Short Story: Rumplestiltskin III And The Dance of The Fireflies by Kevin Kauffmann
Rumplestiltskin III grinned as he smoked on his new pipe. It was an ornate mahogany piece which held a rich history reaching back decades, but the imp rather liked it for the color. It was just one of his new acquisitions after he took over the Seven Maidens Trading Company, though the pipe was in front of him and required his full attention. He had won the entirety of the branch in this port town simply by winning a game of dice, but that was no surprise. Rumplestiltskin III had been always been a creature of miraculous chance, which helped when someone invariably tried to take advantage of his warped mind and childlike demeanor.
The issue, as those scoundrels tend to learn, is that it’s just so difficult to take advantage of insanity.
After breathing in deeply from the ornate pipe, Rumplestiltskin III coughed hard when the smoke burned away at his lungs, but in that same instant reminded himself that was the only way one should smoke. Truthfully, he had never success in doing otherwise, which only cemented his opinion that smoking was a purposefully painful and irritating experience. In point of fact, he had even convinced his lieutenants that this was proper form, or at least the only one he would tolerate. There were rumors that the plague was coming to the docks just because of their behavior.
However, none of that mattered to Rumplestiltskin III; the imp was enjoying his new position as a leader of men and walking through the street with a bodyguard. The corsair would have been rather intimidating to a normal sort, but Rumplestiltskin III was simply dancing along the dirty street in his ornate clothing, which cost more than his entire earnings over the last year. To say it was a bit of an odd sight for the dockside town would have been quite the understatement; they didn’t quite know what to do with this new merchant lord. Even though the corsair took the time to scowl and give dirty looks, many of the townspeople laughed at the imp’s approach.
“You better be careful, ser, or you’re liable to attract the Twilight Lady,” someone exclaimed from the crowds gathered around the imp. Unable to resist the idea of a twilight lady, Rumplestiltskin III instantly wanted to know more. He stopped his awkward movements, which was a combination of a jig and skipping, and ran over to the source of the noise, a simple sailor sitting on a barrel.
“Hmm! What be your meaning, ser?” Rumplestiltskin III asked of the man, reveling in his adopted sea-faring tongue. It had originally been an idea to help cement his position, but Rumplestiltskin III unfortunately had no experience with sailors. Over the centuries, he really only encountered rumors of pirates and things they might have said. When Rumplestiltskin approached him all brine and vinegar, the sailor on the barrel simply laughed at the imp in the over-sized clothes.
“You never heard of the Twilight Lady, imp? She’s quiet famous around these parts,” he said before shrugging and looking to the other in the imp’s audience. The villagers nodded in agreement and Rumplestiltskin III suddenly felt very foolish that he didn’t know of this poorly-lit woman. And, considering the state of his dress, it took quite a bit to make the imp feel foolish at all.
“Well, ser, I have no knowledge of this evening wench. Would you be so kind as to fill me in,” the imp said before crossing his arms and almost tripping on his silken garb in the effort. Reacting quickly, he swept it around him and held his head up in order to make himself feel important, but it only helped make Rumplestiltskin III look more the stubborn child. As a result of all that posturing, the sailor on the barrel could only laugh and shake his head.
“Ah, Mr. Imp, she’s just a bit of a ghost story around these parts. She comes in the dusk looking for a dancing partner, then she steals them away and they never return. It’s just a story to fool children into staying in their beds.”
Rumplestiltskin III turned to see an old crone approaching from further up the cobblestone road. She was certainly an aged thing and only took steps with the aid of a small stick, which looked as twisted and gnarled as her. From the way her spine bent, she was only just as tall as the imp, which was a great achievement for Rumplestiltskin III. He was so used to looking up at people, and this short, ludicrous woman was a welcome change.
“What you be saying, old girl? You say there’s truth to this nightly dancer?” he asked, and the corsair couldn’t help but break his frown at the imp’s language. With a smile on his face, he wondered again as he had all day why Rumplestiltskin III was in charge of their company. Those thoughts were interrupted when the old woman finally staggered up to the imp and looked him over, grunting as if he needed her approval.
“She’s real as the nymphs and the leviathans, I assure you.”
“Not the greatest examples, crone,” the corsair said in a low grumble. The woman turned swiftly to the pirate and cracked his shins with her walking stick, leaving Rumplestiltskin III to gawk in surprise.
“Respect age, fool boy. Just because you’ve never seen something doesn’t mean we haven’t. And those things are just as real as you and me, sea lord,” the woman said as she turned back to the gaudy imp. At her words, Rumplestiltskin III’s brow furrowed because he didn’t know how a merchant king was supposed to react. The corsair did not trust her, but he had never seen a sea dragon and Rumplestiltskin III had spent quite a bit of time trying to tame one. Since his opinion was suspect, the black-eyed imp waved his hand so the crone might continue.
