I have no idea if anyone else has attempted a story like this. Someone probably has, and if so I have not read their work, so this isn't an intentional imitation. This shouldn't be a very long story (five chapters, maybe?). I don't want it to be long since I'll keep working on "Entirely Up To You" and another OUAT fic yet to be published. So don't despair if I'm writing chapters for this instead of another story you're more interested in. But reviews would still be appreciated!
Our Bed of Straw
King Dathomir's ambition and ruthlessness knew no limits. He was a rare sort of ruler who could fashion an army with the strength and tactics to turn the tide of the Third Ogres War almost single-handedly. When his forces pushed the creatures back to the realms of their origin, he'd been hailed by other kingdoms as a hero. Avonlea, just southwest of Dathomir's realm, was prepared to offer what meager rewards and displays of gratitude it could, even in the face of the financial toll the war had taken. The ruling duchies assembled in preparation to express this sentiment to the triumphant monarch. Said monarch surprised them with the same armies that had saved them.
Dathomir did desire compensation for his efforts. He also knew that the Ogre War had ravaged the treasuries of his neighbors. He consoled the nobles of Avonlea with assurance that since they could not properly repay him, he would decide on the reward he felt owed to him. His soldiers assaulted each region with a ferocity that made people almost forget the terror inspired by the ogres. The duchies stood no chance.
The king acquired many spoils from his plundering, as well as many prisoners. His own nobles were eager to lay claim to the lands that fell to his power. Avonlea's nobility held no interest for him. He wanted subjects who were ready and willing to pay him complete loyalty, which was easier to acquire from people from his own country. All the nobles of Avonlea were stripped of their titles and property. Most were exiled or relocated to hamlets to assume a peasant way of life. Some had to be made examples of, especially nobles who spoke out against the new king. Sir Maurice ended up in this group, to Dathomir's surprise. He wasn't a brave or virile man, but he had an unwarranted sense of pride in his family and homeland. Such a man – even one as unimpressive as Maurice – could not be tolerated. Dathomir announced his execution and the execution of his allies and relatives.
Maurice finally broke. Tears fell down his flabby cheeks. He clamped his hands together and pleaded to the king on his knees. "Your majesty, have mercy! If not for me, then for my daughter!"
The eyes of imprisoned nobles and members of Dathomir's court turned to the young woman beside the distressed knight. She wore the same golden gown she'd donned the day Dathomir's men breached the city walls. Dathomir wanted the recalcitrant to watch their fine garments become soiled and threadbare. Nevertheless, Belle owned a soft-spoken beauty that could not be easily concealed or depreciated by ruined clothes. Nor did her state of dress dampen the heat in her eyes, dignified and unquenchable. But her distress mirrored her father's to see him beg for her life. She dropped beside him and urged him to rise to his feet while whispering comforting words.
Cool eyes wandered over the lovely form of the noble lady. Dathomir's handsome, stubbled face was delighted at Maurice's diminished state. He regarded Belle with hardly any more pity. "You do have a beautiful daughter, I admit. Her will is far stronger than yours. I can see it without having heard a word out of her mouth. In another time, I would not have hesitated to make such a woman my queen. But I suspect she would not have me – she's too offended by my actions to think of it."
His laughter filled the room. Both Maurice and Belle shivered. Dathomir pressed on through lingering chuckles. "Why should I wish to spare my enemy's daughter? To let her take her revenge? Besides, I have plenty of other prospects. You daughter can serve me no purpose."
For some reason, the ire returned to Maurice's belly. With Belle supporting his arm, he bellowed at the king. "You fiend! You haven't the heart to desire a wife! You care for nothing but wealth!"
"True," Dathomir answered. The casual word made Maurice falter. The king could have left it there, but an idea hit him. He couldn't pass up the opportunity for one more stab of humiliation in the insolent knight's heart. "But there may be one way your daughter could find favor."
"How?" asked Maurice with eagerness and fear.
"By spinning straw into gold!" Dathomir laughed again and encouraged his courtiers to join him. The lords and ladies acquiesced.
The king sent the captives back to their cells. Maurice and Belle traded a final look before they went down different corridors. Maurice's eyes gave an anxious farewell and begged her forgiveness. Belle's gaze tried to ease his agony and asked him to be brave. Both of them understood as they lost sight of one another that this was their last conversation. The notion left Belle numb even as the soldiers shoved her into the small dungeon. She couldn't even begin to weep over it. Their situation compelled her to spend her energy in thought. Was there nothing they could do? No way to contact someone for help?
