It was very cold, much too cold for Rumpelstiltskin’s preference, but somehow he had wandered much further north than he had planned.
Well, that, or he had fallen asleep for a few months and the season had changed on him. That wasn’t exactly outside the realm of possibilities for our intrepid imp.
In any case, the cold was something he would now have to deal with, especially since he was surrounded by snow and ice. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt him like it would any normal folk. Because of his curse, he was in no danger of losing any fingers or toes to frostbite, and he was quite grateful. He had become very attached to Lawrence and Percival, the pinky toes of his feet. Rumpelstiltskin didn’t much care for Gretchen’s tone—she would complain about being in the middle of his right foot quite often—but he would miss even her if she was suddenly taken from him.
However, since he didn’t have to worry about losing limbs or dying from hypothermia or any of those other nasty afflictions that came with exposure to winter conditions, the only thing that mattered to Rumpelstiltskin was comfort. As a chill tore through him and his bones, taking all the warmth from him like a selfish bedmate, the imp realized that he would have to find some sort of cave or lean-to or something that would get him out of this hellish wind tunnel. Wrapping his tiny arms around him and trying to retain what little warmth he could muster, Rumpelstiltskin walked forward—the wind to his right—and started his journey through the alabaster wonderland.
Once he lost count of how many steps he had taken, Rumpelstiltskin busied himself with trying to find anything to distract him. Unfortunately, this wintry environment was no smorgasbord of distractions, as every inch of ground was covered with at least six inches of snow. The imp could see some trees desperately trying to break free from the snowfall off to his left, but they were much too far to be any sort of shelter. It would take at least a few hours for a full-grown man to make that distance, and Rumpelstiltskin was working with legs about a third the size.
Besides, they looked just as cold and unforgiving as the bleak expanse behind, before, and all around the imp.
Letting out a halted breath, Rumpelstiltskin realized that there was a possibility that his lungs might actually freeze while he was stuck up here. It had happened once before and even though it had done no lasting harm, it had been somewhat traumatic. With some half-hearted notion of resolve, Rumpelstiltskin promised again that he would find some way to escape this cold. At the very least, he needed to find some way to make a fire.
As he was cresting a hill of snow, Rumpelstiltskin was mulling over the idea of heading back to that small collection of trees when he saw six white, huddled shapes moving along a path in the snow in front of him. Smiling with such force that it broke the frost that had formed on his face, Rumpelstiltskin ran down the hill in an attempt to join these whatever-they-were. Unfortunately, his short legs couldn’t compensate for the snow underfoot and he tumbled end over end, his small body collecting snow to the point that at first he became a snowball.
But then, as is the nature with snowballs, Rumpelstiltskin continued to gather powder until he was the center of a boulder of snow and ice. The only mercy afforded him was that he had nothing in his stomach to throw up, so when he rolled to a stop in front of the six figures, Rumpelstiltskin, at the very least, was not covered in bile and filth.
Instead, only his head was visible from the side, a wide grin on his face as soon as he recognized that he had intercepted these snow-covered strangers.
“H—hello!” he exclaimed, the cold enough to cause his teeth to clatter outside his control. Rumpelstiltskin would have liked to have made a better first impression, but he had to admit that this was already one of the better introductions he had made in his storied life.
Before he could get any further into explaining his appearance, one of the figures stepped forward and then crouched down to look at him from the darkness of its hood.
“Boy, what are you doing? Are you some sort of spirit?” it asked, a surprisingly warm, masculine voice coming from the shadows.
“S—spirit? No, n—nothing like that! I’ve b—been told I have p—plenty of it, b—but the faer—ries and nymphs and wh—whatnot rarely ev—ver want to associ—ciate with me,” Rumpelstiltskin explained as his jaw fought against him, trying to extend his hand for a handshake before realizing his arm was still moored in his snowball. “My nam—me is Rumpelstilts—sk—skin the Third, and I’m an adventur—rer!”
“An adventurer, eh?” the figure asked, tilting its head to the side. “Do you often imitate snowmen?”
“No, not oft—ten. I th—think it’s only happened once or twi—wice, but I might also be imagin—gining it,” the imp mused, looking up to the sky to try to jog his memory. When he failed, he turned back to the stranger and also failed at shrugging. “Sometimes I imagine a—all kinds of things.”
“Well, we can’t fault you for that,” the stranger said, ending with a chuckle. “Would you like me to get you out of that snowball, or did you want to roll along your way?”
“That does s—sound fun,” Rumpelstiltskin said, but then he shook his head as much as he could. “B—but it is rather c—cold, and it’s hard t—to t—talk.”
