"I think we need help to take the kingdom back," said Snow, "and I know where to get it."
"The dwarves? We need more than seven."
Charming looked doubtful. "I don't know. You'd have to be very careful; you usually get more--or less--than you want."
"Oh, I'm not going to ask him for a potion or a spell. Well, not as such. We need expert advice on planning and tactics and infiltration, and Rumplestiltskin might be able to get us some."
"From what I heard, he doesn't know anything about fighting."
"No, I mean get us some experts."
"Hmm." Charming thought about this, and shrugged. "It's worth a try."
"Ahh, you want revolutionaries!" Rumplestiltskin bared his unnervingly stained teeth.
"Advisers," Snow said firmly.
Rumplestiltskin hummed to himself as he sorted through the objects on his table, uncovering a dusty crystal ball. He gave it a wipe with his sleeve, peered into it while muttering to himself, then straightened and rubbed his hands in glee. "I know where I can get you seven."
"I seem to remember saying seven wasn't enough," Charming said to Snow in an aside.
"Heeheeheehee, you don't actually get seven, just five and a bit. They just call them that."
Charming wrinkled his forehead. "Why?"
"Powerful number, seven. Nothing divides it."
"Nothing divides five either," Snow pointed out.
"Of course nothing divides any number you like but the answer's bigger than all the universes."
Charming rolled his eyes.
"But we must get back to business. They're certainly experts. Of course," Rumplestiltskin rubbed the side of his nose, "I'd need payment."
Snow tossed a pouch of gold coins onto the table. "I can get more."
"Not much use to me when I can spin gold, is it, dearie? No, I want something intangible." Rumplestiltskin leaned forward so that Snow could smell his lunch (soup and garlic) on his breath. "Automatic exemption from execution or any other form of nasty bodily damage."
"All right," said Snow, relieved that it wasn't going to be something like her first-born. "Done."
"Oh, goody! Off you go." Rumplestiltskin flapped his hands at them. "I have to do some very delicate preparations to fetch them here. Come back tomorrow at noon."
"Where are they?" Charming asked suspiciously. "Far away?"
Rumplestiltskin pointed up at the ceiling, then waved his hand vaguely in an arc taking in the walls and floor. He giggled again at their expressions. "Somewhere out there. Not on this world. But they soon will be."
"Someone teleported us!" Vila looked around dubiously, then felt his empty wrist. "It must've been that little weasel Orac."
Avon drew his gun. "It would seem to be a surprisingly good hypothesis, coming from you, but we don't have enough data yet."
"And into the middle of a forest," Vila continued, aggrieved.
"What've you got against trees, Vila?" Dayna asked.
"Nothing. It's what they've got against me that worries me. They're looking at me. And don't you look at me like that, Dayna. Some plants have an IQ, you know. And I can feel them staring."
"That would be me doing the staring." A rather scruffy man with a chronic skin problem slid into view. "And possibly my clients." He turned and beckoned, and a young man and woman emerged. "They wanted some rebels, you see."
"So you're responsible for bringing us here?" Avon stepped forward into the man's personal space, failing however to achieve the intimidating effect he'd hoped for. "How did you do it?"
"Mmmmagic." The man wiggled his fingers, grinning.
"In other words, technology you think we can't comprehend?"
"No. Just plain old magic. Though of course I happen to be very, very good at it. I really should introduce myself. Rumplestiltskin." He bowed. "I could say 'at your service', but you're at ours." Rumplestiltskin turned and beckoned the other two. "Snow and Charming, do come and meet your advisers."
"White and Prince, I suppose." Tarrant rolled his eyes. "You've got to be kidding."
"Just aliases of course," Avon said dismissively. "Although one wonders what is it about mythology that attracts idealists."
Rumplestiltskin gave a high-pitched giggle. "You're right about those two, dearie, but no one has ever called me an idealist."
"No one's ever called Avon 'dearie' either," said Vila. "Word to the wise: not a good idea."
Snow stepped forward. "Let's cut to the chase, shall we? We have citizens, peasants, farmers behind us but we need some advice about how to win the kingdom back."
"From whom?" Avon asked. "The Federation by any chance?"
"Who? No, the evil Queen Regina."
"An evil queen. But of course."
"We've got one of those," Vila said helpfully. "Except she calls herself president."
"This one," Avon drawled, "appears to call herself by her title so that she's Queen Queen. Was her future mapped out from her birth, or was it wishful thinking on her parents' part?"
"Does it matter?" Snow asked impatiently. "I was told you were experts. Right, give us some expert advice."
"Blow up communications," Cally said promptly.
Charming looked at Snow. "Dispatch riders? Do you mean inflate them so they float away?"
Cally stared at him.
"Blow up how?" said Snow.
Cally shook her head as if to clear it. "Not the actual riders. You just need to disrupt communication lines. Block the roads by bringing down trees and rock falls. You must have the basic ingredients for a simple explosive: sulphur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate. I can show your people how to make it."