Belle had only one slit of a window to tell her the time of day. The sun was still high in the western sky, but sooner than Belle hoped darkness swallowed everything. When it did, she was no closer to finding an answer. Her despair tightened around her as she fell asleep, but some small voice struggled to shake away her despondency. There was always hope, however dim and distant. She demanded herself to keep thinking on how she and her father could survive this. Sleep bore her away from her grim surroundings for a few hours.
For the next two days she received no word from the outside world. A guard would come twice while the sun was up to open the slot in the door and toss a tray of bread and soup at her. The food often landed on the floor; Belle forced herself to eat it, anyway. It was still food. She could endure the inhumane treatment, but she didn't dare to think how her father fared. His dignity would suffer so greatly from this. It broke her heart to think on it, yet she couldn't not think of her flesh and blood. If she couldn't be with him in person, she wanted him close in her thoughts.
On the third day a new presence surprised Belle. A lad in his early adolescence and dressed in the garbs of the king's servants stood outside the door, as did the regular guard. The youth addressed her with unexpected cordiality she hadn't received in a long time – or so it felt. He slipped a note through the food slot. Although she wanted to retain some shred of composure, Belle nearly dove for the paper. For a second she hoped against hope it was from her father, or from someone in Dathomir's court who sympathized with her plight. With a breath to steel herself, she opened it. Her fears came crashing down.
Lady Belle of the Marshlands:
Your father was executed this morning. I thought you might like to know before the guards bring you breakfast. My condolences. I am sorry that we could not come to a more favorable arrangement for you. Do not weep too much, however. If you insist on being as stubborn as he, you shall join him soon.
Dathomir I of Utheria
Belle's eyes remained dry in spite of her hammering heart and shrinking lungs. The messenger was very likely oblivious to the news he'd delivered, for he bowed with calm shyness and slipped away. The guard shoved her breakfast through the slot. She left the overturned contents for the mice and rats.
She did consider fasting as a form of protest. If she withered away by her own volition before they placed the executioner's blade against her neck, where would the king's victory be? Grief also crept into her heart and started to do its work. Belle experienced terrible rage and sorrow at the loss of all she'd once known: home, freedom, her father. All gone. For a long while she couldn't think of what she had left to live for. She might as well accept her imminent death.
When that thought came to her, though, her father's face appeared. It would have killed him to know she desired her own death. And what would her mother think if she'd been alive? This resignation went against everything she'd taught Belle. Even in a dungeon, in the midst of terrible enemies, she could decide her fate. She alone must decide her fate. With some strength bubbling up again, Belle unfurled from the dank corner she'd made into her bed and paced across the chamber. She didn't want to die. Death would be a last resort, and only if it were the right, brave thing to do. The king did imply that if she cooperated, she might be shown leniency. How, though? She had no idea.
By spinning straw into gold. That's what Dathomir had said. Belle repeated the phrase in her mind many times, as if calling to the heavens to give her some idea how she could use it. She'd understood what he really meant by it. Belle had almost nothing of value. Dathomir had taken it all. But, maybe, if she could prove she could help him acquire more wealth . . . no. Still nothing.
She sighed, pressed her back against the wall beneath the window, now showering red and orange sun rays into the little cell, and closed her eyes. If only I could spin straw into gold, she thought. A humorless smile formed on her lips.
"That would be something, wouldn't it?" a voice replied. It was followed by a high-pitched giggle.
Her eyes snapped open. Her muscles tensed at the voice of the intruder. She gathered her arms against her chest for protection. There was no need at the moment despite the stranger's presence. He – so Belle presumed by the voice, though she couldn't be entirely sure – sat across from her against the opposite wall. Wiry hair shadowed his face. Its length made Belle second-guess the gender of her new companion. She inspected his shape. He sat with one knee propped up and a bony hair resting daintily on top of it. It didn't hide the flat chest hugged by a maroon shirt and black vest under a coat ranging from red to brown, apparently sewn from leather. His close-fitting trousers further confirmed Belle's initial guess. She was mindful not to let her eye linger there for long. It interested her more that the stranger had managed to enter her cell without opening the door, and that, unless the fading light was causing an illusion, his skin had an unnatural pigment. She couldn't decide if it was green, yellow, gray, or all three.
The man, or creature, sprang to his boot-clad feet. Despite his lean physique and short stature (he barely surpassed her height), he struck an imposing figure, particularly as he walked toward her with hopping strides. "But you can't, can you, dearie?"
Belle tried to blink away her bafflement. It didn't work. "Do what?"
"Spin straw into gold, of course!" he said with jeering shake of his head. He talked and giggled as if he'd stated an obvious fact. "If only you could, you just might save your pretty little head."
