Rumpelstiltskin thought about it—he really did—but he came to the conclusion that slinging a mud-covered rock at these three pompous, gilded knights would be a very bad idea.
See, it wasn’t Rumpelstiltskin’s fault that this trio of treacherous troglodytes were rude—mean, even—and it certainly wasn’t the imp’s fault that they would take his antics as an insult. For years—perhaps even a thousand years, now that he thought about it—Rumpelstiltskin had gotten away with much more than he should have. He had poked ogres in their oversized belly buttons, he had sneezed directly into the eye of a starving dragon; he had even gone so far as to tear a princess’ skirt directly off of her body. None of these had been met with even the slightest of consequences, though that usually had more to do with the context of each particular situation.
Honestly, he shouldn’t have gotten away from that debacle with the skirt; he certainly should not have been able to escape with it. He had no excuse being there.
Yet compared to all of these misadventures, the imp’s perceived insult to these “knights”—Rumpelstiltskin would be sure to curl his fingers into quotation marks if he were to tell the story—was less than nothing. He had only crossed their path in the street, oblivious to their presence, but those arrogant men had decided that Rumpelstiltskin should be punished.
So, leaning down from his horse, one of the knights kicked Rumpelstiltskin into a pile of mud. Or, at least, Rumpelstiltskin hoped it was mud. It was hard to tell what was manure those days; everything smelled the same.
In any case, future fertilizer or not, Rumpelstiltskin was not too happy about his current situation. Seeing their silver, shiny armor laced with gold, the imp had a very difficult time forcing himself to keep his arm steady, the mud pie in his hand a missile that seemed destined to launch itself. It would accent the color of their armor very well, he thought, but then he remembered his place.
Well, not his place in society, but where he was.
Since he had crossed the border into this strict and unforgiving territory, Rumpelstiltskin had been beset by all kinds of rude people, all kinds of paranoia; all kinds of new and exciting insults. Some of them he liked—some of them he really liked—but most of those were misremembered and flawed. While he had been popular in one of the local taverns—a literal hole in the wall of a castle—he had found that most of the local population wasn’t too keen on fun or teasing.
After using one of his new favorite insults on an unrepentant street urchin—an implication of a certain porcine ancestry—it had only been a few moments before he heard some filthy scamp say it to the local guard. In the heat of the moment Rumpelstiltskin had lost sight of the scamp, but he had found him the next morning hanging from the wall.
Well, parts of him.
So even though Rumpelstiltskin desperately wanted to add some earth tones to the gilded knight’s armor—he really, really wanted to—he held his arm back, let the clump fall from his fingers and plop into the standing water waiting beneath. However, it wasn’t long before the knight turned in his saddle and grinned at Rumpelstiltskin.
I would say that Rumpelstiltskin had lost reason in this moment, but we both know the imp’s peculiar state of mind. It was not even a matter of control as he leaned down, grabbed an even bigger and sloppier handful of mud, and flung it at the back of the cantankerous cavalier. The sound of it was most satisfying; the way it clapped against his shining armor, how it stuck there until the suction released and the filth dribbled down to his saddle.
As he watched it slip and slide down the man’s armor, Rumpelstiltskin had the widest possible grin on his face, to the point where he thought that his cheeks may have split open and he might have to hold his face together. However, he stopped thinking about his facial distress once the knight inspected his back, almost snarling at the grime he brought back on his fingers.
When he turned back to face Rumpelstiltskin, the imp could see pure hatred.
Rumpelstiltskin had been afraid before; with the events in his life it would have been beyond even the most extreme suspension of disbelief to think that he had always been brave, but almost always it worked out. Someone would come to his rescue, someone would fall out of the sky and distract them; something would happen to save Rumpelstiltskin, no matter that any harm would be temporary, at best. It had gotten to the point that he could not consider it coincidence; he essentially counted on it, at this point.
But as the knight turned his horse around and his compatriots followed suit and unsheathed their weapons, which Rumpelstiltskin could only assume were used for ill-intent, he suddenly had the realization that he might not make it out of this situation without losing something. He had lost fingers before—a tooth every once in a while—but they were easy enough to replace; they always tended to come back. However, if these knights decided to be really mean, take something larger… Rumpelstiltskin wasn’t quite sure Sir Death’s magic would make the recovery process any easier.
