The chill tore at his uncovered hands and feet, and if not for that reminder, Rumpelstiltskin may have remained oblivious to the events about to occur. As soon as he looked around the dismal city square covered by a blanket of winter and heard the bell tower chiming for some foreboding occasion, Rumpelstiltskin realized he had been here before, just before this time.
This was the winter he had seen upon a magical stump, the last season of Circe’s life. Rumpelstiltskin had not seen the woman in more than two centuries, but that stump had given the imp insight few could ever experience. Within the confines of that magical tree, Rumpelstiltskin had seen Circe’s youth, her fall from mystical grace, but the last scene had played out just on the edges of this city, some enforcer dragging the witch to justice.
Those memories burning within his mind despite the winter mix around him, Rumpelstiltskin looked at the gathering crowd in the square ahead of him and knew just who he would find at the center.
Rumpelstiltskin did not bother with manners, instead running headlong into the throngs of people chanting and screaming and spitting in misguided fury. Whatever they thought of Circe or what she had been accused of, Rumpelstiltskin knew she was not capable. In the past, perhaps—the sorceries at her disposal could have thrown the world into upheaval—but Circe was long past her age of glory. The last time Rumpelstiltskin had seen her, they had torn a demon’s soul out of her body, and while he did not know the specific consequences of doing such a thing to a witch, he knew magic was beyond her now. The autumn he had observed on that magical stump told him as much, and while these ignorant masses might blame Circe for all kinds of calamities, Rumpelstiltskin knew it was just noise and fury.
Still, when Rumpelstiltskin finally pushed through the crowd and saw his friend held captive in the stocks, she did not look innocent.
“Circe…” the imp muttered, seeing what the crowd had done to his friend. She was covered in the usual filth, the scent of rotting produce and excrement filling Rumpelstiltskin’s nostrils from a few yards away. And while her dead, grey-green eyes stared at the stage beneath her—easily seen now that her jailors had taken Circe’s dark ringlets of hair and left her with uneven, hacked-off scruff along her scalp—Rumpelstiltskin did not how she could keep them open at all. There were open wounds and sores all over her exposed skin, deep, dark bruises surrounding each weeping gash and frostbitten patch of arm and leg. What meager rags they had given her for modesty gave her no dignity; she seemed like she had been born from the street only to be run over by several carriages and malicious horses.
However, the state she was in had not made her deaf. While the screams and chants of the masses before her went without reaction, that one, little word from Rumpelstiltskin’s mouth caught her attention. Shakily, her lungs heaving despite her wishes, Circe lifted her head and focused on the child she had abandoned for demonic temptation.
“Kid—do…” she murmured, her voice abandoning her by the second syllable. Recognition filtered through her ruined features, relief swiftly replaced with horror and anguish. Only then did Circe struggle against her fate at all, but soon she realized how truly imprisoned she was within the stockade. Still, she rattled against her bindings, but the behavior of a cornered animal would not stop Rumpelstiltskin from approaching. He was afraid as well, but only because he knew what was coming, and he did not want to ruin any part of their last conversation.
“Circe, how did you get here?” he asked, wanting some explanation for the centuries lost between them. It was almost rhetorical, but Rumpelstiltskin wanted to know why she did not return to him sooner. Before she could answer, the imp closed the distance between them and put a leathery palm against her cheek, making sure to keep it there even after Circe flinched at the touch.
“Rumpelstiltskin…” Circe whined, avoiding eye contact as best she could in her fixed position. Seeing some degree of sympathy for a woman they had been taught to hate, the crowd surged forward with a giant man wearing a floppy hat taking the lead.
“Get back from that witch!” he shouted, but he was not prepared for Circe to fix her attention on him.
“Don’t you dare touch him,” she commanded, her tone somehow more frigid than the air freezing their bones. That was almost enough for the man to turn back, but even his misguided fear of Circe did not stop him from lowering his torch and pointing at the longtime friends.
“You don’t get—”
“Leave us,” Rumpelstiltskin commanded this time, furrowing his wizened brow over beady black eyes that were now burning into the villager’s soul. Maybe it was his tone, or his otherworldly appearance, maybe some combination of both, but this time, fear remained within the hearts of the mob. They backed away, trepidation setting the pace, and whatever chants and shouts that had come before had been forgotten.