As he stepped closer, the man's face came into the light from the window. The sharp contours of his face resembled a hawk and a reptile at the same time. His smile, filled with yellowing, crooked teeth, carved lines into his face. He had large eyes made even larger by the brown-green irises that nearly swallowed them up. A startling visage, but more peculiar than terrible when the sunlight made his skin glitter like the rocks Belle used to dig up from the river bed as a child.
"Who are you?" she managed to ask without stammering.
Stopping just two steps from her, the stranger extended his arms sideways and bowed deeply. He rolling the 'r' with unnecessary gusto. "R-r-r-rumplestiltskin." He quickly straightened. "And you must be Lady Belle, the fair daughter of the late Sir Maurice of the Marshlands, in the kingdom of Avonlea."
Belle swallowed down his remark about her father. "How do you know that? How do you know about my situation?"
"It's my business to know, dearie. It's how I make my living." He let his eyes roam over her once before settling on her face. Belle disliked being examined by anyone, but at least he didn't behave too lewdly about it. "A shame your people didn't ask for my help sooner. Much bloodshed could have been avoided."
Rumplestiltskin. The name did have a familiar ring. Belle furrowed her forehead while her mind rummaged its backroom of memories for some clue. After a minute she found one. "Oh! I have heard of you. You're . . . the dealmaker, right? People call for your help, and you make deals with them."
"That'd be right!" Rumplestiltskin flourished a hand to accentuate his already over-the-top tone. "I'm only too happy to help . . . for a price."
The brief flicker of relief and delight that lit up Belle's heart was quickly drowned by bucketfuls of dread. She didn't know much about Rumplestiltskin in particular, but his reputation preceded him. Every deal he'd ever made always went awry for his clients. More like his victims. Bargains entered into too hastily, filled with loopholes and burdened with severe repercussions – that was his game. This was not the help she'd hoped for. Then again, Belle had severely limited options. If she needed to make a deal with him, she'd have to tread with extreme care. Knowing that made her wonder just how many people had thought as much before falling prey to the imp's wily ways.
"That's why you're here, then," she said in a low voice. "To help me. How?"
"That depends on what you want, dearie." Rumplestiltskin brought his long, clawed fingers together and began to pace in front of her. His eyes left her for only a few seconds. "You desire freedom, no doubt. Retribution, perhaps? The death of your captors?"
Belle quickly shook away his words. He wouldn't pull her in that easily. "No, not vengeance. No bloodshed. There's been enough of that."
He narrowed his gaze. "What, then? I could help you escape from this prison. No bloodshed required."
Escape did deserve consideration. Belle very much wanted to taste fresh air again. New clothes and a new life. She'd always wanted to travel, too. This could be her chance to see the world. But . . . she meditated on what kind of life that would be. A life on the run? Would Dathomir pursue her when he learned of her escape? People from everywhere understood that he was ruthless. He might put a bounty on her head just to guarantee that she lived a miserable existence as a fugitive. And even if she could avoid capture, what sort of life would she have? As a vagabond? A beggar? Could she flee to another kingdom for aid and protection? She didn't personally know anyone outside the duchies who would chance an alliance with a fallen noble. The duchies had, until now, been a self-sufficient entity merely on good terms with other kingdoms. No outside friends, then, that could be wholly depended upon.
Maybe a bolder, braver woman with more experience could live on the lam without such help. In Belle's mind, she was not that woman. She wanted to be brave but didn't think she could be that kind of brave. Her experience was limited to her father's home. She'd grown up listening to nobles, advisers and ambassadors. She understood politics and strategy, even if the men of court never cared to hear her opinions. She longed to be heard and respected for her mind almost as much as she craved liberty. A fugitive's life lay too far outside her boundaries and abilities, whereas a chance to live among Dathomir's nobles was more familiar, and could offer more opportunities to make friends and accrue favors.
"No," she said softly at last. "I . . . I don't think I could live a life on the run." Belle had kept her gaze arrested on the floor in front of her feet. She didn't want Rumplestiltskin's face and pacing to distract her. It was hard to know what to expect when she looked up again. When she did, she nearly smiled, if only in disbelief.
Rumplestiltskin appeared puzzled. The expression didn't fit him as nicely as his exaggerated smile. Belle couldn't guess how long it lingered on his face; when she looked at him, he discarded it with a shrug and a frown of helplessness. "Well, then, you seem to have only one other choice." His previous grin, filled with mischief, returned. He came toward her until he could lean in and, if he wished, touch her nose with his. Belle's heart palpitated at the uncomfortable proximity. This must have been a part of his act to pressure people into his deals. He spoke through his crocodile grin. "You'll have to win the king's favor."
