Swinging his arms in time with the song in his head, Rumpelstiltskin didn’t care if the woman holding his hand liked the sudden jerks and movements, but luckily, he didn’t have to. Circe seemed to enjoy the imp’s antics, smiling and laughing as Rumpelstiltskin made a fool of himself. She didn’t even mind when he had crashed their communal broomstick into a briar patch, but since the friendly witch had stolen the broom in the first place, Rumpelstiltskin had to assume the universe had decided it was a fair exchange.
Looking up at the light-hearted beauty, ringlets of black hair falling on her slender neck, Rumpelstiltskin could not stop smiling. Even though her skin was pale and spoke of hours hidden from the light, Circe seemed completely natural in the spring air. He didn’t know how she managed to walk around with him like this without getting a tan—farmer’s or otherwise—but he wouldn’t have been surprised that there was some sort of magic spell that she had conjured up.
For all her strengths, she did seem to be a vain one.
But vanity or no, Circe was quickly becoming one of the imp’s favorite traveling companions. It had only been a couple weeks from the imp’s count, but Circe never said no to the imp’s adventures. Whenever there was something that caught his eye—even the ones that didn’t glitter—the witch was right there beside him, inspecting and oohing and awing as Rumpelstiltskin inevitably got into mischief. Even through his haze of lunacy he knew Circe was just entertaining him—especially when it was something particularly mundane like a field of flowers—but it was still hard to tell.
From all appearances, it seemed like Circe genuinely enjoyed the imp’s company.
“What do you think their story is?” she asked, throwing Rumpelstiltskin back into reality and away from pesky introspection and reflection.
When the imp looked forward, he saw an older man on horseback riding alongside a wagon led by two seemingly-geriatric horses. Once he was able to look past the ancient beasts—an odd adjective for the imp to think, considering—Rumpelstiltskin saw a woman holding the reins. She seemed very tired, the skin around her eyes reminded the imp of a salt flat; her hair was practically brittle straw. If the term had been invented yet, he would have thought her gaze the perfect example of a thousand-yard stare.
They were ripe fodder for story time.
“Well,” the imp thought, even going so far as to raise his free hand to his mouth and curl a finger to make himself look more distinguished. “How much do you want?”
“Oh? How much are you going to give me?” Circe asked, the devil playing in the shadows of her eyes. She had never hurt him—he didn’t think she could—but Rumpelstiltskin would be worse than a common fool if he believed there wasn’t something wicked in her soul.
But he also knew it wasn’t all wicked.
“Hmm,” he mused, even going so far as to let go of Circe’s hand and twirl on his heel, thinking if he jumbled up the words in his brain fast enough he might be able to craft a story by accident.
When Rumpelstiltskin was facing forward again, however, he knew he would have to put in some effort. Looking from the passive woman to the elderly man, he looked for clues as to their origin, their lives, the loves and pains that made up the tapestry of their existence. They were the same age—Rumpelstiltskin could tell—but the man carried himself differently. Maybe it was the saddle, maybe it was the way his horse rocked him slowly up and down, but he seemed to have more spirit in him. Something that defied the apathy and resignation that affected his companion.
It was his eyes, though. Once they were within fifty yards of them, Rumpelstiltskin was able to notice. It was a difficult prospect because of the shade bestowed by the man’s wide-brimmed hat; the unkempt facial hair overgrown like kudzu on his weathered skin just as much of a distraction. Only when the man looked up at the afternoon sky was Rumpelstiltskin able to even see a glint from those eyes, or, more appropriately, eye. His left eye was made of glass, a brilliant blue a man like him shouldn’t have been able to afford.
That was the story, or at least the old man’s story. That was something Rumpelstiltskin could work with.
“It wouldn’t be right to start the story now, or even a few weeks or months or years before this,” Rumpelstiltskin finally began, making the witch raise an eyebrow.
“Not even years? What kind of story is this, kiddo?” she asked, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. It wasn’t long before the imp had one of his own, and he grabbed Circe’s hand and wrapped his brown, leathery fingers around her porcelain skin. Others may have been offended by his touch, but this witch almost seemed to ask for it.
“The interesting kind. Some happiness, some… well, mostly not,” he said, watching from the distance as the elderly man let go of a deep breath, his shoulders sagging even more than before. “They’ve had a long life, the kind that would grind most into the dirt.”
“I’m not surprised. Too many times around the sun for that woman.”
“She doesn’t feel it anymore,” Rumpelstiltskin said, his smile drifting away from him as he started to feel the depth of it all. He still didn’t know what empathy was, but he had always been very good at practicing it. As he continued, he was grateful for his companion’s touch. “She’s been through more than she deserved, lost a little too much. Living beside that man snuffed out the tiny flame that was inside her.”
“Ah, it’s the man’s fault,” the witch said, some satisfaction doing a very bad job of keeping itself hidden, but it wasn’t there for long. Rumpelstiltskin shook his head and sighed in protest. They were forty yards away now—still plenty of time to tell a story—but the imp knew that he would have to quiet down soon enough.
