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Dark Days

Chapter Text

It was dark days in Avonlea. Dark days of mourning. The sky was blood and the roads had long been paved with the trampled bones of those poor villagers who could not escape the monsters risen from the deep. Nightmares made flesh. Relentless, brutal. Inhuman.

The threat was gaining ground and the creatures could not be bargained with. Of Avonlea, of its people, they only wanted one thing: more.

It had taken a decade of battles waged and lost, generations of men banding together in the killing fields, all of them dying broken and bloodied. Those widows who lived fled with their children to the next village and the next. There was no escaping the rising tide of monsters. They were legion.

Strange then, so strange, that in these darkest of days, these years of blood skies and carnage, that Avonlea's savior would come in the impish form of the Dark One.

Chapter Text

To all known to him, Gaston was an honest man. Strong, brave, and well deserving of his place in the castle, a member of the knights sworn to give their lives in service to Avonlea and its people. He was young in years, however in Avonlea, with so many men dead in the fields, he could be counted among the elders in several villages. He had seen enough blood to drown mountains. He had wept at the death of family and friends alike. He had known terror down to his bones.

Yet he was a knight.

His country was weeks from being devoured yet he refused to abandon the motherland. His oaths held true - his vows drove him. Avonlea was his home and he would give his last breath to defend it.

It was why he had departed the mountains, leaving his fellows and riding his horse to ground. Gaston dismissed the thought of the stallion - it had died miles back, first collapsing along the road and then...

Forgive me.

He'd left the horse to its exhaustion and pressed on alone, forcing himself faster once he heard the panicked shrieking of the animal as the ogres found it.

There was no time to grieve the loyal beast. He had to make it to the king.

This last, mad hope. It was either sent from the gods or Hades himself, a desperate miracle and he could not fail. For miles it was his only thought, to make it to the castle, the king. For this, he pushed himself harder, faster and faster, then harder still.

A small, singe prayer; if his heart should burst within his chest, then so be it, so long as the red thing burst after he completed this last task.

The sight of the castle on the broken road gave rise to tears in Gaston's dark eyes, but he could not stop to sob.

There could be no relief until he delivered the key to Avonlea's rescue.

_____________________________

His Majesty King Maurice of Avonlea had more to contend with than any man in the line of kings before him.

He slouched on the throne, safe behind the only enchanted walls in all the land, his heart heavy with dread. The wards would not hold for long. It was the ogres. Ogres, advancing on his country from all sides, eating their way through his army's defenses like a tide of acid. A cancer. For every ogre slain, three hatchlings were born into the world to take its place.

For over a decade, the king had agonized over the monsters' advance into his realm. He had been driven to desperate acts; striking fruitless alliances with surrounding kingdoms, pleading to fairies for protection, sending wave after wave of men to their deaths, bankrupting the castle coffers and for what?

Nothing short of miracles could rid Avonlea of the hoards that surrounded it now.

Whatever joy Maurice had known in his time as king had been swallowed by this massive, unyielding threat. Constant dread and sorrow had taken its toll on the man; he was Avonlea made flesh - dying a slow death, decaying on his throne and condemned to wait for the final killing blow that would end them all.

The king knew he was to die. He could feel the truth over him as sure as the blood sky. The ogres would break the fae wards, storm the castle and come for him. This was a truth he could never speak. For Belle. For the sake of the people who remained, those who lived in the castle, the servants and nobility alike, those who did not, could not, leave Avonlea because there was still hope...no, he would not give in. He would not admit defeat.

Yet the king knew.

Avonlea had been doomed from the day the first ogre crossed into the country.

So, when a young knight dragged himself into the main hall, sweating, panting and but a breath away from collapsing, Maurice expected to hear nothing but news of yet another failure, more ruined men. More death.

"Sire, that knight is returned from the mountains." Stated an advisor at his side, an older cleric who had served Maurice's father before him. Off the king's blank expression, the cleric continued, "We allowed a small contingent to venture there to scout for the ogres' course of advance."

Whatever remark Maurice might have made was interrupted, as Gaston didn't wait, he heaved himself forward and ventured as close as he dared to the throne. Both Maurice, the cleric advisor and several of those gathered in the grand hall tensed as Gaston reached to his belt and withdrew a curved, ornate blade.

"Sire, the dagger of the Dark One." He declared, before anyone could interrupt him.

There. It is done.

A shocked silence surrounded the men.

If true, then Gaston held in his gloved hand, a blade imbued of such vicious black magic that legends of it had passed between generations for centuries.

Stories of a demon mage who dealt in favors, the fables growing with every retelling, embellished between generation and culture. Any such tales had long been forgotten by the besieged common folk. Maurice remembered the stories of the Dark One all too well, however. The magician with a black heart, an evil soul bound to a dagger.

Limitless power for he who held the blade.

The king rose from his throne, shocked hope blooming painfully in his chest. The gods mock me with this, they have forsaken Avonlea for years, and now this? It cannot be, it cannot! "How did you come by this?" He asked, voice a rasp and eyes fixated on bright curving silver.

Those gathered in the throne room - broken men, the knights of the king's guard, the few remaining nobility and a gaggle of ladies in waiting - leaned in closer to hear Gaston's response, silent and joyful. This beautiful young knight! He who holds the cursed dagger holds the last hope for our people! Yes! Yes, how could it be?

Gaston cared nothing for accolades now. In truth, the man was beyond exhausted. But he had made it this far, and his king had asked after the tale.

"It was brought to us by a young woman who crossed our path in the mountains. She had been running for days and near collapsed at the sight of us, from relief or shock I cannot say. The captain ordered me to feed and provide to her what we could. In aiding her, she told what she had been forced to endure, tormented and held captive by the mage. In her confinement she had learned the truth of its power, that he who should hold the dagger will control the Dark One. She had stolen it but the creature so terrified her that she gave the blade to me before taking a horse to seek out her family in the nearest village. The creature has a habit of abducting young women and forcing them to...attend him in his lair."

The king had no interest in the depravities of a monster, and so made no remark on the wily servant girl. His focus was only on the blade, the power it could command. Already his mouth watered at the thoughts spinning through his mind.

New hope. Unending prosperity. Vengeance.

"And yet you have held this power, only to gift it away?"

Still standing before the throne, Gaston lowered his eyes for a moment. He thought it strange, that he had fought in several battles, but that his heart should hammer now on making a request of his king, and such a small request at that, in light of the gift he had just presented.

"I have no need of a slave, even one so powerful as he. I took the blade with the intention that a greater man than I could command the Dark One to restore our country. I...I do request a boon, your majesty."

"Name your price, knight." If this was indeed the dagger of legend, then the king was ready to promise away anything. Anything.

Gaston cleared his throat and took a deep breath. "I...I request the hand of your daughter, Belle."

King Maurice didn't even look up, eyes too busy taking in the inscription etched into the blade. Rumplestiltskin. An incantation or enchantment, perhaps.

"Granted. You will wed when she comes of age."

Gaston nodded, relief washing over him. "I thank you, your grace."

The king dismissed the young knight's gratitude, and took the blade for himself. He gripped it, and good gods I can feel it!

Magic thrummed from the blade over his bare skin. Power. Unlike anything he had ever known. Joy, rage and sorrow all at once. Truly, it was intoxicating.

" 'Tis a small thing after this gift." No more waiting. "Tell me, how do I bring it forth?"

"Hold the dagger, like so," Gaston gestured, "And summon him by title."

King Maurice stood taller for all the eyes watching, held the dagger before him and called out, "Dark One, I summon thee."

There was no thunderclap, no rise of flame or roiling fog to announce a new, powerful presence in the main hall. Rather, the appearance of the Dark One was quite subtle. So subtle that no one realized him until the creature deigned to speak. One moment there was nothing, and in the next, there sat the imp on the edge of the long banquet table, a goblet of wine in one clawed hand, a half-eaten bread roll in the other.

"And who are you to summon me?" The creature demanded, hardly sparing the king a glance up from his buttered bread. Clearly, his supper had been interrupted by the summoning, and he'd taken some of it with him to the Avonlea castle.

The other knights drew their swords against him and the ladies drew back in startled terror, but the Dark One paid them all no mind.

To his credit, the king did not show his fear. Never in his years had he seen a man bearing the features of a dragon or...perhaps this was a dragon in the shape of a man, some ungodly blend of man and demon, and infinitely powerful besides.

That the king showed no fear was a testament to his underlying desperation. If the dagger held no sway, then the demon would sure enough kill them all for the insult of having been summoned. It ends, the king thought, ready. Be it by the hand of the Dark One or the castle overrun by walking nightmares, this is my last day. I will see my Collette on the other side of death, and I know our Belle is safe. That is a small blessing in all this misery.

"Mind your tongue, demon. It is your king who summons you." Maurice declared, all bravado, drawing himself up and stepping closer.

"I've killed for less disrespect than that, and I bow to no man." The creature hissed, finally turning to look at the king directly.

Maurice paused as his heart kicked in his chest; the Dark One was a terrible sight, and unpredictable besides. Nothing could stop the creature from leaping at him, tearing into him with claw and fang or the monster might just hiss an ancient word and Maurice could crumble into dust, the blood could boil in his veins or the entire castle could collapse down around them, the end of all Avonlea.

But the king was a desperate man.

If the legends of the Dark One were true, then there was only one choice.

He would command this demon to do all that must be done.

"I hold your dagger, Dark One. You will obey me."

The Dark One dropped his wine, the goblet slipping from a nerveless talon. "How did you find-?!"

"Your prisoner, she escaped with it. Now the power over you rests with me."

And there it came over the face of the Dark One, a sly, dangerous smile.

Despite the grin, it was clear that murder was on his mind. "Hmm. Clever girl. It's so hard to find good help these days! So you have my dagger, king. What do you want with me?"

So quickly were they coming it. "I want you to drive back the ogres from our land. Forever."

The Dark One rolled his eyes. A strangely human gesture. "And how would you like me to accomplish such a task?"

"I don't care how, so long as the ogres no longer pose a threat to my people." The King snapped, bloodlust rising at the promise of retribution against those that had killed so many of his countrymen. "This land has bled for a decade. Kill them. Eat them. Change them into birds if you want. I just want them gone."

"Oh, is that all?" The Dark One groused.

"I don't care for your disrespect." A sudden, cruel smirk curled the lip of the king. He tightened his hold on the dagger hilt. "Kneel before me, creature."

And just like that, the Dark One did.

Those assembled in the throne hall watched, terrified and awestruck, silent with wonder as the Dark One's eyes widened, the blackness within expanding to encompass his entire gaze, and his body complied with command. There the creature knelt, bent in fealty, silenced by the curse.

Gaston dared to break the stunned silence that hung so heavy in the air. "The dagger controls the beast, my lord, just as the legends told."

Amazed, the king kept his gaze steady on this monster kneeling at his feet. "Gaston, you will ride with me to see the ogres from our land. No longer a knight, you now head in the king's guard."

Exhausted beyond measure was Gaston, but his loyalty was too deeply ingrained to refuse. He was an obedient dog. "Your highness, I thank you."

"No, it is Avonlea that thanks you."

From his place kneeling on the floor, Rumplestiltskin narrowed his eyes.

Chapter Text

The king's guard assembled at once, bringing on their mail and armor, their helmets and their blades, always at the ready.

Horses were brought forth from the stables as ordered.

These last loyal men who had seen the worst of the ogres' destruction, yet remained to guard the last of the royal line, the last of Avonlea.

Maurice mounted his horse, his hand fused to the hilt of the dark dagger. He had seen the power it held over the creature. Seven hells, he had felt it. His command, the mage's immediate compliance. The Dark One was but a puppet on a string, forced to do as commanded and now, here, there was only one command to give.

Kill them all.

______________________________

The king's guard rode out, leading a small squad of ten man to the edge of Avonlea's ruins. There an ogre hoard was huddled. They had gorged themselves and were content to rest. The monsters were but a handful of miles from the castle and Maurice paled to realize that, had Gaston not brought the dagger forth, he would have met his end before the day was through. Not even the strongest spell of a fairy could withstand the blunt fury of an ogre hoard.

Look at them.

Hides of thick skin and hulking muscle, dull minds but possessing quick reflexes. The adults slept and rested, their bellies happily full, defensively surrounding a gaggle of new hatchlings, only days old. They were barely more than animals, these creatures, but impossible to tame and vicious toward all men. King Maurice felt his heart ache at the sight of them; for years he had been protected as these monsters ravaged his country.

Yes. For Avonlea. For all those who died.

Maurice steeled his mind against the crushing guilt he'd lived with for the last decade. He'd acted on the threat too late. While Avonlea's people lay dead and scattered, he had hidden away in the castle behind stone walls and meager fae magic, growing fat and old while the age of recruitment had grown younger each year. Seven hells, they'd resorted to taking in women and girls to tend the wounded. If not for the Dark One, how long would it have been before ladies found themselves in armor on the field?

No more dead after today.

He had a weapon now, a demon at his beck and call, and as the gods' witness, he would command the death of every last monster in his land and beyond.

Yes. This is right. This is just.

The king's steed stepped forward from the contingent. He withdrew the dagger, lifting it above his head, the dipping sunlight glinting bright off the blade. "Dark One, your master summons thee."

The miserable imp was less than thrilled to be summoned again, twice now in the space of hours. He revealed himself from a wisp of violet fog, a bit of show meant to intimidate the other knights. It worked, as they recoiled at the sight of him on the ground while they remained mounted, their horses shuffling with agitation both from his sudden appearance and from the scent of ogre, nary a half mile away down the hill. The King and Gaston were unimpressed by such a simple trick.

"Getting the hang of calling on me, eh? Don't get too comfortable there, Moe. All kings fall - whether by an outside enemy or by the blade of a knight with high ambition." The demon warned, openly eying Gaston.

The king glared down at him from the seat of his steed, "Silence, creature! Gaston is to wed my daughter, a reward for the loyalty he has shown to Avonlea and for delivering to me the key to your enslavement." He said, brandishing the blade.

The Dark One cringed as the sight of the dagger, a whipped dog. Then, he dared raise his eyes and may have frowned back at the king; it was difficult to distinguish between the smiles and scowls in a face such as his. "Your princess is barely more than a child."

"We are all children in the eyes of ageless evil." The king's own frown deepened. "You waste time speaking of matters that do not concern you. Go, drive the ogres from our land as commanded."

The creature bowed at the waist as his eyes were consumed by black, hissing, "As you wish, sire."

He then vanished from the grass only to reappear a moment later within the ogre camp.

Maurice reached to his belt for a spy glass, focusing the view to search for his demon. For several moments all he could see was resting ogre - many of them sleeping, sated and full after having sacked a long-abandoned farm, eating through the untended crops and what few animals remained. After, as was their habit, the ogres had mated for hours, an orgy mean to breed more monsters to unleash upon the world.

And only the Dark One could stop them. Only the demon could triumph where over a thousand of Avonea's men had failed.

Where is he...where is he...there!

"I see him." Maurice announced to the knights.

The Dark One was there, home amongst the monsters.

The king watched, holding his breath as he saw the demon looking about himself - it appeared that he was only assessing what surrounded him.

Maurice clenched his jaw as the ogres nearest the Dark One noticed him, rousing its fellows to this new, unwelcome stranger in the midst of their herd. Even from his place on the hill, Maurice could hear the shuffling and the growls as the ogres awoke.

From what the king could see, the Dark One stood steady, unfazed by the sure death faced by any other man in his position.

Then, the Dark One moved, crouching into a kneeling position and he began to glow.

A bright golden light began to surround him, growing brighter and brighter, until the king was forced to look away to save his eyes. He could not see the demon any longer but he could see the figure still glowing bright, a beacon of gold.

And then-

KRACKOOM

A deafening roll of thunder from the blood sky.

The king and his knights' steeds stumbled and reared, neighing in alarm as something, some invisible force rocked through the air.

Gaston was unsure of what had just happened - the Dark One had vanished into the glowing light that surrounded him and then sent some strange energy into the air. It felt like being buffeted by a storm wind in an instant. There in one moment and gone the next. He could see nothing be they had all felt it.

Once he'd regained control of his borrowed horse, he returned his attention to the ogre herd below the hill.

The king and his men watched, transfixed, as magic shred its way through the ogres, slaughtering them without mercy or hesitation. Bright flashes of magic struck some, while strange spells came upon others, freezing ogres to ice, changing them to stone in grotesque statues, still others fell dead without a sound, one became water, another crumbled to dust, many burst into flame. This wave of destruction expanded as a ring with the Dark One at its center. The wave of death flowed through the hoard, felling every ogre until none were left to stand.

The Dark One rose from his place in the grass, dizzy for a moment from the energy expended in such a spell. What the king had commanded of him was no small feat, true, but the Dark One had no love for ogres. When he had first taken on the curse, he had rid his homeland of them in similar fashion. He'd done it to save the child soldiers, all of them forced to fight in a war that had never truly been won. It had been his choice, then. A noble thing he had done, an act to save his people, the children of his village abducted into service. It had been a vengeance as well, avenging his former cowardice by slaying the monsters that had had such an influence on his past life.

Whether noble or selfish vengeance, ending the ogres centuries ago had been his choice.

How times have changed, he thought bitterly as he took in the carnage that surrounded him.

Gore stained the ground, and the sky grew redder still. Charred corpses smoked into the air, the stink foul enough to turn a man's stomach. Statues of solid rock, ten, some of them fifteen feet tall. Dead ogres all around, their bodies sure to rot into the grass, feeding Avonlea after having devoured so many of its people.

Some justice, there.

The Dark One sighed, tired as he took in what he had done. He was a killer, that was true. Too true. He had killed men and women over the span of centuries. Most of them had been deserving of their ends - vengeance for abandoning him when he was weak, some he'd killed for the insult of trying to steal from him rather than strike a deal, others who had come to kill him, fools who thought the Dark One could be killed like any other animal, his head to be mounted as a grotesque trophy in a hunters hall.

Some he had killed simply for annoying him. Others he'd killed for no other reason than they were fairies - and all of those he truly enjoyed killing as a repayment for the interference of the self-righteous one.

Yes, the Dark One was a killer.

Brutal and remorseless.

A heart as black as the night, a cruel soul bound to a cursed blade.

He was a creature of near limitless power, and tenfold more dangerous than even the most vicious of monsters because the Dark One was, above all, calculating.

And yet, as he stalked through the death he had rendered under the command of a coward king, the demon paused.

In the silence following slaughter, he could hear small voices. Confused, afraid, inhuman.

The Dark One followed the sounds to the body of a felled ogre. A female. Nestled against her, chirping in fear that their mother wasn't moving, that she was silent and growing cold, were the hatchlings. Only days old. So feeble, such soft things, these babies.

He frowned, thinking on the words of the king. The command.

Kill them all.

It would be nothing to kill these mewling little monsters. He didn't even need to call on his magic. He could reach down and break their necks, step on them, beat them with rocks, choke the life from them. Brutal.

He raised his hand, thinking instead to call on a spell to strike them down. Their deaths would be immediate, silent, painless.

Remorseless.

The demon paused, again thinking on the words of the king.

Calculating.

Rather than rip into them, the imp instead waved his hand, transforming them all into doves. Ah. Their lives as ogres was at an end, their lives as doves had just begun. The command of the king was satisfied - at the man's own suggestion, no less. These caged birds would serve to show the new peace that would settle over Avonlea now the threat was defeated. He smiled to himself, rather pleased with the symbolism.

He picked up the cage and watched the doves inside as they fluttered and pecked about. The Dark One was a complicated being, but in truth he liked simple things.

But then he felt it, that hard pull on his heart.

The king was calling him to his side, the bastard wanted his dog back.

The demon sighed. He knew it wouldn't end here.

He tightened his grip on the cage and vanished from the ogre slaughter, and reappeared a moment later at the top of the hill, surrounded by knights.

He handed off the cage to the knight nearest to him, "Birds, for the menagerie."

Gaston had dismounted, his eyes wide as he stared down at the field of death. So many ogres dead. The invincible enemy, destroyed in a flash of golden knight. He sank to his knees in awe. A sob burst forth from his chest, a cry of true joy. Brothers, you are avenged.

"The Dark One has done it. The ogres are no more."

His voice was held in such wonder. How could it be true, that a decade of bloodshed had come to an end? How was a cursed demon the savior of them all?

Near him, the other knights were in a similar state of shock. Some of them openly wept the names of their loved ones felled by the roving monsters - their brothers, children and wives. Some whispered blessings. Still others shouted with joy.

The king stood, a statue rooted to the ground. The ogres are gone. It is over. My Avonlea, you are saved.

The Dark One held no joy in being forced to kill at the order of another. Only animals were content in their slavery. Beastly though he was, the Dark One was no animal.

He rolled his eyes and huffed at the knights assembled, ignoring their grateful applause, tired from the use of magic and just done with the lot of them. "Yes, yes, you're all very welcome. Now I'll have my dagger and be off-"

"No."

The knights fell silent and stepped aside in respect to the king.

Maurice came forward and stepped in close to the Dark One, eyes bright with mad vision toward the future. "No, creature. With your power you could restore Avonlea, even raise it beyond what it was before."

"That wasn't the deal." The demon hissed, looking to Gaston.

His eyes spoke for him. Young knight, stand for me. Don't let him do this. Please.

King Maurice dismissed the protest. "Whatever bargain you struck with Gaston has no bearing with me. As I hold your dagger, so I hold you, Dark One. Now come, we return to the keep for a celebration the likes of which Avonlea has not seen in an age."

The king guided his horse to turn around, heading back toward what remained of the small stone castle, with the knights flanking in close. Some of them spared the demon a look of pity, sympathy for a creature to find itself suddenly chained. This went beyond slavery. This was compulsion.

Still.

They were loyal to the king above all else.

The Dark One would find no friend among them.

Save for one.

Gaston remained behind, watching as the king's guard rode down the hill before turning to address the demon. He had summoned the Dark One himself only once; after seeing the servant girl off with a horse and enough food for her journey home, he was ashamed to admit that, yes, he had called the demon before him in the mountains.

Why?

Gaston could not say. There were many reasons why he had done it. Curiosity, chief among them. He had seen many strange and amazing things in his time as a knight. Terrible things. He had wanted to know, needed to know, if the girl's story was true. Could it be true? A demon mage of terrible power, bound to a blade?

He had to know.

And so he had done it, raised the blade and summoned the Dark One. There in the mountains, Gaston had learned that it was true. All of it.

The legends of the Dark One were not legends, not myth. The demon was real, as real as Gaston himself. As great a force of destruction as the ogres.

But with the blade, this force could be harnessed, commanded to an end.

Much as he had in the main hall of the castle, the imp had arrived to greet Gaston, silent in the mist and asked to know who had called on him. The man had been stunned to see him, and foolishly gave away his name. Too late he'd realized his mistake and fumbled to explain why he held the cursed blade - his land overrun with monsters, so many dead and dying, and Avonlea was desperate.

Gaston had sunk down to his knees and begged the demon for help, promising anything the Dark One could want in return.

The imp had perked at that, his interest roused and gleeful.

"Anything, you say? Oh, I love it when they say that!"

He'd smiled and promised to return when summoned next to give his aid.

The Dark One hadn't known of Gaston's thought to give the dagger over to the king and clearly, the king had no intention of letting the Dark One walk free now.

"I...I am sorry, I did not think he would do this." Gaston said, truth in his words. In this moment, he realized just how naive he had been, to hand over the dagger to his king and expect the man to give up command over such power moments after the threat had been defeated. No. The ogres were dead but the country was still shattered.

No.

The king was no fool.

But perhaps Gaston was.

He put trust into his leige and in doing so, his faith had condemned the Dark One; everything of the demon was forced to comply to the whim of another. It was no way to live, but the lives of his people at been saved at the cost of one imp's freedom.

The Dark One shook his head and found that he could conjure no anger against the knight, for in a particularly annoying way, Gaston reminded him of his own kind son, lost so long ago now.

"You are young, dearie. Young and naive. It's no matter, certain deals tend to fall in my favor. This one will prove no different."

Chapter Text

The blood sky hung heavy over Avonlea, a decade of death that blocked both moon and stars.

With one dagger, one demon, the command of a king and a spell of slaughter, all of Avonlea felt the change.

The Dark One forced a chain of immediate death throughout the realm, sparing man and beast, his spell targeting the hoards that invaded this pocket kingdom and fed on its people. That sinister incantation felled every ogre in the realm, the sky crimson with wrath.

Still.

As the last ogre fell, Avonlea would know peace again. The skies would clear. The villages would rebuild. The sun would shine on this land once more.

