Disclaimer: All of the characters belong to ABC and OUAT's creators. I'm just having some fun with them.

AN: This story is completely AU, and takes place before Rumpelstiltskin's dark curse. It's also not in accordance with OUAT's timelines at all :) Hope you all enjoy!


Faster. Come on, Onyx, run! Belle urged, running her hands up her stallion's neck, coaxing him into a faster clip.

Her horse responded eagerly to her cues, lowering his head, and extending his legs even further than before. The increased pace caused Belle to let out a giggle of joy; the fierce wind bringing tears to her eyes, as they dodged across the meadow at a hair-raising pace towards the far tree line.

With the forest quickly approaching them, Belle stole a brief glance over her shoulder, and then reined Onyx sharply to the left, towards the forest on the opposite side of the meadow. She knew that it was a risk, but it was a necessary one, if she was to ensure that she wouldn't be caught.

She kicked Onyx again. Every passing moment in this open meadow made her more and more nervous. Her stallion's pitch-black contrasted starkly against the high, golden grass in the bright, morning sun, making them an easy target at any distance, but, thankfully, his ground-consuming stride more than compensated for it.

Confident in her mount's sure footing, she lowered herself flat against his neck, and urged him forward once again. Onyx was more than willing to comply, and jetted off with another burst of speed, his nostrils flaring, seemingly enjoying this chase as much as she.

The bright sun was suddenly disappeared and Belle pushed herself up and reined Onyx to a stop. She spun him around to see if any soldiers had followed their tracks through the meadow.

Completely concealed amongst the dark trees, Belle took her time waiting for anyone to enter the clearing, but it soon became clear that she had lost them. All that remained was a thin trail of broken grass marking her path. Even though it was barely noticeable, the trail made her nervous and she turned her horse quickly back towards the forest, kicking him off into a trot.

She had only ventured a stone's throw into the forest, before she noticed that an eerie quiet had descended upon the woods, as if the trees themselves took note of her intrusion. The path in front of her became darker and darker, with the sunlight peeking through the trees above in distinct, thin rays of light, creating an illusion that it was almost dusk, instead of dawn.

While most would be unnerved by the foreboding surroundings, Belle thought that the Dark Forest was quite beautiful, peaceful even. To her, the forest was a refuge, one that she had explored ever since she had started venturing out into its darkness as a young girl.

Onyx's heavy breathing distracted her from her brief reverie, bringing her back to the present. She tried to ease him down to a walk to catch his air, but the stallion was still too keyed up from their long chase and jigged along.

"Easy," she murmured, stroking his neck.

Finally, Onyx settled into a walk, albeit a very, strong, powerful one, the stallion showing little sign of fatigue from their chase.

As she rounded the bend, Belle was struck with a sense of déjà vu. She frowned, trying to remember. A distinct, large boulder to her left reminded her vaguely of a trailhead that led to one of her old hiding places.

Torn, she halted Onyx and listened for hoof beats in the distance, hearing nothing except the faraway cry of a hawk. Satisfied that she had indeed lost her pursuers, she coaxed her faithful mount down the winding path behind the boulder.

Even though she wasn't scared of the forest, Belle wasn't naïve, so she lifted up her skirts and unsheathed her dagger that she kept hidden, as she entered the narrow path. The blade was meager protection against a true attack, but it made her feel safer nonetheless.

The trail narrowed and widened, as it twisted through a labyrinth of huge boulders covered in bright green lichen, some nearly as high the castle's walls.

"Good boy, Onyx," she said, patting his neck.

Even though her stallion had seen his fair share of adventures, Belle knew that the close quarters would be unnerving to any horse, so she tried to calm him regardless; even if Onyx was more concerned about trying to taste the passing foliage.

Soon the tight quarters widened, and Belle heard the distinct, rumbling sound of water bouncing against the walls. She smiled. She'd guessed right.

Thick mist began whizzing around the corner, dampening her brow, and causing beads of water to stream down her face. Belle closed her eyes, savoring the cool sensation after her long ride.

She continued to follow the mist's source, until the trail bent sharply again, revealing a large cavern, partially open to the sky above. A small, shallow lake was in the middle of the natural enclosure, fed by a waterfall that fell from the cliff above. The cavern itself was immense, nearly as large as two of the castle's throne rooms. It was also partially eroded, due to a cave-in at some point in its history, with half of its dome gone. Despite this though, it still provided enough shelter from above to be an ideal hiding place for Belle to relax.

