Rumplestiltskin stumbled out of the ramshackle cottage he called home. The night air was cold, not that it was that much warmer inside, and the gusts of wind smarted against his skin. It was just what he needed to cut through his rising panic. He had tried to hold it together, but Bae was now sleeping peacefully, and without his boys alert gaze watching him, his fear was overwhelming. Life could be worse he supposed. Bae might be fourteen and without prospects, but at least there wasn’t a war raging right now.
The village well wasn’t far, and to hold onto the shreds of normality, Rumplestiltskin staggered in that direction. He cranked the handle and drew up the pail, cupping his hand and drinking what he could. The water froze against his skin and he shivered, knowing he should get back inside, but fearing the length of the night. He could always sit and spin, Bae had long since learned to sleep through the quiet creaking of the wheel. That usually quietened his mind, but tonight it just reminded him that his beloved boy was out of options.
The son of a coward, who was himself the son of a coward, was never going to be top pick among the village traders. However, Rumplestiltskin had hoped to secure Bae’s future. He was good friends with Morraine, the bakers daughter, and on his more optimistic days Rumplestiltskin had imagined an apprenticeship and a betrothal but it wasn’t to be. The baker had selected another boy, one who wasn’t saddled with Bae’s reputation.
All Rumplestiltskin could offer his son now, was to train him as a spinner, and one day find it within himself to let Bae go to seek his fortune elsewhere in the kingdom. Somewhere where nobody knew of his family legacy of cowardice, somewhere where his boy could find a nice girl and have a family. His throat dried, and his chest hurt, at the thought of watching Bae disappear over the horizon never to return. All he had was his boy, without Bae he was truly dust.
Rumplestiltskin left the well, shivering violently he returned to his doorstep, hesitating before going inside. Impulsively he turned to check on the sheep. He had his hand on the latch to the pen when he heard a slight sound behind him. His heart pounded in his chest, a frisson of fear lancing through him. He could tell it wasn’t Bae. Warily Rumplestiltskin turned round, his eyes widening in shock, and a band of terror snapping around his heart.
It was the Dark One.
He staggered back, his eyes instinctively flickering over to the cottage, to his son, before he forced himself to look elsewhere. He didn’t want to draw attention to Bae. He swallowed convulsively, trying to get his mouth to cooperate. He had heard whispers of the Dark One, tall tales around a military campfire a lifetime ago, and then once he had felt her power sweep over the battlefield, ending yet another ogres war. The same power was now in this small clearing, it was unmistakable.
“You are a desperate soul.” the Dark One cocked her head thoughtfully, as she appraised him. “What is it that you wish?”
“I ... I ... I ... don’t ...” Rumplestiltskin stammered.
“Hmm,” she murmured. Her hand gestured and Rumplestiltskin whimpered, feeling the warmth of a fire settle around him, the gentle heat seeping into his bones and keeping out the night chill. What sorcery was this? “I know how to recognize a desperate soul. You wouldn’t have called me here, if you weren’t ready to make a deal.”
“I didn’t ... I would never,” Rumplestiltskin protested.
She shook her head. “I didn’t say you called me intentionally, just that you were desperate enough for me to sense your need. So tell me, what is it that you wish?”
“My boy, I want a better life for my boy,” Rumplestiltskin admitted quietly. He didn’t know if it was more of the Dark One’s terrifying power but he couldn’t lie to her.
“That is easy enough. A small measure of gold could secure that, but what will you give me in return?” she asked.
Rumplestiltskin’s heart sank. He didn’t have anything to offer. He would give anything for his son, he had crippled himself and lived as the town coward just so he would live, just so his son wouldn’t be alone. He gave Bae everything possible, taking just enough of the food so he didn’t starve, working half-way through the night as often as not in an attempt to produce enough thread to compensate for the low prices he was offered.
“I’d give you anything.” His voice broke. “But I don’t have anything worth what you are offering.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” she snapped.
He stiffened, gripping his walking staff so tightly his short nails dug into the wood. Her unnatural skin shimmered in the light from his lantern, gold flecks on green skin. Her dark hair was harshly scraped back into a tight knot but it was her eyes that unnerved him the most. They were heavily shadowed, and almost black, glittering with power he guessed. He didn’t know why she had sensed him, he was just a worthless spinner and surely not worth her time.
“Would you give your life for your son?” she asked suddenly, her tone abrupt and her gaze cutting through him.
“Yes,” Rumplestiltskin breathed.
She nodded in satisfaction and he looked at her fearfully. Just because he would give his life for Bae, didn’t mean he relished the idea of dying. He wasn’t much, but he was all the family Bae had. Without his father, Bae would be all alone.
“Then my price is you,” she said softly. Her face twisted into the mockery of a smile. “Oh fear not. I require a caretaker, not your death. You wouldn’t be much use to me dead.”
“I’m not much use alive,” Rumplestiltskin mumbled.
The Dark One looked at him sharply, and then gestured negligently back towards his cottage. “Go to your son and gather whatever you require. I will return at dawn. If we have a deal?”
“Enough gold for my son to have a good life, in return for my servitude?” Rumplestiltskin stated uncertainly. She nodded and he nodded in response. “Then we have a deal.” She began to walk away and as she left, her warming spell went with her, the cold gusts of wind stole his breath. She hadn’t even asked for his name. “Rumplestiltskin,” he called after her. She turned and he shrugged sheepishly. “My name.”
“Names have power,” she said softly, deliberately. “I am Belladonna, but you may call me Belle.”
Belle slipped out of the side door into the castle gardens. She could hear the bickering from the war room in her chambers, and she’d had to get away. Her father wouldn’t let her sit on the council, or even stay in the room as they discussed matters. It didn’t seem to matter that she was his heir, and would one day lead Avonlea, or that ogres didn’t discriminate between men, women and children.
Perhaps he knew that she would not be content to remain silent, and there were many on the council who would not listen to her no matter how much sense she spoke. She was a woman and therefore should be seen and not heard, especially in matters that were the province of men. Muttering to herself Belle opened the garden gate and headed into the woods that surrounded the estate.