Yes. Peace for my country. The king looked to Gaston and well remembered the reward he had granted the knight. Safety for those next in line.

Grand thoughts had come over the king at the sight of the sea of dead monsters and there, in the center of it all, the Dark One.

Limitless power and it was all his.

The demon was only a conduit to the king's wishes now. A tool. Maurice had had to stare at the creature after he'd returned from the slaughter, his mind spinning. So small a figure, the Dark One was larger than any imp or goblin, yet smaller than most men of Avonlea. In the castle hall the king's desperation had overrun his fear in commanding the mage; now, under the haze of the blood sky, he appeared just as grotesque to the eyes of the king...and yet, for all his bizarre visage and the power he could wield, this creature belonged to him. The Dark One was owned. He was to obey the king's every whim, more loyal than any dog in the kingdom and more compliant than any slave.

The king tightened his hold on the dagger as they made their way into the castle.

His stomach rumbled and he was struck with the thought that it had been years since he'd had a meal worthy of a king.

Every last ogre is dead. A celebration. A feast for every meal.

"Creature, stock the kitchens! I would have a feast. Our days of bone broth and shriveled cabbages are over."

Meekly following the other knights into the main hall, the Dark One lifted his head and, without protest, took a deep breath to focus his thoughts.

Within moments, the few servants who remained in the kitchen below were startled by the sudden hunt and harvest that had just come upon them, shelves and pantries that had long stood empty were now bursting with food. Exotic fruit and vegetables at the height of their seasons, the meat of every beast in farm and forrest, breads fresh from the bakeries of lands unknown.

Or, unknown to the surprised servants - the Dark One had summoned the food from the neighboring kingdoms, just a bit of petty theft.

A feast, just as the king commanded.

The Dark One thought it fair. Let the countries that surrounded this kingdom know hunger for a night where Avonlea had known it for years.

Distantly, those in the main hall could hear the servants clamoring with joy, all of them hustling to contend with the food.

The knights of the king's guard were spreading throughout the castle, excitedly telling everyone with a pair of ears the wondrous news - all the ogres dead, every last one felled by the Dark One. He could hear them, the knights shouting happily, the thrilled shrieking of ladies, the murmured prayers of thanks from the clerics and then their immediate concern that no god had come forth to save them, but rather the darkest mage of legend. He snorted a soft laugh at that.

Yes, bring down all the gods of old and worship me - I am the true savior of Avonlea!

The demon was pulled from the tempting thought of beautiful virgins offered in sacrifice once the king began to voice his intent.

"So much to do, tomorrow starts the rebirth of my country but tonight we celebrate!" Maurice turned to face him directly, and the Dark One felt insulted anew as the king spoke to him like a damn child, words slow and steady. So quickly these people had lost their fear of him, not even the ladies in the main hall appeared worried over him now. So quickly they had forgotten what he was.

Well. All in due time.

"Creature, my daughter is in the far north kingdom of Arendelle, that land ruled over by the Ice Queen. I sent her away for protection, along with our highest clerics and learned knights. They were to safeguard my daughter and the hallmarks of our culture...they were to continue on when Avonlea fell." The king took a deep breath, steeling his resolve. "Bring my Belle to me, creature. Bring her home."

The king's voice had grown soft and earnest at the mention of his child. Ah. Here was a father who cared. As far as any man could care for a daughter, at least. All women were dowry debts, true, but they could be useful when it came time for the father to arrange a marriage. The Dark One thought on that. King Maurice had promised his daughter to the knight, a man far below her station of royalty, but the girl's hand had been promised away to the man who had brought the savior of their people.

The king had not expected to see tomorrow. The plan had been for any forward scouts who'd lived after the ogres' latest advance to light a signal fire once the enemy had come into view. That signal fire would only be lit once the ogres had come too far to be stopped. From there, the king would order every servant to flee the castle, set them off into the desperate world to scramble for safety while he and the knights of the king's guard would make their final stand.

But the fire did not flare.

Gaston had come with the dagger.

The Dark One had cast his wrath.

And now, the king was thinking of the future of his country with a galvanized sense of hope. King Maurice was a man of his word. The marriage would go forward. In time. Yes. In time the marriage between princess and knight may yet prove to be a fine match. Just the symbol of new hope the people of Avonlea would need in this time of uncertain rebirth.

Hmmm.

Perhaps the king was not a complete fool.

The girl, then. Belle.

The Dark One was silent for a moment, and then clapped his hands together, just once.

The main hall was suddenly flush with people, the old clerics and most learned of knights and servants, all of whom had left months ago and never expected to see their homeland again.

And there in the crowd of confused servants, the girl.

Dressed so plainly in a cotton day dress of pale blue, her hair up in a girlish knot and a frown of surprise and confusion furrowing her brow, was the one princess of all Avonlea.

"Belle!"

The girl turned and her face brightened with a smile as she rushed to the king, "Father! I don't - how are we home? I was just in the garden with Anna-"

Maurice swept the girl into his arms, the embrace of pure joy. He spun her once before setting her down on her feet, his wide smile a perfect match to her own. "It's a miracle, Belle! The ogres are dead, never to rise again."

"We defeated the ogres?" She asked, shocked. Her eyes shone with tears of happiness to see her father again, but she had to know how such a thing could be possible. "How can it be? The last I saw of you, we were saying our last goodbyes and now-"

The imp rolled his eyes. "Curious little cat, isn't she?"

The girl turned and all joy swept from her face once she looked upon him. "Father, who is-?"

The king laughed at his child's concern and couldn't resist the gloat, "That is the creature who banished the ogres from our lands. You adore books Belle, I know you've read legends of the Dark One."

Shocked at her father's words, Belle allowed herself the freedom to stare at this thing standing before her. It was a creature built in the form of a man, standing on two legs, taller than she, but smaller than every other man in the hall, and clothed in fine, tight leathers. She looked upon the creature's naked face, taking in the scales covering his - for this being lacked all womanly curve - face, neck, and the few inches of chest exposed by his shirt. The creature's hands were bare, each finger tipped with a black talon. A ragged mane of brown hair topped his head, just barely concealing the pointed tips of his ears. The large eyes that held hers were bright copper in color and unnervingly intense.

For one of the few times in her life, Belle felt unbalanced, and words failed her. "The Dark One...this is...father, why?"

The king scoffed at Belle's shock, fully confident in his control of the mage. In truth, his relief at the defeat of the ogres was intoxicating; he had been trapped with the constant despair of rule under onslaught for over a decade - he gloried in the freedom from that pressure now, cruelly parading the instrument of his victory about the court.

"Fear not, my child. Gaston brought the dagger to me, and so I now have the Dark One dancing on puppet strings. Not so fearsome now, are you, creature?"

Belle's eyes widened at her father's taunting. Surely, her king must be mad to prod the magician of legend.

When the Dark One answered back, Belle shivered at the sound. His voice was higher than she expected, but not unfitting for a man of his stature. Still, his tone was mocking, if not downright scornful; a tone never directed to her father in all the years of Belle's memory.

"Perhaps not, sire, though your girl fears me." He said, eyes steady on the young woman.

She was pretty, to be sure; the princesses and noble ladies that he had become acquainted with over the years were all lovely, all of them with compelling eyes and shining hair, to say nothing of their pleasing figures. The Dark One often wondered if there was something in the water.

The king turned to his daughter, "What is there to fear, my lovely Belle? He is a pet now. Go on," he urged her, "Give him a scratch behind the ears for his good work today."

A nervous round of laughter flowed through the gathered court, though no smile touched Belle's lips.

She paid no mind to her father's joke, her eyes were riveted on the dragon man, this demon mage who had saved what remained of her people in their final hour of need. She stepped closer to him, wary but not afraid. "You are the Dark One, truly?"

He giggled at her question, chirping like a bird and startling her. "Well, I'm not the blue fairy, dearie. She's a bit shorter. I hold many titles, the Dark One being chief among them, yes. And you are the princess Belle?"

Despite it all, Belle smiled at him, spreading her skirt wide to give him a low curtesy. "I am, sir."

He raised a brow at her, frankly surprised at this welcoming display. He'd expected disgust and fear from the court of Avonlea, especially from a cloistered princess - but then again this pocket kingdom had been under siege for over a decade. Perhaps they did not find him so fearsome in comparison to those vicious giants. What fools.

He held out his hand to her, daring the girl to touch him now. "Your name suits you, young beauty."

Surprising him again, Belle showed no hesitation in placing her hand with his, not even when he curled his clawed fingers over her own in the ritual grasp of introduction. "You are very kind."

"Do not show such shock. Being evil does not forbid me from keeping my manners."

Belle shook her head at him, "You banished the ogres, sir, you cannot be all evil."

He flashed her a sly grin, showing his fangs. "I banished the ogres under command from your father. A command I would not have obeyed otherwise. And you presume that it was not I who set the ogres after your people in the first place."

Bright blue eyes widened at him, "You...?"

But he was finished toying with the girl and shooed her from him, his expression suddenly bored, eyes falling on the feast table and the food being served that called to his appetite. "Away from me, young miss, your betrothed will be wanting your company."

He turned away from her, going off to sit at the table and leaving a very confused princess in his wake.

_______________________________

At the far edge of the long table, the demon picked at the meal he'd been given by the terrified maid assigned to his service during the feast. A stuffed hen, a baked sweet potato, a large helping of buttered carrots. He was hungry from the energy it had cost him to comply with the bastard king's demands; in actual fact he was hungrier than he could remember being for the last several weeks, yet the stolen food was as ashes in his mouth.

Restlessness clawed at him. He hated this, being under the thumb of such a fool as this King Maurice of Avonlea, but for the moment he had no choice. As always, he would have to play his part to get what he wanted. Terribly vexing to his impatient nature.

"My Lord? D-Dark One, I could fetch you something else, if you'd like." The maid at his side told him, eyes watching him carefully, her thin body tensed in fear.

The maid. Sanka Carole, a mere slip of a girl at sixteen years old, with an uncle in the king's guard and a small mole on her neck, whose fondest wish would be to marry the squire she flirts with so innocently.

He knew all of this and more as soon as he'd learned her name. He also knew that she was immensely grateful to him for ridding the land of ogres but it was his appearance - and more specifically, his claws - that were so frightening to her.

"I...that is, if we have anything that would please you, sir."

He blinked and saw it now, what young Sanka was trying to ask him in her own delicate way. She was unsure of what he might favor to eat, and she prayed the rumors of his eating children were only gossip. He toyed with asking her for an orphaned toddler to nosh on as a joke, but thought better of it.

He shook his head and kept his hands still on the table so as not to startle her. "Do not trouble yourself, girl. I eat the same food as any man, I would only rather return home to the meal I was called away from when your king summoned me here." The thought of being home again stabbed at him: to be spinning by the fire, or reading some tale in a new language, away from the idiot on the throne and all this humiliation as his slave.

"I am sorry."

"Not your fault." He dismissed her concern. No. It was not her fault that he had been summoned by the fool. She was just a girl, but the Dark One could see a use for everyone. He turned the conversation to something more profitable for him. "Sanka, tell me of this squire you love."

She balked at his words, guilty heat flooding her cheeks, "What?!"

"Do not play coy with me. Speak as if I know all, which I do. I know there have only been the most innocent of kisses between you, but enough to build a promise on. How sweet." Love was a sickness, he had learned that his own way. Even speaking of it now made him nauseous.

"I - we haven't...there is no promise."

"Sanka. Wear this in your hair whenever you see your man, and he will call you his wife by next year's end."

From nowhere, the demon produced a golden ribbon.

So fine a thing, the silk glimmered in the light. Life in Avonlea being what it was, Sanka had never seen such finery. Her dress was plain linen, far outgrown and worn thin. Her shoes were the hide of a mule, her hair a tail of frizzed brown. She was plain goods wrapped in brown paper and twine, but if she were to adorn herself with such a fine ribbon...

Simple girl.

Sanka took the ribbon and watched the gold silk glint in the light. The ribbon was warm with enchantment. Such a fine ribbon, and if the Dark One's word was true - and the legends all told of his power to grant wishes - then she and Thomas would soon be wed. To marry Thomas, to be his wife and to start a family...what else was there in life for her? That future she'd always dreamed of, it had been nothing but a dream - for months she'd lived with the fear that Thomas would be called to face the ogres, that she would weep over his death.

But now...

The Dark One had brought hope to Avonlea, a thing more dangerous than the most ardent love.

"Dark One, you would give me this ribbon?"

"I never said it came without price." He warned.

"I have nothing to give you."

"You have more than you know. I will give you the ribbon, enchanted with good fortune to bring about the marriage you've wanted since laying eyes on your squire. In return, tell me of the court."

Sanka reached for the ribbon. Just as he knew she would.

________________________________

More from absent habit than true appetite, the Dark One crunched his way through the unfortunate game hen's bones and was just about to start on the potato when he glanced up as a flash of muddy green came into view. He looked up to see a handsome woman of middle years standing before him, the spring green shade of her dress long faded.

"Clarice Brownstone." He said her name plainly, as a greeting. Sanka had been very helpful in pointing out people of rank, servants of use, and matching names to faces.

The woman gasped lightly, surprised that he would know her name, but then, his powers were legend. Or so she assumed. He could have learned everything about her once she'd volunteered her name, but the Dark One was grateful for the reprieve. He knew all too well that he should enjoy this down time while he could - soon the king would be commanding him to move mountains.

"I...yes, I am."

"What do you want? Did you want to try for a deal? I'm sorry to say that I find myself under contract at the moment. However, if you were to be a doll and go kill the king for me, once I'm a free agent again you have my promise that I would be more than generous."

Clarice had seen for herself how the king had enslaved the Dark One and she did feel sympathy for him. Still, "I cannot do that."

"Pity." He huffed. "What do you want then?"

"I only wanted to thank you. For ridding our land of the ogres. For so long, they...my brother, he left to fight them and never came home. It's because of you that they've gone away. Thank you, Dark One, thank you, thank you."

He raised his brows again, surprised to be shown such open gratitude. Looking past her, he saw several other women, all of them vying for the chance to thank him personally for what he did, to touch the hands that had killed the ogres. No scowls of disgust? No screams of terror or calls to the clerics to rid the castle of his evil? He could sense nothing, only the warm aura of gratitude. Quite a nice change of pace for him.

"Ah, it was no matter." He waved away her thanks. "I've no love for the ogres, it was a command I was happy to hear."

Clarice ignored his dismissal, and reached to him, taking his hands into her own. "It was no small thing to the people here. For ten years the monsters came for us. In the rain, in the dark, in the day. Nothing could stop them. They ate their way through every man the king put in front of them. Avonlea was doomed, until you. You saved all of us, Dark One. You may not know what to do with it, but you have my eternal thanks."

Eyes wide with surprise, the mage watched as Clarice moved away, making room for another lady to thank him, and another and another. Despite how unfamiliar it was to be shown such gratitude, he found himself flattered by the attentions of so many ladies. He was only a man, in the end, and all men longed to be shown appreciation.

And it was just that, that all the ladies who remained of the court were favoring the Dark One, rather than their king, that his humiliation began anew.

As his eyes fell on his pet demon and all the ladies doting on him, King Maurice stood up, commanding the attention of the hall, "Ladies, away from him! You are not here to flirt, creature. Put yourself to a better use and entertain my court."

The Dark One scowled at the king's rudeness. He had, against all odds, found himself enjoying the feast. The attention from so many grateful ladies, more so. They had clasped his hands in their own, some of them had even shocked him with an embrace and, for the first time in centuries, he had felt the soft press of a woman's lips to his cheek. He wore several fragrant leis of wildflowers around his neck, hastily woven gifts from grateful wives and mothers who had nothing else to offer.

He watched with regret as the women retreated away from him under their king's command. It was a true effort to suppress his snarl, "Entertain the court. How?"

Maurice shrugged, "Perform magic tricks, conjure some music. Can you dance? Sing us a song, perhaps."

Seated at her father's side, Belle could see the fury building in the Dark One, how her father was provoking him to show his position. This was some petty ploy to remind those gathered in the hall that the mage was only a slave, not a savior. The Dark One might be forced to obey, but no good could come of this. "Father-"

"Yes, sing to us of the first years - you are the Dark One and so lived when the world was young. Sing of it."

Belle put her hand over her father's forearm to gain his attention. "Father, perhaps the Dark One would just prefer to partake of the meal, or retire to a room? Banishing the ogres must have been tiring, I imagine."

Still seated at the banquet table, the captive demon raised a brow at the protests of the princess. It was clear she meant to divert her king from forcing him to perform, but why? What difference did it make to her what foolishness the king commanded of him?

The king brushed off his daughter's hand, "Nonsense, the creature is tireless and in time will serve many uses. In any event he will not have a room, but the dungeon or he shall vanish until I have need of him again."

Belle fell silent, and the Dark One vanished from his seat at the table and reappeared a moment later in the center of the hall.

From all sides of the court music could be heard, and then the Dark One began to sing.

Belle shuddered, not from the soft beauty of the creature's voice, but for the chained fury in his eyes when he looked upon her father.

Chapter Text

While the king delighted in his commands, Avonlea's princess couldn't stomach a bite of the food set on her plate. She looked about her, to the castle servants and knights she'd left behind months ago, and saw them all happily reunited with their fellows who had remained, all of them gorging themselves at the feast tables. And such a feast it was. With the country overrun, food had quickly become scarce. Belle could hardly recall a time when she hadn't been hungry; often she wondered if her petite size could be hung on the years her belly had spent empty.

As the ogres had made their indomitable advance across the land, the castle had swiftly lost any standing as a royal house. It seemed that overnight it had become a refuge to both the noble class and the peasants. All were desperate, all were afraid.

But thanks to the dancing demon, Avonlea was free.

Belle pushed her plate away and looked to the main floor of the hall, her eyes seeking him.

The Dark One was there, some stringed instrument in his hands, strumming a tune along with his song. The words were not in a language that Belle had ever heard. Could he be fooling them all, just singing nonsense? Or were the words truly an incantation, a sinister command that would kill them all in their sleep, freeing him from her father's control?

Just thinking it, Belle felt that a cold hand was squeezing her heart, and she rushed to gulp at her wine to banish the thought.

No!

That couldn't be her end - sent away from her doomed country only to be brought home by dark magic and killed in her bed?

No. Please, no.

The Dark One finished his song, bowing deeply to the ladies who had gathered in close to listen. Belle saw that he wore several wildflower leis about his neck, gifts from those same ladies, Belle assumed. Well. A man would not accept gifts from those he meant to murder, would he?

But the Dark One was not a man, truly. And while he had declared himself as evil, Belle didn't feel it to be true.

Under command or not, the Dark One had saved countless lives. Avonlea could rebuild, and it was all down to him.

Belle took a deep breath to settle her nerves. He is not evil. I've seen true evil and it's not him.

She resolved to speak with him again. Alone, if she could manage it. A near impossible feat, but she needed to try.

Perhaps I can weave flowers for him of my own.

The princess gave a soft smile at the thought, and when she looked to the Dark One again, she found that he had already fixed her in his intense stare.

______________________________

As all parties do, the first feast Avonlea had seen in years drew to a swift close.

Such a harvest of rich food, a river of wine after a decade of drought, the delight in taste, the warmth that spread through the body, the sluggish movements, the slowed thoughts.

Belle watched as cleric and knight alike began to take their leave, the advisors and servants intent for their beds, all of them bound for the first content sleep in years. She watched as those assigned to her care began to depart, reacquainting themselves with the castle. She waved off her yawning maid, dismissing the woman to wait for Belle in her bedchamber.

"I'll be in to change right behind you." Belle reassured her.

"If you're sure, my lady."

"I am. I only want to look out the window of the tower. Perhaps I can see the statues the Dark One made of the ogres from there." Belle said, the lie easily sliding off her tongue.

Her maid nodded. "Very well. I don't know that the mage brought our bedclothes when he brought us back home."

Belle shook her head, and thought of the legends that spoke of his cunning. "Somehow I'm sure the Dark One has thought of everything. Go. I will be in soon."

Her maid went off without further argument and for that Belle was grateful. Tonight was a celebration, but her country's freedom and been bought at the cost of the mage's freedom. She felt it her duty to find him and profess her thanks, as it was all too clear that her king never would.

She thought on that, her father, her king. All his grand declarations for Avonlea's future and then the cruel, petty commands that the Dark One prance about for his entertainment. Her king was drunk with the power he could weild through the Dark One's soul dagger.

Belle loved her father but she despised what she was seeing in him now.

Had the dagger corrupted Maurice already, or was this just a different side she was seeing of her father for the first time? Some sick mix of hope and cruelty.

The main hall was clearing out, Belle could not see her father or the mage. Her options were few. She could go to her father's bedchamber on the assumption that he had the Dark One with him, but then how could she speak with him? Her father would not allow it. Hadn't the king said something about caging the mage in the dungeon? Belle dare not venture there alone.

The princess worried at her bottom lip, and met the anticlimactic decision to just go to her room for the night. Perhaps her father would allow her to speak to the Dark One in the morning. She would thank him, then, weave him a chain of flowers since he seemed to favor them.

Belle started down the familiar path to her bedchamber, feeling both restless and exhausted. Her world had changed in the space of moments - her country had a future now and she had a future as a wife. That hint from the mage hung in her mind, but she hadn't had a chance to speak to her father yet. She knew the day would come, she was near her nineteenth year - her previous betrothal had been broken when her intended, a young duke whom she had only met once, was killed as he fought to protect a small keep from the ravenous ogres. While the peasants fled, her fiance stood his ground for Avonlea. Another life snuffed out too soon - he had only been seventeen, and quite kind. Belle remembered him fondly.

Who was she to marry now? Another duke?

She thought not.

Most of the noble families had fled Avonlea, saving themselves while their tenants were eaten alive in the fields. Those few who remained had come to the castle seeking refuge, but none of them were free to marry.

It did not matter.

Belle would learn her fiance's name at first light. She was sure her father would introduce them soon enough. The king had grand plans to rebuild; he remembered the bright, flourishing kingdom Avonlea had been before the ogres came. Belle had never known her homeland as anything but a place of impending doom. She was a child when they first came, any carefree memories there may have been had long been overwhelmed by tears for her fallen knights and terrified prayers with the clerics.

So many tears shed and not a single prayer answered.

We never should have prayed. There is magic but there are no gods who care for us. There is only -

The Dark One!

Belle stopped quick when she saw him. He was there, standing before a window on the top landing. She watched him and wondered what it was the Dark One was seeing with his strange eyes. Did he only see the courtyard below, or was he seeing another land, some faraway realm?

He was so intriguing to look upon, and so clever to speak with, though she prayed his comment of being the one to send the ogres across their borders was only a quip. Belle looked about the hall. Everyone was turning in for the night, and princess though she may be, no one would pay much notice to her now. And Belle herself? She knew every reason not to approach him, to just let him be. He may not want to be bothered, but she refused to let the opportunity pass. She had seen her father's cruel streak flare at the feast, exploiting his control of the Dark One by forcing him to sing and dance as a show of his power, purposefully humiliating him before the court.

For that, she knew her father would never apologize. The king could only allow himself to see the Dark One as an instrument toward the reparation of Avonlea, but Belle was not so obligated. The Dark One was more than a tool or animal to be put to work, he was intelligent and self-aware, and, standing there, simply staring out into the night, Belle was taken with the strange thought that he seemed...lonely.

She swallowed down her nerves and approached him.

"Dark One."

He blinked into awareness only after she'd given a gentle tug to his sleeve. He looked down at her, and Belle was startled to see that his eyes shined amber in the darkness when he turned to face her, much like a cat's. Most unnerving, but after what her father had put him through, Belle felt that he would be craving respect more than fear.

"Princess, why have you not retired for the night?"

The question surprised her.

"I will shortly but I wish to speak with you first. If you will allow it." She added. If they did speak, she wanted him to know it was his choice. One of the few choices he was allowed, now.

He openly stared at her, his face blank. Placid as a lake. "Why?"

"I want to apologize for my father." She said plainly. "You banished the ogres that would have surely laid waste to all of Avonlea, and in return my father reduced you to a jester."

He graced her with a quick grin. "And so the monster is granted sympathy from a princess? Even I could not have spun such a tall tale!"

He was mocking her but she did not think he was being cruel in doing so. More, he seemed in the mood to banter. Well. Belle would not disappoint him, she did so love to show her wit. "Hear me, please. Even though you were commanded, you deserve a reward for what you did for us. Have you ever known fear? Tonight will be the first night I will find true sleep without worry or nightmares of the ogres overrunning the castle."

