Battle may never end, for there chaos thrives;
And only in chaos can we live our lives.

After Snow takes the Assassin's curse, she leaves to rebuild the Four Kingdoms. But she finds the Beast impossible to control and will do anything to get rid of it and spare her kingdom carnage. Enter Rumplestiltskin, one of seven equally enigmatic and long-named dwarves. Their requirement for breaking the curse? Snow must live with them for a year. She leaves a serving girl in her place, who must lie to--and fall for--an unwitting Huntsman.

But curses can never be broken. Evil can never be killed. And Snow can never stop fighting.


23. Chapter 12

Crospaltine slightly miscalculated our transport. The three of us were standing on the dining room table. It wasn't an issue for Crospaltine. HIs red hat was well below the ceiling. But I smacked my head on the timbers, and Oudin was hunched like an old woman. I swore loudly. 

Oudin maneuvered to the floor. "I think that's the dirties thing I've heard your mouth say since Ella took over." The dwarves came in from all rooms. 

"You succeeded," said Rumplestiltskin with a grin. "All's well?" 

"As can be expected." I sat down, legs dangling over the edge of the table. "My double has taken it into her girlish head to fall in love while wearing my skin." 

Talminage gave a heavy sigh. "Foolish of her." 

"Very." I looked up at Oudin, who was inspecting the multi-colored dwarves a little warily. "Oudin, these in the order of the rainbow, Crospaltine, Bandeleck, Rumplestiltskin, Oklaflay, Tandemore, Talminage, and the white one is Grimdelwaller." 

Oudin looked at me flatly. 

"You expect me to know the order of colors in a rainbow?" 

"You don't? Isn't that taught to every child at the age of five?" 

"I'm colorblind," Oudin muttered, taking a seat in one of the well-worn chairs. I hoped it held his weight. 

I shook my head. "And I haven't been told this before now?" 

"Everyone knows that," he countered. 

"It does explain why you could never keep the blue and green factions straight in camp." I noticed the dwarves were watching us, some with amusement and others with confusion. This wasn't what they had imagined seeing the mighty Queen Snow and her best General to be like, I'm certain. 

"What's the plan?" Oudin asked, looking between the dwarves. 

Talminage came forward. "We're leaving tomorrow. We can guess the Grandmother's location from stories, but it will take some searching." 

"And when we find her?" Oudin leaned forward, eyes sharp. 

"Get her to tell us what she will of Snow's curses," Talminage said grimly. 

"The Assassin has requested that he accompany us," added Tandemore. 

"Absolutely not," said Oudin with all the command of his rank. 

"He has some say. Baba Yaga is where his daughter got the curse, and him in turn." 

"If he wants answers or revenge, he can go at his own time," said Oudin. "But not when Snow's curse is involved." 

"I trust the Assassin, Oudin," I said, wondering at his adamancy. 

"And I do not. I ran an army in fear of the day that Malif hired him to destroy us." He looked at me, then said much more quietly. "And don't think you've hidden the heartache that man caused you." 

I gave Oudin my most steely gaze. "And now it is I that has the power to destroy an entire army, and believe me. The Beast wants me to. I will do what it takes to destroy his curse entirely, including having one of the most capable men I've worked with at my side. He can be useful, Oudin." 

The general ran a hand over his close-cropped beard, watching me carefully. 

"You know it's the tactical decision," I said, eyes narrowing. 

Oudin gave a sigh and nodded. "But any of his personal vendettas are put on hold." He looked at me as though to say, 'and anything else personal as well.' 

I could feel my face burning with a mix of embarrassment and rage. I wasn't a fool. Emotions had no play in this. And how could Oudin, of all people, think I would make a decision because of them? 

This man had known me almost all my life. All my life where I had been myself, for certain. He knew what I was like. He knew how I thought, acted, felt, or didn't at all. Even Jehanne, though she had known me longer, didn't understand me. But Oudin and I knew one another. We understood one another. We were linked, mind and... heart. 

I got off the table. 

"Yes, sir," I told him. "We're going to have supper, then sleep early. In the morning, we'll discuss some final thoughts before leaving." I went into the kitchen, followed by Bandeleck mumbling about 'giants giving him orders.' 

I laughed. Laughing was good. Thinking... was not. 

We were all seated around the table, large platters of food sitting before us, mixed with suspicious chalices of something steaming that I did not want to mistake for my wine. 

Oudin's plate sat atop a few thick books so he wouldn't have to reach so far, and mine was on what I hoped was a stack of not-important papers, just in case I dropped something. 