“No, not really. His life… his life is just too much for a regular person. He’s a special kind. The kind of person that keeps going when everything falls apart, and he’s had to do it a lot,” Rumpelstiltskin explained, taking in a sudden breath when a ray of sunlight reflected off the man’s false eye. “He’s had his own fire snuffed out, but a stubborn part of him lit the embers that remained.”
“Seems like an interesting guy.”
“He wouldn’t say so. He’s not the type to draw attention to it. I think he’d even try to avoid questions about it just so he wouldn’t jinx himself into weathering another storm,” he said, taking in a prolonged breath. “Did you see the glass eye?”
“I was wondering when you were going to bring that in,” she replied, a hint of menace in that wonder.
“He got that a long time ago. A long, long time before he met that woman.”
“So she’s fairly new to the story in comparison, huh?”
“I wouldn’t say that, but she is the last one of his companions. He’s had others.”
“Didn’t peg him as the type to womanize, but alright,” she surrendered, but Rumpelstiltskin shook his head, stubborn as a mule. He didn’t know why she kept trying to find fault in this hypothetical man.
“The others just didn’t… make it,” the imp said, sorrow filtering into his tone. This tired, old man didn’t deserve the life Rumpelstiltskin was making up for him. “His eye is the least of the things he’s lost over his years.”
“Seems like a sad life,” Circe said, finally getting a handle on Rumpelstiltskin’s vision.
“It’s never been easy, that’s for sure.” The imp watched as the old horses crawled toward them. They were still thirty yards out, but Rumpelstiltskin would have to reach a stopping point before they could hear him talk about their fabricated lives. “Ever since he got that eye, that man has been thrown from one trouble area to another.”
“Yeah? Is there something special about that eye?”
“Yeah, lots. There’s magic there, or, well, there was,” he explained, scratching his face with his free hand. “It’s all gone now; he had to trade it away years ago.”
“Traded it away?”
“Yeah, for her.” Rumpelstiltskin pointed at the woman, who was just barely holding onto the reins. “That was the last time he was able to use it, thinking that if he saved her, it would be worth it.”
“You’re implying that it wasn’t,” Circe added, and Rumpelstiltskin gave a weak nod.
“She had already been with him for a while—being part of all his adventures and troubles and everything—so he thought it would be worth it,” he said, his voice drifting off until he remembered that Circe didn’t know the next part of the story. “But the fire in her was already almost out, and… and… because he didn’t have the magic anymore, he wasn’t able to stop the next problem.”
“He wasn’t able to stop that last one?”
“He wasn’t able to stop a lot of them. He’s failed just about as often as he’s succeeded,” Rumpelstiltskin said, his spirits much lower than they had been just a few minutes ago. “But when she saw him unable to stop the next one…”
“She felt guilty,” Circe finished the statement for him, for which the imp was somewhat grateful.
“That’s what took the fire from her,” he said under his breath, not because they were getting closer—which they were—but because he didn’t want to give life to the woman’s internal death.
“That’s a pretty sad story, kiddo,” Circe said, also under her breath, but her reasoning was more practical. The couple was only about ten yards away and they would most certainly hear the imp if he continued their alternate history.
“They don’t all have to be happy. A lot of the better stories aren’t,” Rumpelstiltskin mumbled, doing his best to cheer himself up and give a smile to the old couple.
He felt like they deserved it after what he had done to their past.
“You ain’t wrong, Rumpelstiltskin,” Circe said, offering a smile and a nod at the couple once they were within a few feet. It was much more than she would normally give, but the imp’s story apparently had an effect on her. Neither one of the couple returned the smile, which seemed in line with Rumpelstiltskin’s history, but then the elderly man sneezed and almost fell out of his saddle. He caught himself, but the effort caused the hat to fall off of his bald head.
Relevant only because of how shiny that pate was, which caused Rumpelstiltskin’s heart to fill with wonder and glee and sweep away the storm cloud above his head.
“Damnit, Jonah, can’t you even keep yer hat on yer head? Already lost yer damn hair!” the woman spat out—with actual spit, even—which she directed at her companion.
“You keep yer trap shut ‘bout that, ya ol’ crone. Don’t hear me complainin’ ‘bout you losin’ yer figure and how everythin’ sags, do ya? Age ruins all,” the man volleyed back, obviously used to this kind of exchange. After crinkling his nose at her, he turned to Rumpelstiltskin and nodded at his hat, which was the current victim of a playful gust of wind. “Mind helpin’ out an ol’ man?”
“You can’t get it yerself, you lazy—”
“Harriet, I will not tell ya again,” he shot back at her, interrupting her before the woman could muster up another insult. Instead, she resorted to a flagrant display of fingers the imp could only assume was worse than anything they had already said. After waving it off, the old man nodded back at his hat, which had finally flopped onto the ground. “Please. It ain’t easy gettin’ back in this saddle.”
“Maybe if ya—”
“Harriet, this is not the time…” he trailed off, leaving her to imagine the repercussions. Since they were getting impatient, the imp decided he would expedite the process and ran after the hat, which was again rolling along its wide brim. It took Rumpelstiltskin a few seconds to catch up, but once he had it in his hands, he patted it down to rid it of any newly-gained dirt. He didn’t succeed entirely, but the old man seemed grateful once the imp offered it up to him.