"You will sleep easier with me prowling your palace than with the ogres in the fields?" There was a teasing quality to his voice, it seemed ever-present.

"I do not fear you."

Her frank words seemed to unbalance him for a moment. Good, Belle thought. Turnabout is fair play, Dark One.

"A strange girl you are, Princess Belle of Avonlea, not to fear me when your father attests you have read of my every exploit."

Belle nodded, "In this, my king speaks the truth. I have read tales of you, the shaded deals you've made, the things you've done. You are brilliant and devious. Had you wanted to bring us harm, you are powerful and clever enough to have done so. We should all be in awe of your greatness." She said, hoping to flatter him since he had proven open to it with the other ladies of the court. "In any case I have learned that authors are paid to spin grand tales. The grander the tale, the greater their pay, until there is barely more than but a grain of truth in every legend."

"Perhaps. And yet I remain the Dark One, here only by the command of your father and only because he holds my dagger. I will protect this kingdom, restore its lands and raise its people. I will sing and dance and perform the tricks for the court - but rest assured, little princess, the day your father loosens his grip on my blade is the day I flay him with it. The court and your fiancé will be quick to follow."

He had every reason to kill everyone in the castle - no one had raised their voice in his defense as the king forced him to perform, humiliating him rather than dropping to his knees in thanks for all the Dark One had done for their country. They were all complicit in their silence.

"And me?"

"You? Well, since my last girl ran off, I will need a new servant to tend my estate when I am finished here. A princess made slave will be very fitting. Sleep well while you can, my lady." He hissed as he swept into an exaggerated bow.

Belle allowed no trace of fear to show on her face. The mage hated Avonlea. He hated her father and he hated her.

Had he the freedom, he would burn the world down around them.

Had he only the freedom.

"I will, Dark One, for the first time in years. And it's all thanks to you."

Do the brave thing - bravery will follow.

Belle dared to touch his hand now, the second time in a night. She could feel the tension in his fingers, his smooth scaled skin, the graze of his claws.

"Thank you, Dark One. It is because of you that Avonlea's people are safe. No gods descended to answer our prayers. No number of knights and brave men could turn the tide of monsters. It was you, you alone who saved us. The crown thanks you. Our people thank you. I thank you, Dark One. You have my eternal thanks. I would ask you - no, beg you, how can I prove my gratitude?"

The Dark One watched her throughout her pledge, then glanced down to their joined hands with a shadow falling over his eyes.

"Oh, I'm sure I'll think of something."

Chapter Text

Belle excused herself from the Dark One after asking his permission to visit with him again in the morning. He consented, but was quick to remind her that he was no longer in a position to keep any promises.

"I might like to speak with you again but I'm sure your king would rather keep us apart."

She thought on this. "No. He believes you so harmless that he urged me to touch you after you brought me back from Arendelle. He never would have done so if he saw you as a threat."

He regarded her evenly, curious. "And what do you believe?"

"I believe that you would kill us all if it meant you could be free again. I believe that you are more dangerous than any force in the realm, more than any army or villain, more than any witch or twisted cleric. With such power, you have no need of weapons - you are the weapon. This is more than belief, this is truth."

The Dark One did not correct her.

Belle went on, "But even knowing this, I still thank you. And I would still like to speak with you if you would allow it."

The demon inclined his head toward her. "Tomorrow, then."

"Until tomorrow. Good night."

Belle mustered her courage once more in turning her back on him so that she might exit their exchange with dignity, and did not exhale until she was safely within her bedchamber.

______________________________

By habit, Belle's feet lead her to her room and she was quick to close the door shut and lean her back against it. She gasped into her hand, suddenly sobbing and suddenly on the floor as her legs gave way, unable to support her. It was all too much - Belle was overwhelmed with happiness for her country and yet so conflicted with dread to know it was the Dark One held their debt.

And she who had dared to speak with him, dared touch him!

The Dark One may not be the evil monster he'd declared himself, but he was dangerous. The lives lost to him may yet rival those taken by the roving ogres.

Avonlea is safe, but the Dark One will have his due...

Belle felt her hands shake with gripping dread. Nightmares flitted in and out of her mind, each one worst than the last.

"My lady!"

Startled, Belled looked up to find her maid approaching. In her scheme to speak with the Dark One and the enormity of the impact he'd had, how easily she had forgotten that she had sent her maid on ahead to her rooms. Kala was older than Belle, yet the difference in their years was not so great that Belle could ever look to the woman as a mother figure.

No.

There had been only one Collette, one Queen of all Avonlea. One mother, never to be replaced no matter how many maids and ladies her father had assigned to her care.

Kala knelt down to Belle and put a hand on her shoulder, the other stroking the crown of her head. "My lady, please, what's happened?"

"I-I just, I spoke with him, he-"

"Who did you speak with?"

"The Dark One!"

Kala gasped, her hands stilling over Belle. She was no fool of a woman - she had seen a great many more horrors than Belle, and with her own eyes. She had been married to a shepherd, once. They had lived the simplest of lives. A life of sheep and goats, hard cheese and bread. Even with many prayers there had been no children. What had once seemed a curse Kala now knew was a blessing. Had she been with child when the ogres came upon their farm, she never would have survived the journey to the castle. Her husband had not been so fortunate. Her man had drawn the monsters attention, a distraction, so that she might escape. He had promised to find her. Here in the castle, Kala was still waiting for him.

The divine intervention of the Dark One had changed the tide for all Avonlea, but the demon was still a creature imbued with dark magic. Dangerous and cunning, with a penchant for ladies - Kala had seen for herself how the Dark One had basked in the naive attentions of an overly thankful court.

She lifted the princess's face, this girl she had been ordered to attend and held dear much like a young sister.

"Why did you speak with it, princess? How did you find yourself alone with that demon? Did it touch you?"

Belle's brows drew together at the questions even as tears swept down her cheeks. "I only wanted to thank him for what he did. He's saved us, Kala. Our freedom was bought with his enslavement."

"Yes. But as you said, Avonlea is free now. We can have back everything that we lost, perhaps even more. The Dark One will do whatever our king tells him, you've seen it yourself. The creature has no choice."

It was just as Belle feared with her father. Even the maid was showing her greed now.

Has even the hint of power corrupted us all so quickly?

"And the Dark One will only grow to hate us for it."

"All the more reason for you to stay well away." Kala scolded gently. "Don't be fooled like those ladies at the feast tonight. They were fawning all over him and you saw how he enjoyed the attention! He is a dragon made a man, he would steal us all away if he had the chance. If the king commands him to live in the dungeon then it would be better to let him stay there until called on. He is too dangerous to contend with."

Belle nodded and swiped at the tears on her cheeks, taking a deep breath to calm herself. She would find no balanced answer here. Kala saw the Dark One much as her father did, merely a living conduit through which Avonlea could be raised into a kingdom above all others. To them he was only a tool, a thing to be used at will - nevermind that he had a will of his own. A will that had been bound to the will of their king.

Get up, Belle. You must rise for your people.

She couldn't do this, allow herself to become overwhelmed. She was the sole heir to Avonlea. Soon she would be wed and wait to take her place as queen - and no woman, princess or queen, could lead her country while crying on the floor of her bedchamber.

She must rally, and she could see only one way to that end.

"You are right, the Dark One is clever and dangerous and he hates the lot of us." Belle took another breath and forced herself to her feet, drawing herself up to a most unimpressive height that came to be half a head shorter than her maid. "My father intends for the Dark One to stay here amongst us. Familiarity may breed friendship."

Kala shook her head, repulsed with what the royal hinted at. "The Dark One is a beast, my lady. You must not fool yourself into seeing him as the pet your father claimed him as at the feast."

She nodded in agreement. Tired, so tired. The entire world was changed in so short a time.

"I know that he is no pet. Perhaps the Dark One is a beast, but any beast can be tamed in time."

______________________________

The sleep of the princess was a deep one, dreamless and dark.

The emotions of the night had drained her. The pure joy of seeing her father again, the immense swell of hope for her homeland and that crushing dread on learning the cost for its security. The awe of meeting the Dark One. The courage it took to speak openly with him. The resolve to befriend him.

Yes, Belle had fallen into her bed, exhausted and empty.

On waking, she only stared at the ceiling and wondered if it had all been a dream yet she knew her own mind.

It happened. All of it.

The young woman cleared her throat and rose from the bed. She didn't call for Kala; she was of a mind to be alone as she attended herself.

There was a jug of water at her basin for washing, and the clothing she'd left behind was still in the wardrobe. She took a deep breath as she considered her options. Being the heir to Avonlea, Belle had more to her wardrobe than any other woman, but with her country under siege her clothing had long since fallen out of fashion compared to what she had seen during her brief stay in Arendelle.

Would he care for such things?

From what Belle had noticed of him the night before, their powerful guest delighted in the attentions of women but she wasn't going to him with the intent to fawn over his power. She had already given her thanks in words. She meant to thank him in action.

Soon, and if at all possible, Belle would speak with the Dark One.

______________________________

Washed, dressed and ready, Belle ventured out of her room.

She could hear the muffled activity of the castle - voices, the clanking of pots and pans from the newly-stocked kitchen and distantly, the neighing of the few horses the castle could boast. The king loved horses, Belle was sure he would command the Dark One to conjure a full herd of horses before the day was through.

The thought was amusing, but Belle didn't let herself linger on it.

Her plan, such as it was, was to engage the Dark One in a bit of wit. He'd seemed agreeable to her company on the landing the night before, perhaps he would be again. There were a fair few topics Belle wanted to ask of him, but she worried after his answers. He had already proven himself as having a sniping tongue. He would rather mock her, or argue or banter than speak of anything serious.

Still...

After her initial shock on seeing him, this legendary master of black magic, Belle had come to be consumed by her curiosity.

Once the guards had confirmed that the Dark One left his cell in the dungeon at dawn, Belle made something of a nuisance of herself by asking all who she passed in the corridors if they had seen him. Many had seen the Dark One passed, all of them thanking him, blessing him for what he'd done, but none knew to where he'd gone. Finally, a young maid with a golden ribbon in her hair happily volunteered that, after having served him a breakfast of pastry and sausage, she'd shown the Dark One to the courtyard where he now rested.

Thanking the girl, Belle left the castle and stepped into the sun. Squinting her eyes against the bright light, Belle realized with a hard shock that it was the first sunny day in years, the land itself was rejoicing at the defeat of the ogres and the chance to begin anew. The sky was blue, such a bright blue that Belle couldn't resist staring up at the open cloudless expanse.

It was a wonderful sight to see. It was the sky as the sky should be, clear and free of the horror of bloodshed.

The world around her was righting itself and it was all down to him.

"Thank you, Dark One." Belle murmured to herself, blinking away the brightness and scanning for their captive mage.

She saw many people in the courtyard. The orphaned children taken on by the crown were playing - playing! - to one side, the sky clear for the first time in many of their lives. A group of praying clerics were huddled to one side, seeming to argue and Belle was sure she knew why. That the Dark One was to thank for their rescue had greatly unsettled the men. A great reckoning would come from them, Belle knew.

She looked ahead as she passed the men, to the ladies of the court who had been present at the feast the night before. They were shabbily dressed with dark circles ringing their eyes, just as Belle did, their bodies thin from stress and the scarcity of food, but they wore something grander than any gown this day - they were all smiling.

Yes.

Hope had returned to Avonlea in the space of a day.

Those in the castle were witness to the great change, and Belle knew that her father had already ordered messengers to share the news with the surrounding kingdoms that the ogres were dead, that Avonlea was on the rise and that King Maurice held the Dark One on a leash. There was a fine threat in that piece of the message.

The king well remembered the friends of the crown who had sent knights and soldiers to Avonlea's aid, just as he remembered the noble families that had fled, the names of the knights who had abandoned their posts and all those who sought to benefit from Avonlea's downfall.

The Dark One's bloody work was not finished.

Belle refused to think of such things now.

She would enjoy the morning, the renewal that surrounded her. It seemed that on this, the first day of the new Avonlea, everyone wanted to find their place.

Ah, and there you are.

There, under the budding shade of a long dormant apple tree, sat the Dark One. She saw that he wore different clothing this morning than he had the night before. Still his clothing was of the first order, but today it was a waistcoat of thick scaled hide over a shirt of burgundy silk. Scaled sleeves hugged so close to his arms that it was difficult for Belle to discern where the scales of his clothing ended and his own scales began.

His legs were similarly attired in close-cut dark hide and she saw with a start that the creature worse no shoes as he had the night before in the main hall. His feet were bare, and, far from human, his feet were the talons of a raptor.

He is a beast, but he is not a monster. She reminded herself, a mantra. Beast, not monster. Beast, not monster.

Belle approached him carefully, noticing as she came closer that he was working some kind of magic, a faint violet glow sparking between his fingertips. It was most difficult to distinguish his expressions, but if Belle was not mistaken, he appeared frustrated - a furrow to his brow and his mouth was twisted into a sneer.

"Good morning, Dark One."

He jumped, clearly startled, and the light in his hands died away. "It seems the fae wards over the castle are holding. I cannot do much within your walls." He said, beating her to the question that was just on her tongue.

"The fae wards only hold against what magic would do us harm. You'll just have to find another way to kill us all, I'm afraid."

The creature flashed his fangs at her joke, and she wondered if dark humor was all he could appreciate, given his nature.

"Mmm. Don't tempt me. I don't need magic to poison your court."

Belle fell quiet at that, wondering if she had just provoked him to evil action with her teasing, but she still came forward the final few steps to sit beside him on the soft grass. The courtyard had been barren only the day before, it was his magic that renewed the land, starting in the castle itself. The Dark One cocked his head to the side as she settled across from him, looking for a moment like a curious animal. Belle was not so foolish as to mistake him for such - the Dark One was far from human in his looks, in experience and ability, but he was no animal.

He was beyond anything she had ever known, and yet he seemed interested in her.

"Princess, why do you approach me when all the other ladies of your court shy away?"

Belle raised a brow and glanced about the yard: there were many ladies of the court, strolling in pairs, reading on benches, and one of them was even playing a lute. She noticed that many of them looked upon the Dark One with open glances and smiles, but none would approach to speak with him.

"I noticed that myself. Why do they avoid you? None shied from you at the victory feast, I recall a line out the door who wished to give their thanks."

"Wine stirs bravery in us all. They shook hands with me, gifted me flowers and some even kissed me last night. Today they wear bruises from upset husbands." He grumbled.

Belle looked across the gardens to the ladies, many of them she had known well for years. "I see nothing."

"You see with human eyes. I am no longer so limited." He scoffed, a touch smug.

"You were once a man?"

He bit the inside of his cheek. He had not meant to let that slip, but what did it matter, really, for the princess to know such a hint of his past? "Perhaps I was." A half-truth, here. He had been born a man, but so few had ever given him that basic respect. "But I asked you a question."

Belle shrugged, "I took no wine at the feast, I approach you with a clear head now as I did last night."

He nodded. "No wine flows through you, but it is still unwise to be seen speaking with me."

"Why? If you are to be our guest-"

"I am no guest of your kingdom!" He snapped at her. "I was ripped from my home at your father's command and forced to prance before his court like a fool! And you speak to me like some visiting nobleman. I am no guest, I have been brought low and made a slave."

Belle could have slapped him for daring to raise his voice to her, she would have been well within her rights to do this. However, she did not. With every word, she learned more of him, this creature called the Dark One. Her expression remained calm, and when she spoke, her voice was gentle. "I do not see you as such."

He rolled his eyes at her, "Oh, no, you see me as the other ladies did at the feast. A mysterious stranger, some interesting diversion and worth thanking for a bit of magic that did away with the ogres. Such a pest you are, but I would not see you be beaten for your curiosity."

Belle smiled at him, his veiled admission of concern. "Fear not. My father cannot hurt me when it was he who told me to touch you in gratitude for banishing the ogres."

The mage huffed, "He said that in jest, as you well know. I would not have you pet my ears, princess."

Belle bit her lip to stifle a giggle at the thought of keeping the ferocious Dark One as her pet, and she hoped he did not notice the sudden blush that suffused her chest and cheeks. "No one should be touched against their will. I would not think to pet you. You are a man, not a pup."

Briefly, he looked away from her pretty eyes. "I am not a man."

"No, perhaps you are not a man. But neither are you the monster from the old stories. May I show you something?"

He narrowed his eyes as she began paging through the leather-bound tome she'd brought with her. It was a mortal book, he sensed no power within the pages. Had she brought him a book of poetry or adventure? The Dark One would not mind terribly if she asked that he read to her - he did so adore the sound of his own voice, but he would be just as content to rest against the tree while she read to him as well.

"What is that?"

"I pulled this from what remains of our library this morning. A book of your legends."

He looked over at the painted pages, taking in each character. The first was a living flame, laying waste to the world's villages; the next a horned, snarling beast gifted with the blue eyes of a man, the description below listing him as a cruel prince cursed by a desirable enchantress. He smirked at that, thinking poor Zoso might not have appreciated the comparison.

The final, and most outlandish depiction of the Dark One was that of a spike-tailed dragon larger even than the castle that surrounded them. It reminded him of the time he spent in a deal with Smaug, spinning a barn's worth of gold thread in exchange for the dragon's own eggshell. He leaned in, getting a closer look at the artist's use of gilt paint on the dragon's wings.

Lovely.

"And these are all meant to be me?" He wasn't sure whether or not he should be flattered.

"Yes. Is it true that you can change your shape?"

He shrugged, "I can do most anything, but it is a rare thing that I take on the shape of an animal."

"Why not?" Belle wondered. "It would be amazing, to change into an eagle and soar through the clouds-"

"It's a fine way to spend an afternoon, I grant you, but animal forms are none too useful, they're more for fun. Besides, I am beastly enough on my own." The Dark One clicked his claws together and regarded her. "Princess, why did you seek me this morning? What is it you want?"

Belle furrowed her brow at the question. "I don't catch your meaning."

"Let me speak more plainly, then. What do you want from me, hmm? A wardrobe of fine dresses and furs? Something more befitting a princess, surely." Belle felt like squirming under his gaze as he looked over her worn day dress. The mage was well-traveled, Belle knew from the stories that he had hoarded wealth the likes of which she could never dream of.

His eyes swept over the whole of her and then rested on her face, and Belle felt grossly unsettled. The demon was looking through her, searching her mind, her spirit.

"No, no. Perhaps you are more forward thinking, just like your father." He quietly snarled the word. "Surely you want more. Additions to the castle to rival any palace. No worries there for your king will be demanding them soon enough. Ah! I see it. You are fresh to your womanhood but you want what all women want - a child."

Belle said nothing, unsure of the game he was playing now.

The Dark One continued, "Yes, yes, a child! I should have known. So many have come to me, begging for a babe. None from Avonlea, mind you. Who could think to raise a child here among the ogres? Children are always the first to suffer. I know this all too well and you've seen it for yourself, haven't you?"

"Yes." Belle licked her lips. She closed her eyes for a moment and forced his words from her mind. She had come here for a reason, she could not let him deter her with mention of the countless children that had suffered under the invasion of their country. To linger on them in grief would do no good. What she did now was in effort to prevent any further loss or discord in the future. "Dark One, I did not come to you for pretty things or a child. I wanted to prove my gratitude in the only way I can."

"Ah, and how would that be? A bit of thievery from that fool on the throne?" The Dark One waggled his eyebrows at her, teasing.

"I will not take the dagger from my father. You told me you will kill him the first chance you have."

"Ah, yes." He sighed. "Seems I painted myself into a corner by telling you that much."

"I know he humiliated you last night and I am sorry for that. It's the hope you've brought to our land...I believe the king to be intoxicated by it. Hope after a decade of despair, I'm sure you can imagine...or perhaps you can't."

"Can I imagine a mere decade of hopelessness? Oh, yes I can." He said quietly. "Decades upon decades."

"Then you understand why my father wants to keep you."

"Do I-? Yes, girl, I know exactly why your king will keep me. It's the power of hope. Your king is drunk on it."

"Yes. I wish it were not so. You are not a thing to be used whenever it suits someone else. I've...before last night you were only a character in books to me but now...it's all changed." Belle looked to him and he saw that tears shone in her eyes. The enormity of what he'd done escaped him - he had lived as the Dark One for so long that he had forgotten how to appreciate the perspective of others. Here was a princess who had said goodbye to her father and homeland, fully expecting and accepting that she would be heir to nothing by the year's end. She would have no country, no family, her very culture would be gone from the world. She had grieved for Avonlea, only to be pulled back by magic and shown the true cost of their desperation.

"You, me, all of our lives are different now for having known each other. If I could trust you would leave my people unharmed, I would free you, but you spoke your truth, Dark One." The princess took a deep breath. "No. I'm sorry but I cannot free you. Not now, while you are so furious, so wild...I have thought on this. While the king keeps you here, you will not be treated like a slave or ignored until the king has a use for you. Not by me. I offer my friendship."

The strange eyes of the Dark One widened at her words. "You want to be friends with me?"

"Yes. Truly, it's all I can give you now."

"I'm far out of practice but last I knew, friendship needs trust." The Dark One sneered at her. "As it is, there is none between us."

"That may change with time. As it is, you have all the time in the world. Wouldn't you prefer your time in Avonlea to be made more pleasant by me?"

"Clearly you think very highly of yourself if you think I'll come to see you as the one bright spot of my time here."

"I do. Someone needs to argue with you to keep your wit sharp." Belle returned easily, openly enjoying this light banter with him. Throughout their exchange she had felt the band of tension unwinding over her heart. Once she had accustomed herself to his inhuman appearance she found herself enjoying their talk.

For all his magic and power, the Dark One was fun to spar with.

"Mmm...perhaps you're not as foolish as you look." He granted.

Belle gave him a mock bow. "Why thank you."

"Fine. You may speak with me as you please, though somehow I'm sure you would have done so whether I accepted your company or not."

He was fast learning the spark of Avonlea's little royal pain.

"Ah, perhaps I'm not the only one with more brains than one would think."

"Touché, princess." And for the first time since being summoned to the land of Avonlea, the Dark One smiled.

Chapter Text

Belle quirked her lips, a strange relief coming over her. The Dark One did not trust her yet, but he seemed content with her company for now. He did not dismiss her, and the longer she spent in his presence, the more settled she felt to be there with him. His appearance was beastly but his behavior was not...though his manners could certainly use some polish, Belle thought to herself.

She shifted the book in her lap and he yawned as he settled back, leaning against the trunk of the awakening tree. Belle's eyes widened as she scented the air and looked up to see the buds were opening, blossoming with unnatural speed to perfume the breeze.

She came to understand then, that her country's lands were renewing with the Dark One as the centerpoint. It was directly from him that the new growth was stemming, his energy gave life to the land. She saw his eyes drooping, and wondered at his strength. He had killed herds of ogres spanning across hundreds of miles in a great flash of light. Now the energy for new life was draining from him, spreading across the country to overtake his wrath of yesterday.

She thought of the sleep she'd had the night before, the exhaustion that had come over her just from the upheaval of an evening.

It was easy, far too easy, to overlook the Dark One's feelings. Being as powerful as he was and with an appearance beyond human, even Belle herself was guilty of dismissing how jarring this all must be for him. Beneath the wit he shared with her and the attention he'd enjoyed from the ladies, Belle knew the Dark One was furious and with such good reason.

She truly feared the hell he would unleash should her father release the dagger yet like everyone who had laid eyes on him, she had let awe blind her to his pain.

Legend though he was, surely even the Dark One had felt fear. Being pulled from home to a strange place and forced into the compulsion of another would terrify Belle - the more she thought on it, the total powerlessness, the more it dug at her conscience. To have no choice - no choice at all in where you wanted to be or what you wanted to do...as a royal, Belle obeyed certain dictates understood with her station - the demands on her time, the things she was expected to wear, the things she was meant to say - yet her thoughts had always been her own.

The Dark One didn't even have the freedom of his mind any longer, and Belle's heart clenched for him.

He didn't deserve what had happened, yet she could not free him from the prison her father had condemned him.

Given free reign, the Dark One would end them all. A hundred horrors awaited them - she well knew what he had done to the ogre hoard. He had burned them, turned them to stone, crumbled them to dust, felled them where they stood. He may well do much worse to his captors when given the chance.

The demon had said as much and to the bottom of her heart, Belle believed his word.

And yet the princess of Avonlea felt pangs of sympathy for the devil.

It was an impossible conflict.

Before she could think better of it, Belle reached forward and took his hand - she had made quick habit of this, touching him. Strange enough, it was the women of Avonlea that reached for him but he had yet to have so much as a handshake from a man. Truly, the men feared him while the women had proven themselves fearless.

