The people danced. With war on the horizon, blood red and ever-threatening, the people danced and they sang, they spun and they weaved, they baked and they ate. Men talked of war and kept their weapons sharp. Those without weapons sharpened tools or sticks. No-one spoke of surrender, for to surrender was to die a merciless death. Babies were born. Elders passed from the world. The whole of life was lived in defiance of the looming thunderheads of war.
Belle had witnessed many weddings, both the sober blessings and the merry feasts. It had been inevitable that her turn would come; a suitor would be found, a dowry promised and a date set for the celebrations. With the threat of war, her father spoke quietly of duty and of necessity. Belle's hand in marriage for an alliance that might shelter their people from the worst that was to come. Belle's dowry and inheritance in return for the loyal service of a proven knight.
No-one spoke of love, not Belle and not her father. Sir Gaston spoke of it but in his stilted recitations Belle found neither flattery nor affection. For the love of her father and for her people she would do her duty, of course, but as the red haze of the war crept closer to their borders she wondered if any of them would even live to taste another wedding cup. The thought that she might never make her union with Sir Gaston was not among those that caused her grief.
Instead she feared for the people and fiercely admired their spirit and courage. She feared for her father who had grown sick with the responsibility of protecting them all from a war that was not and had never been theirs, but threatened nonetheless to sweep away their small fastness as it had so many others.
Too often they buried fallen sons and daughters of the town. Too often there was little enough brought home to bury, and so the final words were said instead over keepsakes or last letters when the bones had been lost to the ogres. It was said that ogres liked to gnaw the bones.
Belle wondered about the ogres, unable to imagine them or to find anyone among the returning fighters who would tell her more than she knew. They were like the tide, people said. Like the storm that sinks the ship and like the winter that smothers the pasture. One boy, scarred from ear to shoulder and drunk on the charitably given remedies, used the phrase 'like pissing in the wind' when he spoke of battle and was pulled away by comrades, scolding him for using such coarse words to their princess.
In truth, Belle was no princess. But it delighted the people to imagine themselves important enough to have a royal family of their own, just as it excited them that she would soon marry into a family one step away from the throne of the whole kingdom. Princess or not, she was a gentlewoman, sheltered to a fault, and it took her some minutes of quiet reflection to work out what the scarred warrior had meant. That they might as well try to stem the returning tide with their bare hands, she decided; that they might as well plead with the white winter storms for mercy on the seed-crops as battle the ogres.
Her responsibility was to marry, to live in comfort far from the battle lines and to bear strong heirs. For the first time she was glad of it and then, lying in darkness with the shutters closed tight against the unholy red stain on the stars, she was ashamed to be so protected by her station. That man's scars, his rank and ragged despair—they could be her own but for the mere accident of birth.
Gaston never spoke of the war in her presence. He had distinguished himself, it was said; he was a swordsman with few equals and skilled on horseback. They spoke barely at all, in fact, but Belle watched him with the other men. She listened, often unseen from some corner where she sat pretending to be absorbed with a book or her needlework, the business of the moment too urgent for her father to remember to dismiss her before it was dealt with.
It seemed to Belle that her future husband was not a wise man. Not a clever man. He was proud and impatient. Handsome enough, but he never smiled and so his good looks were cold. Even her poor father could still make a moment for merriment as the bad news came and came, but Gaston stood aloof from the trials of others and fingered his sword hilt constantly, as though he could not wait to rejoin the battle and be done with talking.
One evening, less than a moon before she was to marry Gaston, Belle stitched a petal in her sampler and listened to the bad news and the strategy. Her father leaned heavily on the great table where a map was spread in place of their old feasts and games. Advisors came and went, the men waited and worried and always there was more bad news as the front lines grew nearer. If they lost the road to the sea then their army would be trapped with their backs to the cliffs and the ogres could pick off the survivors at their leisure.
"Ten thousand skilled fighters could not keep them back," her father said, a new stark truth that Belle had not heard uttered before. Everyone knew it, but no-one said it. It froze her hands with her needle through the linen. It froze the council of war in a shocked silence that such words came from Sir Maurice of all men. Gaston scowled at nothing in particular, or perhaps at everything, but did not go quite so far as to direct the look at Belle's father.
