Fic: Harmless - Chapter 9
AU: Belle arrives, bruised and bleeding, on the doorstep of a lame spinner and his son. On the run from the war and its causes, her short stop-over becomes something else entirely.
Baelfire wakes early, to the sound of his papa hobbling around in the kitchen. It’s too early for spinning - they need the sun risen for the light to be good enough, and papa eats breakfast before he works, always - and yet Rumpelstiltskin is out of his bed and leaving their home.
Bae knows that something important happened yesterday, that Belle and his papa have not agreed on what to do about the knight. He glimpses Rumpelstiltskin’s face as he passes Bae’s cubby, and it is set with something Bae has only seen a few times before: his papa is determined, his jaw set against the fear that so often grips him. Whatever he is leaving so early to do, he is terrified.
Papa’s fear should not cause Bae to feel the same, but it does, every time. Papa is a coward, but he is also one of the few fathers in the village still able to look after his son. The few other men in the village of fighting age are sickly or lame, as Papa is. Papa is in the best shape of them all.
Bae is not a coward, not like his papa, but he knows that Rumpelstiltskin does not fear the dark but what lurks within it. His fears are grounded in dangers Bae cannot yet imagine: wherever he is going that requires some form of bravery, Bae knows that he should not be made to go alone.
Belle is asleep upstairs: Bae can hear her shifting, if he sticks his head out of the cupboard and listens hard.
Papa will come home worse - perhaps he won’t come home at all, like Jorgan’s papa, who went out one morning and was never seen again - and Bae is almost a man now.
So he slips from his bed and pulls on his day trousers and a fresh tunic. He slips on his heavy leather boots, the ones that cost a month’s worth of spun thread but have lasted three winters hence.
And he runs from the house, and follows his papa into town.
It is cool, this morning, late spring not quite yet summer. Bae is glad he thought to bring his cloak: Belle would get very cross, have his guts for stockings, if he caught a cold.
He keeps to the side of the road, as his papa himself taught him. Papa is too busy trying to keep walking forwards, his head held high, trying to be confident when Bae can see he doesn’t mean it. He is heading for the centre of town, and Bae can guess a minute before his papa turns down the street where he is going.
Papa is going to speak to Belle’s knight. Bae doesn’t know the whole truth of the matter - he is a child, after all, and Belle and papa are adults: they don’t share all of their secrets with him, and he is glad of it. Bae is ashamed, but it would scare him to hear some of his papa’s darker fears, some of the worst of the horrors of Belle’s past.
He is brave, and sometimes brave people need to do the right thing without knowing all the reasons. Knowing too much makes the fear too strong to fight, and Bae does not want to have to cave to it, the way papa did.
So he slips inside the inn after Rumpelstiltskin, and waits in the shadows as papa talks to the keeper behind the bar. Even in the early morning, the inn is dark and gloomy, and Bae has no trouble concealing himself. Papa must not know he is here: if he knows he will send Bae home, or worse, his nerve will break and they’ll scurry back together to hide once more.
Papa nods, and takes a seat on one of the benches, as if he’s waiting for someone. Bae is close enough that breathing wrong could give him away, but at least he’ll hear what is said.
A familiar tall, broad man comes down the stairs after a few minutes more, and papa sits up straight. He is always a small man, Bae’s father, but he is entirely dwarfed by the knight.
“You said you have some information.” The knight says, and Rumpelstiltskin nods.
“Yes,” he says, and only his son could have caught the faint tremor of terror in his voice, “Please take a seat.”
The knight, ever honourable, does so. They face each other, Belle’s husband and her ex-lover, and Bae is afraid even to breathe. What if papa plans to shop Belle after all? What if they argued last night, and he has decided that the danger is too much to risk? Bae does not want to suspect his father of such things - Belle is family, now: she’s as much a part of Bae’s home as his papa or the spinning wheel - but the twisting, churning sensation in his gut won’t die no matter how badly he wishes it would.
“You know where the woman I seek hides?” the knight gets straight to the point, and Bae is so proud of his father for meeting his eyes.
“Possibly. I know someone who matches your description of her… but I know not if you will ever find her.”