The Dark One perked up a bit from his half-nap once she touched him, his large eyes cast down to the contrast of their skins. Since their first touch on introduction the night before, the differences between them was something of an intrigue. Her hand, so young and pale, her bare fingers resting over his. Against her skin, his own seemed that much darker, his scales and claws more...grotesque.

He frowned lightly and pulled his hand from her.

"Are you well?" She asked him.

He cocked his head at the question. "Hmm?"

"The ogres yesterday. The land today. Even with so much power, you must be exhausted."

"I'm not your concern, princess."

She ignored his slight dismissal. "Can you stop to rest?"

"Your king was quite clear enough in his command. Dark One, I command thee to restore the lands of Avonlea." Here, he had taken on the true voice of her father, unsettling Belle with the trick.

She furrowed her brow. Her father was putting too much on him. She didn't know the ways of magic but she could see the Dark One was tiring, and as she had determined to befriend him as best she could, she now sought after his welfare.

"Look around you. The courtyard is green and blooming. The sky is blue for the first time in years. You have already done so much."

"Yes, and it's only a drop in the very deep bucket your king intends for this country." He gave a deep sigh. Such a human gesture. "Take heart, I may well wither on the vine at this rate, but that would be another victory for your father - he would be remembered as the king who killed the Dark One, all by working me to death."

"I would not have that for you."

"No?" He raised a brow to her, this young woman who would offer friendship in place of freedom. "What would you have in store for me, if you held the dagger?"

"Me? I don't...I wouldn't hold you."

"Liar!" He hissed, his form suddenly teeming with energy. His eyes burned at her as he sprang forward, closer to her, his claws splayed in the new grass that had already grown thick and green between them. "Were you in your father's position, you would have done the same."

It took everything Belle had not to retreat from him, to shuffle away in fear from this flare in his temper. Her eyes went wide and she took in a quick breath but the woman remained still before him. The Dark One was a force unlike any she'd ever known; he who had the form of a demon, the wit of a scholar and the temper of a fury. Still, he was far too human for her to dismiss from her concern.

Beast, not monster.

Belle licked her lips and spoke, "In that you are right. If I had the dagger, I would have commanded you to kill the ogres if you refused after I begged for the lives of my people...but I am not my father. I would have let you go."

The Dark One regarded her, his face still far too close, yet his expression had lost its anger. After a moment he eased back, though he did not lean back against the tree. He only went back to sitting before her, his legs crossed, his bare taloned feet tucked out of sight with his hands resting on his knees.

"Even after what you see around you?" He gestured to the courtyard, the children who were playing together near the gate. "I killed all the ogres, then filled your kitchen to bursting. The blood sky is gone. As we speak my powers are raising your country. All that's left is for your fled people to return and birth the new generation to populate this empty kingdom."

"Yes. You have done more for us than any army or any god, for that matter." In this, no one could disagree. "Even if you had only killed the ogres and then gone away, what's left of Avonlea would have still starved this winter with no one to tend the land to harvest. I know you hate him but my father is doing what he can for all of us."

"You mistake me." He shook his head. "I don't hate your father for this. I understand him perfectly. I have known desperation before and I live with a measure of it every day. Were I in your father's position I would do the same. Admit it, we all would. No, I don't hate your king for my enslavement, I hate him for the humiliations he forces upon me."

"I will speak with him on your behalf." Belle assured him.

"He won't listen to you."

"He may not, but I must try."

"I thank you for that. It has been some time since I have known a defender." The Dark One relaxed a measure, and Belle did as well. She knew he had only expressed a small bite of his rage but she so hoped to cool his temper with her friendship - had she not felt his humanity, there would be no hope of this, but she had felt something from him in the few times they had spoken. She felt it again now. The feeling had no name. It was more a sense she gained from him, a sense that for all his rage and humiliation, this creature, this man, would be best served by having a friend.

Even now, the Dark One shifted his weight before her and leaned in to ask a question. "So. Other than reading of my legends," his eyes dropped down to the book still clutched in her lap before rising to meet her gaze again, "What do you do with yourself all day, princess?"

"There has been little time for hobbies. The ogres' advance had grown too close to the castle these last few months, my father sent me with a group of clerics and knights to the frozen kingdom. I was just speaking with Anna, the princess of Arendelle, when your magic brought me home."

"Mmm. And you enjoyed your time there?"

"Elsa and Anna were true friends and Arendelle is a wonderful place. With Avonlea having grown so miserable, I'd forgotten what is was like to live in a place where the people were joyful. Still, I could feel no true joy there. Not when I waited every day for the news of my father's death and the final fall of my country. The sky in Arendelle was clear, but I felt that I'd taken a piece of the blood sky there with me. It hovered over me, constantly, until I found myself home and learned of what you'd done." Belle swiped at her cheek, brushing away an escaped tear. "You have my thanks all over again."

The Dark One said nothing to that. He wanted her to continue.

"Last night was the first happiness I'd felt in years. It is a strange thing to feel happiness that mingles with dread. I have no doubt of the wrath you will rain down on us if you are given but an inch to try."

"Ah, it seems you do understand me."

"Perhaps I do. But it is you who does not understand me."

"You're the king's precious little princess, sent off to safety while the common folk of Avonlea were eaten alive. And now here you are, brought back and sold to a knight clever enough to see a way to rise. Do you know him yet, your intended? Your father gave no thought to trading you on one hand for my dagger to be placed in the other."

"No, I have not met him yet. I do not even know his name."

"You will soon enough. You will meet him this evening at the feast."

"Another feast?"

"Oh, yes. Your father has demanded a feast every night from here to eternity. Soon your country will grow fat and rich, your every fortune bought by his command. And tonight will be a feast most special, for you will meet him, your knight Gaston."

"Gaston?" Belle thought on the name, trying to match it to a familiar face. "I don't know the man."

"Of course not. Nor does he know you, but he is a man who knows an opportunity. Ask him why he named you as his price, though with your mind I am sure you already know the answer."

"My crown."

"Yes. Such as it is." The Dark One allowed, and Belle felt a slight, sudden weight upon her. Expecting a spider, she raised her hands to her head and instead found a daisy chain there. She brought the woven flowers down from her hair and smiled at his trick.

"This is not the crown Gaston would wed me for."

"No, though I dare say that crown suits you better than any other. You resemble a wood nymph when you wear flowers in your hair, and I would know. It's most becoming."

"I thank you."

"No thanks are needed for true words. But you have no crown, little princess, not since all the metal in the kingdom was taken to make weapons. Your crown was melted in a blacksmith fire and mixed in with the seized iron that became the swords and shields wielded by so many of your fallen knights." The Dark One's eyes began to glow a faint white, unsettling Belle as she watched him seek out the crown she'd surrendered years ago to the war effort. "Say the word and I will call your crown back from those bloodied fields, reforge it to its former glory."

"I care nothing for that crown. Leave it where it is."

With a blink, his eyes were returned to their true color and once more focused on her. "You are sure of this?"

"Yes. Dark One, if you do have such a power, I would ask that you instead find those fallen knights and bring them home."

"What?"

"The knights who died, the common people. So many of them were denied the chance to bury their loved ones. I would ask that you recall the...the bodies left to rot in the ogres' wake." Belle explained.

While her father chose to force their country's future, Belle pleaded to resolve the past.

"I cannot do that. So many of them were eaten, while others have been left for so long that they have returned to the earth. There is nothing left to bury."

"Oh. I had hoped..."

"I can do one thing for you." He cut in to say. "The names of the dead. Knights. The foreign soldiers. The common folk. The women and children. I can etch their names to stone. A great stone monument to their sacrifice which will never dull with the passing of the years. The names of all the dead. Including your Kala's husband."

Belle was not surprised that the Dark One knew of her maid, or that he knew of poor Kala's hope of seeing her husband again. They would meet once more, but not on this side of life.

"So he is dead, then."

His eyes took on that unnerving glow once more, "Yes. He distracted the ogres so she could escape, but he did too good a job at it. He drew the attention of too many of them and paid with his life. Her name was the last word he spoke. Do you want me to tell her this?"

"No. No, I will tell her."

"She may be comforted by learning such news from a friend rather than from me. When you wake tomorrow, it will be to the sight of your monument."

"Thank you, Dark One...a monument of dead names." Belle looked down, unsure of what to say. How could she impart to him what that would mean to her people, the closure to move on with their lives?

"Did you know that I often tended to the wounded that were brought here?" She asked him. "Knights and common folk alike."

"No occupation for a royal."

"During your time here I think you'll find Avonlea to be quite different than the other kingdoms you've visited." Belle told him fiercely. "I am no coddled princess, thinking only of handsome heroes."

"How I wish that were true." He said with some strange regret. The Dark One could see what Belle never could - the multitudes of themselves that spanned across worlds and time. "In another life you would hold me to the impossible heights of those heroes in the books you so love, and you would find me wanting again and again, making love a misery for us both."

Belle looked at him in confusion. "I cannot understand you."

"I know I speak in riddles." He sighed, and raised his hands to her. She could see faint scars on his palms, one circle within another to resemble crude eyes. "I cannot see all, but what I can see - it's just pieces that never make up a whole. Of all my powers, the Sight is the most vexing. But perhaps you are different from that most insufferable version of yourself. You must be, as you've already distinguished yourself to me in a number of other ways."

She wasn't sure what she could say to the Dark One; as he said he spoke in riddles about the strange things he could see with his magic. All his wit and ramblings only stirred more questions in her. "May I ask questions of your magic?"

"You've treated me with more openness than one such as I could ever expect. It's quite refreshing. Yes, you may ask."

"You are...not what I imagined the Dark One to be. Are you the worst the realm has to offer?" In this, Belle was afraid to know the answer. The Dark One was meant to be the blackest of all evils, yet if he truly was that ferocious monster of legend, why would he be entertaining her company now?

Come into my parlor.

"No. Far from it. There are others worse than I, but mankind is the most dangerous beast of them all."

"More dangerous than the ogres?"

"The ogres are nothing! Brainless and breeding, they are barely more than a great herd of oxen stomping through in a search for new grazing fields." He dismissed.

"After what I've seen, it is difficult to imagine anything worse than the ogres. I have not met these dangerous people, then."

"Pray that you never do, child."

"And you, you've met many of these people?"

"With all that I do, and all that I've done, yes, I've met cruel people who would shame the demons of Hades. I've met people with hearts of pure gold. I've met criminals who were good men and men you would never suspect of being capable of the darkest depravities, enough to make even me blush! But most of all, I've met desperate people, and desperation can drive even the best of men to do the worst of things. I should know." He looked up from his grave words, catching himself. He had no love for royalty, but she had managed to endear herself to him. "I am sorry, this is no talk for the ears of a princess."

Belle reached for his hand again and squeezed his fingers.

"Dark One, I am not so sheltered as you would imagine, or the other princesses you have met in all your travels. I have seen the ruins of our villages, the fields of dead and dying soldiers. It may have been a desperate thing for Gaston to steal your dagger, and a desperate act for my father to use you to banish the threat, but desperation has driven us to bring you here. I am sorry. Dark One or not, no one deserves to be used in such a way. But while you are here, I would not have your stay be an unpleasant one." Belle tightened her grasp on him. She was not afraid to touch him, he had proven himself amenable to kind caresses from women the night before.

There were tales of dragons tamed by the kindness of maidens, perhaps the Dark One was not so different.

"You were right, you know. I do think you're interesting, you're a character come to life for me."

He gave a strange smile, just a quick flash of fangs. "I've been called worse."

Belle smiled, encouraged by his levity. "So what should a princess speak of with the Dark One? You don't seem the sort to bore me with talk of the weather."

He glanced over her shoulder to see a manservant watching them from a doorway, likely a spy for the court or those damn clerics who he knew were watching them even now. He didn't care what was said about him, but he wouldn't see her gossiped about. If any gossip should reach the ears of the king, the fat fool might forbid her from speaking to him again and he wouldn't have that. Somewhere during this courtyard visit, he had decided he would keep her. In his experience, women of courage and wit were few and far between.

No man will take her from me. She is mine already.

"Perhaps we should not speak anymore today, lest anyone assume us unseemly." He stood to leave, thinking to check in with Sanka. To be seen in company with the maid would cause the girl no consequence, not when the king had ordered her to serve him at the feast. Besides that, he wanted to know if she'd tested his enchantment yet.

Belle stood as well and pulled at his sleeve. "Please, Dark One, do not go. I've found like speaking with you."

"Why?"

"You are unlike anyone I know."

He retook his place before her in the grass. "That I am. If you so wish to speak with me, it seems I cannot deny you."

"And here I thought only the one who wields the dagger can control you." She smiled, teasing him again.

"That much is true." He relented to her, shrugging, "Seems I've gained a weakness for naive princesses. Let us hope that your curiosity does not lead you to danger, little cat."

"If it did, I do not believe that the danger would stem from you."

The Dark One narrowed his eyes at her, a sudden gravity to his words. "As I said, you are naive."

______________________________

As in most things, the Dark One was correct - from the far side of the courtyard, in the relative seclusion where they could speak amongst themselves, the clerics were watching. Where the ladies, knights and children enjoyed the flourishing land, the bright buttery sunlight shining from a blue sky, and gave their thanks to the mysterious stranger, the clerics scowled and fretted.

"To have such an abomination pollute our castle - our kingdom - this is insanity. So it killed the ogres, what will that matter when the Dark One infects our people with discord?" The elder asked.

A younger cleric, one with a habit of questioning absolutely everything to the annoyance of his betters, just had to ask, "It has such a power?"

Another of their number spoke to answer their young brother. "I've heard the scouts from the south have lit the signal fires - the ogres there are dead. The northern scouts reported the same. They're still waiting for the report from the west, but that so many ogres died just outside the castle should be proof enough of the reach of its power. The Dark One could stir malice in us all, forcing us to turn on each other. When it is done, there will be no kingdom, just a land of savages."

"But why would he do this?"

"Who can fathom the mind of a demon?" Another cleric scoffed. He was as as well-versed in the legends of the mage as their princess. "The Dark One may well have birthed those damned ogres and killed them for his own enjoyment."

The eldest of their group sneered behind his beard as he watched the supposed maiden and demon sit close in together under the blooming apple tree. Unclean thoughts filled his mind as he saw the mage conjure a small golden harp, which he handed over to his companion. Even from their place in the arbor, they could hear as Belle began strumming a simple tune, and drawing in closer to her, the Dark One swayed to the song.

This was the picture of harmless friendship, had the Dark One only been but a man.

To any eyes the princess and mage were simply enjoying each other's company. To the clerics gathered to watch, this was a horrific seduction. Evil invited into the bed of innocence, a seamless corruption of the crown.

"See how it cleaves to the princess, and our king allows this! I love our king, but he has invited this evil into our midst and uses his child as bait to sate the creature's appetite for innocence."

The youngest one resisted his elder's claim. "It cannot be as you say! She has made no mention of-"

"The Dark One may well have the power to force her to forget. I do not believe for one moment that the king's grip on the dagger can chain that monster's depraved urges."

Another of the brothers wrung his hands in worry. "How can we hope to rid the land of The Dark One? We cannot oppose our king for the dagger and we certainly cannot control the beast ourselves." The idea of seizing the dagger and reigning over the demon was daunting, even as just an idea. It was impossible. The king would never surrender the blade and even if they were to take it, any one of them could just as easily become corrupted by the influence of dark magic. They were only men, lest their elder forget.

"The people! We must make the people know true the cost of defeating the ogres."

Their leader snorted in disgust. "The people...how low our people have fallen. You saw the ladies fawning over the Dark One in the court, all of them touching its claws in thanks, gifting flowers, daring to kiss it! Mewling whores, the lot of them. There were men who weren't far behind, ready to bow down to that...thing." He shuddered. "No, brothers. The gods weep, for our people love the Dark One."

"Then what can be done, Elder?"

"We must take the princess - she should be hidden away in our temple to the west, the fae wards there will shroud her, his evil cannot find her there."

A brother known for his quiet nature could not contain himself at hearing the elder's words. "You've gone mad, to abduct the princess is treason!"

The elder shook his head. "A small price to preserve her, staunch the damage her association with the creature has caused. She may already have whored herself by feasting on his seed, or worse, she may carry his heir."

The younger cleric paled at the vulgar accusation. "It cannot be-"

The man shook his head, gave a stroke to his dark robe. "Do not let your mind be clouded by your affection for the girl. She is no longer a child and has already been seen in the company of the Dark One before. He may favor her during the day and corrupt her at night. He may well have done so with all those fawning ladies who touched him at the feast. So like a lion the demon is, building a pride of dark brides to amuse him while he remains in the castle. But look there, the other women shy away while the demon favors our princess as the prize."

Indeed, with the elder's guiding narrative, the younger clerics began to fully realize the doom that had infected the crown of Avonlea.

Who was to say that it was not the dagger ruling their king from the first moment he'd touched his bare skin to the cursed hilt?

The Dark One may yet be extending his charms over all the ladies who'd approached him during the feast for pure carnal delight or for some other, infinitely horrific purpose the likes of which they all shuddered to imagine.

And their princess, a young woman they had all watched grow from a girl, she who had been a bright spot in so many lives during times of misery.

She, who was most beloved by all the clerics - some more deeply than others.

"Gods. What can we do?" The youngest begged.

"Only as we have always done, we must advise and guide the crown. Only now we must strive to guard it. To do that, we must operate in the shadows."

The quiet brother scowled at his elder's reasoning. "Like it. Like the Dark One."

"Stay your tongue! What we do we do for the good of all, you are only too young and blind to see it."

Admonished, he dropped his eyes in respect. "Forgive me. Forgive me, please. You can trust I will do what needs to be done."

"Good. Steel your heart, for I fear many unfortunate things will come to pass before light can make its triumph over the dark."

Chapter Text

Hours later found Belle in her bedchamber, pacing anxiously with thoughts of the evening feast and the man she would be expected to marry. With so much happening, and so much of it of such monumental import, she had not even seen her father since the day before, let alone spoken to him about her intended.

The Dark One knew him. He'd claimed the man's name was Gaston, that he was a knight who had asked the king for her hand in return for the cursed dagger.

Her father had agreed without protest, or so the Dark One had claimed, but he might have just been toying with her in a mean-spirited way. He hated her king, he wanted her to hate him too. The Dark One wanted a voice on his side, and while she hated what he was doing, Belle could not hate her father.

The ladies and servants that Belle had questioned about this knight, this Gaston, had all had good things to say of him. A loyal knight, handsome and polite. A man of honor, truly, as he had given the power over the Dark One away to his king to save the country rather than take the dagger and use the demon to grant whatever petty wishes he might have.

"He is most handsome, my lady." Kala had told her after she'd finished with braiding Belle's hair for the night's feast. "He is a fine rider, stoic as a knight should be."

Her life being what it was, Belle had little experience with flightly talk over men. So much of her life in Avonlea had been heavy with misery - always there was news of the threat coming closer, closer, eating their country one mile, one farm, one village at a time. She'd had no mother and so few friends, gossiping over infatuations and dreaming of their weddings had never been part of her life. No, Belle had no experience in this.

"I've heard some of the same. He was a scouting knight before, and my father placed him in the king's guard after he gave over the dagger. The Dark One claims Gaston has designs on the crown." Belle confided.

"He would hardly be the only man to angle for a useful marriage."

Belle found she didn't object if the throne was what this Gaston was truly after. She had been engaged before, and her poor lost Duke - for all his boyish daring and charm - he had been after the throne just the same. It was the life she'd been raised to expect, nothing more. The only unexpected figure that was playing into her future now was the Dark One.

"True. Kala, do you think happiness can be found in an arranged marriage?"

Her maid set aside Belle's best slippers - the pair with the least amount of holes worn into the soles, and thought on the question. "Perhaps. In time and if you and your husband are able to find a few interests to share. Marriage needn't be a trap. It can lead to friendship and love." Kala drifted for a moment, thinking of her own husband, but refocused back on the task at hand. "Which dress, my lady?"

The two women looked on her limited wardrobe, all of her dresses had grown drab during Avonlea's struggles. What care could be spared for fashion in the face of war? Even during her short stay in Arendelle, Belle had given little thought toward her appearance. Instead, her time there had been spent in anxious dread, waiting for news of her father's death, her country's fall and the uncertainty of what her life would become when the end of Avonlea came.

The whole world had changed so fast and so completely that Belle felt she'd barely had a chance to make sense of it. Truly, she still hadn't. The Dark One had told her so much, and yet not a thing that could help her find a stable place in her kingdom's new future.

So many things he said...

"Well. I've already worn my best dress today." Belle said, looking down at herself, the pale rose dress that was a touch too short, too tight and too worn to be acceptable for meeting one's fiance.

Kala took out a plain dove gray dress but, noting the hole in the skirt, replaced it back into the wardrobe. "Why did you wear it today?"

"I...I wanted to look as presentable as I could when I sought out the Dark One."

"You sought for him! Why would you do this?" Kala demanded, forgetting all decorum and reaching to hold Belle's arms. Her pulse pounded in dread. Hadn't it been only the night before that her princess was sobbing over having spoken to the Dark One, terrified of the wrath he would unleash the instant he had the chance? And now, Belle again confessed to speaking with the mage - even dressing for him! What was she playing at?

"I wanted to speak with him. To thank him again, to ask after his feelings. We spoke for a time but there are still so many things I want to ask of him."

"No time like the present, dearie."

Both women whipped around to find the Dark One across the fitting room, perched happily on a chair in the corner. Kala gasped and backed away, but Belle had to remind herself to remain still and smile at him. Beast, not monster! "Dark One! What are you doing here?"

She approached him, reaching to touch his hand in greeting, her reservations gone after having spent the morning with him in the blooming gardens. His appearance held no fear for her, already she was starting to think of him as a friend, harmless and welcome. Well. It had already been said that the princess was naive.

Kala was not so gullible - where she was immensely thankful for his power that banished the ogre threat, the Dark One himself was still fearsome and certainly he had no place in the dress fittings of Avonlea's princess! Seeing him here, up close rather than from across the crowded main hall, was very unnerving to her, as was seeing his clawed fingers curling over the princess's hand as he rose up from the chair to stand in close with Belle. The familiar way they looked on each other made Kala distinctly uncomfortable - what was he doing here? Why would the princess welcome him?

"I came to play dress-up." He quipped.

Belle laughed. Kala scowled.

"You should not be here. This is no place for a man." She told him, hoping he could not hear the false courage in her voice.

Clearly he did, though, as he turned his attention to Kala and oh, she thought she had known fear before. The ogres were terrible, but theirs had been a wild, dumb savagery much like a stampede of panicked cattle. But to be under the direct focus of this creature of cruel legend, to meet his eyes and see, know, that he was real, that she had displeased him...

Kala felt her heart seize in her chest as he released Belle's hand and began to step toward her. He was claws and scales and fangs and magic - brutal, remorseless and calculating.

He stopped and stood before her, those horrible golden eyes holding hers. When he spoke, it was with the softest of voices. "Have no fear, maid. I've been commanded to come and see the princess properly attired to receive her intended knight."

Kala had no response to that. The king would command his pet demon to come attend Belle's wardrobe? The king indeed must be mad if this was the errand he would assign the Dark One - sending him into the realm of women's fashion. It surely must have been just another way to humiliate the mage...yet the Dark One didn't seem to mind being here with the princess, in fact he was clearly pleased and Kala felt a sinking, horrible suspicion take hold.

"My father told you to come and dress me?" Belle laughed. "This is beyond bizarre!"

"Beyond the norm but not wholly unique." He said, thankfully turning away from Kala to address Belle again. "I've only just returned from dressing your knight."

"You dressed Gaston?" She smiled, looking the Dark One up and down, "Let me guess, all dragonhide and leathers."

The demon didn't appreciate her teasing. "No! I'll have no one fashion themselves after me. I keep my attire distinct for a reason, I've never been fond of copycats! No, be sure I dressed Gaston to look fit for a king...a real king, not your fool of a father."

"I will ignore your insults." Belle told him firmly. "How am I to look to see my fiance?"

In turning their talk back to her fashion for the evening, Belle dispelled his temper toward her father. It seemed that, for all his power, he could be distracted easily enough.

The Dark One stared at her, tapping a claw against his lips as he walked a slow circle around her. Watching his open assessment, Kala had the sick feeling that this wolf was toying with the lamb. "Mmm...I prefer darker colors myself, but you are a lighter soul and so the lighter colors suit you best. Look to your mirror."