“I can imagine, boy,” the stranger said before standing and motioning to one of his companions. When the other figure came closer, it gave the stranger an ice pick and then stepped away. Then the stranger crouched down and struck the snow and ice that kept Rumpelstiltskin prisoner. “This won’t take too long.”
“M—my thanks,” the imp replied. True to the stranger’s word, Rumpelstiltskin was freed within just a few moments, the snow collapsing once the stranger had chipped away enough of the prison. Once he was able to get to his feet, Rumpelstiltskin wrapped his arms around his torso and then bowed to his savior.
“It would have take—taken me a while t—to get out of there.”
“Or never, more likely,” the stranger said before standing to his full height and looking down at the imp.
“It is dangerous to be playing out here in the wilderness, Rumpelstiltskin. If we were not on our pilgrimage, you likely would have been left alone and trapped until the end of your life.”
“Oh, I d—doubt it would take that long,” Rumpelstiltskin said, waving away the prospect of spending immortality in a snowball with a lackadaisical gesture. It confused the travelers, but the imp had no way to realize why they would not understand. Instead of bothering with their reactions—which were hidden underneath their hoods, anyway—Rumpelstiltskin looked back at the lead figure and nodded. “Th—thank you for helping, though. N—now I just have to get w—warm.”
“We would offer you a coat or skin for that, imp, but we only have enough for ourselves. However, the end of our pilgrimage is very close—it is just at the base of the mountain ahead—and I am certain that someone there would be able to provide you with something to help,” the stranger suggested, and Rumpelstiltskin was already nodding along.
“Th—that sounds perfect! L—lead the way.” One of the other figures grunted at the exchange, causing the leader to look back at his companion.
“Are you sure that’s wise? He’s probably a spirit, Jan. He could be lying about that. You’ve heard tales of Jack Frost just like I have,” he said, his voice a higher pitch than the first traveler.
“But m—my name is Rump—plestiltskin the Third. I though—thought I to—told you that…” the imp said as put his hand to his mouth, honestly forgetting if he had said his name or not. However, the lead figure, whose name was apparently Jan, waved away the suggestion.
“Jack Frost is a children’s tale, Oscar. This boy is clearly harmless,” he said, already walking further along their path and sweeping Rumpelstiltskin underneath his arm as he passed.
“He’s alone in the wilds and he somehow has survived without a coat. Do you still think it wise to take him with us?” the Oscar-creature said, but Jan did not seem to mind.
“There is nothing sinister in this child, I assure you. How good of pilgrims could we be if we leave a boy alone in the snow?” Jan asked, and there was no reply from any of the other travelers. They all just followed after their leader, murmurs and complaints about Rumpelstiltskin lost to the wind that had decided to renew its assault.
Because of that gale and all the others that came after it, conversation became a fool’s prospect as they struggled through the snowdrifts. Of course, that meant Rumpelstiltskin attempted conversation a few times, but even Jan could not hear any of the words that managed to escape the imp’s mouth. After the fourth attempt, Rumpelstiltskin stopped trying and just walked along, Jan helping him whenever he inevitably tripped in the snow.
After another hour of traveling underneath the stranger’s arm, Rumpelstiltskin and his six companions were finally at the yawning entrance to a cave that promised danger, death and maybe even worse. Even Rumpelstiltskin, who had seen terrors and monsters that would drive normal people to the asylum, gulped down fear as they stood against the darkness. The snow that fell around the entrance only made it seem more foreboding, but the imp’s companions all seemed to be relieved at the end of their journey.
“So what kind of pilgrimage is this?” Rumpelstiltskin asked weakly, unable to break his grip on Jan’s torso since frost had formed around his arms. He desperately hoped that this was not one of those suicidal pilgrimages meant to placate mean gods and tyrants.
“A religious one, boy,” Jan said, and Rumpelstiltskin looked up in time to see the stranger raise his hands to pull back his hood. Once he did, Rumpelstiltskin was able to see Jan’s brown and grey hair—complete with a bushy beard—and the imp was so shocked by his appearance that he ventured a few feet further into the cave so he could look at his companions.
“Oh! I didn’t realize you were people!” he shouted, earning a laugh from Jan and the rest of his companions.
“And what did you think we were, Rumpelstiltskin? Some sort of snow creatures?”
Rumpelstiltskin was about to nod when he realized how absurd that might seem to his new friends. Instead, he shrugged and then turned back to the darkness.
“Sorry, the cold must have gotten to me. So what’s in there?” he asked, and he was surprised to feel Jan’s hand on his shoulder.
