By Manelle Oliphant
Rumpelstiltskin scowled at his glass, empty, except for the froth clinging to the corners. He grunted and threw a coin on the table. He stood, and his chair fell over backward. He stared at it for a moment. How had it happened? He resisted the urge to look around the room to see if that stupid fawn Pluglog had seen. Then he lurched toward the door.
Faeries could see the pubâ€™s door with their second sight. But, if a human eye had been watching, it would have seen a half-sized man appear from the middle of the treeâ€™s trunk.
Tonight the eyes watching were not human, and not fae. We wouldn’t call them eyes at all, for they belonged to the shadows. They detached themselves from the forests’ gloomy bits and slithered behind Rumpelstiltskin as he stumbled home. When the sun set they surrounded him in darkness and the smell of old meat.
Bleary-eyed Rump tried to see the beings that detained him. "Whadoya want?â€
The shades swirled around him, and razor-thin tendrils caressed his face. "You know already.â€ A voice whispered in his mind.
Rump grimaced. He hated these shadow creatures.
"Eleven months and 27 days ago you bet against our mistress and lost.â€ The shadowâ€™s voice made him feel like an eggbeater had scrambled his brains.
Another voice broke in. "Now you owe her a human child.â€
"She wants whatâ€™s owed.â€ The voices overlapped each other as they spoke.
Rumpâ€™s ale soaked mind couldnâ€™t keep up. He stumbled in circles as he tried to make eye contact. "Sheâ€™ll get her baby. Iâ€™ll collect it tomorrow.â€ He waved a hand at them as if he could swat them away. "Besides, I still have four days.â€
"We donâ€™t mind if you donâ€™t bring her a baby.â€ A voice snaked through his head.
"No, we donâ€™t mind.â€
" Sheâ€™s said we could take you as one of us if you donâ€™t deliver.â€ The shadow laughed. It sounded like crumpled paper.
Rumpelstiltskin shuddered. "I always honor my debts. Youâ€™ll get the baby.â€
They wriggled away into the darkness. Their voices lingered longer than their essences.
"Has he always honored his debts?â€
"He slithers out of them sometimes I think.â€
"We hope he attempts to slither out of his one.â€
"His greedy essence will be rather tasty!â€ said the last in a singsong sort of way. Rump hoped he wouldnâ€™t give them the satisfaction of finding out if they were right.
Late the next morning Rumpelstiltskin slunk into the nearby castle. He found the Queen’s opulent bedchamber and lolled out over the window seatâ€™s cushions. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. The headache heâ€™d woken up with still thrummed between his eyes.
He heard the large wooden door open and cracked an eye. The Queen. Headache forgotten, he jumped up and presented himself with an elaborate bow. "Your Majesty.â€ He put as much honey in his voice as he could and held the bow for slightly longer than necessary. Then he smiled up at the Queen.
She looked different from the poor millerâ€™s daughter sheâ€™d been the last time heâ€™d seen her. Her cheeks had filled out, no doubt from the benefit of richer meals, and carrying a child. Her long hair gleamed in its elegant braids, and pearls trimmed her fine gown. She carried a basket full of beautiful blooms. His work had benefited her well. He straightened up feeling confident.
She glanced down at him as she walked towards an ornate dresser. "I suppose youâ€™ve come for my child.â€ She spoke in an offhand way, as if it were a conversation she had each morning over breakfast. She set the basket down and began arranging flowers in a vase nearby.
Rump cocked his head. Not the reaction heâ€™d been expecting. No begging or tears. Maybe this would be easier than he thought. He grinned. "You suppose right My Lady. Iâ€™ve come for the payment of your debt.â€
The queen nodded. "Wonâ€™t you have a seat and take some lunch?â€ She motioned to a table where someone had laid out tea and sandwiches.
Rumpâ€™s pounding head would be grateful for the food. He nodded and scrambled into the chair.
She sat opposite him and poured tea into two cups. She held one out to him. He took it and added cream and a heaping spoonful of honey.
She added cream to hers and took a sip. "You canâ€™t have the baby.â€
Rumpelstiltskin stiffened. So, there would be an argument after all? He leaned toward her. "The baby is mine by rights. You agreed, did you not?â€
"Yes, I did. That is why I am willing to make a new agreement. What else do you want?â€
He scoffed. "There is nothing else.â€
"There must be something. " She looked over his jeweled necklace, the gold rings on his fingers and the cut of his coat. Rump squirmed. Could she tell heâ€™d padded his shoulders? Could she see the lifts on his shoes? A year ago her eye had not been so discerning.
"I know gold or jewels wouldnâ€™t tempt you. Would you like land? A title?â€
Rump snorted. "The land isnâ€™t yours to give. It belongs to the fae regardless of where you humans draw your boundaries. And titles are meaningless things.â€ He snatched a sandwich and took a bite. Yum. He grabbed two more. Crumbs fell into his lap, and he brushed them onto the floor.
The queen rolled her eyes. "How about a wager then? Double or nothing? If I win, I keep the child. If you win, you may have my second born as well.â€
Rumpâ€™s eyes glinted, and his fingers twitched. He should say no, but if he could have his own humanâ€¦ Human babies were a huge commodity in the faerie realm. Every fae wanted a human slave. With a human of his own, heâ€™d command respect. It would put that stuck pin Pluglog in his place as well.
