Short Story: Rumplestiltskin III And The Man With Two Shadows by Kevin Kauffmann
Rumplestiltskin III awoke one night to see the stars above him just like every night in recent memory, which wasn’t all that long for our reckless imp. That last hovel had been demolished by a rampaging unicorn, so he had been without a roof for about three months now, but he didn’t particularly mind. The crisp autumn air was refreshing and there was something special about seeing the branches of the trees swaying back and forth in a natural rhythm. It was easy to sleep just like this; the creaking of the old forest as his personal, natural lullaby.
However, that lullaby would not allow him to fall asleep again. Try as he might, Rumplestiltskin III could not find his way back to his dreams, which was somewhat inconvenient, as he was just about to force-feed the old king strawberry preserves and he would not do it himself. Rumplestiltskin III didn’t remember why the king was so cantankerous or why strawberry preserves would help, of all things, but the imp was quite familiar with nonsense as a valid method of problem-solving.
Except that with sleep absent, his culinary adventure was denied him, so the imp sat up against the tree trunk and gazed out toward the dark fields in front of him. The stars, while bright in the sky, were doing almost nothing to illuminate the imp’s world, leaving him to squint and focus far more than he wanted. As a result, Rumplestiltskin III shook his fist at the celestial bodies, thinking it was a personal slight. He liked being able to see no matter what, his imagination often lagged behind, and he just knew Sirius and Polaris were in cahoots. In fact, he had ruined one of their cocktail parties, but the imp thought that was not a good enough reason to leave the sky in darkness.
After a few moments of cursing at the stars, Rumplestiltskin III realized there was a source of light besides that of the quarter moon; about a hundred yards away, across the road, there was a small campfire resisting the darkness. Rumplestiltskin III squinted, thinking it would improve his vision, but he ended up closing his eyes too much and did not realize he was trying to see through his own eyelids. Without the benefit of this realization, he surmised that trying to figure out what was happening across the road was quite useless from his vantage point, so he picked himself up and strutted over to the campfire.
Doing his best attempt to appear nonchalant, Rumplestiltskin III neared the source of light and could see a lone figure sitting on a log near the campfire. Although the camp site was a good ways off the road, it was still close enough for any travelers or bandits to reach it with ease. Realizing this with even his remarkable lack of sense, Rumplestiltskin III wondered what this lonesome man was doing. It was clear to the imp that this traveler was quite out of his mind, which, coming from such a disreputable source, was saying quite a bit.
Rumplestiltskin III was within a few yards of the man when he slipped out of the darkness and revealed himself in the light of the campfire. It was enough for the stranger to look up from his fire and analyze his guest, and, although he was startled by the imp’s appearance, he soon judged Rumplestiltskin III to be harmless and nodded toward a nearby rock. For all appearances, he seemed to welcome the imp’s company.
With great difficulty, Rumplestiltskin III tried to sit down cross-legged on the rock, which was not nearly wide enough for the imp’s antics. He had to wave around with his arms just to maintain his balance, but he was determined to keep his position, so he continued to maintain his posture as he looked down at his new friend. His garb was simple and almost nondescript; his tunic and trousers were black as the night that surrounded them and he had a brown cape lying on the log beside him. Using his small amount of reason, Rumplestiltskin III guessed it felt just like it looked, which was to say uncomfortable. Such a man would not be amused by Rumplestiltskin III balancing on a small stone, so the imp abandoned his playing and let his feet fall to the dirt before grabbing a stick and poking at the fire.
They sat in silence for a small amount of time, which was profoundly anxiety-inducing for the little imp. Rumplestiltskin III did not want to be the first to say a thing, as he was not the host of this little campfire, but the traveler just continued to stare into the dying fire with resignation. If Rumplestiltskin III had been the host, the traveler would have been inundated with possible conversation topics and warm welcomes; plenty of things befitting a campfire conversation. His anxiety quickly turned to resentment, and Rumplestiltskin III looked at the traveler’s belongings once more since he could not expect hospitality.
The stranger did not have a pack animal and really only had a small satchel he had thrown to the side, causing the imp to lose interest quickly. Becoming more and more disheartened with this traveler, Rumplestiltskin III looked at the man and finally saw a blade in its sheath, which was a small victory. At the very least, this man could put up a measly fight if bandits were to steal into his campfire setting. The imp was in the middle of imagining the possible scenario when he heard the traveler clearing his throat.
