Hi, everyone! Remember this story? No? It's okay, I hardly did either ;) But after losing my muse for a long time (okay, REALLY LONG time) for this fic, I was finally able to go back over and re-outline this story, which jumpstarted my excitement and awoke my sleeping muse. I'm actually really excited for where this is going now. Also, I upped the rating to a T, because I'm never quite sure where the line is between the two- K+ and T. So just in case, it's a T now.

I also want to thank everyone that encouraged me to continue this, because without your little notes, I probably would've let this one sit on the backburner for forever. I only hope that there are still people interested in it. I am going to update it regularly now (or as fast as I can with my slow writing), so don't worry. Enjoy!


"It is my honor, and privilege, to declare King Gaston the winner of this joust. He has proven himself to be a champion truly worthy of my daughter's hand. May our kingdoms be forever united in a lifetime of peace and prosperity!"

Rumpelstiltskin groaned and buried his face in his straw-filled pillow, hearing the king's voice echo in his head yet again. The man's booming proclamation had not stopped haunting his thoughts ever since the damning words were first uttered, repeating on an endless circuit.

"...a champion truly worthy of my daughter's hand."

Truly worthy... His stomach clenched at the reminder, and he shifted, finally rolling over onto his back in an effort to try and make the nausea subside. All he wanted to do was to fall asleep, and forget everything that had occurred, if only for a short while. However, as much as he tried, the second he closed his eyes, the day's events came rushing back, and he found himself jolted awake yet again.

It wasn't as if he didn't know that this day was coming. He, of all people, knew that anything good was sure to come to an end. It was naïve to think otherwise; and yet recently, in a small, dark part of his mind that he would hardly admit to himself, let alone anyone else, Rumpelstiltskin would dream that Belle could stay here with him forever. Not as a wife, or lover, although he did have shameful dreams about that, but simply as a friend. He had never thought himself capable of such foolish dreams. It was Belle, he thought, filling up his head with stories of good conquering evil.

Fool, he thought, turning over again. He, of all people, should know that the world did not reward dreamers, especially ones that were cowards. Of course, this day would have had eventually come when he would've lost Belle to an engagement to a handsome suitor. However, never in his darkest nightmares had he expected it to come so soon, or to a man so vile.

She had warned him about the king before his arrival, but after witnessing the man's behavior today firsthand—pretending to knock that knight off his horse—Rumpelstiltskin thought that her opinion of the man was understated. How, or why, her father would allow such an unsuitable man to marry his daughter was incomprehensible. Belle deserved the bravest, most handsome man in all of the kingdoms to make her his queen, not that callous, arrogant man who was a king in name only.

A deep, familiar helplessness welled up in him yet again at the reminder that Belle was going to be Gaston's queen. Losing Belle was one thing—but losing her with the knowledge that she was destined for a life more miserable than she could ever deserve was beyond horrific. She was the person that had given him his life back, and to be forced to sit back, powerless as always, while this woman—truly the bravest, most comely woman he had ever known—was forced into a life she didn't want, or deserve, was a nightmare.

His lip quivered, and he tried to steady himself, forcing back the rising lump in his throat, as tears pricked the corner of his eyes.

BANG! BANG!

Rumpelstiltskin jumped, nearly falling clear out of his bed at the loud knocking on his door. He had barely enough time to right himself before a huge, armored knight came bursting in the door. He froze in place, absolutely terrified.

"Are you Rumpelstiltskin?" the knight asked, his lamp's light making his highlighted features all the more terrifying in the darkness.

"Ye…yes…" he whimpered.

"I need to you tack Princess Belle's destier at once."

Rumpelstiltskin paused in confusion; night had just fallen. What possible reason would Belle need her horse tacked for? Unless Gaston was planning on taking her away tonight…

"Groom!" the knight called out sharply. "Do you understand?"

"Uh…yes," he said, standing at once, feeling jittery from his rush of adrenaline.

"Good. Now go, and be quiet about it. No one must know." With that, the knight turned and left, his bright red cloak flapping behind him in his wake.

The room returned once again to near blackness, and Rumpelstiltskin fumbled, trying to put his clothes on as fast as possible. It seemed that his fingers were set on working against him, feeling thick and clumsy as he tried in vain to lace up his boots. Finally, he finished, and left without grabbing his lantern. After living alone in the dark forests, this twilight was hardly a deterrent to him, especially after memorizing the short route down to the stables' floor from his small apartment above.

Skipping nimbly down the wooden ladder, Rumpelstiltskin looked around, finding the stables eerily silent, except for the quiet movement of the horses eating and shifting in their bedded down stalls. The quiet scene only added to his confusion about the knight's urgent request, but he wasn't about to disappoint Belle by not having Onyx saddled in time for her.

With that in mind, he made his way quickly out to the paddocks behind the stable. Onyx was far too ornery, according to Sirio, to be boarded in the stables during the night; so after he nearly tore said building down, they had constructed an immense paddock behind the building for him to reside in instead. The trick was being able to catch him in it.

Luckily for Rumpelstiltskin, Belle had taught him how.

The moonless night made it difficult to see anything, let alone a pitch-black horse, but after a Rumpelstiltskin took out a small leather pouch, and shook its contents, the familiar pounding of hooves came bounding in his direction. It took only a couple seconds before the large stallion was in sight, running straight at him, head up, and ears pricked forward. He arrived at the gate a moment later, sliding expertly to a stop, avoiding a collision.

"Hey, boy," Rumpelstiltskin said, entering the paddock and offering the horse one of the small candies that Belle had given him.

In these past weeks, when he hadn't had Belle's company to look forward to everyday, he had taken to wandering out to the stallion's paddock after his work was done. A foolish idea to be sure, but the ornery animal had slowly bended, forging a tentative acceptance to allow Rumpelstiltskin to retreat into his enclosure without the risk of losing a limb. He found that the secluded area proved to be an ideal place to escape from all of the loud revelry taking place in the castle, which only served remind him of the wide chasm that existed between him and the princess.

"That's enough," Rumpelstiltskin murmured, taking his hand away to slip a leather halter over the stallion's large head. Onyx paid him no mind, focused instead on sniffing out Rumpelstiltskin's pockets for the source of the candy.

He gave Onyx a firm tug on the lead rope, not having time to pander to the insistent stallion's demands. The destier hesitating for a second before he broke into a trot, following Rumpelstiltskin obediently back to the barn.

The knight hadn't specified what saddle Belle needed, so Rumpelstiltskin ran to the far tack room to grab her traveling saddle. He stopped halfway, freezing in place as he remembered that he hadn't tied Onyx. Gods! he cursed, running back. Thankfully, Onyx was standing where he had left him, looking at him curiously.

