Rumpelstiltskin the Third didn't come into being like some sort of specter, but he wasn't born like you or your neighbor or your dear aunt down the road that you never visit, either. Rumpelstiltskin used to be someone else entirely. He used to have a normal name; he used to be a normal boy. In fact, he was only six years old when his life took a decidedly not-normal turn.
The young boy was a miller's son, taken to chasing around the animals of the local farmers when the days were sunny. He had no real yearnings for adventure or life outside the village. He and his father were peasants, but they wanted for little; their small village sustained itself well. For those who lived within those few hovels, it was a life of peace.
That was, until poor Rumpelstiltskin the Second came to town.
Rumpelstiltskin the Second was not much like our little imp. True enough, he looked the spitting image of our soon-to-be-protagonist, but the poor thing's outlook on life was not nearly so optimistic. This Rumpelstiltskin had a hard life and had little to show for it; his left leg was lame, his eyes were cloudy and his right ear had been chewed off. It was a crippled little thing that hobbled into the village.
The miller's boy was the first to notice the half-man as he propelled himself with a gnarled branch, only able to stare from his seat on a sack of barley as he watched Rumpelstiltskin kick up dirt and limp through the village. It wasn’t long before the blacksmith's hammer didn't fall, before the farmer stopped the motion of his plow. The entire village stood still as Rumpelstiltskin struggled to walk with a piece of wood as twisted as his body.
The imp glanced from side to side as he made his way down the main path, leaving small craters where the branch punctured the earth and a wake of dirt from dragging his left leg. All eyes were upon Rumpelstiltskin as he first passed the farmer's house, then the miller's residence. He had only just passed the last dusty plank of the building when he stopped and turned slowly to his left to see the miller's boy staring from his sack of grain. Dust swirled around the imp’s feet as he turned, audible cracks coming from the empty air between his bones, his tortured little body contorting for no apparent reason.
Having never seen anything like it, the miller's boy couldn’t turn away. The broken imp was barely larger than him and had a bulbous nose spotted with the occasional wart and pimple; his beady black eyes were fixed behind rims of wrinkles and crows' feet. What cheeks he had were weathered and gaunt and his mouth seemed fixed in a permanent scowl.
"What business have you here, creature?" a deep, authoritative voice interrupted them, and the boy snapped to attention once he heard his father. To his left, he found the hardened miller staring at the new arrival to the village, and it was clear he was not happy. Even though he knew that meant trouble, the boy felt relieved all the same; he would come to no harm while his father stood over him. However, when the boy looked back down, Rumpelstiltskin’s mouth had curled into a discomforting smirk.
"I've been set upon a journey for quite some time, young man. You see, I was cursed to be this thing before you and as a result, my life has been one pain after another. I used to be quite fetching, if you take my word for it. But then someone granted me a name which held a goodling amount of power; a power I've never quite cared for. You see, it made me this way," the imp said before inching forward on his gnarled crutch. The miller stood his ground, but anxiety visibly coursed through him.
"I'm merely looking for a chance to escape. I've tried for years, miller, to find some way out of this, but it is somewhat difficult to get rid of a name. You see, it tends to stick with you, even if you don't want it. People must have a way to call on you; to call on your power, your terror, your story. So you see, even if I were to reject this name of mine, I'm afraid I wouldn’t be able to escape it. However, I'm still on my journey, sir. I know what the end of it truly is," he hinted, coughing and settling himself down on the ground near the house.
"I look for death, sir, and not some mere ruffian's blade. I look for Death, himself. It seems the reaper has decided to ignore me. I've tried to die, you see," Rumpelstiltskin said, letting out a ragged breath, "but it never seemed to stick. A gang of young boys beat me within an inch of my life and left me broken, but Death did not seem to care. A number of blades puncturing my chest did nothing but make my breathing quite painful. I said to myself, sir—I said that's enough of this nonsense. I quite intend to find the reaper and demand an end to this torment."
The imp looked up at the miller and his boy, still wearing that twisted smile of his. Wondering if he was really telling the truth, the miller looked down at Rumpelstiltskin and frowned. He didn't know why the creature would lie, but he still had his misgivings.
"Well, creature, what do you want from us?"