It was beyond foolish to be out after dark, especially alone, but Avonlea’s defenses were crumbling. The Duke of the Frontlands had the Dark One, a supposedly powerful sorcerer, in his service, and yet seemed powerless to stop the carnage. Belle sniffed, a lump forming in her throat and tears prickling at her eyes. Her own mother was one of the many casualties, lost a few months before when the ogres attacked the castle by the coast. Now the ogres were at the main gates, and Avonlea was about to fall completely.
Somebody had to do something. The old men on her father’s war council might be content to sit and bicker, while Avonlea burned, but her people were dying and Belle would be a poor ruler indeed if she just sat idly by fretting. There was a small clearing, just inside the forest, the perfect place to see both the sky and be unobserved by any patrolling guards. Belle fixed her eyes on the brightest star she could see, and wished with all her might.
Reul Ghourm, the Blue Star, the good fairy of legend, supposedly more powerful than anything. People were dying, surely nobody good could refuse such a call?
The snap of a twig made Belle whirl round. Had the original power heard her plea? However, no being of light emerged from the trees, instead a bedraggled man stumbled into sight and collapsed to the ground. Belle dashed to his side, falling to her knees beside him. She looked him over in concern, he was unkempt, his clothing ripped and fraying but he didn’t appear to be injured. He was likely one of the unseen casualties of the war, dying a slow death from starvation rather than a quick death on the battlefield.
“Lady Belle,” he whispered before chuckling hoarsely. “Wishing on a star were you?”
Belle shot a glare up to the sky, it had been a fools hope, but it had been hope nonetheless and now it was gone. She desperately wanted to save her people, but it seemed that Avonlea had been forsaken. She should have known better than to dream of miracles.
“Of course not,” Belle said stiffly. “Can you stand? I’ll help you to the castle.”
“That’s not necessary,” he protested. “All of Avonlea is suffering. I will recover what little strength I have soon enough.” Shakily he hauled himself to his feet, before stumbling once more. Belle grabbed hold of his arm. “Perhaps you will permit me to see you safely back to the castle.”
“What an excellent suggestion,” Belle said dryly. “Perhaps you would accept to sit by the fire for a time, as a reward for your good deed.”
The old man wheezed as he laughed. “Thank you, my lady.”
With the old man accompanying her, it took them three times as long to stumble back to the castle, as it had taken Belle to make the journey out. Unconcerned for the lecture she would undoubtedly receive once her father heard of this misadventure, Belle helped him into the kitchen and onto a stool by the fire. The cook fussed around them both, making tea and at Belle’s request finding another stool for her to sit with her ‘rescuer’.
Sheltered by the castle walls, Belle knew the fate of her people, but she didn’t know of it her firsthand. Her determination couldn’t be any higher, but she felt obligated to inquire about the man’s personal story. Letting him be heard and offering compassion was all she could offer at the moment, a poor bargain for the starving but at least he wouldn’t feel his plight was ignored. Her mother had always said that if nothing else, the people needed to know you cared, and Belle really did care.
“So where are you from?” Belle asked.
“Originally the Frontlands, my lady, but I couldn’t bear to stay within the Frontlands borders any longer.” The old man shivered at his own words, scooting a little closer to the fire.
Belle nodded sagely. “I have heard the fighting is fierce. Is it true that the sky is tinged red near the battlefields?”
He snorted. “The red of hell, or maybe because of the evil in the heart of the kingdom. It was that evil ... my apologies my lady, I shouldn’t speak of such things.”
“It’s alright, what evil?” Belle pressed.
She suspected he meant the carnage of the ogres, a large part of the Frontlands had been consumed by the war. Until recently the fighting had been concentrated within the Frontlands, and Avonlea owed their neighboring kingdom a debt of gratitude for holding the line and bearing the brunt of the assault for so long. They had tried to help, and sent them whatever aid they could muster and perhaps that had made a difference. It was only now when the resources had grown thin, that the lines had weakened allowing the ogres through into Avonlea.
The old man glanced nervously around, but none of the castle servants were paying them any attention. He licked his lips and leant forward slightly. “I speak of the Duke, my lady,” he whispered. “You didn’t really believe someone as powerful as the Dark One would work for such a useless fool? The Duke has the Dark One in thrall, he uses him to keep the war going to the Duke’s benefit.”
“I don’t understand,” Belle mumbled automatically, but her dawning horror said different.
Her quick mind easily grasped the picture this old man was painting, and it made a disturbing amount of sense. She had often wondered why if the Dark One was so powerful, the Duke didn’t order him to end the ogre war. However, as so many Frontlands soldiers perished every year, and she had heard disturbing rumors they were even conscripting children now, she had assumed that it was impossible. Surely the Duke wouldn’t let his own people suffer if he had the means to prevent it.
“When did the ogres reach Avonlea Lady Belle? Perhaps when your kingdom stopped sending the Duke gold and resources?” the old man pointed out perceptively.
“I will inform my father’s council,” Belle decided, moving to stand up to leave.
The old man’s hoarse chuckle stopped her. “They won’t listen, not without proof.”
“Then what do you suggest?” Belle asked acerbically, her eyes darting around the room. The cook’s attention was fixed on the bread for the morning, and didn’t appear to be listening.
“The Duke has enslaved the Dark One with the power of a mystical dagger. On the blade is written the true name of the Dark One. If you have the dagger, then you would control the Dark One yourself,” he explained in hushed tones.
Belle swallowed, everything in her rebelling at the suggestion. She didn’t want to control anyone, everyone deserved to be free to make their own choices. If the Dark One had been enslaved for a long time, then he had the right to his freedom back, but the very name ‘Dark One’ gave her pause. The fate of her people also weighed on her mind. It wasn’t right to force the Dark One to end the war, but it wasn’t right to let her people continue to suffer and die either.