In a blink, Belle and Kala gasped to see that she was suddenly wearing a beautiful gown of lavender brocade and bright, golden lace. Gone was her old dress that had seen its best days in her girlhood, here and now, she wore a gown that any queen would envy.

"It's beautiful!" Belle gasped, smoothing her hands down the skirt.

Still circling and ogling, he clicked his tongue. "It's not the clothes that make the woman, princess. Remember that."

Belle forced her eyes away from her reflection. She looked to him, her smile enough to light the room. "Thank you for this."

"I only did as commanded, but I am glad it pleases you. I will see you during the feast."

"You will be there?"

"Of course." He gave an irritated sigh. "I've been ordered to sing again, please tell me if you have any special requests."

_________________________________

Belle took her place at her father's left side, noting that the main hall had been repaired and decorated, the hall itself hazy with the scents of fresh food and flowers. Great vases of fresh blooms were set out on every table, ornate tapestries hung as banners from the rafters - though Belle was less than pleased to see that one of them depicted her father as the hero, smiting the ogres with one great sweep of his sword.

Everyone in the hall knew he had never once lifted his blade on the battlefield. She huffed, annoyed by his shameless glory-seeking. It should be the Dark One shown in those banners, by rights it should be the Dark One seated on the throne- Belle stopped herself from finishing that thought, shocked at herself. What am I thinking?

She cast her eyes about and saw him at his place on the low table, the small space set aside for the servants, and felt a fresh wave of tension against the king. In placing the Dark One there, her king's message was clear: he didn't want the mage favored in any way, yet he would keep him close at hand just to visibly assert his power. All that's missing here is a leash and collar, Belle thought with distaste. She just barely stopped herself from sneering.

Her father was taking to power so easily, just as the Dark One had warned her.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the figure joining the table, to her other side.

The man was tall, with dark hair and eyes, a kind, unsure smile. This was him, then. The knight known and loved so well, by so many. Gaston.

They stared at each other for several long moments, but he blinked, remembering himself, and hurriedly took up her hand and kissed her knuckles.

"My lady Belle."

"Good sir." Belle returned in greeting. "Won't you sit?"

He quickly took the seat to her left and smiled boyishly. It endeared her, to see that he was nervous. Oddly, she wasn't. The Dark One had told her that her hand had been promised to this man by the king in return for the cursed dagger - this knight had asked for her and Belle was expected to keep her father's promise. It wasn't a question in her mind that she would do so.

The safety of her country's future had been bought with the Dark One's freedom and her hand. In this, Belle had something in common with the mage, but she had been taught that as a royal, as the sole heir of Avonlea, there were duties to fulfill. Marriage to the savior knight was only another one of those.

Looking on Gaston with his handsome face and the fine figure he cut in the velvet tunic and leather boots he wore, Belle thought that her duty of marriage to this man may well be more a blessing than a chore.

Gaston sat but he had yet to release her hand. "My l- ah, princess Belle. If I may be so bold, I don't believe your father has informed you, but you and I will be wed in time."

Belle nodded. His words were direct and to the point. Her father had not even greeted the hall yet, nor had the wine been served, yet here Gaston was already eager to speak of their nuptials. "My father has not told me, but I've known since last night. The Dark One told me."

He raised a brow but did not appear so scandalized as Kala had been to know she had spoken to the Dark One over something of a private matter. "Ah. I confess I am glad I have not shocked you with the news, then. I should have let your father speak to you first."

"Do not worry yourself. The ogre threat has given strength to us all, I think. News of my engagement would not have caused me to faint."

"No man in Avonlea would accuse you of being a fainting damsel, this is true." He cleared his throat, his eyes searching hers. "Do you...do you recognize me?"

"I am sorry, no. Once I learned your name I asked the servants and ladies about you, and I have heard many good things, but I could not place your name with any faces I knew."

"Ah, well. It was foolish of me to hope you would, I think. It was last year. My squadron killed five stray ogres and while we returned to the castle, we were not without injury. You tended my shoulder and I...you have been in my thoughts since that time." He said, and there was a great relief in finally being able to tell her this.

"That is why you asked for me in exchange for the dagger?"

"I...it was not my intent to ask for you in trade. I just didn't see another way to go about it. Please forgive me."

Belle smiled at him, "There is nothing to forgive. You brought the dagger that delivered our people. Will you tell me the story of how the dagger made its way into your hand?"

"Yes!" Gaston agreed excitedly, then blushed and lowered his voice. "That is, yes, I will tell you. Would you...we could go riding sometime soon if I am permitted away from my duties."

"With the ogres gone I don't know that there will be any duties left for our knights." She commented.

"You are mistaken, princess. With the country now set to rebuild, we will be busier than ever. I...our king warned me that you and I will not see each other much, as I now head in the king's guard, but I wanted to say...I will strive to be a fit husband to you when the time comes." It was a sweet thing to say, and very honest.

Even watching and listening from across the hall, the Dark One could sense no deception in the knight's words.

Belle felt a blush rise in her cheeks. "Gaston...thank you."

The remainder of the night's feast rushed by in a blur of food and wine, excited, hopeful thoughts on the future, and the Dark One's performance.

All too soon, everyone began to depart for the evening.

Gaston took her hand again and gave her knuckles another swift kiss. "I...I must away now. Goodbye, Belle. I will seek you out when we come back."

She watched as Gaston disappeared down a corridor, and Belle did not see him again for several days.

When he made his return, she found she had not missed him.

_______________________________

Word of Avonlea's rise spread like fire in the forest. King Maurice had enslaved the Dark One, the demon at his command. In a day the ogres were dead. The next saw the lands renewed. Still the next saw villages rebuilt. Blood skies shined blue again. Waterways cleared. Valleys grew green.

As promised, the princess rose to her monument of the dead. It was not the great pillar she had imagined, a list of names reaching through the clouds.

No.

Like so many things of great power, her gift was a simple sight to behold. Where she had held the vision of a grand pillar, what she'd found instead was a round, dark stone in the center of her castle's renewed courtyard. It hovered, suspended just an inch over a raised dais, the altar to the Avonlea dead.

Belle stood before it, curious and unsure.

What is this?

A sudden voice at her back.

"It's yours. Your monument to the decade of death."

She turned to find the Dark One two steps behind her. She had been quite alone just moments ago, and wondered if he had perhaps been waiting for her to come.

He had made this for her, after all. It had been her respectful request, not a demand forced upon him.

"It is not how I pictured it."

"Nothing ever is. But don't judge it on sight alone."

"I don't see any names, how does it work? The stone, you cast a spell over it?"

"Of a kind. Place your hand on the opal and think the name of one you've lost."

Belle stepped closer, seeing now that the stone glimmered, a riot of color within the darkness and she saw now what it was - the largest fire opal ever held within the borders of Avonlea. She swallowed and reached forward, spreading her fingers wide, pressing her hand over the stone. Her pulse quickened as she felt a strange tingling come over her hand, the energy growing warm under her skin.

"Think the name." He guided.

Belle thought of her mother and her eyes widened as the colors in the stone began to stir under her hand. She pulled her hand away to watch the colors, turning slowly at first and then quickly gaining speed. The colors swirled, combining together into the blackness within the stone and then separating once more, forming words.

Queen Collette of Avonlea

Mauled by an ogre on the caravan road to Green Creek

The years of her mother's birth and death appeared just below the brusque epitaph. Collette had not even seen her fortieth year.

Here and now, over ten years since her mother had passed, the daughter of Avonlea's felled queen took in a deep breath and turned to face her unlikely companion.

"Thank you for this."

"Who did you think of?"

"You did not see?"

"No. I charmed the opal so only the eyes of the one who beckons the name can read their fate. I can lift that charm and see for myself, but I'd rather if you told me. If you want." He finished quietly.

Belle cleared her throat of its sudden tightness. "I thought of our queen."

"Your mother."

"Yes. She had been traveling to Green Creek, a small village half a day's ride to the east. There had been news of an attack there so she had gone with clerics and knights, showing her face to prove that the crown had not forgotten the people there. The ogre hoard had moved on, but her caravan was attacked by a straggler. Her carriage was toppled and she was mauled. They were able to bring her back to the castle but her wounds were deep. She did not live to see the next morning."

The Dark One regarded her for several long moments. "You were able to say goodbye?"

"Yes. I was so young, though. I didn't understand then what goodbye meant."

"Still. You were able to see her. And she could see you before the end came. That is something."

This was not a talk Belle had pictured herself having with the Dark One and she was struck again how jarring it was, to meet the man behind the legends.

"Thank you. This will be a comfort to so many people."

Standing there before her, fully dressed in black leathers with sinister details of silver, his coat collar high and stiff, he appeared far too formal and remote. A cruel savagery was cast over him. She preferred him as she'd seen him the previous morning, before he'd been called away by her father. He'd had no coat and no shoes then, a creature far more content in the garden.

"I don't know that it would be a comfort to learn the one you loved was dead."

"Perhaps you're right. Not comfort. Closure, that is the word. It would be better to know than to spend years hoping to find someone who had already been lost."

A strange look came over his face just then, but he gave himself a shake and made an abrupt change of subject. "I've made some reparations to the castle."

"I saw that as I made my way here, and at the feast last night. I've never seen the main hall appear so grand. Did my father command it of you?"

"No. I was passing by and saw the front gate needed fixing. It will open and close much faster now. The the stained glass above the main hall, too beautiful a thing to let it remain cracked. I cleaned that so the colors will shine in the light. Also, I've filled your stables."

Belle raised her brows, "You've brought us horses?"

He nodded and they fell into step together down a pleasant garden path. "Yes. Ten of Agrabah's best. They'll be sorely missed for a time but replaced easily enough. Those horses I brought by your father's command."

"He wanted you to steal horses from another king?"

"That is a secret just between you and I, princess." He had the cheek to wink at her! "He only commanded that I conjure ten brilliant steeds for the knights in the king's guard. Taking the horses from the Sultan was the easiest way to that end."

Belle could not stop herself from laughing at that. "You are such a trickster!"

Kicking a pebble off the garden path, he shrugged at her side. "Among other things, yes."

"What else will our king command of you?"

The Dark One darted in front of her on the path, catching her off-guard when he moved into her personal space, warning her, "I have no king! You must remember that."

Belle's eyes widened, but she refused to cower in the face of his temper. Granted, her time spent with him was limited, but the Dark One's anger only ever seemed to stir at the mention of the king - he hated the man, and what had happened to him was terrible, but she would not allow his tirade of disrespect.

"My father is not your king, but he is your master. He won't allow your disrespect to carry on for much longer."

"I am already forced to obey his every command. He could order me to slit my wrists and I would have no choice - but I can't die, so if he refused to let me heal, I would bleed for weeks. Think on that! Rivers of black blood at your king's whim! When I'm not doing the fool's work or entertaining you, I am commanded to retreat to a cell of your dungeon. And you warn me to stay my tongue of disrespect to the crown!" He scoffed as if she were the village idiot.

"I know this has been an ordeal for you, I only warn you against goading him into making things worse."

He rolled his eyes, "What more could he do to me?"

"Please, do not tempt fate. There is a saying: 'You catch more flies with honey than vinegar', do you understand?"

"You ask me to befriend the one who enslaves me." He said flatly.

"No, not befriend." Belle shook her head. "I know it is too late for that."

"Then we are finished talking for today." He dismissed her. The girl must be mad to think she could forge any kind of peace within the walls of her castle: the truth of it was that the Dark One would kill the king the moment he was able. But until that day came, the Dark One would keep his role of slave. He just had to be patient. "Show the monument to all who would wish to see it, I must prepare for what your king intends."

Belle closed her eyes, dreading his answer. When she spoke, she was careful not to address her father as king. "What has my father planned for you now?"

"Oh, he intends for us to travel, to visit those friends of the crown and grant them rewards for their loyalty. Jewels and gold, I expect. Others, he intends to repay for their treachery. For them, I expect horror."

"He's going to make you kill."

"Yes."

Belle shook her head. She had known this was coming, but for her father to lash out so quickly, barely a day after touching that damn dagger...to turn this mage into a weapon of defense was one thing, a desperate and necessary thing, but to force him into enacting Avonlea's vengeance?

"I must speak to him, he can't do this-"

"Don't be a naive girl." He snapped at her. "It's as you said, I am a weapon, the only weapon your king has at hand. He would be a fool not to assert his power now that he finally has claim to it."

"You corrupted him!" Belle accused.

This new cruelty she was seeing - it was a side in her father that she had never seen before. She could not reconcile that the man who had loved and mourned her mother, the man who had taught her to ride and swore to protect her above all others, he could not be the same man that had enslaved the mage, humiliated him and now intended to use him in a show of power and instrument of revenge.

The Dark One narrowed his eyes at her, displeased with her words. "Perhaps I have. Or perhaps I have nothing to do with it. Perhaps your king has spent years longing for revenge and my dagger is only the answer to his wishes."

His words seared into her mind, feeding the dark thought that what he was saying was true, that Belle was naive to envision her father as a hero when the reality was that he was only a man - a man who had spent the last decade with the weight of the world on his shoulders, betrayed and abandoned, and so desperate that he'd leapt at the chance to enslave a soul to save his people and then degrade it just as quickly.

"I wish I knew."

"There are times it would be better not to know the full truth. This is one of those times."

"I suppose."

They continued on the path in silence for several minutes.

"I am sorry. For everything. I wish I could change all of it."

"None of this is your doing." He shrugged.

"I am an accomplice to your enslavement and every deed my father forces on you." Guilt settled further inside of Belle. She could feel it squeezing her heart, a cold, clawed hand.

He frowned at her words. He didn't blame her, he didn't want her to blame herself. "Don't think that way. You cannot stop what your king has decided. Neither can I."

Belle rubbed at her face. "Is there a spell to go back in time and change things?"

"If there is, I wouldn't use it for this."

An interesting answer.

"What would you change, if you could?"

"Too many things to name." He took a breath, "Those who I will be set after are those who abandoned their people, those who hoped to profit when Avonlea fell. Understand, they could have sent help but they did not. They were content to watch as your people died, much like those gods your clerics speak so highly of. Let their deaths be of comfort to you."

"I can find no comfort in murder!" She shouted, surprising herself.

"Vengeance, then."

"Revenge cannot undo what has already been done." Belle fought the tightness in her throat. "It's not right. You know it's not right."

"No." The Dark One looked to the blue sky he'd gifted to her people, his scaled face shimmering in the early morning sun. Such a strange color he was; green when he turned one way, golden when he turned another, and gray when he was not in the light. Belle watched as he closed his eyes for a moment, his expression relaxing, and she wondered if this was how he looked when he slept. If he slept. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes, his expression stern once more when he turned to address her. "But I haven't made it to where I am now by doing the right thing."

Belle nodded, knowing well the truth in his words. She knew the stories but it was so different to know him, the man who built those legends. Here, in this moment, she felt she was seeing something very important. For all his gloating and bravado, the Dark One took no pleasure in this, knowing blood would soon stain his hands.

She reached to him again, taking his hand. His skin was warmer now than it had been the last several times she'd touched him. She brought her other hand over the back of his, lightly stroking the pattern of ridged scales that descended toward his fingers. She held him firm and looked in his eyes. "Please, Dark One. Will you come find me once it's done?"

"If you can bear to see me, then yes."

"I thank you."

The Dark One said no more, vanishing in a swirl of dark smoke.

When it cleared, Belle was alone in the courtyard once more.

The day was warm but the princess shivered.

Chapter Text

The king's advisors looked up, startled, at the sudden arrival of a new presence in the fitting room - it was a small quarters connected to their master's bedchamber, where they were busy packing for the king's intended travels to neighboring kingdoms. They were known, the king's destinations. He was to visit both the loyal and the treacherous, taking with him a protective detail of knights and two high clerics - though with the Dark One always close to his side, what did he need with his knights? They were only for show, or so it was thought. An impressive sight sure to set tongues to wag on the new dawn of Avonlea.

A decade of struggle and desperation, of constant terrified dread, and then - power.

The king was determined to make a statement.

The advisors took in the sight of their princess with some amusement. She was a lovely girl but the upheaval in the kingdom had made her forget her place, to an extent. The princess pushed the boundaries, and it seemed that today would be no different; entering any man's quarters was inappropriate, unheard of for a royal, nevermind that the king was her father.

She stepped over the threshold, and, seeing that the king was not among the advisors and servants, she called out for the man himself. "Father! Father are you here?"

The king emerged from the interior bedchamber, a confused frown on his brow. "Belle, what's happened? You shouldn't be here."

The princess ignored his censure and stepped up to him, dwarfed by his size and uncaring of the busy audience that surrounded them. "You must stop all this with the Dark One."

"All this?"

"You well know what I mean." Belle said firmly. She refused to let him skirt this. "You're going to make him kill those who slighted you, he just told me."

Maurice narrowed his eyes at her. "What are you doing, speaking with him?"

Belle pressed her lips into a thin line as she thought on how to answer; "It's as you said at the feast, I've read legends of the Dark One and to have him here, in the flesh...I confess I've sought him out in the courtyard."

Her father knew her too well.

"You seek to make him a friend."

"Yes."

The king was not so simple a man as the Dark One claimed. "I see what you want to do, Belle, but he isn't what you think. You can't win him over with a few kind words. The dagger is the only thing that creature is tied to."

He gestured down to his waist, where he'd secured the cursed blade in a sheath. In a flash, Belle could see the horror the Dark One had foretold: lifeless bodies and blood, her father using the dagger to cut the throat of a man forced to his knees. Ice rushed through her veins.

The king went on, "You think I'll set him after everyone who's merely insulted me? No, I will unleash him on those who turned traitor to our country and abandoned us to the ogres. It is justice, not revenge."

Belle blinked rapidly, fearing her tears would betray her. "It is too much, can't you see that? Father, killing the ogres and restoring the land, and now this? You push him too far, the Dark One will find a way to rebel against your hold on his dagger and when he does-"

"Enough. You've seen for yourself - the dagger ensures complete mastery over the mage. He obeys my every order."

"Yes and he hates you for it! Not only do you control him but you humiliate him before the entire court. If he ever finds a way to freedom, he will come for you first."

"Then I will keep a tight hold on his leash." Maurice told her firmly. "As for the other, his humiliation, what are a few songs each night costing the creature? What does some dancing compare to the humiliations our people have suffered, eh, Belle? You know very well what was done to those who fled, how they were treated in the neighboring kingdoms - and Avonlea, powerless to help her people for years while those with true power, the Dark One himself, were content to sit back and watch. So, yes, I humiliate him, I bring him low to ensure that he remembers who wears the crown."

His words were stone and iron. Final.

Belle hated this side to her father and she hated that he spoke sense even more.

What he said was true. The Dark One was no better than the traitors or the gods themselves, he had to have known that Avonlea would see its last day but he couldn't be bothered to lift a finger in aid. That's why he was here now. He had to be forced.

Still, her father was playing with fire. To force the Dark One to defend and restore Avonlea had already earned the king a death sentence. What he was doing now, using the Dark One as a slave during the days and a jester during the feasts...the king's death would not be quick.

Being centuries old, the Dark One had patience and Belle shuddered to think of the tortures he would inflict on her father.

"Oh, he knows all too well. He's already told me he relishes the thought of killing everyone in Avonlea, and you will be the first."

"It's a risk I had to take, Belle. When you are queen you will see that ugly things may become necessary to achieve greatness."

"Father, you must-"

"Belle, don't speak of what you cannot yet understand." The king warned her.

As had grown typical, Belle ignored his warning. Maurice was grateful for her engagement to the knight. Surely Gaston would be the man to put his foot down when it came to her mouthy tantrums. It was too late for him. His kingdom had been under such upheaval for so long that he had lost his way as both a king and father. It would fall to Gaston to rule his house and this country with a firm hand when the time came.

"I do understand! You've had your first taste of power and you know that without that dagger you are nothing, that without the Dark One's power we would all be dead!"

"Don't you dare speak to me like that again. Yes, Avonlea would have fallen to the ogres were it not for the Dark One, what's left of the kingdom may yet starve if he does not continue his spell to raise the land - and yes, I will command him to take me to the few friends to the crown who sent soldiers to aid in our defense, those good men who died on our fields, eaten alive so far from their homes. Those men deserve to have rewards sent to the families they left behind."

In this, only this, the king and princess agreed. "They do."

"Just as the wretches who abandoned their people deserve death. They fled and sought to profit when our country fell. Traitors, all of them. Even the Dark One himself can't argue with that. What would you have me do, Belle? Leave them be, wherever they are? Forgive and forget their betrayal?" He scoffed at her, done with this.

"I...I don't know, but not this!"

"Leave me, Belle. I will not hear anymore from you. The Dark One will do as commanded and you will not question me again."

The king waved her away, turning his attention back to his intended travels.

_______________________________

The woman stalked down the corridor, intent for the courtyard, beyond furious.

Belle swiped at the tears that escaped her eyes.

Stupid. Her father was stupid - arrogant, cruel and reckless. He was not the man he had been when she had left for Arendelle.

That man had been hopeless, broken inside. But her father had always been kind.

And now?

It was the Dark One's power that had corrupted him, it had to be.

It couldn't be as the mage said, that the king had always been this way, that he only now had the means to express this side of himself.

No. The Dark One enjoyed lying, or if not outright lying, he was a creature that toyed with words.

He hated her father and wanted a companion in his hatred - what could be better, in his perverse thinking, than luring the man's daughter into siding with the one who hated him most?

"The king pays you no mind."

Belle stopped and turned, confused. She was alone in the corridor, one turn from the steps that would lead outside to the sky that would darken again so soon with the blood of traitors. She narrowed her eyes, seeking the voice and she gasped, for she found its owner leaning casually against the castle wall. Bizarrely, he had changed his coloring to match the gray stones, every inch of him to include his clothing, had become a seamless match of color.

"Dark One!" Belle exclaimed. "What have you done to yourself?"

"This? Just a trick, dearie." He shifted, moving away from the wall and the rightful colors of his clothing, scales and hair flooded back into their rightful place.

"You just said the king pays me no mind. You were listening."

"Please, I'm no eavesdropper." He groused. "Call it a hunch."

Belle sighed heavily. "I thought he would listen to me, come to see reason."

"Reason?"

"He commands too much of you and - and I-"

"You were trying to warn him." He surmised.

"How do-?"

"You fear what I'll do to him."

Belle relented, nodding her truth. There was no point in lying to him. "Yes."

"You fear for your father but I can sense you don't harbor fear for yourself."

"Should I?"

He took a step closer to her, holding her eyes with his strange gaze. Belle did not look away. "No. You know what I am, princess. It should mean something to you that I've killed women before, but I find your company just a touch too amusing to want you dead."

"Thank you."

"Yes, you should thank me. It's something of a compliment when I deem a life worth sparing. There haven't been many."

Just looking at him, Belle knew what he said to be true - she didn't need legends to convince her.

"What makes me so special?" She asked, her voice subdued.

He looked on her, this girl he'd taken a shine to despite his own reservations. She was different than the other royals he'd met, and there had been so many over his time under the curse. There had been many women who sought him out, yet those had all sought favors or to secure a deal. This plucky little royal had sought him out first in gratitude and then seemingly just for company.

He hadn't expected that.

But then, he trafficked in the unexpected and Belle, he found her to be an amusement he wanted for himself.

Still, he felt the need to cement what he was in her mind, lest she claim some betrayal down the road. "Your throat is far too lovely to tear into with my claws. Innocent blood stains the deepest, you know. And you, the kind-hearted princess of Avonlea, I would never get your blood off my hands."

"That is...some comfort, I think." Belle turned to continue walking down the corridor, toward the door that lead out to the courtyard.

Falling into step beside her, he asked, "So, what did the fat fool say?"

"Please stop insulting my father. As for what he said, I'd rather not repeat it to you."

"Then allow me, The Dark One will serve my purpose of uplifting Avonlea by a show of strength against our enemies. Or something to that extent."

He had again taken on the voice of her father, a perfect match. He knew how unsettling the trick with his voice was, and the mage had the cheek to wink at her as he finished his speech!

"...you're right." Belle grumbled.

"Excuse me? I didn't hear that." Here he made a show of cupping his ear and leaning closer.

Belle threw up her hands, exasperated with the Dark One's tricks and her father's stubbornness. She had half a mind to go back to Arendelle.

"I said you're right! You must have heard us speaking."

"I didn't need to hear you. I know him as sure as I know myself - the protests of one upset little girl would never be enough to derail me from my quest." He was almost boasting in this last statement.

