“Margaret, huh? That’s quite a nice name,” Circe said, all smiles as she leaned toward the girl holding onto the corner of the doorway as if it was her only lifeline. Rumpelstiltskin, however, took a step back into the dungeon cell when it seemed like the girl was about to venture past the corner.
“That’s not her name, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin murmured, and the witch was only momentarily confused. Standing up straighter, the witch dropped her hand to the side and seemed prepared for the girl’s hidden potential.
“W—what do you mean?” Margaret asked, retreating further along her corner so she could see the pair of them with a solitary, frightened eye. “That’s my—my name. Of course, that’s my name.”
“You seem to know better than her, kiddo.” Circe’s right hand brimmed with something just beyond the physical. “Why don’t you tell us what you mean?”
“I met the real Margaret,” Rumpelstiltskin explained, biting his lip as he watched the girl’s reaction. “She was taken from the nearby village, but she escaped and the last… the last I saw, she was in her father’s arms.”
“The real… Margaret…” the girl muttered before clenching her eyes shut and shaking her head, a stubborn streak flashing through her eyes once she opened them again. “I’m the real—the real Margaret.”
“Her father recognized her,” Rumpelstiltskin stated plainly, soft as he let the poor girl down. “He recognized her and said she had only been gone a week.”
“Could this be her instead? Could that girl be the fake?” Circe asked, but Rumpelstiltskin just waved at the girl by the door.
“She’s been here too long. Janus told me so. Her scars, her… mind, they’ve been here much longer than a week,” Rumpelstiltskin explained, and when he looked back at Margaret, he could see how the truth affected her.
Against that wave of information, even this poor girl could not hold onto whatever fantasy she had created. Squeezing her eyes shut once more, tears escaped through the cracks and she slumped down to the bricks beneath her, shuddering against the threshold of her former prison.
“I… I—I… I’m Margaret,” she quivered, crossing her arms over her chest and digging ragged fingernails into the already bruised flesh above her elbows. “That’s what… that’s—that’s what I know, but what you’re saying…”
“It’s not okay!” Margaret screamed, her eyes snapping open as she looked at the imp who had halted on approach. “I thought I was done with this place! I thought the death of that-that man would free me, that I could go home, bu—but I’m not Margaret and I don’t live nearby!”
“I don’t live nearby…” she leaked out, curling into herself as crimson ebbed out where fingernails met her flesh. “I don’t live anywhere. I am not Margaret. I… I don’t know… I don’t know w—who I am.”
“Who am I?” she asked to the floor, but neither imp nor witch could give her the answer she wanted.
Rumpelstiltskin would not let that stop him, so he knelt down in front of the damaged girl. Just inches away from her, Rumpelstiltskin no longer felt fear, no longer felt pity; he felt stubborn. He scowled in the face of all that pain, knowing he would do everything he could to take it from her.
“You can figure that out later,” Rumpelstiltskin said, shocking the girl out of her sobs. After a moment, the girl lifted a head almost too heavy for her neck, and then looked into the imp’s dark eyes. They almost burned her, they brimmed with such earnest resolve.
“W—what do you mean?”
“You don’t need to know who you are every single moment,” Rumpelstiltskin replied, confident now that they were firmly within his mental realm. “You don’t even need to know who you were, most of the time. It really just comes down to the fact that you’re a living, breathing, feeling person who thinks and acts upon the world. You can do what you want, or what you think is right, but you don’t need to be confident every single second in what you are or where you’re going or what your purpose was yesterday or what it will be the day after tomorrow.
“There is so little of a person in a name,” the imp continued, leaning back and propping himself up on his knees. “There’s quite a bit in mine, and in Circe’s, and yours can mean as much as you want once you find it, but it doesn’t make you. It just makes it so that people will have something easy to remember when they try to think of you, which is why I love my name. No one has a name like Rumpelstiltskin, so everybody tends to remember me, even if I don’t remember much, myself.”
“But I don’t have a name. I’m not… Margaret,” the girl replied as she leaned against the bricks to her side. “I’m not anyone.”