“Nothing to be afraid of, boy. Come, we’ll try to get you warm.” Rumpelstiltskin didn’t have the strength or willpower to fight his companion as the man brought him further into the cave. Rumpelstiltskin was afraid, but fear had never stopped the imp before.
Once they were just a hundred feet inside, he abandoned his fear and gave into childlike wonder.
Sculptures of ice up to five feet tall were scattered around the inside of a massive, sprawling cave and ice crystals had formed between the stalactites along the high ceiling, and even though there was very little light—and most of that came through a hole in the rock formation at the end of the cave—it reflected through each of the crystals and gave the entire area a sort of frozen life.
It was all amazing, but most impressive was the gigantic piece of ice below that opening in the rock. It seemed like a bolt of lightning had frozen in place.
In fact, it was so amazing that Rumpelstiltskin almost didn’t realize that there were dozens of people milling about, merchants and cooks and all kinds of pilgrims. There was a line of people that lead directly to the lightning made of ice, but otherwise people were talking, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. As exciting as it was to see this bastion of civilization in the middle of the frozen wilds, the imp couldn’t help but be distracted by a magnificent statue off to his right.
With no regards to decorum or respect, Rumpelstiltskin ran to the statue and then marveled at it from up close. It was ten feet tall—a sentry of sorts—and the imp could see the clear lines in the ice the artisan had made with what Rumpelstiltskin could only assume was love. It was a knight holding a broadsword with its point to the ground, and the imp figured it was some sort of figure out of myth, legend or maybe even history. When he touched the surface, it was understandably cold, but it almost felt like marble.
Lost to time and wonder, Rumpelstiltskin stared so long at this amazing sight that he hadn’t even noticed that Jan had left and already returned with a bundle of skins. Once he arrived, Jan offered it forward just as Rumpelstiltskin turned to face him.
“Here you are, Rumpelstiltskin. This will help warm you, since we don’t have a fire to spare. They are very strictly regulated in this cave. So close to the altar, the priests do not want to risk any chance of melting the ice,” Jan explained, and Rumpelstiltskin thought up a hundred questions as he accepted the skins and wrapped himself in layers that were far too big for his body. After reaching a point where he could at least manage movement, the imp turned back to his friend with the only question he still remembered.
“What’s the altar for?” he asked, and Jan chuckled as he took the imp underneath his arm and guided him to the line of people waiting for their turn with the magnificent ice sculpture at the back of the cave.
“This is the Altar of Frozen Lightning, Rumpelstiltskin. Obviously, Christianity and all the other faiths have already gained their footholds, but there are some of us who still remember the old ways, who respect the old ways. When this place was found, it was clear that some divine being was responsible. Whether it was God, a spirit, or even nature itself does not quite matter. For pilgrims like us, this place means all of those things,” Jan answered, coming to a stop at the end of the queue. “To come here to the Altar of Frozen Lightning is to accept that there is something more. For my own beliefs, I see it in my every day, but the Frozen Lightning is undoubtedly a miracle.”
“The sculptor was definitely something,” Rumpelstiltskin said in agreement, already feeling much warmer under his bundle of skins. “That knight back there is flawless, and the lightning seems to be standing all by itself like that. It must have taken years.”
“The sculptor was indeed quite good, boy,” Jan said with a sly smile as the procession moved along. “And for that knight back there, that was most certainly a skilled ice sculptor, but no one knows how the Frozen Lightning came to be. An explorer stumbled upon this cave centuries ago, and almost everyone agreed that there was no way that he could have been responsible.”
“Then who did it?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, covering his mouth.
“That is why it’s a miracle, Rumpelstiltskin. No one knows, and since no one knows, we get to make up whatever we want.” Jan patted Rumpelstiltskin’s shoulder, but the imp was understandably lost. He knew all kinds of things when it came to gods and faith, but his new friend was using advanced concepts the imp could not fully realize.
Since he could not, Rumpelstiltskin stopped trying.
“So what do we do when we get to the end of the line? Is there a god I’m supposed to worship once we’re there?” he asked, and that drew yet another chuckle from the old pilgrim.
“Whatever god you want, Rumpelstiltskin, if you even want to worship a god. While Oscar and the others might say a few names under their breath—the old ones, the new ones—I have never quite seen the point,” Jan explained as they continued forward in the line. It was slow-going, but now they were only a few spots away from the front of the queue. “There are days when you simply must give into wonder, into the unknown, and that is what I think of when I kneel before the altar.”
“I like you a lot, Jan,” Rumpelstiltskin said abruptly, shocking the pilgrim into looking down at him.