"And what is your quest, Dark One?" Belle challenged. "What is the end you crave?"

"Me?" He regarded her for a moment and in his hesitation, Belle could see that he was choosing his words very carefully. All glee had fled him. "A simple thing, but for centuries it's been impossible. What I want...I only want what was broken to be whole again."

There was something in his words, some sudden longing in his voice that pulled at Belle. "What was broken for you?"

Rather than answer, he pulled away, the black proof of his slavery bleeding into his eyes. "The king summons me. Goodbye, princess."

She watched as the smoke rose to overtake him, and he was gone.

It would be days before they saw each other again.

____________________________

The back of her neck began to prickle, a strange sensation. Belle reached to scratch her nape, turning as she did so and finding a most welcome sight only a few steps from her lonely picnic. It was him, her strange companion, back from several days of carrying out her father's bidding. Belle tried not to think of that now. Too soon, she knew the news would find its way back to her, the names of dead traitors may rival the number of names lost to the ogres.

"Dark One."

He inclined his head to her in greeting, the light casting his scales green. "Good day, princess."

Belle stood and beckoned him to approach, "Will you sit with me?"

He held her gaze steady, expression inscrutable. "You would have my company?"

"Yes." She again motioned for him to come closer. "If you'll have mine."

"Ah, after where I've been, I find I prefer yours." He said as he moved to sit across from her on the blanket.

Any tension between them, held over from their parting words of days before dispelled as the Dark One sat and Belle resettled herself.

"Why mine? You've no shortage of friends here, in fact I think it's safe to say you have many adoring fans."

"You mean the ladies of the court."

She smiled at him, wondering if he knew his own popularity. "Oh, yes. Everywhere I've turned, your name has been on their lips. And after we were seen in the gardens, I was hounded by the more timid ones who were too shy to approach you on their own."

"Am I really so intimidating?"

She smirked at his glib question, and took in his appearance. "Ah...you might rethink your wardrobe. Maybe wear less spikes, for a start."

"Well, I had to dress my part while your father sent me on my errands, but I do prefer a more relaxed look when I'm at home. No need for the black spikes and all when you're spinning in your own castle." The Dark One waved his hand, enveloping himself in a mist that swirled over his form, obscuring him for several seconds. It blew away in the wind, revealing him once more, dressed now in soft brown leather that fit close to his legs and a linen tunic under a vest of soft suede. As he had on their first day spent together in the courtyard gardens, he'd foregone his shoes. "There, that's better. You should go barefoot, princess, I would wager your feet are prettier than mine."

Rather than ignore his comment, Belle obliged by taking off her worn slippers and setting them aside in the grass. Still a lady and mindful of the many eyes that could be turned toward them even now, she kept her feet tucked under her, lest the Dark One see her exposed lower legs. "Happy now?"

"No. I'd be happier if I was home." He said plainly, clicking his claws together.

If I had your word that you would not attack my people, I would free you. No man should be pulled from his home.

"And what is your house like?" She asked.

"I have a grand castle. It's dusty and very remote. I don't like visitors. I prefer privacy, but those who can find their way to me often have something interesting to offer, so in my own way I have an open door policy." He shrugged and wondered when he would see his home next. He was almost sure that he'd left some candles burning...

"You lived in a castle?"

"What, you expected a bog?"

"No. A bog would be too...undignified for you."

He scoffed, "Maybe a cave in the mountains?"

"I don't know. Maybe the mountains, since you enjoy looking down on everyone, but not a cave. Again, you're too civilized to live in the wilderness. Living in the forests and caves, that's more in league with a Huntsman." Belle shrugged. "Your legends never spoke of a place the Dark One called home. You are a master of magic, a castle might be the only place big enough to hold all your spell books and cauldrons and the like. What do you do when you're at home?"

"Besides plotting curses and blood sacrifice?" He asked. "You are so curious! I don't like all these questions, why are you asking?"

"When we first met you called me a curious cat and the ladies were asking me all about you while you've been gone - they were all so eager for you to be back. They want to know everything! Where your homeland was, if you had a favorite color, a favored game or meal, they wanted to know any and everything about you." Belle said, thinking of all the questions she'd been asked of him.

"My, my." He gave her an odd little smile. "I should write a book. It would sell out in no time."

"I would buy a copy. I love books!"

"I know you do. I...might have just donated a few additions to the castle library." He told her, feigning nonchalance.

"You did?"

"Don't get excited, it's just a few penny dreadfuls I filched from the land with no color. I didn't have a chance to read any of them, they may be as boring as the scenery there. If you are as avid a reader as I've been told then you will finish them in no time at all."

"I'm sure I will. I confess I don't do much reading during the day, I usually read at night when things are finally quiet and I am alone in bed." Belle confided. She fought to sit still, tramping down the urge to run to the library and find what treasures he had brought for her.

"You won't be alone in bed for long."

Belle raised a brow, sure she had just misheard him. "Pardon?"

"Hmm? Nothing." He flicked his eyes up to the branches that shaded them. "Oh, look at that, a bird."

She looked up and gasped in true surprise. What animals could flee Avonlea had done so years ago, and yet here was a bird, a tiny brown thing, a twitchy finch.

"I haven't seen a bird in years!"

"Where the land blooms, the animals follow. One bird today, a whole flock by tomorrow." He flourished his hand and the finch flew down, landing on the blanket near Belle's book. The dark one tore off a bit of her bread and sprinkled crumbs near it, watching the bird peck after them.

Yes, the Dark One liked simple things.

A shady spot to rest. Feeding birds. Quiet time spent with a friend.

He looked to Belle.Friend? Well, why not?

The finch hopped closer.

"You have a way with animals, Dark One."

"Seems I do. And why not? As I am a beast myself, other creatures find me no threat."

"Are you truly so removed from humanity?" From their first meeting, Belle could not fathom him an animal. He was intelligent and aware, he possessed a sense of humor and flare for fashion than no animal could ever possess. He was a man, of a very rare sort.

"Hmm...a difficult question. Let it be said that I walk a fine line." He shrugged, glancing down as the finch hopped right into his clawed hand to peck at the bit of bread he had on offer.

"Like me."

"How do you mean that?"

"I have been told that I walk a line myself, the line that separates men and women."

The Dark One looked upon her, his princess companion. With her bright eyes, rosy cheeks and full lips, she was the picture of pretty. "If I may say, you do not strike me as being so manly."

Belle shoved playfully at his shoulder. "Not in body, but in mind! I enjoy the company of the scholars, the men who record our histories and write the peasant laws - and that of our knights, those brave souls who would lay down their lives to protect us. I feel more at home in the library than at court, you have seen that for yourself."

"Yes, it is curious to find a noblewoman of such interest. It seems you are unique."

"You are unique in the world, aren't you?"

He blinked at her, "Hmm?"

"What I mean is...are there any others like you?"

It was an interesting thought, that somewhere in the world there were others who looked just like him, people who shared the features of the dragon; men and women of scales and claws, all of them imbued with magic and wit. Somewhere that he would not be alone.

"No. I am the Dark One. There are none like me, but I was not always so alone. Once upon a time, my world was very simple because there was only one other person in it-"

Whatever secret he was intent to divulge died on his tongue as a woman approached them, her head bowed respectfully.

"Dark One, good day to you, and to you, Lady Belle." She said, and gave a deep curtsey.

They invited her to join them on the blanket and she sat.

He recognized this woman from the first feast, she was one of the bolder ladies, one of those who'd dared to lean in and surprise him with a kiss to the cheek. "Hello Darla. Have you another kiss for me?"

"Dark One...I cannot..."

He narrowed his eyes at her, and he could see it all. "No, you cannot. Your husband would have you kiss no other man, let alone Avonlea's pet demon." He huffed, "Give me your arm."

Before the woman could protest, he had reached for her hand. The bruises on her wrist began to fade, until her skin was smooth once more and no trace of her light injury could be seen.

Darla shook her head and put her free hand over her softly rounding womb. "He...he was only upset, worried for our son-"

"Yes, well, if he should hurt you in his upset ever again, I will take all future sons from him. Life has proven too short for many a man who cross me. His, more so if he thinks to handle a woman in your condition so roughly." He hissed. Belle was startled to see the scales on his face, neck and hands rising slightly with his temper.

"Dark One, please..."

At her plea, the Dark One was smooth again, unconcerned. "Fine, then. I will not see a father broken from his children before they're born."

The woman's eyes widened at his words, "Children?"

He nodded, "I knew it when we met at the feast. Twins." The women watched, transfixed and unnerved, as his eyes were overtaken by that faint white glow. He was using his power of Sight again and, just as he could see the dead, so could he see the unborn. "A son and a daughter - the son will favor his father's looks and grow to be a handsome lad, with a birthmark on his left ankle."

Darla smiled, tears gathering in her eyes. "And my daughter?"

"Gray eyes. Your dark hair. Not so lovely as our princess when she sees womanhood, but a pretty girl."

He blinked, leaving the vision of her children, his eyes focused on them once more. "I will not take their father, he shall live. But fear not - wear this and he will ever be calm when in your presence. A small enchantment, to bring good memories to rise and take the place of any anger he might lash out upon you."

From the air, he produced a bracelet of small green beads and twine. It was so simple a thing, it looked like an adornment any woman could have crafted for herself, as had been his intent. Her husband had accidentally hurt her in his upset that she'd touched the Dark One, what more might he do to see her wearing one of his gifts? With such a plain design her husband would not even notice the bracelet.

Darla held no fear of her own husband, he was truly the best of men. She had roused fear in him by her bold actions at the feast, venturing so intimately with the Dark One. Her husband had been so shamed by his actions, by the firm grip he'd kept on her wrist to leave marks, that he'd apologized again and again, even going so far as to avoid their bed for days, leaving her to sleep alone and silently bringing cinnamon rolls for her so she would not have to venture out to fetch breakfast for herself.

It had been a moment of panic, one that she had forgiven him for, so long as it never happened again. The bracelet and it's calming enchantment would not be needed, but to have a piece of power, even one touched with such a small spell...

"And...and your price?"

He smiled at her, all fangs. "I want...your hair ribbon."

"Such a small thing?" She raised a brow and drew her braid forward over her shoulder, to the rough cloth that bound it.

"Unless you'd be willing to part with the girl child in your belly when she's born-"

Both Darla and Belle yelled out against him, "No!"

"Then the ribbon, please." He held out his hand in expectation.

Darla hurriedly untied it from the end of her braid and gave it to him, words of thanks falling from her lips as she retreated away now their business was done.

Belle waited until the other woman was well out of earshot before asking him, "Why do you want her ribbon?"

"I care not for the ribbon." To illustrate his point, he let the ribbon drop to the grass. "It's the hair I was after."

He held a single long hair, Darla's hair, between his thumb and forefinger.

"But why?"

"Never you mind, child." In a blink, the hair disappeared.

The Dark One went on to speak of the weather as if nothing had happened, and Belle didn't know what to think.

Chapter Text

As had become something of a daily habit, the princess of Avonlea woke, washed and dressed, and then sought out the Dark One for company early in the day.

She smiled to herself as Kala withdrew yet another new dress from her wardrobe. The Dark One's magic had swept over the castle, repairing everything from its broken stones down to the last hairline crack in the stained glass windows. He had ensured the kitchens were bursting with food, the courtyard was in a state of eternal spring, the library had been stocked with books from realms no one had ever dreamed of and that everyone - from their king down to their lowliest stable boy - had new clothes to wear.

No more threadbare clothing or holed shoes.

For the first time in years Belle actually looked the part of royalty, her dresses being imbued with finer detailing than any other woman's in the castle.

Each day, Kala would open the wardrobe doors and there would be one dress inside. Each day it would be a new frock, the dress from the day before never to be seen again. This day it was a dress of silvery-grey, with swirling patterns of deep royal blue lining the neck and the edge of the skirt. A sash of matching blue cinched in the waist, showing her shape very well once she dressed.

"The Dark One favors you." Kala said as she knotted Belle's hair.

This, the princess could no longer deny. "I think he does. I lost my fear of him on our first meeting in the courtyard. I do not think anyone in the castle truly fears him, not after all he's done for us, but I have endeavored to acquaint him. He may spend more time in my company than with the king."

Kala held her tongue in warning the royal. Tongues had started to wag on the strange friendship and rumors would be sure to follow, however Kala had given up on mothering Belle in such a way. Avonlea's princess had grown up in dire circumstances and so she was well above fretting over such things. They all were. All of Avonlea had been given a second chance at life itself - let the people talk.

In a way, gossip was a sign of the nation healing. That a curious friendship had formed between the demon mage and the princess was a wonderful thing to speak of compared to mere weeks ago, when the only news had been of the ever-looming threat advancing from all sides.

Yes. Let the people talk.

"You are braver than I, my lady. Of course I am so grateful for what he did for us, but I aim to keep my distance from him."

Belle thought on her maid's caution and distantly wondered if anyone else in the Dark One's acquaintance had made much of an effort to befriend him. She thought he might have mentioned it by now if anyone else had. Perhaps not, then.

Today the Dark One could not be found in the courtyard under the apple tree. He was not near the monument he had built for her, nor was he in the library or the main hall. Belle was growing a touch anxious at this upset to what had become their daily routine. Where had he gone? Had the king sent him off toward another bloody errand?

She stilled at the thought.

Her father had not spoken of those he'd set the Dark One after, and for this Belle was grateful. The news would reach her eventually, but she chose not to think on it.

Coward.

Just as Belle was leaving the main hall to find her father's advisors, she spotted a familiar maid carrying canteens down a corridor that lead to the squire stables.

"You. Sanka, is it? You are the Dark One's maid."

The younger woman nodded and smiled after giving a quick curtsey in respect to Belle's station. "Yes, My Lady, I am. I've served his meals since the first feast."

"I have seen you. He give you that ribbon?"

Belle recalled it better now, seeing this girl with a ribbon of gold in her hair when everyone in the castle was still wearing threadbare rags, herself included.

"Yes. He told me I was the first to earn one of his gifts. I have seen other ladies wearing his trinkets." Sanka said, almost in defense of herself.

"He can be generous with his charms." Belle remarked. "Did you serve his breakfast in the dungeons this morning?"

"Most days I do, yes, My Lady. I am escorted there by guards but today the Dark One is not in the dungeon, he was given a room in the tower."

At this, Belle raised her brows and a smile broke over her face. "My father gave him a room? That's wonderful! I knew he would think on it and see my side - if he is to force the Dark One to stay, then he should be treated with kindness, not banished to the dungeon until the king has need of him."

"My Lady?"

"You've seen it for yourself, and I cannot imagine that the Dark One has held his tongue with you."

"I know what you mean. And yes, the Dark One has been very, ah, vocal about his feelings toward the king." Sanka said uncomfortably.

Belle sighed. Even the servants knew her father was risking much by prodding the dragon. "Our king would treat the savior like a rented mule - overworked and then put away out of sight. But now this, I must see him. Where is he, where is the room he was given?"

"It is in the north tower, my lady."

_____________________________

After checking several of the known bedchambers and finding them empty, Belle climbed the stairs higher until she reached the last landing. She huffed, feeling puzzled. She couldn't even remember the last time she'd been this high into the north tower - there was never much need for her to venture here as there was only one door that lead into an observation room.

Belle thought the term room to be far too generous, it was practically a closet with a large window from which one could watch for approaching visitors on the road leading to the keep. She paused on the landing. From behind the door she could hear muffled scraping sounds, and curiosity grew within her. She stepped close to the door and knocked, calling for him. "Dark One?"

The door opened to reveal him just inside, seated on a stool before a large spinning wheel. "Princess, I am here."

Yes, he was there. Just him and the wheel and a large closed chest pushed up against the opposite wall. The observation room was otherwise empty, and felt cramped the moment she stepped over the threshold - were it not for the window overlooking the fields below, Belle would have felt closed in, trapped.

Her strange companion did not look up at her, he was focused on the wheel, turning it slowly, listening to the soft creaking of the aged wood.

Belle wrung her hands. She didn't know what to make of this, him being stuck up in the tower, alone with a wheel. "Your ribbon maid, she told me a room in the tower had been given to you...I had hoped that my father had given you a proper bedchamber."

At that, he looked up at her, "You assume I sleep."

"You don't? Or you can't?"

"No rest for the wicked. I can sleep, just not often and not for long. In any case this closet of a room is not to be my bedchambers, as you can see." There was barely a foot between the wheel and the edge of the chest. No, this was not a bedchamber for him, this was simply yet another place where he had been tasked by her king.

Once he had finished his weaving, he would be banished back into his dungeon cell, a space Belle had not yet dared to venture.

Belle's eyes were drawn to the wheel's slow turning motion. "What are you doing?"

"I've been commanded to build your treasury."

"With a spinning wheel?"

"It's a bit more than just that, but yes. It will take more than magic to restore your little kingdom. It will take gold. All the gold I can make."

Her eyes widened. His thieving horses from another kingdom was one thing, but if the mage could make gold, if he truly was the fountain of wealth he had just claimed himself to be, then her father would truly never let him go free.

It would be madness. Even Belle could see that.

"You make it?"

Careful to feed straw into the wheel, the Dark One shrugged. "I do not lay eggs as the great goose, but yes. You see here? Straw goes in one end, spins through the wheel, and...there."

Belle knelt before him to pick up a coil of gold thread from the catching bowl on the floor. She held the thread between her fingers, feeling the weight of it, watching it glint in the light. "It's real gold, I don't believe it!"

That won a true laugh from him. "I changed ogres into doves and you're so impressed with a bit of spinning?"

She dropped the thread back into the bowl and sat on the chest just before him. She met his eyes steadily through the slow turns of the wheel. "You think me simple."

"No. Never that, Belle."

"You've never called me by name before."

He pretended not to notice. "Hmmm?"

"It's always princess, or dearie or whatever name you choose on a whim. Never Belle, until now. Why is that?"

The Dark One stopped turning the wheel, the sudden silence was jarring in so close a space. "We are alone here."

"So we are."

It was true. They spent much time together, but always in the common areas of the castle: the courtyard, the main hall, the library. Never before had they been truly alone. Belle studied his face, his scales grey in the dim light but his eyes just as intense as they were on the night of their first meeting.

She wished she knew him better, that she could better understand his expressions. The way he was looking at her was almost-

"Until the guard comes with the next chest, that is." The Dark One dropped his eyes from hers and resumed his work at the wheel.

Belle frowned, "The next chest?"

"Yes, it'll be the third this day."

She moved off the chest where she'd been sitting and lifted the heavy lid, shocked to find it nearly filled to bursting with his bright gold thread. It gave off a light of its own, the glow almost hypnotic, and the room felt oppressively dull when she closed the chest, snuffing the light.

Belle rested her palms flat on the closed chest. "This is far more than we could ever need."

Behind her, the Dark One sneered. She didn't have to look at him, she could hear the contempt in his voice.

"Need? Your father's vision has far outgrown what this kingdom merely needs for its recovery. No, he sees a way toward forceful expansion, or hadn't you heard?

"No, you must be-"

"Mistaken? Go ask him yourself. Ask him if, after the crops are restored, the towns rebuilt and the populace reborn, ask him if he doesn't intend to raise or even buy an army to expand his borders."

She turned around to face him once more. "Dark One, why would he-?"

"Because wine will never get a man so drunk as the taste of power...It's Rumplestiltskin, by the way."

She didn't recognize the word. "I'm sorry?"

He kept his eyes on the thread catching in the wheel. "My name isn't Dark One. That is what I am, not who. I am Rumplestiltskin."

Belle tested the name on her own tongue. "Rumplestiltskin. That word is on your dagger."

"Yes. The dagger binds my soul and so is etched with my name."

"Rumplestiltskin...it is an unusual name." She found herself smiling. The Dark One had a name.

"Yes, and I am the most unusual of men."

"So you are."

He looked up at her again. "My name is for you alone, not to be shared with any others. Not even your king. When we are alone, you can call me Rumplestiltskin, if it should please you."

"That would please me. It is such an unusual name but I like it. I think it suits you."

He stopped the wheel between them, allowing gravity to weigh down his words when he told her, "It's all I can give you for now, but my name is more than I've given most."

"Thank you, Rumplestiltskin." Belle reached through the spokes of his wheel and took his hand, her fond habit. "You have my promise. I will tell no one."

Chapter Text

Belle remained in the tower for a time, keeping the Dark One - Rumplestiltskin - company as he spun straw into heavy strands of gold thread.

He had informed her of his task.

The king had summoned him from the dungeon at daybreak, commanding that he fill the castle treasury with gold.

An easy enough task, of course, and he could have just stolen the gold from a far-off kingdom...but where would the fun be in that?

The king had ordered him to fill the treasury with gold, yet he had not specified what shape the gold was to take, and so the fat fool would have to content himself with the chest upon chest of thread or emply a blacksmith to melt it down and then press it into Avonlean coin.

A simple way to thumb his nose at the throne. One takes victory where he can find them.

All of this Rumplestiltskin told her with a smug sort of smile and Belle had to laugh at his trick. She found herself agreeing that it served her father right, both for forcing such a task on him and for providing him with such a cramped workspace.

"Oh, no, this place was of my choosing." He corrected her.

"You wanted to be up here? Why?"

"It is quiet. I needed some quiet today." He said with a shrug. "That and it forces the knights to make their way up here with the chests. Let them do some work for once. I don't think anyone has lifted a finger since your father forced me here."

Belle recalled what Gaston had told her during the feast where they had first shared company, of the king's guard being needed during their country's recovery. "You underestimate the knights, Gaston told me-"

"Ah, yes, your intended! You never told me of your meeting."

"I've only seen him twice. Once at the feast and then he sought me out a few days ago and told me of his travels in the king's guard."

"And by the thrill in your voice I can tell you were ever so impressed with the tales of his adventures." He deadpanned.

"He is a good man, by all accounts. We may make a fine match." Belle said, and she was well aware that she was only parroting the words she was supposed to say.

She felt no ill will toward Gaston, nor did she feel discomfited in his company. He was pleasant enough, handsome enough and clever enough, she supposed...but would all of that be enough when the time came? She would do her duty - it was Gaston who had delivered the dagger to her father and she had been his reward for the bone-deep loyalty he had for his country. A lesser man would have fled years before, a lesser man would have taken the Dark One's power for himself.

Gaston had not. He was the savior of Avonlea.

Yes. I will do my duty.

Anything less would be a betrayal of the future her father was building.

"Perhaps. Fine pairings have come from such arrangements before." The Dark One told her absently as he fed the wheel another piece of straw.

The tiny room lapsed into a thoughtful silence, and Belle weighed the consequences of learning the answer to her question, of begging for a glimpse of his Sight.

She wrung her hands together before asking, "Can you see it? My future with him?"

Rumplestiltskin stopped the turn of his magical wheel and glared at her through the spokes. "Such a thing to ask, princess."

Belle dropped her eyes from his, feeling shame heat her cheeks. She shouldn't have asked, it was not her place to ask favors of the mage while he was being commanded to ensure her future. "I'm sorry, I only thought...well, you told Darla of her twins."

His expression softened when she looked at him again. He blinked and worked his jaw back and forth, careful of his words. "Yes, but you must understand - sometimes it is better not to know one's future. Just know, should I cast a vision and see any threat, I will protect you."

Belle nodded, trusting him.

So. After weeks of humiliating enslavement, Belle had done it. She had befriended the Dark One of legend, the master of all dark magic. The monster. The beast.

Her friend and by his own word, he was now her champion.

She smiled at him, hoping to convey her affection for him, her unending gratitude. "Thank you."

He cleared his throat and looked away, down to the turning of the wheel once again. "I can sense you have more questions for me. Things you've wanted to ask but didn't know how."

Belle took in a quick breath, unnerved by how he always seemed to know. Did she have questions for the Dark One? Oceans of them.

"Yes."

"You may ask."

Belle laughed and swiped a tear from her eye, suddenly giddy now with the freedom he'd granted her. "I have wanted to ask everything about you, Rumplestiltskin!"

"Everything? We would be in this tower for years."

"You won't tell me?"

"Between us, who is immortal here? I have all the time in the world. As I said, you may ask me."

"You may regret letting me ask my questions, I have a list." She told him, almost bouncing in her spot on the chest.

"I have a feeling I'm going to need this." From the kitchens below, he conjured a stein of beer for himself and took a deep sip, closing his eyes briefly in the relief of his thirst. He stood from the wheel and stretched, his joints popping obscenely - this he seemed to enjoy doing solely for how it disturbed her. "It's time for a break anyway. Shall we walk?"

Before Belle could answer him, her vision was obscured by deep violet smoke, and they were gone.

