Everyone in Anglia knew the story of the time their king had called Rumpelstiltskin and struck a deal, a deal which ended in tragedy with little reward. For years afterward, mothers and nurses terrified their children with the tale, warning them that if they did not do their chores or eat their beans or brush down their horses, that Rumpelstiltskin would come for them too, just as he had come for the queen and the goat shepherd’s boy. Well, he’d taken the goat shepherd’s boy with him, a tiny bundle wrapped in sackcloth, and left the queen dead, swaddled in satin sheets that were damp and red with blood.
A baby boy--any baby boy in all of Anglia will do--and in exchange I shall save your oh-so-precious heir.
The king searched the kingdom for a suitable boy, newly born, one not even given a name yet. His child, his only child, was suffocating inside of his dying queen. The midwives refused to tell him that both lives were hopeless, but the king knew better, knew the midwives were afraid for their own lives, too, of punishment for their failure.
The shepherd’s wife had two boys to remember her dead husband by, and they were squalling and strong, and she loved her queen even more than her king. So when Ruth stood among her goats in the fields, one boy slung on her back and the other held out as offering to the Dark One himself, the deal was struck.
And the child slid out of the queen’s womb with ease, that precious heir. It took the rest of the queen with it though, as all the blood came too--so much blood, unnaturally so, the midwives whispered later.
Rumpelstiltskin, so the story goes, giggled while he watched the last bit of life leave the queen, and doubled-over in full-blown laughter when he saw the king’s face contort into rage at the first glimpse of what he had acquired.
As promised, the heir was alive--alive and useless, a baby girl.
Nineteen years later, Princess Belle marched into the entrance chamber, helmet under her arm and a sword that was far too large for her petite frame gripped hard in her hand, while her own smaller sword remained strapped at her side. In front of the empty throne sat a massive table of splintered oak. A few of the men who sat around it had graying beards and deepening wrinkles, and the other men, the young ones, had their arms in slings, or no arms at all.
The price of war, Belle reminded herself.
At the head of the table sat the only whole, hale, young man, with black hair and a matching beard that was only beginning to grow in. Belle went right to his side, but when Gaston stood and opened his arms for his armor-clad warrior woman, she knelt on the dirty tile instead, held the sword up to him in both hands. Her helmet clattered to the floor, drowning out the collective gasp from the men, who thought they had seen all plights that war had to offer. This was an unexpected loss.
“Cousin,” she began, and inhaled deeply. When the pricking behind her eyes finally halted, Belle looked up at him, focusing in particular on his forehead, and said, “The king is dead. Long live the king.”
“Long live the king.” An echoed murmur throughout the room.
The words were out, and Belle allowed herself to take another breath, and to meet Gaston’s eyes. They were brown and stricken with fear. His jaw hung open, lips grasping for whatever words were expected of him.
Take the king’s sword, she mouthed.
His large, soft hands looked unfamiliar, and somehow wrong upon the hilt of what had been her father’s sword. It was simple steel, worn down in the various places where generations of kings had held it for hundreds of years. Emeralds had been inlaid upon it, decades ago, but Belle’s father’s father had removed them in disgust, sold them to a traveling merchant to buy his men better armor.
A woman cannot wield the king’s blade, her father had told her as a child, when he caught her lugging its weight around the castle. But he had given her a sword of her own, and one for every year after that, to accommodate her ever-growing size and strength.
So Belle chose to admire Gaston’s hands around the hilt of her father’s sword, noted how well they fit in comparison to hers. “May you slay well our enemies and protect our kingdom.” The words said to every king, once handed his sword. The words said your enemies, your kingdom, according to tradition, but Belle decided that for her cousin and betrothed, our was rather more suitable.
Belle stood up, took the chair to Gaston’s right, the chair always left vacant in her absence, and he sank beside her on shaking legs, sword cradled in his lap. Hair sprung from her simple braid and hung in Belle’s face, and when she pushed it back with a mailed fist, a trail of blood was left across her forehead. She realized the eyes of the men at the table, her father’s--no, Gaston’s advisors--were on her, and not their new king.
“The ogres lost three to every one of our men. I daresay the tide is turning in our little war,” she said.
Across from Belle sat Sir Breven, her father’s oldest friend and advisor. “And the king?” he tried gently. His expression was the softest, kindest Belle had ever seen it; usually he wore an angry scowl.
“Fell at the hands of the ogres,” she said, with a small, sad shrug. “I burned his body upon the field, after the battle, as per custom. Dispensed his armor to the men who kept his body safe from ogre scavengers. They will treasure it always.”
“It is custom for the new king to burn the body of the old,” Sir Cleon said. He was one of the younger men, his hand chopped off at the wrist a year before and relegated to council member for his political ambition.
Gaston finally spoke. “Belle is his daughter. Her actions were entirely appropriate.” And the other man bowed his head in deference. Gaston set a hand on his cousin’s knee. “And the survivors?”
“I sent them home to be with their families. We shall bestow the sword more formally sometime in the near future, once the grieving has slowed.”
“Will they accept a king who has not yet led them in battle?” Sir Cleon again.