She could be a coward and inform the council, but she was even more opposed to that idea. If she controlled the Dark One she would treat him kindly, the same could not be said for all of those that sat on her father’s council. Her fiancé Gaston was a fundamentally good man, but he was judgmental and believed that the end justified the means. He was nothing but respectful towards her, but she shuddered to think what he would do with that level of control over somebody he wouldn’t consider human.
“If control isn’t enough, if you kill the Dark One with the dagger, you would take his powers for your own. You could turn them towards good, bring the power back to the light,” the old man coaxed.
Belle shook her head. “Murder is always wrong. How do you know so much about this?”
“Ah,” the old man noted regretfully. “I was once on staff at the Duke’s castle.” His lips twitched, as his eyes traveled over to the servants bustling around the kitchen. “I was beneath notice and heard more than the Duke would have liked if he had known.”
Belle nodded absently. The old man’s eyes gleamed. “Find the dagger, call the Dark One and end the war.”
Despite knowing he should be well-rested for what was to come, Rumplestiltskin didn’t sleep a wink after his encounter with the Dark One. He sat at his spinning wheel, idly turning it underneath his hands but he wasn’t watching the wheel, he was watching his son. Baelfire was more of a man than a boy now, but he would always be the baby that Rumplestiltskin held in his arms. He had sworn then that Bae would never know the pain of abandonment, ‘your papa is here’ but after today he would likely never see Bae again.
It was for the best. It would give his precious boy the best possible chance in life. It wasn’t enough anymore to just be there for Bae. His son needed more than what he could provide. Making this deal with the Dark One would ensure Bae had a good life. He wasn’t choosing to leave his son, he was choosing to give him his best chance. It was killing him, without Bae he was nothing, but this wasn’t about him. Bae had to come first.
All through the night Rumplestiltskin stared at his son, watching his chest rise and fall, listening to the tiny noises he made, memorizing his features and just generally drinking in the sight of him. He didn’t know how long he would survive in the Dark One’s service, but he didn’t want to forget a single detail about his son. When he died, his last thought would be of Baelfire.
“Papa?” Bae rubbed at his eyes. “Were you spinning all night?”
“No son,” Rumplestiltskin said thickly. “I have news. You need to gather your belongings, we’ll be leaving this place today.”
“What? Where are we going?” Bae asked in confusion, his face etched in concern. “Did something happen papa? Are you hurt?”
Rumplestiltskin swallowed and gazed pointedly at the floor. The number of times Bae had helped him home after a ‘confrontation’ playing on a loop in his mind. Bae had never cared that he was the village coward. His son was a brave boy and would no doubt flourish without the specter of his father’s reputation holding him back.
“We aren’t going anywhere,” Rumplestiltskin told him. “I’ve made a deal son. You’ll get enough gold for you to make a good life somewhere.”
“And what about you?” Bae demanded. “Papa, what have you done? How could you get that much gold?”
“I’ve made a deal ... with the Dark One,” Rumplestiltskin admitted.
“Papa no!” Bae exclaimed. “It’s not worth it. We’re fine on our own.”
“No we’re not. You deserve more than this Bae. This is the best thing I can do for you,” Rumplestiltskin stated firmly. Tears pooled in his eyes and he blinked them away, pulling Bae into a fierce embrace. “I love you son.”
A quiet tap at the door interrupted before Bae could say anything in return. Rumplestiltskin let go of Bae reluctantly and limped to the door. It was odd to think that the Dark One was knocking but it wasn’t likely to be anyone else. Rumplestiltskin opened the door. The Dark One, Belle he remembered, was dressed in a full cloak to disguise her features. However, he could see her sparkly gold skin from underneath the hood.
“Just a moment,” Rumplestiltskin said, his voice wavering.
“Papa, no please, don’t do this!” Bae begged, shooting the Dark One a wary glance. “You don’t know what she’ll do,” he whispered.
“She won’t hurt me,” Rumplestiltskin stated firmly, hoping that was the case. The Dark One had said he wasn’t any good to her dead, but there was room for a fair bit of pain in between dead and alive. “The deal is for a caretaker.”
Rumplestiltskin couldn’t make out the Dark One’s expression, but he didn’t want to keep her waiting any longer. The deal had been struck and it was for the best. Rumplestiltskin took a shuddering breath. Bae looked so small in this moment, he was still a boy, and he didn’t want to leave him. Gold could do what his father couldn’t, it would ensure his future and a good life. He couldn’t let his own weakness, cowardice and selfishness steal that future from Bae.
He grabbed the sack he usually put thread in to transport to market, and quickly packed what few belongings he thought he might need. He barely had more than the clothes on his back, it would be the loss of the spinning wheel he would feel most keenly. He liked to watch the wheel turn, it brought him a small measure of peace, but there would be no need for a spinning wheel in his new life with the Dark One.
“I’m ready,” Rumplestiltskin said. Bae half-sobbed and dove towards him, wrapping his arms around him like he didn’t want to let go.
The Dark One clicked her fingers and Rumplestiltskin’s eyes widened, as more gold than he even knew existed appeared on the cottage’s ramshackle table. Another click and there was an unobtrusive canvas bag. A third click and the canvas bag was no longer empty, but it didn’t appear to be as full as it should be if all the gold had been placed inside it.
“The bag is charmed to hold contents many times it’s size, and it will always weigh the same. Hold your hand above it,” the Dark One ordered.
Bae hesitated, Rumplestiltskin nodded at him reassuringly and Bae extended his hand. To Rumplestiltskin’s horror, the Dark One made a slashing motion, cutting Bae’s hand deeply. The blood dripped on the bag, before another click of her fingers made it look like nothing had happened. His words of protest died on his tongue, as always he was too afraid.
“The bag is now bound to you. Only you can reach inside,” the Dark One explained, before clicking her fingers again. This time a small pouch of coins appeared on the table. “I would still be careful about letting anyone know of the gold. Discretion will serve you well.”
“You will be careful, won’t you Bae?” Rumplestiltskin pleaded.
“I will papa, I’ll make you proud,” Bae promised. His lip trembled and Rumplestiltskin hugged him one last time.
The Dark One gestured to the wheel. “Do you wish to take the spinning wheel?”
