The people danced. With war on the horizon, blood red and ever-threatening, the people danced and they sang, they talked and they gossiped, they baked bread and they ate it. Men talked of war and kept their weapons sharp. Those without weapons sharpened tools or sticks. No one spoke of surrender, for to surrender to the ogres was to die a merciless death. Babies were born. Elders passed from the world. They all lived their lives in defiance of the looming thunderheads of war.
Belle had seen many weddings, both the sober blessings and the merry feasts. She always knew her own time would come; a suitor, a dowry, then a date for the celebration. With the war, her father spoke quietly of duty and of necessity; Belle's hand in marriage in exchange for an alliance that might shelter their people from the worst of the fighting. 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 often, but Belle found neither flattery nor affection in his stilted recitations. She would do her duty, of course, but as the red haze of the war crept ever closer to their borders, Belle wondered if any of them would even live to taste another wedding cup. She couldn't feel sorrow at the thought of never being able to marry Gaston. She couldn't feel afraid for herself.
Instead she feared for the people, fiercely admiring their spirit and courage. She feared for her father. He'd grown sick with the responsibility of protecting them all from a war that was not and had never been theirs. It nonetheless threatened to sweep away their small fastness as it had so many others.
Too often they buried the fallen sons of the town. Too often there was little enough brought home to bury, so people said their final goodbyes over keepsakes or last letters, instead, when the ogres even took the bones. People said that ogres liked to gnaw the bones.
Belle wondered often about the ogres, unable to imagine them or to find anyone among the returning fighters who'd tell her more than she knew. They were like the tide, everyone said. Like the storm that sinks the ship and like the winter that smothers the pasture. A force of nature. One boy, scarred from ear to ear and drunk on remedies, called it 'pissing in the wind', before his comrades pulled him away, scolding him for using such words in front of their princess.
In truth, Belle was no princess. A knight's daughter with a noble mother, sole heir to the modest lands bestowed on Sir Maurice by the king. But it delighted the townspeople to imagine themselves important enough to have a royal family of their own, just as it excited them that she'd soon marry into a family one step away from the throne. 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 by 'pissing in the wind'. That they might as well try to stem the incoming tide with their bare hands, she decided; that they might as well plead with the winter storms to take pity on the land as battle the ogres.
But they had to try.
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 that her rank protected her when others slept unguarded. 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. Other people said that he'd distinguished himself in battle; that he was a swordsman with few equals and skilled on horseback. She and Gaston 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 read a book. She'd learned enough to forewarn her of her future.
Her future husband wasn't a wise man. Not a clever man—Gaston mistrusted clever people¬¬. He was proud and impatient. Handsome enough and not vain with it, but he never smiled so his good looks were cold. Even Belle's poor father could still make a moment for merriment as the war news came and came, but Gaston stood aloof from the trials of others. He fingered his sword hilt constantly, as though he could not wait to rejoin the battle and dispense with this talking.
One evening, less than a moon before she was to marry Gaston, Belle stitched a petal in her sampler and listened to the latest news and 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 from the front. If they lost the road to the sea then the bulk of their surviving army would be trapped with their backs to the cliffs, where the ogres could pick off the survivors at their leisure.
"Ten thousand skilled fighters couldn't keep them back," her father said, a stark truth that Belle hadn't 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 didn't go quite so far as to direct the dark 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, miraculous victory doesn't 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 hadn't meant to speak the thought aloud. Why had she? She flushed under the stares of the men yet resented their irritation. She might be ignorant of the arts of war, but she wasn't ignorant, and her words had been a brave, sensible answer to father's moment of naked despair. She lowered the sampler into her lap and looked for her father's face among the staring men. "Papa, if a hero with a holy sword or some magic is what's needed then we must find one. Quickly."
"There are no heroes," Gaston said, flat disapproval in his tone. He hadn't noticed her presence until she spoke. "Only men who fight and die."
"You're wrong." Belle stood up slowly, feeling 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? Because she was a woman? "There are dragonslayers, great warriors."
"Not within these borders, Belle." After his initial shock at her interruption, her father spoke gently. "And even such a man cannot defeat the ogres. There are 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'd been scowling or tutting at her intrusion fell silent. She could feel their stares. She'd made them think.
"A council of war is no place for a lady," Gaston announced. He strode over 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 even allowed to speak! Only concern for her father had drawn her there, but why shouldn't she know how the battles progressed? The ogres wouldn't spare her for being a lady if they came beating down the doors. The ogres wouldn't spare anyone. Did Gaston think they'd share his misplaced chivalry?
Sighing, Belle mounted the winding stairs to her room, hoping she'd find herself alone there. In the middle 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, Belle found herself suddenly at the centre of a riot of pre-nuptial frivolity, surrounded by women who were much more excited about the wedding than she was. It all felt so removed from herself—all the hoarding of silk and the exquisite lace-making. All so ridiculous when the battle lines were so close. And none of it was… Well, none of it was her.
The new garment hanging for her inspection this evening was a nightgown, the very last of her trousseau. Belle had refused all silken finery for her wedding night, demanding 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 she suspected, with the clench of anxiety that came upon her whenever her mind turned to the details of married life, that Gaston would have no interest in what she was wearing when he came to her bed. 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, so proud of them all. She could make room for a little beauty and frivolity in her room if it lifted the other women's spirits.
She knelt in front of the big chest that housed her trousseau. Another just like it sat in the castle's strong room, the coin and plate of her dowry guarded by the men too badly maimed to return to the front lines. The chest in her own room held all that she'd 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 Duchess of the Frontlands Her own mother sewed the first pieces, often working with Belle upon her knee while she told stories about magnificent princes, the great romances, of magic and of happily-ever-after.
Mama 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 clothes. 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 the motif along the border.
'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.'
Whenever Belle spoke 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 only smiled.
Remembering her with the softened sorrow of many years gone by, Belle supposed that the smile had been a sad one.
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, 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'd lost his arm in the very first battle and spoke now for the townspeople, a man they trusted to seek the best for everyone; 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 Dark One." 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'd been the one to urge them to seek magical aid, but this? Him? She caught Sir Gaston's eye. For once they were in silent accord. This was no promise of salvation that Papa brought to his people but their 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 deadly 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 out 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, somehow managing to sound as if he thought his future son had spoken wisely when Belle suspected that he wanted to cuff the boy instead. "Today we must repair the outer walls. Leave your 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 of having nothing to do and too much time to think, 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, not even used to working with her hands, 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 out. The drying strips of cloth fluttered in the breeze like faded banners.
For the first time in her life, no one came to pull Belle back to her gentle pursuits, safe within the castle walls. Nothing was safe within those walls anyway. Fire and falling masonry had reached even that far, whole rooms littered with broken glass and crumbling stone.
For that one day, even the councilmen worked with their hands, helping to repair the fortifications. Even Papa laboured, smiling grimly as he mixed mortar and carried it to the masons on the scaffolds. Even Gaston, proud Sir Gaston whose home was far away and safe yet, carried stone all day 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.