“The Twilight Lady does not come very often, as she only aspires to catch those who might attract the light the best. She loves the swirling and twirling of dancers and the gold and beads which adorn them. My sister…. my sister,” she said before letting her voice crack and shaking her head. “She went to the best dancing school in the islands. She came back and the Twilight Lady found what she was looking for. I had my sister back a day before that witch stole her away. Careful, sea lord,” she said while looking him over again. “You make quite a commotion with your new-found wealth.”
Not long after her warning, the woman departed and it was only a moment before the crowd of people burst into laughter. Rumplestiltskin III looked at them and wondered why they did not take her seriously, which instantly rallied the imp to her side. Rumplestiltskin III had spent far too much of his life being ridiculed to stand for this now.
“Hey, she lost her sister!” he shouted, forgetting his affectation for the sea language, but the man on the barrel simply wiped away the tear on his face and smiled at the imp.
“She never had one, Mr. Imp. Old woman is loony. Used to say that it was her little boy. Few years back, she used to say it was her dear old daddy. Truth of it was she got stolen away herself by some pirates and made up the stories when she escaped. You can’t believe a word of it,” he said before getting up off of his barrel and heading toward the docks. With just that small explanation, Rumplestiltskin III completely lost his anger at the people and started wondering why the woman would make up a story like that.
Rumplestiltskin III lost his light-hearted step after the incident; as he wandered through the island town with his corsair, he didn’t even try to trip on his robes. He just trudged through the mud and dirt and the most fun he had was an impromptu food fight with a flock of seagulls. Only after he had destroyed a few dozen oranges did he realize there was a merchant fuming behind him. When he realized his predicament, Rumplestiltskin III was fully prepared to have a fun game of tag with the shopkeeper, but the corsair simply brought out his coin purse and reimbursed the merchant. Rumplestiltskin III thought that was no fun at all.
Eventually, he reached the camp of the Seven Maids and sank into a chair outside of his tent. After a split-second of waiting, Rumplestiltskin III looked at his bodyguard and whined.
“This is boring, Shmee,” he said as he slipped further down the cushions of his chair. After a twitch of his eye, the corsair looked at him with hands folded in front of him.
“That’s not my name, my lord.”
“Sure it is. That’s what I want to call you,” he replied, drawing a sigh from the corsair before he looked at the imp with a stern expression.
“Well, then, my lord. I guess my name is… Shmee,” he said with a note of derision. Rumplestiltskin III didn’t quite care that the corsair didn’t like it, as he needed some entertainment and the universe was doing a poor job in providing it.
“I need something to occupy my time, Shmee,” Rumplestiltskin III breathed out as he scratched the gilded edge of his armchair. Not missing a beat, the corsair simply waved his hand over a nearby stack of papers.
“You could get started on some trading agreements and confirm our inventory. They’ve been waiting on you for four days now,” Shmee ventured before remembering the nature of his master. When he turned back to the imp, Rumplestiltskin III was looking at him with the hardest expression his black eyes could muster.
“You are no fun, Shmee! I need something fun or adventurous. I’ve gone on quite a few, you know. I need to get out there. I need to have something spectacular happe-” he said before remembering the incident with the old woman. “Shmee, do you think the Twilight Lady is real?” The corsair looked at the imp and sighed.
“A ghost story, ser, nothing more,” he replied, but he was not prepared for Rumplestiltskin III to jump on his desk and sweep his golden robe around him.
“But wouldn’t it be fantastic if it wasn’t, Shmee?” he asked, a grin stretching from ear to shriveled ear. The corsair had no patience for this and felt a stress headache coming on, but his bed was made. This would be the last time he volunteered to guard the new lord.
“You might as well believe in dragons, ser,” Shmee grumbled, but Rumplestiltskin III looked down at him and his grin remained. It was not Shmee’s fault that he did not know that the imp not only knew dragons, but had named his first dragon Mr. Swirly, Rumplestiltskin III was to blame for that one. However, Shmee’s words ignited a fire in the imp’s heart, and the imp jumped down from the desk and patted the man on his forearm, as he couldn’t reach the corsair’s shoulder.
“That’s good enough for me! We should have a party!” Rumplestiltskin III said before running out of his tent as fast as he could, leaving Shmee to make all the preparations. After a few hours there was quite a festivity being held just off of the docks. Men and women were drinking merrily and children ran amongst the crowds, the more industrious of them slipping their hands into unguarded purses. Since Rumplestiltskin III was oblivious to the nature of pickpockets and thieves, he instead made it his mission to ensure that the fire-breathers were walking on stilts and creating the best spectacle possible.
He was grinning while twirling amongst children when he caught a familiar sight coming down the cobblestone steps, though he was surprised to see the old woman’s horrified face in the middle of his festival. She made her way to the imp just as the sky was turning orange and purple.
