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.


25. Chapter 14

For a queen, an old man and seven dwarves, we looked very intimidating. 

Oudin and I were both dressed in thick armor, each armed with a sword, a spear and several knives. Crospaltine had so many charms and artifacts about him that I feared he might topple over at any given moment. Rumplestiltskin and Talminage were armed with knowledge, and Bandeleck and Tandemore with their spells and hexes. I was uncertain as to how Oklaflay and Grimdelwaller would prove useful, but none of the dwarves were left behind. 

Crospaltine brought us to the outskirts of a dismal looking forest. 

We had discussed Baba Yaga's history over our final dinner. 

"How did she get to be the grandmother?" Oudin had asked. 'Know they enemy' was a favorite phrase of Oudin's, even years ago. 

Rumplestiltskin tapped the front cover of one of the many books on the table. This one was blood red, with elegant scrollwork ripped into the leather, bleeding gold. 

"Baba Yaga's tale ranges from unfortunate to sinister. Some claim she sought to kill Vasilisa for her beauty, but Vasilisa prevailed and founded the Four Kingdoms. her ancestors then became the rulers of the White Kingdom after it split into four," he said. "Other sources tell it like a story, including a man called Bluebeard and the creation of not one, but four curses. What we know for certain is that she is a Rumplestiltskin and she is immortal. Or something like it." 

"Something like it?" Oudin asked, taking a bite of his pie. 

"True immortality would be an incapability of death. But there is no such curse. Only prevention of aging." This time, it was Talminage who answered. 

"Perhaps that is the fourth curse," Bandeleck suggested before taking a large gulp of something that wasn't his wine. He made a face, then took back his own goblet. 

Rumplestiltskin shook his head. "Legends of the fourth curse say that she cast it on Bluebeard." 

It struck me oddly now, reflecting on the dinner conversation. A red curse, a black curse, a white curse and now a curse related to the color blue. Not unlike my kingdoms. 

"Let's go," I said, knowing we hadn't the time to waste. The Beast was already snapping at my mind now that I was out of the cottage's dampening charm. "We're looking for a chicken-footed house?" Crospaltine nodded, vanished, then reappeared moments later with the Assassin. The Assassin had his hood up, as though he still had the Beast inside his mind. 

"Snow," he said, nodding. "General Oudin." Oudin nodded back, evidently reserved. 

I wasn't particularly fond of forests. They impeded my senses, and I couldn't know who was around me. Now I had the opposite problem; I knew every person for miles. I knew every creature for miles, every source of food, water and even the rosebushes scattered through the forest. 

I would be the greatest asset in finding the Grandmother. The voices would locate her and her home before anyone else could. 

"Are they saying anything, Snow?" asked Bandeleck after some time, looking impatient. 

"They're saying a lot," I replied gruffly. 

"Give it time, Ban," said Rumple scoldingly. 

"She used to keep her house roosted in different places," said the Assassin, his voice little more than a whisper. "It was always interesting to try and get our assignments from her." 

He looked around a little jumpily, as though he were expecting ghosts from his past. I felt a strand of sympathy for him. His wife died in childbirth, and his daughter having died centuries ago, after he gave up everything for her. 

"How did you find her house?" pressed Talminage. 

"The Rider could always find it. She was the Grandmother's messenger, after all. The Grandmother always let her find it easily." He fell quiet a moment. "The real struggle was after the first Rider die and my daughter was only a baby. Then we had to find it on our own. It could take days. But she was always past a river." 

"There's a river to the east," I said, turning that direction. 

"It can't hurt," said Talminage. He followed, purple robes swishing. 

Oudin put a hand on my shoulder after we had been walking a moment. I pulled back, looking up at him. 

"And you're completely certain that he can be trusted?" Oudin asked. 

My mind flashed back to an old memory. I was barely seventeen, just having been promoted. I was no longer a foot-soldier, but a part of Oudin's close team. We had all been gathered in his tent, inspecting an array of maps as we were posed with a serious problem. I had been silent during these meeting, listening to the more experienced. 

"Oudin, we can take the Sham Pass and take them from the west," argued a younger man named Fret. I bit my lip. 

"That pass will be snowed in before we can get the whole group up there," argued Oudin. It's too narrow to move them all through." 

"What about just bringing half?" I had dared to speak up. 

"Don't be ridiculous, Snow," said Fret. 

Oudin held up a hand. "Why do you propose that, Snow?" he asked, eyes on mine. 

"The only reason we're taking the pass is that they'll be less prepared. We'd need fewer men. It's a risk, I know, but less of one than going straight through the canons. Especially less of a risk than Fret's suicide sweep." 

"Less of a risk than the sweep?" demanded Fret. "Snow, we can't take them with half the men. Either we bring them all through the pass, or we send half to soften the canon defenses-" 

"Those men will be dead before they reach the first canon!" I protested. "We can avoid them all together without half dying before the first sword clash. Same number attacking, different methods, fewer deaths." 

"Are you certain, Snow?" Oudin asked, eyes locked onto mine. If we used this plan and it failed, we would lose the base, our surprise, and half the army with us. I would be demoted if I didn't die, and disgrace the royal family. Oudin would be sharply punished as well. Everyone in that tent would. 

"Yes sir," I had said. 

We executed my plan. The enemy base fell, and while losses were heavy, it wasn't two corps blown to bits by canons. Fret did get to execute his suicide sweep a few years later, at a different region. He went home in a half-sized casket, regaled a "great hero of the White Kingdom." 

"Yes sir" I said, looking at Oudin steadily as we walked through the forest. "The only man I trust more than the Assassin is you." 