“Then why have you come here to speak to me?” the knight asks, and there’s a demanding, imperious tone to his voice despite its lack of true command. He could lead armies, if he so chose.
“Because she might wish to speak to you, at some point. And I need to know that you won’t hurt her, or drag her to people to intend to, if she decides you are worth her time.”
“You do know, don’t you.” The knight nods, and it isn’t a question, “You know where the princess is hiding.”
“I know where a woman who might have once responded to that title dwells, yes.” Rumpelstiltskin replies, and only suspicion and war could have made Bae’s simply-spoken papa so evasive.
“You are wasting my time.”
“And you are frightening the people I care about.” Rumpelstiltskin counters, and Bae can see his hands shaking beneath the table. It must take everything papa has, he thinks, to speak so to a knight. Sir Gaston could have him hung for insolence at the soldiers barracks at dusk, and no one would stop him. “Please, I need your word. Without it… my family suffers. Everything burns. I need to know that you don’t want to capture her and harm her.”
“You speak boldly for one disobeying the direct orders of the Duke.” The knight says, leaning back in his chair and narrowing his eyes, “What is to stop me from forcing the information from you myself?”
“She said-“ papa stops, struggling, “She said that you and she… that you were close, a long time ago. Does that still mean something to you?”
The knight sighed, and Bae could see the tension in every muscle of his papa’s body. If papa could walk for trembling knees on the way home, Bae would be very much surprised. He couldn’t blame him, either: one small conversation with this man had sent him tearing home and sobbing into Belle’s skirts.
“Her father-in-law would have me haul her home in chains.” The knight says, and Bae tries not to cry out at the image. Belle in cuffs and manacles, scorned and mocked and hurt. It’s too much to bear.
“Then you may never know where she hides.” Rumpelstiltskin says.
“Gone my sunset,” the knight nods, “A brave choice.”
“Nothing is brave, anymore,” Bae’s papa shakes his head, “Except for her.”
“I do not do the bidding of the Ogre King,” the knight says, heavily, “And I wish to tell her that her father is on his death bed. He may pass at any moment, and he would his daughter safe before he dies.”
Bae goes still all over, and can see his papa do the same. “And what happens then,” papa asks, slowly, “If the Duke dies and the war is not over?”
“This war is about his daughter, not the Duke himself. The ogres will ravage his lands as retribution for their prince’s murder, and the prince’s is on her hands.”
“She told you?” the knight stares at him, and for a moment they almost appear as equals, “Her letters to me, when he was alive, and…” he rubbed his hands over his face, and suddenly Sir Gaston was not a fearsome Knight of the Realm, but a man like Bae’s father, weakened by worry and fear. “She didn’t tell me anything about her life there, but one letter had blood on it - her fingers were bleeding, I think - and I came for her. To rescue her. But they threatened to kill me if I ever returned, and I was not allowed to so much as see her.”
“She refuses to share details,” Rumpelstiltskin confides, “But it sounds as if her actions were justified.”
The knight nods, “I would have slain him myself.”
“Then… leave. Please, I-“ papa’s nerve seems to fail him, but he continues on regardless, “She is safe here, you have my word on that. I can pass on a message, so long as you leave and take your soldiers with you.”
“High demands from a peasant lower than my stable boy.” The knight notes, but he does not look entirely displeased, “But they still search for her. The Ogre King has put a king’s ransom on her head.”
“They won’t find her.”
“So they’ll tear the dukedom apart for nothing. Do you think that will stop them?” he sighs, “We only survive now because the Duke holds the Dark One in thrall, and he protects our lands. But when he dies, then that connection will be severed. Only one of his own blood would be able to control him, and if Belle does not wish to come home… I’d hate to think of what the Dark One would do here, if he found his freedom. Never mind the ogres.”
Papa looks up at him at the sound of her name. They’d known - of course they had - that they spoke of the same woman. But hearing the name spoken somehow puts them on some new ground, and papa looks terrified at the prospect.
“What do you mean wish to come home?” he demands, “What choice does she have? Show her face… and be tortured to death by creatures too terrifying to contemplate?”
“Or allow the country to burn with her, as she hides her face in shame.” The knight nods, “Her position is terrible, but it is what it is.”