"Ogres have been beaten back before," he declared.
"In songs! In stories!" Sir Maurice threw his hands wide and addressed the assembly. "And there's always some magic, or a great hero with a holy sword. Even in the songs the victory does not come through force of arms!"
The silence had a song of its own. Belle heard it as a counterpoint to the frightened pounding of her own blood; the shuffle of a boot, a cough, a snort from Gaston and the rasp of his gauntlet over the hilt of his sword.
"Then we need to find a hero." Belle started in her seat as all eyes searched her out; she had not meant to speak the thought aloud. Why had she? She flushed under the stares of the men yet resented their irritation. She was ignorant of the arts of war but she was not ignorant, and her words had been a call to action in worthy opposition to her father's moment of naked despair. She lowered the sampler into her lap and sought for her father's face among the staring men. "Papa, if a hero with a holy sword or some magic are what's needed then we must find one."
"There are no heroes," Gaston said, flat disapproval in his tone. He had not noticed her presence until she spoke. "Only men who fight and die."
"You're wrong." Belle stood, slowly, feeling for the first time something cooler than indifference towards her betrothed. He spoke to her with such scorn, and why? For speaking her mind in a room full of men?. For saying what needed to be said? "There are dragonslayers, great warriors."
"Not within these borders, Belle." After his momentary shock at her interruption, her father spoke gently. "And even such a man cannot defeat the ogres. There are just too many of them and too few of us."
"Magic, then." Belle looked at no-one but her father. "Magic can do anything."
The serious men who had been scowling or tutting at her intrusion fell silent. She could feel their stares.
"A council of war is no place for a lady," Gaston announced. He strode to her side, took her arm and escorted her to the door. It was a courteous eviction, swift and final. Belle found herself outside in the passage with the memory of his short, courtly bow angering her more than the slamming of the great doors right in her face.
He was right; a council of war was no place for a lady if she wasn't allowed even to speak! Only concern for her father had drawn her there, but why should she not be allowed to know how the battles progressed? The ogres would not spare her for being a lady if they came beating down the doors. The ogres would not spare anyone. Did Gaston imagine that they would share his misplaced chivalry?
Sighing, Belle mounted the winding stairs to her rooms. In the midst of a war that had seen taxes paid in cloth for bandages rather than in silver, she still had women to sew her an exquisite silk-satin wedding dress. Used to her solitary pursuits, to books and quiet walks and the businesslike running of the household staff, Belle found herself suddenly at the centre of a riot of pre-nuptial activity. It all felt so removed from herself—the hoarding of silk and the exquisite lace-making, and so ridiculous when the battle lines were so close. And none of it was… Well, none of it was her.
The garment hanging for her inspection this evening was a nightgown, the very last of her trousseau to be finished. She had refused all silken finery for the occasion of her wedding night, demanding instead a simple gown of cool cotton in which she could be comfortable. She saw no reason to paint herself with falsehoods once alone with her new husband and suspected, with the clench of anxiety that came upon her whenever her mind turned to married life, that Gaston would have no interest in her attire when he came to her bed. He looked at her so intensely when he thought she couldn't see him—a brooding and strange look that he certainly never gave her when her father was present. No, Gaston would find his new wife in modest cotton, and she would be comfortable while she waited for him.
The needlewomen had been busy with their art even so, embroidering chains of pale daisies at the collar and hem. It was exquisite work of the sort that made their province and their town wealthy before the wars came. Wealth meant little with their walls crumbling under attack, but the needlewomen were proud of their craft. So was Belle, and she could make room for a little beauty and frivolity in her rooms if it meant that the women's spirits were lifted.
She knelt in front of the ornate chest that housed her trousseau. Another just like it sat in the castle's strongroom, the coin and silverware of her dowry guarded by the men too badly maimed to return to the front lines. The chest before her held all that she would need for the duties of a wife, each piece sewn with the elaborate care that befit her station, yet none of it to the satisfaction of her future mother-in-law. The very first pieces had been sewn by her own mother, often with Belle upon her knee, while she spoke of princes, of the great romances, and of magic and of happily-ever-after.