Satisfied, she reached down to sheath her dagger, only to nearly fall off as Onyx jerked suddenly to a stop, his neck arched and nostrils flaring at the direction of the falls. A shiver of fear ran down Belle's spine, her senses becoming instantly on high alert that something was wrong.

Gripping her dagger, Belle leaned forward, squinting her eyes to try and detect movement by the falls. She couldn't see anything. It was all a misty haze. Onyx snorted in irritation at her tight grip, throwing his head.

"Easy," she murmured, slowly easing Onyx forward to get a better view.

As soon as she took two steps in, she pulled Onyx to an abrupt halt. Hidden behind the roaring water, was a clear, indistinct shape, crouched down. The blur of the water made it unclear as to whether it was a man or beast, unless she ventured closer.

"Who goes there?" she called out, her voice echoing loudly against the smooth cavern walls.

Belle shut her mouth, cursing herself immediately for her stupidity. Yes, just encourage the beast to attack you, Belle. Very smart, indeed.

However, nothing happened. The shape did not move.

With her reins and blade gripped firmly in each hand, she made Onyx take another step closer.

"Hello? You there! Show yourself!"

Her voice bounced against the walls, echoing back to her once again, but still she couldn't detect any movement. She waited longer, holding her breath, but the mass remained in the same position as before.

Oh gods, it's probably just a bloody rock! she thought, cuing Onyx to walk forward.

Just as she had begun to turn behind the falls, the mist cleared, revealing the clear shape of a man. Belle gasped in shock, causing her stallion to rear up at her sudden exclamation.

With her heart in her throat, Belle gripped her reins and moved forward, her hands white with tension.

"Who goes there? Show yourself!" she commanded, with as much authority as her shaking voice could muster.

The man, however, continued to lie still, showing no sign that he noticed her presence.

Do the brave thing. Do the brave thing, she repeated, mustering all of her courage to cue Onyx forward, instead of running away.

Belle slowly walked forward, and then jerked back, realizing suddenly that the man was unconscious and bleeding profusely from the head. Her fear dissolved instantly into sympathy. Clearly, this man was no threat against an armed, horsed woman.

She felt briefly at an impasse as to what to do, trying to decide if this was a trap, but instead, decided finally to the brave thing and dismounted.

Venturing forward quietly, dagger in hand, she nudged the man with her foot. He didn't budge. She tried to nudge him firmer, and he rolled limply onto his back.

Oh gods, is he dead? She took a step back, examining him. The middle-aged man was covered in dirt and grime, and was bleeding from an ugly head wound to his scalp.

"Sir?" she tried, touching him again. "Sir?" His eyes remained closed.

Belle loosed her grip on Onyx's reins and knelt down by the man's chest. She leaned down, dagger first, and listened for his breath. It was faint, but at least he was alive. She touched him tentatively to see if he'd react to the contact, but the man remained motionless.

Bolder now, Belle explored his scalp to see the extent of his wound, grateful that it didn't seem too deep. She had no personal experience treating serious head wounds, but she had incurred her own fair share of injuries to know enough to be able to clean it out.

Standing up, she returned to Onyx's side and rummaged through her saddlebags to see what she could use to treat the wound. Unladylike as it was, she was now glad for the small skin of wine that she had brought with her. She also unwrapped her parcel of food, removing the second sheet of cloth, figuring that it would be the cleanest material she could use to clean the wound.

Onyx gave an impatient tug at the reins, so she released him to go water himself at the pool nearby; she needed to have all her hands to deal with the matter at hand.

She turned back towards the man, who still hadn't moved. Flask in hand, she whispered her apologies, and then poured the alcohol onto the wound, shielding his eyes with the cloth. The man shot upward with a scream.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry…I was just trying to—" Belle stammered, jumping up, wine-soaked cloth in hand.

The stranger scrambled back away from her, clutching his arms awkwardly to his chest. His tear-filled eyes were wide and full of terror, and his once barely-moving chest was now heaving in panic.

"Please, don't kill me!" he cried out hoarsely.

Belle held out a hand. "I'm not going to hurt you," she said, still in shock at his sudden awakening.

"Please, please, don't hurt me! I mean you no harm!" the brown-cloaked figure pleaded, scrambling back more, his shoulders hunching in fear.

"I promise, I'm not going to hurt you," she said, walking over offer her hand to help him up. The man, though, shrunk away, shaking in terror.

"Please," he pleaded. "Take anything you want, just don't kill me."

