Circe was laughing again, her pretty face just a silhouette against the summer sun framed behind her. Rumpelstiltskin was grateful for the shade; it had been a particularly harsh noon and his weathered skin did not need any additional tanning. Still, the darkness enveloping Circe’s face hid the smile Rumpelstiltskin always wanted to see, so he pulled his fingers from the witch’s grasp and hopped ahead on the forest trail so he could look at his friend while walking backward. Now Rumpelstiltskin could see the light on the left side of her face and he liked that look much better, her pale skin and pink lips and emerald eyes clear for him to see.
“And just what are you trying for, little imp?” Circe asked as she stowed her thumbs into the pockets of her trousers. The witch had no care for propriety or gender when it came to comfort, and she wore simple clothing any male traveler would wear without thinking—merely a pair of dusty, brown trousers and a loose, white tunic cinched around her waist. Of all the people they had encountered, Rumpelstiltskin could count on one hand how many were not surprised by the casual rationality of his dark-haired companion.
Of course, numbering any prospect on one hand was much harder considering how often Rumpelstiltskin would lose count before reaching his bulbous thumb.
“Circe! How dare you imply I’m trying for anything!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted in mock indignation as he hopped onto a brittle stump behind him. After jabbing his thumb into his knobby sternum, Rumpelstiltskin stood up straight and set his tiny hands on his hips to complement his smile. “I almost never know what I’m doing.”
“That much is clear, Rumpelstiltskin. But all that walking backward is going to get you in trouble eventually. What if you hadn’t known that stump was there?” Circe asked while crossing her arms, nodding at Rumpelstiltskin’s perch as she walked by and looked at him out of her periphery. Once Circe broke eye contact, the imp leapt off the stump and rushed to her left side so they could continue in the light.
“Joke’s on you, Circe. I didn’t know there was a stump until I was on top of it.”
“Oh? But then how did you know to jump?” Circe asked while peering down at him with a mischievous eye, a glint of afternoon sunlight reflecting back at her childish friend.
“I said almost never, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin replied with his own mischief, but he shrugged before turning to look ahead. “Though if you jump as much as I do, you’re bound to get lucky every once in a while.”
“Oh, I see. You’re taking a lesson from white rabbits, then.”
“As in a lucky rabbit’s foot? They jump quite a bit, you know,” Circe said with a knowing smile, but Rumpelstiltskin’s brain could not make the logical leap.
“I’ve never seen white rabbits having any more luck than regular rabbits…” he trailed off, biting the knuckle of his index finger while looking ahead. Although lost in thought about the nature of rabbits and luck—he could not make sense of white rabbits having anything but worse luck without natural camouflage—Rumpelstiltskin did notice they were nearing a bare patch of forest with another, grander stump in the center. At the sight, Rumpelstiltskin knew he must make some poignant argument atop such a truncated elm, and so he rushed through his train of thought while sprinting into the clearing.
“Wait… Rumpelstiltskin, stop!” Circe called out, but the imp would not be deterred from his cogent and necessary argument. He had a stump speech, there was a stump, and he could not consider a future where Circe would not hear what he had to say.
After all, how on earth could they continue honoring the fortune of white rabbits when they were losing their feet just for superstitious luck charms?
“I’ll have you know, my dear crone,” Rumpelstiltskin started as he jumped almost two feet—a wonder for someone as small as our dear imp—and spun to face his companion. He was about to launch into his diatribe on the white rabbit fallacy when his big toe contacted the innermost ring of the stump. At once the heat of summer receded and was replaced a by a fresh gust of fragrant, springtime air. It was a welcome feeling, but it stole the argument from Rumpelstiltskin’s mind and he almost lost his balance trying to mentally grasp for it.
“Aww! I had something there, Circe!” Rumpelstiltskin complained, but when he looked back to his friend, he found no raven-haired sorceress.
He found no forest, either.
Rumpelstiltskin was standing inside a silver column of light that rose from the edges of the stump underneath him. However, it did not feel like a stump anymore, and Rumpelstiltskin felt a palpable, vibrant energy clinging and cloying to every inch of his body. Life itself encompassed him and gave him the distinct feeling that he was inside a tree, but that only momentarily distracted the imp from his surroundings. Crisp, seaside air flowed from the distant shore to his left, but behind him and to his right were bastions of flora that reminded Rumpelstiltskin of tropical jungles.
While it was a great effort to take in all of these new sights after just a few seconds, the palace in front of Rumpelstiltskin drew his attention, alabaster pillars of marble holding up a purple awning above the entrance and somehow not clashing with its surroundings. Already that was a work of magic—resolving so many contradictory color themes at once—but all of that made sense once Rumpelstiltskin recognized the woman descending the immaculately clean steps leading away from the entrance.