______________________________

As quickly as it had come, the smoke cleared away and Belle found herself outside. Where, she could not say. She was standing in a field dotted with colorful wildflowers, with a woodline at her back, mountains were distant and there were low clouds on the horizon.

"Where am I?" She wondered aloud.

"Far from your castle, but still in country. It's just us here, Belle."

She turned and found Rumplestiltskin perched on a bounder, changed from what he had worn in the castle. His clothing was more relaxed and he was barefoot once more.

That he had transported them away from the castle was telling. How had he done it, how far could he go?

"I did not think you could leave."

"Your king never said I couldn't leave. The devil's in the details, and I can go where I please, but I am compelled to return the instant the dagger calls for me." He explained as he stood from the boulder and approached her.

"I see."

"You have questions for me, Belle. I will answer you while I can. It won't be long before I am called on to fill another chest." He urged her.

This odd pair, these bizarre companions fell into step together and began walking down the slope of the hill toward the woods.

"All right. My first question...and I hope I am not overstepping my bounds, but you once told me you walk the line between man and beast."

"That I did. Think of me as a share of both, if it should help you."

"If you are part beast, do you purr when you're happy, then?" She asked, thinking of the pet cats she'd seen in Arendelle.

The Dark One pulled at a loose thread on his shirt. "I wouldn't know, I haven't been happy in centuries."

With effort, Belle dismissed his comment in favor of her questions. What could cheer him would be discussed later. They were friends now, of a sort, and so she would find a way to brighten him.

"Do you scratch trees to keep your nails sharp?"

He flashed his fangs at her. "No, I sharpen them on the hides of nosy princesses."

Ignoring that, Belle moved on to ask after his eyes. "How well can you see in the dark?"

"Well enough to do what needs doing."

Again, an answer that was no real answer at all.

"Can you fly?"

As they walked, he picked up a stick and carried it with him as they walked on a footpath through the woods, using it to tap against tree trunks and dragging its tip through the dirt.

"Only when I charm myself a pair of wings or change into a bird."

"What's your favorite creature to turn into?"

"An eagle. Sometimes a horse."

Belle looked through the trees and saw that they were approaching a small lake and another thought occurred to her, "Can you breath under water?"

"Only when I become a sea creature." He couldn't even remember the last time he'd done so - the sea had belonged to that bastard pirate, and so put Rumplestiltskin off the water.

He hadn't thought of that pirate in decades. Hopefully he'd met his end by sailing straight into a school of hungry Krakken, and he smiled to himself at that lovely thought.

Rumplestiltskin cleared the trees and the princess followed only a few steps behind. He looked about, and there was no one. Good. He didn't want to see any wayward peasants now, he wanted Belle to himself. Since ridding this place of the ogres, he had been met with such gratitude from those in the castle. The remaining nobles and higher knights had invited him to their table, shook his hand, clapped him on the back and insisted on presenting him with stein after stein of ale.

The ladies of the court were similar in their acceptance of him - he hadn't been invited to any sewing circles but he had been given wildflower leis, kisses to his cheeks and an invitation into more than one bed.

Ahem.

Even the children of the castle showed no shyness toward him, the wee scamps had made something of a game, following him about the courtyard and castle, only to run and hide whenever he turned around to look at them.

So like B-

"Why are your ears pointed?"

Belle's question pulled him out of his thoughts. "My-? Oh. I don't know. Why are your ears rounded at the top?"

The princess smirked, "Nice try but I'm the one asking the questions!"

Yes, Rumplestiltskin had been accepted amongst those in the castle, all save their fool king, but it was the princess who sought him out, the princess who thought of his treatment and the princess who had won his regard.

When the time came, Belle will curse herself for being so naive.

No one tamed the Dark One.

"Do your fangs have venom in them like a snake or spider?"

He rolled his eyes at that. "No. I'd have poisoned myself as many times as I've had to bite my tongue around your father."

Speaking of tongues...

"Why is your tongue forked?"

"It helps me to pronounce ancient, wicked words for my spells."

The wrath he had cast over the ogres had been powerful and he had needed words from a language this realm had long forgot.

Well.

He had reminded the land of those old, brutal words, speaking them for the first time in centuries.

"What does it feel like when you make magic?"

"It's always different and it depends on the spell I cast. Sometimes it feels warm, sometimes cold. It's difficult to describe but, I always feel something." He might tell her of the emotional component to his spells, of how it felt to have power surge through you, of the intoxicating pull to have your whim be made real...but their time here was very limited. He would need to take her with him again, perhaps the next time he ventured away...

"Do you have a tail?"

At that, he sputtered a laugh, "Look at what I'm wearing! If I had a tail, where would I keep it?"

Belle felt a blush heat in her cheeks at his invitation to look upon him. The brown leather clung tightly to his legs, unlike the draping, rather shapeless robes worn by the clerics and the looser fitting garments the nobles and knights wore in the castle. The Dark One showed his shape, lean and striking as it was, unconcerned by Avonlea's more conservative standards of dress.

Still, she had so many questions for him, about him, she determined to press on - there may not be another opportunity to speak with him like this.

"Can I ask after your skin?"

He raised a ridged brow at her. "You want to touch my scales, do you? Why? You have touched my hand many times."

Belle faltered, unsure of how to ask such a thing, if the skin of his body was scaled as well or if the scales gave way to a man's flesh. "Yes but..."

"Fine. Here, then." He waved his hand and both his loose linen shirt and the suede vest over it disappeared, leaving Belle standing with a shirtless man for the first time in her life.

Rumplestiltskin watched with some amusement as her eyes grew wide and her face grew red. He could sense her shock, a strange mix of arousal and trepidation. She wanted to run from him yet her feet refused to move. He took a step toward her and Belle's posture stiffened as she took in a quick breath, ready to bolt away.

She needn't worry. Rumplestiltskin would not harm her. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"Well, you wanted to see me."

His words startled her out of whatever trance had held her eyes to him, and Belle looked up to meet his amused gaze. Her mouth worked for a moment before any words were spoken.

"I - I...so I did." She muttered and took a step closer to him.

The skin of his chest and abdomen was similar to that of his face, neck and hands. A strange, shimmering texture that changed with his movements under the light. Dark green, gold, grey. His arms and shoulders held patterns of soft ridged scales that extended over part of his chest and covered his back, leaving the skin of his lower chest and abdomen smooth.

His scale patterns reminded her of an animal she'd only read about but had never seen for herself. "You are something like a crocodile."

In an instant, Rumplestiltskin's shirt and vest were back in place. "Yes. You would not be the first to say so." He hissed.

His moods were so changeable - would she ever know him?

"Please, help me to understand you. You have smooth scales like a crocodile or a serpent but your blood is as warm as my own. You have claws and fangs like a beast, but yet you have reason and the voice of a man. You have intelligence and humor and you adorn yourself in clothing. Your eyes...you have the eyes of neither man nor dragon. Eyes I've never seen anywhere else."

Rumplestiltskin could understand her confusion over his appearance being at odds with itself, it was one of the reasons his castle's mirrors remained covered.

Really, he'd rather not talk at length over how he looked. He knew too well what the curse had done to him.

"Yes, yes, I am lovely and unique." He groused and began to walk the shore once more. She moved to follow him as he went on, "Our time here together grows short. If you have any other questions, now would be the time."

"Where do you get your clothes? The legends never mention the Dark One employs a tailor." Belle joked, but really, his clothing was unlike any she'd ever seen a man wear before...of course, Rumplestiltskin was more than a man.

"I don't. A hatter, on occasion, but any clothes I wear are of my own design." He told her, puffing his chest a bit at the boast.

"You have an eye for fashion." His clothing only enhanced the image built in legend, that of the most powerful demon sorcerer ever known. Still, she liked him better like this, casually dressed and barefoot - it seemed more natural for him, less like a costume meant to build intimidation against those foolish enough to challenge his power.

"An interest we share then, if your gown sketches are anything to go by." He said with a knowing smile.

At that, Belle raised her brows in alarm. "What? Where did you see my drawings?"

"While I was in your chambers, going through your things."

Indignant heat flooded her cheeks - for her privacy to be violated, for her diaries to be read, her undergarments to be seen-

"You dare!"

Rumplestiltskin raised his hands as she started toward him, sensing the hell she was set to unleash. Women could be so sweet in one moment and then furious in a flash whenever a man put his toe over the line.

"It was just a jest, princess!"

"Then how did you know about the gowns I draw?" Belle demanded of him with suspicious eyes.

"You left a drawing tucked between the pages of one of the books you brought to the courtyard some time ago." He explained, and conjured her sketch. He'd kept it in his dungeon cell, something pleasant to look at while he tried to fall asleep. "This one is lovely."

Belle well remembered that drawing, she'd been unable to find it anywhere and feared Kala might have scrapped it with the rest of the rubbish. Still, she dismissed it. "I...it was only a drawing. I could never commission such a dress."

"Why?"

"How can you ask that? The ogres are gone but Avonlea is still in ruins. This castle is the only refuge for miles, so many villages still stand empty, our people have scattered across the realm. It'd be a cruel kind of madness to think of a gown at a time like this." Belle said. Truly, she was ashamed of herself for drawing the gown, even thinking of something as useless as a dress seemed appallingly gluttonous.

For his part, the Dark One showed no concern. His eyes were fixed to her drawing, the lines of her ink pen on the rough parchment. Clearly, she'd done the best she could with what she had - he'd conjure her an art kit with fine paper and oil pastels for color. Hers was a talent that deserved to grow.

"I wouldn't worry after your people for long. Your father has a list of tasks as long as my arm to ensure your country rises within a year." He grumbled, looking to the horizon.

He was thinking of his home, no doubt, of what comforts he'd been torn from when her father summoned him to Avonlea.

But Rumpliestltskin was privy to so much more than Belle herself. Being so close to the king, he knew the plans in place for her country, he knew what she would face during her time as queen. If he was her friend, if he was capable of the trust needed to form a bond, then she had to trust him as well when she asked, "You can restore our people?"

"I cannot restore the dead, you know this. But I can help with the land, the defenses and the treasury. This...it's all a means to an end." He said, and threw a rock at the water. They watched it skip across the surface before sinking out of sight.

"I wish you had chosen to help us freely." She said, and not for the first time. She loathed his enslavement nearly as much as he did.

"That's just the thing, though. I wouldn't have chosen to help you. Why should I help anyone if they can do nothing for me?"

"Because helping people...there is no higher cause." Belle told him. She was parroting what she had been told as a child, however as she had grown into her role as princess, as she had seen the carnage in Avonlea and during her time in Arendelle, Belle had learned the truth of those words. From peasant to royal, the world could be a better place if only people would extend a hand to help others.

That her companion so openly disdained the idea of selflessness fed her doubts about him; here was a clever master of magic, centuries old, and yet he seemed unable or unwilling to consider acts of generosity.

Wise he was, but kind he was not.

"Spoken like a true politician! I almost believe you." He groused.

She crossed her arms, growing annoyed with him now. "I was being genuine."

"Aye, perhaps a part of you was, but you know how the game is played. You know it's the reason for your marriage, the subtle threats in your father's letters - 'Let it be known that the land of Avonlea has freed itself from the ogre threat by King Maurice, he who holds the Dark One in his command.' It's all a play for power, and me? I love power over all things."

"You love nothing?"

At that, Rumplestiltskin crossed his arms over his chest, almost hugging himself, and his voice was suddenly subdued. "There is nothing I love in this realm, nor in any other realm I've seen."

She looked at him, the sudden gravity that anchored him. What was it? What had she missed?

"That is...you must be very lonely."

He looked up and swallowed down those brief moments of melancholy, his voice and movements full of energy once more. "I was, until a nosy royal chose to inflict her bothersome little self into my time. Now I find I can never be left alone!"

"If you want me to go, you need only say the word." Belle told him, recognizing his tease.

Truly, he would have easily been able to avoid her company if she vexed him so.

The Dark One thought of her as a friend, he'd already proven as much and, the gods above help her, Belle called him her friend as well.

Rumplestiltskin straightened to his full height, affixing himself in a noble pose. "I am a gentleman, it'd be rude of me to dismiss a lady."

"You threaten the life of my father every time we meet."

"I never said I was perfect."

Despite herself, Belle barked out a laugh. The Dark One was just too clever.

He looked out to the horizon where the sun was making a swift descent. Evening would be upon them soon and with it, another command performance forced upon him during the feast.

The Dark One hungered for nothing but the blood of King Maurice.

"Come close, Belle. It's time we return to the castle." Rumplestiltskin extended his hand to her, having grown accustomed to her touch now.

Without hesitation, Belle placed her hand in his.

Chapter Text

Several days passed and several chests were filled to the brim with the golden thread spun at the wheel of the Dark One. Several times the king had cursed at him once he'd visited the treasury and found no coin or jewels there, but chest upon chest of 'sodding string!'

Again, so careful with his words, he told king Maurice that spinning straw into gold was his best way of conjuring the fortune Avonlea needed to rebuild itself in the eyes of the world.

His best way. Not his only way.

He'd barely kept a straight face as the king angrily accepted his word as truth, and commanded that he double the number of chests be filled by month's end. Meanwhile the king's advisor scurried off to send out missives in search of a blacksmith who could work the thread into coins.

And so it was by his own design that Rumplestiltskin was left well enough alone in the tower. What he'd told Belle days before had been true. He needed a quiet place to be alone and work. He lost himself as he spun, so deep in the business of forgetting himself that he often let the bowl overflow, his thread coiling over its rim and all over the floor.

No matter.

The long stretches of work were broken only by a pair of knights who would switch out the full chests with an empty one. They always told him of their gratitude, yet their eyes pitied him his slavery.

That was no matter as well.

Rumplestiltskin accepted their thanks and the measure of acceptance extended to him - an open seat at the knights' table, a seat he could rarely take as the king so delighted in his forced performances during the evening feasts - but then the knights would be on their way to take the gold down to the treasury, and Rumplestiltskin would find himself alone once more.

He didn't mind being alone. He was the Dark One. His road was a lonely one. Centuries ago he had tried to fight that truth. Once, he had tried to live amongst people, in the same village, the same house he'd lived in when he had still been a man. A husband. A father.

But that had been centuries ago.

He'd burned the village to ashes shortly after losing his last tie to that place and began the life of a demonic nomad. For a time he had gone wherever he was called, making deals, collecting relics toward the curse that could tear through realms...

A grand plan had formed and he found himself in need of a place to keep his collection of relics, a place where he could grow ingredients and brew potions, a place to think.

And also...when his son returned to him, when they were together again, a family, he would need a place for Baelfire to rest his head. A safe place where no knight or piper or fairy could take his boy again. His son deserved more than a hut in a village of scrounging peasants - he deserved a home of sturdy stone, not patched grass and mud. He deserved a yard to play in rather than the woods where he was always scraping himself or coming home covered in dirt and brambles. He deserved a place with books, yes, books! When he came home, Baelfire would be taught to read stories and history, he would learn laws and figures and medicine and become a great man someday because his father was so much more than that spindly little coward he'd once known, he had seen so much and traveled so far. When Bae came home...when I find Baelfire again...

Rumplestiltskin cleared his throat and sniffed, ignoring the sting in his eyes as he looked down to see the thread piled on the floor. He huffed at himself and took up the bundle, tossing it in the chest.

The lone window looked out over the land. It was dark now. He'd been spinning for the last three hours without pause.

Nightfall already? Where does the time go?

He vanished from the tower and reappeared in his dungeon cell. All told, the space was just as confining as his room in the tower - a fitting cage for his beastly self. Still there were some small comforts. He'd been given a cot bed, pillows and blankets to keep away the chill of the dungeon and he was sure he had Belle to thank for that.

Belle.

Such a strange girl, so determined in befriending him. He knew why, of course, but nonetheless it was odd. Regina listened to his teachings, accepted his guidance and strived for his approval, but she was no friend to him. She would betray him, try to seize power for herself as soon as she felt ready enough to challenge him.

Mentoring angry young women was a dangerous game.

He didn't need his Sight to see this. Regina was as selfish and deceitful as her mother, though perhaps she was not as sly.

To this day he wasn't sure if he was more hateful toward Cora or more impressed. She was a singular woman to have bested the Dark One. It was perhaps why he hadn't killed her yet.

Rumplestiltskin cocked his head, turning his ear up to the ceiling. The dungeon was below the kitchens, which in turn was below the main hall where the evening feasts always took place. Since his spinning began, he had been given a grateful reprieve from dancing and singing before the court audience.

He had provided instruments to learned players instead and happily let them be the night's entertainment. Shedding his day clothes and shuffling into his makeshift bed, he was content to listen to the music. He had no true need for sleep, but sometimes it helped - particularly at times like this when he was feeling especially smothered by memories of his past.

He looked to the wall where he'd clawed hashmarks into the stone, marking his days in Avonlea. Just beside the marks he'd affixed Belle's drawing to the wall so he could see it before he slept. A simple thing, the idle drawing of a gown by a young woman who believed it beyond her right to even dream of such a dress.

He quirked his lips as he thought of his friend. Friend? Yes. Why bother to deny his fondness, when he had already admitted the primal pull to claim her?

Fine, then. His friend.

She who placed her people, this miserable little country, over her own fate. She who challenged a king to be kind to a monster. She who was both intrigued and terrified of that same monster. Poor girl. Such a conflict it must be, to pity the slave his chains, all while knowing that slave would slaughter his captor if given a chance toward freedom.

It wouldn't matter in the end.

What came of his time here was yet to be seen. Rumplestiltskin pulled the blanket close over his shoulders. He grew weary of the commands forced upon him. He wanted to go back to the castle he'd built for his son, he wanted to revel in his collection and snipe at Regina.

But he could not. Avonlea held him, it had already held him for weeks. How much longer must he stay?

He knew the answer to that already.

The fool king would never release him, the man had tasted power after a decade of impotent peril. No. Maurice would never let him free, and he could not approach Belle for help. She feared his wrath more than she cared for him, and rightfully so.

He blinked heavily, willing his mind to calm so that he might find some sleep, and begin a new day.

_____________________________

Belle lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and finding no answer in the stones above. The princess was restless in body and mind.

Her thoughts touched on Gaston, the savior knight and her intended. Together they would mark Avonlea's rebirth as a thriving kingdom, lifted from peril, having both defeated the ogres and captured the Dark One.

The future her father envisioned was bright yet it filled Belle with unspeakable dread.

Her father, herself, the entire kingdom was complicit in the enslavement of the most powerful sorcerer there ever was. Only Belle seemed to think on what the end price would be for commanding his magic.

The gods knew it would be steep. The gods knew, it would be paid in blood.

Belle both feared and was intensely fond of Rumplestiltskin.

He was remarkable in so many ways. His power. His striking appearance and dress. His wit and humor. Truly, he was unlike anyone she had ever known.

Was his every word a deception? He was the Dark One, the Devourer of Hearts and the Defiler of Virgins. The legends spoke of infants being bartered, of the women who refused him being rendered barren hags, of whole kingdoms burned to ash and villages swept away in great floods on his whim.

And yet she had seen him do a kindness to the orphaned children just days before. They joined in the nightly feasts enjoyed by all in the castle and the clothing they wore was new, but what was more, Rumplestiltskin had conjured a toy for each of them. Simple cloth dolls and stickmen, but more than any of them had had since their birth into the wretched kingdom that had killed their parents and left them at the mercy of those who remained in the castle.

Belle had asked him about it, but he had only rolled his eyes and told her she was mistaken - "I did no such thing, the scamps stole those toys!"

Still the children played their game of following him in the courtyard and corridors, scattering when he turned to face them and he smiled every time.

He was capable of such kindness, yet he still claimed he'd only saved Avonlea under her father's command. Had he been given the choice he'd have let the ogres have her country.

His moods were so changeable, he could be joyful, melancholy and enraged in the blink of an eye. He spoke of things he had seen in other realms, the variations of themselves and the lives they lead together. He made open threats against the throne. He hinted strange and suggestive things to her.

Belle thought on the day he'd stolen her away with him, the day she'd learned his name. Rumplestiltskin. An ancient name from the lowlands. He'd answered some questions and evaded others. Then, he'd revealed himself to her.

Not his whole self, yet it was more than Belle had expected.

She'd shocked herself in knowing that she wanted to touch him. To feel the patterns of his soft scales under her hands, the ridges over his back, arms and shoulders that gave way to the softer flesh on his front. What was even more shocking was her flash of excited thought - what was there to stop him from touching her?

They had vanished away from the castle, no one knew where they had gone or even that Rumplestiltskin could leave whenever he chose. He had taken her away to where no eyes could see them.

"It's just us here, Belle."

He could have brought his clawed hands to hers. He could have touched her face, her waist, her breasts. She touched her own breast idly as she thought of this, his hand replacing hers in thought. He could have kissed her, devoured her, overwhelmed her with his fangs and forked tongue...what's more, he could have taken her right there on the rocky shore of that lake with no one to witness their debauchery.

To be devoured, taken by the Dark One-

Belle didn't know what to make of her thoughts. Truly, they frightened and confused her. If she should have such thoughts at all, they should center on Gaston, the man she would soon call her husband and then her king.

Rumplestiltskin should never even be considered in such a way. He was the Dark One. He wasn't even human. Perhaps that was what had so captivated her. He was not man, he was not beast. By his own admission he was something entirely other and there it lay, her fascination with him: because he was so different from anything she'd ever known, her thoughts lingered on him in all ways.

Belle frowned to herself in the darkness.

And him, smug and vain creature that he was, he probably knew her wicked thoughts and was delighting himself to know of his effect on her.

Well.

She wouldn't give him the satisfaction, and resolved not to think of him for the rest of the night.

She did, however, dream of him, and cursed herself upon waking.

_____________________________

Time passed.

The princess and the mage continued with their friendship. Seeing them together in the courtyard or library became a casual sight, accepted by most in the castle. Even the king thought little of the pair, much to the disgust of the clerics.

Their eyes never strayed from the Dark One.

Always, they watched him as he performed entertainments during the evening feasts and always they watched as he cast the magic needed to replenish Avonlea.

All those of the court, the servants and nobles housed there, all of them had grown to love the Dark One for the miracles he performed: killing the ogres, raising the land, bringing the rain. The knights welcomed him to their table as if he were one of their own, every lady was free with her smiles and fond wishes, the nobles invited him into their talks of philosophy and agriculture.

Even the damned orphans followed after the Dark One wherever he strode, clutching the toys he'd given, calling him "new father" - a title even the demon seemed to find disturbing.

The elder clerics grew more frustrated and anxious with each passing week. Praying brought no gods down to smite the devil that walked in their house, and they dare not raise their objections to the king - the crown was too deeply bewitched to hear any ill words spoken against the Dark One, the king's master was masquerading as a slave.

The enemy ruled the castle, basking in love freely given, smug and satisfied and so clever in his corruptions. They all feared a house divided and what's more, they feared their princess, their beloved Belle, to soon be beyond saving.

Her reaction to their caution was proof enough of where her devotion truly laid.

It had been a mild afternoon as the summer swept into autumn, and they had happened upon the princess in the library. Already she had earned a shade of disdain from the elders for her love of reading - so like the late Queen in her love for the written word, yet so like her father with her stubborn streak spanning miles. That combination paired with her upbringing had produced a woman hellbent on having her own way, and fearless in the face of their authority. The clerics knew their days were numbered, all counting down to the day Belle gained the throne.

Of course, what good was it to remind her of their allegiance to the gods above when she was already openly in league with the Dark One?

Still, they tried. For her soul, they had to try. Surrender was no option for a cleric of the Avonlean faith.

It had become a rare sight, the princess without her companion, and the elder of the pair had seized his opportunity on entering the library.

The elder had decades over the princess and his younger protege, yet no one would know it the way he rushed to the woman and knelt before her, casting her book aside, seizing her hands into his. "Princess, please hear me, you must not cavort with the creature!"

Startled, Belle tried to pull her hands from his but he did not release her.

"What do you mean?"

The elder cared nothing for the woman's title or his tenuous position in the castle - truly, he feared for her. He feared for them all. "You have allowed yourself to become seduced by the creature's power. It is said that the Dark One enters your bedchambers at night."

The younger cleric paled at the accusation. The elder must be mad to voice such a thing - they would all be hanged for his words!

