They were dead on their feet, but in hindsight, Belle would have sold her soul to have that evening.
The fireflies that he had enchanted to light their way danced before them, twinkling and twirling, but the darkness of the forest left them otherwise in shadow. Belle’s heavy skirts weighed her down, yards of sea silk spun by mermaids, dyed blood red with embroidered hems of spun gold, the thick billowing sleeves draping almost to her slippers. It was a far cry from her gold gown she’d worn once upon a time. Rumpelstiltskin had gifted it to her with a devilish smile and a raking look that had practically undressed her upon presenting it. At first she had been too embarrassed to show him the result, but he had eventually coaxed her with cooing reassurances that he needed to know if it fit, after all she had to look presentable to be at his side at court (or so he told her). Truthfully, it was too much and not enough at the same time leaving her shoulders bare, cutting down lower on her back that seemed to catch every breeze. The gown was too daring for a princess, too rich for a queen.
He had dressed her like a sorceress.
“This is above my station,” she had said, half a plea for reason and half trying to convince herself of that it was true, looking in her mirror. She resembled a girl playing dress up, as if she’d wandered into her mother’s armoire again. But no, the gown had been made for her, and fit her body like nothing else she’d ever owned.
As she turned from side to side, smoothing down the bodice, Rumpelstiltskin had slid up from his chair with the grace of a feline, coming to stand behind her. He placed his hands upon her naked shoulders, straightening her posture. Belle followed the instructions of his hands like she was a doll, and shivered when he giggled in her ear. “You are my companion, dearie,” he had lilted, lightly thrumming his darkened nail tips along her shoulder. “There is no higher station to be had.”
Sitting at the mahogany vanity, she’d gathered her curls back with two gold combs, wrought in roses and pearls that he’d garnered from an empress. “You are my equal,” he’d said, crowning her with the laurel of rubies and gold. “Now you must dress the part.”
The entire situation had started when Rumpelstiltskin had approached her on the subject of going on a trip. He needed a traveling companion for court appearances, someone to appear as equal status that he could trust. Belle had wondered at this strange request- after all, hadn’t he gotten on fine before by himself? But, she wanted to see the worlds beyond the castle, so she had, of course, accepted immediately almost before the words could drop from his lips.
Belle couldn’t fight the giddiness that bubbled up inside her at the thought of being able to see beyond the estate’s walls. She knew Rumpelstiltskin traveled far and wide, and the fact he trusted her beyond them- to be with him- gave her an indescribable emotion akin to something like hope, like a warm cup of tea but sweetened.
Though what he had wanted in return for her sacrifice (having to “handle him” as he had quipped) was still a mystery to her. He had only simply (and suspiciously ) required her at his side for the duration of the trip, and trips to come.
Belle had been wary, then, and wondered what she’d gotten herself into. With no set price, she knew it could not end promisingly, and she was not naïve enough to think he would make a deal with her for free. Caretaker she might have been, but exempt from the rules she was not.
But Rumpelstiltskin had kept his end of the bargain, and Belle had seen whole other worlds. She’d picked sunflowers from Dawn’s shore, played winter’s piccolo of the Ice City of Voltan, drunk the thick summer spiced mead of Dorstonis. With the Dark One, she’d memorized the untamed wilderness of the enchanted forest, the destructively beautiful seaside crashing against the bluffs, and even the breathtaking, silently inspiring mountains. Those were most important, she had found out one night, as Rumpelstiltskin sought to own them.
Whatever he would need with his own set of mountains for was beyond Belle’s knowledge, and when she’d asked he’d simply grinned with those dastardly teeth of his and waggled his finger at her nose. “Let me have my secrets, dearie,” he’d sung. And, well, Belle had always loved a good mystery.
His “mysteries” were starting to take a toll on them now, though, as they trudged silently through the woods at his side. She felt the chill of the night whispering over her neck, and all she wanted then was to wriggle out of the yards of silk and curl up under the sheets of a goose feathered mattress beside a warm fire. But they had miles to go before they could sleep, and she wouldn’t dare complain, especially when Rumpelstiltskin seemed as tired as he was. She’d never seen him so completely gone, so quiet and tame. She caught him once when he stumbled, eyes half lidded, mumbling his thanks.
