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.


16. Chapter 5

When Ella woke, she looked like Snow again. She sat up, frowning as she tried to decide what had been dreams and what had happened in real life. As the events unfolded, Ella's heart rose into her throat. 

What had happened last night had been wildly inappropriate for her, especially as she wasn't even in her own body. She knew that she would have to speak with her three mentors about what Snow would do, then execute that plan faithfully. Even if the two were--or could be--lovers, it was not Ella's place to be there fore it. 

But somehow, the opportunity to tell Jehanne, Casin or Oudin what had happened never arose. They were far too busy as they prepared for travel to the black Kingdom, and Casin was determined to tell her everything she'd done wrong, as well as urge Oudin to discuss more about warfare. Ella had been certain that Jehanne at least would ask about the Huntsman, but it seemed that she had believed it to be Ella's ruse for leaving before midnight without question. 

Soon they were back on the path between castles, rattling in the carriage with a very talkative Casin. So she decided to keep quiet for now. 

Besides, Ella thought. I can always inform them later. 

She could feel the Huntsman nearby. He was a part of the group, riding among the guards behind them. He had not tried to talk to her all morning. 

"And how would Snow react to being told not to wear trousers?" Ella asked, when she could get a word in edgewise. 

Casin frowned. "Did someone tell you that? How did you respond?" 

"Actually, the Huntsman responded for me," Ella said. She realized it would be the perfect time to tell Casin all about the romance and the kiss, but she couldn't decide before he began speaking. 

"Snow knows what she wants, and can be less than tactful in getting there. But she's rarely a confrontational thing, not with strangers." 

It occurred to Ella that Casin's constant lessons may not be perfectly true. He painted Snow as the socially-clumsy but warm-hearted warrior. But based on the things Ella had heard, Snow was far soldier. She may not be cruel, but Ella had never heard of the queen being particularly kind either. 

And from what Ella had seen in her time at the White Castle, Snow was every bit the heartless warrior that Casin was ever-claiming she was not. Ella wondered what made him so adamant that she act sweet. Was that a side of Snow he saw, or one he made up? Jehanne and Oudin never commented, so Ella had nothing else to go on. 

As hey continued their journey, winding through increasingly cold forests, Ella thought on the matter. What was Snow like? Ella had only been near Snow for a few moments before the dwarf had whisked her away. She found herself wishing that she could have spent more time with the Queen before she had left. 

The scenery outside the carriage shifted throughout the day. It changed from snowy forests to sharp cliffs and peaks rising outside the carriage windows. After a time, Ella drifted from any of Casin's attempts at conversation as she grew increasingly engrossed in the scenery. Casin made fewer and fewer remarks as he watched the young serving girl look in wonder at the mountains. It was likely an expression he had not seen on Snow's face in a very long time, it at all. 

"And it's all stone," she said. "Look at that. Millions and millions of pounds of rock, just sitting on the earth." 

"What did you think the earth was made of?" Casin grumbled. 
"Doesn't it astound you in the least?" Ella asked. 

Casin sighed. "I'm a merchant. I've seen forests and jungles, mountains and deserts, oceans and glaciers. It's a lot of rock, yes. I've seen it before." Ella thought it must be rather sad to be so used to traveling you didn't even wonder. 

At midday, the carriage came to ta stop. Ella wasted no time in getting out, but then she saw the Huntsman. The soldiers nearby had been let in one the ruse--or some of them at least--but Ella knew the Huntsman didn't know yet. A part of her didn't want him to find out. She told herself that it was because she feared retribution for pretending she was Snow during delicate matters. 

But just a tiny sliver of her yearned for him to continue looking at her the way he did now, even if he thought she was someone other than herself. He was looking at her with a sort of resigned tenderness. A locked-away adoration. She felt, suddenly, that he would do anything for her. Die for her, live for her, stay away from her... or be with her forever. 

No one had ever looked at Ella that way before. 

And suddenly, she didn't want him to stop. 

Surely Snow wouldn't either, Ella thought as she sat down, midday meal in hand. Surely if Snow saw him so... caring, she would never turn him down. 

Ella was practical. She knew it would amount to nothing. But a story sprang to mind. One where the Queen found her beloved because a serving girl in her place had orchestrated a romance so pure, so true that she could never be unhappy. 

"Casin?" asked Ella when they were relatively alone. "You haven't mentioned Snow and love before." She took a bite of her meal. 

"That's because Snow hasn't' mentioned love before," said the merchant. "Snow doesn't plan on marrying." He eyed her. "Why?" 

"Jehanne told me she had only been in love once before, but it came to nothing." 

Casin snorted. "That's because at the time, he was desperately trying to find the one girl who loved him. Or so he thought. Snow isn't cruel enough to put that sort of a choice before a man. She kept silent till she had to come forward and take the curse." 

Ella blinked. So that was what Jehanne meant by a kiss for practical reasons. It was the Assassin that they spoke of, and it was his gift--his curse--that Snow had. She had kissed him in order to defeat the evil queen. It was terribly romantic and heart-breaking. But it proved one thing: Snow could love. 