For the rest of their conversation, Rumpelstiltskin had made sure they would be uninterrupted.
“Circe…” Rumpelstiltskin’s gaze softened as he returned it to his friend. “I made a promise to be here for you, in… in the end, but I didn’t want it to be like this. I wanted to see you again before… before I had to tuck you in.”
“Tuck me in…”
“That’s what I call it, if you don’t remember,” Rumpelstiltskin said, and this time he was the one who could not look Circe in the eye. He was already sniffling, but he did not want to leave anything silent between them.
“That’s what I call it when I see my friends at the end, before they leave for the next world, before they start dreaming in a place I can’t follow. It’s like… for some of them, I get to give them peace before they go on their next adventure. Before they sleep forever, I get to tuck them in for their last… for their last goodnight.
“Solomon’s curse,” Circe commented, and Rumpelstiltskin looked at the witch to see her shivering within her shackles. He could tell it was not the cold that tore at her composure, and tears had started a slow descent down her cheekbones. “I’ll always hate that man for what he did to you.”
“You shouldn’t,” Rumpelstiltskin argued, taking the breath from Circe’s weak lungs. “I love my curse. I know… I know you don’t approve of it, thinking that it hurts me.
“But it doesn’t hurt me, Circe,” he added, wiping the snot from his nose with a rough sleeve. “I know it looks like I’m in pain now, but Sir Death’s curse has given me a life no one else gets to have. I’ve gotten a chance to meet so many people and go on so many adventures, and I know… I know I would not have lived through all of them or even most of them if death had the same rules for me like it does everyone else.”
“He makes you watch people die, Rumpelstiltskin.”
“He lets me watch people die,” Rumpelstiltskin replied, shaking his head so hard it released the frozen tears from his cheeks. “It hurts. It hurts so much to watch my friends leave this world, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If I didn’t have this curse, I wouldn’t be able to see them again and give them a friendly face to see before they leave this world. I treasure this curse, because it lets me say goodbye and it gives my friends a final chance to look back on their life and see some good in it.”
“Good?” Circe scoffed, a pained breath making her pause. “What good do I get to see in my life, Rumpelstiltskin?”
“You get to see our summer,” the imp replied, quick in his certainty. Just that phrase shocked Circe, but Rumpelstiltskin decided to take it further. “I knew you would be here eventually, Circe. On one of our adventures, I went on a trip where I got to see your whole life. I got to see you back during your early days, but I saw you in the future, as well. I saw you take down two hunters without magic, and now I—”
“Have found me in the winter of my life,” Circe jumped ahead, understanding filtering through her ravaged face. “I thought I… I felt you during those times. Just a few days ago, I thought you were on the road with me.”
“I was,” Rumpelstiltskin nodded through the revelation. “But for me, it was hundreds of years ago.”
“And you still remember?”
“I could never forget.” The imp placed both of his hands on Circe’s cheeks and tried to warm the tracks her tears had left behind. “You were already more than just special, Circe. The life we shared only strengthened that feeling, but once I saw what might become of you, I promised to you, to myself, that I would always make sure you could look back on our journeys and smile and see something better. Maybe just the world, but I was hoping… I was hoping you could see a better version of you that I helped bring out.”
“Better version of me, huh,” Circe murmured, sighing before looking back into the imp’s eyes and demanding truth. “So you knew this was going to happen when you brought Solomon and took the Ifrit’s Eye from me?”
“I… did,” Rumpelstiltskin admitted, dropping his hands so he could wring them together. “I knew that confronting you might lead to you… not having me in your story anymore. When I saw the autumn and winter of your life, I—I didn’t… I didn’t see me in it. I knew that—that someday I might do something that would make it so we didn’t get to share our lives anymore. When I stood outside the fires in that valley… well, I knew that it might be the last time I got to see you for a while.”
“And you did it anyway.”
“I had to…” Rumpelstiltskin said sheepishly, only looking back at her once he had convinced himself that he was right. “The Circe I knew—the friend I knew, she wouldn’t want to be taken over by a demon king’s soul. Even if she lost everything else in the process, the Circe I knew would want to keep her own will.”