Belle inhaled slowly. She caught his scent – a mingling of something briny, something sour, and something ticklishly sweet. Sharp, but not completely revolting. She braced her hands against the wall behind her in case his magic-laced smell went to her head.
"By spinning straw into gold. Or something like that."
"Something exactly like that." His tone and grin were gleefully malicious, but she noticed a fleeting moment of gentleness in his eyes. Probably her imagination and his closeness playing tricks on her.
"Can you do that?" It sounded like an odd ability. Belle had never read a book involving a witch or wizard who performed such a feat. But this was Rumplestiltskin – supposedly the most powerful and feared sorcerer in all the Realms, and far older than any other living creature. He likely wouldn't offer his services to her if there was a chance he couldn't fulfill the task.
"Of course I can! In fact, it's my specialty." He pronounced it 'speh-see-ul-tee'. The serpentine utterance echoed the scaly texture of his skin. "I spin gold all the time."
Belle's eyebrows jumped up. "That's . . . very convenient."
"Indeed." Another giggle, half-suppressed this time, hummed through his teeth. He finally stepped back and let her breathe, only to wag a long finger at her. "But, it's going to cost you!"
"I know," she said, nodding. She was just glad to gulp some air without worrying about breathing in his face or drinking in more of his strange scent. The latter wasn't horrible, but her breath could probably repulse a dragon. She'd not been permitted to clean any part of her body in several days. "What do you want?"
Rumplestiltskin grew thoughtful while turning away, as if he hadn't given the question much consideration. Was it just another phase of his performance, or had he really not decided? This seemed like an ill omen. She hated owing anyone anything. Maybe there was something she could give him here and now. In her current state, of course, the chances were slim.
After an unbearably long minute, Rumplestiltskin faced Belle and pointed at her with clasped hands. "Should you succeed in winning the king's favor – perhaps even his hand – you will no doubt come into possession of a great many riches. When that time comes, I will return to collect."
"No," Belle declared, nearly interrupting the dealmaker.
Shock and confusion flooded the imp's face. He even looked offended with his scowl and squint. "What?"
"I want to pay you now," she clarified in a gentler voice. "To avoid ambiguity."
Rumplestiltskin's scowl deepened. To her relief, he didn't look ready to yell at her or throw her against a wall. "You have nothing in your current possession that I want. What choice do you have?"
Taking a quick breath, Belle turned around and pulled down her bodice. Her fingers searched along the front of her corset for the laces that held it together. Soon she loosened them, revealing the thin cotton chemise underneath that protected her skin from the rough texture of the constraining garment. She shoved her hand along the inside of the corset and felt around.
"What are you doing?" asked Rumplestiltskin, suddenly behind her and breathing against her neck.
Belle must have jumped at least five inches and let out a very unbecoming squeak. She whipped her head around to see him very close, staring in bemusement. Her face flushed. "Just give me a moment."
"That's not what I asked." His eyes ran along her bare arm and drifted as far down as her wrist, just before her hand disappeared between the corset and her breasts. As if losing the courage to continue, he went back to her eyes. "Why are you undressing?"
"I'm not really undressing." Belle spoke quickly to smother the idea that must have been forming in his mind. As she did, her fingers found their quarry. She gave a hard tug that snapped a few threads and extracted her hand to show Rumplestiltskin a ring. It held a bright blue stone, finely cut and gleaming with an uncanny radiance. She pulled the bodice of her gown back up, not bothering to re-lace herself yet. "It was my mother's. It's the most valuable thing I've ever owned."
Rumplestiltskin eyed the ring before snickering. He leveled a devastatingly underwhelmed look at her. "I'm not interested in baubles, dearie."
Belle tried to keep the panic in her chest out of her voice. "My father brought it back for her after traveling in far-off lands. It's said to have magical properties."
"Such as?" His voice overflowed with skepticism.
"How should I know? I don't use magic." She wanted to sound more confident than she felt. The imp's dubious expression squelched her hope. She couldn't give up, though. "Surely a man like you would want to find out for himself."
Rumplestiltskin gave an unforgiving smirk. "Nice try. Have to do better than that. If you haven't anything more valuable to offer right now, it's either my price or no deal."
