She still isn’t sure if it’s spelled Rumpelstiltskin, or Rumplestiltskin. She’s not sure the magic will work if she gets it wrong.
If it comes down to it, she can’t afford to get it wrong. Her people can’t afford for her to get it wrong. Because, if it comes down to it, no one but he will be able to save them from the slaughter.
Had her father allowed her to study magic properly in her youth, under the apprenticeship of a sorcerer or magician, or even just the castle healer, she might now have the skill to send the Dark One a message without needing to write his name.
Belle sighs heavily as she jots down notes from a magic book, about how to properly cast a circle and harness the magic one summons. She prays to the gods every night that she won’t have to use what she learns, that one day, when she is an old woman, she will look back on her preparations and think herself silly for worrying so. Belle knows the stories, knows the danger. She does not want to summon the Dark One. She does not want to subject herself and her loved ones to one of his hellish deals, force someone to sell their souls or their children or their happiness to buy her people’s safety. But Belle is a woman who values practicality and preparedness. Better to be ready to bargain with the devil than to have no one to turn to when all hell breaks loose.
A sharp knock at the door startles her, and she quickly shoves the spellbook and parchments into her desk drawer. When they are out of sight, she answers. “Yes? Come in.”
A servant enters and curtseys before speaking. “My Lady, your father wishes to speak with you in his work room.”
Belle glances out the window in confusion. It is the middle of the afternoon. He is always deep in the middle of some matter or another at this time of day, and never likes to be disturbed. “Why? What is it about?”
“He didn’t say, My Lady, he only asked that you come straight away.”
“Of course. Thank you.” Belle nods, and the servant bows her head as she slips out the door.
As she wipes a few droplets of ink from her fingers, she tries to tell herself not to worry, that there’s no point to it until she knows what is going on. She then takes a deep, steadying breath, and heads off to the King’s work rooms.
Elsewhere in the world, in another kingdom or country, her father would only be a Duke or a Count, and they would be made to answer to higher authorities and royals than themselves. But their lands are small, and isolated, a few small villages on the coast of the Endless Ocean. Their nearest neighbors are another small kingdom, a day away by ship, to the west on the coast. Beyond that, the nearest kingdom is ten days away by sea when the winds are fair. By land, traveling to any other kingdom takes no less than three weeks, and is impossible in the heart of winter.
Her people are isolated here. They are alone, their numbers small, and the mountains are their only real defenses. There are no allies that can come to their aid in a crisis. It is little wonder the ogres see them as an easy target.
When she reaches her father’s workroom, she knocks and lets herself in. Worry fills her stomach, and his weary half-smile only makes it worse. “Papa, what is this about?” she demands immediately, before she even closes the door. “Has something happened? Something you haven’t told the rest of the council?”
His smile widens into something more genuine he shakes his head. “No my girl, nothing like that. Nothing has happened.”
“Then what is it?”
“Come sit down, my girl.” He pats the spot next to him on the sofa by the window. Belle tries to still the trembling in her hands, let the tension ease from her shoulders, but she is still full of worry as she sits down. “I’ve been thinking a great deal about the future and what will happen when I’m gone and you become queen –”
“Papa, don’t talk like that!” She grabs his hand, and squeezes too tightly. He just smiles – that same tired, unhappy smile – and pats her hands soothingly.
“It’s all right, darling, I don’t plan on leaving you any time soon.” He sighs and squeezes her hands back. “But eventually, I will be gone, and you will have to rule our people in my place. You will have to lead them, and guide them, and give them hope and strength through these difficult times. And I have great faith in your ability to do so.”
“…But?” she asks, pressing warily.
“But, they will need a sense of stability as much as anything else. They will need a stable ruling family with a clear line of succession. A battle over birthright in the middle of a war could be devastating.” Belle’s stomach twists into a knot as he speaks. “You must have a husband, Belle. Someone to rule beside you.”
Her heart drops when he says it. She doesn’t know what she was expecting him to say. But when she walked into this room a few minutes ago, she certainly was not expecting this. He must see the turmoil on her face, because he pats her hand again. He sighs.
“I know you wanted to marry for love, and in your own time. But nobility and leadership is a duty that sometimes requires us to make sacrifices, and do things we would rather not, for the good of those we lead.”
“Yes, I understand.” She always wanted to serve her people, to find ways to make life in this little corner of the world better than it was before. She had rather hoped to do so by traveling to far-off lands and forging alliances and trade agreements with other kingdoms. But she learned long ago that life does not always go as planned. She knows she can’t always control where life takes her, only what she does when she gets there.