Rumpelstiltskin chuckled before letting his head fall against the supporting wall.
"Why, miller, I want your boy. He seems quite special, his eyes quite bright." He looked at the miller, mischief playing across every feature. "I just know that Death would come for the boy himself."
The miller's boy could feel every part of him quake with fear and felt it threatening to boil up from his stomach and escape as a scream. And though his father was also affected, his was a reaction of hatred and anger.
"You come to my house and threaten my child! Why on earth would I give my son to you? Why would I let him die for you, imp?" He made strides toward the creature leaning against his house, but stopped short once he heard Rumpelstiltskin laughing as if nothing was wrong.
"Oh, my good man, I don't mean to leave you empty-handed! I will pay handsomely for the boy's life. I feel quite good about the lad's energy; I know something is in store for him. He is most certainly precious, you see," Rumpelstiltskin said, looking up with those beady black eyes of his. Even with his considerable height and strength, the miller couldn't help but feel like he was standing on shaky ground.
"I don't need money, creature. I have enough. I have my son," he claimed, but the creature laughed again before mustering the strength to rise to his feet. Bringing his crutch underneath his armpit, Rumpelstiltskin grabbed a rock as he rose to meet half the miller's height.
"Oh, sir, it's not about needing money, but there is always the desire for more." He held out the rock and massaged it with his fingers. Before the miller's eyes, the stone gained a golden luster, and within just a few seconds, the worthless stone had been transformed into the largest piece of gold he had ever seen.
"There is just one advantage to this name of mine. My predecessor and I share a quality for turning mundane objects into something of worth. You see, my name is Rumpelstiltskin the Second, sir, and I can make you very rich. How much would you like for this son of yours?" the imp asked, lazily tossing the golden rock at the miller's feet.
The miller's boy watched in horror as he saw his father’s resolve flicker and waver. The boy knew they had enough to survive, but after the glint of the precious metal, he could see something had changed. Sweat beaded around the miller's hairline as he contemplated the boy's future; the imp's face creaked as it stretched into a gaunt smile.
"Come now, sir. He is only a young thing, and you can always make another. Here," the creature said, stooping down to place his hand in a sack of barley. He brought out a handful and ground some grains between his fingers, and as they fell, they flickered into gold at the imp's feet.
At that point, there was no future but haggling. The miller was so focused on a new life with money that he didn’t pay attention to the boy at his feet, and his fate was decided after only a few minutes. After taking into account the miller’s love, devotion, and loyalty, the boy's life was worth only three sacks of golden grain, and the imp shook the miller's hand and then peered at the boy to his side.
Even though he was only a few inches taller, Rumpelstiltskin now owned the miller’s son, and he nodded at the main road in expectation. At first, the boy shook his head, but he soon felt a nudge at his back. After looking up, his spirit was crushed once his father nodded toward the boy’s new master.
For a surreal moment, he thought about running away, but his father had always been able to catch him. Those long, strong legs of his carried the miller faster and further, and if the boy tried to run, he would only end up caught. Surrendering completely, he walked after Rumpelstiltskin and felt his first, terrible betrayal. To the man who loved and raised him, the miller’s boy was worth nothing more than a few bags of grain.
Their departure from the village was slow-going. The other villagers took great care not to look their way as the two passed out of town, but the poor boy knew they were watching and waiting for him to leave the village forever. Although they would do nothing to change his fate, they didn’t want to feel their rightful shame for letting the imp take his prize.
Finally, they were past the entrance to the village, and that was when the boy allowed himself some paltry tears. He would never see his father or his friends again, but he didn't want to. Those people had left him to this fate.
The boy had resolved to run away from the imp once they were out of the village—with his leg like that there was no way Rumpelstiltskin could catch him—and he was about to bolt away when the imp suddenly stopped and drew a circle in the dirt of the road. Upon finishing, he turned to his young companion and wore a grim smile.
"This is as good a place as any," Rumpelstiltskin said, breathing heavily, and it confused the boy into holding off on his escape plan. They were only minutes away from the village, and he had no way to figure out why they had already stopped. Seeing the confusion on his property’s face, Rumpelstiltskin waved his hand before giving an explanation.
