This is a non-priority fic, meaning I'm going to toss it into the ocean of and see if anyone takes a liking to it. If they do, I'll update it. If not, I'll probably take it down and revise at a later date. Plot will basically follow The Hobbit (more the film than the novel, forgive me, although the two aren't terribly different). Belle's hobbit name was determined through Chris Wetherell's hobbit name generator. Enjoy!
Chapter One: Not An Ordinary Day
Needless to say, today had not turned out as Poppy Maggot had expected. It is no ordinary day when seven dwarves and a wizard decide to turn up at one's home, barge inside, scrape their muddy boots everywhere and help themselves to the pantry. She'd tried to extract some explanation for their presence as the bearded fellows showed up in pairs; none provided any. They'd all assumed that the party, or meeting or whatever it was, had been a set and pre-determined thing. Well, if it had, nobody had bothered to tell Poppy about it.
But she could not find it in herself to drive them out with a broom or fireplace poker as was her right in the face of uninvited guests. So here she was, standing in the archway of her little dining room, once clean and quaint with doilies and a spotless paisley tablecloth. Everything had been thrown into disarray. All seven dwarves crowded around with plates of whatever morsels they managed to grab and wolfed them down most messily. They grunted and growled out numerous conversations about things Poppy only half-understood. Dwarf business, no doubt, something that she need not bother herself with. Yet did she not have a right to know what they wanted in the first place? Besides her food and roof for the evening, of course.
The person who should've explained it right off the bat sat outside the circle of hungry dwarves. He did not eat; he just nursed a flask he'd brought and watched the assembly with a distant, snickering expression. He was the very first person of the group Poppy saw today, though not the first one to invite himself in. That had been Bossy—an aptly named fellow who stomped in with hardly any word of thanks or warning and tossed his filthy boots across her floor and demanded to know if dinner was ready yet.
This other creature was not a dwarf. That much Poppy could say. Admittedly he wasn't much taller than a dwarf, which left her to question his race. He could simply have been a short man, except that did not explain the color and texture of his skin. It was, for lack of a better description, very lizardy, or like a smooth river rock that glitters when exposed directly to the sun. His flaky flesh gleamed with little speckles of light even in the dim confines of her dining room. Poppy realized she'd been studying his features for a little too long when large round eyes flitted her way, and the long, thin-lipped mouth bent into a smile that wrinkled the leathery skin of his face and exposed the upper row of stained teeth. Even though strands of curled ash-brown hair shielded his face a little, Poppy could read his expression as both amused and threatening. She diverted her eyes back to the dwarves. Now seemed as good a time as any to learn the nature of their visit.
"Ahem. If I may—" Poppy paused to accommodate the clatter of mugs and plates as the dwarves stopped mid bite or sip to give her their notice. "Yes, thank you. If I may, I wonder if you could tell me now why you're in my house."
"We still have another member of our party to wait for," remarked the lizardy man. His words folded around a manic, hard-edged giggle. "Patience, dearie!"
"I hope she'll make it in time," remarked an older, bespectacled dwarf. "What could be keeping her?"
"She was seeking help from friends further east," another of his kin explained in a gruff tone. "Waste of time, if you ask me. If they didn't bother helping us before, they're not going to help now."
"We can't give up hope yet," said a plumper dwarf whose disposition seemed the polar opposite of the previous one. His spirits were not quiet as high now as a few minutes ago, sadly. "Once they realize how serious we are, and how determined she is, they'll be compelled to help."
The black-bearded dwarf snorted. "Sure they will." He took a gulp from his goblet.
Yet another dwarf raised his mug. "Oh, miss, do you by chance have any … anymo … ah … ah-choo!"
Everyone ducked at the explosive sneeze. Everyone except the lizard man, who now pretended he had some serious business to conduct regarding his fingernails and flask. Poppy, playing the reluctant hostess, could not afford such a luxury. "I'll see what I can find," she murmured with dread. No doubt her stores of mead and wine were dry thanks to them. But a hostess she was, and Poppy would not let anyone dangle her rudeness over her head no matter how maddening the situation. She took only a few steps, however, before an excuse to dismiss the task befell her. There was a knock at the door.
"Ah!" announced the lizard man with delight. "The final member of our party!"
Poppy leaned back and caught sight of the man's hand as he flicked it. The front door to the hobbit hole instantly opened. She'd nearly forgotten: he was a wizard. Rumplestiltskin—that's the name he'd given. He'd appeared before her this morning while she sat outside enjoying a book, and informed her out of the blue that he was in search of someone interested in sharing in an adventure. Like any sensible hobbit, Poppy jumped up, ready to bolt up the steps at his words. His appearance did startle but didn't frighten her; what he said had a more unsettling effect. Hobbits couldn't abide adventures. They uprooted routine, not to mention disrupted mealtimes. She said as much and expected him to move on down the lane to bother someone else. Instead he surprised her further with undisguised displeasure.