“That’s…” Circe started, and Rumpelstiltskin watched as her eyes softened. “That’s probably true. I resented you and Solomon for a long time, kiddo, and while I still… well, while I still hate that man, the resentment I had for you melted away eventually.”
“Eventually…” Circe paused, biting her lip so she could distract herself with pain and keep speaking through her sorrow. “Eventually it was shame that kept me from looking for you. Kept me hiding from you.”
“I wanted to see you again.”
“But I could never believe that,” Circe added, laughing at the misfortune of it all. When she tilted her
head back, Rumpelstiltskin could see the laugh was bitter in her mouth. “How could you ever want to see me again, when I almost fed you to the flames? How could you ever forgive me or like me or want to talk to me again when you saw the monster I willingly became? How could I even smile in your direction without reminding you of that smile on my face when I promised you pain?”
“I would never have remembered that,” Rumpelstiltskin claimed, and while Circe heard the truth of it, she still shook her head and rested her neck against the stocks holding her.
“Maybe that’s true, Rumpelstiltskin, but I knew otherwise. Just like I knew everything back when I traded the Eye for my friendship with you. I’ve known so many things—convinced it was endless things, in my vanity—but I always should have just looked at you. You always surprised me Rumpelstiltskin. Always, and always in the best ways.
“But I never could have believed you would want to see me again after Asmodeus took my magic from me,” she followed quickly, looking back at Rumpelstiltskin and breaking just a little further. “I had enough power to summon that last portal, but the only artifact of my sorcery that remained to me was my extraordinary vitality. Without my magic, I belonged nowhere, and I could never ask the world to let me see you again. To face you would be to face… to face the fact that I never deserved you in my life.”
“You deserved me, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin argued, not content to let this woman fall any further into despair. Closing the distance, Rumpelstiltskin stood on his tiptoes and wrapped his hands around Circe’s neck, giving her the only hug the stocks made possible. “You may have only seen the evil in you because that is what you prized, but I would not have found my way to you and stayed with you if there wasn’t any good hidden away. I may have brought it out, but it was already there. I can’t just make good, Circe. I just let people see it within themselves.”
“How?” Circe whined into Rumpelstiltskin’s neck. “How could you ever like to be around such a miserable soul?”
“I don’t like you, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin said, dropping his arms so he could step back and look Circe in the eye. She wavered there, uncertain of what he would say, but the imp gave her the most innocent of smiles. “I love you, just like I always have, just like I did that day in the flames, just like I did when you showed me my own night sky, just like I have every time there was decades between us, just like I did when I ate an angel cake cottage and just like I did when I promised I would give you everything I could.
“That promise never went away Circe, and that love never went away. I hurt for the centuries since I last saw you, because during that time I never got to show you that love and make you feel loved. That’s what hurts most now. Not that I don’t get to save you, or that I have to watch you leave. What hurts was the time I didn’t spend with you, using each and every day to show you that someone loved you, that someone needed you and was better for it.” Rumpelstiltskin kept on his tirade, pausing only to take the snot from his nostrils and ignoring the tears freely flowing down his cheeks.
“I know I can’t save you today, because you did not choose for me to be here. You chose to die this way, and I won’t achieve anything trying to change your mind,” he said, tears flooding over Circe’s green eyes and telling him just how right he was. “The only reason I’m here today is because the curse brought me here, to say goodbye, to tuck you in for the last time you go to sleep. I hate... I hate that you were in so much pain and it led you to this, I hate that you think your only impact on the world was negative, but I’m here to tell you otherwise. I’m here to tell you that the world was better for you, because I was better for you, and… and I think that means something.”
“I hurt too many people, kiddo. I may not have hurt these people,” she said weakly, nodding at the crowd who flinched at their sudden inclusion, “but I do deserve an end like this. I deserve to be brought to justice, and it doesn’t matter if I personally crossed the people responsible for that justice.”
“I never imagined a Grand Sorceress would ever admit to such a thing,” Sir Death’s voice entered the fray, and Rumpelstiltskin turned to find the ancient king standing just behind him.
In such a moment, the imp actually thought the reaper was intruding, but whatever animosity he had once held for Circe seemed abandoned.
“Here to gloat, Sol?” Circe would have spat if she had the energy, but the reaper shook his head and set his hand on Rumpelstiltskin’s shoulder.
