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Talismans and Armor

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The problem was that the clerics had no official power in Midas’ kingdom. They were, for the most part, the antithesis of a great deal of their way of life. When the king can turn objects to gold with a mere touch, those praising austerity are ridiculed. When the coast thrives on trade, those who preach isolation are mocked. The clerics did both, and were
therefore a fringe group, turned away as much by the common folk as the nobles.

They disparaged gold as being a tool of demons, citing the stories of the Dark One and how he spun gold. This was all well and good in some areas, especially those with difference forms of currency such as shells and salt. However, as mentioned, Midas himself could turn things into gold. And many coastal towns had a thriving trade between kingdoms, with gold as a popular method of exchange. Accepting the teachings of the clerics would mean turning their backs on their culture.

Belle had seen the clerics attempt to preach in the time before the ogres. They were brushed aside, for the most part, and followed by the market guards to ensure that they didn’t cause a ruckus. They attempted to focus on the traders from the northern mountains, who were more experienced with magic and those who used it. Belle suspected that a few of the merchants had magic themselves, used to prevent theft and sudden storms. Papa liked that idea, as it meant fewer wrecks and fewer trials for theft. Magic, he said, was a tool like any other. It depended on the wielder how it was used, the same as a sword.

Besides, he pointed out with a smile, they usually kept each other in line.

But then reports trickled in, showing the steady approach of the ogres. And, as her papa had said, the ogres were not men. They were monsters, ones that were rarely defeated and turned the very skies blood-red in their fury.

And they were marching along the coast, attacking fortified trading villages like a band of thieves would go after a small merchant party during the spring rains.

They frightened people, and frightened people turned to whoever could promise them safety. More and more wore the small, intense green stones of the faith around their wrists, even as the King placed heavier restrictions on the clerics. Never mind the fact that they punished nonbelievers for perceived sins, those they were forbidden by law to touch.

They were monsters, Belle thought, claiming that by sacrificing those who used “magic” that the ogres would spare lives. Ogres didn’t hunt magicians, they hunted food. And those the clerics ordered cleansed were usually those with no family willing to stand up for them, and no power to fight back. Midwives and herbalists, and those who patrolled the wreckage for survivors. The looters, Belle thought blackly, most likely bribed the clerics. How else could they afford to be everywhere as they did?

They were bullies who tormented those weaker than them, and claimed it was for the good of all. And even though no villages had been spared, they sent petitions to her father, claiming that the cleric’s faith could save them all.

Papa had burned all the letters, so far. But some of her father’s advisors seemed to be playing with bracelets under their sleeves, especially as the skies around home turned red.
It wouldn’t work, she knew. Gaston even knew, and he was from far enough inland that there were no clerics. (Though, she remembered, the Frontlands had an ogre problem themselves, once upon a time.)

Besides, how did the clerics know exactly when to bolt?

So she needed to do something drastic, she told herself. Prove that this could be done without unnecessary deaths, without sacrificing her Papa’s honor and vows to the King.
So she went to the library, hoping for some hint of what could kill the ogres. After all, the Frontlands had been scoured clean of the dreadful things, hadn’t they?

And there she found a history of an ogre war from over a century before, and how it had been ended by the Dark One merely marching into the battlefield.

Well, she reasoned, it wasn’t as if dealing with the Dark One wasn’t a noble tradition. The king himself had made a deal!

And it would work. It had before.

So she presented the idea to Papa and Gaston, who had to admit that this was a more rational reason for calling on him than most. Gaston even thought that the ogre incursion might be a blow to the sorcerer’s ego, with his work coming undone. Belle wasn’t entirely sure of that, but it helped her plan, so she didn’t say a word, instead hoping for a reply from Rumplestiltskin.

(And trying not to remember that the archers from the Northern Mountains, well used to slaying monsters, had been made unwelcome by the clerics when they were needed most. That absence had been the reason for the gold in their coffers, gathered to pay for human (well, mostly-human) soldiers.)

However quiet they tried to keep their plan, there were whispers. And the disapproving looks.

So the day that Rumplestiltskin was due to arrive, Belle found one of her mother’s old gowns, a well-preserved ballgown of gold thread. From what she remembered about the palace stories, it was what she wore when her betrothal was announced. It was as much a gesture of defiance at the clerics as it was for bravery as Belle begged her maid to help fit her into it. The cloth of gold was well preserved, she noticed, though made for a slightly taller woman. It was bright, hopeful, and the opposite of the clerics.

It was defiance in a dress, and it was perfect.

She swept herself out, perching herself on one of the chairs. Papa blinked for a moment, before a fond smile graced his face, all too rare these days.