"Well, well, well," he'd said with narrowed eyes, "you're certainly not the girl I remember. I remember a very different Poppy Maggot who couldn't stop looking toward the horizon and asking every chance she got what lay beyond it. What happened to her, I wonder."
The presumptuous words were enough to keep Poppy by her gate to converse with the wizard. She didn't recognize him. Only his name, once he gave it, summoned any recollection of a personage who matched his identity. Rumplestiltskin, also called the Dark One, had an infamous reputation throughout the realms. The Dealmaker. The Baby Trader. The Name Stealer. The Ensnarer.
She did, however, recall one good thing about him from her childhood. When he came to the Shire, traveling around like a vagabond, he'd made a deal with the people of Hobbiton whose children were celebrating the spring festival. One brave child (Poppy didn't recall who) had approached and asked him if he'd ever seen or traded in fireworks. For some reason, and to the stunned pleasure of all, Rumplestiltskin said he did and agreed to put on a fireworks display for the children if their parents accommodated him during his stay, providing comfort and hospitality without fail. Such was done, and Poppy could remember quite clearly what a wondrous festival day that had been. A little piece of the outside world came to the Shire that day, and though the Dark One had literally darkened their paths and doorsteps with his presence, his passing through had left a mild residue of good feeling in his wake.
With a wiggle of his spindle-thin fingers, the same Dark One opened Poppy's front door from the dining room and did no more. She approached the door without waiting for answers—there were none to be had, it seemed. She stopped short when a human woman, draped in a silvery cloak, pushed the door open, stepped over the threshold, and shut it behind her. Her hood came off to reveal a waterfall of hair as black as a clear, moonless night, skin as white and pure as newly fallen snow, and lips red like rubies. Her sky-blue eyes alighted on Poppy for a second before drifting around the foyer. "It seems I made it to the right place, after all," she said to somebody behind the hobbit.
Poppy turned and jumped to discover Rumplestiltskin standing very close to her. The wizard ignored her startled state and bowed to the woman. "Forgive me, your highness. I did not mean to confuse you with my directions. The mark was clear enough, I hope."
"Enough to get me here, I suppose," said the woman. She removed her cloak and hung it on the coat stand beside the door. Poppy blinked at the action. Rumplestiltskin had addressed this person as "your highness". Was she a princess? Certainly some relation to royalty, which her straight posture and grace suggested even without the title drop. But why did she not wait for Poppy to take her garment? Even the dwarves had expected her to wait on them while they dumped their boots and coats and weaponry around her home. It was another question to be left unanswered.
Fortunately, another was answered in its place. Rumplestiltskin stepped around her so he stood between the two ladies. "Miss Poppy Maggot," he said with unnecessary enthusiasm and a grand wave of his hand, "allow me to introduce the leader of our company: Snow White, princess of the northern kingdom of Loramaine."
"What was once Loramaine, to be exact," the beautiful woman clarified somberly. She eyed Poppy and angled her head. "So, this is the hobbit you spoke of." Further scrutiny did not soften Snow White's expression with assurance. Her chilly eyes closed in, but she managed a somewhat genuine smile. "I don't suppose you've ever used a sword before?"
With a quick glance at Rumplestiltskin, who looked just as interested in her reply, Poppy swallowed. "No … but I can wield a mean kitchen knife."
A short laugh burst out of the dark wizard. Snow White glared at him askance. "I thought at much. Well, I hope at least your burglar skills are more substantial." She marched past Poppy toward the dining room without another word.
"I—wha—burglar?" The words tangled on Poppy's tongue. She had no choice but to look to Rumplestiltskin for an explanation. Again, just as before, he simply smiled (though a little nervously, oddly enough) and led her back to the dining room with a hand on her shoulder. "All in good time, dearie. You'll want to hear this tale from start to finish."
In the midst of her dizzying confusion, Poppy allowed the Dark One to bring her back to the unusual company occupying her house. She resumed her place under the archway. Rumplestiltskin, rather than reclaim his chair in the corner as she expected, stood near the head of the table while Princess Snow White greeted her friends with hugs and hellos. Some warmth imbued the young woman's face in the presence of those she had not seen in a while. Poppy rested her head against the wall and watched. They must have travelled quite a ways—not just from the north, but all over. The dwarves wore pouches and doo-dads comprised of skins and metals found further south, from what few wares she'd seen sold by passing traders. Regardless what sense told her, Poppy's curiosity budded like a shy late-spring rose. It bloomed reluctantly, but once it started, there was no stopping it. She waited for the tale Rumplestiltskin had promised and all but forgot her dirty dishes and plundered storeroom. All these things would have to be attended to in the near future, but she could let them be for now.
