Rumpelstiltskin the Third and the Man with Two Shadows by Kevin Kauffmann
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Rumpelstiltskin 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 and 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, Rumpelstiltskin 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 could not do it himself. Rumpelstiltskin 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, Rumpelstiltskin’s culinary adventure was denied him, so the imp sat up against the tree trunk and gazed at 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, Rumpelstiltskin shook his fist at the celestial bodies, thinking it was a personal slight.

After cursing the stars, Rumpelstiltskin realized there was a source of light besides that of the quarter moon; about a hundred yards away and across the road, there was a small campfire resisting the darkness. Rumpelstiltskin 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 as he approached, Rumpelstiltskin realized there was a lone figure sitting on a nearby log. Although the camp site was a good way 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, Rumpelstiltskin wondered what this lonesome man was doing.

When Rumpelstiltskin slipped out of the darkness and revealed himself in the light of the campfire, the stranger looked up from his fire and analyzed his guest. Although he was startled, at first, he soon judged Rumpelstiltskin to be harmless and nodded toward a nearby rock. For all appearances, he seemed to welcome the imp’s company, so Rumpelstiltskin took his cue and sat on the rocky seat he had been offered.

The traveler’s 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. Rumpelstiltskin guessed it felt just like it looked, which was to say uncomfortable. Such a man would not be amused by Rumpelstiltskin’s usual antics, so the imp grabbed a stick so he could poke at the fire.

They sat in silence for a small amount of time, which was profoundly anxiety-inducing for Rumpelstiltskin. He didn’t want to be the first to speak up, since he was not the host of this little campfire, but the traveler was resigned to stare into his dying fire. If Rumpelstiltskin had been the host, the traveler would have been inundated with possible conversation topics and warm welcomes; plenty of things befitting a campfire conversation.

Becoming more and more disheartened with this traveler, Rumpelstiltskin finally saw the blade stowed on the man’s belt, which was a small victory. At the very least, this man could put up a fight if bandits were to steal into his campfire setting. The imp was in the middle of imagining that possible scenario when he heard the traveler clear his throat.

"A rather cold night, don't you think?"

The traveler looked into the imp's black eyes. From his reaction, it was obvious that he had seen much worse than the creature who had stolen into his camp. Seizing upon this new information, Rumpelstiltskin adopted a twisted smile.

"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," Rumpelstiltskin said while drawing a design into the dirt in front of him. He didn’t know it was a crude recreation of a painting that would not be put to canvas for another three hundred years, but Rumpelstiltskin always had a connection to something beyond the Veil.

"Oh, so you're a wood spirit, then?"

"Just where did you get that idea? I'm a friendly village mischief-maker! I… just don't have a village right now." Rumpelstiltskin wished he still did have that last one; 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 imp’s smile returned.

"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, Rumpelstiltskin looked at him skeptically, but abandoned the ruse after a short breath. He could never be truly offended, as he didn't hold anything dear, with the exception of his friendships.

"I guess it's alright. So what are you doing this close to the road? A lone traveler is quite the target, you know?" Rumpelstiltskin asked, but his new friend would not look at him. His attention was lost to the flames.

"I know quite well, but I do not need to bother with such trivial things. Bandits do not bother me." His voice wavered, and when he paused, Rumpelstiltskin tried to get a better look at the man’s face. His beard was scraggly and unkempt; grime and soot seemed to cover the places that hair had not reached. Even his eyes seemed worn-down, and Rumpelstiltskin could see clear evidence of sleep deprivation.

"What is your name, boy? I would think you would not want me to call you mischief-maker all night," he said, breaking those tired eyes away from the flames.

Very briefly, Rumpelstiltskin 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?"

Although it took him a moment, Rumpelstiltskin 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 intentionally tumbling end over end in the dirt. When he finished the pathetic display of acrobatics, he realized the traveler was staring at him in shock. Rumpelstiltskin wondered why a somersault would be so alarming, but crossed his legs and sat on his rear to put the traveler at ease. It was just enough to shake him from the imp’s spell, and he laughed before supporting his chin with one of his hands.

"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 Rumpelstiltskin could see, the fire was dying and only whispered the promise of flames.

And while the imp could not do much more than gawk, the traveler leaned forward and got too close, placing the log onto the small pile of ash before prodding the fire until it was licking the sides of the new log. The imp had expected freshly-cooked fingers after such a display, but let the man do what he wanted.