He grabbed the lead rope, and secured the stallion to the hitching post with a quick slipknot. "Stay!" he commanded, running back to grab the saddle.

When he returned, he found that the horse had obeyed his wishes, remaining in the same place; his hind leg cocked, with his ears pricked in Rumpelstiltskin's direction. The rope, however, was untied, and hanging from his mouth, swinging side-to-side.

"Onyx..." he murmured. He didn't have time to school the horse on his misbehavior, so he simply threw the saddle across his back, and secured the girth, along with all of the straps, quickly, and exactly, as Belle had instructed him all those nights ago. It felt like it had been years since that first night, not the few, short weeks that it had truly been. And now…now it was all going to change.

Finished, Rumpelstiltskin tried to shake off his foreboding feeling and bridled Onyx up. The knight hadn't specified where he was supposed to take Belle's horse, and without anyone around, he was at a loss of what he should do, so he simply led the horse into the stable's entryway. At least this way, he could see when she was coming and take the horse to her.

However, no one was in sight.

The minutes passed by slowly, timed by the steady drip of a nearby, leaky water pump. After all of the rush getting Onyx saddled, Rumpelstiltskin's anxiety was making him want to nearly jump out of his skin waiting for Belle to appear. Yet, the only movement he saw was a passing barn cat.

There was no one he could ask about her whereabouts either. At this hour, the royal stables were empty, with all of the workers at home in their respective quarters for the night. Only Rumpelstiltskin remained, keeping vigil in the lone apartment in the loft above. The small quarters—truly the first place he had been able to call "his" for as long as he could remember—was given to him by Sirio, after the head groom had found a recently vacated house in town to move into; a coincidence which Rumpelstiltskin had since assumed had been Belle's doing, not that he had been brave enough to ask her. Yet another gift she had bestowed upon him, and all he had been able to give her were field flowers. If only he was…

Rumpelstiltskin shook his head, banishing the thought from his head before he could even finish it. Onyx seemed to agree, stamping his foot in irritation. Rumpelstiltskin chuckled to himself, and pet the horse's smooth coat, trying to sooth both himself and the animal.

Suddenly, Onyx spooked, whirling around to point his ears at something behind him. Rumpelstiltskin jumped too, taken aback by the stallion's surprising behavior, and looked back into the dark stable aisle, trying to see what had scared him, but there was nothing there.

"Hey," he said, patting the stallion's neck again. "Easy there. Nothing there, but—"

A hooded figured ran across the far aisle of the stables, silencing Rumpelstiltskin's reply.

He shrunk back in fear and grasped the reins with all of his might, anchoring himself to the stallion, as he heard footsteps run around towards the royal livery. A thief, he thought, shaking with adrenaline and fright. He knew that he should go confront the man, stop him from going in there, but he was terrified, his cowardice lifting its ugly head. "You…stop…" he whimpered, taking one step forward.

He looked around, hoping that someone else had seen, or heard, the man, but the courtyard and stables were as quiet as they had ever been, except for the distinct sound of someone rummaging in the room.

Going against every instinct in his body, Rumpelstiltskin picked up a nearby rake and crept towards the room, Onyx in hand. He knew that at least the horse would have the courage strike at the man, should the thief try to make a run at him.

"Hey," he whispered.

The rummaging continued, undeterred.

He took another step forward, nearly reaching the corner of the wall and exposing himself to the open tack room door on the other side. "The stables are closed," he said, louder, feeling himself shake with fear. "You shouldn't be here."

The sound stopped instantly.

Oh gods… Rumpelstiltskin stepped backwards in retreat, all thought of playing hero vanishing instantly from his mind. Before he could take another step, a figure came rushing around the corner, tackling him, and wrapping their arms around him in a tight embrace.

"Rumpelstiltskin!"

Rumpelstiltskin's mind whirled, lagging a half a second behind, before he pulled away to confirm what his senses told him. "Belle," he said in stunned disbelief.

She smiled, and pulled the dark hood from her head, allowing her long mane of auburn curls to cascade down around her shoulders.

He gawked, realizing a second later that his arms were still around her, and jumped back awkwardly, trying to put a respectable distance between himself and the smiling princess. "I…um…I'm so sorry. I didn't know it was you. I thought it was a thief."

Belle chuckled, her smile widening as she reached out and grabbed his hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "No, don't worry. It's fine. I actually came to find you."

He swallowed, looking down at her delicate hand still covering his. "Me?" he asked, fairly sure that her touch had caused him to hear incorrectly.

"Yes," she said, nodding. Her eyes left his for a second, and she glanced over his shoulder. "Wait—why do you have him saddled already?" she asked, her smile dissolving into a look of wary confusion as her hand slipped from his.

He glanced back at Onyx, a sickening fear of having disappointed her replacing the pleasant feeling that had been there a moment before. "I…I was told to saddle him—"

"By whom? Who told you?" she asked, looking around. "Who was here?"

"I—" He stopped; alarmed by her anxious tone, he glanced back in the same direction as Belle, as if he would see the answer behind him. "It was a knight. He…he woke and told me to tack your horse immediately. I don't know who he was. I swear, if I knew, I would tell you, but I don't know."

"Was he one of ours?"

Rumpelstiltskin thought back, remembering the flapping red cape. "Uh…yes." He nodded. "I think he was one of the kingsguard—he was wearing the cape."

A clear look of relief passed over Belle's features and she relaxed slightly. "Alliser," she said quietly, sighing to herself.

"What is going on, m'lady?" he asked, glancing back around to where she was looking a moment before. "Are you in trouble?"

"No," she said. "Or, at least, not yet."

He frowned, not understanding.

"I'm running away."

"What?" he gasped, feeling his heart stop, as he nearly dropped the reins in shock.

"You were at the tournament. You saw what happened." She paused for a moment, taking a deep breath in an obvious effort to wrestle back her anger. "My father arranged all of that to happen. He was the one who summoned Gaston here, and proposed the marriage between us. After leading me to believe—" She stopped again, shaking her head. "He's sending me away in two days with Gaston to be married in Lornes. Two days! He won't even allow me to marry in my home. It doesn't matter though," she continued, gritting her teeth. "I'm not—I can't marry that man."

"But, your father—"

"Won't do anything! Don't you see? He sold me for some ships! Bartered my life away, because he thought it would make me 'safe.'" She stopped again, her bright blue eyes begging him to understand. "I can't stay here. If I stay here, they'll force me to marry Gaston and leave with him. I can't do it. This is my one chance to change my fate. I have to go now before they find that I'm missing."