"I'm not going to—" Oh, she thought, glancing at the dagger, sheathed prominently in front of her skirt. She moved the blade quickly to the side, and extended her hand again. "I'm sorry. I'm not going to hurt you. Please, I want to help," she said, gesturing towards his head.

Despite her assurances, the cowering man continued to silently shake like a trapped animal.

"Sir, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you." Belle cringed with embarrassment that she had almost scared the poor, already wounded man half-to-death. "Are you by yourself?"

"Ye…yes," he stuttered, nodding his head emphatically at the ground.

Belle nodded, fairly certain now that this wasn't a trap; no one could act this afraid. "May I look at your head? I can try to help."

He didn't respond to her offer; instead, he only panted harder, as his whole body continued to shake.

Belle was overwhelmed by an urge to help stop his shaking, so she stepped over carefully towards him, and knelt down, placing her hand gently on his shoulder. "Hush. It's okay. I only wish to help you," she whispered.

Time seemed to stretch on for several, agonizingly long moments, but the man's breathing finally slowed enough so he was able to at least nod at her. Belle smiled and stroked his hair out of his eyes, without thinking.

The gesture seemed to shock the man, and he looked up at her with wide, watery eyes, collapsing immediately onto the ground. "M'lady!" he exclaimed, groveling at her feet once again. "I mean…I mean you…I'm sorry…I mean you no harm…I'm sorry…"

Belle gasped at his reaction, and then looked down, remembering her dress. To say that she wasn't appropriately dressed as a forest dweller was a gross understatement to say the least, with her beaded, silk finery.

She tried to offer her hand again in comfort, but he shrank away from her touch as if she had burned him. "Please, sir, I just want to know that you're okay. I'm the one in the wrong. I'm the one who startled you."

The man turned away from her, curling his body as if he could shield himself from her presence.

Belle felt horrible. She really did only want to help him, especially since she had given him such a fright, but she had no idea how to proceed. She didn't really think she was that imposing of a figure, but this man looked at her as if she was a battle-hardened ogre. Not knowing what else to do, she raised her skirts and sat down next to the man, allowing for a small space between them.

"I promise I won't trouble you for long. I just came here to rest for a moment," she said quietly, offering a small smile to his turned back. "While I'm here though, I'd like to—"

He cut her off, turning around abruptly, shaking his head at her. "I will leave you at once, m'lady. I am sorry to disturb you."

Belle reached out and touched his arm gently, stopping him as he attempted to rise, embarrassed that he had misinterpreted her. The man froze instantly at her touch. "Please. Sit," she said, gesturing back down.

The man sat hesitantly back down on the ground, clearly at his limits of being comfortable with the situation. His gash, though, had reopened in his struggle and was now bleeding freely down the side of his face.

"I just want to make sure you're okay. You're hurt."

"You…you…don't need to trouble yourself, m'lady."

"Belle. My name is Belle," she said, smiling again. "And I'd like to help you dress that wound, if you would allow me."

He looked up at her with wide eyes. "Wha…why?"

Belle was taken aback, finding that she had no answer. She truly didn't know why. Truth be told, she really shouldn't be doing this —sitting with a strange, disheveled man that she didn't know. In fact, if her father knew what she was doing at the moment, she'd probably be locked up for a month. However, there was just something about this man that drew her to him, making her want to help him. "I…" She flushed, losing her words, not knowing how to explain her actions, and just shrugged.

"I'd be grateful," he whispered sheepishly back.

Belle beamed. "One moment. I'll be right back." She rose to collect her discarded makeshift medical supplies, scattered about around them. Flask and cloth in hand, she sat back down next to him.

"I don't have any proper supplies with me," she said apologetically, "but this should at least stop the bleeding, and prevent it from becoming infected."

He murmured his acknowledgement, as Belle reached out, parting his hair gently back to reveal the ugly gash. He flinched, inhaling sharply at her touch.

"I'm sorry," she apologized. "This is going to hurt. Let me know when you're ready."

The man gave a quick nod and Belle poured the remaining wine from the flask onto his wound. He gasped, closing his eyes tightly shut, but uttered no other sound that he was in pain as she wiped the liquid from his face; instead, he simply clutched his fists tightly together in his lap.

Belle tried to work as fast as she could, wiping the grime and dirt away from the cut, as she watched tears of pain roll down his cheek. "Almost done," she said, cleaning the last of the dirt away.

Satisfied that she had cleaned it as best as she possibly could, Belle tore the remaining piece of clean cloth in half, creating two strips, which she wound around his head, securing them with a knot. "All done," she announced, with a smile, moving back away from him.