“No, Circe. There was no time in our rivalry where I ever would have thought it was appropriate. You were always a worthy foe and deserving of respect, but the greater part of our time together has been as misfit guardians for this child, here.”
“What are you saying?” Circe raised an eyebrow and regretted it once a scab on her brow opened up.
“I may have been a paternal figure to Rumpelstiltskin, but a boy needs more than a patrician’s hand. For all the monstrous acts and atrocities we will not mention, there is one area where you rarely faltered,” he said, nodding at the woman who never expected it. “If I was Rumpelstiltskin’s father, you were surely his mother.”
“A mother who would sacrifice her own child, Sol? Puts me on the same level as Medea.”
“You both have your faults, but this child never felt betrayed or unloved, Circe, no matter what outward display you put forth,” Sir Death explained, his hand rising to ruffle through the imp’s hair. “At your weakest, he knew better, because he is better. You saw it immediately, the truth of his golden soul, and it is our fault whenever we forget.
“He reminds me often, because I give him the chance to do so,” Sir Death said, looking down on Rumpelstiltskin. “It might leave me vulnerable to powerful emotions, but I go back to that well because I need it. I need that affection, that love, and you and I are fortunate for being the recipients of that love, if nothing else. You may have denied it over the last centuries of your long life, Circe, but it was always yours, and it would not be yours if the world wished otherwise.”
“I don’t deserve that.”
“Sometimes I feel the same,” Sir Death said before returning his attention to the dying witch. “However, I assure you, just from what I have personally witnessed, you were the woman Rumpelstiltskin needed in his life.”
“And now he gets to watch me die?” Circe harped on the same point, making the reaper look away in shame. However, Rumpelstiltskin took it as his opportunity to regain the spotlight.
“Only if that’s truly what you want,” he said, advancing so he could put his forehead against hers. “It will happen, today or tomorrow or a millennium from now. I will be there for you in the end, just as I have promised every day. I will never avoid that pain, but if you are done with your own guilt and want to see what is on the other side of the endless sea—if you want to see the truth of the Void—then I will be the one to wave at you from the shore as you depart.”
“What do you know of the Void, kiddo?” Circe asked incredulously, but when Rumpelstiltskin took a step back and Circe could see the universe reflected in his eyes, she realized that he had forgotten more than she had ever known. In the winter of her life, that knowledge gave her peace, and Circe let out a last stream of tears before looking back to Sir Death.
“I think I’m ready, reaper.”
“Reaper? No last sarcastic bite for the Wise King Solomon?” Sir Death replied, earning a wicked smile from his counterpart.
“I think I’ve truly beaten that dead horse into pulp, but we can try one last time for old time’s sake,” she said, shaking her head even at the mention of the attempt. From the stocks, nodding as best as she could at the stake behind her and the pile of kindling, Circe let the reaper know what she intended. “Mind helping out an old friend?”
“There are… better ways to reach the Void, Circe,” he argued, but the woman only shrugged within her prison.
“Oh, Sol. I was a Grand Sorceress. I was a piece of almost every culture’s mythology, and countless women have been burned at the stake just for rumors of witchcraft. After what I’ve done… the stake seems like the best way for someone like me.”
“It will be painful.”
“After what I’ve done, I think that’s exactly what I want,” Circe said, turning back to the boy crying below her last stage. “I understand you want to be here for me, kiddo, but I don’t want you to see or hear this.”
“That doesn’t matter to me.”
“That doesn’t matter to me, Circe,” the imp emphasized, putting on a frown and setting his hands on his hips to be as intimidating as a three-foot-tall imp could be. “I promised, and I don’t go back on a promise.”
“I… don’t want you to see, kiddo. It’ll break me,” Circe admitted as she dropped her head, but Rumpelstiltskin just put his forehead against her own once more.
“I’ll put you back together before I tuck you in,” he said, unaware what he was getting himself into. His lunacy and childlike mentality would not let him comprehend the reality of his promise, but he would not back down. Rumpelstiltskin was only here because of a curse, but he was determined to make it a blessing.
“I’ll try not to scream,” Circe said as the clasps of the stockade undid themselves, leaving the witch to climb to her feet and look down at the imp who had shared so much of her immortal life.