Rumpelstiltskin didn't know what to say back to her pleading eyes. Words wouldn't come. He only felt numb and nauseous at the realization that his Belle was leaving him forever, and there was nothing he could do to stop her. He had to finally turn away, not wanting her to see the shameful tears that were threatening to well in his eyes.

"Rumpelstiltskin?" she asked quietly.

He couldn't face her, keeping his gaze fixed on the floor beside them. "What do you need me to do, m'lady?"

"Come with me?"

His head snapped back around. Wha…what?

"That's why I came to find you," she continued. "I wanted to ask you if you would like to come….with me."

Rumpelstiltskin's stared back at her in disbelief, his mind going completely blank at her quiet question. Belle? Wanting to run away? With him? Her face began to lose its brightness, and he panicked immediately, knowing that he had taken too long to answer.

"Forgive me," she said quickly. "I didn't mean to put you in any position…I thought…I mean, I'd hoped that you might want—" She bit her lip, shaking her head. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. I'll—"

"Yes," he blurted out breathlessly.

She froze at his words, her bright blue eyes darting up to meet his.

"Yes," he repeated, nodding fervently, finding that his racing heart and suddenly dry mouth hindered him speaking any further.

Belle's face broke into a smile unlike any he had ever seen, and she leapt into his arms, throwing her arms around this neck, pressing her cheek against his. "Thank you," she whispered, her voice cracking. "Oh, thank you." She pulled away after a long moment; her eyes were bright with tears. "I can't tell you how much…" She sucked in a sharp breath, her face suddenly crumpling. "How much I'd hoped…"

Rumpelstiltskin hesitated for only a second, confused by her sudden change in emotion, before pulling her into another embrace, his care about impropriety losing out to the sight of her tears.

She fell into his embrace immediately, and wrapped her arms tightly around him again, burying her face in his shoulder.

"It's all right," he said, stroking her back, trying to calm her, as he felt her hot tears soak into his thin linen shirt.

She nodded, taking a shuddering breath. "He didn't even tell me. He knew this whole time and he didn't even tell me."

Rumpelstiltskin had nothing to say to that, or at least nothing he could say with a lady, such as Belle present. He only held her tighter, hoping beyond all hope that she took some comfort from him.

After a long while, she finally calmed, pulling slightly back to wipe the tears from her face. "Thank you." She smiled.

"For what?"

"For being you," she said. She glanced away nervously, before looking back at him. "Rumpel, if you come with me, we'll never be able to come back."

He shook his head. "I don't care."

"But, you're happy here."

A weak chuckle of disbelief escaped from his lips, as he shook his head again, unable to not smile at her misplaced concern. "Because of you."

Her lips quivered, and her eyes welled with tears again at his words.

Finding a bit of courage he didn't know existed, her reached up and touched her soft face, wiping away the tear running down her face. "You," he whispered, his own voice shaking with emotion, "showed me what happiness is."

Before he could realize what was happening, Belle leaned forward, closing the small space between them, and pressed her lips gently to his.

Rumpelstiltskin froze at the sensation of her silky soft lips slowly taking his bottom lip between her own. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, as he felt her lips linger for a moment, before pulling slowly away, leaving him panting in place, wide-eyed in shock.

Belle held his gaze for a moment, before ducking away, a bright, rosy blush rising to her cheeks.

Dumbstruck, he stood frozen in place, his shock rendering him unable to do anything except stare back at her. He didn't know what to do, or say. He wasn't even sure if what just happened, had in fact, just happened. His mind whirled. No one had ever…he had never…What had they just done?

"We should go before they come looking for me," Belle said quietly, snapping him out of his stupor.

He nodded dumbly back, grabbing Onyx's reins for her, and followed her around the corner to the tack room.

"We'll have to get provisions on the road," she said, walking into the room and returning a moment later with two large saddlebags. She shrugged off his attempt to grab them for her, and slung them behind the saddle herself. "I have enough money stored in these to get us by for a little while."

"You were planning on leaving?" Rumpelstiltskin asked, noticing the stuffed bags. They were packed to the brim with wrapped parcels of food, and bags of coin. She had obviously been planning this for some time.

Belle glanced over her shoulder at him, and shrugged. "No, but it's not my first time running away. Sirio lets me hide these here for my longer trips." She secured another strap with a grunt. "However, this time, they're not going to catch us."

Despite her confidence, fear spiked through him at the thought of being chased. Sure he'd run away before, but he had never been pursued by the army of knights that were sure to come after a runaway princess.

"It's all right," Belle said, touching him on the arm. "Don't worry. Alliser is on our side; he's the one that let me go and had his man tell you to get Onyx."

He nodded, feeling little comfort, as he watched her continue to secure her bags. He knew what would happen once they found them—and they would find them. They were no match against an entire army of men. He had seen what they had done to the deserters of the Ogres' war; he couldn't fathom what they would do to him once they found him with Belle.

"Hey," Belle said gently, touching his arm.

His head snapped up at her touch.

"You don't have to come," she said. "Please, I don't want you to put yourself at risk for my sake, if you don't want to come."

"No," he said shakily. "No, I want to come."

A look of relief shown on her face and she smiled, giving his arm a light squeeze. "Thank you."

He nodded, feeling his warring emotions give way to compete certainty of his decision at the sight of her grateful smile.

She turned back around; fastening the last of her straps, and then took the reins from him to tie Onyx to the wall. "We need to get you a horse too. Can you get Thames? I'll pack you some bags as well."

Rumpelstiltskin didn't need to be told twice, and jogged back across the aisle to the far stall, pulling Belle's fine palfrey out of its stall.

He had only began to open Thames' stall, when he heard the quiet sound of men walking through the high grass behind the stable door, their hushed voices barely able to be made out even in the dead of night.

"She's…over…."

"…beast…is gone…"

Rumpelstiltskin froze in terror, not recognizing the voices, but knowing immediately whom they were talking about. Belle—

Closing the stall door, he ran over and locked the main stable door, making sure that the latch was secured firmly shut. He then dashed back down the aisle and untied Onyx from the wall, tugging him back around the corner towards the tack room. "Belle!" he whispered. "Belle!"

"What?"

Rumpelstiltskin jumped, spinning around at her voice.

"What's—"

"Shh…" he said, silencing her with a finger. He placed Onyx's reins in her hand, and took the cotton bedroll out her arms. "You need to go now," he said urgently.

She looked back over her shoulder in confusion. "But—"

""There are men around the back, looking for you."

Her eyes went wide, but she stood frozen in place.

"Belle, you have to go."