“That’s just plain wrong,” Rumpelstiltskin replied quickly, scoffing to drive it home. “You’re you, and we have the privilege to find out who that is and you can even make it someone spectacular, if you feel like it.”
“I… don’t understand,” the girl murmured, earning a bark of laughter from the witch standing by.
“You’re not alone in that.” Circe took a few steps forward until she was standing above the twisted victims in the doorway. “Rumpelstiltskin has a way of turning every conversation into a load of gibberish.”
“What, you’re going to fight that?” Circe asked with a raised eyebrow, instantly cowing the imp beneath her. However, when the sorceress crouched down and ruffled the imp’s wiry hair, he found a smile on her face. “Easy, kiddo, I’m just trying to tell Margaret here that it’s fine that she can’t follow the words coming out of your mouth.”
“But that’s not my—”
“Might as well be,” Circe interrupted, winking at the girl leaning against the threshold of her prison cell.
“That’s the name you gave us, and it’s just as good a placeholder as any until we find a better one. Besides, who says you can’t be another Margaret?”
“It’s a common name, dear. There’s no harm in sharing it,” Circe said before placing her sleeved hand on the girl’s ratty shirt above her shoulder. The girl at first flinched at the touch, but some ephemeral whisper leaked through the air and seemed to ease her mind. Rumpelstiltskin wondered if it was just in his head, but he saw the faint movement of Circe’s lips, and realized the witch was doing much more than giving the girl verbal consolation.
“But where do I go?” Margaret asked, her voice calm after whatever Circe had done. Before she even finished the question, the witch’s dark red lips lifted into a crooked smile, and Rumpelstiltskin felt himself tugged through time and space. It was a queasy feeling and he was grateful he had skipped his last few meals, but once they were on solid ground, that nausea drifted away. Rumpelstiltskin was unable to contain his curious nature, and he was on his feet and marveling at the ceiling within just a few seconds of arrival.
A gigantic tapestry of stars drifted above them, seemingly part of the roof of some magnificent architectural achievement. Columns rose to support that celestial ceiling, but the dome above Rumpelstiltskin’s head was clearly the crowning glory of this realm. Around the edge of the circle were the different signs of the zodiac, a scorpion menacing the neighboring centaur while it aimed its bow at a crustacean across the way, a lion sleeping next to it as a nearby maiden fanned herself. They were all living up there and moving in their places around the edge of that dome, a canvas of stars somehow separating them and weaving them closer together.
If there was this much magic in the ceiling above him, Rumpelstiltskin could only wonder what limits and potential existed in a palace like this, and he almost did not want to lower his head and ruin whatever surprise was in store.
“Wh—where are we?” Margaret asked, so Rumpelstiltskin knew it was time to spoil that surprise. Dropping his head, the imp looked at his companions before immediately getting distracted and turning his head in every which way.
They were not alone.
“This is the Hollow, a meeting place for women who practice magic,” Circe answered, making eye contact with women along the edge of the giant room.
To Rumpelstiltskin, it almost seemed like the inside of a giant basilica, and there were small groups of women all staring at them and nattering amongst themselves, which was only just a bit more interesting than the giant tapestries hanging between each set of columns. They told of an alternate history, one which Rumpelstiltskin had never encountered. Great battles were described, myths from a different world, and the imp knew he could never ask enough questions to ever satisfy the curiosity they had birthed.
So he decided to leave it all up to his imagination until he had a full day to pester Circe about it.
“Normally they don’t allow non-practitioners inside, but they’ll just have to deal with it,” the witch added, breaking Rumpelstiltskin out of his fantasy, and he realized for Margaret’s sake that he could not be his usual, chaotic self.
“Why would they?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, and Circe grinned at him before clapping him on the shoulder.
“I’m their Grand Sorceress, kiddo. They don’t have much of a choice,” Circe said with a light heart, shaking her head at her own antics as she walked forward and left Rumpelstiltskin and Margaret to follow. The imp almost walked past the girl before realizing she needed encouragement, and he briefly twisted and pulled at the girl’s raggedy shirt before Margaret climbed to her feet and allowed Rumpelstiltskin to drag her forward.