Their appearance at the ball had been a success. He had swept in, his dragonhide jacket feathering in his swagger through the glittering ball gowns and glinting crowns, wielding Belle on his arm for a grandiose touch. She hadn’t realized until that moment why he had wanted her there-and she had to fight a smile when she did. Every woman in the court was staring at her with masks of equal horror and the most intense fascination she’d ever seen. Where they were all clothed in white sparkling tulle, white rabbits meant to sparkle light diamonds, Belle glowed in the candlelight, a simmering coal with the darkest magic literally at her fingertips, magic that those little girls could only ever hope to dream of. Belle herself had not expected to feel such a rush of adrenaline, but she felt taller, more graceful and lithe than she ever had as her father’s clumsy little princess. As perverse as it was, as horribly dark and accursed it should have been, Belle was proud to be on the arm of the Dark One. Her hand rested in his, and she felt the crackling magic in his palms, his skin searing with the heat of power. It burned off of him like an aura, and she drank it in with ever dainty step of her slippered foot. It was poison, but it was such a lovely taste.
Belle had met the old eyes of King Cornelius of the Stormlands and his queen with equal intensity as her companion. An untamable smirk danced at the corners of her lips as the Dark One flourished and captivated the court like a snake, his silver tongue and lilting giggle enchanting in the most egregious way. This earned him several acres of a precarious mountain range in exchange for replenished fields that had been burned by the kingdom’s warring enemies. And all with a snap of his fingers that twisted Belle’s tummy in excitement and sent a shiver down her spine beneath the blood silk of her gown.
Suddenly, Rumpelstiltskin stumbled again, and Belle was almost too late snapping out of her reverie, but she managed catch him by the arm. It wasn’t enough. The poor man’s knees buckled, the weight of his body sending her stumbling until she could gently lower him to the forest floor with a huff, her scarlet silk skirts pooling around her. Her heart thundered in her ears as she rested his body against hers, the roar of her blood and humming in her veins. Belle felt the rawest kind of fear, the wild animal kind, clawing in her throat, choking her like a plague.
And suddenly, the glittering memory of the ball, of their success, meant nothing in the face of her fear of what was happening to the one person she had in the world. It gripped her like a vice, made her voice into something low, quivering, and weak. She was afraid to say anything. Words were the incantation of reality, after all. “Rumpelstiltskin?”
Names were power; especially one so powerful as his, but even this hardly seemed to rouse him. That wasn’t a good sign. Rumpelstiltskin sighed, muttering something beneath his breath as he slumped, resting his head on her bare shoulder. She felt his warm breath on her décolletage, but it was a rasping pant like a drafty wind in a dungeon. This was not normal- this was not good .
His body shuddered weakly, as if trying to fight whatever it was that had overcome him.
After they’d left the ball, he hadn’t uttered a word, which was unusual for him. They had strode from the palace with purpose, but the farther they got from the castle and the twinkling lights of the kingdom, the heavier their footfalls, the slower their pace, and then the quieter everything became. She had offered to find them a carriage, but one sharp, silent shake of his head had ended the discussion. The excitement had left Belle with a dreamy sleepiness, glowing with the warmth of what only magic could bring. Rumpelstiltskin had begun to drag his feet. After he stumbled the first time, she realized he was completely emptied.
He’s dying, Belle suddenly realized. He’s dying and I have no idea what to do.
The enchanted fireflies danced above them whimsically, and for a moment Belle wanted to smash each one between her fingers. But the man in her arms was much more important than fireflies.