“Sea Lord! What are you doing? Are you trying to summon the Twilight Lady?” she asked, which was enough for Rumplestiltskin III to finish his foolishness with the children and stand up to his full height, which was just enough to meet the woman in the eye.
“Why, yes, wench. That’s exactly what I aim to do,” he said while nodding, leaving the old woman to gasp at his answer and drop her stick to the ground. Out of sheer reaction, Rumplestiltskin III kicked it away from her so that she might not pick it up and hit him. He had had bad experiences with that before, and only felt slightly bad about inconveniencing the woman.
“Why would you do that? She will steal you away! You have the most sparkling and shining outfit here!” Almost immediately, there was a grin on Rumplestiltskin III’s face.
“Dear lady, that is exactly the point. I wish for a dancing partner,” he said before twirling and letting his reflective robes swirl around him.
“Sea lord, you don’t understand. You will not come back. She will steal your life away. What about your earthly business?” The old woman was clearly pleading with him, but the imp knew better than a mad old woman; a little twilight dancer was not going to scare him. However, once he looked back at his tent for the Seven Maidens, he realized that he didn’t want it at all; he hadn’t even meant to win that game of dice. Since that was the entirety of his mundane life, he looked back at the old woman and shrugged.
“Why should I only have earthly business, my lady? I’d rather dance among the stars,” he said with a grin and a twirl before continuing to the middle of the festival.
And what a festival it was. The people of the seaside community were quite happy with the imp’s antics, especially when he tried his hand at the fire-breathing. At one point, the lapel of his silken robe was scorched along the rim, but Rumplestiltskin III only tore off the burnt material before talking about his good friend, Mr. Swirly. If nothing else, there was plenty of drinking and fun to be had for the people.
That was until a few hours in, when a song rose above the din of the festival. The townspeople immediately stopped whatever foolishness or depravities in which they were engaged and searched for the source, knowing just what that song meant. Eventually, all of them turned their heads to the path to the island’s forest and found a disturbing sight.
There, flowing down the path as if on a cloud, was a lady of magnificent beauty and changing colors. At all times the oranges, purples and reds flowed over her body and her robes, creating one of the most fantastic sights Rumplestiltskin III had ever seen. And that song, that song that lilted out of her mouth was one of the most beautifully horrifying things he had ever heard.
“The Twilight Lady…” he heard from a number of people. They had all thought the old woman quite insane; they had thought the floating woman merely a hallucination, but here she was. Just like in all the stories, she was coming to steal someone away. The imp picked himself up from his wrestling contest with the dogs, who had run away at the song anyway, and looked over at the corsair.
“Shmee. You’re in charge for now. I want to dance,” he said before walking over to the approaching specter. Soon enough, Rumplestiltskin III was in the middle of the town square and people backed away from his position, leaving him plenty of room; they knew better than to interrupt what was about to happen. The luminous lady glided over to the imp’s position, always singing that terrible, amazing song, and when she was close enough, the imp looked up at her and offered his hand. From his hiding place behind a tent, the corsair saw the spectacle and had to reconcile the fact that Rumplestiltskin III, who was clearly insane, had somehow owned an entire shipping company.
But Rumplestiltskin III was perfectly sane as the Twilight Lady ended her song and looked down at the imp. Her ever-changing colors swarmed through her flowing hair, which framed a round, soft-looking face. With a silent nod, she extended her hand and curled her fingers around the imps’, the pleasant warmth of her skin meeting his for just a moment. Before anybody could react, a flash of light overtook the two figures and blinded the crowd of people around them. And once the villagers were able to look once more, Rumplestiltskin III and the Twilight Lady were gone.
When the imp could finally see he found himself not in the town square, but deep in the forest of the island. He looked at the pleasant wight in front of him and smiled at her.
“I heard that you like to dance, Not-so-well-lit Lady,” he said before placing his hands on his hips, feeling that it was important to seem as important and imposing as possible.
The floating woman merely laughed at the imp’s antics.
“I do, Rumplestiltskin, I do. But in truth the dance is a mortal’s game, and Death has already claimed you as a partner,” she said with before smiling at the short, cursed boy.
“So it’s true, then,” the imp said before looking down. “You steal their lives away.” He suddenly felt quite sad about the entire ideal.
“Not me, cursed one. The fireflies need that spark of life, which in turn they give to the forest. I steal them away, yes, but it is the forest which takes the toll.” The imp looked back up at the floating woman, who seemed somewhat morose at the conversation.
“The forest? Why does it need to take any lives?” The imp was confused at this new revelation; forests were usually not so antagonistic.
“Rumplestiltskin, this is merely an island with no way to support the forest. At the beginning, the fireflies stole the spark to create it. In order to live, the forest must take a sacrifice from the men who use its timber and hunt its animals. It must have something in trade,” she said while offering her hand to caress the imp’s face. He felt her warm skin against his wrinkled face and brought up his own hand to meet hers. She did not back away or cringe as so many others had done. He looked back up at the beautiful woman and wished there were more like her.
