Short Story: The Birth of Rumplestiltskin III by Kevin Kauffmann
Rumplestiltskin III didn’t come into being like the Spectres of the Wretched Keep, coalescing into existence from the silken fog, but he wasn’t born like you and me, either. Rumplestiltskin III used to be someone else entirely. He used to have a normal name; he used to be a normal boy. In fact, he was only six years old when his life took a decidedly not normal turn.
The young boy was a miller’s son, taken to chasing around the animals of the local farmers when the days were sunny. The boy had no real yearnings for adventure or life outside the village. He and his parents were peasants, but they wanted for little; their small village sustained itself well. For those who lived within those few houses, it was a life of peace.
That was, until poor Rumplestiltskin II came to town.
Rumplestiltskin II was not much like our favorite little imp. True enough, he looked the spitting image of our soon-to-be-protagonist, but the poor thing’s outlook on life was not nearly as optimistic. Rumplestiltskin II had a hard life and had little to show for it; his left leg was lame, his eyes were cloudy and his right ear had been chewed off. It was a crippled little thing that hobbled into the boy’s village.
The miller’s boy was the first to notice the half-man as he propelled himself with a gnarled branch, only able to stare from his seat on a sack of barley as he watched the pathetic imp kick up dirt and limp through the village. It was not long before the blacksmith did not let his hammer fall; before the farmer stopped the motion of his plow. The entire village stood still as the imp struggled to walk with a piece of wood as twisted as his body.
Rumplestiltskin II glanced from side to side as he made his way down the main path, leaving no footsteps, only tracks from dragging his left leg and points in the dirt where the branch punctured the earth. All eyes were upon the twisted imp as it first passed the farmer’s house, then the miller’s residence. He had only just passed the last dusty plank of the building when he stopped moving forward, turning slowly to his left to see the young miller’s boy staring from his sack of grain. The dust swirled around the imp’s feet as he turned, audible cracks coming from the empty air between his bones and his tortured little body contorting for no apparent reason.
Having never seen anything like it, the miller’s boy could not turn away from the broken little thing in front of him. The imp was barely larger than the boy and had a bulbous nose spotted with the occasional wart and pimple; his beady black eyes were fixed behind rims of wrinkles and crows’ feet. What cheeks he had were weathered and gaunt, his mouth seemed fixed in a permanent scowl and the small boy could not help but stare at this grotesque looking at him from the middle of the street.
“What business have you here, creature?” a deep voice interrupted them, and the miller’s boy snapped to attention as he heard his father’s authoritative behind him. After looking to his left, he found the hardened miller staring at the new arrival to the village, and it was clear that he was not happy. Even though he knew that meant trouble, the boy felt relieved all the same; he would come to no harm while his father stood over him. However, when he looked back down to the imp, whose mouth had curled into a discomforting smirk.
“I’ve been set upon a journey for quite some time, young man. You see, I was cursed to be this thing before you and, as a result, my life has been one pain after another. I used to be quite fetching, if you can take my word for it. But then someone granted me a name which held a goodling amount of power; a power I’ve never quite cared for. You see, it made me this way,” the imp said before inching forward on his gnarled crutch. The miller stood his ground, but anxiety flowed through him despite his best efforts.
“I’m merely looking for a chance to escape. I’ve tried for years, miller, to find some way out of this, but it is somewhat difficult to get rid of a name. You see, it tends to stick with you, even if you don’t want it. People must have a way to call on you; to call on your power, your terror, your story. So you see, even if I were to reject this name of mine, I’m afraid I would not be able to escape it. The name would follow me for my very existence. However, I’m still on my journey, sir. I know what the end of it truly is,” he said before coughing and settling himself down on the ground near the house.
“I look for death, sir, and not some mere ruffian’s blade. I look for Death himself. It seems the reaper has decided to ignore me; I’ve tried to die, you see,” Rumplestiltskin II said while letting out a ragged breath, “but it never seemed to stick. A gang of young boys beat me within an inch of my life and left me broken, but Death did not seem to care. A number of blades puncturing my chest did nothing but make my breathing quite painful. I said to myself, sir, I said that’s enough of this nonsense. I quite intend to find the grim reaper and demand an end to this torment,” the imp said before looking up at the miller and his boy, still wearing that twisted smile of his. Wondering if he was really telling the truth, the miller looked down at the imp and frowned. He didn’t know why the creature would lie, but he still had his misgivings.