“Rumpelstiltskin, please, tell me what’s wrong,” Belle whispered, her voice breaking tightly. He tried to push himself up, the relentless bastard. Belle squeaked as he suddenly slumped back against her, his head resting in the crook of her arm, his eyes rolling up to her face. Belle cradled him, her one arm behind his head, her other hand resting over the cut of his silk shirt and dragonhide, feeling his heart beneath the scales, beneath her fingers, wishing hers would crackle with magic as his did. Her compassion, no matter how strong, couldn’t fix this. She couldn’t fix this.
They were utterly alone in the shadows, and a sorceress in a pool of blood silk holding a dark god.
Belle knew she couldn’t leave him, but she had nothing, not even an idea of how to help him. She couldn’t panic- she knew it, yet she still felt helplessness cloak them both, a cage she would never find a key to. He was the one who dealt in magic- he was the one who protected them. Belle bit her lip hard enough to draw blood to stop the desperation, to stop the tremble in her voice, before whispering, “What do I do?”
“Don’t- don’t worry about me, dearie,” Rumpelstiltskin sighed, his eyes fluttering, but his voice was all wrong. It was still high, but it was weak, thin and hollow, without his laughter or mockery. It was calm and quiet, and Belle didn’t know what to do with such a sound. “I just… just need a bit of a rest, that’s all…”
“Rest?” Belle felt anger spark in the back of her heart. “Do not lie to me, Rumpelstiltskin. I have to help you-”
The Dark One took a deep breath, his eyes rolling, completely winded. “Just drained,” he murmured. “Need to rest… Belle…”
His little caretaker felt her heart clench tight at the sound of her name on his lips. And then she knew exactly why he’d needed her- he had known this was going to happen, he knew he would be weak, for whatever reason. He knew he would need help. And he trusted her.
Belle was all he had, too.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered softly, the tears she’d fought so hard pooling in her eyes, brushing his hair away from his face. Her eyes alit when his face followed her hand. She smiled in wonder, biting her lip to lock away the joy she felt, the silly giddiness that she could never truly name but felt every time he looked at her. “I’m going to take care of you.”
Tender was her touch, but through the fog of her strange awe, the ground began to tremble, and Belle felt the vibrations through her knees race up her back, stealing her breath and seizing her heart. A carriage. She turned to look behind the way they had come and saw the torches against the darkness of the forest. The need for her presence suddenly became much clearer.
“We have to move off the road,” Belle whispered, more to herself than Rumpelstiltskin. Her petite frame was slight, but strong for her size, and she was able to struggle Rumpelstiltskin up. She put his arm over her shoulders and stumbled off the path into the darkness of the woods, almost hitting a tree in her haste.
The fireflies followed.
“I need you to get rid of them,” she huffed softly, trying to hold him up with all her might. Any little thing that could catch someone’s attention was a danger to them now. Where most people would run from the woods at night, it was going to be their advantage. There was not anything more dangerous than Rumpelstiltskin. When he didn’t respond, Belle jammed her elbow in his side. “Wake up!”
Rumpelstiltskin grunted, swinging his head towards her. She felt his hair tickle her neck, saw his claw move with a sharp twirl in the darkness. Each firefly popped and sizzled, before sputtering out of the air. It seemed a small enough spell, but even that seemed to take more effort out of him than he was worth at the moment.
Well, she thought with a twinge of relief. At least he’s conscious enough to understand me.
Under cover of shadow, Belle hauled Rumpelstiltskin through the woods and through the most terrifying moments in her life. She was completely on her own, with a man’s life in her hands. She had to find them safety, as there was no way they’d be able to get back home. Especially with him so weak, they were completely defenseless, and he was not exactly saintly in most peoples’ eyes. She doubted they would find any welcoming farmers to share a hearth with.
“Come on,” she muttered, her voice going hoarse in the cold night air, both of them shuffling through the underbrush that tore at her skirt and skin. Her hair was falling and her forehead was slick with sweat, but she didn’t slow down.