She pulls her hands away from his and smoothes her skirt as she sits taller. She takes a deep controlled breath, and resolves to make the best of it, and take these changes with all the grace of a princess.
“Who exactly did you have in mind for my husband?”
“I’ve spoken with Sir Gaston –”
“Gaston?” Then again, there are some atrocities even a princess cannot take with perfect grace.
“Now, now, I know you don’t find him terribly pleasant. But he’s a fine soldier and he has the makings of a strong leader. His duchy has a strong army, and with them we’ll be much better equipped to keep the ogres at bay. And he’ll make a good husband to you, I think. He’ll take good care of you.”
Belle stares down at her hands. Her perfect posture is gone, and instead she is slumped in resignation.
“I don’t want to be taken care of,” she murmurs, barely loud enough to hear.
“I know you don’t.”
She pushes away the sadness and clings to the anger instead, only because it gives her more strength. “He’s an archaic oaf. He thinks women have no brains in their heads. He’ll probably die of shock the moment he sees me in the war room.”
Her father smiles, and it’s something genuine and proud this time.
“Well, you’ll just have to put him in his place, then, won’t you?” He puts a hand on her shoulder. “Make no mistake Belle – you will be the leader of these lands. Gaston will rule beside you, but he is your consort, not vice versa. Your say is final.”
It’s something, at least, much more than she could have expected in so many other kingdoms. She can’t imagine all of her people will take kindly to her wielding such power, let alone Gaston. But it will be hers nonetheless, and she is grateful. It was a miracle her father gave her a seat on the High Council in the first place, and that was only after a great deal of persuasion and proof that she had the knowledge and skill to hold a position of true leadership. Her father is an old-fashioned sort of man, like most of the rest. But he is kind, and reasonable, and over the years Belle has found that his mind can be opened by enough gentle prodding and evidence. It is a great deal better than nothing, and it seems it was worth all of her effort.
“I know this isn’t the life you wanted, Belle. And I’m sorry for that. But… perhaps you’ll still be able to find happiness with it, in time.”
“It’s not your fault.” What little anger she still feels is not quite enough to keep her strong right now. She’ll find her strength again, eventually, but for now crawl into her bed and stay there forever.
“I told him I would discuss it with you, but that he should ask you personally. I thought at the very least you would want to answer for yourself.”
“Thank you, Papa.” She leans into him and curls against his side, like she did when she was a small child.
“You’re so brave, my girl. You’ll make a fine queen.” He kisses the top of her head, and hugs her tight.
Gaston asks for her hand like a perfect gentleman, down on one knee, and Belle accepts for herself, with a smile that is as forced as it is pleasant.
The preparations move quickly, as there is little reason to draw them out, and little time to waste in the midst of a war. The engagement celebration comes on the third afternoon, with plans for the wedding to follow in three week’s time.
It seems as though nearly the whole of her kingdom attends the celebration, from the royals to the shepherds and farmers. Even though the food and finery given that night is a bit sparse and plain – another casualty of war – and the banquet hall is so packed that many people end up standing around the edges of the room, everyone is smiling. It has been a very, very long time since she has seen so many genuinely happy faces. Even though Belle is miserable and resigned on the inside, she is glad that, if nothing else, she can give her people a chance to enjoy life again in the midst of so much death and fear. Gods know they need it.
So she stands in front of them all, feeling so tiny and bare in her mother’s poufy golden ball gown. She smiles and holds Gaston’s hand, and lets him kiss her in front of everyone. She sits by and grins as he tells her how happy he is to have her as his little wife, and resists the urge to give him a black eye for actually having the nerve to call her that. She excuses herself and slips away just as he starts in on the hunting dogs and six or seven strapping young boys they’ll have.
She makes her way over to one of the tall windows off on the other side of the room, the ones that look out across the East Mountains. She sighs and sips her wine, staring out at the red-orange sky on the horizon and the way it tints the green of the mountains. There was a time, as a little girl, when the sky only turned that color at sunset. She has forgotten what a pure, pristine blue sky looks like. It is only the hope of seeing such a sky again that makes her do this, that makes her put up with a bastard like Gaston for a fiancé and soon husband and – Gods help her – father for her children, and the promise of a life she never wanted. She does it for herself, and her people, and the children she’ll adore in spite of their father, for the hope that someday they will be able to look out to the sky and see only blue once again.