“I have no way of transporting it,” Rumplestiltskin stuttered.
“With magic it’s easy enough,” the Dark One said simply. A click of her fingers and a puff of crimson smoke surrounded the spinning wheel. When it cleared, the wheel was gone. “Time to leave.”
“I love you papa,” Bae whispered.
“And I love you son,” Rumplestiltskin said thickly.
He took a step towards the door, glancing over his shoulder, drinking in the sight of his boy one last time before he left him forever, when crimson smoke engulfed him. Rumplestiltskin staggered at the sensation of being somewhere else but not having moved. He looked around, the Dark One had transported them both inside a stone building. It was a large room, larger than his cottage, but he could see that it was just an entrance hall.
“Welcome to the Dark Castle,” the Dark One said coolly. “Follow me.”
Limping heavily, Rumplestiltskin struggled to keep up as the Dark One swept through a massive room. There was a dining table large enough to seat at least twenty and several huge windows, all covered by curtains. The Dark Castle was certainly dark, but Rumplestiltskin doubted that was how it had got it’s name. He had never seen such grandeur and he was starting to panic at the sheer size. What exactly would being a caretaker involve?
He cursed his bad leg, stumbling thankfully to a halt outside a sturdy looking wooden door. The Dark One opened it and gestured him inside. Rumplestiltskin was barely two steps into the room, when he heard the door slam shut behind him. There was a tiny barred window up near the ceiling, and a pallet on the ground covered with a bedding of straw. The stone was cold, and damp, but there wasn’t much difference between this room and his cottage.
Rumplestiltskin sniffed. Sleeping in a dungeon didn’t bother him. It was never seeing Bae again which weighed heavily on his heart. He collapsed down onto the pallet and gave into the gut wrenching sobs that he couldn’t hold back any longer. It had barely been five minutes and already he missed Bae fiercely.
“It’s for the best,” Rumplestiltskin repeated softly to himself. “It’s for the best.”
The carriage jolted violently along the heavily tracked road to the Duke’s castle. Belle was stiff and sore from fighting against the motion. All the heavy war carts had pitted the mud tracks, so her transport carriage made for a bumpy ride. Still, they had at least made it through the Frontlands without incident, she hadn’t been certain that would be the case. Looking out of the carriage window, at the blood red sky and the devastation of war everywhere the eye could see, it was plain the ogres were deeply entrenched here.
Whatever frontline there had once been, seemed to have been lost. The carriage pulled inside the castle’s courtyard and halted by the entrance. Belle saw the Duke stroll out, a perplexed frown on his face. She took a deep breath, but this was bound to be the easy part of her quest. Avonlea and the Frontlands were neighboring Duchy’s and allies in the war against the ogres. The Duke wouldn’t turn her away. The footman, who had been driving the carriage, hurried round to open the door and assist her descent.
“Lady Belle, this is a surprise,” the Duke of the Frontlands said oily, bending to kiss her hand and making Belle’s skin crawl. “I’m afraid the Frontlands is not safe for travelers these days.”
“Yes.” Belle tugged her hand free and attempted a warm smile. “I must apologize for the lack of notice. We sent an envoy but they never returned.”
“So your father sent you instead?” The Duke raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “I wish it were not true, but the Frontlands are a dangerous place, no place for a lady.”
Belle grimaced, the Duke was right, her father would never have sent her. She had been instructed in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t even allowed into the castle grounds, let alone to leave the castle. She had never paid any attention to those strictures, and nobody had ever paid any attention to her movements. To her father, and Gaston, she was very much out of sight, out of mind. She had put in a request for transport in the name of one of the men on her father’s council. Nobody had questioned it then, and the driver of the carriage and accompanying knights were too well trained to question it when she had informed them of the change of plan, that she would be going to the Frontlands instead.
“I have important matters to discuss on behalf of my father,” Belle lied. “The envoy was merely to ask if you would receive me.”
“I see,” the Duke said tightly, the unasked question heavy in the air.
“I am rather tired from my journey,” Belle admitted hesitantly.
“Of course, my staff will show you to your quarters. We can talk in the morning,” the Duke agreed.
Belle mustered another smile and allowed herself to be guided through the castle. Pleading fatigue was a convenient delaying tactic, and it wasn’t even untrue. When the door to the visitor’s quarters was quietly closed behind her, Belle eyed the bed longingly. A short nap would revitalize her but it was also unwise. She had no way of waking herself and she couldn’t afford to delay her quest. Her father, and Gaston, would have discovered her absence by now. It was likely that Gaston had immediately set out to retrieve her. She had half a days headstart at most and she still needed to find the dagger.
From what Belle knew of the Duke, she suspected locating the dagger wouldn’t be difficult. The Duke was something of a braggart, and if the dagger held the power the old beggar had suggested, it would almost certainly be prominently displayed, probably in the Duke’s war room. She knew she should doubt the daggers existence, for she had no proof of the old beggars claims. His words had rung true and her instincts told her that he hadn’t lied. Once she held the dagger, she would be able to prove the Duke’s perfidy.
If only that would solve the problem.
Belle sighed and started to pace. She would need to wait until most of the castle retired for the day, before venturing out to search. The staff would bring the evening meal to her quarters tonight, and she would likely need to wait no more than an hour after that. Belle’s stomach cramped, she didn’t know whether she could eat a single bite. The very thought of Gaston, or any of the men on her father’s council, laying hands on a dagger which could control a being like the Dark One, made her break out in a cold sweat.
She knew what she needed to do, she needed to do as the beggar suggested and summon the Dark One personally. “Do the brave thing and bravery will follow,” Belle whispered to herself.
A discrete knock at the door provided a welcome distraction. A maid entered with a tray of food and Belle managed a smile for her. She sat at the small table in the corner and picked listlessly at her meal. Time had never passed quite so slowly. Belle heard the castle retire for the night, the hum of activity which was present during the day disappeared. It was the same at her castle in Avonlea. She waited another hour to be certain, before slipping out the door of her quarters and heading to the war room.