"What news from the east?" asked one of the dwarves at last as Snow White, weariness catching up to her, took at seat next to where Rumplestiltskin stood.
The princess's smile faded at the question. Her face morphed into a tough shell of determination. "We're on our own, I'm afraid. King George declared it a pointless risk. He won't send his men out on a fool's errand."
"I told you it was a waste of time," grumbled the black-bearded dwarf. "The man has no honor, and after what happened to the prince—"
"Grumpy!" cut in the dwarf next to him, glaring through his spectacles and nudging his companion in the ribs.
"No, he's right." Snow White sighed with unexpected vulnerability. Poppy still sensed a wealth of strength in the woman's squared shoulders; the frank admission itself revealed a strange sort of courage. "We cannot expect the king to understand. He has his own people and lands to attend to. The losses he's suffered have made him fearful."
The company fell silent. A hundred unspoken thoughts echoed in the space. The absence of words left a hefty weight in the void. It piqued Poppy's interest all the more. She crossed her arms, which now prickled with goosebumps. The cracks and pops from the fire in the parlor grew louder and louder in the quiet. She could begin to imagine that she was hearing the snapping of bones instead of wood. She shuddered and rubbed her upper arms.
Like everyone else, Rumplestiltskin had become still. To no one's great surprise, he was the first to break the pensive tableau with a hand-wave. "But not you, my dear princess, nor your intrepid followers. You still intend to see this quest to its end, correct?"
Ice-blue eyes turned up to him. Red lips straightened in a harsh line. "Of course we are. I've seen the signs myself. Ravens and thrushes and hawks are returning to the Jewel Mountain. It was foretold that when the birds returned to Loramaine, its royal line would reclaim the kingdom and its treasure from the dragon."
"Dragon?" asked Poppy.
Heads and eyes swiveled toward her. "That's right," said Rumplestiltskin with an amused gleam in his eye. "Miss Maggot here does not know the story. Perhaps, your highness, you should start from the beginning."
Bossy wiped his crumb-covered mouth with his sleeve. "Does that mean she's going to be our burglar?"
"What? No!" cried Poppy. What was with this burglar business?
"Miss Maggot," rejoined Rumplestiltskin quickly, "must accept the terms of the arrangement. Once she understands the details of your mission, she will be more than happy to oblige."
"I have indicated no such thing!" This madness had to stop. Poppy wasn't about to be roped into something against her will. She glared at a grinning Rumplestiltskin before addressing Snow White and the dwarves. "I'm sorry, but there's been a misunderstanding. I did not even know you were coming here tonight. No one has told me anything about a quest or a dragon or anything."
"Then we'd better get you acquainted, sister," said Grumpy before Poppy could continue. "It's like this: about twenty years ago, when the princess was just a little tyke, the kingdom of Loramaine was made prosperous thanks to the mines of the Jewel Mountain—our mines, to be exact."
"Grumpy, let the princess tell it!" snapped the short-sighted dwarf.
Snow White bestowed a gentle smile. "It's all right, Doc. I don't mind. Go ahead."
Grumpy nodded appreciatively, then proceeded with eyes fastened on Poppy. "So, the kingdom of Loramaine was one wealthy realm thanks to us. King Marius, Snow White's grandfather, treated the dwarves with respect, unlike a lot of royals in this world. We lived in peace, and all seemed dandy. But then … well …"
The dwarf's telling started bold but now tapered off when he reached a detail that, Poppy realized, must have been an uncomfortable one. Rumplestiltskin picked it up without a moment's hesitation. "The dwarves had discovered a fruitful horde of diamonds deep in the earth, which King Marius treasured a little too well. A madness born of greed began to set in. Shortly after that, the king's son, Leopold, who had lost his wife just as Snow White came into the world, met a beautiful woman named Regina. He became infatuated with her when, by chance, she saved young Snow White's life. His marriage to her was taken as a sign of good fortune. The happiness of all the royal family seemed secure. Such was not the case, though." His huge eyes suddenly turned expectantly toward Snow White.
The princess raised her shoulders while inhaling. "It turned out that Regina was a dragon in disguise."
Poppy raised her eyebrows. "Was she really that horrid?"
Snow White twisted around and looked pointedly at her. "No, I mean a literal dragon. An enormous beast that flies and breathes fire. Once the kingdom's treasure was in her possession, she revealed her true form and drove everyone out."
