"Greetings, good king -" Nixie began to say.
"I am not in a mood to entertain interlopers," Midas said. Be gone, river woman."
"You’re upset, so I shall ignore the slight you offer. Offer despite my prophetic words."
Midas knew exactly what she meant: the Nixie had once told him that ‘your gold touch will save the life of one you love.’ That had led to the horror befalling Abigail. And that was how Frederick had entered her service.
"Where is Belle now?" Midas demanded.
"Learning," the Nixie said. "And trying not to be killed."
“Which secret do you fear she will learn?”
Belle didn’t stop running until she came to the fork in the road. "Two paths," she said to herself, shivering. Within Rumplestiltskin’s castle, it was nice and warm, as was the best road to the village. But that road had disappeared - Stupid magic man! - and the only other road wound a while through the frozen mountains. And now there was a fork.
"This’d better not be a trick," Belle muttered. The sign for one way read
Warning: Sidewalk Ends.’
"That doesn’t sound good," Belle said. "And I just want to get home." The sign for the other way read
‘Goats Not Permitted.’
"The Troll Bridge it is, then," Belle said, making her way along that path. As she walked over the at times unpaved stone trail, Belle rehearsed what she would tell her father once she had returned to the Ducal Court. "He gave me leave, Father. The deal hasn’t been revoked. Father! I’m happy to see you again," Belle said, not that eager to see Gaston again, however. But none of those statements felt good enough. "Perhaps a ‘There’s no need to panic’ when I return ?"
As Belle made her way down the mountain, it amazed her just how easy a path this was - no holes or dung piles to watch out for, no low-hanging branches, or lurking predators. There also was not much evidence of foot traffic. You would think such a nice and well-kept path would attract more use.
After a while, Belle’s sight-seeing ended, her attention caught by the ever-familiar red sky. It shouldn’t be that close! Belle knew - that was the direction of her duchy - My father’s duchy. I agreed to leave. - and the red was thicker and richer in addition to being nearer.
“Breath-taking, isn’t it?”
Belle stopped walking and looked to who had spoken to her: a man-sized cockroach. “It’s horrible!” Belle said.
“Yes. Can’t it be both?” it - he - asked.
“I suppose. But it shouldn’t be.”
“Ah. Says an empty-handed woman leaving Rumplestiltskin’s castle,” he jested.
“You know Rumplestiltskin?” Belle asked. Everyone knows *of* him, sure…
“I knew him before he became the Evil One. I introduced him to his wife, oh, my manners, tsk. My name is Gregor Samsa.”
“An honor to meet you.”
“I’m nobody special.”
“How much time did you spend in Rumplestiltskin’s castle?”
“A few months.”
“Which is longer than anybody else lasted. Ergo, an honor to meet you.”
“I don’t know.”
“Problem?” Samsa asked.
“I asked for the wrong thing, I just know it,” Belle said.
“Everyone does. Don’t worry about it.”
“You don’t understand! Everyone was depending on me! Ohhh, is there any way to stop the ogres?”
“How?” Belle asked. Even if it’ too late to ask it of Rumplestiltskin.
Samsa didn’t shrug, not under all that armor. “I don’t know.”
“But you just said -”
“Ogres don’t belong to the Unstoppable Class. Therefore, there is at least one way to stop them. I don’t know how to stop their entire army, which is what I suspect you’re referring to, yes?”
Belle nodded. And she didn’t know what to say about that or…
"Take a look at the sky."
"Do you know what you’re looking at?"
"A red sky by day. It’s caused by the Ogre War."
"It insulates them from long-range magic. Anyone who wants to cast a spell on them, must do so on the battlefields."
A sick feeling struck Belle in the gut: Rumplestiltskin vowed to keep papa’s duchy safe - neither he nor papa said anything about stopping the ogre advance.
Samsa lifted his flask for a one-sided toast, took a swig from it, and then handed the flask to Belle.
She looked at it, not touching a flask inscribed with Drink Me.
“It’s just water,” Samsa said.
Belle held the flask but still didn’t drink from it.
That was fine by Samsa. “Keep it; I don’t need it anymore, trying to quit.”
“You’re trying to stop drinking water?” Belle asked.
“Water of fortitude. Helps you find the courage deep within.”
“You’re sure it’s not some other drink?”
Samsa nodded and said, “One hundred percent water.” He looked to the side. "You’re wondering," Samsa said. "Everyone does; I’m accustomed to it."
"That’s no excuse," Belle stated.
"And yet you’re wondering if my armor is a disguise, or if I really am an insect," he said with a smile.
"There’s no need, child; though I *do* appreciate it. I put this armor on as soon as I was old enough to fight in the War. And I was very good at it."
"At fighting?" Belle asked, not saying that he hadn’t answered the insect bit.
"I made a name for myself, killing ogres. The key is to locate their souls, because you can’t kill an ogre while its soul is hidden. But you could say I became boastful, and an ogre chief bound me to my armor, transforming my boast into a prophecy: I will never remove my armor until the War ends.” Some day… “Bad as that was, I prefer that one. For I had made myself another enemy that day,” Samsa said. The Hero himself. He used me and my unit as an opening move in his Reign, to demonstrate his power. How long it took me to realize he had started the war between men and ogres. Dramagogue.
"Could the curse be ended by true love?" Belle asked, remembering how the Queen had said it could defeat any curse.
Did you hear the part about my other enemy? Or do you think they‘re connected? "*I* can be ended - killed - but that wouldn’t end the curse." Suspecting Belle didn’t grasp what he meant, Samsa said, "Weak curses can be defeated - serious curses are transferable: to the victor go more than the spoils."
Why didn’t the Queen say that?" Belle wondered. Did she think - know - I’d be hesitant to kiss Rumplestiltskin if I knew it would make me into the next Evil One? Belle made a face at the uncertainty of what she would have said and done, how she would have handled herself. Did she leave it as a surprise so I wouldn’t be able to stop her if I succeeded? Would I have been able to? Does a person become the Evil One, at full power on their first day? Or does it force its new Evil Ones to begin only mildly powerful and advance from there?
“Have you ever seen ogres wage war?”
“I haven’t,” Belle said.
“One against a dozen men, sometimes against a hundred.”
“One? A single ogre…? All the battles of the war thus far?”
“Not the same ogre each time, no. But there’s really no point to them fighting in teams. Massively unfair.”
“I didn’t know,” Belle said.
“Understandable. Nobody likes to admit his army got its butt kicked by one guy all on his lonesome.”
An idea occurred to Belle: “You said if the ogres fought in teams, there’d be no point in fighting.”
“I did say that.”
“Do the ogres agree?”
“You’d have to ask them, but, yeah, I‘d assume so. Ogres love challenges.”
Like Rumplestiltskin loves dreams and aspirations.