She’d not been in the war room in the Duke’s castle before, but castles were functional and their layouts were similar. Cringing, she turned the handle on the heavy wooden door. It squeaked and the door creaked, the sound unreasonably loud in the still of the night. Belle only opened the door enough to squeeze inside. The Duke’s war room was circular, there were tapestries hung all around the walls, surrounding the central dais. Belle rolled her eyes, to one side, displayed in an alcove was the dagger she sought.
Belle strode over and picked it up, reading the name inscribed on the surface - ‘Zoso’. She bit her lip and glanced around. Summoning the Dark One here felt like a mistake. She still didn’t know what she was going to do and she didn’t want to risk discovery. Clutching the dagger tightly, Belle headed for the doors, she doubted sneaking out of this castle would be anymore difficult than sneaking out of her own.
Ten minutes later and Belle was standing in a clearing in the woods next to the castle. It was a similar clearing to the one she had encountered the old beggar in, and the similarity prickled at her mind. With confidence she didn’t feel, Belle lifted the dagger into the air.
“Zoso, I summon thee,” Belle called. She blinked, one moment the space in front of her was empty, and the next there was a man in a black cloak standing there.
“Well, well, a new mistress,” Zoso hissed. “Someone new pulling my strings.”
Belle felt bile rise in her throat, her palm sweated around the daggers hilt. She didn’t want to control anyone, she just wanted the suffering to stop. She wanted to save her people. Belle licked her dry lips. “Perhaps we could make a deal,” she suggested desperately.
Zoso cocked his head to one side. “A deal?” he sneered.
“I want the war to end, I want all the lands to know what the Duke of the Frontlands has done,” Belle pleaded. “I have no wish to control you. If you help me, I will give you back your freedom.”
“My freedom?” Zoso repeated. He cackled with laughter and surged forward. Belle stumbled backwards, her back colliding against a tree. Zoso loomed over her, so close she could smell his rancid breath. “Stupid girl.”
He raised a hand, in the moonlight Belle could see claws. She screamed, and though her hand was shaking, her aim was good. She buried the dagger deep in Zoso’s chest. He staggered back, the dagger sliding cleanly out, blood dripping down the blade. He collapsed to the ground and gingerly Belle took a step closer. She gasped, his hood had fallen back and even though his skin sparkled greenish gold, she knew that face.
“You’re the beggar,” Belle muttered in horror. “You told me to kill you.”
Zoso wheezed with laughter. “My life had become such a burden. You’ll see. Magic always comes with a price and now, it’s yours to pay. Stupid little girl, you made a deal you didn’t understand ...” He choked, blood spraying from his lips. “You won’t do that again.” His head lolled to one side, his eyes growing vacant.
Underneath her skin, Belle felt something slither, magic beginning to pulse inside her veins. She looked at her hand and saw it changing, turning greenish gold. She looked at the blade, at the letters reforming to spell out a new name - hers.
Cursing his leg Rumplestiltskin scurried around the dining table, pouring tea for his new mistress. The Dark One - Belle, as she had told him to call her, was watching him intently from the head of the table. The level of focus was rather unnerving. Usually if anybody looked at him like that, it was because he was about to get a beating, or to have to fight to keep hold of his coin or his wares. They might revile him for being a coward, but they weren’t above stealing from him, just to show him his place of course.
“You will serve me my meals and you will clean the Dark Castle,” Belle instructed.
Rumplestiltskin nodded, internally cringing. The castle was so large and with his leg the task would be all but impossible. Still he’d never heard of the Dark One taking a caretaker before, and the castle didn’t look like it had never been cleaned. He suspected magic was at work and, as much as the thought frightened him, he hoped that the magic would continue. The place looked dusty but not filthy, and that was something he might be able to tackle.
“You will make tea whenever I require it,” Belle continued. Rumplestiltskin nodded dumbly again, tensing despite himself as he was certain these small commands couldn’t be it, there was going to be something worse. “Oh!” Belle’s expression twisted maliciously. “You will skin the children I hunt for their pelts.”
The teacup he was holding clattered to the ground, falling from his nerveless fingers. He swallowed and stared at Belle in shock. He had expected something bad but he was a father, there was no way he could ever hurt a child. If she was serious then, coward or not, he would refuse and likely die where he stood. She had said he was no use to her dead, but he would be of no use to her if he refused to follow her orders either.
“Not serious.” Belle smiled coldly.
Relief flooded him and he bent down to retrieve the cup. His expression turned horrified when he saw the damage. “It’s chipped,” he admitted, cringing with terror.
He was worthless, he had damaged her property and he’d only just arrived. She would see that he was useless and she would end their deal. He swallowed, hoping against hope that she wouldn’t demand the gold back. That would leave Bae penniless, and without a father, he would be even worse off than before.
Belle shrugged lightly. “It’s just a cup.”
Rumplestiltskin stared disbelievingly at her, before swiftly replacing the cup on the tray, and pouring a fresh cup of tea into an undamaged cup. The Dark One was reported to be without mercy, but in that moment he resolved to forget whatever rumors he had heard. So far Belle hadn’t lived up to a single one of them, bar her unusual appearance and the power she commanded. Instead she’d been far nicer to him than anyone but Bae had been in years. She wasn’t who he had thought she was, and he was glad.
“Where is Lady Belle?” Gaston roared.
Belle rolled her eyes, as usual she could hear Gaston long before she could see him. She had conjured a long black cloak, similar to the one Zoso had worn, feeling more secure with it covering her. The sleeves were long, hiding her unnatural hands and the claws that had formed from her manicured nails. The hood disguised her features, but Belle had seen her reflection in the river, she was still recognizable even with her transformation into a monster.
The biggest change was on the inside, and the power that she now commanded. It was intoxicating, she could do anything with just a thought, and there was so much that she wanted to do. She had always wanted to see the world, to have an impact, to show that a woman could make a difference. Now nothing was stopping her, nothing but the price of the magic which was lurking at the back of her mind. It mattered little, the war would soon be over, and her people would be freed from their suffering.
