Disclaimer: Not mine.
"The Dark One is what they call him, and he's older than the world."
Belle is four, and there's nothing she loves more than a story. She already knows her letters, and Father says she can have a proper tutor as soon as she turns five. She'll be able to read then, and sometimes the thought of reading a book all by herself makes her quiver with excitement. For now, though, she has to be content with the stories Father reads her and the tales the servants tell her.
She likes Moira's stories best of all. Moira the kitchen maid describes everything so clearly that Bell can see the pictures in her head. Like now.
"He's horrible to look upon, the Dark One is." There's a lilt to Moira's voice, almost as though she's singing the tale. "His skin is an awful color that would make your belly ache to look at it—not green, not gold nor gray, but all those colors mixed together." Moira leans in closer to Belle, and her voice becomes almost a whisper. "Don't ever try to touch him, my lady, for it's like touching the skin of a lizard, all scaly and ice cold-so cold he'll freeze your fingers off. And his eyes…" Moira's voice trails off as she makes the sign of the cross, just like the clerics do on Sundays. Belle finds that she's holding her breath, waiting for Moira to speak again. "His eyes," Moira repeats when she's got her courage back a little. "My gran saw him once, and she told me that he can look right at you and see the darkest part of your soul."
Belle's pretty certain her soul doesn't have any dark parts, but it sounds scary all the same. "What does he see there, Moira?"
"He sees all the things you've never told," Moira answers. "He sees how you kicked the butcher's boy when he tried to take your spinning top last week. He sees how you hide in that closet in your father's office and listen to the counselors meeting. He watches you, he watches all of us, and he knows what to say to make you sign his book."
Belle's heard all this before; it's an old, old story. She never gets tired of it. There is no Dark One, not really; that's what Father told her. It's just an old story to scare little children with. If she can listen to it and not get scared, she tells herself, that will prove she's not little anymore. But sometimes Belle enjoys thinking that it might be true—that something so strange and powerful just might exist.
"What would happen if I signed his book?" Belle asks.
"Well, then, my sweet lady, the Dark One would own you." Moira ducks her head for a moment. When she looks at Belle again, there are tears in her eyes. Belle knows the secret: Moira has taken an onion and cut it, but there's something about the tears that still that you're a girl, for he'll just drown you. The boys he takes, he skins them alive."
Moira's pausing too long this time, weeping for the stupid skinned boys. Belle tries to speed her along to the next part of the story. "Unless…."
Moira nods. "Unless you know his secret."
"And what's his secret?" Belle knows the secret, of course, but asking is part of the fun.
"His name," Moira answers. "Learn his name and he'll set you free, give you all his gold and all the treasure in his castle."
Belle's eyes light up now. The treasure in the castle is an especially good part of the story.
"It's a giant castle, Lady Belle," Moira says. She's smiling now; Belle thinks this must be Moira's favorite part of the story, picturing all the riches in the Dark One's castle. "You could put all your father's cities into one room. And each room has more treasure than the last. So much gold you could go swimming in it. And jewels, all stolen from far-off lands. Then there's the room just with the spices and foods from the lands in the East, like Agrabah."
The room from Agrabah was new last time Moira told the story. Every time Moira tells the story, the rooms are different. Belle likes that; it keeps the story fresh and exciting. She wonders what today's new room will be.
Moira smiles at her, the smile Belle knows means Moira's added something just for Belle. "And then there are the books."
Belle gasps. This is the best addition ever.
"He has books?" she asks Moira.
"He has every book, my lady. One copy of every book ever written. A person could spend her life trying to read all the books in the Dark One's library. If he didn't drown her first, of course."
How Belle wishes now that the Dark One was a real person!
"Of course," Moira adds, "if you want to get to that room, you'll have to find out his secret before…."
"Before you sign his book." Belle's heard the story enough times to finish the sentence along with Moira. "But what's his secret, Moira?"
Belle knows the answer, of course, but it's an important part of the story. And it's a funny sort of secret.
"His name," Moira answers. "It's an old name, because the Dark One was old before the world began. You'll never guess what his name is, Lady Belle."
"Is it Thaddeous?" Belle collects names just for this part of the story. Moira always gives her three guesses, and Belle is proud that she's never had to make the same guess twice.
"No, not Thaddeous."
"Then is it Zebulon?"
"Not that either."
"Then it must be…" Belle's learning to tell stories herself, and she knows that it sounds better if she pauses for a moment before giving the last answer. "…Rumpelstiltskin."
That's not even a real name, and it's not scary. In fact, it's fun to say with its r and s sounds playing on her tongue. Belle likes the sound of the name so much that she practically shouts it.
Moira's face turns white as a sheet. "Quiet, child," Moira whispers. "He'll hear you. He'll hear you for sure."
Maybe it's a new part of the story Moira's been practicing. If Belle didn't know better, she'd think Moira was really scared.
"Now run along, child," Moira says, as though she can't get Belle away from her quick enough. "I've work to finish." Moira makes a shooing motion with her hands, and Belle knows the story is over.
But then, Moira calls Belle back and hugs her tight. "Don't say it," Lady Belle," she whispers. "Don't ever say his name. Whatever you do, my lady, don't you ever, ever call his name."