Even if her plan failed, it was all worth it, for that smile on his face.

“Belle,” Gaston said with surprising delicacy and lack of volume, “are you certain that was a wise choice?”

She gave him a small smile of her own. “I know what I am doing.” She flicked her eyes briefly at a small knot of councilors, and sat down to wait and soothe her Papa’s fears.

~

She hated this room. It was dull and plain, without a bit of color. The sunlight barely came in through the high window, and during the all-too-frequent storms, the walls would smell of damp and mold.

Something in the back of her mind said this was wrong, that the woman with the cold dark eyes was wicked.

But how, she asked. She had nothing to compare her life too, no idea of what the world outside her cell was.

Prisoner and penitence, a voice in her mind said, arch and angry. Condemned for a crime that had never been committed, with no freedom in this world or the last.

And then her head started to hurt, so she sat on her little bench, trying to focus though the haze of pain.

The hospital gown was far too short, she thought. She was used to warmer, longer garments. She needed them, really, it was so dreadfully cold in the winter. Her throat ached through the winter, and there was no warmth but for the friction of her hands rubbing together and the one wall, sometimes.

She refocused, as the bracelet on her wrist dug a bit into her skin. That was wrong, she knew. There was supposed to be something cool and metal there, gleaming gold and twisted on as a promise.

Her promise, she knew. She wondered what happened to her bracelet and her promise…

And then there was the clicking and clattering of heels outside her cell, and the cycle started again, leaving a dream of a memory, and that bothersome headache.

~

Belle did like quite a few things about this new world. Hamburgers. Rumpelstiltskin’s human eyes, human hands, human voice. Iced Tea, that was quite lovely. Ruby, even if she did accidentally give Belle something called a panic attack (and Archie’s description did fit wonderfully the feelings of being back in that cell, even with the books all about, and actual color.) Books- the sheer variety was astounding, rivaling anything Belle had ever seen.

But it was loud, and crowded, and sometimes the choices were enough to make Belle start having another spiraling fit. The opening of the library was one of them.

It wasn’t that she was unhappy, she thought wryly. It was that large groups of loudly chattering people were enough to make her feel small.

“I thought libraries were supposed to be quiet?” a boy asked, looking around with wide dark eyes. Henry, she remembered. Rumpelstiltskin had pointed him out with something she thought was fondness, the son of the Sheriff- the real Sheriff, at any rate.

“They are,” Belle said, frowning at her desk, fiddling with her hands. “I’m starting to feel foolish for turning down Ruby’s suggestion of a bull horn, whatever that is.”

“I can get one!” Henry said eagerly, bouncing a little on his heels. “They have some at the pharmacy.”

A pharmacy, Belle remembered, was like an apothecary. So why did it have a horn?

And the glimmer of mischief in Henry’s eyes reminded her a bit too much of Rumpelstiltskin in one of his moods, right before he set her mop to dancing or had her cutlery flying about.

“Are you allowed to use a bull horn?” Belle asked, keeping her tone conspiratorial. He pulled a face. “I’m guessing that’s a no, then.”

“Gramps... David didn’t say I couldn’t,” Henry tested, before looking at her, dark eyes concerned. “Hey, is your wrist okay? You keep rubbing it.”

She looked down, noticing the red stripe along her wrist. She winced. She hadn’t done that lately, with her mind turned to the library. (And making sure there were no magical
tomes hidden in the stacks. Rumpelstiltskin didn’t think so, but better safe that sunken.) “I’m used to having something on it, that’s all.”

It was Henry’s turn to wince. “When my mom kept you in the basement?” Belle nodded. Henry seemed to appreciate it when people were blunt, she recalled.

“And before that,” she added anyway. It might help relieve his guilt over loving someone everyone else thought was a monster. She knew that feeling well enough, it shouldn’t be allowed to fester in Henry. “When I first came to the Dark Castle, Rumpelstilskin gave me a bit of golden thread he wove into a bracelet. It was meant to remind me that I had promised him forever.”

“Like a wedding ring?” Henry asked eagerly.

Someone choked. Realising it was only Janet Lane, one of Ruby’s friends, she let it go. The redhead didn’t mean any harm, she knew. She tried, at least, which was more than most were willing to do.

“Something like that,” Belle allowed. “It was three braided bits of straw he turned into… Henry?”

Henry was bouncing a bit again. No one, she noticed, paid much attention to Henry when he did that. Given Ruby’s hurried explanation, she suspected that they were all a bit used it it. “I saw it! Grace has it- Jefferson gave it to her after he found her!”