Rumpelstiltskin took another bite of sandwich, and chewed, and chewed, and swallowed. "How do I know you will keep this bargain? How do I know you will have a second child?â€
The queen took a deep breath. "If you must know, Imp, the second child is already on the way. Youâ€™d only have to wait seven months.â€
Rumpâ€™s eyes wandered to the womanâ€™s stomach. There were no visual signs she told the truth. He focused his magic and felt another life growing inside her. "What would we wager?â€
The queen gazed out the window. "Iâ€™ll bet you the day and time of the first snow this fall. Whoever gets closest wins.â€
Rump would win that bet easily, but heâ€™d be a shadow long before the first flake fluttered to the ground. "No. That won’t do for me.â€ He narrowed his eyes at the queen. What was she about? "I bet you canâ€™t guess my name. Iâ€™ll give you 100 tries.â€
Rump grimaced. It would take a lifetime for the woman to guess so many. "Three days.â€
"If you can guess my name in three days you may keep your child. If you canâ€™t, I take him, and that one," he pointed at her stomach, "too.â€
The queen bit her lip and walked toward the window. "Alright, itâ€™s a bet.â€ She stuck out her hand.
Rumpelstiltskin jumped atop his chair and took it. Magic sealed the agreement as they shook.
Rump grinned, took a few sandwiches for the road, and bounded toward the window. "We start tomorrow.â€ He saluted her with a sandwich filled hand and slipped out.
Two excruciating days passed as Rump listened to the queen guess name after name. Every evening heâ€™d head home exhausted, but elated. The shadows hadnâ€™t bothered him again, although, sometimes he glimpsed them out of the corner of his eye. He blinked and pushed the thought aside. Only one more day and the children would be his. He sauntered through the forest and slipped through the tree trunk into the pub.
"A pint if you please?â€ Rump plunked a coin on the bar, then another. "Make it two. Iâ€™m celebrating.â€
The barkeep got the drinks and Rump took a seat. Pluglog smirked at him from across the room. Rumpelstiltskin ignored him. He wasnâ€™t about to let that snob ruin his evening. He drank the first pint with gusto and settled into his chair to enjoy the second. He loved the yeasty aroma and the happy buzzing he felt in his chest. As he savored the last sip, Pluglog appeared in front of him.
The fawn took out a handkerchief and wiped down the seat and a part of the table before he sat. Then he smiled like a doting parent. "I hear we have a reason for celebration.â€
"I have reason to celebrate. You do not. Go away.â€ Rumpelstiltskin flicked his long fingers at the faun in the same way you would brush away a fly.
It seemed to have the opposite effect. Rump’s companion leaned closer and placed his elbow on the table. "My dear friend, I only want to congratulate you onâ€¦ whatever it is that has made you so happy.â€
Rumpelstiltskin stood. He wasnâ€™t about to tell Pluglog anything. He strode toward the door. The fawn followed.
Outside, Rump stomped forward as he tried to outpace the faun, but it was no good.
"Rumpelstiiiltskiiiin,â€ Pluglog bellowed across the clearing as he ran to catch up. "My good friend, what have I done to upset you?â€ He stepped in front of Rumpelstiltskin and waited for an answer.
Rump growled. "We are not friends.â€ He shouldered past the fawn and trudged toward home. Pluglog shrugged and grinning, walked back into the pub.
Neither faerie saw a human woman slip from behind a nearby tree and head toward her home.
Rumpelstiltskinâ€™s good mood had returned by the next day when he again made himself comfortable on the Queenâ€™s window seat. He stood when the queen entered the room. Only one more day of droning names and the babies would be his. "Good morning, Your Majesty.â€
The Queen smiled. "Good morning, Rumpelstiltskin. It is a lovely day.â€
Rump felt as if the floor had opened up beneath him. He sunk back onto the seat. "What?â€
"I said good morning.â€
Rump gaped at her. "But, but you saidâ€¦â€
"Your name. Rum-pel-stilt-skin.â€ She emphasized each syllable like she was beating a drum. "Yes, I did.â€
"But, how can you know? Who told you? Was it Pluglog? The shadows?â€
"Is Pluglog the fawn who was so obliging as to shout your name out across a forest clearing last night?â€
Rump squirmed. "Mightâ€™ve been.â€
"It didnâ€™t seem as if you liked him much, but he did say your name clear as day.â€
"No, you canâ€™t. You cheated. How?â€ Rumpâ€™s voice trailed off.
"How did I find you? I wasnâ€™t always a queen you know. Iâ€™ve wandered the woods quite often, and I still have friends there.â€
Rumpelstiltskin shuddered. No baby. Today was the deadline. He couldnâ€™t pay his debt. He glanced at the corners. Did the shadows move? "No, no, no! We must try again. Another bet. I bet you your child that you umâ€¦â€
"No.â€ The queenâ€™s voice was firm. "Unlike you, I know when to quit.â€
Rumpelstiltskin glanced around the room again. Now he knew the shadows moved. "No.â€ He said to them as they slithered out from the gaps behind tapestries and dark spaces under the table. "No, I need more time. I can get another baby. One more month!â€
He ran toward the window but wasnâ€™t fast enough. Darkness full of slithering voices wrapped around him. His body became hollow. It flattened and pulled him onto the floor, as he became a shadow.
The queen stared at the spot on the floor where Rumpelstiltskin had been only a second before. She trembled. Was it over? Were her babies safe? She sat on the window seat for over an hour. Neither Rump nor the shadows returned. Only then did she breathe a sigh of relief.
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