne. Over the table, Sir Le Fou already had his maps of the providence spread. Pins tipped off important places on the map, while tiny ceramic structures spoke of settlements and structures of note. There were red dots on the map – a splatter of ink telling where those fought and those died, the dark crimson of the map points more telling than any long list of casualties. That was another report waiting for them – rolled scroll upon rolled scroll that sat off to the side in the room next to a hundred other discarded things. There would be time for mourning later, after the war was done.
And their kingdom would now have that after.
A row of wall length windows covered the far side of the room. Past the outer walls, the dips in the mountains beyond held the sun as it set. The dusky horizon shone with an unnatural light – where the forests burned and their men fought – more tangible and real than the war maps and its symbols ever would be.
The sun had almost set. But not quite.
Belle walked to the window to spy out the fight beyond. The orange light caught in the sunny fabric of her dress, setting it aflame when she lifted her fingers to press against the glass, touching where smoke rose in the distance.
Her father and Gaston stepped up to the maps – their fingers tracing out strategic points in the mountains to the west of them, and the ocean to the east. Le Fou held reports from the front line in his hands, and he moved the troops over the maps in response to the information he held before conferring quietly with her father and Gaston.
And Belle watched the sun set.
As the last rays vanished, there was a knock at the heavy oak doors. But it was not the Spinner, but rather a messenger from the front, there for Le Fou. Le Fou read the document he was handed, while Maurice took to pacing back and forth in front of his throne. His eyes flickered from the horizon to her, and back again.
The sun was no more beyond them. Only a faint blush of its rays remained visible from behind the massive fires that signaled the front lines, so very close to them.
Belle twisted her fingers in the folds of her gown. Her heart was beating fast, as if trying to out race the turbulent thoughts in her mind. If he did not come . . .
"Avanlee has fallen," Le Fou announced grimly onto the air, the document in his hands being clenched in his fists. "Their king has surrendered."
She sucked in a breath at the news, the tangible desperation of their situation striking her like a blade. Avanlee? Fallen? Belle had dined in the palace there just the summer before. The Queen Aurore had been close friends with her mother, and the Prince Beaujour had had one of the most impressive collections of maps and books on the shape of the world that Belle had ever seen. She closed her eyes as she imagined the library with its balconies that overlooked the sea. She imagined the grand library in tatters, salt burning her eyes as she saw Ogre-men tearing through the great tomes in order to use them as kindle.
Her next breath caught in her throat. Her stomach turned sickly.
Maurice took the parchment from Le Fou with a terse movement. His eyes were quick and sharp as they darted across the missive, and then they just . . . fell. Belle could think of no other word to describe them.
"By the Gods," Maurice breathed at the news, his eyes wide and his skin pale. "We were too late. Too late . . . " He looked numb, his gaze broken as Belle had not seen since the day he had told her that her mother had died.
He looked past her, to the horizon beyond. The sun was gone.
And still the Dark One did not come.
"Just as it is now too late for us," Maurice breathed numbly, the strength leaving him as he collapsed upon his throne, his head held in his hands. At the sight of her father so defeated, Belle felt her throat seize as she dropped to her knees beside him. She took his hand in her own, doing her best to offer what little comfort she could.
Gaston was pacing past them both like a hunting cat, his stride troubled. "He said he would come," he growled. "Why is he not here?"
Belle felt her lungs expand, her eyes strike as she said, "He may still be on his way. Give him time."
"Time," Maurice echoed hollowly. Beyond them, the fires from the front painted his face in sickly warm tones, the rich colors mocking with their vibrancy. "What time is there left to us?"
"Time enough," Belle said stubbornly; remembering the runes under her hands and the laughing eyes curious upon her own. The magic in the air. The storms cowering before the figure in the mirror. There was still hope for them. All was not lost -
Punctuating her thoughts, there was then a pounding at the door, the sound striking where the messenger before had merely knocked. The sound was bold and belligerent as if the one behind knew that such things were a mere courtesy to a being who could slip through the shadows in order to reappear in the light.
"It's him, it has to be him!" Belle found the words slipping from her mouth as if they were water over a fall. Instantly, Maurice stood again, his brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of the sound beyond.
"Impossible!" he exclaimed, "how could he have gotten past the walls?"