"Many men and dwarves died," Grumpy resumed in a terse tone. "Those who survived fled the land, including the royal family. After that the dragon fortified herself inside the mountain so that no one could steal the gold and gems she stored there. Any time anyone has come into her domain, she's burned them to a crisp. She's too powerful to take down by force. Not unless the kingdom's allies had come to our aid. But no one did. Looks like nothing has changed."
A few minutes were required for the tale to sink in. Poppy blinked and leaned against the wall as she wrapped her mind around the terrible, sad story. It was a sorry thing to happen to anyone. But now they wanted to go back and face the dragon? What had changed? Or were they simply tired of waiting and wandering around?
"It doesn't matter," said Snow White suddenly, full of majestic fire. She rose to her feet. "I cannot think of anyone else I would rather have in my company. I don't need an army to face down Regina. I would trade all the armies in the world for a handful of trusted comrades. You lot have more to offer than any of King George's men: loyalty, courage, and a willing heart. What more can I ask for?"
"Maybe a few things," Rumplestiltskin interjected, giggling. "Such as a way into the mountain." His hand slipped inside his dragonhide coat and withdrew a large key. Poppy, despite herself, lit up with excitement. Keys always seized her interest.
The princess gasped and glowered. "Where did you get that?"
"Your father. He … left it in my possession until the appropriate time."
Snow White clenched her pearly teeth. "He traded it, didn't he? How could he? It's not yours to have!"
"Never fear, dearie! I was keeping it safe."
Giving an angry snort, she moved to take it. The Dark One snapped it out of her reach. "Ah! But first thing's first. Even with this key, there will be obstacles to getting inside."
"That's right," said Grumpy, fisting his hands on the table. "The dragon will burn us all to ash before we've taken seven steps through the main gate."
Doc scratched his beard. "But … but I seem to recall there was a secret entrance somewhere."
"That is correct!" Rumplestiltskin declared, as if the dwarf had answered a question as part of a game. "But the passage is hidden by a dwarf door. It looks exactly like the side of the mountain."
Although this fact sounded discouraging to Poppy's ears, the dwarves rallied at the notion that they had a way in beyond the dragon's knowledge. They chatted and smiled and seemed to begin plotting an approach strategy. Concern bubbled inside her, and Poppy couldn't arrest her tongue. "Wait a minute. How do we know Regina hasn't discovered this door?"
Rumplestiltskin aimed a crocodile smile at her. She wished she knew if he was being playfully menacing just to unnerve her, or if there was genuine danger there. "The door is too small for a dragon to use, and she's not familiar with dwarf magic."
Gulping down her fear, Poppy pressed the issue. "But she's a shape-shifter. Does she not leave the mountain from time to time in her human form?"
The Dark One tittered. "You might find this hard to believe, but dragons are exceptionally lazy beasts. They change their shapes as rarely as possible. And once a dragon has obtained its treasure, it likes nothing more than to bask in it. They can watch over the same horde of treasure for a hundred years."
"Then she may still be there," Poppy remarked.
"The birds are returning," insisted Snow White, turning on the hobbit with a burning glare. "It's been foretold! If we don't take the chance, someone else might lay hands on the treasure. I won't let that happen!"
"Calm yourself, princess," said Rumplestiltskin."Did I not agree to provide you with what you need to reach the mountain and deal with the dragon? And do I not always honor my agreements?" His nimble hand again went into his coat to withdraw a folded piece of paper. He opened for Snow White to examine. "Here is the map of Jewel Mountain. It details all the logistics."
Snow White snapped it out of the wizard's grasp to look at more closely. Her gaze roved over it while the dwarves strained to lean in and catch a glimpse. Not so with Rumplestiltskin. He turned back to Poppy. "As for you, Miss Maggot, you need only concern yourself with signing your contract."
The pretty hobbit quirked an eyebrow. "My contract?"
The Dark One widened his grin and flourished his scaly fingers. Out of a brief puff of purple smoke appeared a scroll. Rumplestiltskin held the top of it and let the rest drop to the floor to give her a good sense of its length. "Sign on the dotted line, and you will become the company's designated burglar."
"Is a burglar really necessary?" piped up Doc, standing up behind Grumpy. "I know you said we should have one since we lost Stealthy, but—"
"It was you who was so despondent over his loss," Rumplestiltskin reminded him. He laced his words with a mild but still cruel bite.
Grumpy flashed a black look at him. "That's because he was our brother."
The Dark One snickered again. "Ah, yes. What a shame he didn't live up to his name as well as he should've."
"Oh, yeah? And what about her? Do you have any experience in stealth and stealing, hobbit?"