“A rather cold night, don’t you think?” the traveler asked before looking up into the imp’s black eyes. From his reaction, it was obvious that he had seen worse and much worse than the mildly grotesque creature who had stolen into his camp. Seizing upon this new information, Rumplestiltskin III gave back a twisted smile and prepared to satisfy his curiosity.
“It is a bit brisk, I will admit. Though my tree over there was quite comfortable while I was sleeping. Some very good dreams before I came back to waking,” Rumplestiltskin III said while drawing a design into the dirt in front of him. It was a crude recreation of a painting he had seen in his travels, but oddly enough would not be put to canvas for another three hundred years.
Time travel is odd like that.
“Oh, so you’re a wood spirit, then?” the traveler surmised, but he did not have expect to see Rumplestiltskin III spitting out dry air and shaking his head, horror displayed in every line and wrinkle on his face. He had absolutely no idea why the man would say such a thing.
“Just where did you get that idea? I’m just a boy! A friendly neighborhood mischief-maker! …I just don’t have a neighborhood right now,” he said while jumping around his rock in numerous poses. After his last statement, Rumplestiltskin III stopped flailing around long enough to remember his recent past. He wished he still did have that neighborhood; it was quite nice before they ran him out of town. However, the man’s chuckle was enough to break him out of his sorrow and the twisted smile returned to the imp’s face once more.
“I’m sorry, mischief-maker, I just assumed that when you said your tree that you meant something else. My apologies.” For a long minute, Rumplestiltskin III looked down at him with skepticism, but eventually abandoned the ruse after a short breath. He could never be truly offended, as he didn’t hold anything dear. Once he sat back down on his rock, Rumplestiltskin III picked up his stick and used it to pick a booger from his right nostril.
“I guess it’s alright. So what are you doing this close to the road? A lone traveler is quite the target, you know?” the imp asked as he retrieved a booger and threw it into the fire. When it popped in the air, he wondered just what had been in his nose, but his new friend didn’t seem to notice, as his gaze was again lost in the flames.
“I know quite well, mischief-maker, but I do not need to bother with such trivial things. Bandits do not bother me,” he said, his voice wavering quite slightly. Rumplestiltskin III looked at the man’s face again, but this time he bothered to actually notice the details. The man’s beard was scraggly and unkempt; grime and soot seemed to cover the places that hair had not reached. However, Rumplestiltskin III glossed over those details, since he was far more interested in the man’s eyes. They were worn, weary and Rumplestiltskin III could see the clear evidence of sleep deprivation. The imp had to wonder what kind of man he had discovered.
“What is your name, boy? I would think you would not want me to call you mischief-maker all night,” he said while breaking those tired eyes away from the flames. Very briefly, Rumplestiltskin III thought about giving the man his name, but thought better of it. Most people had an adverse effect when they learned his true name, as his personal misdeeds and those of his predecessors gave him quite the reputation.
“I actually prefer it, sir. Whatever you wish to call me is fine, but we’ll leave my true name out of it,” the imp said before stretching his arms and his legs. He was in the mood for some kind of somersault, and it would not do to pull a muscle with an audience.
“Alright, mischief-maker, we’ll do as you say. And while sir is out of the question, I’m hesitant to give you my name, as well. What would you like to call me, boy?” Although it took him a moment, Rumplestiltskin III realized he had the perfect name for this weary traveler; he didn’t know why, but it sounded just right.
“Janus. I think that sounds good on you,” the imp said before tumbling end over end in the dirt. When he finished the pathetic display of acrobatics, he looked at the man, who seemed to be in shock. Rumplestiltskin III wondered why a somersault would be so alarming, but crossed his legs in front of him to make the traveler at ease. It was just enough to break the man from the imp’s spell, and he shook his head and laughed before bringing up his hand to support his chin. As he laughed, a sad smile crept onto his bearded face.