Ella smiled to herself as they got back into the carriage, ears and noses red from the brief moments in the sharp mountain air. 

Her wonder at the mountains seemed to decrease along with the sun's height. Even she, with her limited geography, knew that they were not as close to the Black palace as her bed-hungry body hoped they were. 

"Yes," said Casin, confirming Ella's suspicions. "All the other castles are within a day's travel of one another, save the Black Kingdom. The Black Kingdom decided to stow their palace far north." 

"Will we be camping overnight?" Ella asked. 

"Don't get your shift in a knot," grumbled Casin. 

"I'm more concerned for you," she shot back. "I've slept outside before during travels." She paused. This would no doubt be more comfortable than that trip had been. 

She had been frozen and hungry, alone and desperate for help. Abandoned by her father and abused by a stepmother, driven to running away by her new sisters. Ella had been so quick to leave that she hadn't even thought of a place to go before going. 

Casin grunted, refusing to be impressed by so trivial an accomplishment as camping. 

The sun had vanished for good, and along with it the safety of navigating treacherous mountain trails. The couch stopped, wagons and horses behind them coming to a rest to step up camp. It was indeed far more luxurious than Ella's past attempts had been. 

She was given a warm tent to share with Jehanne. Outside, there were soldiers keeping guard. Ella felt very at ease knowing the Huntsman was among them. 

"Good night, Ella," said Jehanne quietly from her bedroll. For a moment, Ella allowed herself to pretend it was her aunt lying beside her, and it was her lover guarding outside. That it was her friends who cared for her and her people that were flocking to see her. 

For a blissful moment, she was not Ella, the abused and forgotten serving wench. She was Queen Snow, the feared and loved. 

"Good nigh, Jehanne," she murmured, smiling into her pillow. 

But the illusion did not last for very long. 

At some point in the night, there was a clang of metal and a man's primal cry. Ella and Jehanne both sat up. Suddenly awoken from her sleep, Ella's dark skin paled to pure white and her frizzy hair became darker, sleeker. But even though she suddenly looked like Snow, she was not fearless as the soldier would be. 

Ella was frozen in her tent, heart racing. What had happened? She prayed it was nothing more than a guard who dropped a soup pot on his own foot. But a range of yells and the clang of swords following abolished the spark of hope. 

The flap of their tent was torn open to reveal a face as dark as the night around it. The face grinned. "You don't look so scary, Snowflake." 

"Propoganda," said a deep voice from beside the tent. "I called it." 

"Shut it, Edge. Those soldier boys can't stay away for long. Come on, Queenie dear," said the man. "You too, crater-face." 

Jehanne nodded slowly to Ella. Fear raced through her mind, constructing her throat and making her pulse fly. Was Jehanne so willing to give up the fake-Snow? Or did she and the others have a plan that Ella was unaware of? 

Ella slowly untangled her snowy limbs from the bedroll, trying to cover what she could with the night-shift. 

"Hurry it up," hissed the dark-faced man. "My friend has a knife on the other side of that fabric wall, y'know." 

Ella hurried. 

She and Jehanne were soon outside the tent. Jehanne showed no panic, but Ella feared she might give into the wave of fear soon. She found that the dark-faced man was actually nearly as pale as she was now, his body covered in dirt and cast in shadows. He jerked his thumb up the trail. "This way, while the oth-" 

The dirty man stopped suddenly, his hand rising to his stomach. His fingers brushed along a blade, coming away with glinting red. There was a loud, sickening noise as the blade was removed. The man fell over, showing a Huntsman behind him, armed with a large, bloody axe. 

The other man didn't say a word. he took off at a sprint. The Huntsman moved as quickly as a flash of lightning. The axe soared and the other man fell, a blade protruding from his back. 

"Your majesty?" inquired the Huntsman, quiet and reserved. 

Ella looked at her savior in wonder, taking in his large form and stony face that were cast in fire and moonlight. There was a brooding look to him, a resolute expression. Ella found her heart breaking that the queen he so loved would never love him back. The thought struck Ella, who was already overcome with waves of emotion, and she feared she'd lose her act entirely and begin to cry. 

Ella nodded deliberately. "Thank you." She forced as much confidence into the words as she could, making up for the moments when the panic had nearly over taken her. The Huntsman nodded. Ella could have sworn she saw a ghost of a smile. 

She so wanted him to smile. 

The two women remained outside the tent until Oudin emerged from the shadows. 

"Rock-side bandits," he said grimly. "Some got away, some were killed. We're not in a position to take any with us." Jehanne nodded. 

"Is there any chance threat they will return?" she asked. 

Oudin shook his head. "The Huntsman killed the two leaders." 

Ella's stomach flipped. Even she had heard of the rock-side bandits. To think that two leaders had been outside her tent, desperate to take her... it was just as terrifying as after the fact. 

"Thank the clergy," said Jehanne calmly. "Back to sleep, then." 

But Ella never quite fell back asleep. She was occupied with the thoughts of aunts, bandits and Huntsman's, her mind's eye filled with an illusive smile. 

And deep inside her chest, the one that was a mirror image of the icy warrior queen's, the heart of a small serving girl beat a little faster. 

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