The road ahead of her was straight as could be. But to her it seemed to twist and turn unpredictably. Her mind seemed to be battling with itself. On the one hand, her logical side told her to run. To leave this place and get as far away as she could. But on the other hand, a side of her that she hadn't even known was alive until she went with him told her that she was making a terrible mistake. That she should return, or else she would regret it her entire life. The thoughts and voices swirled around in her mind leaving her in a state of limbo. Her future was uncertain, continue on the road she walked now or go back? Her decision changed every few seconds, and it kept her from running and from walking peacefully. Her pace was quickened, but not certain, and that was when she heard the sound of a horse behind her. Excitement rose in her chest and she turned, half expecting, half hoping that it was him coming after her-
But it wasn't, and her face fell, disappointed.
It was a caravan. Two guards rode ahead on horses while four more horses pulled a carriage along behind them. And there in the back, two more guards and two more horses. She had no idea who this was, but obviously it was someone important. Not to mention someone who liked black. Everything from the carriage, to the horses, to their riders were drapped in the color black. They didn't slow down as they approached so she quickly moved off to the side of the road to wait for them to pass so she could continue on to…where ever her feet took her, she supposed.
But suddenly the carriage stopped as it pulled up beside her. And the door opened to a wide-eyed woman, dressed in all black, the only color on her was the bit of red in her hair and the paleness of her skin. "Did my carriage splash you?" she asked, her eye brows raised, expecting an answer.
"Oh," the woman's eyes bothered her, it was like she had met her before but she couldn't even begin to guess where. So she avoided them, and glanced down at her dress and cloak, which were just as spotless as it had been when she left. "Oh, no!" she tried to smile, tried to be pleasant, "I'm fine." The strange woman smiled but it reminded her of the way a hawk might smile at a mouse it was planning on having for dinner. She didn't trust the woman. She didn't know why, but she didn't. So with a final smile and a small curtsy she walked on.
"You know I'm tired of riding," she looked back at the woman, fearing the next words that would come out of her mouth. "Let me stretch my legs and walk with you for a spell." She opened her mouth to say something but she found she had no words. She didn't particularly want company. But she supposed there was no harm. She'd known women like this and they didn't go through the forest with a carriage and escorts to walk for long periods of time. She waited as the woman climbed down and held her hand up to the carriage driver. After being offered an umbrella to keep the misty rain at bay they walked to the front of the caravan and led the way. They traveled slower than she had been before, but in silence which was just fine for her until the woman decided that she didn't want silence.
"You carry very little," the woman suddenly observed.
She shook her head, mourning the silence. "Don't want to be slowed down," she commented using as few words as possible and hoping that she would get the idea that she just wanted to be left alone. She picked up her pace, the woman falling behind slightly.
"Oh, you're running from someone," the woman chuckled to herself, and she glanced back at her trying to hide the fact that her heart had suddenly sped up. She wasn't running. She couldn't run when there was no one to chase after her. Besides she had no idea what she was doing, so it couldn't be running. "The question is master or lover?" She fought the urge to roll her eyes. The woman was making her uncomfortable, talking to her like she was an old friend instead of someone she'd met only minutes ago. No, not talking, gossiping. She turned away from her. She wasn't interested in pursuing this discussion. She preferred to keep her secrets close to her. If the woman wasn't here she would have smiled, was this what he had felt like when she asked him questions? "Oh!" the woman piqued, "master and lover." This time she did roll her eyes.
The woman knew nothing. She may not know what she and Rumpelstiltskin were but he was not her master, at least not any more. And lovers! The idea was preposterous! She felt something for him, but it certainly wasn't that…was it? She did enjoy talking to him. She liked being in the same room with him, sharing their meals, even in silence. He'd told her more than she believed he'd ever told anyone, and she felt…she wasn't sure what she felt. She felt like her heart had just stopped. Could it be more than like? Could it be something more than just comfort and friendship pulling her back to him? Could it have been more than the desire to be brave that pulled her to him in the first place?
She stopped dead. She didn't want to think about this right now, and if the woman couldn't understand that then she didn't need to speak with her. "I might take a rest," she told her pleasantly as possible, "You...you go on ahead," she suggested, gestureing to the road before her.
The woman watched her for a moment and before she could pull away from her she reached out and put an unwelcome arm around her. "So if I'm right," she forced her to turn and continue to walk down the road, "you love your employer, but your leaving him."
Love. Love was such a spectacular word. Was that what she felt for him? It was so different so unique from every other feeling that she'd ever experienced, she was sure of that. But did that mean it was the unidentified emotion racing through her now? She'd never felt nearly as excited to see Gaston as she'd felt when she saw Rumpelstiltskin. And though she loved her father it wasn't the same feeling. Hearing him tell her a story, even if it was only a couple of sentences was better than any book that she had ever read. The room he was in was the safest place in the world. The rose he offered to her had been the best gift she'd ever received in her life, second only to the library that he'd given her.
"I might love him," she admitted with a swallow, surprised that the words had come out of her mouth. Love was a spectacular word, but the feeling when she stood close to him, was spectacular. She smiled at the thought, she had no problem giving love. She had done it her entire life. Was it really so outlandish to believe that she could love him and he could love her back.