"Okay," she said, nodding, turning to lead the horse out, but he stopped her, offering his hand at her knee, as she had him so many nights ago.

"Here, let me."

"No, it'll be easier, if you get on first—"

"I can't come with you," he said, looking back over his shoulder. The men would be here at any moment; she needed to go now.

"What? No. You said—"

"You need to go, Belle," he said urgently. "I'll stay behind and try to stall them to give you some time, but you have to go now before they find you."

She balked, shaking her head. "But, you said that you're coming with me."

"Belle, please, I need you to be safe. Let me help you. Please," he said, looking back over his shoulder again for the men. "Belle, you must go. Please go."

"I'm not leaving without yo—"

"Yes, you are," he said, trying to be firm and ignore how his voice cracked. "Please…" he begged, trying once again to help hoist her up. "Please, Belle, go."

She looked back towards the far doors, and then over towards the second aisle leading out towards the meadow beyond the stable. Panic was clear on her face when she looked back at him. "You remember where we first met? By the waterfall?"

He nodded, his heart pounding in his chest.

"Meet me there after they're gone. Promise me, you'll meet me there."

"I promise," he said breathlessly. He looked back, hearing the voices grow closer. "Please, Belle you must—"

She silenced him with a kiss, her warm hands holding his face in place as she pressed her lips firmly to his. She broke away a second later, her rosy lips flushed nearly red.

He stood shell-shocked, unable to do anything except stand by and watch her leap gracefully, unassisted onto the horse.

"I'll be waiting for you," she said.

Onyx snorted loudly, and jigged in place, excited to go. She struggled to hold him back, as she held Rumpelstiltskin's gaze for a long moment, offering him a watery smile, before spinning Onyx around and kicking him forward. The horse gave a little rear, and then charged forward, galloping down the aisle, and out into the dark night.

He watched the dark passage, seeing nothing but blackness, but pictured her running out towards the forest. Rumpelstiltskin wasn't a religious man—he'd long given up believing that any sort of god would stand by and watch men be obliterated by ogres—but in that moment, he sent up a prayer, hoping that anyone, or anything, listening would watch over her and keep her safe.

Creak…!

The sharp whine of the stable doors being opened jarred him from his thoughts, and he walked quickly over to the adjourning aisle.

Three men—two of which he had never seen before—were entering the stables. The third, he did recognize, and the knowledge of whom he was sent a sliver of terror down his spine. Belle, he reminded himself. Be brave. Be brave for Belle.

"You there," the Gaston's Hand said quietly, beckoning Rumpelstiltskin to him with a simple crook of his finger.

Rumpelstiltskin stood still. His every instinct screamed at him to flee, but he held his ground. "May…may I help you?"

The man's face remained blank with disinterest. "Where'd the princess go?"

"Princess?"

"Don't make me ask the question again, stable rat."

Rumpelstiltskin swallowed, and averted his eyes. Despite his bold words to Belle about stalling the men, now faced with the prospect, the realization that he was a terrible liar was becoming readily evident. "She, uh, I don't know, sir. She isn't here," he finished, trying to will his voice not to quake.

"Bring him to me," the man said tiredly.

His two guards, dressed in Gaston's gold and red robes, strode quickly forward and grabbed Rumpelstiltskin roughly. As much as he tried to keep up, the men's grip made it impossible, and they dragged him back to their master.

"You," the Hand said, removing his gloves while his eyes bored into Rumpelstiltskin's, "are going to tell me what I want to know." He paused, slipping a metal bar through his fingers to his knuckles. "Now, tell me where the princess went."

Rumpelstiltskin shook as he stared at the man's hand. The metal bar had dark brown flicks of dried blood. "The, um…the horses, sir, were restless…I came down to check on them, sir. I don't know…I never saw the princess."

The cruel looking man snickered. "Restless, eh?"

A flash of movement was the only warning Rumpelstiltskin had before the Hand's sharp steel knuckles crashed into the side of his face, striking him square in the jaw. He fell hard to the ground from the sheer force of the blow. All he could see were bright dots and stars swirling in his field of vision. The wave of pain hit a second later when he tried to move, causing another burst of stars to appear.

"Get him up," the Hand said tiredly.

Two pairs of rough hands grabbed him again, pulling him to his feet. He swayed, steadied only by the soldiers' grip. The stars abated slowly, but the pain only increased, and he felt a warm trickle, of what he assumed to be his blood, run down his cheek and onto his chest.

"Let's try this again, shall we?" the Hand asked, smiling. "Where is the princess?"

Rumpelstiltskin's head swam, with little bright lights still sprinkling his vision. He tried to shake his head, but it only made it worse. "The horses…"

"The horses what?"

"They were restless," he finished, tasting the metallic hint of blood in his mouth. "I came down to check—"

Before he could say another word, the Hand struck him again, harder this time, directly below his eye. A sickening crack sounded, as a burst of pain ripped through his skull. His legs gave out, but the guards' rough grip kept him upright.

"I'm going to ask you one more time, and if you don't tell me where the princess went, then I'll kill you. Understand? Now…where is Princess Belle?"

The loud drumming of the blood through his skull drowned out the man, and Rumpelstiltskin felt himself fading towards the blackness. I'm sorry, Belle…he thought, closing his eyes. His body was shaken hard though, reverberating the horrible pain, causing him to open his one good eye to look at the Hand who was now a step away from him with bright red blood covering his hand.

"Where is...the princess?" he growled.

Rumpelstiltskin's thoughts went to Belle, and he imagined her riding away, smiling back at him. The memory filled him with hope and he closed his remaining good eye. "The…" He swallowed. "The horses were restless, so I—" Before he could finish, a sharp spike of pain hit the back of his skull and he fell. Farther and farther, down into the darkness, until suddenly, there was nothing.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Rumpelstiltskin groaned at the painful drumming in his skull. The faint sound of dogs, and men shouting filtered slowly in as well, becoming louder and louder, until they merged, becoming an unbearable chorus in his head.

Confused, he struggled to open his eyes to see where he was, only to find that he could only slit his right eye open; his left eye had swollen completely shut. Not that it mattered; he realized a moment later that he was bound, his hands and feet tied together behind his back, and lying on his right side in the mud.

He shifted his head slightly, disorientated as to where he was, or what was going on, only to have a sharp wave of pain to rip through him at once, causing him to gasp and open his eye from the shock of it. A piercing light blinded him immediately, and he closed his eye again, surrendering to the pain.

It was morning. Or afternoon. With his head spinning and vision blurry, he truly couldn't tell, but he did know that he wasn't dead. He didn't know how, or why, he had survived the attack, but—Belle. Belle. Where is Belle?