As the knights rushed toward Rumpelstiltskin, the hooves of their massive horses sending mud and rocks and miscellaneous filth into the air, the imp could do little else but stammer and stare. It was slow motion for him—this murderous, mounted monster bearing down on him from across the village intersection—but he was only afraid for a moment. That fear was replaced by confusion and then wonder as he saw a pair of horses plow through the intersection with a rickety carriage right behind them. Rumpelstiltskin, in his slow-motion perception, was able to make eye contact with the man leading those horses, a thin man with dusty, brown hair and a scraggly beard. It was only for a moment—less than that, really—but the man looked out of the corner of his eye and saw Rumpelstiltskin gaping up at him. There was recognition there; the man saw something in the imp he could not understand in that split-second.
Unfortunately, all of that prolonged eye contact made it so that the man did not see the knight galloping down the road. Neither were able to stop, swerve—do anything, really—and so they collided in that village intersection, the carriage splintering against the impact and the riders and horses going whichever direction physics decided to throw them. There were a number of thuds and sickening cracks, but Rumpelstiltskin tried to avoid looking at the horses on the ground; he knew they would not last the day. One of the horses—freshly unfettered from the carriage—galloped off, jumping over the body of one of its equine brethren before running full-tilt into the distance.
The imp was distracted by the horse’s escape, but he turned at the sound of a man grunting in the dirt. Looking back at the calamity he had caused, Rumpelstiltskin saw the driver of the carriage lifting himself up from the mud with great effort, clearly wincing from some new pain. His second horse seemed to have more loyalty than its partner and it had climbed to its feet and approached its master, sniffing at the man’s filthy hair. Rumpelstiltskin heard the groans of two of the knights—the other seemed unconscious, or at least that’s what the imp hoped for—but he couldn’t look away from the stranger and his horse.
“Oh, damn,” the man muttered, turning away from his horse and crawling to the wreckage of his carriage. It was a broken thing, turned onto its side and its door wedged into the mud. At once the stranger started tearing at the planks of wood keeping him from whatever prize lay inside, and Rumpelstiltskin realized the man must have been in a hurry. Knowing that he was the cause of the man’s distress and tardiness, the imp breathed in deep and then rushed over to help, taking hold of a brittle piece of wood and yanking it out of the way. He gained a few splinters for it, but the imp didn’t particularly mind. To him, splinters were very much like pieces of food that got stuck in his teeth; something he could play with once he got bored.
“What, hey! What are you doing?” the man asked, unaware Rumpelstiltskin was doing his best to help. Perhaps he even saw the imp as some sort of scavenger, but Rumpelstiltskin had no intention of taking anything from him.
“Helping! You need to get inside, right?” the imp said, only making eye contact long enough to smile at the stranger. He took hold of another plank before yanking back, using his entire bodyweight to try to force it out. While he was doing this, the stranger just looked him over, confused, awestruck—there were plenty of words to use for how he felt about Rumpelstiltskin.
But, like most, the stranger decided he would just tolerate the imp for now.
“Look, I have this, you go run along and play,” he said, but Rumpelstiltskin shook his head.
“Nope. Those knights were chasing me. I need to pay you back,” the imp argued, but the man took his shoulder and shook his head with urgency.
“You don’t want to be here when the people chasing me get here. Do you understand?” he asked, his voice much more serious for the imp’s liking, but Rumpelstiltskin had a hunch he would be able help.
“Sure, but you probably don’t want to be here either. What do you need from inside?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, already certain the hole they were making was not wide enough for a full-grown man.
On the other hand, it was large enough for an imp to squeeze through.
“I…” the man hesitated, but he looked back where he had come from and realized he did not have the time. Turning back to the imp, the man sighed and motioned inside the carriage. “Thank you. There is a… well… egg in a chest. That’s all I need, little man.”
“An egg? What kind of egg?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, but he already knew the stranger would not trust him with that information.
“An important kind. Please, hurry,” he said, craning his neck to look back along the road, but then there was a roar of a yell from the other side of the carriage.
“Who dares deny the Lord’s justice?” a knight shouted as he pushed himself to his feet, waving his sword around like an idiot, and the imp realized that he did not have much time, himself. Nodding beyond the carriage, Rumpelstiltskin tried to smile at his friend.