“It’s alright if you do,” Rumpelstiltskin replied, but at this point the crowd behind them had regained their agency.
They booed and yelled as Circe rose to her full height, and they kept booing and yelling even as she willingly walked back to the stake and climbed upon the firewood. The cries died down as confusion took hold, but some of the crowd still protested, since they were not getting the shameful execution they had been promised.
“What’s going on here?” the man with the floppy hat asked, somehow the bravest of the craven crowd. “The execution isn’t until dawn! The witch doesn’t get to decide how she dies!”
“You certainly don’t get to!” Rumpelstiltskin replied as he whipped around, almost snarling at the man. This time, however, the man was not cowed by an imp half his size, instead brandishing his torch at Rumpelstiltskin’s face.
“Get back to Hell, monster.”
He was about to jab the brand into the imp’s nose, but Sir Death grabbed hold of the torch and yanked it away from its owner. Although he was not a man of imposing stature, the reaper fixed an ashen-eyed stare onto the man and warped the atmosphere around them. No one knew exactly what had happened except the reaper himself, but it was enough for the crowd to back away, fear moving their very bodies.
“You have a much better chance of reaching that place than Rumpelstiltskin, and you do not have the right to determine this woman’s fate,” Sir Death said, beckoning for Rumpelstiltskin to climb up the stairs and onto the stage where Circe waited for them. “Circe, the Grand Sorceress of the Hollow and a thousand other titles, is beyond your judgment, beyond perhaps mine, and if she wishes to die before the dawn of her execution, you do not get to deny her.”
“And who are you to say so?” the man replied, but he was not ready for the shadows that emanated through the air and froze the marrow of their bones.
“I am Death personified, and those who interrupt my earthly duties shall fear this reaper,” he declared in a deep boom of a voice, and Rumpelstiltskin had never seen such darkness emanate from his guardian. The mob was flat-footed at first, but once the first coward turned tail, the crowd dispersed and fled to their homes. Sir Death’s voice still echoed throughout the square by the time it was just the three of them, and it became clear that the whole ceremony was unnecessary.
“Do you still want to die, Circe, now that your audience has dispersed?” Sir Death asked as he reached the top of the stage, but the witch was resolute and stared ahead.
“This was never for them. I am without magic, and it will not be much longer before time claims me piece by piece and I crumble away. The only choice I have is which way I will suffer, and this is much quicker.”
“I could stop the march of time,” Sir Death offered, but Circe scoffed.
“You are not the True Reaper, Solomon, but even then, I would refuse. It is my time,” she stated, looking down at the imp she knew she was about to damage down to his soul. “Your curse even told us so.”
“This seems like a waste,” Sir Death replied, but Circe shrugged and then breathed in deep.
“I’m older than you, Sol. Maybe you’ll see why I’m acting this way after another thousand years. You just haven’t grown up enough, yet,” she said with a smile, even as she prepared for fire to swallow her whole. “And let’s not pretend that there’s any redemption in store for me.”
“It’s been some time since you were a monster, Circe,” Sir Death tried once more, but the witch maintained her staring contest with the horizon beyond the walls. Dawn was still a long way off, so Circe raised her head to the sky and looked at stars crisp in the winter air.
“But I remember just what it feels like, Sol. It’s fitting that you two usher me out the way I promised you all those years ago,” she said before looking back at Rumpelstiltskin, who was being as strong and silent as he could be. “I think it’s the only way I can reach any sort of peace.”
“Then that is what you will have,” Sir Death said under his breath as he stepped forward and placed the torch against the kindling that encircled Circe’s pyre. Although it seemed like minutes, the fire took hold and then raged about the witch’s feet, but she did not whimper or struggle. Circe just held onto the stake behind her and looked at the imp who had come to see her off.
“Thank you, kiddo. Thank you for letting me go, and thank you for being part of my life. It feels like… like sometimes you were the only good part, and I’m so… I’m so sorry I ever thought it was worth it to let you go.” The flames were already licking at Circe’s shins and blackening her skin. Still, the indomitable woman muscled through the pain and tried not to scream.