There was Circe in all her wiles, though her wardrobe had changed considerably. Her dark, ringlet-fashioned hair was bound into a diadem situated above her ears, and she wore a loose, magenta gown that almost did not have a neck-line, and it dragged along the ground four feet behind her, slinking down each step as she approached. It was far less reasonable than anything Rumpelstiltskin had ever seen from her, and so he had to laugh before raising an index finger to point at his friend.
“Where were you hiding that?” Rumpelstiltskin tried asking, but then he realized he could not hear his own words. He certainly had thought them—used his tongue and his throat to make them—but there was no echo in his ears and it took him too long of a moment to realize why. Circe stopped at the bottom step of the stairs and folded her hands in front of her without recognizing Rumpelstiltskin on his stump, and he was about to try saying something again before he noticed a dark-haired man wearing tan rags stumble into view. He was holding a wooden shield covered in animal hide in his left hand, and a short, bronze sword in his right. Although he was more relaxed after Circe came to a stop, he did not drop either hand.
“Welcome travelers,” Circe said with a lilt, and then three more men dressed just like the first walked into Rumpelstiltskin’s perspective. Now that there were more actors in the scene, Rumpelstiltskin realized this interaction had already happened. That was his only way to justify his inability to speak, why Circe looked and seemed different. There were bits and pieces of the witch that were the same, certainly, but the presence emanating from her slender form lacked a certain something Rumpelstiltskin had always prized.
It made the imp wary, seeing this version of the witch doing much of anything.
“Who are you? Are you the goddess of this island?” the leader spoke, his voice rustic and rough to the point of scratching the inside of Rumpelstiltskin’s ears. While the weather was much more tolerable than the forest he had left behind, Rumpelstiltskin could not shake the feeling that he did want to be here. These men seemed good at heart, but the darkness in the leader’s voice betrayed his fear. Rumpelstiltskin did not know why anybody would fear Circe, but the smile on her pretty face, the way she spread her delicate arms to the side and how that gossamer magenta draped away from her soft skin…
Even the imp felt threatened within the safety of his magical tree.
“You could say that, gentlemen. My name is Circe, but while I have powers rivaling those of the lesser gods, I am but a mere mortal. I have observed your travels of late, my favored king, and wish you comfort and respite after so long away from home,” Circe said with a slight bow before folding her hands in front of her hips once more. “You have a ways to go, I’m afraid, but I urge you to take your time and rest on this island. Eat, my good king, and drink. No harm will come to you or your men while under my roof.”
“Favored king, eh?” the leader repeated, his skepticism more than warranted from Rumpelstiltskin’s perspective. However, the traveler stowed his sword in its scabbard and placed his shield on his back. “How is it that you have observed our journey? Do you commune with gods? Are you allied with any of them?”
“Interesting questions, my Odysseus. I have answers to them, but I fear you would not trust them as of yet. I could say I found your fates by peering within a crystal ball, but you would not put an ounce of belief into those words,” Circe replied, the leader scoffing at the idea.
“That is a fair point, witch.”
“Already you wound me with such an unfair epithet, my favored king. Perhaps you could trust that I appreciate a cunning mind that considers strategy and maybe even a dabbling of duplicity to be… more than fair tactics. That equine stunt of yours was commendable, to say the least.”
“So you have been watching for more than just our recent travels, then.”
“Oh, my dear Odysseus,” Circe punctuated with a laugh. “To a creature like myself, that is still quite recent.”
“Then how could I trust you—one who dabbles in the arcane and mystic—when those qualities are precisely how we have earned our misfortune?”
“Because, my king, what do I have to gain, except…” Circe paused, biting her lip and breathing out heavily while narrowing her gaze. “A companion to distract me from my solitary existence?”
“Is that truly what a woman like you could want from a foreign king?” Odysseus asked, crossing his arms before nodding at the trio of men behind him. “And for that, you would host an entire company of men? What use could you have for all of them?”
“Oh, my dear and favored king,” Circe laughed again, shaking her head before settling her eyes on Odysseus and ruining her beauty with a vicious smile.
“I could just eat you up.”
Rumpelstiltskin did not want to know what Circe meant by that, but he was luckily spared from watching more of the interaction. After anxiously stepping back with his right foot, his heel fell on one of the outer rings of the trunk and the springtime air abandoned him, replaced by the smell of cinnamon and wet leaves. Along with those odors, Rumpelstiltskin noticed a swarm of yellow and orange and brown spiral around his magical trunk until it all fell like a blanket onto the soil underneath. A chill enveloped Rumpelstiltskin, but he was much more comfortable in these surroundings, scattered trees peppering his perspective and doing their part to cover the landscape in fallen leaves.
This time, the house in front of him was far more welcoming than the seaside palace. Situated in the middle of this autumn forest, the thatched roof was yellow with aged hay and the support beams were weathered and dark brown, speaking to Rumpelstiltskin of the comfortable lifestyle of a hermit. A column of smoke rose from the chimney, and the imp realized it was the source of the cinnamon that stubbornly pushed its way into his nostrils. Pleasant despite being intrusive, Rumpelstiltskin was grateful for the change in atmosphere. Whatever Circe had planned for that foreign king, Rumpelstiltskin was certain it was something Circe would never have wanted him to know.