“I get the egg, you take care of him?” he suggested, already seeing defeat in the stranger as he slumped his shoulders.
“Yeah, just… yeah,” he said as he crawled forward and grabbed the hilt of a sword that was just visible from the opening in the carriage. Standing up and unsheathing the bastard sword in one motion, the man walked around the ruins of his transportation and got ready to defend Rumpelstiltskin. The imp watched for a moment, but then realized he needed to fulfill his end of the bargain.
Diving into the darkness of the cramped carriage, Rumpelstiltskin realized he wasn’t nearly as tiny as he thought he was. Hearing the muffled grunts and quips coming from the swordsmen outside his cramped quarters, Rumpelstiltskin forced himself to focus on his task. There were plenty of little packages and bags of foodstuffs, but none of that mattered currently. He was looking for a chest—one that might have some sort of rare egg in it—and that was difficult when there was almost no light to see. That was because the imp’s posterior was getting in the way of the light, of course, but he had no way to understand that.
Exploring the carriage via touch, the imp was starting to get frustrated—especially when he heard a yelp from outside—but then his delicate fingers ran along a smooth, leather surface and cold metal. Rumpelstiltskin did not hesitate to grab hold and tug—freeing it from the assorted items that had fallen onto it—and then dragged the heavy chest out of the carriage and into the stale, heavy air of the village. Heaving from the effort, Rumpelstiltskin went about undoing the clasps and then opened the chest.
There, sitting on a pillowed interior, was something that looked remarkably like a robin’s egg, if a robin’s egg was the size of Rumpelstiltskin’s torso.
He would have stared at this marvel for a few minutes, but then he heard the clash of steel and he sat up on his knees to see the stranger squaring off against one of the knights who had given Rumpelstiltskin so much trouble. Now that he was looking, the imp could see that one of the men was still pinned underneath his horse—neither of which were doing more than breathing—and there was a pool of red beneath the last of the trio.
Although he obviously did not much care for the knights, Rumpelstiltskin still regretted that it had come to this.
“I know you!” the last knight shouted, holding his blade in a forward guard and taking in staggered breaths. Rumpelstiltskin could see his stranger grip his handle tighter, but the smile on the knight’s face distracted him. “You’re that hunter! You’re the one killed that dragon last month!”
“No, I’m not,” the stranger said, but his opponent shook his head, no doubt in his mind.
“Yeah, I’d seen you there, in the banquet hall. Kept to yourself, even at the high table. Pissed the rest of us right off! Where did you think you were going, huh? Why you killing knights who had nothing to do with nothing?” he spat out the questions, a dog gnawing on a bone just as it’s about to snap.
“Just let me leave,” the stranger said, calm even as his plans for escape crumbled down around him, but the knight just shook his head again.
“Not after you killed a knight. You’ll be hanged, at the very least. So… what were you doing that killing a knight was your best plan?” he asked, violence and venom seeping through the words, and Rumpelstiltskin realized that this was not going to end well.
It certainly would not end with just a defeated knight.
Just to prove his fears, a horn blared and a dozen shouts answered it—still far enough away that it would take a minute for them to arrive—but Rumpelstiltskin could hear the thunder of approaching horses. Surprised by the stranger’s pursuers, Rumpelstiltskin stood up, unaware that he had the giant egg cradled between his arms.
“Is that—is that the Lord’s Egg?” the last knight shouted, and Rumpelstiltskin turned to see the man’s sword pointed at him. With a sigh, the stranger turned back to look at Rumpelstiltskin, defeat in his eyes. With a deep breath, however, he turned back to his opponent and shook his head slowly.
“Your lord has no right to it,” he said, and the knight bristled at the stranger’s claims. However, because of that shock, he was not ready for the stranger’s advance, closing the distance between them with deft footfalls. He at first approached from the right, but as soon as the knight recovered and tried to swing his blade, the stranger planted his foot and reversed his assault to come from the knight’s other side. The sudden change caught the knight unprepared, but he tried to divert his swing in order to intercept.
However, that was all part of the plan. When the knight tried to shift his swing, the mud underfoot squelched and betrayed him, sending him to the ground just as the stranger thrust forward, piercing the gilded armor of the mud-covered knight. He might have protested or cursed the stranger, but the blade had gone up through his heart and lungs and took the words with it. When the stranger planted his foot against the knight’s chest and retrieved his weapon, the knight was already a corpse.