“Well, creature, what do you want from us?” The imp chuckled before letting his head fall against the supporting wall.
“Why, miller, I want your boy. He seems quite special, his eyes quite bright,” he said while looking at the miller with mischief playing across every feature. “I just know that Death would come for the boy himself.”
The miller’s boy could feel every part of him quake with fear, and felt it threatening to boil up from his stomach and escape as a scream. And though his father was also affected by the statement, his was a reaction of hatred and anger.
“You come to my house and threaten my child! Why on earth would I give my son to you? Why would I let him die for you, imp?” he shouted, making strides toward the creature leaning against his house, but stopping short once he heard the creature laughing as if nothing was wrong.
“Oh, my good man, I don’t mean to leave you empty-handed! I will pay handsomely for the boy’s life. I feel quite good about the lad’s energy; I know something is in store for him. He most certainly precious, you see,” Rumplestiltskin II said, looking up with those beady black eyes of his. Even with his considerable height and strength, the miller couldn’t help but feel like he was standing on shaky ground. He didn’t know what the imp was talking about, but the miller knew he was out of his depth.
“I don’t need money, creature. I have enough. I have my son,” he claimed, but the creature laughed again before mustering the strength to rise to his feet. Bringing his crutch underneath him, he grabbed a rock as he rose to meet half the miller’s height.
“Oh, sir, it’s not about needing money, but there is always the desire for more,” he said before holding out the rock and massaging it with his fingers. Before the miller’s eyes, the stone gained a golden luster and, within just a few seconds, the worthless stone had been transformed into the largest piece of gold he had ever seen.
“There is just one advantage to this name of mine. My predecessor and I share a quality for turning mundane objects into something of worth. You see, my name is Rumplestiltskin II, sir, and I can make you very rich. How much would you like for this son of yours?” the imp asked before lazily tossing the golden rock at the miller’s feet.
The miller’s boy watched in horror as he saw his father’s resolve flicker and waver. The boy knew they had enough to survive, but after the glint of the precious metal, he could see something had changed. Sweat beaded around the miller’s hairline as he contemplated the boy’s future; the imp’s face creaked as it stretched into a gaunt smile.
“Come now, sir. He is only a young thing; you can always make another. Here,” the creature said before stooping down to place his hand in a sack of barley. He brought out a handful of barley and started to grind his fingers in between the grains and as they fell, they flickered into gold at the imp’s feet.
At that point, there was no future but haggling. The miller was so focused on a new life with money that he did not pay attention to the boy at his feet, and it was decided after only a few minutes. After taking into account the miller’s love, devotion, and loyalty, the boy’s life was worth only two sacks of golden grain, and the imp shook the miller’s hand and then peered at the boy to his side. Even though he was only a few inches taller, this monster owned the miller’s son, and he nodded at the main road in expectation. At first, the miller’s boy shook his head, but he soon felt a nudge at his back. Looking up, his spirit was crushed to see his father nodding toward the boy’s new master.
For a surreal moment, the miller’s boy thought about running away, but his father had always been able to catch him. Those long, strong legs of his carried the miller faster and further, and if the boy tried to run, he would only end up caught. Surrendering completely, the boy walked after Rumplestiltskin II and felt his first, terrible betrayal. To the man who loved him, raised him, he was worth nothing more than a couple bags of grain.
Their departure from the village was slow-going; the other villagers took great care not to look their way as the two passed out of town, but the poor boy knew they were watching and waiting for him to leave the village forever. Although they would do nothing to change his fate, they did not want to feel their rightful shame for letting the imp take his prize. Finally, they were past the entrance to the village, and that was when the miller’s boy allowed himself to cry. He would not see his father or his friends ever again, but he didn’t want to. Those people had left him to this fate, selling his future for a couple sacks of gold.
The miller’s boy had resolved to run away from the imp once they were out of the village, with his leg like that there was no way Rumplestiltskin II could catch him, and he was about to bolt away before the imp suddenly stopped and drew a circle in the dirt of the road. Upon finishing, he turned to his young companion and gave a grim smile.
“This is as good a place as any,” Rumplestiltskin II said, breathing heavily, and it confused the boy into holding off on his escape plan. They were only minutes away from the village, and the boy had no way to figure out why they had already stopped. Seeing the confusion on his property’s face, Rumplestiltskin II waved his hand recklessly before clearing his throat and giving the boy an explanation.