This was the first time i had seen all of the dwarves dining together, I realized. I wondered if, perhaps, Dedenfell's... whatever he had done was recent enough that it had simply been less painful for them all to continue about their work, grabbing food whenever they felt like it. It seemed a shame; dining with the dwarves was nearly a form of entertainment. Bandeleck had an immature delight in casting small spells during the meal playing little tricks with the others' food and drink. 

Rumplestiltskin was telling Oudin stories. There was no saying how much of it was actually true and how much was made up. Even his opposite, Talminage, seemed to be enjoying himself. His face would break out into smiles every once in a while, and he even told a joke or two. 

Tandemore had told me of why Talminage was as reserved as he was. 

"Talminage was very close to Dedenfell," he had said quietly when we were both out in ht eyard. "Grimdelwaller may have been his opposite, but Talminage and Dedenfell were rarely seen apart. Dedenfell's betrayal hurt him more than he will say." 

Hurt him seemed like a simplified way of putting it. I felt a pang of sympathy for Talminage. He seemed like myself; truly caring about only a few people. If one of my closest friends and family betrayed me... 

In any case, I could not blame Talminage for his being curt or withdrawn. 

Oudin seemed to be in good spirits as well. He was laughing heartily at Rumple's ridiculous tales, and seemed intrigued at what Oklaflay was doing. he watched the green-clad dwarf grind up more fish skeletons, then slide the contents into a goblet and stir it. The result was an orange, mushroom-shaped cloud and a loud fizzing noise that permeated the air for the remainder of the night. Oudin hadn't seen much magic before, I was certain. Few had. 

I spent a fair portion of the night watching Oudin. I had expected to feel comforted by his presence. And, in a way, I was. It would be difficult to not feel better. And yet, at the same time, I felt... strange. 

I couldn't trust my own mind, it seemed. For my mind wanted to tell me that Oudin--of all people!--cared for me. not as a brother in arms, not as a young child to train, but even as a queen. But something more. Something I would never have guessed. 

And yet, I did not know why. As ridiculous as it seemed to me, I had no counter-argument. Oudin was not an easily passionate man. Why should he be struck useless by love? Nor was he any better with words or emotions than me. There was no earthly reason to expect him to be forthcoming, particularly after my little display with the Assassin. 

But it was a wild accusation. One moment that could be interpreted as jealousy was hardly a reason to declare him in love. 

My mind, with the help of the curse, continued to press the matter anyways. 

"He's ten years your senior He was like a father to you you said Didn't you think he might have loved Jehanne But why would he take such care of one silly soldier Why would he still be here for you Oudin doesn't love like that But they don't think you do either and they were wrong about you." 

I stood, bringing my dishes into the now spotless kitchen. I plunged my plate into a frigid bucket of water, feeling the cold soak into my skin. 

"You were watching him," said Talminage. How did I not know he'd come in? This house... bless the dampening curse or charm or whatever the hell it was. 

"Half the time, at least," he continued. "The other half... it was him watching you." The purple-dressed dwarf sat in a char at the tiny table behind me. 

"He's an old friend. It's good to have him here," I said. 

Talminage looked at me. "I am no stranger to emotion, Snow. Not strong ones. Even love." 

"You know who I loved, and you know it's passed me." 

"I know who you can love, if that's what you wish to call it." 

I turned to face him, sitting on the floor, back to the windowsill. "What would you call it?" 

"It's stronger than an emotion. it's more honest, more constant. It's not like love either. Not what you'd call love, with tingles and giddiness and fanciful dreaming. it's more tahn that. It's better than that. Stronger. It's knowing not just what you want to be with them, but that you can't be without that the future will always hold that person. It's knowing that they matter more than any other thing in the world. It's home, wrapped up in a person." 

Talminage had never said so much to me in the whole time I'd known him. 

"And you know that feeling?" I asked, hesitantly. 

"I feel it every time I see my brothers," he replied. "The truest love Snow, is family. It might be your parents, it might be your children, it might be your siblings. Or it might be the person who needs to be family. Who is every bit as close and important as family should ever be. That is true love, Snow. Ask if he is family, fi he is that dear to you. That vital to your very existence. And you will know. You'll know if you could ever say goodbye, or if you need her more than you need your own soul." 

He looked up at me, dark eyes latching onto my misted-over ones. I opened my mouth to reply, but no voice came out. 

"In any case," said the dwarf gruffly, standing up. "You're family to him." 

I watched him walk back into the room to join his brothers, one hand still in the bucket of frozen water, something warm flickering in my frozen heart. It was not so fragile as hope, not so garish as the fireworks I felt near the Assassin. It was something sturdier, something warmer. 

And I knew that until my curse was broken, bringing Oudin might have been a very bad idea indeed. 


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