Belle hears her name over the din of chattering voices in the room, and turns to find Gaston waving her back over. She nods, and turns back to the window to hide her grimace. Sighing, she downs the last of her wine in one long drink. Just for good measure, of course.
When she lowers her glass and looks to the mountains one last time, she first thinks she must have had a bit more to drink than she realized. It isn’t until the object barreling through the sky comes closer and closer, looms larger and larger above them that she realizes the hell that is about to rain down across her home.
The massive boulder hits the east wall surrounding the palace, shattering it and taking a guard tower out with it. The whole castle shakes with the force of it, and she sees two more boulders flying through the air just as guards pull her away from the window. Amidst chaos and screams, the guards usher her through the crowd, and soon she finds herself huddled with her father, Gaston, and many others in the dungeons buried deep beneath the castle. She thinks they must be in the dark, cramped space forever, but when the guards come and tell them it is safe enough to leave the dungeons, the sun has not yet set.
She knows this because there is a gaping hole in the palace wall, and she can see the sun still hovering over the ocean horizon.
When the commanders come to tell her father what has happened, she hears them as though through a fog. Only part of her mind registers the words, as they tell him that a small group of ogres attacked from close range but were subdued, that the castle and defense walls have sustained immense damage, that there are dozens confirmed dead, and the number will no doubt double by morning.
All hell has broken loose around them. And so, without a word to her father, or waiting for guards to escort her, Belle sets off to bargain with the devil.
Belle’s bedchamber is undamaged by the attack, but paintings have fallen from the walls and books have fallen from shelves from the tremors. Through her windows, she can see smoke rising up from the wreckage outside.
She doesn’t waste a moment. She pulls the spellbook and her notes from her desk drawer, and fetches chalk, matches and an unused candle from the cabinet. She sets them all down in the middle of the room, where he has plenty of space. With the chalk, she draws a circle on the floor around herself and her things, just big enough to encompass her skirt when she kneels down. She breathes deeply, in and out, and wills herself to be calm and let the fear leave her mind.
When she can focus again, when the fog in her mind has cleared enough, she opens the book, sets her handwritten notes beside it, and lights the candle. She takes the chalk again, and writes quick, neat letters across the floor – R-u-m-p
She pauses, tries to think, sounding it out in her head for the hundredth time. Ultimately, she follows her instinct, and writes the name Rumpelstiltskin across the floor.
Every book of magic she read has told her the same thing: magic is all around them, and to use it one need only the will to harness and command it. So, with all the force and finality of a queen, Belle takes a deep breath, and does precisely that.
“I command these powers to carry this message to the sorcerer Rumpelstiltskin: My people are dying. We are under attack from ogres and have been for many years. We cannot suffer any more of this devastation or we will be doomed. In exchange for your protection, Rumpelstiltskin, I offer you all the gold this kingdom has to spare. My people are desperate and dying, and your help is our only hope for salvation.” With a sure hand, she swipes her palm across the chalk name, leaving a smudge in her wake and sending up a small cloud of white dust. “I command this magic to carry this message swiftly to Rumpelstiltskin, and in equal haste bring me his reply.”
Belle closes her eyes and focuses as intently as she can, willing the magic to carry her words, willing him to hear them. After several minutes, she opens her eyes and looks around the room, searching for any sign, anything different. There is nothing.
She tries not to let her heart sink, tries not to let in the fear that she did something wrong, that it didn’t work, that she doesn’t have the skill it takes to harness magic. But as she wipes away the chalk circle, she cannot stem the tide of dread that fills her.
Belle rises to her feet, holding up the candle in the darkened room. When she lifts her eyes, she gasps and her heart nearly stops at the apparition before her, a man in dragon leathers with sickly grey skin, his eyes dark and staring at her with terrifying intensity. She gasps and jumps back, dropping the candle to the floor.
In a blink, as quickly as it came, the apparition disappears, and she is alone again in the dark room.
She barely has time to realize that she actually used magic successfully before she gathers up her book and notes and races out of the room.
The war room, high up in the east tower, is missing part of its roof. Debris has been pushed off towards the walls and out of the way. Her father, the High Council, Gaston, knights and guards all stand around the table speaking quickly and moving figurines across the map.
“We don’t have the capacity to stop them if they’ve gotten this far,” Gaston says, as though it’s his army to command, his people whose lives are at stake. As if the rest of them do not know what they are up against. “We have to find some way to hold them off.”