"Thank you, m'lady," he whispered, avoiding her eyes once again.

"Just Belle, please," she said, ducking her head to catch his eyes.

He avoided her though, looking away.

"And what is your name, may I ask?" she asked, trying to distract him.

The man looked up in shock, and Belle blanched instantly. Stupid, she chastised herself. Not everyone offers their name as freely as you to strangers in the Dark Forest.

"Rumpelstiltskin," he whispered, interrupting her line of thought. "My name is Rumpelstiltskin."

Belle smiled gratefully to the timid man. "It's an honor to meet you, Rumpelstiltskin," she said, giving him a formal nod of introduction. He flinched; startled by her formalities, which she had only meant in half-jest to break the tension. "I'm sorry I frightened you earlier."

He nodded weakly in reply. Not to be discouraged, Belle tried again. "I used to come here as a child. I'd forgotten how beautiful it is."

"Peaceful," he murmured.

"Well, I guess it was until I stormed in," Belle laughed self-deprecatingly.

He simply shook his head somberly at her. "It's your right, your place—"

"Oh, hush you. There's no need to apologize. I was the one who intruded on you."

"You're too kind, m'lady." Rumpelstiltskin murmured, causing Belle to blush.

She didn't know what it was about this strange man that caused such reaction to her. She'd run off dozens of suitors—literally—but a simple compliment from this stranger warmed her in ways she couldn't express.

Her stomach chose to growl unceremoniously at the same moment, causing her to flush further with embarrassment. "I ran out before breakfast," she said, shrugging sheepishly. "Would you care to join me?"

He looked up at her in confusion, but she didn't give him a chance to respond, standing up, and whistling for Onyx to come over to them.

The large stallion lifted his head, and then trotted promptly over to them, stopping abruptly right next to Belle.

Rumpelstiltskin jumped back at Onyx's presence, clearly afraid.

"Oh, no, he's perfectly friendly. See?" she said, grabbing her horse's head in her arms, hugging him playfully, while silently willing Onyx to play along. While in-truth, he was very friendly towards her, Belle wasn't very trusting that he would behave likewise around strangers. There was a reason that she was his one and only rider.

Rumpelstiltskin seemed comforted by her little show, and crept back to his original spot, allowing Belle time to grab her food parcels out of the saddle bags. She was immediately grateful that she had packed for several meals, not knowing how long she would be gone for.

"It's a rather hodge-podge assortment, I must confess," she said, handing over a parcel. "I was in a rush."

"Thank you, m'lady."

"Belle, please. There are no ladies in the forest," she said, smiling.

"Just one, m'lady."

Belle laughed, tossing up her hands. "Oh, come now, you're just doing that on purpose!"

Her companion laughed quietly, meeting her eyes in a smile.

"Thank you…Belle," he breathed reverently.

She smiled at him, averting her gaze quickly in embarrassment at how he was looking at her; he was looking at her like she wasn't real. No one had ever gazed upon her like that.

"Thank you for helping me with my head too," he said shyly, a moment later, gesturing to his temple.

"Of course."

Rumpelstiltskin dipped his head in thanks, and then began to quietly eat his meal.

As he ate, Belle snuck glances to observe her curious, new companion. She could see that he was some years older than she had originally though, but still much younger than her father; the weathered lines in his face were beginning to show. His clothes, covered in dried blood and mud, and numerous scrapes upon his face and arms, bespoke of many troubles, yet his eyes remained kind and soft. War refugee? she wondered. There were many of those entering the kingdom, now more than ever, since the ogre war to the south had turned in the ogres' favor. His lone satchel of belongings seemed to add credence to her theory.

He was also far too thin, she decided. Could he possibly be trying to live out here? He wouldn't last the upcoming months out here, especially not with the cold nights settling in, and the dangerous men that roamed the forest at night. As more and more grim scenarios passed through her mind, Belle was struck by the need to figure out how to help this poor man, until her stream of thought was broken by a soft cough.

"M'lady?"

Belle flushed with embarrassment. She hadn't realized that she was staring. "I'm sorry. Just daydreaming…I do that a lot," she admitted with a shy smile.

Rumpelstiltskin returned her shy smile and returned to his meal, clearly ravenous.

A snort over his shoulder made both of them jump; Onyx had wandered over to Rumpelstiltskin to check out the contents of his parcel.

"Onyx, get away from him!" Belle scolded. When the stallion made no move to budge, she stood up and grabbed his bridle, dragging him away from her petrified companion. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "He wants your apple."

He immediately offered his apple to her. "Here—he can have it."