How could he have stood in her mirror? How could he promise to magick away an entire army as easily as breathing? The answers were all one and the same, and still Belle felt her heart hammer as their small group gathered before the doors. She held on to her father's arm while Gaston stood before them both, a sliver of steel already showing from his sword as he rested his hand at ready upon the hilt, as ready to do battle as he was to seek aid.
"Open the doors!" Maurice commanded, and Le Fou's men jumped to obey.
Instantly, the guards moved to remove the plank from the doors. Together, they heaved the heavy oak panels open, revealing the hall beyond.
Belle held her breath.
And the hall was empty. There was not a soul but for the broken things littering the marble tiles, and the wide windows beyond that showed ash and devastation and -
"Well, that was a bit of a let down."
She was not the only one who jumped upon hearing the Dark One's voice from behind them. Even Gaston swallowed, the long lines of his throat working as he and every other turned to face Maurice's vacant throne. And the man – the creature, who now sat there.
Belle mirrored her father's stride as they inched closer to the smiling figure before them – Rumpelstiltskin, with his too large grin and his too dark eyes, his crooked teeth flashing, fit to devour. In his hands, he held the ceramic piece that had denoted Avanlee's place on the battle maps. His sharp nails scoured a pattern onto the tiny shingles, making lines down towers and battlements both.
"How . . ." Maurice's voice hung, a question not quite spoken between them. His brow furrowed, his eyes narrowed.
And Rumpelstiltskin's grin turned sharp, like a panting wolf, drunk on the moon. "You sent me a message, did you not? Something about help! Help! Help us – our people are dying! Can you save us?" The words were mocking, almost sing song on his lips as he rose from the throne in a liquid motion, like a snake uncurling from its circle. She could see no weapon at his side, and still every one of her father's council stepped back when he stepped forth. The knights took position to meet him in a direct opposite of the others until the play of bodies in the room was a sick mockery of a court's dance upon the ballroom floor.
Gaston stood directly between her father and the Spinner, his sword fully drawn and aimed towards the enchanter's heart. Rumpelstiltskin eyed the weapon as one may have observed a naughty child before slapping the steel away in an annoyed manner. He then answered his own question. "And the answer is . . . yes. Yes I can. But, for a price."
Her gaze followed him, seemingly pulled and tugged as he walked languidly before them all. His eyes slipped from Maurice to her for a moment, his dark gaze fit to swallow, as she had remembered from the mirror. But this was more than any reflection, mocking and curious. His eyes flickered across her – taking in her painted lips and the golden fabric all around her. The diamond at her throat. Her pulse thundered, and she wondered if he could see that too. She could feel static in the air, fit to strike like lightning.
"We sent you a promise of gold," Maurice's voice took his attention again, speaking as to payment.
Rumpelstiltskin snorted, his eyes chiding and you-did-not-think-I-would-make-it-that-easy, now-did-you? "Ah! But you see . . . I make gold. No, I was thinking about something a little more special," he drawled the last word until the syllables popped on his tongue.
"Name it," her father's voice fell like a blow.
Rumpelstiltskin still paced before them like a hunting animal. But he did not look her way again. "My price," he said, his voice silken, his eyes catching her father's gaze and spinning it, "is her."
Instantly there was a reaction from all in the chamber – the knights leapt forward, her father uttered a nonsense cry of disbelief. Gaston pushed her behind his back, as if that alone would keep the Dark One's attention from her. His steel caught the light of the fires from beyond, it reflected. The imp only laughed at the display, clapping his hands together and tilting his head. He was playing with them, she realized, teasing them as a kitten did with a mouse. But the conditions were clawed, and very, very serious.
"No!" her father's answer was sudden and expected.
And Gaston too spoke. "Her highness is engaged to me," he claimed boldly, sidestepping her when she tried to move past the shield of him.
Rumpelstiltskin snorted, and turned towards the window. Scales shimmered on the back of his coat, caught in the dying light beyond. "I'm not asking if she's engaged," he declared then, answering the unspoken as to his intentions. "I'm not looking for love," the word was rolled on his tongue, as if it were the foulest of curses. "I am simply looking for a caretaker, of my rather large estate." He turned to them again."It's her. Or no deal."
And Maurice would have none of it. "Leave," he declared, his voice thunderous.