Unfortunately, Belle had no idea where they were going, and after an hour of her muscles screaming in protest at Rumpelstiltskin’s dead weight, she knew she couldn’t last much longer hauling him as he was. He couldn’t either, for that matter. He needed rest. His wheezing and disjointed mumbling tickled her ear and her neck as he leaned heavier onto her support, and she wondered if he really was conscious or not. More importantly, her mind was running a mile a minute-how had this even happened?
Belle had been at the dark castle long enough to know Rumpelstiltskin’s quirks. She knew how he took his tea, exactly what time of the day (and night) he liked to spin his straw, what kind of books he liked to read, how often he worked in his tower with his potions- she even knew he preferred blackberry jam with his breakfast, and that he kept a pair of half-moon spectacles inside the breast pocket of every vest he wore. But in all those weeks, all those months, she had never, not once, seen him yawn, much less get tired. The realization dawned on her that she didn’t even know if he slept.
“I’m going to figure you out once of these days, bloody bastard,” Belle grumbled, pulling his arm tighter around the back of her shoulders as she lugged him further on. She’d come too far and put up with too much of his finicky fancies to let him die on her now .
Belle, so wrapped up in her thoughts, realized the forest had begun to lighten. She didn’t recognize the area, especially at night, but a rather quiet thundering made itself more pronounced the deeper they traveled through the woods. It took her another moment to realize the sound was water. With that encouragement, she hobbled faster, wishing she could run but knowing if she tried that her legs would give out.
The forest began to thin out more, and when they broke from the shadows into a clearing, Belle fell against a tree, Rumpelstiltskin’s body still draped over her like a cloak. They were at a junction of the Stormlands that met with three terrains, the edge of the woods that hugged the mountains, and beyond was the shimmering sea of grasses. Against the rocks was a waterfall, the source of the noise she’d heard. It was not grand, and Belle had always thought it would be much louder should she ever see one off the pages of a book, but it was still breathtaking. Belle would have been more inclined to admire it if she hadn’t had other things on her mind.
“Come on,” whispered Belle, squeezing his hand as they got closer to the pool. It was as still as glass and just as clear. The bed beneath was a rich, dark blue. Belle laid Rumpelstiltskin down gently, kneeling beside him and placing his head in her lap. She cupped her hands in the water and got him to drink some, though he tried swatting her away. “Just a bit,” she cooed, though she would have preferred tossing him right in had she knew he wouldn’t die on her.
“Just let me alone,” he finally grumbled.
Belle frowned, her nose wiggling, but she refused to fight with him. “Fine,” she huffed, pulling them closer against the base of the rocks so at least they were hidden by the shadow of the falls.
They were far enough from the main road that she knew no one would find them, but she couldn’t take any chances with how weak Rumpelstiltskin was. Belle maneuvered so her back was against the rocks and Rumpelstiltskin’s head was in her lap. Her eyes made their way from the starry sky down to her master’s face, which was as tranquil as the pool of water they drew close to. The lines of his face had smoothed away in sleep, his scales twinkling under the light of the moon.
Belle felt an irresistible urge to touch his skin, scaly or not, and she found herself dusting his hair away from his face, gently petting the wiry locks. She heard him sigh, and a smile lifted her face. She stroked his hair carefully, admiring the smoothness as it ran through her fingers. But the rhythm, the gentle hum and the hush of water was its own lullaby, and Belle’s eyes, stung with exhaustion and heavy with duty, fluttered closed soon after.
When Belle opened her eyes, she had the feeling that she’d dreamt something terrible that left her with a wash of relief that she was alive and awake in the real world. She was lying in a patch of sweet grass near the waterfall, under a cloudless dark sky, covered by a familiar dragonhide jacket scented of smoke, lemon, and cedar wood, like the earth after a storm. Near her, a small fire pit had been dug, snapping and crackling merrily.
At least he was all right, enough to move her. She hoped.
Thinking back to the hours before, Belle wearily pushed herself up, her head swimming from exhaustion. She faced the pool of water, still calm and cool against the night, but something was off. A shadow from behind her fell against the waterfall.
An extremely large shadow.
Slowly, Belle turned on a knife’s point.