“Why did you bring us here?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, pulling their ward behind him even though she was more than a foot taller than him. When Circe looked over her shoulder, he ventured further. “Don’t get me wrong, I could spend a few days just watching that zodiac, but this seems…”
“Odd?” Circe suggested, earning a fervent nod from her favorite imp before she turned back around.
They were walking toward a giant set of double doors, and Rumpelstiltskin had at least three different guesses for what could be behind it and was certain he was wrong. This place seemed just as insane as him, but the imp did not see that as an advantage, this time.
“Margaret is odd, now, so this is a good place for her to stay for a while,” Circe replied, breathing in deep before placing her hand on the giant handle of the door in front of her. When it glowed and then seemed to flake out of existence, causing the entire set of double doors to cascade into some magical entropy, Rumpelstiltskin desperately prayed that his third guess was right and there was a field of red pandas frolicking on the other side.
Instead, there were seven witches sitting along a semicircle dais that was forty feet from the threshold, scowls on every face but the one in the center. The blonde witch had propped up her chin on a hand as she smiled at the Grand Sorceress and the children next to her.
“Circe… we were about to summon you for the outrage, but it seems you knew what we wanted.”
She oozed with satisfaction as Circe stalked forward and then stopped within the center of the semicircle. Rumpelstiltskin didn’t even realize that he and Margaret had followed behind, and he wondered if Circe had placed some sort of spell on both of them just so she wouldn’t have to worry about their interference.
“You may have wanted it, Gwen, but I’m here of my own accord,” Circe replied, a bitter grin on her face as she laid a porcelain hand on her hip, her long sleeves drifting down to her knee. It was only in this magical realm that Rumpelstiltskin felt the sensual energy flowing throughout her entire frame, recognized it, and realized that she was still as deadly and vicious as the myths had claimed.
“As you always are.” Gwen sat back in her chair and lay her hands on the armrest of her ostentatious throne. “You know you broke a dozen ironclad rules just by bringing the imp here—with no regard as to how angry that makes me—but that little whelp on your other side is just… Hell, Circe. Bold is an understatement.”
“Oh, I know, but you’ve known about that bold streak of mine for centuries.” Circe was flippant as she flicked her left hand through dark hair, but Gwen didn’t seem pleased by her tone.
“You’re the Grand Sorceress, but that doesn’t mean you get to do what you want,” Gwen stated, all levity absent as she looked down her nose at the higher-ranking witch. “You can’t just barge in here and disregard our customs and expect us to lie down and take it.”
“Gwen! I’m shocked,” Circe said, splaying her fingers and bringing them against her neckline. “I didn’t expect that at all.”
“Then what did you expect?”
“Oh, just exile.” Circe shrugged through the notion of such an extreme measure.
“What… exactly are you doing here?” Gwen had abandoned the game, knowing the Grand Sorceress would answer plainly if given the direct question. Now that playtime was over, Circe huffed, smiled and then crossed her arms before nodding back to the silent girl who was more than just out of her depth.
“Bringing you a new recruit. She’s pretty much a blank slate once you get past the trauma, and whatever life she had before is just… well, it’s not there for her anymore,” she explained, shrugging before placing her hand on Rumpelstiltskin’s shoulder and smiling down at him. “She needs a place to belong, and I think the Hollow can provide for her something that I can’t give her out there in the real world.”
“You know how this works, Circe,” Gwen snarled, earning the wary gaze of the three standing below her.
“The Hollow’s numbers must be maintained. There’s no such thing as bringing in a new recruit. The only way we’d allow that girl in is if—”
“A witch leaves the Hollow,” Circe interrupted with a squeeze of Rumpelstiltskin’s shoulder, which he realized was more for her benefit than his. Gwen shifted in her chair at that, but she was clearly waiting for Circe to continue.