"No," said Poppy, not at all remiss in declaring her incompetence. With any luck, the truth would convince the group to leave and let her be. "No, not at all. Never stole anything in my life."
"Hobbits are naturally inconspicuous," Rumplestiltskin jumped in. He spared a second to snap a glare at Poppy for trying to wiggle herself out of this venture. "Their size makes it easy for them to elude notice. Most beings have never even seen one. All this will give us an advantage. Besides, nine is a number of good fortune, and you need all the good fortune you can get."
Snow White glanced back at Poppy, looking as unconvinced as ever. Poppy shared her sentiment. The dwarves, however, exchanged thoughtful expressions that caused her guts to tighten. How could they take anything the wizard said seriously? Before she could answer her own question, she found her vision suddenly filled with Rumplestiltskin's lean, looming figure and the document in his hand. His dark eyes narrowed on her head. Poppy shuddered underneath them. She forced herself to look back up and hold his gaze as he spoke. He tried to keep his voice playful, but it continued to lower in pitch and even grated a little on a few choice consonants.
"You can't tell me, dearie, that you're truly content with this little life of yours. With only books to tell you what lies outside your beloved Shire. That's not the hobbit I met all those years ago—the one who dared to approach the Dark One and ask if he had any fireworks."
Poppy started with blinking eyes. That had been her? Why did she not remember? She must have been only a child, too little to understand who she was talking to and have any sense of the dangers of the outside world. Yet when Rumplestiltskin mentioned her books, images of knights in gleaming armor and dwarves and elves skirmishing over long-lost treasure mentally materialized from nowhere, rather like the scroll the wizard now forced into her hands. How often had she dreamed about those brave characters and traveling with them to lands unknown? More than she could count. Her heart had brimmed with longing and excitement when she read those tales and lived them out in her mind. It still did, in fact, when she found a moment to rest from her chores and snuggle into her favorite chair by the window closest to the garden, where the afternoon sunlight streamed in to illuminate the seductive pages.
Perhaps adventure still held some appeal to her. But such fantasies were not suitable for an adult hobbit. She had responsibilities now. Her old father, for instance, needed her company and care. She visited him every other day at his hole down the road, bringing baked treats and old maps. They used to pore over the maps when she was younger, and now they brought him what little comfort she could offer.
Ferdirand Maggot had not been the same since he lost his wife a few years ago. Grief weakened his will and his body. He could still take walks around his yard and even down to the market square when the mood seized him, but he preferred wallowing in the gloomy shadows of his home, alone except for his grown, unmarried daughter. Her state of unweddedness was the only other thing besides maps that roused his interest in the world. It was also something Poppy could stand to avoid her father over, as guilty as it made her feel. His pestering had escalated to full-blown intrusiveness. Just the other day he'd dropped less than subtle hints that Posco Boffin from Whitfurrows, a strapping, dull-witted lad she'd known since her youth, had been asking after her and would be a fine candidate for the role of husband.
If an adventure could get her out of enduring another conversation about how she needed a man in her life to care for (besides her father) and prevent uncouth talk among the rest of the town, this might be just what Poppy wanted, after all. Still, she received the document reluctantly from Rumplestiltskin's hand, then shuffled a little ways from the dining room to start reading the contract from the beginning. Her eye moved quickly over the text, comprehending the technical language without much difficulty. It was more crucial to focus on the particulars of the arrangements: that she would indeed receive a share of all profits (one one-ninth, to be exact, which seemed reasonable), what the expected length of her service period would be (between three and eighteen months – why such a long range, it didn't say, but considering what was at stake, it made sense to take into account unforeseen delays), and the expected risks and compensations for said risks.
She was about to read through that section when a nervous tingle ran down her spine. Her eyes flicked up to see Rumplestiltskin staring at her most intently. Poppy rubbed her face, assuming she'd smeared something on it that earned his ogling. "What is it?" she asked when his expression failed to change even after she made sure she didn't appear ridiculous.
"You're actually going to read all that?" inquired the wizard.
"Well … yes. Why wouldn't I? You didn't think I was just going to sign it without looking it over, did you?"
Rumplestiltskin wasn't the only one staring. Everyone gawked at her. In response to her question, the dwarves and the princess regarded one another with slightly embarrassed expressions.
Oh dear. Poppy widened her eyes at them. "Did … did you really … ?"
"Of course not!" Grumpy insisted a little too strongly.
The other dwarves said nothing. Snow White's air of authority and confidence deflated. She tried to summon it back with words. "We made it clear what our … that is, we mostly talked it out before … I mean … we skimmed it. I think."
"It was a long document," Doc weakly argued.