“She is safe here.” Rumpelstiltskin says, almost firmly, “And that is the end of it. You will not find her.”
“Then we are finished.” The knight nods, and stands, “Please tell her what I have said. I will stay another three days in the village, if she has need of me.”
“Then my final three days of searching will most likely be fruitless.” But the knight has an odd little smile on his face as he inclines his head politely, “But she is an unpredictable woman, our princess. Who knows what she will decide? Perhaps she’ll act differently to how you would have it.”
Papa nods stiffly, and leaves without another word, his hobbling footsteps quick and hard on the hard floors.
Bae thinks to follow him, but he had heard something in the knight’s story that Papa - in his thoughts of protecting Belle, and Bae is so glad that that was his intention the whole time that he could burst - seemed to have missed.
“Sir?” he approaches the table, and the knight looks up in surprise.
“It does not do to lurk in corners, boy,” he says, but his smile is almost sly, conspiratorial, as if he is imparting wisdom rather than scolding, “It could get you stabbed, and with good reason.”
“My papa needed another pair of eyes. He should not have to do scary things alone.” He holds his head high, because Bae is brave and small and one has to counteract the other.
“You are the informant’s son?”
“My papa is not an informant. He is trying to help.”
“Fine, alright.” The knight nods, conceding the point, “Wait… haven’t I met you before? Spin-something, right?”
“We met yesterday in the marketplace,” Bae reminds him, “My name is Spindleshanks.”
“No it isn’t. No one gives their name freely to strangers, not if they wish to keep what power they have.” The knight smiles, “You’re a decent liar, boy, I’ll give you that, and you’re not a fool.” He spreads his hands, “Ask your question, then.”
“You mentioned… the Dark One. In thrall. He’s the sorcerer who comes when the soldiers enlist new soldiers, isn’t he?”
“Indeed he is, although ‘demon’ might be closer to the mark.”
“He is controlled by the Duke?”
“The blood of the Duke fell on the blade,” the knight confides, “I was there for the ceremony, as was… well, the blood of her family is in the spell, on the dagger that bears his name. Only she can control the Dark One.”
“And if she doesn’t? Or won’t?”
The soldier shrugged, “Then as retribution for his enslavement, I imagine his vengeance would be swift. Upon all of us. And if you think ogres are cruel,” he gives a low whistle, a grimace, “I’ve seen the Dark One rip a man apart from head to toe, as the poor creature still breathed. And that was without the power freedom would give him. The princess’ only choices to save any of us, would be to wield his powers through the dagger, or to kill him and take the powers from him altogether.”
“And that would end the war?”
“If she returned as the slayer of the Dark One, with all the power that goes with such an act?” the knight nodded, “Aye, I think the ogres would make peace.” He leans in, smiles at Bae, “You’re a bright lad, but listen close: repeat a word of this to anyone but your father and the princess, and you will live to regret it. And no more eavesdropping: any man could have you whipped for that.”
Bae swallows, the knight’s smile having melted into something dark, serious, even threatening. “Now, run along.”
He nods, biting his lip to keep from doing something childish and weak like bursting into tears or screaming, and goes as fast as he can without running out from the tavern and into the street.
And then he runs, as fast as his feet can carry him, the soles of his boots pounding on the dirt road. The sun is risen, now, the air warming. It is almost summer, after all, and yet Bae’s blood is winter in his veins.
“Bae?” his father’s voice stops him, and he looks up from his watching of the ground moving beneath his feet to see that his papa has turned, and is frowning at him, “What in seven hells are you doing out so early?”
“I-“ Bae tries to find a lie to tell, but nothing comes to mind. He hangs his head, miserable, and catches up with his father with trudging feet, “I followed you.” He admits, and waits for the admonishments to begin.
“I see.” Rumpelstiltskin nods, “And why did you do that?”
“Because you shouldn’t have to do scary things by yourself!” Bae says, “And I was afraid… I was afraid you would just disappear. It happens.“
“It’s just the village, boy,” his papa says, gently, and Bae is almost surprised when his arm comes around his shoulders, “We’ve lived here all your life.”