“Dark One,” the Duke whispered, the moment she appeared. His eyes widened seeing the dagger clutched in her hand. He fell to his knees. “Have mercy please,” he begged pitifully.
Belle’s lip curled and the hood fell back, making it Gaston’s turn to gasp in horror. “Mercy? You dare plead for mercy after all you have done?” Belle spat, her quiet tone at odds with her obvious fury.
“Belle?” Gaston stared at her in disgust. “What has happened to you?”
“You! You all happened to me,” Belle hissed, feeling the truth of the words as they fell from her lips. The ogres weren’t the true enemy, the war wasn’t the real problem, it was the fools that profited from it and stayed hidden in safety while everyone else suffered and died. “Your problem Gaston is that you never listened. Nobody ever listened! Well you are all going to listen now.”
“Please,” the Duke wailed.
Belle smiled at him coldly and flicked her hand, boiling his blood, causing him to shriek and writhe in agony. It was no more than he deserved. He had perpetuated this war, what he was feeling now was only a fraction of the suffering he had caused. She was going to fix it all, she was finally going to be a hero. Gaston charged at her, swinging his sword. Instinctively she teleported out of the way, with a snap of her fingers Gaston’s prized sword was in her hands.
Her ex-fiancé - and she had already decided that, nobody chose her fate but her and she was done bowing down to the whims of her father, started to run away from her. Belle giggled, Gaston had always liked the hunt. She teleported in front of him, and he whimpered in terror, dodging left but there was nowhere he could run from her. Just as there was nowhere for the poor defenseless animals to run, he had slaughtered them without mercy. The ogres might never even have attacked Avonlea if Gaston hadn’t hunted down their young.
There was only one monster here and it wasn’t her.
Belle ran Gaston through with his own sword, chopping him in two before returning to the Duke’s castle. Two of the Duke’s knights were staring as his smoking corpse in fear. They both dropped to one knee at her approach and Belle shook her head, clucking in disappointment. She wouldn’t harm good knights who were just doing their duty. No, she would save her ire for those that deserved it.
She would turn the power of the Dark One to good, bring the power back to the light, she was going to be a hero. If only she had learned that this was possible sooner, then maybe she could have saved her mother. Cold fury settled in Belle’s chest. She might not be able to save her mother, but she could avenge her. She would bring justice to everyone responsible, she would make them pay - she would make them all pay.
Rumplestiltskin adapted to his new life at the Dark Castle relatively quickly. There was an ever present hollow feeling in his chest, due to the absence of Bae, which to his dismay he soon grew accustomed. He’d never been apart from his boy for longer than a few hours since he held him in his arms as a baby. At first it was like a sharp pain and all he could think about but, to his shame, he sometimes managed to go a few hours without thinking of Bae, and these incidents grew more frequent the longer he was at the castle.
He hoped it wasn’t a sign of things to come, he never wanted to forget his son, but at the same time he didn’t really begrudge Belle for intruding on his thoughts. When he wasn’t thinking about Bae, he was thinking about his mistress. She was a mystery and, while part of him hated the uncertainty that implied, the quick mind that he’d rarely got a chance to exercise as a spinner relished the challenge. It soon became obvious that the cold clipped tones she used, and the cutting razor sharp remarks, were as much a mask as her greenish gold skin.
Self-defense measures, letting people only see what they wanted to see, was a tactic Rumplestiltskin had used himself many times. People thought him a coward, so if he acted timid and kept his eyes down, then they didn’t bother him as he was keeping to the status quo. A few times people came to the castle to make a deal. Rumplestiltskin had watched in the shadows as Belle was cold like ice, she kept utterly still and her eyes barely blinked. Nobody managed to match her stare, all but one babbled with nerves until Belle waved a hand and took their voice temporarily. She didn’t suffer fools and was particularly harsh with those who had selfish requests.
Belle’s mood was always darker after a deal. Usually she spent her evenings in the library, but after a deal she retired to her work room and the tower was often rocked by explosions. After a while, Rumplestiltskin found himself compensating by building up the fires around the castle, as if warming the place would warm her. He lit all the torches he could find, their light flickering and dancing around the place, banishing the shadows. Belle seemed to fare better with the light. When he found her in the library after a deal, the room as bright as day, it felt worth the extra effort of replacing the oil on a daily basis.
Eventually he decided that the curtains covering every window, blocking out the light, had to go. This might be the Dark Castle but Belle needed the light. It shocked him to realize that he wanted her to be happy. For years he might have been lonely, used to everybody’s scorn, but even at the worst of times he’d always had Bae. Belle didn’t have anyone, at least not until now - now she had him. He wasn’t much, he wasn’t worth anything, but he was a person and he’d ceased to look at her in fear some time ago.
“What are you doing?” Belle asked sharply.
Gingerly Rumplestiltskin twisted, so that he could look down the ladder and behind him. Belle’s eyes were flashing, she looked furious and belatedly he wondered whether he should have asked before attempting to take the curtains down. She hadn’t objected to the extra lanterns everywhere, what would be different about daylight?
“Letting some light in,” Rumplestiltskin offered hesitantly.
It had been difficult to climb the ladder with his bad leg, and he felt very off-balance, but he really thought it was a good idea. He heard Belle snort and his heart sank at her obvious disagreement. He tugged on the curtain again, and grunted in satisfaction when he finally felt it give. The next thing he knew he was on the ground, sunlight was pouring in through the window and he felt like he was encased in a sponge. Belle held out her hand and Rumplestiltskin took it, letting her help him up.
“Thank you,” Rumplestiltskin said reverently. He shuddered to think what damage he would have done to himself, hitting the stone floor from that height, if Belle’s magic hadn’t caught him. “I’ll put the curtain back up,” he murmured reluctantly.
Belle stared at the open window like she’d never seen one before. Rumplestiltskin frowned, she almost looked dazed. He started to panic, had he hurt her somehow when he fell? She was always saying ‘all magic comes with a price’ and she had saved him with magic after all.