He stirred and tried to open his eyes again, his adrenaline washing through him like a wave at the thought of Belle out there alone and in danger.

"You're alive."

Rumpelstiltskin flinched, startled by Sirio's voice so close next to him. He tried to open his eyes again and right himself, but his hands and legs were bound too tightly to move.

"The gods surely look over you, my friend. I'd been beginning to worry that you were truly dead. You haven't moved since they brought me here."

"What?" he asked, feeling his lips crack. He tried to squint and make out his surroundings. They were in the stable yard, but there were so many people flooding the area, it was hard to tell what was going on. "Where's Be—the princess?"

"Not here," Sirio murmured quickly back. He nudged him. "Keep your eyes closed. Better for them to think you dead, than drag you up to go another round with that man over there."

The knowledge that the Hand was nearby caused him to freeze at once. Belle. Where is Belle? He tried to listen for clues as to what was going on. However, the sounds of men yelling about "the search," along with horses trotting through the mud, and dogs barking, only served to make his imagination run wild with darker and darker possibilities of what was going on. "What—"

"Shh…" Sirio whispered, cutting him off. "Hold your tongue. We are not the only ones tied here."

Rumpelstiltskin stilled again, cursing himself for his stupidity, yet his fear for what happened to Belle, or where she was, was nearly overwhelming him.

"Lay still," Sirio said sharply, his voice barely a whisper.

A second later, heavy footsteps strode towards them. Rumpelstiltskin held his breath, forcing his body to lie as still as possible. Please go. Please go. Please go.

"You," a gruff voice announced. "He wants to talk to you."

Rumpelstiltskin froze, his heart leaping out of his chest.

"I said—get up!" the voice yelled. The command was followed by a loud thud of a boot kicking someone behind Rumpelstiltskin. He hadn't even realized that the man was there. "On your feet. He wants to talk to you."

"I told 'im already, I know nothing," a gravely voice growled back. "I'm not going with you again."

"That's not up for you to decide."

"He's not my commander. Tell 'em he can stick those questions right up his arse! I'm not tellin' him anything," the man spat back.

"We'll see about that." The solider snickered, and then delivered a series of brutal kicks that left his fellow captive wheezing and coughing in pain.

"Get him on his feet," the soldier said.

Rumpelstiltskin began shaking in fear, hearing two more pairs of heavy boots walk up towards him. As much as he tried to remain still, his body betrayed him and shook. He felt sick, knowing that they were sure to discover that he was conscious now. Go away. Go away, he begged.

Thankfully, the men seemed to be too preoccupied with the man behind him and didn't notice. He listened, hearing them heave the struggling man to his feet and drag him away.

A few minutes later, the yard quieted and Rumpelstiltskin felt Sirio shift his body closer towards his. "You can relax. They'll be gone for a while now," he murmured. "How is your head? Can you open your eye?"

Rumpelstiltskin tried, and failed, finding it impossible to budge.

"Don't worry, my friend. I will get you fixed up in no time once they release us from here."

"Why are they doing this? Did they find her?"

"No. They've been trying to all night without success. Now, Gaston's men have taken to interrogating us, as if one of us will betray her."

"But, the Hand—"

"Hush. You worry for nothing, my friend," Sirio said. "They won't find the princess if they send out another hundred men. Our princess has long fled these woods that they're searching in. Hasn't stopped them from trying though. Both kings still have their entire guards out looking for her. Sent out the dogs, trackers, and—"

Several more loud footsteps approached them, led by a panting dog, which sniffed at Rumpelstiltskin, licking the blood on his face before jogging away.

"As I said," Sirio continued, "the princess will run free. No one here will betray her. She's the only one in that castle that shows any decency towards us living outside it; they're wasting their breath, trying to beat a confession out of us. True Avonlean men won't betray their princess for a few licks of a whip."

Rumpelstiltskin nodded, hoping beyond all hope that Sirio was right. He had seen men like the Hand in the Ogre war though. Those men wouldn't stop until they got what they wanted; no matter what it took, or who they killed. Bravery only gave a man so far. All men broke. Rumpelstiltskin had seen the proof. He only hoped that they killed him, before they forced him to betray Belle.

"She did have help though," Sirio said, breaking Rumpelstiltskin's morose thoughts.

"What?" he asked, panicking that Sirio knew he let Belle go.

"Alliser," he whispered, relieving Rumpelstiltskin's fears at once. "He sent all his men out towards the Blue Mountains last night, telling them not to turn around until they caught up with her, and then told Gaston's men to head south, to cut her off at the pass." Sirio chuckled. "After this, you and I will have to start stocking up on poultice. Those men won't find anything except dirt and rocks up in those mountains. They'll sore all their horses before they catch wind of the princess. Alliser knows this. The princess is smart; she'll have headed east, up towards the Rynoke Valley."

And the waterfall, Rumpelstiltskin finished, picturing Belle waiting for him, thinking that he had abandoned her. His lip quivered and he felt tears begin to form behind in his swollen eyelids.

"Hey, my friend, what's this? I told you not to worry. You listen to Sirio, now, eh? Your princess will be safe. There's no one in the kingdoms that can catch her, or her beast at a full gallop even if they knew where she was going. I've seen it—many a time too. All her life she's slipped through their fingers. Silent, and as quick as an owl that one is. If you ask me, I'd bet that she's probably already halfway across the kingdom by now."

He nodded slowly, trying to not shake his damaged head too much.

"Don't worry—a couple days, and then, Sirio will help you get to your princess."

What? His eyes snapped open, and he jerked towards the groom in shock. Oh gods!

"Be stil, my friend. You have no need to worry. I will not betray you. I want her happiness as much as you do. And if that means getting you to her, so be it. You two belong together. I know this. I also know that you helped her, so now, it's my turn to help you. I will fix you up, and send you on your way to find her."

"Why?" Rumpelstiltskin croaked.

"Because I'm your friend, no? And I'm a fan of true love, of course."

"Ah—" Rumpelstiltskin gawked. "I…"

"Nah, ah—" Sirio chuckled, stopping him. "Save those words for the princess."

Rumpelstiltskin couldn't even fathom that they were discussing this. The whole thought of love was a folly. All he wanted was for Belle to be safe; he didn't care what else happened. "But, the Hand—"

"Is not here. He's been gone since last night. He doesn't know these woods. That man may be clever, but he is no match for someone who has been hiding in those woods her whole life."

No, that man was smart. "He knows I helped her," Rumpelstiltskin said. He'd seen it in his eyes last night; he knew Rumpelstiltskin was lying about not knowing what happened to Belle.