“You…” Rumpelstiltskin squeaked, earning the stranger’s attention. At that point, the imp knew there was no time to lose, so he shook off the shock and motioned to the egg in his hands. “You stole this?”
“I… took it back,” the stranger said as he marched over to the imp and looked back the way he had come. Already he could make out the first few men on horseback, so he grabbed Rumpelstiltskin’s collar and dragged him over to the horse. “C’mon, we have to go.”
“You want to take me with you?” the imp asked, but the man had already placed his hands underneath Rumpelstiltskin’s armpits and heaved him onto the back of the grey horse. After a quick jump, the stranger swung his leg over and sat in front of Rumpelstiltskin as he gathered the reins.
“I don’t want to leave you behind. They’ll kill you, and I need someone to carry the egg, anyway,” he said, wheeling his horse about and getting settled onto his saddleless transportation. Turning back quickly, he made hard eye contact with the imp. “Can I trust you to do that?”
“I—yes,” Rumpelstiltskin said with a nod, but he was not prepared for the stranger to slap the reins against his horse and set off into a fast gallop. With one arm cradling the egg close to his torso and another latched onto the stranger’s midsection, Rumpelstiltskin almost lost his grip and went flying into the mud a number of times.
As they careened around corners and intersections—jumping over crates and barreling through a couple stalls—Rumpelstiltskin found it very difficult to keep his place on the horse’s back. Already his rear end was starting to get sore, but he knew he couldn’t ask the stranger to slow down. That point was forced home once he saw a few arrows plunk into the mud alongside them, only just missing their targets. Gulping down trepidation, Rumpelstiltskin tried to just focus on the task at hand. He had to stay on the horse’s back and he had to keep the egg safe. Those were the only things the stranger needed him to do.
Once he resolved to do that, however, Rumpelstiltskin noticed there was warmth coming from the egg cradled in his arm. Keeping hold of the stranger’s midsection as he led them out of danger, Rumpelstiltskin looked down to see that the egg was glowing; bits of its blue shell turning purple, almost pink. He was about to say something, but then he remembered the last time he tried to speak on top of a galloping horse, so he instead looked back down at the egg. It was also not a bad assumption to make that distracting the stranger might result in some terrible sort of crash, so Rumpelstiltskin even had reason on his side, in a rare turn of events.
However, he couldn’t maintain his silence once a crack appeared where the shell shone the brightest.
“Uh… Mister…” Rumpelstiltskin tried to speak between the horse’s footfalls, but then he realized that he did not know the stranger’s name. Luckily, the man somehow knew why the imp had paused.
“Roland,” he replied, and even though he desperately wanted it, the imp decided that it would be appropriate to wait for his traditional handshake.
“Ah, I’m Rumplestilt—ow!” he tried to say, biting his tongue even though he was trying to guard against it. Sniffing at the pain, Rumpelstiltskin tried to focus. “Rumpelstiltskin the Third. Sorry.”
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it. Just hold onto that egg,” he said, but Rumpelstiltskin squeezed harder against the man’s midsection to stress his next statement.
“That’s the thing! I think it’s… well, hatching,” he said, causing Roland to immediately turn back to look at it.
“Of course it is,” he murmured before turning back to focus on the road. They were almost out of the village, which was good for them, but Rumpelstiltskin looked back to see a dozen mounted knights bearing down on them. It would not take them long to catch up to them in open ground, and he almost told Roland as much. However, once he looked ahead, he saw that the stranger was trying to get to the woods just beyond the village. It would take Roland minutes to reach the edge, at the very least—and Rumpelstiltskin already knew their archers were not shy about using their talents—but it was something to hope for; it was their finish line.
“What should I do? Want me to cover the crack?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, trying not to bite his tongue again, but he could tell that Roland was clueless.
“If you want to burn your hand when he gets out, be my guest,” he muttered, but Rumpelstiltskin could hear him just the same. The imp was momentarily distracted by another arrow that glanced off a rock as they were running by, but then he heard another, louder crack and looked back at his cargo.