Rumpelstiltskin made a disapproving glance, tilting his head to the other man. But he made no further arguments. He merely shrugged, and said, "As you wish."
He turned to leave, and instantly the knights and the courtiers parted like a stream before him. Gaston pushed her back as well, and she glared crossly at him, her fingers digging into his sleeve as protest.
The imp caught her gaze on his way past, and the smirk in his eye was challenging. There were magicks and dark spells aplenty there, and a part of her twisted at the thought of those enchantments leaving without being placed in aid. Where was the defiant child before the mirror? His eyes seemed to ask, and Belle struck her chin out and tried to find an answer for him.
"No, wait!" she called. "I will go with you."
The words surprised everyone in the room, including herself. She blinked, as if by doing so she could pull the words back onto her tongue. But what was said was said, and she could not make the words her own again. And she would not, even if she could. For what was her own freedom, her own life, if all fell to ask and dust around her? It was such a small price to pay, she knew – one for all. She breathed in deep, calling upon every stubborn and brave bone in her body, and stood as if she were a knight before a foe, ready to battle.
She could do this, she told herself. She was brave.
And so, she stepped forward – passing Gaston and her father; stopping before the nightmare creature who would be her people's salvation.
He gave a mad little laugh, pleased by the fire burning behind her eyes.
"I forbid it!" Gaston exclaimed as she passed, a spark worn brightly in his gaze. She turned to him, taken by the vehemence of his words – for this was not the little boy who warned her away from stealing her father's horse, or the man who uttered half empty complaints as she summoned a sorcerer. No, this was desperation in his eyes, and fear on his tongue.
And she rose to arms against it, as she always did. "No one decides my fate, but me," she let her voice ring out strong, stronger than she herself felt.
Belle turned her back on him, on her father. "I shall go with you," she declared again.
"It's forever, dearie," he still took to warn her, his eyes flashing. For deals like these were not made to be broken.
She squared her shoulders. "And my family? My friends? My people?" she had to to be sure – she had to specify, for always did words hold their own mischief with deals like this. "They will all live?"
"You have my word," Rumpelstiltskin answered, bowing deeply from his waist, as if he were a courtier asking her to dance.
Brave then. She would be brave. "Then," she sealed her fate, "you have mine."
"Deal!" he exclaimed gleefully. The word was final. Binding. She could taste the magic of it on the air.
"Belle," her father found his voice. It trembled on the air between them. "I cannot allow this. You cannot . . . you cannot go with this beast."
Rumpelstiltskin pressed his hand to his heart, feigning pain with an exaggerated grimace.
Belle looked from the Dark One to her father. Tenderly, she took Maurice's hands within her own, clasping them as if to better to remember the shape of them. The feel of his skin under her own. The color of his eyes. "Father," she breathed, her voice gentle as she held a farewell in the back of her eyes, "it has been decided. There shall be no reneging on my part."
"She's right, you know," Rumpelstiltskin whispered. His voice crawled like claws tapping against scales. "The deal has been struck."
Standing on the tips of her toes, Belle kissed her father's cheek, her eyes swimming as she held his gaze. Her heart twisted in her chest, her panic held in bay by her pain as she thought of what she was now leaving behind. Distantly, she tried to tell herself that it was for the best – that her sacrifice was the same as the men who fought upon the front line. The she was knight and soldier with her brave words and her hammering pulse.
She kept her head up as she turned away from what was familiar to her. She ignored her father's hopeless eyes and Gaston's desperate stare as she turned her back on them. She did hope for their happiness then - she hoped that her father would not mourn her as he did her mother. Hoped that Gaston would find some gentle lady worthy of his simple affection and the offer of his hand. She hoped, and with that hope, she walked hand in hand with the man her people called the Dark One only when speaking in the sunlight and brightly lit places. Child-thief and gold-spinner, and -
Savior, she reminded herself firmly. With her sacrifice, and not one more soul would die in the wars that desecrated the ends of their lands.
"Oh, by the way!" his voice called out behind them. "Congratulations on your little war."
She heard the shuffle of boots on the tiles, the slip of hands anxious upon their sword hilts. But no one dared to stop her. No one came forth.
And Belle closed her eyes and let him lead her away.