Mama had died before the wars ever threatened their borders; before too many of the young ones volunteered to fight and never came home and long before clean white cloth put one in mind of bandages and shrouds instead of finely sewn objects of beauty. Mama would have wept for the fallen and the wounded, Belle thought, holding a handkerchief and recalling how her mother would sing as she stitched.
"You will sew and you will dance, little one," she'd said, when Belle asked why the great locked chest was at the foot of her bed, the pretty contents forbidden to her. "You'll need these things when you catch a fine husband. You will rock your babes and love your husband, to be his comfort and his strength."
When Belle had spoken excitedly of the adventures from her story books, of the world beyond their province that she would one day see for herself, and of adventures real or imagined, her mother had only smiled.
Remembering her with the softened sorrow of many years gone, Belle supposed that the smile had been a sad one.
The night soon came when the ogres breached the outer walls.
Only an advance party, her father said, clutching Belle tightly by the hand as if afraid to lose her in the chaos of the following dawn. Only a dozen ogres. The town could repair and refortify before the main assault. There was a little time yet.
The market square had become a gathering place, a hospital, and a mortuary all at once. The healers worked on the living, the priests spoke words over the dead. Belle stood behind her father as he spoke to the people, his voice tight with grief but carrying clear across the square so that everyone there could hear him.
"It has been decided in Council," he told them, "to send for one who can help us. The price of his protection may be all that we can afford and more. I may need to ask much of you all."
"Who can help us?" It was Dimitri the Blacksmith who spoke up. He had lost his arm in the very first battle and spoke now for the townspeople, a man they trusted to seek the best for everyone and to remain calm enough to see clearly. Even he sounded shaken today, and he kept his two youngest children close to him in the jostling crowd.
"We have sent for Rumpelstiltskin," her father answered. The gasps seemed to draw all the air out of the place. Mothers gathered their children closer, aghast. Dimitri's jaw dropped. "It is said that he never breaks a deal," Sir Maurice called over the rising whispers. "If we deal fairly with him then we have nothing to fear from him."
Belle had heard the name, the stories. Everyone had. Rumpelstiltskin was the monster with which nurses cautioned wayward children, the sorcerer who carried off babes in the night and soured the very ground upon which he trod. Belle knew that she had been the one to urge them to seek magical aid, but that? Him? She caught Sir Gaston's eye and for once they were in silent accord. This was no promise of salvation that Maurice brought to his people but the last, faint hope in utter desperation.
As if emboldened by her understanding, Gaston stepped forward to her father's side and faced the crowd with his fist tight on the hilt of his sword.
"He may not answer our summons. He may not accept our offer of payment. We must still be ready to fight when the ogres come in numbers. They will come soon."
Fear of something more immediately terrifying than the legendary Dark One returned the crowd to grave silence. Belle saw her father's half glance of disapproval at her betrothed; they'd come to reassure the people, to offer them the hope of rescue. Belle understood that, even if she doubted the wisdom of summoning such a one to their aid.
"We will be ready to fight," her father said, managing to sound as if he thought his future son had spoken wisely and true when, in truth, Belle suspected that he wished to cuff the boy. "Today we must repair the outer walls. Leave the houses as they are. If your home has a roof, give shelter to those who have none. Sleep tonight in the castle if you've nowhere else to go. We need our outer walls."
The crowd dispersed and Belle, too afraid to be left with nothing to do and the opportunity to reflect, caught up the huddled maidservants with a gesture and led them towards the makeshift encampment of the wounded and the dying. She was no healer, no nurse, but Dimitri's wife squeezed her hand in welcome, then showed her how to wash the used bandages with lye soap and salt so that the dried blood would come clean. The drying strips of cloth fluttered in the breeze like faded banners.
For the first time, no-one came to pull Belle back to her gentle pursuits safe within the castle walls. Nothing was safe within those walls, for fire and falling masonry had reached even that far.
For that one day even the nobles of the Council helped to repair the fortifications. Even Sir Maurice laboured with his hands, smiling grimly as he mixed mortar and carried it uncomplaining to the masons on the scaffolds. Even Gaston, proud Sir Gaston whose home was far away and safe yet, carried stone and returned to the castle as darkness fell with blisters on his palms and his stern face smeared with dust.
It was the first time and the last time that Belle thought she might learn to love him.