However, Janus sat back down on his log and watched as the new flames overcame the old, his fingers whole and unharmed. Without taking his eyes off the revitalized campfire, Janus sighed and spoke his thoughts aloud.

"I hate dying fires. They make me think of what they stand for. Pure potential, only to be 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."

Janus’ pupils reflected the dancing flames, and although it seemed like a very deep sentiment, Rumpelstiltskin furrowed his brow. He saw no meaning in dying fires; they only made him recall some of the best ones he had ever seen. Rumpelstiltskin salivated as the taste of castle-smoked sausage spread along his taste buds, but he banished the memory 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?"

"That's… oddly comforting, mischief-maker. 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 Rumpelstiltskin.

"Of course, I know it. I just don't tell anyone without a good conversation, first." Rumpelstiltskin winked at him and he chuckled in return, but that didn’t stop Janus from returning his gaze to the fire. "So… Why do you not worry about bandits?"

The traveler’s eyes flickered as he took a long moment to judge his supernatural companion.

"Well, they should be afraid of me. I can tell you and you won't believe me, or I could just show you," he said before picking himself up.

For an instant, Rumpelstiltskin thought about what kind of danger he might have stumbled into, but thought better of it; Sir Death wouldn't allow him to die just because of a scary traveler. Soon enough, Janus approached the campfire and lowered his hand.

"Look for the shadows, boy," he said before placing his hand behind the flames and revealing his dark secret.

Against the log closest to Rumpelstiltskin there were not one, but two shadowy hands following the traveler's movements. Where the first shadow was the hand of a savior, bold and armored and reminding Rumpelstiltskin of daring quests and dashing knights, the other was twisted and gnarled, a monstrous weapon that ended in wicked claws. What was most interesting was that neither shadow looked like the hand they belonged to. 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."

Instead of taking it as a compliment, Janus shook his head at his naïve friend.

"It is not an act. I was blessed, and then 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 malicious demon. While I had hoped to be a force for good, I am destined to be a tool for 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.

"So, magic boy, do you see? I need not worry about bandits, for they would be attacking a monster. If you wish to run away, I will understand. I will not follow," he said, looking back to the flames that comforted him.

Although his words held in them a degree of terror, Rumpelstiltskin realized quickly that he had no cause to run. After taking a sharp breath, picked himself up and then advanced on his newest friend, who could only look up at the imp towering over him.

"Do you want to do evil or good?"

"It's not that simple—"

"It is, Janus," Rumpelstiltskin said, putting his hands on his hips. There was an unusual clarity in the imp's mind, so he knew he had to use it wisely. He could feel this burden on Janus’ back, especially once he buried his face in his hands.

"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."

Knowing he had little options, Rumpelstiltskin sighed and kicked the man in the shin.

That caught the traveler's attention.

"Do you want to do evil or good? If you want to do evil, just go ahead and do it. There are plenty of knights out there who 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," Janus said as he looked back to the fire.

Rumpelstiltskin gave into his frustration and grabbed Janus’ chin with his twisted hand. With unexpected strength, Rumpelstiltskin forced the man to 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 Janus wanted to be left alone, but Rumpelstiltskin didn't mind. He hoped to return to his dream and that old king with a penchant for strawberry preserves. There was potential in such absurdity, and Rumpelstiltskin was so tired from all that serious business that he fell asleep as soon as he curled up between the roots of his tree.

When Rumpelstiltskin woke again, dawn had stretched its greedy fingers across the sky. Although he hadn’t 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 even better.

After wiping the sleep from his eyes, Rumpelstiltskin was able to see a figure walking toward the sun, and assumed it was Janus walking away from his camp. However unlikely, Rumpelstiltskin hoped that his new friend had finally gotten some sleep, since everything was usually better after a good nap and a nice dream.

When the imp remembered their fireside chat, he looked at Janus’ feet in order to see those two shadows in the full light of day, but only one shadow trailed after the traveler. Rumpelstiltskin was disappointed for only a second before a smile stretched across his face, his beady black eyes shining with gratification.

There, in full retreat from the sun, was a single, confident shadow. Armor and horns and dozens of contrasting features fought seemed to clash against each other, but Rumpelstiltskin knew immediately why. He 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 was merely defined by purpose and determination. Although he soon disappeared beyond the crest of a hill, Rumpelstiltskin was confident that his new friend would find his own path.

Janus had finally made his choice.