“No need,” Belle muttered. She waved her hand and the curtains fell off every window in the great hall. “I’ll get used to it.”
A very small part of Belle had held out hope that her father would be different. He was her father, and surely he would see that what she had done had been for the good of everyone. She hadn’t gone there intending to kill Zoso, but really it had been merciful, he had been suffering just like everyone else and she had freed him. Now she didn’t have to make a man a slave, the power was hers to command, and she could do everything that she wanted with it.
‘They’ll want to take the dagger’ the voice at the back of her head whispered. ‘I know’ Belle mouthed back. She had always known, which was why she had gone to the Frontlands to retrieve the dagger on her own. The men on her fathers council couldn’t be trusted with such power. If she wasn’t careful they would enslave her, just as Zoso had been enslaved, and what if they were like the Duke of the Frontlands? What if they wanted the war? Avonlea was suffering, people were dying, and she was going to fix all of that.
“Belle!” Maurice boomed, as she stepped through the doors into his war room.
Her cloak was up, nobody could see her, they couldn’t see how she had changed, but they could feel it. The air was charged with power, and she saw them shift in fear. They should be afraid. If they had only listened to her, if they hadn’t thought themselves so smart, if they’d had a little more compassion, then perhaps this war would never have happened. There were a lot of evils in the world, some big and some little, and the little evils led to the big evils. She was going to stop it, she was going to make them understand.
“Where’s Gaston?” Maurice blustered, but Belle could tell he could feel it too and she let the hood fall back. Maurice paled at the sight of her unnatural skin, of her dark shadowed eyes rather than the bright blue he had known.
“Gaston is dead,” Belle said coldly. “The Duke of the Frontlands kept this war going out of greed. He could have ordered the Dark One to end the carnage at any time, but instead he demanded we conscript children as soldiers. Well I am the Dark One now ...”
“You’re a monster,” Maurice whispered.
His eyes flickered and Belle’s hand shot up, grabbing the arrow mid-flight. Her own father had just ordered her death. He wasn’t listening, just like Gaston didn’t listen, just like nobody ever listened. Belle moaned in dismay, disappointed despite herself. She should have known better, her father had never listened to her but she had hoped - he was her father. Belle fell to her knees, a knight charged towards her, sword raised, and exploded into dust mid-swing.
Terrified councilman shot to their feet, eager to escape through the side door. They tumbled to the ground, like puppets which had their strings cut. Her magic lashed out, crushing their hearts in their chests. They deserved it. She was just meting out justice. Her father was the only one left alive and Belle couldn’t bring herself to kill him. She staggered to her feet. She would go to the frontline and end the war, and then ...
The swish of a sword cut through the air. A tear tracked down Belle’s face. She didn’t turn, she didn’t see her father collapse to the ground, his own sword buried in his chest thanks to her magic. If he hadn’t attacked her, she wouldn’t have had to defend herself. She had been going to let him live. If he had just talked to her, if he had used words rather than weapons then he would be alive. It was his fault, he had deserved it. What choice did she have? The life of a hero was never an easy one, but she had never expected this level of condemnation. She was trying to help them. Why could nobody see that?
A very tiny voice at the back of her mind screamed, but Belle was too consumed to hear it. She wouldn’t hear that voice clearly for some time. - ‘Darkness twists everything.’
There were many mysteries about his mistress, the Dark One - Belle, but nothing intrigued Rumplestiltskin quite so much as the locked room. He hadn’t been keeping track of time very accurately, the days all seemed to blend into one another, but he thought that he’d been at the Dark Castle for several months. In that time he had slowly gained more and more freedom. He was now allowed anywhere in the castle, even Belle’s workroom so long as she was there, but there was room that remained locked to him.
Curiosity, which he had thought had been stamped out of him a lifetime ago, made him itch to ask but the words always died on his tongue. If somebody had asked him back when he had made the deal with Belle, what would become of him as her caretaker, he never would have guessed that they would have become friends of a sort. Friendship was practically unknown to him. Thanks to his father’s reputation, very few would consort with him as a child, the stigma of being the son of a coward was too strong. When he became branded a coward himself that was it, what little camaraderie he’d developed among his fellow villagers swiftly disappeared.
He didn’t fear Belle, in fact Rumplestiltskin wasn’t sure that he had ever truly feared her, but he did fear losing what they had. He saw her cold as ice with those she dealt with, he didn’t want her to turn back into the Dark One with him, he didn’t want to see her mask - he wanted to see her. So he didn’t push, he didn’t ask, and the mystery of the locked room ate away at him. If sometimes he hovered outside the room when cleaning, listening through the heavy wooden door or attempting to peer through the keyhole, that was his own little secret. There was never anything to hear or see, the mystery of the room seemed set never to be solved.
Until one day the door to the room was ajar.
Rumplestiltskin froze the second he noticed. A dozen conflicting thoughts rushed through his mind leaving him breathless, and paralyzed. All he could do was stare at the tantalizing narrow gap. It wasn’t wide enough for him to see into the room, but it promised that he could see into the room, if only he was brave enough to peek inside. Terror coursed through him - what if this was a trap? What if Belle was testing him?
Alternately, he wondered if maybe she wanted him to see inside, the last room in the castle was now open to him. Either way it was about trust, but he wasn’t sure whether she was testing whether he would observe her privacy, or whether she was finally granting him access to the previously forbidden room. It was an agonizing decision, as if he chose wrongly then he would disappoint Belle, no matter what decision he made. If he didn’t go in and she wanted him to, then she might think he wasn’t interested and didn’t care.
Whimpering slightly, Rumplestiltskin edged forward and gently touched the door. It creaked, swinging back and he blinked. He had conjured up hundreds of images for what could be behind this locked door. Some of them were admittedly not very flattering, and he knew from her treatment of Robin Hood that Belle was capable of great darkness with the right provocation. It could have been a torture chamber, filled with unimaginable evil.