“Thank ya, little one. Woulda been a whole ordeal if it’d been me to get it,” he said with a smile, but his companion didn’t seem pleased.
“Why’d you ask that one? Now it’s probably infested and cursed and whatnot,” the woman said, not entirely unexpected, but Rumpelstiltskin could feel the air growing heavier by his side. When he looked at Circe, he could feel the darkness inside her, which only made him feel anxious. Rumpelstiltskin was about to do something—to make sure Circe didn’t do something—but the old man saved him the effort.
“It ain’t gonna be nothin’ worse than that rag you call a dress, woman. Besides, I ain’t gonna ask a pretty girl to do it when there’s a right nice gentleman waitin’ to help,” he said, turning back to Rumpelstiltskin with a wink from his false eye. “I’ll take help from whoever offers.”
“Well, as long as you ask nice.” Rumpelstiltskin gave him a pleasant smile—or as pleasant as his face would allow—and the man nodded before turning back to his companion and slapping the reins, causing his grizzled mount to resume its slow pace.
“C’mon, Harriet, let’s get to gettin’,” he said, earning a grunt and a crinkled nose from the woman. With a slight chuckle, the man turned back to Rumpelstiltskin and rolled his solitary eye. “Been trying to teach her manners for decades, and that’s as far’s I’ve come.”
“Must be a bad teacher,” Circe added, her arms crossed and clearly confrontational. Instead of taking the bait, the man just glanced at her and laughed again. Looking out of the corner of his false eye, he gave Rumpelstiltskin another wink.
“Must be. Looks like you got yer own work cut out for ya. You two take care,” the man said with another nod, even going so far as to tip his hat, and then he turned back to face the road. The horses carried them forward slowly, but it was only a few moments before they were out of earshot.
“They weren’t exactly like the story, kid, but it was a good try,” Circe said, dropping her arms and setting a hand on her hip. “Country bumpkins and weathered adventurers do tend to look the same.”
“I’m glad they turned out that way. They seem much happier than the people in my story.”
After a moment of appreciation, Rumpelstiltskin grabbed Circe’s free hand and walked forward, causing her to stumble until she matched the imp’s pace. She gave him a disapproving look, but the imp was looking ahead and oblivious, so Circe abandoned the disapproval and let herself smile.
“I guess so. Your people sounded a lot more interesting, though. Kinda wish their little history was real,” she said, her thoughts laboring on the twists and turns of the imp’s tale.
“I bet it was real for someone, some time,” Rumpelstiltskin almost muttered, his spirits sinking just a bit.
“Didn’t seem to come from me.”
“Well, that’s just how your magic works out sometimes, kiddo. We don’t always get to see things that make us happy. Sometimes… sometimes people just suffer. You wish for something else, obviously, but people are going to get hurt. Everyone’s story is a warning, in some way.”
Circe was obviously thinking on her own past, but Rumpelstiltskin squeezed her hand and tried to sniff back… whatever was in his nose. It was a mystery to him, but he hoped it was just the result of springtime allergies.
“I didn’t tell it for the warning,” Rumpelstiltskin said, lifting his gaze to make eye contact with the witch.
“That’s the kind of story that needs to get told—needs to get told so that people can… understand. Can see the pain of others.”
“Oh, that was so I can empathize with my neighbor?” Circe asked with a smile in her eyes, but it disappeared once she saw the serious expression on Rumpelstiltskin’s weathered face.
“No. I didn’t get to finish the story. If I had, I would have eventually explained that… that it was all worth it,” he said, looking over his shoulder at the couple, who were so small already. “They both suffered… and he lost so much, but his life was worth it. The people he saved wouldn’t have been able to have their stories if he didn’t have his.”
“So it balances out?”
“It never balances out, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he looked ahead, his spirits lifting as the sun warmed his skin, as he felt and smelled the trailing end of a breeze that must have gone through some lush meadow. “For it to balance out, all of the stories would have to end, and I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.”
“Oh, and how do you know that?” Circe said, but the imp brought back their air of mischief.
“Because there’s always going to be people like us who want to make another one,” he said, smiling so hard that Circe could not see the black of his eyes, reminding her of a cat whiling away its life on a sun-drenched awning. The notion was enough that the witch had to cover her mouth and laugh, shaking her head at the imp’s philosophy.
“I guess that’s how it goes, Rumpelstiltskin. I guess that’s how it goes,” she said, swinging her arm along with the imp, the spring spirit affecting her just as much. “You never told me, though. What kind of magic could the geezer do with that false eye?”
“I never meant to tell you,” the imp said with a shrug. “Never even thought about it.”
“What? Why would you lead me on like that?” Circe asked, playing at being offended.
“Well, it was never the important part of the story, obviously!” Rumpelstiltskin breathed in deep and marched forward, Circe in tow. Though disappointed, the witch looked down at Rumpelstiltskin and realized that he was probably right.
After all, in his twisted way, he usually was.