In her naivety, she had assumed that they would simply walk away – forgetting already that he had appeared as a whisper in the war chambers without strolling through either doors or window. When one walked the ways between the shadows, then one didn't need to rely on such paltry methods of transportation. Still, she felt her indignation over his lack of warning burn next to her scream when smoke gathered around them like a black thing, stinging her eyes and filling her nose with a bitter scent.
Around her, the castle walls and the banners bearing her father's crest disappeared. Time and space seemed to fold in on themselves – she saw shadows and swirling lights, like the celestial displays that would some time lighten the northern horizon. There was laughter in her ears as she was pulled through the ways that overlapped the world. There were hands that held tight and steady around her waist as she dug her fingers into the arm that caged her. And they fell.
The ride ended as swiftly as it had begun – the shadows faded and the bright lights swept themselves away until it was as if they had never been. When the magic released them, they were far from anywhere Belle recognized. It was still night around them, with the twilight staining the horizon just beyond. They could not have gone too far, then, she reasoned. They were maybe only on the other side of the Enchanted Forest, then. Thick shadows bloomed to their left and right, showing a densely wooded thicket. The trees were bare, but thick browning leaves still coated the ground, speaking of winter's closeness. There were dead wildflower bushes close to the ground – they were in the mountains then, Belle recognized the shape of the dead blooms. The mountains in the north.
And right beyond them was a misty lake – in the distance, she could see snow covered peaks – glowing even in the night. And on the lake, she knew there to be an isle . . . An isle people only mentioned in whispers, and then only ever in the light of day . . .
"Île de la Une Sombre," Belle found the name pouring off of her tongue anyway, even with the shadows around her, dark and consuming.
He didn't speak to her statement, he just tilted his head and beckoned her forth. There was a ghost of a smile on his lips, but it did not flare into life.
While she stood on the bank, watching where the shoreline rippled unseen under the mist, Rumpelstiltskin clicked his fingers, and a spell that had been hiding a row boat in the reeds disappeared. He pushed the boat into the water while she watched him, her lower lip drawn between her teeth. The night air was cold, and she had already woven her arms around her stomach, trying to conserve her body heat.
Her breath frosted on the mist. And he bowed, beckoning her forward, "Milady," the title rolled mockingly from his mouth.
She narrowed her eyes, but took her spot at the back of the boat. He watched her, his eyes glowing in the non-light, and then pushed the boat into the shallow water. His boots were wet when he hopped in and started to row, but he didn't seem to notice or care.
They cut through the mist like ghosts, and Belle wrapped her arms tighter around herself. The air was even colder upon the water, and beneath the inky surface, there were the sounds of mournful things, and slashes of sharp fins in the waters beyond. In a counterpoint, her captor was silent as he rowed, observing her unease with too wide eyes.
"Are you going to drown me?" she finally asked carefully, not caring for the silence.
"And waste my prize?" he chortled in reply. "There are easier ways to dispose of you without getting wet." He made a face.
And she believed him. She let the silence fall again, and this time she was content to leave it lie.
They reached a dock after what seemed like an eternity had passed – a dock whose end she could not see thanks to the mist swirling about the water. When she looked up she could see shapes in the night sky – a towering and looming structure further up from the shore. A castle, with towers and walls and stones larger than she was. She spied further, but could make out no detail in the mists. No shape or structure.
And still, as she started to comprehend the size of her new home (prison, for she was not going to forget her right words) Belle felt a tense feeling dig its claws into her chest. After all, she had hardly held a maid's rag in her hands throughout her entire life, let alone managed an entire estate . . . She felt trepidation bloom in her chest, making it hard to breathe. Loss and fear and the effort of keeping her chin up high – it made her stomach turn. Still, she blamed it on the churning of the boat on the water.
When he tied the boat off, she finally summoned up her courage to speak again. "Why didn't you just," she waved her hand, not sure what to call disappearing from one place and reappearing in another, " . . . you know," she summarized stupidly, "directly over here?"
His smile was sharp, his crooked teeth flashing. "There are too many beings who hold that ability, and enchanted castles always do have their . . . quirks. It is safer to apparate," she filed the term away for later use, "to the bank, and then row the rest of the way. There's a bridge, as well, but such things are better not to be approached at night. At least, not when I have company." She could not tell if his words were teasing, or not, but she remembered the mournful howls on the waters, the things splashing right beyond them, and truly, she did not want to know.