"I can see that," Sirio chuckled. "Did you tell him anything?"

"No."

"So what are you worried about? Your secret is safe."

"He'll torture me until I break and tell him!"

"Not here, he won't," Sirio said. "He has no rule here; our king and Alliser will return soon, and put an end to this. What Gaston's men are doing here is not allowed in Avonlea. They'll put a quick stop to it. Until they do, though, you will keep your eyes closed and rest. I will keep watch, don't you worry. When you awake, this will all be over."

Only Rumpelstiltskin knew that it wasn't going to be. Belle was out there waiting for him. Every minute that she waited was another minute that she was closer to being caught, and it was all his fault. His only hope was that she realized that he wasn't coming, and left. The thought that she would think that he didn't want to come, or worse betrayed her, made his heart break all over.

Oh Belle, he cried, closing his eyes tight. Please forgive me.

A splash of freezing cold water doused Rumpelstiltskin, shocking him awake. He coughed, panicking as he felt the water enter his lungs through his nose.

"Told yer he was fakin' it," a deep voice called out behind him, kicking Rumpelstiltskin's side to emphasize his point.

Rumpelstiltskin gasped, the man's boot connecting directly in his ribs.

"Leave him alone!"

Belle's loud cry snapped Rumpelstiltskin out of his painful haze, and he slit his one good eye open. However, he found that he could only see dark blades of grass, bathed in orange firelight. He shifted, trying to see more, but his tight bonds prevented him.

"Get him to his feet," Gaston's Hand commanded.

Rumpelstiltskin had barely enough time to react, before his hands and feet were pulled roughly together, and then released by a sharp cut of a knife. Free from his bonds, he collapsed against the ground immediately; too weak to even lift his head.

The man standing behind him growled in frustration, and then lifted him straight up off the ground as if he weighed nothing.

Even with the man's firm grip on his collar, Rumpelstiltskin swayed on his feet, and struggled not to faint. His concern was nullified a second later, when a firm boot kicked the back of his knees, and he collapsed back into the dirt.

"Kneel before the king," the man commanded, pulling him roughly up by the back of his shirt to his knees.

The king?

Righting himself, he opened his eye far enough to be able to see. It was pitch dark and silent, with only flickers of torchlight to illuminate the four figures standing before him—the Hand, King Gaston, and a soldier holding Belle. Belle!

"Let him. Go!" Belle demanded again, kicking at the man. "He did nothing wrong!"

Belle, no— Rumpelstiltskin tried to rise, only to be forced back to his knees to watch her struggle in vain against the soldier's tight hold. The orange torchlight highlighted her bedraggled appearance and the ruined, muddied patches on her once beautiful dress. Another firm kick to the soldier's shin made the man falter for a moment, making him bite back a curse.

"Control her, will you?" Gaston asked tiredly, taking a step closer to his Hand, who was looming over Rumpelstiltskin. "This is him?"

"Indeed," the Hand remarked flatly.

Gaston's lip curled, as he looked over his shoulder at Belle. "You tried to run away from me for this…street rat?"

"Better than that," the Hand said, stepping forward. In one sharp tug, he ripped the right arm of Rumpelstiltskin's tunic off, exposing his bare arm. "A deserter," he spat, jerking Rumpelstiltskin's arm towards him and digging the point of his blade into the mark. "Baldor found it while this coward was playing dead out in the yard."

Released from the Hand's hold, Rumpelstiltskin collapsed in half, hiding himself from Belle in shame. Sharp tears pricked his eyes as the men laughed at his unfinished tattoo. What had once been a source of pride for him—being chosen for service in the Duke of the Frontlands' army, despite his lowly position—was now his biggest shame. He has taken every precaution to ensure that no one, especially Belle, had seen the mark, because unlike the other soldiers in his unit, he did not have the second mark, showing his completion of service. His mark showed him for what he was—a true coward. A deserter.

"Oh well, isn't that perfect?" the king crooned. "Did he teach you how to run too, princess?"

"Stop it," Belle growled. "He didn't do anything wrong, or help me. I did that all myself."

Without warning, the king struck out, kicking Rumpelstiltskin square in his jaw, sending him flying back into the mud.

Belle's screams registered vaguely through the blinding pain. No, Belle…don't, he begged, trying to lift himself up. His limbs failed him, and he fell back again, stars crossing his vision. His head lolled to the side, and he tried to look at Belle on last time. Belle…he thought, feeling himself slip away.

Splash!

Rumpelstiltskin snapped back into vague alertness, the freezing water shocking his senses. He coughed, and felt his whole body shake from the cold, despite the warm summer night.

Unable and too scared to resist, he allowed himself to be forced back to a kneeling position again. Bowing his head, he chanced a glance upwards; Belle was sobbing at him, held back by the guard.

Gaston simply sighed, and looked down at his boot, lifting it for inspection. "Ugh," he sneered, "The bastard got blood on my boot."

"Why are you doing this? Why?" Belle cried. "He's done nothing wrong. He's innocent!"

"Innocent? That's what you call deserters in these parts?" He laughed, holding his boot for Rumpelstiltskin's guard to clean. "Well, my dear princess, you'll certainly have a lot to learn once you come to Lornes. In my kingdom, there is only one penalty for desertion—death." He stepped towards her, jerking his boot out of the attendant's hand. "In this case, however, what I just did to your little pet here was what I really wanted to do to you."

"Then, do it," Belle said, holding her head up defiantly at his threat.

He scowled and lifted his arm, anger flashing over his face. For a terrifying moment, Rumpelstiltskin thought that he was going to strike her, but then the king stepped back, resuming his mask of indifference. "Such a shame that a pretty little thing, such as yourself, has to be such a cow. However, as much as I would love to show you what truly happens when you decide to embarrass me, I'll have to save it for after our wedding. Your father and I have an agreement. And I certainly can't have my bride all bruised up for the wedding now, can I?" he asked lifting his finger to tilt her chin upwards.

Belle forced a smile to her face, even as a tear betrayed her, slipping down her cheek.

"Thankfully, in the meantime, I have a new whipping boy here for my use for you."

"You can't do this," Belle said, her strong voice cracking.

"Can't I?" Gaston asked, mocking her with a shrug. "Who is to tell me 'no,' princess? Your father? You'll tell him what I did? The daughter who just ran away and shamed him?" He laughed. "Your father will beg me to marry you after what you did today, Princess."

"Then, don't," Belle begged, twisting in the soldier's grip. "Don't marry me."