"Even after what he's done to you?" 

"It was my choice to take the curse, not his. And my emotions are play, not any of his decisions. I'll be fine. I doubt I could take the curse fof of him now anyways." 

This seemed to satisfy Oudin. He put a hand on my shoulder again and we began walking. I was told of several birds and fish and small woodland creatures moving all around us, but not one whisper of a chicken leg. 

"Are we certain she's here? It may have taken you all day to find her, but it shouldn't take Snow this long with the curse," said Crospaltine. 

"She could have some curse on her house that cancels out the Beast," the Assassin offered. "But the Grandmother is nothing if not a creature of habit. She liked tradition, and did everything the same way over and over. She was always recalling and remembering things. She lived in the past. She wouldn't leave our forest." 

She lived in the past... 

"Assassin?" I looked up at him, ignoring the order from the Beast to kill him. As if anyone could touch the Assassin, armed with the Beast or not. "Which tales about her are true? The ones that claimed the hated Vasilisa for her beauty, or the ones with Bluebeard?" 

The Assassin frowned. "Bluebeard? I mean... that's not what we called him." 

"You knew Bluebeard?" demanded Talminage. "But every tale says he died." 

The Assassin chuckled. "Ironic, since we called him Koschei the Deathless." 

"The tales used to say that Bluebeard lived in a mansion that was over the river, through the woods, and by the trail lined with the blood of his wives. Blood red as roses," I said. "Like the roses that are only growing thicker that way." I pointed North. 

"The hell kind of children's tale was that?" mumbled the Assassin. 

"A useful one," I said. I ran along the river's edge, following the rose bushes that grew only thicker. Suddenly, the voices began to open up, tentatively describing more than the forest scenery of tedium that they had insisted upon so far. 

"Is that a bone?" asked Tandemore. 

"Skull male thirty two years old," I rattled off. "It's a skull." 

"Femur female twelve pelvis male fifty skull horse male five," reported the voices happily. I continued running, the bushes growing only thicker and thornier as we made our way upstream. I followed the voices eagerly. 

Then I was lying on the ground, ears ringing and head blazing. 

"Not a step further!

I propped myself up on my elbows, squinting up at a dark shadow. Oudin drew a sword behind me, but the Assassin stayed the general's hand quietly. 

"B-Baba... Yaga." I coughed, my whole body feeling off kilter from the blow. I looked up at what 'd run into. It looked like a dark yellow cross between reptile skin and a tree. With...t alons? 

I scrambled to my feet. Before me were the legs of teh world's largest folw, except instead of turning to feathersr, they were attached to a dismal little shack. Leaning out of a window was an old woman with frazzled hair and a large nose. Not a long enough nose to touch the ceilign when she snored, as the old stories claimed, but definitely large. 

"You have my curse," said the woman. 

"How can I break it?" I asked. "Is there a failsafe?" 

Baba Yaga laughed. It began as a smal wheeze, but soon became a cackle. 

"I spent years fixing that curse, and you want me to break it? No. Follow my steps." 

"I'll follow wherever you take us," I said. 

"No," said Baba Yaga flatly. "You can walk it yourself or you can fail." 

"Grandmother," said the Assassin, stepping forward. "Do you remember me?" 

"I remember all my children," she said with a sniff. "But you were a fool of a boy. Taking my Red beast..." she muttered. 

"I would not let the Rider suffer," he said adamantly. 

A terrible grin spread beneath the Grandmother's nose. "She suffered anyways. Follow my steps. Remember my tales. Seek my guardians. Ah, now I've given too much. A final gift to my greatest success." She nodded to the Assassin, and then her house stepped over us with a large bound. 

The Assassin was pale beneath his hood. He looked between us. 

"I hope I helped," he said, voice strangled. Then he was gone, chasing the chicken footed house. 

"Strangest and most infuriating thing I've ever seen," said Oudin. He always did hate riddles. Both of us did. Fret couldn't get enough of the damn things. 

"Back to planning," murmured Rumplestiltskin. He looked around. "Where is Talminage?" 

Crospaltine opened his mouth to speak, then pulled out a small disk. He whispered something to it, and Talminage was among us once again. He looked deeply troubled. 

"I apologize. You received a call, Rumple." 

"You decided to go wheeling and dealing while we were meeting with baba Yaga?" demanded Rumple, looking furious. 

"It wasn't just some lovesick housemaid," said Tal. "It was a very different lovesick housemaid. Ella, in fact." 

I gritted my teeth. I didn't want to deal with Ella. "Yes, she's fallen in love with the Huntsman and thinks she can get away with doing so while in my body." 

Oudin frowned. "Ella? Surely not. She seemed too bright for that."

"She isn't just lovesick," said Talminage. "She wants you cursed." He looked at me. 

"I'm already cursed, dammit!" 

"She wants treason. To take your place." 

Oudin sheathed his sword. "I'll take care of her. Take me back, Crospaltine." 

"No!" I snapped, head swirling with half-plans and voices. "I need you. With me. I need you with me." 

"I'll be of no use with magic," Oudin insisted. "And riddles and old bed time stories." 

"I need you," I maintained stubbornly. "Let Ella do as she will. Jehanne and Casin won't let her ruin the four kingdoms. She can clean up her mess when we're done with our own." 

"You don't mind her running around wreaking havoc in your body?" 

I gave a weary smile. "When has this body ever not wreaked havoc, Oudin? I've never cared what people saw me do. This will just be another quirk of their beloved Queen." 

We had too much to worry about without love on our minds. 

Or so I stubbornly told myself. 

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