“You see right through me, mischief-maker, whether you know it or not. I think Janus will do just fine,” the traveler said before reaching behind him and pulling out another log. From what Rumplestiltskin III could see, the fire was dying and only whispered the promise of flames, but it seemed to be enough for the man. And before the imp could do much more than gawk, the traveler leaned forward and got too close while placing the log onto the small pile of ash, poking and prodding the fire until it was licking up the sides of the new log. The imp could have sworn that his new friend would have freshly-cooked fingers after such a display, but let the man do what he wanted; the imp would have done it differently, was all.
However, Janus sat back down on his log and watched as the new flames overcame the old, his fingers whole and unharmed even though it was evident that he suffered from something else. Without taking his eyes off the burning logs, Janus sighed and spoke aloud his thoughts.
“I hate dying fires, mischief-maker. They make me think of what they stand for; pure potential that is used up and burnt away. Once the flames start, the object is ruined; once the choice is made, there is no going back. All that’s left is ash and dust,” he said, his pupils reflecting the dancing flames. And although it seemed like a very deep sentiment, Rumplestiltskin III furrowed his brow at the man’s statement. He saw no deeper meaning in dying fires; they only made him recall some of the best ones he had ever seen. Living in his memories for the moment, Rumplestiltskin III salivated as the taste of castle-smoked sausage spread along his taste buds, but he shook the memory away from him in order to focus on the conversation.
“It’s a fire, Janus. Its purpose is to warm you and maybe cook your food. The potential is used, but for a good purpose, don’t you think? Why should it make you sad?” the imp asked before scooting back to place himself against his old rock. It was not as comfortable as his tree, but it would do; this way he was warmer, as well. In direct confrontation to the imp’s well-meaning words, Janus let sadness fill his eyes.
“That’s oddly comforting, boy. I would say you have no idea, but you did give me a proper name. Maybe you’re magic after all and you just don’t know it,” he said, immediately drawing a guffaw from Rumplestiltskin III. He certainly didn’t know what the traveler was talking about, but he appreciated it when people thought he was magic; it made him feel more powerful.
“Of course I know it, Janus. I just don’t tell anyone without a good conversation, first,” he said before winking at the man, who chuckled in return, but that didn’t stop him from returning his gaze to the fire. Seeing that he was being ignored, Rumplestiltskin III interlaced his fingers and coughed hard to gain back the traveler’s attention. “So! Janus. Why do you not worry about bandits?”
The traveler shifted his gaze back to the imp and let his eyes flicker, judging the twisted boy for a long moment before sighing again.
“Well, they should be afraid of me, mischief-maker. I can tell you and you won’t believe me, or I could just show you,” he said before picking himself up and walking over to the imp. For an instant, Rumplestiltskin III thought about what kind of danger he might have stumbled into, but thought better of it; Death wouldn’t allow him to die just because of a scary traveler. Soon enough, and proving Rumplestiltskin III right, Janus stopped by the side of the fire and lowered his hand. “Look for the shadows, boy,” he said just before placing his hand behind the flames.
Rumplestiltskin III could not believe the shadow puppetry that was happening, but it was happening all the same. Against the log there were not one, but two shadowy hands following the traveler’s movements. One was bold and armored, the hand of a savior, but the other was twisted and gnarled, the hand of a monster. Where the first shadow was pleasant and reminded Rumplestiltskin III of daring quests and dashing nights, the other was powerful, horrific and ended in wicked, sharp-looking claws. And perhaps what was most interesting was that neither shadow looked like the hand they were imitating. It was more than just parlor trickery, and the imp could barely contain himself as he waited for Janus to walk back to his seat and sink into himself.
“How did you do that? You would do well in a mummer’s camp,” the imp said with a gleeful smile, as he could already imagine Janus putting on entire plays with his talents. Instead of taking it as a compliment, Janus looked back at Rumplestiltskin III and shook his head.
“It is not an act, mischief-maker; I have been blessed and cursed. From the time I was still in my mother’s belly, soothsayers told my father that I would be one of the greatest knights on the continent. I was quite literally born for it, but things do not always go as planned. Before I had even made a name for myself, a cruel magician bound my soul to a devil. While I was meant for acts of good, I can only hope to enjoy evil. By mistake or something else, you gave me a true name from the start.”