Belle shook her hand at him. "No, no. Eat it yourself. Can't be rewarding his rudeness. He has his own feed waiting back for him at home. He doesn't need to eat ours too." She shooed her chastised stallion away, to emphasize her point. "He'll stand over there and sulk until I give him something. Just watch," she chuckled.

Sure enough, Onyx stood only a stones-throw away, ears pinned, and head down, sulking at his mistress' "cruelty."

"Have you seen a more pathetic sight?"

This time, Rumpelstiltskin gave a quiet chuckle of laughter, shaking his head "no."

He was a rather pathetic sight. Even though most thought of Onyx as a notch below a fire-breathing dragon, Belle caved finally at her prized stallion's sad expression. "All right," she sighed. "Come here."

Onyx's ears perked up and he hurried over to her side, lowering his head to her shoulder. Belle rummaged through her pockets for the sweet hard candies he loved and offered them to him, with a pat on his head.

"He likes you."

"I bribe him." Belle laughed, feeding him another, while continuing to stroke his forehead. "Are you from around here?"

He looked up in surprise at her question, and then averted his gaze downward again. "No," he murmured.

"Oh."

When it became clear that he wasn't going to say anything further, an awkward silence descended upon them, with only the roar of the falls to keep them company as they resumed eating their meals.

"I'm sorry," Belle said finally. "Forgive me for overstepping. I didn't mean to upset you."

"I'm from the Frontlands," he said quietly, cutting off her apology. "The ogres… my home is gone now." He stopped, swallowing thickly, clearly in pain speaking about it.

Belle felt horrible immediately for asking him. "Avonlea isn't too far from here," she offered. "You could find work there."

He gave her a sad smile, and shook his head. "M'lady you are too kind, but every town I've passed has been full. There's no place for me."

"Well, that's just nonsense. Avonlea is no mere town. I bet you could find some work there."

He looked back down at his hands, clearly disheartened.

Without thinking, she reached out and grabbed his hand, squeezing it gently in comfort. "You will. I promise."

A loud hawk's cry above startled her, causing her to pull her hands back. She squinted her eyes, recognizing the familiar shape immediately, and growled in anger. She hated that damned bird.

She grabbed Rumpelstiltskin's hand once again. "Rumpelstiltskin," she started, trying to keep her tone calm, "There are some men coming for me. Please do not be afraid. They will do you no harm, I swear."

Rumpelstiltskin scrambled quickly to his feet, gathering his belongings in fear. "What? Where?"

Belle sighed, resigned, looking over to the cavern's opening. "There." Sure enough, the sound hoof claps filled the cavern, overpowering the roar of the falls, sounding as if an entire army was approaching. Who knows? Father may have just sent the entire cavalry this time.

Within moments, knights in full, glimmering silver armor entered the cavern—twenty in all.

The leader of the group, riding a large white palfrey, and adorned with a bright red cloak draped around his shoulders, trotted over to where Belle and Rumpelstiltskin stood, extending his arm. A sharp cry shouted out from above, and a falcon darted down from the sky, landing gracefully on the knight's forearm.

The knight lifted his helmet, revealing himself to be an older man, with pure white hair, and steel grey eyes. "Princess Belle," he said, addressing her with a slight bow, his hard eyes showing no hint of amusement.

"Sir Alliser," she said, curtseying back.

"I trust that you enjoyed your morning ride," he said dryly.

Belle smiled graciously back. "Very much so, sir."

"Very good." Sir Alliser nodded stiffly, clearly not amused. "And pray, who is this new companion of yours?" he asked, gesturing toward Rumpelstiltskin, who was shielding himself behind Belle's body.

"This my protector, sir."

"Your protector? And does your protector have a name?"

"Rumpelstiltskin," she replied smartly. "He found Onyx for me. You see, he became spooked when I was taking a moment to rest and ran off. This gentleman saw my predicament and retrieved him for me, while suffering this wound in the process." She glanced back toward her bewildered companion, giving him a pointed look, hoping that he would have the wits to go along with this lie. A lie that Belle herself had no idea how she came up with.

"Is that so, Rumpelstiltskin?"

"Ye…Yes," he stuttered back, shaking. "Yes, my lord."

Alliser raised his brow higher. "Some, 'protector,' you've found yourself, princess. Am I to believe that this peasant grabbed your beast, when none of my men are able to lay a hand on the animal?"

"I found it quite extraordinary myself. He must have quite the touch," Belle said, smiling back at him. "And I'd watch your tongue, my dear sir, or my father may have to hear about you questioning my accounts."