Belle speaks loudly, letting her voice carry over the others and through the room. “Rumpelstiltskin has the power to stop the ogres. Permanently.”
Gaston is the first to whirl around and stare at her, and sure enough, there is shock in his features. “Rumpelstiltskin? Don’t be foolish, he’ll destroy us the moment our backs are turned.” He then turns his back on her. “You should return to your chambers, your father and I will handle these matters.”
Belle glares at the back of his head, and were it not for the situation at hand, she truly would punch him, propriety be damned.
“You misunderstand,” she says forcefully. “I’ve already summoned him.”
At that, the room falls into dead silence, and every pair of eyes is on her. Some stare in horror, others confusion, Gaston in some mix of anger and derision. Though she suddenly feels very tiny, Belle stands tall and fierce, and makes her way to the table, glaring at Gaston as she goes.
“Furthermore, I am a rightful member of this council, and I will not be banished from this room like a child.”
“Belle… You truly summoned him?” Her father looks stricken, as if he isn’t sure if it is a good strategy or a terrible idea. She nods.
“I sent him a message with magic, promising him gold in exchanged for protecting us.”
He won’t accept it, of course. She knew this long before she made the offer. She has heard enough stories of the Dark One to know that his prices are always unbearably high. Even if the rumors that he can create gold with magic are not true, even if he cannot simply conjure anything as easily as buy it, he will not accept their little pittance. No, his price will be something terrible, something they would never consider giving up unless the alternative was giving up the lives of their people.
“Where is he then?” Gaston scoffs, crossing his arms in a challenge. “If you managed to reach him, why has he not come? They say he can travel anywhere in an instant.”
She glares at him for only a moment before giving her answer to the rest of the Council. “I am certain he received my message. He’ll be here.”
“What makes you so certain? You are no sorceress – have you ever even used magic before?”
“Save your mockery for less dire circumstances, Gaston,” she snaps, her tone biting and fierce and daring him to say another word. She hurries past him to stand beside one of the commanders in front of the map. “What do we know about the attacks so far?”
When he comes, as she knew he would, and refuses their offer of gold, as she knew he would, Belle is calm and steady. She only waits to hear his price, her mind calm and fully prepared to pay it, no matter how high.
Even when he points to her, demands her, her freedom, her life until her dying day, she does not refuse. She is not appalled or horrified, only stunned into silence as her father and Gaston try to negotiate a different bargain. She watches him as he circles the room. He is a small man, but he is fierce and menacing in his sharp dragonhide coat and leather, his nails like claws, his hair a wild mess, and the skin of a dying man. He looks like some wild creature, ready to strike and tear at their throats where they stand. The man before her is every inch as terrifying and fearsome as the stories claim. But even as he circles and stares and leers at her, even as her father yells and Gaston pushes her back, she holds her head high, never hiding from him or averting her gaze until he begins to walk away.
Belle’s mind races, flying through every possibility, every alternative, everything else they might possibly do to protect themselves, and in an instant Belle returns to the same conclusion she came to hours ago. There is no other choice, no other way to save her people than to make this deal. Her father and Gaston are against it, and everyone else in the room, she’s sure. But then again, Belle has never been one to let others choose her fate for her.
Life may not always give her full control of her fate, but in this moment it has placed that power firmly back in her hands, and she knows there is not a soul on earth who can overrule her now. And as frightening as the man in front of her is, as horrible as his offer is, the thought of die slowly of attacks and starvation and despair at the hands of the ogres is a much more terrifying proposition.
Belle always wanted to be brave, to serve her people and make their lives better than they were before. It would be so very, very selfish of her to turn her back on them now, to refuse, to stand by and offer them smiles and false hope, when she could lay down her own life and guarantee that not a single one of them would have to do so again.
It may not be the easiest choice she has ever made, but it is by far the clearest.
She makes her own bargain, strikes her own deal, seals her own fate.
Belle has heard the stories, heard every wretched, frightening tale of just how evil and dangerous and cruel the Dark One is. She knows there is no greater sacrifice she could make for her people. But in all those stories, tales from centuries past, one detail has always remained the same, no matter who the story is about or who is telling it: he never breaks a deal. The Dark One is a man of his word. Her people will live. They will finally be safe.
It is the only thing that gives her the strength to keep from crumbling as he puts his arm around her waist and leads her away from the only home she has ever known.