"Excellent." Snow was looking somewhat more confident.
"Train snipers to take out key leaders." Dayna regarded Snow's bow with approval. "A silent attack is also great for ruining enemy morale. I do like the ancient weapons."
"This? This is state of the art!" Indignantly Snow grabbed her bow, whipped three arrows from her quiver, and fired them in quick succession so that they thunked into a tree in a tight grouping.
"Nice," said Dayna.
Charming nodded thoughtfully. "Good advice so far. Anything else?"
"Find out who's disaffected in the armed forces," said Tarrant. "Let it be known that they'll be welcomed if they desert."
Snow frowned. "I don't know. Could we trust deserters?"
"If they have the right reasons."
"Like you did?" Avon said with interest. "The man who once worked for Bayban the Butcher?"
Tarrant just grinned. "And don't overlook the mercenaries and pirates," he told Snow. "They might be in it for the money, but that's a powerful incentive. Isn't it, Avon?"
Avon gave him a cold look.
"All right, all right," Vila said quickly. "You get a point each so you're even."
"And what about you?" Charming asked him. "Anything you can help us with?"
"Me? Oh, I'm the security expert. You want to get into safes or vaults or through locks, I'm your man."
Charming looked disapproving. "You're a thief, then?"
"One of the best! Look, it doesn't have to be jewels and things like that, you want people with the skills to sneak in and get information, or people out of prison, that sort of thing."
"I really hadn't thought of using criminals," Snow said thoughtfully.
"A serious omission," Avon said. "I advise you to collect some. I do recommend it."
Snow spoke softly in Charming's ear. "This is all good advice. I wonder what the catch is."
"I'm sure there'll be one."
"All right," said Snow decisively. "Let's take them to our camp so they can show us what to do."
"That," said Vila the next evening, "was a lot of fun, considering."
"Considering what, pray?" Avon asked. "Sleeping rough? Eating dug-up roots and cooked protein of uncertain origin?"
"The ogres and trolls and monsters, mainly."
"They were conspicuous by their absence, Vila."
"Pity," Dayna said reflectively.
"All the same, I'll be glad to get back," said Vila. "You know where you are with the Federation and plasma bolts, and aliens."
Avon smiled. "Hairy or otherwise?"
"As long as they're not magic!"
"Ready to leave, I take it?" Rumplestiltskin asked brightly, joining them.
"I rather think so," Avon said.
Snow, hearing this, ran over. "I can't say how grateful I am for the help you've given us."
"You could try," said Avon.
"Ignore him," said Vila. "You can't take him anywhere. Really, it was a pleasure."
"Perhaps we can get you back again sometime."
Vila's face fell.
"No, no," Rumplestiltskin wagged his finger at her. "One delivery only."
"As for you," Avon said. "What's your part in all this? Another rebel?"
Rumplestiltskin held his hands up in protest. "I just brought you here. I do my absolute best to stay well away from battles and any form of mindless violence."
"A man after my own heart!" said Vila.
Rumplestiltskin looked at him with interest. "So you are. Before you go," he said slyly, "or at least before I make you go, I might have a little gift just for you."
Rumplestiltskin felt in a pocket and brought out a little iridescent vial. "This will make you brave."
Vila frowned. "What is it?"
"A magic potion, of course. You won't be afraid anymore."
"I'm not drinking that!"
"I can't see that it would do much harm," Avon said.
"I don't trust it." Vila tuned back to Rumplestiltskin. "Look, if you don't like wars and violence and all that, why don't you take it?"
"It won't work on me. I made it, you see." Rumplestiltskin smiled. "I can assure you that it works most effectively."
"I'm not sure I want it to. I mean, being sensibly nervous has kept me alive so far."
"Oh, pleeeease. For meeeee." Rumplestiltskin's smile widened. "Otherwise I may not be able to let you go."
"Oh, give it to me." Avon grabbed the vial and knocked the contents back. "There. Satisfied?"
"Very." Rumplestiltskin waved his hands and the five were enveloped in purple smoke. When it cleared they were gone without trace.
Snow rounded on him. "Just what was that potion?"
"Heeheeheehee, just what I said."
"Oh, I wouldn't quite say that. Lack of fear, dearie."
Snow tilted her head. "And they're not the same, are they. Bravery is despite fear. So what did it really do to Avon?"
"It made him not care. If you don't care for anyone, including yourself, what is there to fear?"
"That's awful! Isn't there an antidote, or some sort of cure?"
Rumplestiltskin giggled gleefully. "Oh, but there is. If he kills the person who matters the most to him--until just now of course--the spell will be broken."
"You're a monster!"
"Why, thank you!" Rumplestiltskin bowed.
Snow narrowed her eyes. "It's Vila, isn't it. You couldn't even warn him?"
"Oh no, not Vila. Not any of the current rebels." Rumplestiltskin twirled a playful finger. "The one they named them for." He savoured the name. "Blake."