"My apologies, princess," he said, bowing. "Will you allow us to escort you home, now?"

"If you insist."

"I do."

Her eyes glanced toward the exit, eying her escape. If I—

"There are thirty more stationed outside," the knight replied tiredly, sensing her intent. "And the king is expecting you shortly."

She glanced over at his damned pet falcon, and nodded with a sigh. "Very well, then. Let's go. Rumpelstiltskin will ride with me."

The knight reined his horse quickly back around. "What?"

"Well, I wish to reward him, of course." Belle blinked innocently. "It's only proper, considering all of the trouble that I've caused him."

"Princess, there's no need—" Rumpelstiltskin whispered fervently behind her.

"Reward him? For finding your beast?"

"Why, of course! And I clearly cannot do it here, so he must accompany us back to the castle."

He knight opened his mouth to object, but seemed to sense her determination on the matter. "He'll ride with Sir Gregory, then." Belle opened her mouth to protest, but Sir Alliser narrowed his eyes. "I insist."

Belle nodded in agreement. There was no sense in arguing with the captain of her father's kingsguard on such a minute detail, especially after winning his small concession.

"Do you require assistance mounting, princess?" he asked with a slight smirk on his face.

"Thank you, Alliser, but I believe that I'll manage." Belle smiled, thinking smugly back to the morning when she had gotten a running start ahead of her guards, leaping onto Onyx's back in a single bound before darting off.

"Very well." With that, he reined his palfrey back towards the garrison.

Belle whistled to Onyx, who was currently striking at a poor squire who was trying to grab him. The stallion's ears perked up instantly and he trotted obediently over to his mistress.

"Princess," Rumpelstiltskin whispered behind her, his voice shaking.

Belle turned around in embarrassment. She'd been so caught up in excitement of simply winning her argument with Alliser that she'd momentarily forgotten the poor man that she'd been arguing for.

"Rumpelstiltskin, I'm so sorry. You don't have to come with me. I simply got carried away, and then I thought that I could give you a place to stay, because you can't stay out here in the woods, especially not now that it's getting colder, and the castle really isn't too far away, and you said that you didn't have a place to stay, and…forgive me, gods, I'm rambling." She stopped herself, offering a sheepish shrug. "You're free to do whatever you wish."

Rumpelstiltskin hesitated; his eyes darting to the ground, then back up at her. "May I go with you?"

Belle beamed. "Of course."

"Sir?"

Both of them turned around to face a red-faced Sir Gregory. "You'll be riding with me."

Belle stepped aside, so Rumpelstiltskin could pass.

The young knight was clearly upset with the circumstances, hesitating to offer Rumpelstiltskin his stirrup to climb up on his large warhorse.

"Do deliver him safely for me, sir." Belle called out sweetly, trying to temper the knight's anger at the situation.

Sir Gregory nodded solemnly back at her.

Never much of a personality on that one, Belle thought. Not wanting him to punish Rumpelstiltskin though, she reached down to her skirts, and found one of her spare handkerchiefs in her pocket. "Sir Gregory," she said, offering up the piece of silk, "my favor, as a token of my appreciation for your graciousness."

The young knight blushed at the unexpected gesture. "I thank you, your grace," he said, bowing, and missing Belle's quick smile to Rumpelstiltskin behind him.

With that, Sir Gregory gave her a curt nod and trotted off.

Unable to give Rumpelstiltskin any words of comfort from a distance in the knights' presence, Belle could only smile encouragingly at him as she watched him disappear around the corner.

"Any hints as to where you'll be running off tomorrow, princess?"

Belle's smiled dropped from her face and she turned back around at a grinning Sir Alliser.

"If only so I know how many men I should request for tomorrow, of course."

"I believe you'll need none, as it seems that your falcon does all the work," she retorted smartly.

He patted the large bird, and then hoisted him into the air. "Gealem does enjoy a good hunt, princess."

"That's cheating you know," Belle said, winking at her long-time guardian. "However, I do believe that I might give Onyx a day of rest tomorrow, though. Need to keep his legs fresh and all," she deadpanned, trying with all of her might to hold back a smile as she patted her mount's neck

"Very good, my lady. I'm sure Gealem will appreciate the rest as well." A hint of a smile creased his eyes. "Shall we?" he asked, gesturing in front of him, obviously not trusting her to be out of his sight.

"We shall." She grinned, and then kicked her heels hard in Onyx's side, bolting off at a dead run towards her home: The Kingdom of Avonlea.