“Death is a constant companion on the road, boy. We can summon him here better than in that village of yours. And don’t you think about running back, you hear? My magic will keep you from reaching that home of yours, you see. Besides,” the imp said before twisting his mouth into that smirk once more, “your father clearly doesn’t want you anymore.”
Knowing the imp spoke the truth, the miller’s boy gave up completely. In one far-too-fast moment, he had been sold to slaughter by the one person he really loved. His mother had died early on; his sister along with her. Since then, it had just been his father, protecting him from harm and evil while bringing him up in a nice village. The boy had known all the farmers, had known all the clerics; none of them had stopped Rumplestiltskin II. After all this, the miller’s boy was as good as dead, so he looked at the imp and did his best not to cry. And as sympathetic as he was, the imp’s plans would not be undone by tears, so he pated the boy on the shoulder before turning back to his design.
“That’s a good boy. No use running back to them,” he said before drawing symbols intersecting with the circle at his feet. Throughout the process, Rumplestiltskin II mumbled some arcane language under his breath, which was quite incomprehensible to the young boy. Once the imp had finished his preparations, he stepped away from the circle and grabbed the boy’s arm, his hand as gnarled as the crutch that had fallen to his side. With a surprising strength, he dragged the boy up to the circle before placing one of his claws around the boy’s little jaw, staring at him with dark, beady eyes.
“When you step inside, be sure not to drag your feet. Those symbols need to be untouched, you see. Now, get in,” the imp said just before pushing the miller’s boy, who only just lifted his feet before entering the circle. Doing as he was told, he stood in the circle and tried to avoid thinking about the symbols at his feet or what they meant. Thoughts of dying clouded his mind, and he didn’t need to make it worse by wondering how it would happen.
Just as he closed his eyes, the miller boy finally felt the blade enter his chest. Looking down, he saw the short blade sticking out from between his ribs, the imp’s claws still wrapped around the handle. When he pulled the blade out of the boy’s tiny chest, blood poured away from the wound, but Rumplestiltskin II grabbed the boy’s shoulder and kept him standing even as the boy’s strength abandoned him. He had only just enough consciousness left in him to stare into the imp’s dark eyes.
“I’m sorry, boy. I just need this to end,” he stated softly, despair and regret soaking through the words. This meant little to the miller’s boy, who felt his life draining away and the cold creeping in from his fingertips and toes. Collapsing to his knees, the boy’s vision started to blur, his breaths came more ragged and with fresh pain, but then everything started to fade away. Unable to look Rumplestiltskin II in the eye, he looked to the side and saw a dark figure approaching. Although curious, the boy could not see him clearly, could not make anything out past the darkness obscuring his vision; there was no way for him to see the black robes or the scythe at his side.
“What is this?” the stranger asked, obviously offended. His voice seemed out of place, foreboding and welcoming at the same time, but the miller’s boy was almost beyond caring.
“A way to get your attention, sir,” Rumplestiltskin II replied, but the boy soon found it difficult to concentrate, only half-hearing the conversation happening just a few feet away.
“You killed a boy to get to me, imp?”
“It seemed the only way. Did you know I’ve been trying to set up a meeting this whole time?”
“That’s not the way it works, imp. There must always be a Rumplestiltskin, and he is not allowed to die. Until there is another, I cannot take you with me.”
“Then how, Reaper?” the imp shouted, anger breaking through his casual demeanor. “How can there be another?”
“Do you not remember? One must volunteer. It was not so long ago that you volunteered.”
“A hundred years, specter.”
“And the first held it for eight hundred. You have not held the position for that long.”
“I need this to be over! I took the name to clear their debts, and I did that within the first year!”
“And was that worth it? Do not call me again. I have better things to do than waste my time on those concerned with earthly pursuits.”
“No, wait! You say I cannot die with this name, and that another must volunteer for it?”
“Those are the rules.”
“Child!” Rumplestiltskin II shouted, and the miller’s boy felt himself lifted from the ground and shaken hard, which was enough for him to open his eyes. It was so difficult to even think, let alone focus, and this imp had already asked so much from him. When he looked at his master, he saw those black eyes in the darkness of his vision, and it was obvious that it would not be long before death claimed him.