"Oh," was all that she said. He did not give her a hand out of the boat, and so she collected her skirts in her hands, and did her best to step onto the dock without making a fool out of herself.
The wood of the dock was slick from the mists and fog, and still she managed to keep her feet under her. There was a path leading into a back entrance to the castle – through the outermost wall, hidden and concealed to the point where she was almost certain that it was a secret way they used. As soon as the castle walls swallowed her, she could smell magic on the air – storms and pines and the cold clean scent of winter. And something spicy – like burning leaves. She inhaled, and felt her lungs expand.
Enchanted? He had said to her. She believed him as they slipped through the halls like ghosts. There was not a torch lit, not even one to break up the night around them. She could only see shades of grey and black – the implication of a door, a wall, a window; various objects which would be serene and still with the morning light, but now were all monsters waiting with jaws wide open.
She held her questions, and stuck to his shadow, keeping close lest he lost her in the maze of rooms and corridors.
It was only when they were descending down into a tower – she assumed it was a tower, thanks to the circular spin of the stairs, going down and down and down– when she felt her questions spring from her tongue. "Where are you taking me?"
A moment. A snort of laughter. "Let's just call it your room."
Down and down and down they went. The stone felt rough underneath her shoes, snaring on her dainty slippers, which had been made for dancing and a court's marble hall. She could smell straw on the air around her. Straw and the stale sour scent of fear.
A dungeon? Her mind looked on in horror when she finally understood where she was. She could make out the splintering wood of doors. The bars which barred them, black and worn. Upon seeing the chains on the wall, dark stories swirled in her head, ones which she fiercely reminded herself were told simply to scare children with. But now here she was in the dragon's own lair, and -
"You said that you were taking me to my room?" even with her fear, she could still find it within herself to be outraged at her accommodations. Incensed, even.
His sneer was unkind on his face when he pushed her into one of the cells; his amusement sick and twisting. "Well, it sounded a lot nicer than dungeon, now didn't it?"
Her shriek of disbelief was caught in her throat as she caught her feet from the shove. She turned – to run, to hit him with her small fists, she knew not – but the door slammed closed before she could find out. She heard it lock.
"You can't just leave me in here!" she shouted, realizing the ridiculousness of her words. She wanted to stomp her feet on the ground like a child. She wanted to rip his laughing voice from his throat and tear it apart with her bare hands.
. . . she wanted to cry, it would seem. As his laughter died back up the tower stairs, she could feel her cheeks turn hot and wet. Her eyes thickened with water, finally overwhelmed. She stood in the middle of her cell (room, her mind stubbornly called it. As if by giving it a right name she could change its very shape), her fists balled and her shoulders shaking. She couldn't yet bring herself to approach the straw bed in the corner, fearful of the grime and the crawling things that were surely to be found there. She didn't bother testing the lock – she knew it would hold, no matter what she tried.
Instead she lowered herself to the ground. She pressed her back against the thick wooden door, and hugged her arms about her folded knees. The folds of her dress ballooned around her, but she didn't bother smoothing them out – it seemed so silly in that moment, her fine dress and her painted lips. She missed her father in that moment as despair settled around her. She missed his smiles, and her mother's fae tales retold through his mouth in order to sooth the night away.
But her word was her word. And so, with her memories and her regrets, she turned in on herself, and waited for the morning to come.
Le Fou: Because if Gaston is a pretty boy dandy in OUAT's rendition, then obviously the kick butt captain of the guard had to be named Le Fou. (Gaston's bumbling side kick in the Disney version was named the same, for those who don't remember.)
D'Arque: Whose name was also taken from the Disney version – the keeper of the insane asylum.
Repeating Scenes From the Show: Had to happen here. This fic is looking to be around thirty chapters, so know that it won't be done unless I have to. That said, the majority of the dialogue in the second part was taken directly from the show. All credit goes where credit is due. ;)
Avanlee's Royalty: The names Aurore and Beaujour came from another one of Beaumont's fairy tale's, called Aurore and Aimée.
Île de la Une Sombre: Translates to Island of the Dark One, in French. My knowledge of the French language is very simple, so if anyone has a better translation for me, I would more than welcome that!