“Oh, dearie?” Rumpelstiltskin was surprisingly sneaky without using his magic, Belle thought. He’d snuck up behind her without her noticing. Or Henry noticing.

Perhaps a bit of magic was involved, after all.

“Rumpelstiltskin, you are not going to go frighten that poor girl,” she said, leaning against the counter as she looked up at him. (The silver shoes he had given her were lovely, and made it easier to look people in the eyes, but they were dreadfully uncomfortable for long periods of time. She’d slipped into a pair of dancing flats that she’d found under her desk, with the signature of Princess Shazerhad.)

“Oh, I won’t frighten the girl,” he said airily, waving his hands. Belle sighed as one of her patrons made a sign against evil. Rumpelstiltskin got even closer, though Belle wasn’t sure if that was out of protectiveness or impishness.

“Jefferson did let me out of Regina’s cell,” she pointed out.

“And he’s not a particularly good person, aside from that?” he pointed out.

Belle sighed. Rumpelstiltskin had lovely eyes, true, but they were far too good with pleading looks to be safe.

Well, true love was not a safe thing, and she had to be strong. “Why not try asking nicely?”

“Because I’m wondering how exactly the Hatter knew where to find you,” Rumpelstiltskin said, that bite in his voice again. Henry was still there, Belle noticed, eyes flicking between them. “And I do wonder, love, how long he knew about you.”

“Er, Mr. Gold? I don’t think Grace would be very happy if you turned her dad into a frog,” Henry said. “But I think she’d give you the bracelet if you ask. She said he’s been giving her a lot.”

“Making up for lost time,” Rumpelstiltskin agreed, and Belle wondered absently if she and Henry could get together and compare notes for training cursed loved ones who were far too fond of dark magic for anyone's peace of mind. Maybe together it would be easier?

The question was moot, though, as Henry ran off to find his friend.

~

Belle should have realized, the next day, that Rumpelstiltskin was trying to keep her happy. There was pancakes and bacon, with hot chocolate, waiting for her that morning when
she woke, with no Rumpelstiltskin in sight.

She didn’t see Henry again that day, worrying her slightly. But the boy probably had other things to do, with his mother missing.

And Ruby didn’t mention anyone finding the Hatter or strange frogs around, making her feel slightly better. She also dropped off lunch, which was lovely. (Lily, the Queen of the Shadowed Mountains back home, had told her hospital food was notoriously bad in this world, which made no sense. Surely ill people needed tempting food to counter their lack of appitite?)

He snuck up on her again, curse it, dipping a finger into the pudding cup Ruby had given her. “Sweets for the sweet, my dear?” he asked softly, right in her ear. She twitched and giggled.

“It does seem a little redundant,” Belle mused, facing him and watching him lick the pudding off his finger. Drat the man, did he know how distracting he could be?

Well, no. That was part of his charm.

“Speaking of the sweet, I happened to have found something of yours,” he said, dipping his clean hand into his suit pocket. “A bit of a token, I believe?”

He pulled out the bracelet, the one that she had half-remembered during the curse. She’d rubbed her wrist raw in the hospital, with the identification bracelet being all wrong. Even in her sleep.

Especially in her sleep. Which made sense, didn’t it, since dreams were messages from your mind.

“How did you get it back?” Belle asked, only half-suspicious. He wouldn’t harm Grace for it, she knew. Jefferson, on the other hand…

“Young Mister Mills presented it to me,” he said, carefully taking her hand and slipping it on. “At last, your arm is complete again,” he said with a teasing tone. She thought he was referring to something in this world she didn’t yet recognize. He did that, sometimes, and if it started itching her mind the source of the quote would end up on her nightstand.

“Thank you, good sir,” she laughed.

“And it was accomplished with no magic whatsoever!” he pointed out, seeming somewhere between proud and teasing.

“I do believe that in returning the fair maiden with her treasure, the handsome knight is usually richly rewarded,” Belle mused at the ceiling. Finding her bracelet made her feel a bit more brave. It was a tangible link to home, to the person she was before, the way the dwarves’ axes were, or Ruby’s cloak.
It was proof that she had done the brave thing, and that bravery had followed.

“Hmm, I’m afraid I’m a bit short on knights in shining armor right now,” Rumpelstiltskin teased, inching closer as if he was afraid she would bolt. Really, that man.

“I preferred the tales of clever sorcerers, anyway,” Belle reassured him, laughing before kissing him on the cheek.

Later, when there was an argument that was far too loud and nearly set her off, she ran a finger over her bracelet before dealing with it.

I am brave, it said, now see me prove it.