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.


18. Chapter 7

They arrived at the Black Castle at midday, their procession rolling through the thin, rocky lanes and into the jet-black wall surrounding the castle. Ella got out of the carriage, marveling at the stronghold that was indeed forged out of black stone. 

"This is a true fortress," Oudin murmured as he dismounted his horse. 

Casin chuckled. "Planning on moving the Queen up here?" He squeezed out of the carriage. 

"The idea has merit," said Oudin simply. Ella smiled. The banter between Snow's guardians had become familiar very quickly. 

She stepped through the courtyard, inspecting the castle without looking awe-struck as well as she could manage. It was a twisting mass of dark stone, covered in turrets and balconies. It was a sharp contrast to the mountain snow around it, and the brightly-dyed wool that the people wore here. 

"We don't have long to prepare," said Jehanne, guiding them all indoors. 

"I should have spread out the schedule more," Casin mumbled. "I forget how bloody exhausting travel is." He adjusted his hideously colored coat, for once fitting in with the people around him. Ella wondered if Casin was from here. 

The inside of the fortress was less beautifully ominous as the exterior. There was stone of varying shades, and rich tapestries hung from every wall, depicting old stories that even Ella was familiar with. But she pretended to be more interested in the suits of armor and the examples of weaponry hanging from the doorways. 

The staff of the black Castle were extremely gracious. They were eager to give the travelers food and directions to different parts of the castle, and seemed to be excited about the party. 

One woman, leading Ella to her bedroom, said, "We thought we was gonna be sent out. When you banished Malif to the mountains, your majesty, she didn't waste time in killing our Prince Gauge. And when the Four Kingdoms set to war, we thought we was gonna be set out for it. What's the use of a castle with no king, is all I'm saying." 

"Of course not," said Ella, delighted to carry out Snow's message of unity. "The Four Kingdoms are now one, and no one can be held accountable for Malif's actions but her." The maid seemed happy at the statement. 

Ella was both excited and a little melancholy. She was excited for the ball. Once, she thought that she would never get to see such a  thing, much less experience it. And here she was, hosting two of them! But this would also be the last one before returning to the White Kingdom to await Snow's return. It signaled the end of something wonderful, something short-lived. 

Ella put on her ball gown and jewels with just a little feeling of despondency. She looked at the girl in the mirror, with her pure skin and luscious hair, and those vivid lips. The lean body and the strength that every feature conveyed. It was so different form her own skin. Not better, perhaps. But what she thoughts as better. What she was told was better. Ella had some time to go before returning to her old self for good, but the thought still made her feel strange. 

The clock struck the hour and Ella walked out of the bedroom, ready for her final ball. She no longer felt nervous about her act as Queen Snow. She was armed with the culture, provided by Jehanne, and her own knowledge, by Oudin, and the mannerisms that had been drilled into her head for so long by Casin. 

Ella was confident. 

She wasn't an ash and cinder-covered servant. She was a queen. She wasn't an abused and neglected little girl. She was a warrior. The act became hers, and she became the act. 

The people of the Black Kingdom celebrated Queen Snow. Red was the White Kingdom's enemy, Blue had little to do with the White Kingdom. But the White Kingdom had defeated their tyrant, and Snow had avenged all their suffering. The people were eager to repay her. 

They were dressed in such gaudy colors that Jehanne and Oudin stood out more than Casin did. The people danced jovially, some in Ball gowns as large as a carriage and others in nothing more than work clothes covered y a colorful shawl. But they were all beaming and laughing and singing so loudly that the Musicians looked put-out. Their joy was infectious, and Ella found herself smiling. 

"You look as though you're enjoying yourself," said a deep voice. Ella turned to see the Huntsman. Her words rang in her head. We'll discuss this tomorrow. 

"Good evening, Huntsman," she replied, a little coldly. 

"You never gave me the chance to apologize," he said quietly. Her heart squeezed at the hurt sound in his voice. 

Ella gave a gracious smile. "There is no apology needed. Tonight is a celebration, Huntsman!" She looked back to the mass of people. 

"A celebration?" asked the Huntsman, looking at her oddly. "I did not take you to be one for celebration, your majesty." Ella hesitated. 

"Well, the war is over, is it not? Have I not succeeded in rallying the Four Kingdoms? And can I not have a change of heart?" 

The Huntsman looked down, almost submissively. "I was lead to believe you had no heart, Queen Snow." 