Her mind paused at an unpleasant realization. "I mean I could except…" she fought to find the words. He wouldn't love her back. That required trust, something that had been stolen from him a long time ago. He didn't have it to give. And though she had seen a change in him since she'd first arrived she knew that the change was contained to her alone. He was still the same man to the entire world. It appeared that he had left an impression on her, but she doubted that she could make one that deep on him. His heart, it was capable of love, she fully believed that, but she wasn't sure he did. There was something else planted in it, and she didn't think she was strong enough to wipe it out.
"Something evil has taken root in him," she said finally. It was in that moment that she realized that she hadn't thought of this for the first time today. She'd had these thoughts before. It was just the first time someone had given her the word for what she felt.
She did love him.
"Sounds like a curse to me," the woman said with a smile. She looked at the woman with interest. A curse? She'd never gotten him to tell her how he had come to be in his state after being human. She'd considered that he was cursed but not in the sense she was speaking of. She meant a spell gone wrong. Could it have been a curse? A real curse? What could be done about it then? She had no magical abilities. There was no way for her to help him, not that he would take it even if she offered. "And all curses can be broken," the woman informed her, as if sensing her thoughts. She eyed her suspiciously, eager to hear the answer. If there was anything she could do to free him of his curse she'd do it. She'd go anywhere for him, do anything! Her thoughts caught her off guard. To think she didn't even know how she felt for him before the carriage pulled up! Wasn't it obvious how completely devoted to him she was already? "A kiss born of true love would do it," she stilled, raising her eye brows in shock. If the woman wasn't pulling her along she would have stopped walking.
A kiss?! No, not just any kiss. True love's kiss. She was only ready to admit a few moments ago that she loved him, but...was it more than that? True love, the most powerful magic in the world. Yes, she'd heard him say that once or twice. Was the connection between them that powerful? She didn't even need to think, she knew the answer. Of course it was that strong. How else would a caretaker like her have been able to effect him in the way that she had over the last few months? How could she feel so strongly for him and believe in him after all she'd seen him do? The realization hit her like a wave beating a rock on the shore, wearing her thin until she knew exactly what had happened between them. She didn't just like him, she loved him, and it wasn't just any kind of love, it was true love. She was in love with Rumpelstiltskin! The awkwardness they'd shared, the connection, his softened heart, she had sensed that the answer was simple and she was right! All this time, they hadn't just been sharing the same space...they'd been falling in love with one another. She knew that now, but did he? Is that why he sent her away? Could her presence have scared him that much?
"Ah, child no!" she woman laughed continuing to pull her along. "I would never suggest a young woman to kiss a man who held her captive," she said, misunderstanding her silence and shock. "What kind of message is that?" she heard her mutter to herself.
"Right..." she muttered agreeing with her. It was absurd. So why was she thinking about actually doing it? What would it be like to actually kiss him? To touch him like that! To be that close or cure the man of the monster within? She didn't even know how he felt about her.
"Besides, if he loves you," the woman continued in her gossip tone, "he would have let you go..." She stared ahead of her, her eyes gone wide as she thought about their last encounter. "And if he doesn't love you well then, the kiss won't even work," she said with certainty.
"But..." so many thoughts were running around in her head, she couldn't keep up with them and she just needed to stop for a moment. "But he did let me go," she said pulling away and looking at the woman. Was that all? Was that the reason he'd let her go? Not for payback or because he was upset with her but out of guilt? Because he loved her? Because he wanted her to come back to him not as a slave or captive, but as a free woman?
"Yes, but no kiss happened..." Of course not she'd been too dazed and shocked at the time to kiss him! She hadn't even known she'd loved him! But now...now she did. Now she knew. Leaving was a mistake. A terrible mistake! She had to go back to him. Now! She had to see him, if she didn't, she just knew that she would spend the rest of her life wondering…wondering if someone who made her feel the way that he did would ever show up. Finding another man wasn't even an acceptable possibility in her mind any more. It was him! She knew it was! People waited lifetimes for true love, she couldn't give it up! Her mother had died so she'd have a chance at life, to be happy! He was that chance, but could she be his?
"And a kiss" she asked desperately, needing to know, to be certain. "A kiss is enough?" It seemed too simple, "he'd be a man again?"
The woman leaned forward with a smile. "An ordinary man," she whispered. "True loves kiss," she said slowly, "will break any curse." It was the answer to everything. She smiled, she could do this. She could rescue him!
From the side one of the men in black came up to the woman. "Well," she said suddenly perky, "it seems I need to be on my way. Enjoy your journey, wherever it may take you." She turned back to her carriage the guard escorting her the entire way. But before she got in she turned back to her, "I do hope we'll see each other again someday," she said with that same greasy smile. But she couldn't focus on that now, not after what she had told her, not with the feelings boiling inside her.
The carriage passed her by leaving her alone on the long road. Only now the road no longer looked unpredictable. She knew where it would lead her. It would take her back to him. She smiled and glanced down at the basket she had forgotten about in her hand. Not yet, first she had an errand to make.