"Death is a constant companion on the road, boy. We can summon him here better than in that village of yours. And don’t you think about running back, you hear? My magic will keep you from reaching that home of yours, you see. Besides," the imp said, twisting his mouth into that smirk once more, "your father clearly doesn't want you anymore."
Knowing Rumpelstiltskin spoke the truth, the boy gave up completely. In one far-too-fast moment, he had been sold to slaughter by the one person he really loved. His mother had died early on; his sister along with her. Since then it had just been his father, protecting him from harm and evil while bringing him up in a nice village. The boy had known all the farmers, had known all the clerics; none of them had stopped Rumpelstiltskin. After all this, the boy was as good as dead, so he looked at the imp and did his best not to cry.
As sympathetic as he was, the imp’s plans would not be undone by tears, so he patted the boy on the shoulder and turned back to his design.
"That's a good boy. No use running back to them," he assured his prey before drawing symbols intersecting with the circle at his feet. Throughout the process, Rumpelstiltskin mumbled some arcane language under his breath, which was incomprehensible to the young boy. Once the imp had finished his preparations, he stepped away from the circle and grabbed the boy’s arm, his hand as gnarled as the crutch that had fallen to his side. With a surprising strength, he dragged the boy up to the circle and placed one of his wretched claws around his little jaw so he could stare at him with dark eyes.
"When you step inside, be sure not to drag your feet. Those symbols need to be untouched, you see. Now, get in," the imp said before pushing him forward, and the boy only just lifted his feet before entering the circle. Doing as he was told, he tried to avoid thinking about the symbols at his feet or what they meant. Thoughts of dying clouded his mind, and he didn’t need to make it worse by wondering how it would happen.
Just as he closed his eyes, the boy finally felt the blade enter his chest. Looking down, he saw the short blade sticking out from between his ribs, the imp’s gnarled fingers still wrapped around the handle. When he pulled the blade out of the boy’s tiny chest, blood pulsed out of the wound, but Rumpelstiltskin grabbed the boy’s shoulder and kept him standing even as the strength abandoned him. He had only just enough consciousness left in him to stare into the imp’s dark eyes.
"I'm sorry. I just need this to end," Rumpelstiltskin whispered, despair and regret soaked through the words.
This meant little to the boy, who felt his life draining away and the cold creeping in from his fingertips and toes. Collapsing to his knees, the boy’s vision started to blur, his breaths came more ragged and with fresh pain, but then everything started to fade away. Unable to look Rumpelstiltskin in the eye, he listed to the side and saw a dark figure approaching. Although curious, the boy couldn’t see him clearly because of the darkness obscuring his vision. There was no way for him to see the black robes or the scythe at his side.
"What is this?" the stranger asked, obviously offended. His voice seemed out of place, foreboding and welcoming at the same time, but the boy was almost beyond caring.
"A way to get your attention, sir," Rumpelstiltskin replied, but the boy soon found it difficult to concentrate, only half-hearing the conversation happening just a few feet away.
"You killed a child to get to me, imp?"
"It seemed the only way. Did you know I've been trying to set up a meeting this whole time?”
"That is not the way it works. There must always be a Rumpelstiltskin, and he is not allowed to die. Until there is another, I cannot take you with me."
"Then how, reaper?” the imp shouted, anger breaking through his casual demeanor. “How can there be another?"
"Do you not remember? One must volunteer. It was not so long ago that you did the same."
"A hundred years, specter."
"And the first held it for eight hundred. You have not held the position for near as long."
"I need this to be over! I took the name to clear their debts, and I did that within the first year!"
"And was that worth it? Do not call me again. I have better things to do than waste my time on those concerned with earthly pursuits."
"No, wait! You say I cannot die with this name, and that another must volunteer for it?"
"Those are the rules."
"Child!" Rumpelstiltskin shouted, and the boy felt himself lifted from the ground, which was enough for him to open his eyes.
It was so difficult to even think—let alone focus—and this imp had already asked so much from him. When he looked at his master, he saw those black eyes in the encroaching dark, and he knew death claim him soon.
"Child, would you like to live?" the imp asked with a smile on his face, and the possibility of life stunned the boy.
He stayed silent as he stared at the reaper standing above them, hoping the kind man would take him away from this pain.