“People go out; they don’t always come back. I need you to always come back.”
“I will, son,” Rumpelstiltskin promises, although Baelfire isn’t going to fool himself into thinking that such a promise can be kept without question, “Always. But you need to stay where you’re safe: what if I’d come home to find you missing, hm?”
“I’m sorry, papa.” He says, and feels his father press a kiss to the top of his head, holding him in close. They stay like that a moment longer in the cool morning air, just holding on for dear life. Bae knows that his papa is not the bravest, nor the strongest or most skilled of men, but nothing could make him feel safer than this embrace after the fears of the past few days.
“It’s alright, Bae, don’t worry. You’re safe, and we’re almost home.” They start walking, and soon the hill is cresting and their small group of houses can be seen on the horizon.
“You talked to a knight today, papa,” Bae says, after a long and comfortable silence. His father’s arm doesn’t leave his shoulders, and he hopes that Rumpelstiltskin can hear the pride in his voice, the respect. His father, the coward, defended the woman they both love today from a man who could have had them both killed with just a word. And today, Bae is proud to call himself the son of Rumpelstiltskin the Spinner.
He feels his papa’s hand squeeze his shoulder, and knows that the message has been received.
“Bloody terrifying man, that,” Rumpelstiltskin confides, and Bae actually manages to laugh, “But hopefully gone soon, eh? How much did you hear?”
“All of it,” Bae admits, “Belle… she’s in a lot of trouble, isn’t she?”
Rumpelstiltskin smiles, a sad, small kind of smile, “Of all the runners in all the lands, we managed to end up with the one who’s both runaway royalty and wanted for treason.”
“I talked to him after. He said… papa, what do you know about the Dark One?”
They’ve crested the hill, and reached the little road leading to their home.
“The sorcerer who works for the Duke?” Rumpelstiltskin frowns, “Not a lot, I’m afraid. The knight said something about his being in thrall… I don’t remember.”
“I stayed behind,” Bae admits, “To ask about it. It seemed-“
“Where in seven hells have you been?” a voice, angry and female, comes from in front of them, and in moments Belle is running from the house, hurling herself into Rumpelstiltskin’s arms, “You just vanished!”
She clings to her husband, and Bae breaks away so that Rumpelstiltskin can hug her back, his slightly bewildered arms coming to hold her close. She is crying into the side of his neck, Bae can see, and he is suddenly more than a little uncomfortable to be witnessing this.
Finally, she pulls back to stand on her own, and surprises them both by smacking first Bae and then his father across the backs of their heads, “Foolish, gormless idiots!”
Bae would be offended by Belle’s accusations, if he weren’t so scared by the raw anger on her face, “I’m… sorry?”
“You should be! Brainless child, vanishing before daybreak. No note, nothing, just gone!” she stands, breathing hard, hands on her hips, “Bae, wait inside. I’ll talk to you later.”
“But, Belle-“ he wants to explain, but the force of her glare turns back on him from his father and he is quelled into silence.
“Now, Bae. Your father and I need to have a little word.”
Rumpelstiltskin looks almost as frightened as he had when he’d been with the knight, and Bae doesn’t really want to abandon him to Belle’s wrath. On the other hand, he’d also rather not deal with any of that rage turned on him, and this really does seem like more of a married thing…
“Bye!” he almost runs into the house, and sets to work straightening both his bed and his parents’, cleaning the surfaces and readying the food for their breakfast. In Bae’s experience, doing chores seems to lessen scoldings when they come.
He can hear Belle and Rumpelstiltskin outside, although their voices are muffled. His mind rests on their knew knowledge the Dark One, of Belle’s past - although he truly wishes to know no more: it is somehow terrifying, the idea that grown-ups can hurt so much and hide it so well - even as his hands are busy with the cleaning.
He hopes they’ll get a chance to talk calmly, and soon. The twisting in Bae’s gut has returned, but this time it is a kind of uneasy, quiet terror of an unknown future. It is strong enough to have him wishing he were still a tiny child, capable of hiding his face from horrors without shame or admonishment.
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- amuseoffyre said: YAY! Dark one! I was hoping he would show up in it again, and really, you could do anything with him versus them and I would love it.
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