“I’m gonna make you a deal, Gwen. We’re not friends anymore, not after you tattled on me to Hazel and
I had to kill a Grand Sorceress.” Circe sneered at the memory, but she was confident in what she was about to say. “But even though I let you keep that spot on the High Council after that farce, we don’t have to pretend we can stand each other. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t make an arrangement.”
“What kind of arrangement?”
“You don’t want me as a Grand Sorceress, and I’m not particularly attached to the position, either, if we’re telling the truth,” Circe admitted, sighing at her situation. “But I’ve gotten a good laugh over the years knowing that you can’t do a thing about it. Even this—this most audacious and outlandish of trespasses I’ve undertaken by bringing Rumpelstiltskin and this girl into the Hollow—isn’t something you can use to oust me.”
“Are you done gloating?” Gwen growled from her chair, but it only caused Circe’s grin to grow wider.
“Just about,” she quipped, taking the time to stand straighter and take a deep breath. “I want this girl to have a life. She needs one after what Portunus did to her, but I don’t have the patience to help her with it.”
“Selfish as always.”
“Always, Gwen,” Circe agreed, looking at Rumpelstiltskin out of the corner of her eye before realizing her mistake. “Or close enough to it.”
“So what you’re saying, Grand Sorceress,” Gwen emphasized the title as she leaned forward. “Is that you’ll step down voluntarily, so long as we take this… mewling, shivering example of human-shaped trauma into our ranks and teach her the craft?”
“And leave me and Rumpelstiltskin alone,” Circe wagged her finger, making sure it was just as important a factor in their bartering. The imp glowed at his inclusion, but there was still an undercurrent of sorrow around him he could not properly access.
“I figured,” Gwen shrugged, biting her lip as she judged the raven-haired sorceress so confident under trial. “And if I refuse?”
“Then I continue to make the Hollow unbearable for you and all the stuffy, bureaucratic witches you’ve become friends with since I stopped letting you cramp my style,” Circe replied, cocking out her hip even more.
Gwen judged the deal for a moment, even going so far as to look at the other witches on the High Council, but they all deferred to her. With a weary sigh, Gwen threw up her hands and then leaned back in her chair.
“It’s a fair enough deal. I swear, Circe, none of this had to be so… bitter. I still remember our early days with a smile, sometimes,” Gwen offered, lifting up her hand and waving it through the air in front of her. “If you had just come to the book club more, you and Hazel may have—”
“I was never coming to the book club, Gwen,” Circe snapped, and Gwen’s glower came back.
“I guess I just thought better of you, Circe,” she said, breaking eye contact with the Grand Sorceress and making Rumpelstiltskin feel like prey. “I still don’t know why you brought the imp with you if you’re so adamant about keeping him from us.”
“Rumpelstiltskin?” Circe asked, surprised the woman even brought him up. Looking down at the imp, Circe smiled and squeezed his shoulder once more. “Oh, I just wanted him to see the place. I thought he’d get a kick out of the zodiac signs on the dome, at least.”
“That’s what I looked at first!” Rumpelstiltskin exclaimed, his entire face lighting up at the idea of it.
“I know, kiddo, I was watching,” Circe said, but Gwen cleared her throat from her position of power, and both of them turned to look at the irate sorceress.
“If that’s all, you can leave. You know how, I’m sure,” she said, but Circe sneered at the sudden venom.
“Of course, I do, but I’m not going to just leave this girl without a goodbye.”
Circe turned back to Margaret, who had been silent throughout the discussion where they had decided her fate. She had been so quiet that Rumpelstiltskin had forgotten she was present, and he shuffled around Circe as she crouched down and set her hands on Margaret’s shoulders.
“They’re gonna take care of you, dear,” Circe, started, trying to console the shaking girl, but it was clear she was disturbed by her uncertain future. “I promise you.”
“What does your promise mean? I barely know you,” Margaret replied, and Circe was actually lost for words. Seeing that distress, Rumpelstiltskin stepped forward and grabbed the girl’s maimed fingers.
“They will take care of you, Margaret,” he stressed, flicking his eyes toward the blond witch on the council before smiling at the traumatized girl. “She hates Circe a lot—mostly because of me—and you’re doing her the biggest favor anybody could. Even if all you do is help exile Circe, most of these witches are going to see you as a welcome change.”