The hand holding the ring dropped. So did Belle's façade of self-assurance. This was as far ahead as she'd planned. She thought on Rumplestiltskin's offer again and set it aside. It might have been foolish to dismiss the offer. What could he ask for that was so awful she couldn't uphold her end of the bargain? But his word choice bothered her – riches, he'd said. Yet he didn't deal in baubles. Jewels did not interest him. Gold probably didn't, either, if he could spin it. He wanted something valuable that might not intuitively cross anyone else's mind. That possibility made Belle's stomach squirm. If she asked what he particularly wanted, that might reassure her. Again, her instinct stopped her before she even began to open her mouth. The evil glint in Rumplestiltskin's eyes warned her that she wouldn't like it what he'd say. It would be something far too dear. Far too precious. A dozen possibilities flashed through her mind. Her stomach writhed some more.
She lowered her gaze and walked past him. Her body shivered as she uttered the words she knew would seal her doom: "Then no deal."
She said them so quietly she feared Rumplestiltskin would make her repeat them. She didn't want to. Better to let them float in the air and leave her to inwardly thrash at her self-appointed death sentence. Had she not decided a short while ago that she would choose death as a last resort? Surely surviving, even in the debt of this dark wizard, was better than relinquishing her life. All she could think in response was this: To agree to this deal would enslave me to two men. I can't live like that, even if Rumplestiltskin ends up being the lesser evil. No, it couldn't be suffered.
Her decision, resounding in her mind like a gong, left her no more at ease. She rubbed her mother's ring between her fingers and attempted to slow her breathing. Tears pricked the back of her eyes. Her ears strained to hear something from Rumplestiltskin. They met silence. He must have departed as soon as she turned down his offer. Belle let her head hang. Her shoulders relaxed a little. One burden gone, at least.
She jumped when Rumplestiltskin said, "You'd rather let a king – the one who took your lands and killed your father – cut your head off . . . than make a deal with me?"
Belle couldn't bring herself to answer, or even turn around. If she did, she might lose her nerve. She tightly held the ring and sniffed back a river of mucus that threatened to come down, along with the salt water brimming in her eyes.
Leather boots pounded across the stone floor. Rumplestiltskin appeared, jaw clenched and eyes keen. He snapped his palm open. "Let me see that thing."
Fresh hope, sudden and not tentative enough, rejuvenated the wilting beauty. Belle tried to temper her joy at this turn. All the same she gladly handed him the heirloom. Looking a bit cross, he plucked it from her fingers. The tips of his briefly touched the tips of hers. What a surprise to find that even though most of his skin was scaly, the ends of his fingers felt fleshy. Human. Even with long black nails curling over them. What was he? Not really human, but close in many ways. She watched him hold the ring to the light and appraise it. He wrinkled his nose like a confused, frustrated child. Nimble fingers turned the ring over many times, sometimes to try twisting the metal. He tapped the stone with his fingernail.
His screwed-up features gradually relaxed. The more they did, the harder Belle found it to breathe. She silenced all optimistic thoughts out of a superstitious fear that she would ruin her luck. Her hands gripped each other. It was all she could do to keep herself together.
Rumplestiltskin finally huffed. He clamped a hand around the ring and glanced at Belle. "I suppose I could do something with it."
A smile burst across Belle's lips. She let it for half a second, then closed her mouth into a flat line. "Good. I'm glad." She nodded more vigorously than needed. Better than jumping up and down and flinging her arms in gratitude around the imp's neck. "What now?"
The dealmaker's mood improved. He flipped the piece of jewelry with his thumb, sending a metallic ring through the air. He caught the treasure and stowed it away inside his coat. Belle noticed now that his coat couldn't be made of ordinary leather. Like him, it appeared to be composed of scales. She wanted to ask him about it. The urge was answered by a scolding for her incorrigible curiosity.
"Now, dearie," he said, his vivacious timbre restored, "all you have to do is ask the king for a spinning wheel and some straw. Think you can handle that much?"
"Of course." Her confidence came back, too, to assure him she would not back out of their deal. And she was not so wholly helpless that she couldn't do this one thing herself.
"Then I shall return when you have what I need. Your ring for a day's worth of spun gold." He approached her again but didn't come as close as before. "Is it a deal?"
With more calm than she expected, Belle nodded once. "Yes. Deal."
"Till tomorrow, then." His eyes widened and his mouth erupted into maniacal laughter before he evaporated in a cloud of purple smoke. His resonating laugh lingered with her. He'd done it on purpose. Just because the deal had been struck didn't mean he wanted to leave her with her peace of mind. Belle sighed, sat on the cold floor and tucked her legs and skirts under her. It didn't matter. She'd been robbed of her peace of mind already. What she needed more than that was courage. Shivering, she waited for the chance to show that she had acquired some.