"Is your name Charles? Oliver? Harold?" Gwyneth's pulse pounded, and she shivered despite the fact she held the precious trump card up her sleeve. Her husband King Midas, the courtiers and soldiers all looked on, frozen as they had been from the moment the devil arrived in a thunderclap and a puff of sulfurous black smoke. Literally frozen by some magic force that thickened the air around them.
"No." The evil being's deep voice reverberated through the room, sending a chill down her spine and making the hair on her nape prickle. As menacing as a towering black thunderhead threaded with crackling lightning, the dark-shrouded figure dominated the throne room of the castle. Gwyneth longed to throw back his hood and behold his face just once.
"Brandon? Sylvester? Archibald? James?"
Why was she playing this dangerous game when her child's very life was at stake? She should simply spit out the horrid name her spy had overheard and win Brea's freedom. A demon from hell couldn't break a deal, could he? Surely he was bound by his word.
"No. Are you prepared to concede, to pay me what you owe?" A cool voice came from the dark depths of the hood.
Gwyneth exhaled slowly, trying to rein in her racing heart. The warmth of victory swelled through her, but she willed herself not to show it with a smug smile. No point in angering her enemy.
"Is your name perhaps"--she paused and licked her lips--"Rumplestiltskin?"
There was dead silence in the room for the space of three heartbeats. Brea stirred in her cradle and gave a soft gurgle. Gwyneth glanced from the hooded figure to her husband, whose frightened gaze was riveted on the intruder.
Gwyneth knew she was correct. She'd received an eyewitness account of this cloaked demon waltzing around a campfire, gloating over her inability to guess his ridiculous name.
"Is your name Rumplestiltskin?" she repeated.
The dark being strode forward, stopping only a few paces from her and the cradle.
"No. It is not." He reached for the baby.
For a moment, Queen Gwyneth froze, unable to fathom his answer, then she darted between him and the cradle, intercepting his black-gloved hands as they reached for her precious daughter. She snatched up Brea and clutched the baby to her breast too tightly, making the infant squawk in indignation.
"You lie! I know that's your name. I won't let you take my baby."
"Madam, I never lie, and the child is mine." He moved closer.
Gwyneth caught the familiar scent of smoke and earth that permeated his clothes. The odor should've turned her stomach, made her gut clench in fear, yet it instantly brought back memories of several long, dark, mysterious nights when he'd talked to her and...touched her while she spun straw into gold.
"I won't harm her. I wish to raise her as my own." His fingers tightened in the baby's blanket.
"Begone, demon! I'll never let you take her." Gwyneth pushed away his hand.
"I would not be accused of separating a child from its mother," he drawled. "You're welcome to come to the underworld with us, lovely Gwyneth. If you dare to give up your wealth and title."
"No!" Midas cried. Maybe he cared for Gwyneth and Brea more than she'd thought. More likely he feared losing the source of his riches--not that she could've spun one golden thread if it weren't for the magical creature who now claimed their child in payment.
"Guards, seize him!" The king yelled quite futilely as everyone in the room, except, apparently, Gwyneth, was still frozen in place.
The black figure loomed over the queen and her child. His cloak seemed to billow in an unseen wind, and the air around them was charged as if from an approaching storm.
Gwyneth clutched Brea and stared into the depths of the hood, trying to glimpse a pair of eyes, trying to make a connection as she begged for mercy, but it was like trying to look down a well. A person might catch a glimmer of water at the bottom, but it was simply too dark to see anything clearly.
"Please, sir, leave my baby alone. I will come with you if that is what you desire, but this poor, innocent child has done nothing. Why should she pay for my unholy bargain?"
"Unholy?" A harsh bark of laughter came from the figure. "You think me some kind of devil? Well, maybe I am, but I'm not the one who was willing to give up her baby in exchange for a pile of gold."
Neither was I. It wasn't my fault. I was trying to save my life. Gwyneth wanted to protest and explain her actions, but excuses would not move him. She gripped his wrist, solid and strong beneath the black gloves--not an incorporeal spirit, but a demon of flesh and blood, as she well knew. She stared into the hood, searching for the face she couldn't see, and made her offer again.
"I will come with you. I will do anything you want. Anything." She emphasized the words with promise in her eyes and imagined she heard a hitch in his breathing. "But please leave Brea out of it."
The creature gave a moment's pause. Gwyneth's heart lifted, rising like a bird in flight. Then another gust of wind blew through the room, swirling around them, and her fleeting hope was dashed, its wings shredded.
"I never break a deal. I will take the child as we agreed. Whether you come with her or not is up to you."
The choice he offered was not a true choice. Of course, she would stay with her baby. "Very well then." She bowed her head. "Let it be done."
"Don't be afraid. It will only last a moment," the midnight-drenched voice whispered. Then the hurricane breeze rose, crackling with energy like lightning. Gwyneth's hair rose on her arms and her head. She held Brea to her breast, feeling her daughter's warm, heavy weight, smelling the milky scent of her breath as the infant cried and wiggled.
Darkness whirled around them. Was it the storm or the demon's cloak encompassing them? Gwyneth couldn't see. Her vision went black and she felt her body lifted. Strong arms wrapped around her, holding her tightly as she was swept away through space. She closed her eyes and screamed inside. She couldn't open her mouth to scream aloud; the pressure of the air was too great. Would it crush Brea's delicate little chest? Oh, God, what had brought her to this? How had she imagined she could escape a deal with the devil himself?