“They sound like horrible people,” Margaret replied, which earned a scoff from Circe. However, that scoff turned quickly into a smile and a shake of her head.
“I certainly don’t like them, but they’re going to treat you a bit better than a random village would. They’ll help with what Portunus did to you, that’s for sure, but the kicker? The kicker is that they’re going to give you something that a normal life couldn’t,” Circe explained, sincerity filtering in and replacing her usual flippancy. “They’re going to give you power, Margaret. They’re going to give you the kind of power that will give you confidence, that will make you feel stronger, that will make you feel like you have a way to change the world.”
“Why would I want that?”
“Because that is what is going to make you into something special,” Circe replied, so matter-of-fact that Margaret had to catch her breath. “That is what is going to bring your identity to the surface. You won’t be some girl that Portunus kept in a cage for an eternity. You will be a woman who can bend the laws of nature to her will. You’ll be able to summon a familiar, hold fire within your hands, brew potions and salves and save or hurt anyone you feel like. I wouldn’t judge you for breaking bad or doing good; I wouldn’t judge you for choosing whatever path you feel is best for you.
“I am leaving you with people I don’t care for, but it’s because they hold the key to developing the answer to that question in the center of your heart,” Circe declared, going so far as to press her finger against the girl’s frail chest. “Your past was taken from you, so it’s only natural that you need to know who you are. Within the Hollow, I promise, you will find out who that is.”
“Why… why are you doing this for me?” Tears fell from Margaret’s eyes, but she could not notice. “Why are you giving up your title just so I can stay here?”
“It’s just a title to me, Margaret,” Circe answered softly, a warm smile on her face. “I know deep to my core just who I am. I’m not exactly proud of all of it, or most of it, but there are parts of me that I’m glad I have. The same parts of me that Rumpelstiltskin brings to the surface. And since I already know who I am, I’m more than willing to give up my place here, if it means you have a place somewhere.”
“But—but why for me?” Margaret asked, her eyes shaking along with her voice. “I’m no one.”
“I used to be no one, too,” Circe claimed. “And I got to be Grand Sorceress along with a thousand other titles, and I just want to make sure another no one gets the chance.”
“I…” Margaret trailed off, but when she looked at Rumpelstiltskin beaming up at her, she realized the future was already set in place. With a deep breath, she looked back at Circe and nodded. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Circe replied, standing up and collecting Rumpelstiltskin with her left hand before turning to look back at Gwen. “No dirty business about chasing after me and the kid, all right?”
“Circe, that child is far more trouble than he’s worth,” Gwen snapped back, and Circe shrugged at her.
“You never did have an eye for seeing the worth of people, did you?” Circe commented, and then Rumpelstiltskin felt himself tugged back through space once more.
When he finally got his bearings, he and Circe were on a sunlit road once more, just like they always found themselves. He at first appreciated the return to form and ran forward just to feel the earth under his feet again, but after just a couple whiffs of summertime meadow, Rumpelstiltskin turned back around to see Circe in plain clothes and looking down into a red orb he had forgotten was in her possession.
“Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin started, but she mistook his interruption as something else entirely.
“Here’s the other reason I left, kiddo,” she said, tossing the bauble from one hand to the other before grinning back at him. “If they knew I had gotten this from Portunus, they would never have let me keep it. Would have had to fight the entire Hollow, I’m sure.”
“You called it the Ifrit’s Eye, right?” Circe interrupted, unable to tell how anxious her favorite imp had become. “I wonder why that is. It’s something, all right, but nothing so petty as the eye of a spirit. I’m certain it’ll be a fun mystery to crack, if you want to tag along.”
“It’s hurt a lot of people, Circe.” Rumpelstiltskin had hoped those hard words would be enough to finally earn her concern. Instead, he watched as Circe stared into the Ifrit’s Eye and the flames reflected and overtook the green in her eyes.
“Oh, I have no doubt about that.”