"Yeah," squeaked the youngest-looking dwarf in the purple cap, "with lots of confusing words."
Poppy winced for them. This was not promising. It made her all the more determined to read the rest. She spied Rumplestiltskin's amused but still slightly awed look before gluing her eyes to the paper again. She paced up and down the hall. Mumbled words fell from her mouth whenever she wasn't nibbling on her lip. Her eyes stumbled when she arrived at the section detailing the terms of funeral arrangements—all categorized according to form of death.
"Decapitation? Mutilation? Exposure? Laceration? Drowning?" Then her jaw dropped. She peered up at the group. "Incineration?"
"Well, yeah," said the cherry dwarf with the pointy beard. "The dragon, remember? But I hear the pain doesn't last all that long."
"That may be," said Grumpy with his usual dour flair, "but I bet it hurts pretty bad for those last few seconds of your life."
The room started to swim. Poppy's head buzzed in warning, and her knees started to wobble. Oh, no. No no no. She needed to get a grip. Poppy seized her hips and took deep, quick breaths, first through rounded lips, then through her nose. She bowed a few times to get the blood flowing back to her brain. All right. Yes, she'd be fine. As soon as she banished the image of her charred flesh falling off her bones and the unparalleled agony it would accompany, she'd be fine. Yes. Completely fine.
But how could she chase it away? There was no way—not when it sat on the page, written in black ink. A brutal, irrefutable fact. Not to mention the other unpleasant circumstances under which she might perish. The only comfort was that the expenses for her burial in most of these scenarios would be covered. The blood left her brain again.
Rumplestiltskin tilted his head. "You all right, dearie?"
The world closed in around her. The edges of her vision darkened. Smiling, Poppy looked up from the contract to him. "Nope." Then she fainted.
Half of the dwarves hopped to their feet. The other half leaned so far off their chairs they threatened to topple over. Swifter than Snow White would have guessed, Rumplestiltskin stood beside the unconscious hobbit, scooped her up in his arms and carried her to the parlor. The princess instinctively followed. In her own way she entertained some concern for Poppy's well-being; on the whole, however, she had another purpose in staying close to Rumplestiltskin. Despite what she and the dwarves had said regarding the contract they had entered with the dark wizard, Snow was not insensible to the creature's reputation. He was not someone to place one's trust in lightly, if at all. Only his habit of fulfilling his commitments convinced Snow that he was the man she needed on this quest. To her dismay, he was also the only sorcerer she encountered who'd been willing to help, and whom she was willing to let in on the history and treasure of her people's sad story.
She should not have been surprised when the Dark One started making demands and prodding her into doing things his way. Snow White had held her ground as much as possible. In this matter, too, she would not let him push her around. But her bafflement at his choice for their ninth company member (tenth, in fact) forestalled any attempt to directly confront him before Poppy Maggot dropped to the floor like a sack of flour from a winch. She also did not wish to make a scene in front of the dwarves; they did not seem too perturbed at the idea of a little she-hobbit as a traveling companion and "professional" burglar. Her pretty looks might have placed them in their good graces. Snow feared they had swayed Rumplestiltskin, too. She had no idea of their relationship prior to this night. Special attention was placed on the magician's movements as he navigated the hallway to the cozy room with its roaring hearth and book-lined walls, and then as he set Poppy on an overstuffed chair and propped her head up with a pillow. To Snow's relief, Rumplestiltskin did not hover over her. He sharply turned, apparently bent on going to the kitchen to fetch herbs or the like to revive her. As he passed, the princess snagged him by the crook of his elbow.
"You can't be serious," she whispered with more irritation than was helpful.
Gray-brown eyes, shining with gold flecks, slid toward her and peered through the curtain of his hair. His usual impish mirth was absent. "You asked me to find your burglar. I have chosen Miss Poppy Maggot. That should be enough for you."
"You think I'm an idiot? She has no experience. Gentlefolk like her won't last ten minutes on the road. She'll slow us down, if she's dense enough to agree to come along."
The scale-gilded mouth quirked into a half-grin. "Don't underestimate her, princess. There is more to her than you or anyone else knows … even herself."
Snow White's eyebrows jumped up at that. His faith in the hobbit astonished her, for he never expressed such faith in anyone else as far as she'd witnessed. The Dark One looked for weakness, not strength, in the souls he preyed on. Snow knew he'd sized up her weaknesses on their first meeting and probably had a good grasp of what she was willing to do for the sake of her mission and her friends. She didn't mind that. She had nothing to hide. The years of exile conditioned her to stay on her toes around even the most trustworthy people. It wasn't that she had secrets to keep from Rumplestiltskin; she just understood that he would do and say much to persuade her to his own ends. As long as she could perceive what he stood to gain in any given situation, Snow felt confident she could handle him and make good use of his protection and guidance on this venture. That was why Poppy Maggot—the fact he'd chosen someone so obviously unsuited for traversing the wild terrains of Middle-Earth—disturbed her so. It was the one thing she couldn't understand.