“It feels so selfish of me, but I’m glad I got to see you again. I’m glad—agh,” Circe tried to resist, but the pain was pushing itself into the forefront of her mind. Even then, the witch mustered inhuman willpower and spoke once more. “Thank you for being Rumpelstiltskin the Third. Thank you for being my imp. Thank you for being the one soul who never gave up on me and thank you for loving a wretch like me. Thank you for making an evil sorceress want to be good every once in a while.”
“Thank you, kiddo,” Circe interrupted, the flames crawling up her midsection and tearing the air from her lungs. She only had enough time for one more appeal, and Circe knew she was going to need to be selfish and have the last word. Keeping herself from screaming in their final moment, Circe breathed in enough for her last thank you.
“Thank you for making me want to see what’s next,” she said, and the time of Circe’s willpower was over. The flames were devouring her body and the pain was beyond unbearable. She knew she would scream and ruin everything, hurt the spirit of the one child she loved the most, but then the witch’s dignity was saved by an unexpected source.
A column of light fell from the sky and enveloped the witch, and though it may have seemed like some divine creature was bound to save her, it became obvious the light was not heaven-sent. Nine figures were floating twenty feet above them, each of them holding out their hands and touching ethereal sigils that vibrated in the air ahead of them. When Rumpelstiltskin looked at the figures, he found a familiar, blond sorceress floating near the center of their semicircle and understood who had come to witness the end of a former Grand Sorceress.
“Gwen?” Circe asked, the pain she had experienced somehow a distant memory. She did not understand why an enemy would come to grant her mercy, but the blond witch merely nodded at the girl in the center of the semicircle. At the motion, Circe and the others turned their attention on the mysterious figure, only to recognize the girl they had saved from a dungeon.
“Margaret?” Rumpelstiltskin said in complete surprise, and the girl nodded at him and smiled before looking down at the half-burned witch drowning in light.
“This is your reward, Grand Sorceress. We will not take your death from you, but we cannot stand by and let you suffer. I did not have a life before you or a future, but you gave me both once you let me take your place within the Hollow,” Margaret explained, a solitary tear rolling down her right cheek. “You promised me that I would find the answers about myself, that I would gain the power to choose who I wanted to be.
“I could never repay that debt, Circe, but this is a small step toward that goal. The Hollow has come to see you off into the next world, and we hope that your time in the Void is filled with the mysteries reality could never give you,” Margaret declared before raising her arms and letting light gather within her hands. Her actions were mimicked by the other eight witches floating in the air, and that was when the column of light grew even brighter. It expanded, and it was not long before Circe’s half-devoured body started to fade from view as it rose into the sky.
Rumpelstiltskin was shocked by the display and was grateful for whatever mercy the Hollow had given one of its major antagonists, but it made no difference to his duties. Rushing up until he was within a foot of the column of light, Rumpelstiltskin raised his hand and waved as hard as he could, catching Circe’s attention just as her face was fading into the light.
“Goodbye, Circe!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted through the tears, determined to wear a smile as his friend departed from this world. “I loved our adventures together! I loved our years together! I loved having you in my life!”
“Kiddo…” Circe almost seemed to whisper, but the smile on her face was the last thing Rumpelstiltskin was able to see from the living legend.
“You have the best dreams you can, Circe! And I’ll… I’ll be there when I can!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted. As the beam of light narrowed and was about to disappear, Rumpelstiltskin doubted, but he heard something which made him more confident.
“Take your time, my love.”
Rumpelstiltskin looked to the sky with a smile, but once the beam of light was gone and the witches departed without a word to the imp or reaper beneath them, it wasn’t long before he collapsed into himself and let out the flood of tears he had been holding back. Rumpelstiltskin had lost friends before, some more important than others, but Circe was always going to be an individual case. He didn’t even notice when Sir Death collected him into his arms and knelt with Rumpelstiltskin as if he was holding a baby.
Knowing exactly what the imp had just lost, Sir Death was determined to hold him as long as necessary. There was only one other person who could possibly mean as much to the child, and Sir Death was not going to let him hurt like that for another few centuries. Even as he held Rumpelstiltskin, Sir Death feared the eventuality of that day, but he would not let the imp have an inkling of that possibility.
This was the day Rumpelstiltskin lost a mother, and Sir Death would console him as only a father could.