Ella shook her head, jewels rustling against her collar-bone. "One must have a heart in order for their heart to be broken. I only need healing." 

'What am I doing?' Ella thought. Nothing she'd said had been strictly untrue, but it all lead down a path that the real Snow might not be willing to take. 

But then, so what if it did? She was only in this kingdom for a day, only at this ball for a night. For once, Ella wanted to Ella wanted to do away with the lies in order to get what she wanted. She looked up at the Huntsman 

She knew what she wanted. 

"Do you not like celebrations?" she asked him. 

He looked at her in surprise. "Not particularly, no," he said Ella slipped a snow white arm through his burly one, starting on her way to a door to a patio. 

"Then we can forgo the festivities," Ella said. I can't go too far, she told herself firmly. But I'm going to have fun on my last might, dammit. 

"Snow?" asked the Huntsman tentatively. He followed her, however. 

"That's my name," Ella lied with just a streak of coldness in her voice. 

She stepped out into the brisk air, surrounded by the black wall of night. Ella looked up to see stars dusting the sky, hints of darker mountain peaks above. 

"What are we doing out here, your majesty?" The poor man looked bewildered. 

"Talking," Ella replied. "We kept getting interrupted." 

"I don't understand." The Huntsman stood in the doorway, his forma silhouette created by the light streaming out from ball. Ella smiled. 

"Neither do I. Usually I ignore... feelings." Ella put a hint of confusion, a little trepidation into the word. "But maybe, for once, I don't have to." 

She couldn't make out the Huntsman's face in the shadows. "What are you telling me, Queen Snow?" His body was rigid, like he was afraid of giving into guess. 

"About myself," said Ella confidently. "For one thing, I don't particularly like being called Queen." The words weren't entirely truthful. She loved the word, and she would miss it when she was gone. Which was why she wanted to enjoy it every moment that she could until then. 

"I apologize, your majesty," said the Huntsman. 

"I don't like apologies either," Ella said. That was true. "No more, from now on?" She looked up into his dark face. 

"No more," promised the Huntsman. 

There was silence fora moment. 

"What did you wish to discuss?" asked the Huntsman. 

"I believe it was you who has been desperately trying to get my attention for the past several days." She sat on the edge of a rocky wall lining the patio. 

"You made your feelings, or lack thereof, very clear on what I had to say." 

Ella studied the Huntsman for a moment. He was withdrawn, closed off. He had offered up his heart and she, under the apparent act of Snow, was forced to shatter it entirely. And hers was following suit. Something stung at her eyes, but it wasn't the sharp wind. 

"You startled me," Ella said softly. He felt like a dam, holding back any of his emotions. Would he let them out again? 

Ella was afraid of things going too far. But she wanted him to let out those feelings. She wanted him to look at her like she was the world. She wanted him to hold her tightly and press his lips to hers. 

She didn't want to see him hurt. 

"Are you no longer startled?" The Huntsman's voice had gone quiet. 

"Not in the least," said Ella. "So I would love for you to begin talking." 

The Huntsman moved closer, tentatively sitting beside her. In front of them, they could see the lights of the ball, and the flashing colors as the guests danced before them. Then the huntsman began to speak. 

"I didn't grow up in a normal home. But then, I suppose you would understand." 
Ella smiled to herself. More than you know, she thought. 

""It wasn't even a real family, although they call themselves that." His voice had dropped to a whisper. "The Family. We were raised with strict training, not unlike what you yourself went through in the war. There was no love, but we grew to be exactly as our names swore. I am the Huntsman. I can find my kill, and I never lose my prey." He said it bitterly. 

"But why train you?" Ella asked. 

"The Family sells itself out to the kings of the world. They are the queens, able to go where no one else can, move as no one else may. 

Even with her limited knowledge of chess, Ella know of the Queen's power. 

"The perfect mercenaries, trained since birth," she murmured. The Huntsman nodded. 

"We are perfect. We are deadly." he paused, the music--now a sow song--drifting through the glass doors before them. "We are alone." 

Ella's heart swelled with an emotion she hardly dared name, though it's intent was on the tip of her tongue. 

"You don't have to be alone anymore," she whispered. She put one snow white hand on his tan one, imagining her own there instead. Their hands were cold, frozen in the north mountain air. The Huntsman looked down at her,his strong face now visible. 

And then there were fireworks. 




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