The hairline fracture he had seen before had widened and now split the entire side of the egg, at which point Rumpelstiltskin thought it was an appropriate time to panic. He was about to tell Roland or do something drastic, but then a triangle of shell fell away and Rumpelstiltskin heard the faint cry of the creature inside. It stopped his heart, took his breath, and Rumpelstiltskin watched as a claw wrapped around the edge and pulled, taking more shell with it.
Without another thought, the imp took his arm from Roland’s midsection and did his best to assist the creature, using his fingers and nails to take more shell and open up the egg further. Once Roland noticed that Rumpelstiltskin was no longer holding on, he turned back to yell at him, but the vision of a reptilian foot breaking free from the shell stole the warnings from Roland’s mind. He just watched as the shell cracked in half; watched as Rumpelstiltskin took the top half of the discarded birthing chamber and revealed the creature inside.
Squeaking and sending out little spouts of flame was a hatchling dragon, its little frame decorated with light blue and green scales. Once it looked up at Rumpelstiltskin and turned its attention to Roland, it let out a pleased yelp and curled up against the inside of its shell, looking up at its saviors with a brilliant, yellow eye. Now that it was safe, Rumpelstiltskin returned his arm to Roland’s midsection and looked at the man with tears in his eyes.
“What are you going… going to do with him?” the imp asked, hoping his fears would remain fears instead of reality, but one look at Roland and he knew this man would never betray this little creature.
“Find a place they can’t take him. His mother… As it died defending the last of her children, his mother could have killed me,” Roland said, staring ahead at their forest sanctuary, so Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t see his face or the emotion haunting it.
But he could hear it just fine.
“She didn’t. She saw me—the last of the group of men who had come to kill her—and knew that she could trust me. I don’t… I don’t know why,” Roland said, shaking his head to side and letting loose a tear into the wind. “Maybe she knew that I was just a guide, that I had not hurt her, had no intention of it…”
“She could tell you were good, Roland” Rumpelstiltskin said, not entirely sure why he did. Roland turned back to get a good look at him and the imp could see the confusion on his face. He could also see his desperation—his need to believe it—and Rumpelstiltskin knew he could help. “People forget how to look, but animals can tell. I could tell when I saw you before the crash. His mother must have just… known.”
“I… I don’t know, Rumpelstiltskin,” Roland said before turning back, knowing that his attention was required as they entered the forest, complimented by three arrows that sank into the bark of the nearby trees. “When they finally put the last spears into her, I felt… I knew that it was wrong. When she roared at me—flames licking the inside of her teeth—I was prepared to let her kill me.”
“But the flames died down, the dragon lowered her head almost to the ground and stared right through me. It—it motioned to this last egg and nodded at me,” Roland recollected, reducing their speed and leading his horse as safely as he could. It was unsure footing all around, but they had to put more distance between them and their pursuers. Until he had to, Roland had no intention of leaving his horse behind.
“And here you are with a brand-new hatchling,” Rumpelstiltskin said, looking down at the dragon who was just raising its head. “I think she knew what she was doing.”
“Least one of us does,” Roland said, slowing down his horse even more so that he could maneuver through a nest of roots along their path. “It won’t be long before they catch up. This whole thing… it hasn’t gone the way it was supposed to.”
“It never really does, does it?” Rumpelstiltskin added, smiling at the dragon now climbing out of its shell. Once it reached the cracked lip, it leaped onto Rumpelstiltskin’s shirt and pulled itself up claw by claw. It was hard not to giggle at its antics, and his giggling earned Roland’s attention. Even at this dire moment, the man had to smile, and he watched out of the corner of his eye as the dragon climbed and grabbed the imp’s hair to pull itself up. It was less than a foot long, so it wasn’t much of a burden on Rumpelstiltskin’s scalp, and it came to a stop just as it was eye-level with the imp.
“Rrr…” it seemed to growl, but after turning its head and coughing up some flame, it looked back at the imp. “Rump… el… stiltskin.”
“They can talk? Did you know that, Roland?” Rumpelstiltskin exclaimed, turning to find astonishment on the man’s face.
“I… I guess so,” he said, at which point the hatchling turned and then leapt off of Rumpelstiltskin’s head, grabbing hold of Roland’s beard with its feet. To his credit, the man did not try to slap the creature away and just waited as it did the same to him, climbing until it was eye-level with him. Roland was afraid—Rumpelstiltskin could see him tremble—but then the hatchling seemed to smile and tilt its head.