Belle pulled from the old man's grasp and hurriedly stood from her chair, "You are wrong! He has done no such thing! He's my friend, he would never-"

Turning on her now, the elder stood, easily falling back into his role of authoritarian when confronted with a girl who would challenge him. Why could she not see what was right before her? Was all the world so blind to the Dark One? "That vile creature is no friend to you, you must know this. The Dark One's influence has corrupted your mind and that of the king. It is too easy when he offers such displays of power and finery." Here he looked pointedly at her dress, the daily gift from her enchanted wardrobe. "Princess, please. Such evil as his is beyond your understanding. He plays the friend only to attack once your back is turned. I can see he has corrupted you already. Perhaps he comes to you and lifts the memory when taking his leave at night, or perhaps his visits please you-"

The younger cleric dared to warn his better, "You must not say such a thing!"

At once, any semblance of Belle's sweetness fell away, burned off in the fire of her anger, "How dare you speak to me like this?! My father will have you thrown from the castle! I'll have you both stripped of the order!"

Raising his hands, the younger cleric, Joseph, he sought to calm the enraged royal, though in truth he was in league with her anger. What in the seven hells was the elder thinking, to openly accuse her like this? To be stripped from the order would be the least of their punishments - accusing the princess of entertaining the demon in her bed was an offense that could very well be punished by banishment or death.

It is what we deserve. We have failed every last soul of Avonlea, yet we dare look down on them for loving the demon savior.

"Please, princess, it has been a trying time for us all." He dropped to his knees, a supplicant to her. "Please, please, we beg your forgiveness!"

Disgusted and furious, Belle waved them away. "Be gone from me, the both of you!"

Seamlessly, he appeared in the library. Stepping forth from nothingness, the Dark One emerged, his eyes on the woman. "I heard raised voices. Belle, what troubles you?"

Belle looked between him and the clerics, the shame of their accusation heating her face. She could not tell him, not when the memory of her dream was so fresh in her mind. "It's nothing."

He didn't believe her for a moment. Still, "If you're sure."

The woman drew herself up, straightening her posture and taking a deep breath. She prayed he didn't search her mind and learn the truth. "I am. These clerics were just leaving."

Rumplestiltskin knew who these men were - the priests and monks of the Avonlean faith, these men who prayed to the gods that never answered. These men were the only souls in the castle who had yet to thank him for his intervention with the ogre threat.

He, who had been compelled to save their wretched country and culture, he who had saved their very lives, was unworthy of gratitude in the eyes of their faith.

True, he was the Dark One, the Blackest of All Hearts and the Demon King...but really, he didn't feel that a simple 'thank you' should be beyond these holy men.

He grinned at the clerics, revealing his fangs in menacing glee.

Of course, they won't thank me when I-

"Ah, and so these are the clerics of the castle!" He sang out to them, and by the great gods, did he enjoy how repulsed they were to be in his focus. He was toying with them, openly reveling in their discomfort. "Strange. I've become so familiar with everyone of note in the castle," And here he walked the tips of his claws over Belle's bare shoulder, his meaning clear to the men, who looked horrified at the wicked thoughts he sent through their minds. Visions of he and Belle twining together like snakes, the Dark One's fiery crown, the true face of the curse. "Or so I thought, because I've not met either of you before. Tell me, what are your names?"

"Do not speak your name, brother!"

The younger cleric halted his words at the elder's warning, well reminded of the things the Dark One could do to a man on learning his name.

Though bested for now, Rumpliestltskin only shrugged. "Oh, you're both so shy. No matter. I'll learn your names soon enough and when I do, I will know you inside and out. But you really must excuse us, for Belle and I wish to be alone."

With a last parting glare to the clerics, the Dark One pulled the princess close to him and together, they disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

Chapter Text

Belle blinked several times, and she knew where she was before his magic cleared from her eyes. The warmth of the sun touched her face and she scented the apple blossoms in the air. Rumplestiltskin had not taken them far. They were only in the courtyard, their favored place under the tree.

She looked up into his scaled face, unnerved by the intensity of his stare. "Now that we're alone, you tell me what those clerics did to upset you."

His words were an order, a command Belle refused to obey. She had little love for the clerics but to tell the Dark One of what that fool elder had accused...no. Rumplestiltskin might happily kill for the insult to her honor. She could not tell him. Alvonlea had seen so much blood, she would not add to it with a play for vengeance. Her King would be the only one to use the Dark One in such a way.

"They said nothing of any consequence." She told him, stepping away now. "Please, put it from your mind."

"You hate them." He said plainly, his strange eyes still fixed upon her. "It's coming off you in waves."

Belle frowned at his wording. He often said odd things like this and she could only wonder at what he saw when he looked on her. Could he see into her mind whenever he chose, could he know her spirit? Did his Sight let him truly see her emotions? He had promised to answer what questions of hers he could. She wondered if they could not delve deeper and let her see the world as he could see it, the wisp of magic within all things alive, the shades of light and darkness that lived in every soul.

Again, she shook her head. Took a deep breath to calm herself. "No. I don't hate the men themselves, many of them I've known since I was a girl. Some of them were sent on to Arendelle with me. I don't hate them. Sometimes...often times I hate what they represent." She said, clenching her hands into fists as she recalled all their rules and rituals and their stern warnings of a woman's place - something that had always irked Belle, for how was it that men sworn to celibacy should be the ones to decide anything relating to a woman?

"Bold words, princess."

She shrugged, still feeling unbalanced from the elder's confronting her in the library. She knew very well how uneasy the clerics were to know the Dark One walked openly loved by all in the castle, but she hadn't given enough thought on how their friendship could be seen. Yes she knew that they made a strange pair from the outside, so often seen in the gardens, and though she didn't care much for gossip she hadn't thought that anyone would be so bold as to make an outright accusation against her.

Another woman might back away from him, end her connection to Rumplestiltskin to reclaim her good name, but being the princess of a desperate country leant Belle a greater measure of freedom. The Dark One was the savior of Avonlea and Belle had chosen him as her companion - no righteous old cleric could condemn them without consequence, Belle would see to that.

The woman looked up, meeting his eyes and she felt light, any guard over her tongue fell away. "Their teachings...I don't know that I've ever truly believed."

"Ah, you doubt the faith." He blinked, seeming to realize her. "Your clerics have a word for that. Blasphemy."

The Dark One spoke the truth - but that the Dark One was here with her was proof enough to her that not everything the clerics had taught her was true and more importantly, it might mean that everything they believed was a lie. Belle did not fully trust Rumplestiltskin but she put more trust in him than in anything the clerics had taught her over the years.

"The gods did not aid us when Avonlea was hours away from being overwhelmed." Belle said, voicing the thoughts that so many in the castle shared. Faith had fallen away in the proof of the mage and his awesome power, and why not, when he walked with the people? Though chained by the cursed dagger, the Dark One was undeniably real, unlike the so-called gods of their devoted clerics. "All they did was look down on us and watch. Either they are too weak to take on a hoard of ogres or the gods do not exist."

Rumplestiltskin clicked his tongue at her. "Careful, Belle. If the clerics heard you now they'd brand you a heretic."

"Let them try. They're only men hiding behind myths of the old world." Belle huffed, feeling great relief in speaking the words that had been on her mind for so long. She wondered at that - when had she lost her faith? Or, had she ever believed or had she just gone along with the lessons because it'd been expected of her, her position? Perhaps it'd been after the death of the queen, after all her simple, childish prayers had gone unanswered that the light of her faith had started to dim.

There was a strange thrill in this, a wonderful forbidden freedom in speaking open blasphemies with the very demon the order had warned of for decades.

What do they know of him? Or me? A gaggle of fools in robes. That's all they are.

Belle smoothed her hands down her dress, wondering just how far she could take her words in his presence. They spoke of many things, but her waned faith had not been a topic between them. The Dark One was known to use people's words against them - but that was the Dark One of legend, not her Rumplestiltskin.

Perhaps it did not matter anymore - these questions of gods and belief. Perhaps all that there was, was the here and the now. And now, here she was with her fascinating companion, spirited away from the clerics of the broken faith to their meeting place in the enchanted courtyard. Belle made a choice, or truly, she realized the choice she'd already made weeks before. A deeper measure of trust. "Rumplestiltskin, you promised to protect me and for all their talk of the gods and rituals and grand punishments and the like, I would name myself safest in your company."

The demon smiled at her, flashing his fangs. "Famous last words, princess."

____________________________

It was the next day that Joseph sought out the princess. The day previous had been all wrong - the elder's seizing after her while she'd been alone in the library, his accusations, his desperate warning to her and his condemning words. Joseph speared fingers through his hair, feeling unbalanced by the summer. So much had happened. The world had tipped beneath his feet in the space of days and unease held heavy in his heart.

He had known Belle for years and never before had she raised her voice to him. Never before had she warned him away from her. He had never seen fury in her eyes or such disgust in her face. Truly, she had been wounded by the elder's words, he had seen that in her eyes too.

The elder was wrong, so wrong to speak to her in such a way. I stood back and let it happen. The princess may well banish me, but I must apologize. It is only right.

Joseph made his way through the corridors of the castle, seeking her. It was early in the day, yet he had been unable to sleep, restless in his remorse, and he could not wait in speaking his heart to her. After the Dark One had forced his sick visions into their minds and vanished, the elder had flown into a despairing rage, cursing the king, calling him a mad fool, cursing the princess anew with threats of purification rituals and howling that the Dark One had infected the people, the sky, the water, the very air of Avonlea.

Joseph had lead the elder back to the clerics' wing, their brothers young and old flocking to the commotion and all of them condemned for their trouble. A rift was forming within the clerics; too much that they had believed was proving untrue. Those in the castle gave no thought to the gods, not a prayer had been said since the ogres had been ripped from the earth. Some of the younger brothers had voiced wishes to leave the order, exposed longings for a second chance at life. A life without the threat of being rendered helpless in the face of a tide of monsters. Some dreamed of taking colors in the army - there were so few knights now, and the younger clerics were feeling the need to rededicate their lives to a new meaning. Some had voiced the dream of taking a wife, of seeing their children emerge into the great country Avonlea was sure to become.

The man knew what it all meant.

Their faith was dying.

Perhaps it should.

Joseph shocked himself with the thought and quickly brushed it aside. There was no time for that, it was the princess he sought.

He paused near the library and took a breath. He felt lost. He needed guidance but the elders were as lost as he was. He could sort himself out, expressing his repentance to the princess would be a step toward making his world right again. He took another breath and stepped into the room, his eyes widening when he saw the number of shelves bursting with books - they had been near empty with the highest draped in cobwebs only weeks ago. He had been too occupied with the scene his elder had caused to notice the day before; truly the Dark One did favor the princess to conjure such gifts.

He saw her, seated at one of the three tables kept within the library, reading alone. It was true that the library was neglected over the years, but who could give a thought to reading when villages had been overrun, their people scattering across borders into neighboring kingdoms? With the threat defeated and hope for a new Avonlea spreading faster than the wind, Joseph hoped to see her library filled with those eager to read.

But before he could speak on that wonderful vision, he must first speak with the princess and prove his contrition.

"Good morning, princess." He said shakily.

"And to you, priest." Her words were polite and clipped, yet her full demeanor was distant. She clearly didn't want him there, she would rather be left to read.

Being what he was, poor Joseph had no ground to stand on when it came to facing an insulted woman. He wasn't sure what to say, he only knew that he couldn't leave her until he'd made his apologies. Still...how to begin?

"Have you slept well?" He asked, breaking the awkward silence.

Belle slammed her book shut and stood from the table, her eyes flashing blue fire. "You dare ask after my sleep when your brother accused me of inviting the Dark One into my bed?!"

Joseph took a step toward her, his hands open and his words soft. "Please, princess. He is not the voice of us all, he speaks only for himself, however misguided. He was so wrong to say what he did and that I stood by and allowed such a thing - I sicken myself for showing such cowardice when I should have shouted him down in your defense. Please, princess, I beg your forgiveness."

"Why would he say such things? The Dark One has never forced himself upon me, and surely I have never invited a man to share my bed - The Dark One or any other. I would trust you to stop any gossip that would suggest otherwise." Belle said, her words a clear command.

Belle cared nothing for gossip, but she would still rather not be the subject of talk on such a vulgar level. She was pure and would remain so until married, as was her duty. Gaston deserved better than to look upon his fiance with suspicions planted by a righteous old man. After everything her father had put him through, her friend deserved better than to be accused of such a horrible thing - he was a beast, not a monster. Belle had to believe he was above such mad cruelty.

"You have my word."

Belle took a breath, smoothing a hand down the skirt of her fresh gown. The Dark One's daily gift. "Thank you. It is my thinking that the Dark One is dark only because he has never known kindness. As he is to remain until my father has no more need of him, I have taken on trying to make him feel at home." She raised her eyes to his, "I cannot do it alone. I demand that the lot of you welcome him."

Joseph nodded, obedient and so relieved when she smiled upon him once more. He would have her smile everlasting.

"Yes, princess. I will, I swear it."

Belle straightened her back. "Thank you, Joseph. If you are true in what you say, then seek him out and when you see him, swallow your fear and smile at him in greeting."

___________________________

Joseph felt uneasy with his order. The princess, he adored her, truly, but she would have him shake hands with the demon of legend. The mage was known by many names - he carried the Blackest of All Hearts, he was the Eater of Sins and Haunter of Dreams, the Demon King and in other nations he was Dealmaker but the Dark One was his most common title.

Still...

In some circles he was called the Defiler of Virgins.

Please, please, do not let it be so!

Joseph thought of Belle as he made his way toward the courtyard. The princess had often been seen to speak with him there - the courtyard was a public space, all were free to go there and take in the eternal spring the Dark One had provided the castle.

The elders of their order had been quick to paint the princess's association with the Dark One in a sickening light. Just after the defeat of the ogres, the princess was first seen to sit with the demon and it was there that accusations of corruption had come forth - some of them Joseph could not fathom, that the princess might happily feast on the demon's seed or that the mage might force himself on her like a dog. He shivered uncomfortably. Carnal pleasures were unknown to him outside of his own touch, and each time he gave in to the temptation he was ashamed of himself for the indulgence.

Perhaps he was too young or too sheltered. Perhaps he was just plain ignorant of the ways of the world, he didn't know. He believed Belle in her denial of the elder's accusation, yet he could never forget the creature amongst them in the castle. The elders had intimated the Dark One could use a mind spell to have her forget his attentions each night.

He hated to think of it, of precious Belle being ravished in the dark and forced to forget, believing herself to be pure once she awoke in the mornings. How to know for sure? The princess denied it while the demon revelled in the elder's accusation.

As his thoughts circled each other, his feet had carried him through the castle corridors and straight out to the courtyard. He took a breath of the pleasant air. So strange was the Dark One's spell, that it could be an advancing autumn outside the castle walls and blooming spring in the center yard.

He stood, searching and then found the demon beneath his favored apple tree. Dread gripped Joseph, hard and heavy in his chest.

The Dark One was holding a child, one of the castle orphans.

After accusing the princess of whoring herself to the devil, the cleric elder had warned of the demon taking a sick delight in corrupting children, that his darkness would spread to infect the innocents and make of them his disciples, deaf and blind to anything outside his wicked bidding. The thought of children being used in such a way twisted his stomach.

O gods above please don't let it be so!

He watched, rooted to the spot, as the Dark One streamed his hands through the child's hair, grooming the little girl with his claws in lieu of a proper hairbrush. For her part the child appeared content sitting in his lap, a rag doll clutched in her hands. Joseph watched them, the mage and child, seeming so content and sweet in the shade. Many of the castle orphans had come to call him new father, and here it seemed the Dark One had set aside his reservations at the name and taken to the role.

Was it as the elders claimed? That the Dark One would bed all the women, possess the castle orphans and cast a wrath over all of Avonlea for his perverse sense of pleasure? All at once, Joseph felt ice rush through his veins. The gods, would they ever come to give their aid? What new measure of desperation would it take to bring them down from the heavens?

And yet...the Dark One appeared content in caring for the girl and she, a foundling from the north, was so glad to be cared for. Joseph felt shame grip him in a strange way; the clerics, himself included, assisted in caring for the orphans by seeing to their education, teaching them the faith, but they had not cared for the children. They had not played with them or held them, instead they had kept their distance. They had been too preoccupied with their rituals and prayers to gods who had never answered. Yet this thing, this creature was showing more care for the girl than anyone else in the castle. Was it a wonder the child cleaved to him? How shameful his thoughts and realizations.

The Dark One tickled the girl and she squealed happily in his lap, and for a moment the demon seemed happy as he charmed a daisy chain into her hair. "Off you go, wee princess!" He urged her.

The girl stood from his lap and ran off into the hedge maze to join a gaggle of other children. Off they went, laughing and as happy as they'd ever been in their short lives. To them, he was no demon intent to infect the people, to the children the Dark One was the god that walked with them, the new father come in answer to their small prayers. It was because of him that the sky shined blue, their bellies were full and the adults of the castle were smiling. Children could sense things, and the orphans could sense hope even if they had never known it before the demon appeared before the court.

To the children, the Dark One was no demon or walking nightmare - he was the one who banished nightmares and what was more, he was a friend.

New father.

Now alone, the Dark One kept his place beneath the tree. Joseph took in a breath, steeling himself. The princess had ordered him to speak with the demon and form a rapport, if at all possible. An impossible thing maybe, but impossible things had happened before.

Joseph approached the creature as he would any other man. "Good day to you, Dark One."

In a flash, the demon was on his feet, a teasing smile splitting his face. "You greet me? Should I be ready to dodge a splash of your holy water?"

Joseph raised his open hands. "No, I would not-"

"Just a quip!" The mage waved him off and moved back toward the apple tree, digging his claws into the truck and scratching at the wood as he stretched, arching his back like a feline. "The water wouldn't help if you tried. Spread the word to your friends at the temple."

He nodded, "I will do. Are, um, are you enjoying your time in Avonlea?"

Rumplestiltskin raised a brow. "Is that a serious question? I am forced to be here and humiliated like a jester on the nights I am not spinning gold. What exactly do you think I have to enjoy in Avonlea?"

"Many of the court women have been seen to favor you." Joseph said feebly, feeling like a dunce. What did he know of women?

At that, the demon gestured wildly, waggling his fingers. "Ah, women. So pretty, so sweet and kind, and here there are so very many to choose from. I entertain a visit with a different woman every day! From the young servant girls on up to the repressed wives of the noblemen, I have met with them all."

Joseph nearly choked on his shock - it was true, the Dark One was cutting his way through the women of the castle!

"You - you're -"

"Making friends with pretty faces. Now, if there's nothing else, I must be off." Rumplestiltskin made as if to leave, flouncing past Joseph. Truly, he was a tiger pestered by a kitten.

"May I ask where you're headed?" Joseph asked. He already knew the answer.

"Why, to the Lady Belle, of course!" He explained. "She favors my many voices to read the full cast of characters in her books. Simple trick, and no trouble to me."

Was there a way to warn the Dark One away from the princess? Joseph didn't know of any way to do so that would not risk his life - and even if he did, the Dark One obeyed no one but he who held the dagger. For his part, their King was too preoccupied with his plans to raise the kingdom to bother about what may only be the paranoid rantings of an old man.

"Ah...yes, it has been said that the two of you keep close company."

Rumplestiltskin rounded on him, "And this is said by who?"

"It has been seen by many eyes."

He sighed heavily. "I suppose there's no way to avoid that, it is too late to render us both invisible. What else is said?"

"I don't understand-"

The Dark One scowled at him, "Don't play the fool with me, priest! Tell me, has Lady Belle been compromised in the court, the kingdom?"

Joseph thought on the demon's question. He had heard no sick speculations over Belle's reputation outside of the elders. The clerics were split on their thoughts, while the entirety of the castle was so caught up with the recovery of Avonlea, so grateful to the Dark One and so blind with hope for a future that whatever anyone thought of the connection between princess and demon, no one seemed to linger over them for long.

Joseph said as much, "No more than anyone else who has been seen to shake hands with you."

Rumplestiltskin quickly took Joseph's hand into his claw, "And now you're among their number."

Joseph did not pull from his hold. What would be the point now? Others in the courtyard could see them, the cleric and the demon, joining hands. The princess would hear of this from others if not the Dark One himself.

The demon's eyes were fully white now, glowing faintly as he looked on Joseph. "Ah, and it seems I'm not the only one to favor a lady of the court, eh? The stranger, Lai Lai Zhen! You have exotic tastes, priest, but better you favor a pretty young traveler than a pretty young boy from the choir."

Joseph pulled his hand away, startled, severing the connection between them that had allowed the Dark One to glimpse his secret. "How did you know?"

Rumplestiltskin gestured to himself, wholly smug. "Please. No one holds a secret from me for long. Speak to Lai Lai, she is not so harsh as she seems."

Joseph lowered his head, "She was once an assassin. She and her fellows were sent here from an eastern empire-"

"Do you think I do not know this? That I haven't touched her already and seen all I needed to see of her past? I know very well that she served as an assassin for a royal house. And though she may sit in with the knights, she's as lonely as you are, priest. She may be something of a guest here now but too often she finds herself without a friend. Give her this, she will favor you for it." Rumplestiltskin trilled at him, presenting a flower as delicate and exotic as Lai Lai herself.

Joseph didn't know that he could believe the Dark One. Lai Lai was so beautiful and yet so fierce. After being sent away to Arendelle had had mourned the thought that he would not see her again - his return to Avonlea had proven his worry untrue. He had seen her after the courtyard bloomed. She'd been at a fountain, drifting her fingertips in the water, a contented tiger.

She was a beautiful woman and the few times they'd spoken, she'd proven her grasp of the language to be near fluent and her mind was as sharp as her sword. And yet there was one fact that remained. "I cannot - I am sworn to uphold my vows-"

"Suit yourself." Rumplestiltskin huffed, vanishing the flower. "You won't be a priest forever, perhaps then you'll heed my advice."

"I am not a priest yet, the elders claim I am not ready." Joseph corrected gently. What did it matter? He was a young brother cleric in an order of faith that the Dark One had killed. What good was he to anyone? He would never be worthy of a woman like Belle or Lai Lai. He was near to nothing.

"Then there's still time for you to have a life of your own. Go, speak to Lai Lai while you still can. Avonlea is under my protection now, soon enough that pig of a king will pay her what she's due and she'll be off to her next adventure, hunting and defending whoever can promise to pay. I say to you, do not let her go. Charm her, court her, start a life together far from here." The demon urged.

Joseph could dream of this life with Lai Lai at his side, but he could see what trick the demon was playing - he would dismantle the order from within, plant uncontrollable suspicion in the elders and tempt the young brothers with the promise of bliss found in the arms of women.

"I cannot do this. You are only trying to use her to lure my astray." He accused. "I am bound by-"

"Your gods?" The demon snarled. "Hmm. Yes, please, tell me of your gods, they who watch and wait from the clouds as your country was eaten alive while I, the Blackest of All Hearts, the Shaded Dealmaker and Thief of Babes, the Dark One, I am the one called Savior by the remains of your people! Think long on it, Joseph, if your gods are worth worshipping or if there are any gods at all. Don't waste the rest of your life praying to a lie."

Joseph absorbed his words, each one adding to the weight of his dread. He tried, feebly, to defend his belief, yet his words were falling empty. "When I was a child, my parents spoke of you. That you are this world's greatest evil-"

"You flatter me."

"-there were also those who called you a myth but you here you stand before me. You are real, Dark One. If you are real then so still may be the gods."

As ever, Rumplestiltskin was unimpressed by this stubborn little man. It was amusing to him, shredding his faith with words alone, but in truth he'd rather be with Belle, or tending another orphan.

"Hmmm. Well, if your gods ever deign to make themselves known to mortal eyes, do you think they would be welcome here?" He spread his arms, encompassing the renewed castle, all his doing. "These all-powerful masters of the stars who let their supplicants suffer for a decade...no, what's left of your people would tear into any god that set a foot down on Avonlean soil, and the gods know it. They fear those who once worshipped them. I am the true savior here, think on that."

Stunned by the demon's words, Joseph stammered out some excuse to take his leave, quick in his retreat back into the castle. He was intent to go to the elders and relay his encounter, only he could not stand to be within the stone walls, he could not stand to hear the happy chatter, so long a sound silenced by the misery of the ogre threat.

He moved heavily, a heavy sweat breaking over his forehead. He pulled at the heavy wool of his robe, suddenly stifling as he headed out of the castle.

No, no, this is no castle of kings and men. Every stone has been touched by his magic. This is not the castle of Avonlea, we stand and sleep in the nest of the Dark One!

The man stumbled out into the crisp autumn air and fell to his knees, blackness creeping into the edges of his vision as his mind swirled.

The last thing Joseph felt before falling was a pair of strong hands on his shoulders.