"That is cruelty, imp. You would not stoop so low," the specter murmured, but Rumpelstiltskin clearly did not care.
"I must, reaper. Child, if you only take my name, you can live forever. Would you like that?" the imp asked, shaking the boy between every word. After all that effort, Rumpelstiltskin wasn’t going to have his only chance slip away from him. Even better, the boy could not possibly understand the magic at work. Another man would never agree to such a thing.
However, since he was only six years old, the boy thought about extending his life. There was a whole world out there that had been taken away from him by his father and the imp, and so he nodded. He wanted to live; he wanted to be able to walk back to the village and tell his father about living forever and shove it in his greedy face.
"Good, boy,” the imp said with a light pat of his cheek. “All you have to say is My name is Rumpelstiltskin. You'll be immortal and I'll die, you see. You win twice, little one, so go ahead. Speak the words."
The boy couldn't see anymore, he wasn't able to tell the imp's eyes from the darkness that had swept over his eyes, but he knew he still had some life. It was only four words. He had strength enough for that.
"My name… is Rumpel… stilts… kin…"
He woke to find himself next to a pool of blood, which was slightly disturbing since he knew most of it was his, and apparently there was a lot of it. By all rights, he should be dead, and so he looked at his chest to see the damage. However, he found that his shirt did not fit very well, that his hands were covered in warts and extended in knobby fingers. Lifting up these new hands to his face, he felt pronounced cheekbones, weathered skin, wrinkles and folds over his young skin. His eyes felt smaller, and they didn’t see nearly so well as they did before the spell.
When he recovered from his transformation, he looked around and saw the broken and twisted body of a young man. Broken, crushed and bleeding, there were a hundred wounds covering every inch of his body. Once the boy reached out a wretched arm to overturn the body, he was surprised to see a thin smile permanently stretched across the man’s handsome features. It was impossible to understand, especially for a six-year old boy from a small village.
Looking up, he saw a tall, grim man in black robes standing a few feet away. Fatigue was evident on his face, the skin hanging just a little loose, and his scalp was covered by a rough and ragged crop of black hair. His cheekbones were high and pronounced, his lips so thin they were almost indistinguishable from the rest of his skin, but it was those eyes that were most disconcerting.
If the specter had not blinked, the boy would have thought they were made of stone.
"I'm sorry, boy, but you were deceived. The man before you was Rumpelstiltskin the Second, and he just gave you his name and his curse. No longer a miller's boy, you will not age. You will not need to eat, drink or breathe, though you can indulge just the same. You do not belong to humanity, but you must live amongst them until another takes your name.
"I do not expect you to understand, imp. Your mind is unpracticed and unrefined, and you will never be able to grow and understand as an adult. You will see so many things and you will remember most of them, but I do not think you will ever see the world as it is. You will not find reason in it.
“If there is justice in these worlds, then the man lying there shall experience more pain in the afterlife than he could possibly understand. Hopefully, this living hell will seem so much lighter in comparison," the reaper concluded before sighing and looking down. He could not abandon a poor, cursed child like this.
Death had to do something.
"The most I can do is maintain your innocence, imp. I will twist your predecessor’s propensity for gold into some other fortune, and I will make this world wondrous in your mind. Perhaps in lunacy you shall find peace," he said, waving a hand covered in a blue haze. For an instant, the boy felt something reaching into his mind, but then everything went white.
The miller’s boy stopped existing at that moment, and in his place rose Rumpelstiltskin the Third. With a smile on his face, the imp casually jumped forward before walking down the road, grateful to feel sunlight on his face. He didn’t know exactly why, but he felt like the village behind him was some place he'd rather not be, so that left the option of the wide-open road. It just felt right. In fact, he imagined he had a distinct chance of running into gophers and having an adventure, though he had no idea what a gopher looked like or what they might consider an adventure.
Less grateful, Death watched as the now-insane imp departed from the village that had abandoned him. Certain of almost nothing else, the reaper knew he would always watch out for that poor boy. Against such cruelty it was the least he could do, but he put the thought out of his mind as he turned his gaze to the village behind him. It had become obvious that he needed to pay the miller a visit.
A man like that did not deserve a life of fortune or peace.