"Ahh, but you see, I already agreed to doing just that, and I will not be made a fool of," he said. He stopped, taking a step back, a smile reappearing on his face. "Don't worry, Princess. I doubt that we'll be married long anyways. Isn't that right, Hand?"

Rumpelstiltskin looked over, catching the dark look the Hand gave the princess. It made his skin crawl.

"In the meantime, you will be obedient. I will see to it that this little stunt you pulled today will be your last." He turned to his Hand, and then gestured to Rumpelstiltskin. "Kill him."

"NO!" Belle screamed, lunging against the soldier's arms.

"My word," Gaston chuckled. "You really do care for this street rat, don't you?" Her struggling only made him laugh harder. "Surely, I've heard of maidens falling in love with knights, but a stable hand? Surely, you must have higher standards than this, Princess?"

"He did nothing wrong!"

"Ahh, but you see that's not what my Hand says. He says that the first name you called out when he found you was his. So sweet. Now, Hand? If you would please? I've been out here far too long already."

Rumpelstiltskin looked over in horror as the Hand unsheathed his long blade, a glimmering piece of steel that was flecked with dried blood. The scarred man walked over towards him, his sword at his side, and a smile on his face. Rumpelstiltskin looked back over at Belle, wanting to say something, anything to her as his last words, but his mouth was too dry to speak. As hard as he tried not to, he saw the blade being raised out of the corner of his eye. Belle, I'm sorry–

"Hold!" the king called out.

Rumpelstiltskin flinched, feeling a slight breeze of a missed hit graze by his neck, and then hit the dirt beside him with a dull thud.

"Your Grace?" the Hand asked.

"Hold, Hand," he repeated, turning towards Belle. "This is my wedding gift to you, Princess. His life. A pitiful one at that, but it seems a useful one for a little while longer."

Rumpelstiltskin nearly collapsed in relief.

"We'll take him with us," the king continued, addressing his Hand. "Should the princess decide to run away again, I will have him killed. Should the princess decide to raise her voice again, I will have him beaten. I don't think I need to remind you, Princess, but judging by his sad state, it doesn't look like your stable rat will survive another beating should you decide to disobey me. Now, what do you say to that?"

Tears ran down Belle's face, as she tore her eyes from Rumpelstiltskin's. "Thank you, your Highness."

"You're welcome. I'm sure you'll find a way to repay me and show me your gratitude later," he leered. "However, there is that little matter of you running away. That, my darling fiancée, is something that I cannot overlook. Hand? If you would, please."

Rumpelstiltskin flinched, seeing a quick movement out of the side of his eye, and then gasped, his scream choked by his blinding pain of his ankle breaking. He collapsed, rolling onto the ground, only to be hit again, harder this time, directly in the foot. He howled with pain, and tried to curl up to protect himself. However, his injured leg was pulled away from him and he was held down. He tried to fight back, kicking with his other leg, as he sobbed, hearing Belle's screams in the distance.

It was no use. He had barely enough time to brace himself after he heard the word "again," before he heard a loud, sickening "crack," and then—blackness.

Rumpelstiltskin stirred, feeling his head being pushed gently. He tried to make the movement stop, but he felt too much pain to even try. The pain was simply overwhelming, all-encompassing.

"Et, et, shoo," Sirio said above him. "Get away from him." The pushing stopped immediately to Rumpelstiltskin's relief.

The rest of his senses returned to him slowly—the familiar sound of the stables, the smell of straw. He tried opening his eyes, but couldn't.

"Oh thank the gods," his friend exclaimed. "You're awake. I'd been worried that you were never going to wake up."

Rumpelstiltskin tried to respond, but his exhaustion rendered him incapable, and he felt himself begin to fall back asleep, the temptation proving to be nearly overwhelming.

"No, no, now," Sirio chided, tapping his cheek. "You must stay awake. Don't fall asleep."

A pungent odor, unlike any that Rumpelstiltskin had ever smelt in all of his years as a spinner, was placed directly below his nose. He flinched away from it, retching. The movement made his body spasm in pain, and he collapsed back onto the makeshift straw bed, exhausted. He felt like he was dying. Never could he have imagined that he could be in so much pain.

A warm gust of air snorted over his face, startling him out of his thoughts, but an audible smack sent it away just as quickly.

"I'm sorry, my friend," Sirio said, wiping Rumpelstiltskin's brow with a soft, wet, sponge. "I need you to try your hardest to stay awake for me, okay? Can you open your eyes?"

He gulped, bracing himself, and tried; as before, only his left eye opened, and barely at that. He realized immediately that he was in a stall. It was dark, lit by flickering lantern light. He looked over towards his left; Sirio was kneeling by his makeshift bed with Onyx looking curiously over his shoulder.

"That's good," his friend said. "Once I finish draining your head humors, you'll be able to open the other. For now, you need to drink this."

Rumpelstiltskin tried to sip the offered liquid in the bowl Sirio held in front of him, but the angle made it impossible.

"Here," Sirio said, placing the bowl aside and gently stuffing more straw under the blanket beneath Rumpelstiltskin's back, propping him up.

It was only then that Rumpelstiltskin saw the true extent of his broken body. His tunic and pants had been cut away, and replaced with stained gauze and linens, along with dozens of black leeches placed all over his body. His left leg was the worst. Nearly indistinguishable as a foot, the swollen red mass made him want to retch again. He looked over to Sirio, and then back at his leg, not believing that it was his, despite the intense throbbing pain radiating from the joint. "What…" He stopped, catching his breath. "What happened?"

"They brought you to me like this. I am truly sorry, my friend. They took me away to be questioned and when I returned, you were gone. I asked, but no one knew what had happened to you. I had been beginning to think the worst until Gaston's men dragged you in here several hours ago. They did this to you, didn't they?"

Rumpelstiltskin nodded, barely stifling a sob.

"Orospu çocuğu! O lanet korkaklar! Nasıl cesaret!" Sirio swore, shaking his head. "They will pay. If not in this life, than in the next, I swear it to you."

Sirio's bold words did nothing to help his pain, and he closed his eyes, seeing Belle's face at once. Belle. "Belle," he repeated out loud. "Is she—?"

"Safe in the castle. The word in town is that Gaston's Hand rescued her from Summarian kidnappers. They're throwing that kahrolasi adam a feast in his honor now. Maybe I should bring them the golden tipped arrows that were buried in Onyx, here, eh? Wonder what they'd say to that?" Sirio spat.

The groom grumbled, batting Onyx away as he picked up the wooden bowl again. "Here, drink this. It will help with the pain."

Rumpelstiltskin drank the bitter liquid slowly with Sirio's help. Once finished, he sank back into the blanket piled around him.