Belle felt Gaston’s hand tighten around her knee, and opened her mouth to respond, but Breven intervened first. “King Gaston has not yet led a battle because he was the only heir. None of us were willing to risk him by putting him up against the ogres. The old king least of all.”
“He will do battle, and we shall celebrate his victory with his formal bestowal, of course,” Belle decided. “With myself at his side, during the battle, naturally.”
“I do not wish to endanger my queen,” Gaston said, tone urgent, but nearly all of the men at the table immediately dismissed him with a shake of their heads.
“I am not your queen yet, cousin.” But she softened the blow of her words by removing one of her steel gloves and caressing Gaston’s hand.
“Ah,” said Brevan. “That is something that should soon be rectified.” He turned to Gaston. “Your marriage to the king’s daughter would truly seal your claim.”
“He’s my father’s nephew. Is that not enough?” Belle asked, voice rising.
The advisors, old and young, gave each other uneasy glances, while Belle and Gaston just looked at each other, eyebrows raised.
“You’ve blood on your face,” he told her.
“That’s not surprising.”
“Are you all right?”
“Your concern is touching, but right now we’ve more important matters to attend to.” As an afterthought, she added, “Your Grace.”
Sir Cleon cleared his throat. Whatever the council had been silently arguing, they had come to a consensus. “There are concerns that, without an imminent marriage, there are those who will try to put the princess upon the throne, in your place.” He nodded at Gaston.
Belle stood up. “Like you?” She began to pace around the table, her armor clanking with every step, while her sword swung at her side. “Does every man in Anglia wish to set me up as their puppet queen and rule for the unfit woman?” She could hear her own exhaustion and suddenly became conscious of the soreness of her limbs and mind. She sighed. “No. I shall marry Gaston and support his claim as the rightful heir.” Her hand found its way upon her cousin’s shoulder, and this time it was her mailed fist.
Brevan snorted. “As if any of that surprises us. Do you then, princess, give us permission to begin planning your wedding?”
Her glare was enough to inspire terror into ogre generals, but not this man who’d taught her how to properly hold a sword. She grit her teeth. “Yes. I suppose I do.”
He smiled, wide and genuine despite his princess’s obvious anger. “Good. We shall have it after the sword-bestowal ceremony. Should be a decent celebration, pick up the people’s morale.”
The rest of the council grumbled their assent.
“Well, if you’re all happy with how the day has been settled, I shall take my leave of you.” Belle picked her helmet up, brushed off imaginary dust that had not had time to settle. “Gaston?” she called, as she started from the room, up the winding staircase in the corner.
And he followed Belle from the room, nearly nipping at her heels like an obedient hound. No one had been able to prevent the princess from being unchaperoned and alone with men before, and they certainly were not going to prevent her now.
Belle had the bedroom of a soldier, not a princess. A narrow mattress upon a rickety wooden frame sat in one corner of her chamber, and a tiny wardrobe in the other. The stone walls were bare of any decorations, and the only light provided by a small slit, fashioned for shooting arrows from while avoiding the enemy’s arrows oneself. A wooden tub was a new addition, filled to the brim with water. She eyed the tub longingly, began to unstrap and strip off her armor.
Without having to be asked, Gaston averted his eyes and turned to face the door. “Are you all right?” he asked again. “Surely you need time to grieve?”
“A prince of Anglia has no time for grief, surely you know that. Battles to be fought, always. And apparently a wedding,” Belle said, as she shimmied out of her steel leggings.
“Do you dread it as much as you seem to?”
“I am doing it for the sake of the realm, cousin. As are you, there’s no pretending that.” She put one leg into the water, and then another. Her eyes squinted and her nose wrinkled as she slowly lowered herself into the tub. “God’s blood. Nothing worse than a lukewarm bath, is there?”
Gaston took this as his cue to turn back around to face his betrothed. Only her head and shoulders were visible above the tall bathtub. “I like you most when you’re like this.”
“Like what? Naked and refusing to mourn my father?” Belle scoffed, attempting to untangle her braid. The grime and blood from her body rose to the top of the water, turning its clear depths a murky brown.
The new king rolled his eyes. “No. Not like that. Not like this, either. I like when you’re just a silly girl complaining over her bath. Not hard and bloodied and forever with your haunches raised and teeth bared, ready for battle.”
“You should marry a real woman then, not me.”
“Do you so wish you were a man?” Gaston asked her, though he already knew the answer.
“Every day.” For a moment, Belle disappeared underwater. When she came up, the blood had washed away from her face and her chestnut hair was wet and streaming. “Now more than ever. But I suppose we shall rule well together, shall we not, your Grace?”
Now it was Gaston’s turn to pace, and he did so, back and forth across Belle’s small room, the wooden floor creaking underneath him. “Not if I die in my very first battle.” He put his face in his hand. “King of Anglia, and I am still a green boy of eighteen.”
“Not your fault. My father’s, compensating for failing to father a son of his own. You know that.” A hint of sympathy tinged her voice. “I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”
He raised an eyebrow. “For the sake of the kingdom?”
“Always for the sake of the kingdom.” Belle vanished beneath the water again, and when she did not immediately reappear, Gaston knew she wanted to be alone at last.