“How is one life enough?”
“It is a sacrifice willingly given; a great power in itself. I steal away the most vibrant souls, the most giving souls. They give themselves to others in their performances; they give away their lives to make people happy. When I explain why they must give themselves to the forest, not many say no.” The imp backed away from her and shook his head.
“What about those who say no?”
“I give them back. I take their memories of the events, however. For the last hundred years there has only been one to say no,” she said while giving a sad smile. Rumplestiltskin III thought back to the sea side town and the old woman, wondering if she was the one who had refused. He shook his head again and stepped forward to look up at the floating spirit.
“Then why did you bring me, if I cannot dance with you?” As Rumplestiltskin looked up at her, sorrow for being left out evident on his face, the twilight woman smiled and red light filled her cheeks and lips for just a moment.
“I did not say you couldn’t, I just said that it is a mortal’s dance. I hoped that maybe you would be able to help me with the fireflies and keep your immortal life. Would you like to try?” she finished as she smiled with her entire face, and Rumplestiltskin III couldn’t even think about saying no. He nodded and looked around him before finding a stump nearby. With an eager step, Rumplestiltskin ran over to the dead tree and felt like a nervous schoolboy.
“May I dance on this right here?” The woman nodded and laughed at the imp.
“You may do whatever you wish, Rumplestiltskin. I will bring the fireflies for you,” she said before breaking into another verse of that haunting song.
The imp couldn’t help but sway to the spirit’s music, and could already feel magic flowing all around him. Over his time in the Beggar King’s court, he had been well versed in interpretative dance and tried to create a story that went along with the music, but he could already see plot holes. In fact, he was so deep in his trance that he almost did not notice the fireflies swarming through the clearing. They were beautiful things, not just the traditional yellow color, but every color that he could imagine.
As the imp twirled and threw out his limbs on his platform, he found himself surrounded by purples dots, blue streaks and green flashes. He jumped in the air only to find a ceiling of red and orange lights swirling around him, and he was filled with joy at the sight. In perfect complement, the haunting melody of the Twilight Lady accompanied his movements, only making it more obvious how much magic coursed through the forest clearing. In those impossible moments on his stump, Rumplestiltskin III knew that he had become part of it.
Before long, he felt the fireflies sapping his life away, but as soon as it left it was replaced by ever more vitality. There was another advantage to being immortal, it seemed. While the sun was setting, Rumplestiltskin III couldn’t help but be taken into the ritual and give everything that he could.
“I’m dancing with the stars, my lady,” he whispered before closing his eyes and letting his arms float about him. After being a witness to such beauty, he did not feel part of this earth and opened his eyes to see lights streaming back and forth through his vision. He didn’t know if he was turning or they were just flying past him; he didn’t care. Rumplestiltskin III closed his eyes again and let the song flow through him.
But suddenly the song was over. He opened his eyes to find the fireflies retreating and turning back to their yellow color, abandoning him in the middle of his perfect moment. In his confusion, Rumplestiltskin III looked back to where he had last seen the Twilight Lady and gasped; she was already fading from this world. Letting go of hopes for more fireflies, the imp rushed over to the ghost and tried to grab at her hand, only to find his hand pass through her own.
“I can only appear in the dusk, my dear imp. That is why I am called the Twilight Lady, after all,” she said with a sad smile. Rumplestiltskin III shook his head and tried his best to frown, failing spectacularly, but the Twilight Lady knew what he intended.
“Oh, cheer up, my young friend. I will return when I am next needed. And that might not be for some time, Rumplestiltskin. Your life floods through this forest at the moment and will nourish it for decades. It seems the fireflies like you,” she said with a smile.
“Will I see you again, my lady?” Rumplestiltskin III asked with a quivering lip. He very much liked the Twilight Lady. She gave a soft laugh and folded her hands in front of her.
“I would like that, cursed boy, and I imagine the fireflies would be overjoyed at your return. Perhaps in fifty years or so,” she said before waving and fading into the darkness of the forest. Rumplestiltskin III looked at where she had been and wished he had felt her hand on his cheek one more time.
With the lady’s departure on his mind, Rumplestiltskin III looked down at his clothing and realized it was far too gaudy and expensive. He didn’t know what he had been thinking, becoming a sea lord and playing with wealth. Without another thought, he tore off the golden silk and left himself in a tunic and breeches, already feeling much better for it.
Briefly, he considered returning to the Seven Maidens and getting supplies for his next journey, but he put the thought out of his head almost immediately. That place was boring and Shmee had the run of it now. He decided to head to the other end of the island and perhaps get back to the mainland. He just had to assume that there were far more adventures there, but he made a mental note to come back in fifty years.
After all, not many were able to dance with the stars.