"You'll feel better soon," Sirio said. "My uncle had an apothecary—he taught be all of this. That potion, in particular, will allow you to rest in peace. In the meantime, suck on this." He offered him a dark root. "It will help with the pain until the potion takes effect."

"Thank you," Rumpelstiltskin whispered, feeling his eyes grow heavy again.

"Eh, eh…stay awake now," he said, patting Rumpelstiltskin's cheek. "I know it's hard, but you must so the humours may drain. Your head has been wounded; those are the most difficult humours of all to purge. It is necessary that you stay awake."

Rumpelstiltskin looked down at the leeches attached to his body again. Truly, all he wished to do was sleep; whether or not his humours grew stagnant was not his concern. Even still, he turned his head to watch his friend begin to tend to Onyx, tying him to the wall. He hadn't noticed before, but the stallion had several puncture marks on his neck and flank, each surrounded by a large wet area, which he could only assume, was blood.

"Poor creature came wandering in from the woods shortly before they brought you here. Had two arrows still in his side," Sirio said, pouring a bottle of strong smelling alcohol over the first wound. "The soldiers said that you will both leave with them tomorrow. I told them that it isn't possible, but they wouldn't listen. Though, judging by your face, you knew that already."

Rumpelstiltskin sighed and gave another glance at his ruined leg again. There was no way that he would be able to last the half-day's ride to the shore. Or perhaps, he thought morosely, the king knew that.

"Do not worry. I have set much worse. You will walk again. Perhaps, not soon, but you will," Sirio said, as if sensing his thoughts. "I heard that it's nearly a fortnight to Lornes; that will give you time to heal. I'll send you with enough leeches to allow for your humours to drain properly, and medicine for you to withstand your journey. Once you arrive…" He stopped, and turned around, offering Rumpelstiltskin a reassuring smile. "You'll find a way. The gods have been with you so far; they won't abandon you now. Not when you need them the most."

"The gods don't look out for people like me," he said sadly, looking down at his mark still showing for the entire world to see. Sirio had not commented on it, but surely he knew what it meant.

"They don't do they?" Sirio said, ignoring the tattoo. "Then, how do you explain all this?" he said, gesturing to Rumpelstiltskin's body. "Men do not survive this; yet, here you are alive before me."

Rumpelstiltskin closed his eyes. "Because of her," he whispered. "They kept me alive for so she won't run away. She can't…this is all my fault," he said, his voice breaking. A fresh wave of guilt came over him at the thought of Belle wanting to run away again, but staying for his sake.

"No, no, my friend," Sirio said, patting Rumpelstiltskin's arm. "This is not your fault. Don't say that."

"She waited for me. If she hadn't…"

"Then, she would be gone. But, she would also not have you by her side. She knew that; that's why she waited. How were you to know that she would be found? Are you a seer? No. Did you tell the Hand where she went?"

"No," Rumpelstiltskin answered sharply, his chest aching from the effort.

"Then, why do you say that it is your fault, when clearly it is not? Those men did this—not you. One only has to look at you to know that you did not betray her. She knows that too. Look—I forgot. I have something for you," Sirio said, standing up again, and exiting the stall.

The groom returned a moment later, walking around Onyx, and kneeling once again by Rumpelstiltskin's bed. "Now, look at this," he said, producing a small object, wrapped in light parchment from behind his back. "This was delivered to me when I went home to get supplies for you. It's for you."

Rumpelstiltskin frowned in confusion, and extended his hand gingerly towards the small package. It was barely the size of his fist, but obviously wrapped with care.

"Come now—open it."

Hesitating for a brief moment, Rumpelstiltskin found the seam, and opened the package. As soon as he touched it, a surge of hope went through him, nearly bringing tears to his eyes, and he carefully unfolded it in front of him. It was Belle's favor—light blue, the color of her eyes, and elaborately embroidered with a "B" in the corner.

"You see? She still cares for you."

His vision went blurry at the thought, and he had to wipe away his tears. To know that Belle still cared about him, despite knowing everything…Oh, Belle, he sighed, unable to stop his lip from quivering. A sob nearly escaped him at the hope her small gesture gave him.

"But, the king…" he whimpered, caressing the soft silk. "He's going to force her to marry him."

Sirio nodded. "Yes, that is true. However, who says that that is how it must be?"

He looked up, and shook his head, blinking away the tears that blurred his vision. "I don't understand."

"That is the woman you love, yes?" he said firmly, waiting until Rumpelstiltskin relented finally, and gave a slight nod. "Then, that is enough. You fight for her. You bring her back."

He shook his head. "You might as well say, buy her freedom with diamonds. She's a princess, soon to be a queen. How in the world am I supposed to bring her back?"

"Because she is your true love, of course. There is power in that—do not underestimate it. Love allows us to do things that we never thought possible," Sirio said, tipping his head. "She saved you once, now it is your turn to save her."

"But how?" he cried, his voice cracking again. "I'm not a knight. I'm a coward, and now a cripple. The only thing I've ever known how to do is to run and hide in whatever corner I could find. How am I supposed to save her?"

"That, my friend, is not for me to answer. Only the fates can know that. But the gods have favored you so far—why else keep you alive, if not for this purpose?" he asked, spreading his hands. "You will succeed. That I know."

"But, I can't even walk! How am I supposed to…?" He stopped, shaking his head. "This is madness. Look at this," he said, pointing to his tattooed arm. "I am a coward, Sirio. A coward—"

"You are what you make yourself," he said, cutting him off. "Nothing more—nothing less. A true coward would have run from here, and have never looked back, yet you stayed and tried to protect her. That is no coward, my friend. You need to believe that."

"But, I failed her."

"No, you tried your best. That is all anyone can do. Failure would be to run, or betray her to those men. You did neither of those things. You took the hard path, and deserve her all the more for it."

Rumpelstiltskin shook his head. He didn't deserve anyone, let alone a princess such Belle. It was a folly, a foolish wish that she would want him after everything that she had seen tonight.

"Hey, hey, look there," Sirio said, pointing to the favour still clutched in his hand. "Would a princess give her favour to a coward? No. She gave that to you, because she believes in you. You're her champion."

Her champion? No, he couldn't be. It was a mistake to think that she was placing all of her hope in him.

"Et—stop that worrying. I see that I have a lot of work cut out for me, if am to convince you of this before morning. But know this Rumpelstiltskin—you are smart and I have faith in you. The gods favor you as well. And remember above all else— you are not alone in this; the princess is very smart too. You help each other," he said, tilting his head pointedly at the favour again. "You will do this, my friend. You will."