Count The Stones
By Random Battlecry
"I'm going to count the stones in your walls," she announces, just after breakfast. He stares at her for a minute— puts a little effort into it, too— but she remains unfazed. Smiles at him gently, actually, which makes him feel as though he's been struck with a mace and a feather simultaneously. Curious. She's been here hardly two weeks and already he'll have to work to frighten her.
He bares his teeth at her, a familiar rictus grin— even this doesn't do the trick. "You have fun with that."
"Oh, I will," she assures him, and seems to feel the need to explain herself. "You see, Rumpelstiltskin, it really doesn't take as long to clean this castle as I would have thought. It's not as though you're stalking through breaking pottery and causing messes in the wake of my broom."
"I could, though," he offers, still through his teeth.
She makes a half-hearted motion with one hand, as though pushing him away. "A girl needs a hobby, you know."
"Counting stones?" he prompts her.
"Counting stones," she agrees.
He doesn't think about it, much, this castle. Not the way it's made. Not the magic that holds it together as much as the mortar that keeps it from falling apart. He wonders briefly what she would have done if he'd left her in the dungeon.
Started trying to pry her way out with a spoon, likely.
He decides to start leaving spoons around, just to see.
"Done for the day," she says, and taps at a place on the wall in the library. He shoots a glance over at her, then looks back at his codex.
"A rewarding hobby, dearie?"
"Fair to middling," she says, and meanders in his direction, full skirts swaying. "What are you writing?"
"Something important and complex."
She widens her eyes comically. "Oh, dear. Far too important and complex for a helpless female like me to understand, I suppose. I'll go back to dusting before I sprain something."
He tosses the quill down and shoves the codex over to her. She takes a moment to stare at the instructions he's working out. "Some sort of potion?"
"For a very specific purpose." Her eyes slide to meet his, almost nervously, and she fidgets with the leaky quill. "One which you should not have to worry about, I imagine, unless you get on someone's bad side."
"I do try to avoid that."
"A wise decision on your part." He's watching the rise of her shoulder as she shifts her weight against the table, the movement of skin stretched across delicate collarbones. Her eyebrows draw down over her nose as she frowns slightly.
"Is it— for punishment?"
"It's for sale," he says, quietly. "Things like this come in useful when people want to make a deal, you see."
"Oh," she says, and she's quiet for a moment longer before she slips away and leaves him there. He watches her go, eyes fixed, mouth a grim line. She ought to know, that girl, what sort of beast she's chosen to stay with.
Only later does he realize she's corrected his Latin.
"Rumpelstiltskin," she says, thoughtfully, as she hands him straw piece by piece. "An interesting name. How did you get it?"
"One might ask how you got yours," he says, to play with her a bit— as if he doesn't know. She's been widely acknowledged as the most beautiful in her province. He'd heard of her long before he found opportunity to acquire her. "Named for your grandmother, were you?"
"Is that how most people get their names?" she says lightly. He doesn't have to look at her to know she's smiling. She sits a bit closer and nudges at him with her shoulder. "Is that how you got yours? Named for your grandmother? Grandmother Rumpelstiltskin?"
She's joking with him, playing with him as he's playing with her— and this is an impossibly unwise thing. He turns to look at her, still the spinning of his wheel, and fixes her stone-solid with his gaze. She meets it. Meets it and bites her lip, but doesn't look away. Doesn't excuse herself, doesn't apologize, and doesn't back down.
"It was more of a title than a name, once upon a time," he says. She gazes at him steadily.
"What does it mean?"
He breathes, and finally, so does she. "It's been lost, oh, ages ago," he says, and sets the wheel to spinning again.
"How goes the hobby?" he asks her, over tea one day.
She spreads her fingers flat on the table, and grins. He's using the chipped cup. He's been insisting on using it all along, in fact, and if she thinks it's to make her feel guilty or to make a point, then it's all to the good.
"I think I'm getting near the end." She taps her foot meaningfully against the flagstones beneath them. He raises his eyebrows.
"And just how many stones have you counted so far, my dear?"
She laughs at him. Laughs at him!
"As if I'd just tell you, when I've put so much work into it!" she says. "Count them yourself, if you want to know."
Then she pours him more tea.
There's a quiet moment, one evening, where she sits just there, beside him, at the spinning wheel. Her hair has fallen forward over one shoulder, and her face is fair and open. She's leaning into him, just the slightest bit, to watch the motion of the pedal and the wheel, churning and turning and making beauty, together.
"How long will you keep me here?" she asks. "Really?"
He turns his head, just enough to catch her gaze. She regards him steadily, full on, and asks nothing more. Expects nothing from the answer, neither good nor evil. Only waits.
He bears it for a moment, before his eyes fall.
"That's all I wanted to know," she says, and he waits for her to leave. But she sits still beside him, long into the night, and he feels every breath and movement as though it's his body that's living, captured.
She comes trotting through the hallway one day, both hands full, and their paths collide just as he rounds the corner. Silverware goes clattering everywhere.
"Oh, never mind," he tells her, then follows her lead hurriedly as she gets to her knees. "Never mind, dearie." They're
both on the floor— his knees protest momentarily— and his nails scratch across the stones as he gathers up the silver.
"What's this all about?"
"Spoons!" she says, and sits back on her heels with a breathy laugh. "I don't understand your castle, sir. Every time I turn around, there's another spoon where I could swear there was no spoon before! So I'm taking them to the cupboard in the library, to lock them in before they can all escape."
He can't help himself. He laughs. It gets a smile out of her, one which flashes and shines in the dim light of the hallway. She leans forward again, to reach for a piece of silver that he's missed.
"Do you think we got them all?"
"If we didn't, I'm sure we'll stumble over it next time we're in bare feet."
"That sounds terribly painful. I should count them."
"I suppose," she says, quietly, "as I've finished my present hobby, I'll have to take up another."
He hesitates, then— on his knees, and he detests it, but he can't stand as long as she's just there with him, at the same level. Just before her next breath fuels a smile, he says, "How many?"
He blinks, and his mouth twitches, impatiently. "How many stones?"
"Ah," she says, and there is the smile. So he says her name, so softly she doesn't hear it.
"Belle. How many stones in my castle walls?"
Her eyes flick up and meet his, and the smile dims, slides sideways, slips.
"I never said anything about the castle," she says.