It was immense, long and lean, all slick scales cut from shadowy garnet, glistening under the glow of the fire. The night wrapped around the beast, black smoke whispered up in lofty plumes from the edges of its snout, completely regal and altogether terrifying, and the tips of its wings, held high and proud, dreaded black as pitch and simmering with cinders, gilded-veined. The horns sharpened its head, but its maw, cut with fangs sharper and longer than swords, gleamed against the reflected light of the water. The tail, long and curving, swayed back and forth methodically. And its eyes were gold, molten and glowing with blood and bones. It was fire and blood and ash in a beast more frightening than anything hell could conjure.
It was a dragon.
And its eyes, the golden eyes, were staring hungrily, unwaveringly, dreadfully right at Belle.
She tasted the air, swallowing the scent of sulfur against the silence in the wake of death, but nothing seemed to be real beyond this small clearing, between her and this monster. The silence, oh seven hells, the silence was so peaceful, too. The rush of the water and the breeze that caressed the grass, yet the dragon simply waited, watching her, almost smiling grotesquely at the fair maiden.
But the fair maiden did not scream or run or weep, because Belle knew that in the wake of death, that wouldn’t change anything. Instead, she saw the beauty in the ferocity, the utter darkness of the world that bespoke all nightmares. She wondered for a split second in between heartbeats if Rumpelstiltskin could see this from wherever he was. She hoped not. She would rather him remember her in sunlight between curtains of brocade than trembling and ghost white with fear.
The dragon raised its claw, and Belle, on instinct, took a step back, but that was enough.
Suddenly Belle was winded, gasping instead of screaming as the feathered tail caught her up like a child catching a dandelion seed. The dragon’s scales were hot, like a Sahara’s shimmering heat, but it didn’t quell the crippling fear that had brought resolute tears to puddle in Belle’s eyes. She tried to hold on before it tossed her in its mouth, feebly swinging her legs for momentum, but all that resulted was her losing one of her slippers.
The dragon opened its mouth, all flashing swords of teeth and darkened maw that had rendered flesh and swallowed the screams of men. And Belle realized, she could scream. She could scream for him , and perhaps he would even hear her. Or maybe he would just know her last thought was of something stronger than loyalty for the man she had grown to know.
Belle braced herself as much as she could, but when nothing happened she opened her eyes and found herself staring at something she couldn’t quite understand. The dragon had plucked her slipper up, dangling it from its claw. Then so extremely gently, it reached up and Belle realized it was offering her slipper to her, like some sort of prince at a ball. Belle blinked, feeling tears she hadn’t remembered crying trailing down her face. Her foot lifted of its own volition and the dragon slipped the shoe back on her dainty foot.
Then, things occurred, as they are wont to do, all at once.
The dragon tossed Belle up into the air, meters above its own stature. The only thing she could hear in the world was wind and words, things she had wanted to say and places she had wanted to see so miniscule now as all she could feel was adrenaline and the rushing heightened awareness of how small she was compared to the grassy earth beneath her.
In the pause it took for her to fall, Belle screamed, and it was primal and filled with all those unspoken secrets, she screamed his name, because she needed him in more ways than just to save her. She had closed her eyes at some point, throwing her arms up and trying to curl into a ball against the awaiting darkness, but then she hit the earth solidly, and she was alive and unbroken.
Because the scent of smoke and lemon and cedar wood was fresh and enveloping, and she knew those arms that cradled her now, and she heard the lilting giggle that inspired so many more smiles than she knew what to do with. Belle opened her eyes to Rumpelstiltskin holding her, smoke still twirling from his dragonhide jacket, his scales still warm and brimming with magic, as they are wont to be with dragons.
“Much more exciting than falling from the curtains, wouldn’t you say so, dearie?” he asked, his mossy eyes no longer golden but still alight with the same intensity, playful, as if toying with his meal.
Perhaps he was.
Because Rumpelstiltskin was a dragon.
And suddenly, Belle realized she knew absolutely nothing of the power of true magic.