“Wonder and the unknown are what I chase every day. I’m always looking for stories, for new things, and though I don’t worship them, that’s what I want from my life. You’re the same, I think, and I think we’ll be very good friends,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he extended his right hand for a handshake.
“I think so, too, Rumpelstiltskin,” Jan replied with a smile, and—misunderstanding the imp’s intent—he took hold of the offer with his left hand. It was wrong for a handshake and it disappointed the imp for a very short moment, but when Jan held on, Rumpelstiltskin realized what the pilgrim had assumed and that he didn’t mind in the slightest. Holding onto Jan’s hand, Rumpelstiltskin smiled as they shuffled forward in line.
Once they were finally at the front, Rumpelstiltskin waited patiently for the last kneeling pilgrims to finish their own brand of worship. It surprised even the imp how well he was behaving, but he assumed it had something to do with the kind man by his side. When the worshippers finally rose and walked to the side, Jan let go of Rumpelstiltskin’s hand and then kneeled in front of the frozen bolt.
“Can I touch it?” Rumpelstiltskin whispered, but he already knew that he shouldn’t. When Jan shook his head, the imp was only slightly disappointed, and he stepped forward so he could join Jan in kneeling in front of the magnificent sculpture of ice.
It really did look like a lightning bolt trapped in time, the light coming from the gash in the ceiling enough to make a thousand reflections ripple through its surface. At once, Rumpelstiltskin’s jaw dropped and he had to debate whether or not he was right about the gods and demons he had seen. In front of this miracle of ice, Rumpelstiltskin had to doubt whether he had imagined it all.
But then he realized that this bolt of frozen lightning was just the same as everything else in his life. As Jan had explained earlier, it was a clear sign that there was something more; that he or Jan or anybody didn’t know everything, didn’t know almost anything. There was always something unknown, something that Rumpelstiltskin would never be able to understand, and the imp honestly did not want to. To be able to look at the world and wonder, to have faith that something was outside of his control, was to be able to see something new and miraculous even in the smallest grains of sand, in the change of the winds, and even in a piece of ice that was likely just a fancy icicle.
So while Jan prayed and worshipped in his own way, Rumpelstiltskin bowed his head in reverence and whispered his own wishes to the universes, to the gods, to nature, to anything at all. He didn’t know if anybody was listening, did not even pretend to think there was, but it felt nice to give in to faith during that moment. As he did, he thought of all his old friends, about his pets, the people he had met along the way, and for those who had already came and went, Rumpelstiltskin gave them another thought and another wish. For those who mattered to him, he could think of no better tribute than to encounter the unknown.
When Jan set his hand on Rumpelstiltskin’s shoulder, Rumpelstiltskin was not sad or disappointed. He felt like he had spent his time exactly how he was meant to, had thought of those friends and those creatures and the endless possibilities they might encounter, and he felt at peace. Though he had encountered his fair share of pain and loss and misery, this moment at the Altar of Frozen Lightning had given Rumpelstiltskin a sort of serenity.
“Thank you, Jan,” he said, and the pilgrim looked down at him with mutual appreciation.
“You’re welcome, Rumpelstiltskin. Do you understand what I spoke about before? It’s alright if you do not. Sometimes, I feel like I’m just going mad.”
“No, Jan, I understand. It doesn’t matter what you worship or pray to or even think about. Coming here… it’s a way to find peace. Not everyone needs it—I don’t really need it—but it feels very nice. I know why you like to come here,” he said, and the old pilgrim was stunned by his response. Chuckling in appreciation, Jan patted his shoulder again before pulling him toward one of the cooks at the far end of the cave.
“You were right, boy. We’ll be very good friends. I already like you more than Oscar, at least.”
Rumpelstiltskin laughed, already smelling the sausages cooking ahead of them. He hoped that one of them was meant for him.
“He probably just has more to learn. You humans always think you know everything,” Rumpelstiltskin said, not even considering how strange the statement might seem. Jan faltered for one of his steps, but then he turned back to the imp at his side.
“So he was right. You’re something not quite human. Aren’t you, Rumpelstiltskin?” he asked, but the imp was not concerned that Jan had found out. He just looked back up at the man with a grin.
“Yeah, but you already knew that,” he said, and he offered his hand innocently, hoping that Jan would not be scared off. Just like Rumpelstiltskin had hoped, Jan took his hand and continued toward the sausages sizzling and popping just a few yards away.
“You’re right again, Rumpelstiltskin,” Jan said, a knowing smile on his face. “I already did.”