“Rolll… Roland,” it said, at which point the man had to laugh. It shocked the creature into dropping back down to Rumpelstiltskin’s lap, but it didn’t seem offended. It just crawled back into its shell and sat down on its hindquarters, somehow reminding the imp of a dog trying to please its master.
“It knows our names, Roland!” the imp shouted, shaking the man by the shoulder, but the smile on Roland’s face only remained for a moment. Turning back to the tree line of the forest, his thoughts immediately returned to darkness.
“It must have imprinted on us. Shame it had to happen right before we get murdered,” he said, but Rumpelstiltskin slapped him on the shoulder and gave him his best stern look.
“Stop it! We’re going to save this creature. This—it should have a name! Why haven’t we named it yet?” Rumpelstiltskin shouted, causing Roland to raise his hand to ward off further slaps.
“Calm down, it just got born. And it’s not gonna matter much, we’re—”
“Stow it,” Rumpelstiltskin commanded, borrowing a phrase from his favorite sea captain. “What are we naming him?”
“I don’t know… how… I don’t know how to name a dragon,” Roland said as he buried his face in his free hand, but eventually he looked back to Rumpelstiltskin with some frustration. “Drago?”
“Try again,” Rumpelstiltskin said with some derision.
“I… fine,” Roland said, looking off into the distance for a moment. When he turned back, it was with a defeated shrug. “Soren?”
“Soren… I like that,” Rumpelstiltskin said with a nod, looking back at his friend with too many questions in mind. “Where did you get that?”
“Used to have a brother,” Roland muttered, and the imp realized that he touched on a prickly subject. Now that he realized he was going to be more harm than good, Rumpelstiltskin nodded and turned his attention to the hatchling in his lap.
“I hope you like your name, Soren. I’ll call you that next time I see you. You just remember your friend Rumpelstiltskin the Third,” the imp said before petting the dragon along his spine, which he seemed to appreciate. After a moment, the imp lifted up the creature—gathering legs and wings and a rebellious tail—and then put the reptile into Roland’s lap before scooting off the back of the grey horse.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Roland asked in alarm, but the imp just laughed and patted the man’s knee, which was only just within reach.
“I’m giving you some time to save Soren, here. You promised his mom you’d take care of him,” he said with a smile, seeing the confusion on Roland’s face. “Yes, you promised, even though you didn’t know it.”
“This is stupid, get back on so we have a chance—”
“I’ll give you two a chance; you’ll see. Trust me, I have some tricks up my sleeve,” Rumpelstiltskin said before turning and walking back to the tree line, feeling the hidden magical currents flowing all around him. For Roland and Soren, he would manipulate them and bring the whole forest between them and the knights following behind.
Of course, it would take too long to explain that, especially since he didn’t particularly understand the mechanics of it, himself, so he decided to just keep it a mystery.
“Rumpelstiltskin, stop it,” Roland tried to argue, but the imp looked over his shoulder and rolled his eyes.
“You stop it. You take Soren there and raise him into a good dragon. I’ll probably see you at some point,” he said, smiling so hard that he almost couldn’t see. “I can’t do what I need to if you’re still around, you know.”
“I… you’ll be alright?” Roland asked, his hopes and dreams destroying any prospect of reason, which was totally fine by Rumpelstiltskin.
“Of course!” he said, turning back to the coming threat, who were making just all kinds of noise beyond the second or third hill of the forest.
“Thank you, Rumpelstiltskin. I won’t forget this,” Roland said, but the imp tried not to watch him go. He hated goodbyes—especially since second hellos were becoming few and far between—and Roland’s life didn’t seem to be the safest kind. It was better for Rumpelstiltskin to just face this moment with denial, to see his friends off with a smile and good wishes.
But just to give them an edge, Rumpelstiltskin let himself become part of the energy of the forest, connected to it in a way normal people couldn’t. Once he did, he felt the thrum of it—the ebb and flow of a thousand trees—and he asked them all for help.
And knowing it would be getting in the way of a few arrogant humans, the forest was more than happy to help Roland keep his promise to a dying dragon.
At least, that’s what Rumpelstiltskin felt once the trees started to move in front of him, a wide smile stretched across his face.