With a sigh, she leaned in toward Rumplestiltskin's ear. "Whatever it is you have planned for her, I can't guarantee her safety."
"I understand," he replied in an upbeat tone.
"And I won't be responsible for her fate."
Rumplestiltskin's answer did not come so quickly. Baited silence hung between them, though neither of them moved to look at the other. The sorcerer's head twitched enough to convince Snow that he was processing her words. Eventually the twitch was followed by a nod. "Of course," he said, low and soft.
Poppy awoke to the aroma of brewed tea and burning wood. Her fluttering eyes first met the friendly hearth of her parlor, then a tea tray with a pot and a pair of cups. Tempting as they were, Poppy needed to get her bearings before she reached out for them. She quickly remembered the dwarves and the princess and the infuriating lizard-man—no, wizard—who sat in her dining room and scarfed down her food. The house seemed quiet enough, but all hope of having dreamed it up or being freed from their company fled like woodland critters from an oncoming storm. The sparkle-skinned Rumplestiltskin haunted a corner of the room. As she regained her senses, he sauntered over to her and poured the tea into a waiting cup. "Feeling better, dearie?"
She swallowed and grimaced at how dry her throat tasted. "Are they still here?"
"Yes. And you'll be happy to know that they cleaned the dishes for you. A most accommodating lot, wouldn't you say?"
A grunted sigh escaped Poppy. No, it did not make her happy at all. Maybe she should have been grateful—dwarves were not exactly renowned for their manners or cleanliness. Instead she loathed to behold the state of her china. Indeed, as Rumeplstiltskin handed her a cup, her eyes danced over to its mate and spotted the chip in the rim. She bleated despairingly. After accepting the proffered tea with one hand, she snatched up the damaged porcelain piece.
"This is my grandmother's set! And they've chipped it." Poppy groaned. She turned the cup over to seek out further damage. "You can see it as plain as day!"
Rumplestiltskin lunged forward like an attacking cobra. He grabbed the head of the stuffed chair and leaned in close to Poppy's face. She sucked in a breath and pressed back into the comforting cushion of the seat. She tried not to sip his scent or his breath, the first of which had a sharp, sweet and briny odor, the second laced with alcohol. He snarled with crooked teeth at her and pulled his brows down in a frightening scowl.
"It's just a bloody cup! When did doilies and your grandmother's china become so important?" He pushed off the chair with a huff. "What happened to you? What happened to the little hobbit who stayed out in the woods looking for magic portals and dragon caves, and then tracked mud into the house without any fear of her parents' reprimands?"
"She grew up," said Poppy. Her hand meant to return the chipped cup to the tea tray, but instead it ended up giving it to Rumplestiltskin, who for some reason took it and held it without question. Choosing not to think on it, she cradled her own warm cup between her hands. "She realized that hobbits are not meant to have such adventures, even if … I'm a Maggot, Rumplestiltskin. My relatives and I have standing in the town. It shouldn't be important, but it is. It's important to my father, and goodness knows he has little else left."
The words fell like lead weights from her lips; lifeless, heavy, and hard to toss away. Some part of her was awake to the truth Rumplestiltskin had spoken, and observed for the first time in many years how empty this respectable life was. Comfortable, yes, but nonetheless hollow. She'd managed to quell her distaste for it to a mute nagging in the back of her mind. Now here was Rumplestiltskin, trying to ungag it and let it drive her mad with her heart's desire for freedom and adventure. All the things she'd dreamed of as a child crept back in. But she couldn't let them; it wasn't fair to her father, who lost two older daughters and a wife. She was the only close family he had left.
"The Maggots may be respectable now," pressed the Dark One in his usual playful lilt, "but don't forget how they came by their fortune."
Poppy pressed the back of her head into the chair. "How can I? That's precisely what we've been fighting against. Yes, my great-grandfather's inventions earned him a pretty penny, but he and his family were called odd for many years."
"They weren't the only ones," quipped the sorcerer. "What about your Took ancestors?"
Another loud groan. How did he even know so much about her family, Poppy wondered.
Flourishing a finger, Rumplestiltskin paced across the room, eyes never leaving Poppy. He put on his best fox-smile. "Did you know that your great-great-great-great-uncle was so big he could ride a grown horse? And at the Battle of Greenfield he charged headfirst, alone, to challenge the Goblin king. He sliced off the monster's head and knocked it down a rabbit hole. By doing so he won the battle single-handedly, and invented the game of golf at the same time."