“I ran away, mischief-maker. While I will not allow myself to become the earthly demon that magician wanted me to be, I could not stand to live in my kingdom and look my father in the eye. I am not the knight the soothsayers spoke of; not anymore. The core of my being is tainted by evil and, in order to avoid that evil from spreading, I removed myself from the equation.”
Although Rumplestiltskin III heard Janus’ explanation, he still had no idea why the man’s name would be appropriate. However, he didn’t quite care, as it was far more interesting to consider the man in front of him. Poor Janus was tugged in two entirely different directions, and he would not be welcome by either side.
“So, magic boy, do you see? I need not worry about bandits; they would be attacking a monster. If you wish to run away I will understand. I will not follow,” he said before looking into the flames. And although his words held a small degree of terror, Rumplestiltskin III realized very quickly that the last thing he wanted to do was run away. Breathing in sharply, he stood up from his position and walked over to the traveler, the tainted soul looking at him in confusion.
“Do you want to do evil or good?” he asked, Janus shaking his head in response.
“It’s not that simple,” he began, but Rumplestiltskin III didn’t let the man finish.
“It is, Janus,” he said before putting his hands on his hips. There was a clarity in the imp’s mind that was usually absent, so he knew he had to use it wisely. Simply put, there was too much potential in this man, and Rumplestiltskin III could not abandon him to the monster inside. He could see its weight on Janus’ back once he buried his face in his hands and argued with the imp.
“My heart is evil, now, boy. While I have the potential to be a knight or a monster, I am doomed to misery either way. As a knight I will be acting against my instinct; as a monster I will be committing acts I hold reprehensible. It is best that I travel alone and do nothing than try and fail,” he said before wiping his face and then looking back up at the imp, who barely stood taller than the sitting man. Knowing he had little options, Rumplestiltskin III sighed before kicking the man in the shins.
That caught the traveler’s attention.
“Do you want to do evil or good? Your evil heart and good mind mean nothing, Janus. What do you want from your life? If you want to do evil just go ahead and do it. There are plenty of knights out there that will want to slay you. If you want to do good, just do it. You don’t have to listen to an evil heart.”
“A man cannot go against his nature, boy,” he said before looking back down at the fire. At that petty argument, Rumplestiltskin III gave into his frustration and grabbed Janus’s chin with his twisted hand. With strength unexpected from such a small creature, he made the man look into his black, beady eyes.
“It seems like you’re more than a man, Janus. For what it’s worth, I think you’d do well as a knight. You have the power of a demon, right? How fun would it be to use that power for good? Think about it, alright? Your eyes are tired, so you should get some sleep. Try to remember some of those dreams you used to have,” the imp said before releasing the man’s chin and walking over to his old tree. Since he heard no voice calling after him, he assumed that Janus wanted to be left alone, but Rumplestiltskin III didn’t mind. Not so secretly, he hoped that he would be able to return to the fat, old king and his penchant for force-feeding strawberry preserves. He still probably deserved it.
When Rumplestiltskin III woke again, dawn had stretched its greedy fingers across the sky. Although he had not been able to get back to his old dream, he had instead had a rather heart-warming cuddle party with some castle dogs, which was just as good.
Wiping sleep from his eyes, Rumplestiltskin III finally was able to see a figure walking toward the sun, and it only took a moment for him to realize that Janus was walking away from his camp. It was not likely, but the imp hoped that his new friend had finally gotten some sleep, since Rumplestiltskin III knew everything was usually better after a good nap and a nice dream. However, the imp remembered their conversation, and looked at the man’s feet in order to see the two shadows in the full light of day, except he found that only one shadow stretched away from the departing traveler. Rumplestiltskin III was disappointed for only a second before a smile stretched across his face, his beady black eyes shining with gratification.
There, retreating from the sun, was a single, confident shadow, armor and horns and dozens of contrasting features fighting each other. Rumplestiltskin III knew immediately why, as he could see how the shadow was a mixture of a terrifying demon and a handsome, courageous knight. Knowing that he was partly responsible, Rumplestiltskin III felt proud and comforted by the sight, even though a lesser magical creature may have run away in fear. Janus’ shadow held no malice, held no promises of pain or death; it only seemed to be defined by purpose and determination. And although the man soon disappeared beyond the crest of a hill, Rumplestiltskin III knew his new friend would be just fine.
Janus had finally made his choice.