“Child, would you like to live?” the imp asked, a smile on his face, and the possibility of life stunned the miller’s boy. Confused once more, the boy stayed silent as he stared at the reaper standing above them, hoping that he would take him away from this pain.
“That’s cruel, imp. You would not stoop so low,” the specter murmured, but Rumplestiltskin II clearly did not care.
“I must, reaper. Child, if you only take my name, you can live forever. Would you like that?” the imp asked, shaking the boy between every word. After all that effort, he was not going to have his only chance slip away from him. Even better, the boy could not possibly understand the magic at work; another man would not agree to such a thing.
However, since he was only six years old, the miller’s boy thought about extending his life. There was a whole world out there that had been taken away from him by his father and the imp, and so he nodded. He wanted to live; he wanted to be able to walk back to the village and tell his father about living forever and shove it in his greedy face.
“Good, boy,” the imp said, patting his cheek lightly. “All you have to say is My name is Rumplestiltskin. You’ll be immortal and I’ll die, you see. You win twice, little one, so go ahead. Speak the words.” The miller’s boy couldn’t see anymore, he wasn’t able to tell the imp’s eyes from the darkness that had swept over his eyes, but he knew he still had some life, though. It was only four words; he had strength enough for that.
“My name…. is Rumple…stilts….kin,” the boy said.
He woke to find himself next to a pool of blood, which was slightly disturbing since he knew most of it was his and apparently there was a lot of it. By all rights, he should be dead, and so he looked at his chest to see the damage. However, he found that it did not fit very well, that his hands were covered in warts and extended in spindly fingers. Lifting up these new hands to his face, he felt gaunt cheekbones, weathered skin, wrinkles and folds over his young skin. His eyes even felt smaller, and they didn’t see nearly so well as they did before the spell.
When he recovered from his transformation, he looked around and saw the broken and twisted body of a young man. Broken, crushed, bleeding, the miller’s son could see a hundred wounds from blades and spears covering every inch of the man’s body. Once he reached out a wretched arm to overturn the body, he was surprised to see a thin smile stretched across the man’s handsome features. It was impossible to understand for a six-year old boy from a small village.
Looking up, he saw a tall, grim man in black robes standing a few feet away. Fatigue was evident on his face, the skin hanging just a little loose, a rough and ragged crop of black hair on his head. His cheekbones were high and pronounced, his lips were so thin they were almost indistinguishable from the rest of his skin, but it was those black eyes that were most disconcerting. Not a hint of white or color or emotion existed there.
“I’m sorry, boy, but you were tricked. The man before you was Rumplestiltskin II, and he just gave you his name and his curse. You are no longer the son of a miller; you are Rumplestiltskin III. You will not age; you will not need to eat, drink or breathe. You do not belong to humanity, but you must live amongst them until another takes your name.”
“I do not expect you to understand, imp. Your mind is unpracticed and unrefined. You were so young and you always will be; you will never be able to grow and understand. You will see so many things, and you will remember most of them, but I don’t think you will ever see the world as it is; you will not find reason in it.”
“Admittedly, I cannot think of a crueler fate. If there is justice in these worlds, then the man lying there shall experience more pain in the afterlife than he could possibly understand. Hopefully, this living hell will seem so much lighter in comparison,” the reaper finished before sighing and looking down at the child. He could not abandon a poor, cursed child like this; he had to do something.
“The most I can do is maintain your innocence, imp. Perhaps in lunacy you shall find peace,” he said before waving his hand. For an instant, the miller’s boy felt something reaching into his mind, but then everything went white.
The miller’s boy stopped existing at that moment, and in his place rose Rumplestiltskin III. With a smile on his face, the imp casually jumped forward before walking down the road, grateful to feel sunlight on his face. He did not know exactly why, but he felt like the village behind him was some place he’d rather not be, so that left the wide-open road. It just felt right. In fact, he imagined he had a distinct chance of running into gophers and having an adventure, though he had no idea what a gopher looked like or what they might consider an adventure.
Less grateful, Death watched as the now-insane imp departed from the village that had abandoned him. Certain of almost nothing else, the reaper knew he would always watch out for that poor boy. Against such cruelty, it was the least he could do, but he put the thought out of his mind as he turned his gaze to the village behind him.
It had become obvious that he needed to pay the miller a visit; a man like that did not deserve a life of fortune or peace.