Instead it was a perfectly normal bed chamber. It was in a different style from the rest of the castle, there were more frills and lace, and less books and tasteful paintings. This room wasn’t Belle’s style and Rumplestiltskin couldn’t fathom why it was here. His confusion led to him stepping inside the room. The door swung shut and to the side magic shimmered. He frowned, feeling a breeze against his skin, it looked like a balcony but this was an internal room and there shouldn’t even have been a window.
White curtains fluttered in the wind, it looked like a bright summers day but they were on a mountain, surrounded by snow drifts. The door to the closet wasn’t shut properly, automatically Rumplestiltskin moved over to free the gown that had got caught in the door. His frown deepened as he looked at the clothing the closet contained. The sizing of the dresses would fit his mistress, but the style wasn’t hers at all. His first assessment was confirmed, there was far too much frill and lace, this was the wardrobe of an empty-headed princess, not his smart Belle.
Belle always combined style with function, which wasn’t to say her outfits weren’t beautiful or feminine because they were. He rubbed the material against his fingers, this would rip so easily, nothing like the velvet Belle preferred. He was a spinner by trade, and he knew material. It was something he had thought a great deal about. Belle had granted him a room with enough cloth to last a lifetime, after he had freed the thief from the dungeons. He had decided his first project would be a gift to her, the crushed green velvet gown was almost complete.
“What are you doing in here?” Belle demanded.
Rumplestiltskin tensed, Belle’s tone had turned very cold, and that was always when she was at her most dangerous. He turned and cast his eyes down to the floor. “The door was ajar, I thought perhaps you finally wanted me to clean in here.”
“You’re lying,” Belle hissed.
He nodded. “I knew it was a test. I thought perhaps you wanted me to see the room.” He risked a glance, Belle was still as a statue. With him she was usually so vibrant and expressive, but now the mask of the dealmaker was firmly in place. He licked his dry lips. “I thought perhaps you wanted me to see it, for the same reason you wanted me here.”
“And why did I want you here?” Belle asked icily.
Rumplestiltskin raised his head. He had never been a brave man, but she had never given him cause to fear her, not really. She might be angry with him but any fears beyond that were just his natural cowardice. “I think you were lonely,” he stated boldly. “I know loneliness but at least I had Bae.”
Belle seemed to sag, the tension leaving her frame and Rumplestiltskin relaxed. She wandered over to the magic window and reached up, undoing the tight knot that held her hair in place. Loose it cascaded down her shoulders, curls whipping round her face from the breeze. In the time he’d been here Belle had gradually become more relaxed in her wardrobe, shedding the cloaks she always wore on a deal, but this was the first time he’d seen her let her hair down.
“This was my room, exactly how it was at my father’s castle,” Belle murmured softly.
Her fingers twitched and magic flowed over her form, greenish gold skin turning into a pale human shade. She turned and Rumplestiltskin’s breath caught in his throat, her brilliant blue eyes were piercing and almost seemed to be pleading with him. He took a step forward, reaching for her with his free hand. He would once have scoffed at the Dark One being afraid of anything, but he knew better now. Belle had power, but she could still be hurt.
“I created it to remind me of who I once was. I didn’t want to forget,” Belle whispered.
“So you were once an ordinary lady?” Rumplestiltskin muttered, before shaking his head. He very much doubted Belle had ever been ordinary. He cleared his throat nervously. “I thought I knew isolation but as I said, I always had Bae. If you’re the only person I’ll ever see for the rest of my life, perhaps ... perhaps I could know you?”
“Or perhaps you just want to learn the monsters weaknesses,” Belle said bitterly.
“You’re no monster,” Rumplestiltskin stated gently. “You wouldn’t have been so kind to an old crippled spinner if you were.”
“I’m going to make you a deal,” Belle said abruptly. “Go into town, we’re out of ...”
“Nothing,” Rumplestiltskin interrupted, shocked at his own daring. “Your magic resupplies the castle, and I promised you forever.”
“I release you from your deal,” Belle said stiffly, turning away from him. “Go, find your boy.”
Rumplestiltskin gaped at Belle’s back, but even through his shock he was shaking his head. Yes he wanted to see Bae again, he wanted that more than anything, but he didn’t want to leave either. Something evil had taken root in Belle, but she was still a better person than many he had known. She didn’t use her power to abuse others, she didn’t lord over the kingdoms and with the power she commanded she could have done.
Belle could have made everyone bow down to her - made everyone kiss her heels. Instead she made deals, and everyone got what they wanted. If some fools didn’t understand what deal they were making, that was their fault. As he stared at her, the familiar greenish gold skin returned, and with a flick of her hand her hair was tied in a tight knot again. She was putting on her armor but he didn’t want that. He wasn’t sure when he had fallen in love with her but he knew that he had, like he knew the sun rose and set.
“I do want to see Bae again,” Rumplestiltskin admitted softly. “But I don’t want to leave you. I choose to stay of my own free will.”
“Why?” Belle demanded, whirling round. “Look at me! When my fiancé saw what I’d become he tried to kill me.” She giggled madly. “I cut him in two with his own sword.”
“Then he was a fool,” Rumplestiltskin stated roughly.
He took a step forward and raised a hand, gently cupping Belle’s cheek. He expected her to pull away from him but she didn’t. Instead her breathing hitched, and her saw her throat bob with anticipation. Rumplestiltskin looked into Belle’s dark shadowed eyes. He was the village coward, but somehow she made him brave. He bent his head and paused, his lips an inch from hers, letting her make the choice. A moment later Belle moved, pressing her lips against his. As kisses went it was rather chaste but Rumplestiltskin felt a warm surge in his heart.
Belle pulled back, blinking madly as her skin rippled, the greenish gold giving way to pale skin. “What’s happening?” Belle screamed. “What did you do?”
“I ... I don’t know,” Rumplestiltskin stammered.
The rippling stopped, the greenish gold snapping back into place. Belle staggered back. She glared at him, betrayal in her eyes. She waved her hand, engulfing him in smoke. A second before he materialized in the dungeon, she had first thrown him in on arrival, he heard her heartbroken and yet chillingly certain statement.
“Impossible! No-one, no-one could ever, ever love me.”