The impish wizard's giggle nearly teased out a laugh from Poppy. It hurt her face to resist smiling. She clenched her fingers around her cup to keep her composure. "You just made that up, didn't you?"
Rumplestiltskin chuckled again. He poured some tea into the chipped cup still in his hand and seated himself across from her. After a quick sip, he stared at Poppy over the rim with beaming eyes. "All good stories need a memorable detail—and a little embellishment." He took another sip, then let his hands rest with the cup in his lap. His face suddenly turned calm and serious. "Do you not remember what you said to me the day I left? The last time I was here?"
Brown curls bounced around Poppy's shaking head. It was too long ago, in a happier, simpler part of her life blanketed with adult concerns. Yet his face wasn't completely unfamiliar to her. Little flashes of recollection came and went. Most especially when his expression softened, such as now.
He jutted his head forward. "You said you wanted to come with me. You wanted to see the world and have adventures. The fireworks only excited your curiosity. Do you know what I told you?"
Again, Poppy shook her head. She leaned forward, too, hoping he told the truth. That her asking him to take her with him was not just another whimsical yarn. It must be true. Why else would he be here? Why single her out and convince a princess and seven dwarves on a dangerous quest that she was vital to their success?
The sorcerer's voice quieted to almost a whisper, though it resonated in his chest enough that she could hear him without straining herself. "I made a promise. I promised to come back when the time was right and take you away from here." Rumplestiltskin bent his head down. His thumbs traced the rim of the cup, even over the jagged knick. His face had opened with frightening honesty up until that point. When he looked up again, his expression closed up to a sharp glare. "It seems I took too long."
So it seemed. Poppy lowered her gaze. Her heart sank like a rock tossed into a deep, dark lake. It jumped back up when glittering fingers touched her left hand. She glanced up to meet Rumplestiltskin's intense gaze. He crouched before her, still holding the chipped, tea-filled cup. "The world isn't in your books or maps, you know. It's out there." He gestured with his head toward the curtained window in the wall opposite the fireplace. Prompted, Poppy looked at it for a second. Words were usually not a problem for her when she needed them. How cruel of them to fail her now. Her chest filled up with pained breaths of regret and anxiety. She kept her hands where they were, not wishing to drive the wizard's touch away, and not wishing to encourage him. Even if she wanted to see the world, deep down in her bones, her courage had left her long ago. Or maybe she'd simply become more sensible and responsible. That didn't make letting go of those dreams easy, of course.
"If you come with us," said Rumplestiltskin, respecting her immobility by mirroring it, "you'll have enough tales to write a book of your own when you come back."
She lifted questioning eyebrows at him. "Can you promise that I will come back?"
The sorcerer opened his mouth in a casual manner. Then his muscles tensed. Something stopped him. Maybe something in the way Poppy stared back into his eyes, unflinching, hungry for the truth. Perhaps not. Whatever the reason, he abandoned his first tactic—the Dark One's flippant treatment of nearly everything—and opted for sincerity. The darkness in his eyes momentarily cleared to make way for this fleeting display of point-blank honesty.
"No. And even if you do, you won't be the same."
Poppy set down her untouched tea on the table next to her. "That's what I thought. I'm sorry, Rumplestiltskin, but you were right: you've come too late. You better ask someone else. Goodnight." She stood and gave a quick curtsy that cut off any retort the dark wizard might have had. Then she left the room. She skipped bidding the rest of her guests good evening and headed straight for the bedchamber, which unfortunately had no doors to separate it from the other rooms. Her body was too bereft of energy to change into nightclothes, anyway. Tired but not yet sleepy, Poppy perched on the bed and leaned against one of the posts. Her fingers caressed the comforting carvings in the wood while her mind sifted through the events and thoughts of the day.
A room away the dwarves filed into the parlor to warm themselves and supposedly talk. Only they didn't talk. After a few minutes of silence, Snow White began to sing in gentle tones. The song sounded as old as the wind, as powerful as the ocean, and as mournful as a nightingale's call. One by one the dwarves joined in on the ditty. It must have been a tune from their homeland. The more she listened, the more the images of a fallen kingdom, a gem-filled mountain, and all-consuming dragon-fire filled Poppy's brain. So did giant mountains encrusted with snow, steep ravines that rent the earth apart, and the idea of carrying a flashing sword instead of a basket of meat pies or roses.
Maybe it'd be nice to live that life, Poppy considered as she drifted off to sleep. Just once. Even if it came with a price.