The imp remembered how she had protested before he had landed on the stump, and he wondered if she had known what would happen. Rumpelstiltskin was not fool enough to think Circe’s soul was without its bruises and stains, but she had been so kind to him without reason and it was hurtful to think that she was capable of something so dark while he felt so much light from her. Those men had not done anything to her, but Rumpelstiltskin had felt the shadows in her words. It was almost as if Rumpelstiltskin had known an entirely different witch.
As he was absorbing that notion, Rumpelstiltskin looked up and was not surprised to see another version of the sorceress. This time she was in a dark grey dress that fell down to her ankles, and her long hair was tied up into a bun barely hidden beneath a white bonnet. Rumpelstiltskin had yet to see this kind of clothing, and he realized that his Circe was to eventually become this prude of a woman. At first she was walking backward out of the house—Rumpelstiltskin only recognized Circe because of her profile as she looked behind her—but the imp watched as she dragged something heavy out of the pleasant cottage.
The building became much less pleasant as Circe turned along with her burden and Rumpelstiltskin was able to see what she carried. It was a large man with an unkempt beard, his swollen belly peeking from underneath his shirt and above his leather trench coat, and he was half-conscious as Circe dragged him through the leafy terrain and over to a petrified stump by the side of the house. With dread, Rumpelstiltskin noticed the rusted axed wedged into the dead wood and knew what fate was in store for the large man, but he wondered at the why of it. Circe was better than this—more capable than an axe to the neck—but she was dragging the man just the same. Rumpelstiltskin was still watching the witch at her task when he saw the cottage door burst open.
Gasping and croaking for air was another man dressed the same as the first, his left hand trying to pull at the inches in front of his fingers while the other was curled around his throat. Rumpelstiltskin again persuaded himself to watch, as he well understood the rules that came along with this stump. No interference on his part could be allowed, even attempted, and Rumpelstiltskin instead watched as the second man crawled forward and stumbled to his feet, kicking tufts of fallen leaves above his shins as he claimed his balance. After forcing a few breaths into his lungs, the man lunged and almost fell back to the ground as he tried to catch up with Circe, who was straining to heave her living burden next to the petrified stump. Once she dropped the man’s armpits, Circe took a few seconds to regain her strength and propped herself up by holding onto her hips.
“Have—have you now, witch,” the second man said as he rounded the corner, holding onto the support beam of cottage with his left hand as he jerked a knife out of his belt with his right. Circe just watched the man as they both heaved and recovered from whatever had happened within the cottage. Rumpelstiltskin could not understand why Circe was so apathetic in that moment, and she stunned him further once she spoke.
“You don’t have a thing, hunter, much less a lick of sense. Now that I am outside of your trap, what makes you think I won’t—” Circe threatened, pausing to hack up something dark from her lungs and wipe the remnants from her lips. “What makes you think I won’t kill you now?”
“Your powers are sealed, you bitch!” the hunter spat out the words. “One of your own kind sold you out. You have no friends left.”
“Maybe I don’t,” Circe said with a weary laugh, but she stood up straighter and seemed to recover from her coughing fit. “But I’ve managed for millennia on my own. My powers were not the only tool at my disposal.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Tell me, would you like to tempt fate?” Circe asked, but Rumpelstiltskin could tell it was a bluff from the way she bit her lip. It was a tell of her intentions, no matter what they were, and Rumpelstiltskin had caught her using it whenever they had played cards or any of their games. It had seemed so cavalier and innocent when used against the imp, but here in this autumn clearing it held such sinister intentions.
“It would be tempting fate not to kill you, witch. The children of this town deserve safety,” the hunter declared, but anger eked out of Circe’s emerald eyes at the implication.
“That’s why you lured me out here? Children have been safe from me for centuries, you little man. I promised that.”
“I don’t care for your promises, witch!”
“I didn’t promise it to you, hunter,” Circe stated, her voice cold as indignation surged through her. “Which, in all honesty, makes it mean more than your life or anything you wanted to do with it.”
“What matters to a devil’s whore means nothing against the wrath of God,” the hunter said as he took his chance and leapt forward, holding back the knife in his hand until he was within range of Circe. He lunged and gambled everything on that strike, but he had not anticipated that Circe would dig her toes into the leaves underneath them and kick, raising a cloud of yellow and orange between them along with wet dirt. Clumps of it pelted the hunter’s face, which distracted him enough for Circe to dodge to the side and shove her body weight into the sprawling hunter’s shoulder.
The man lost his balance and unintentionally dove headfirst into the stump behind Circe, and he was still dazed when the witch grabbed the handle of the rusty axe and placed her foot against the petrified wood. With a grunt, Circe loosed the axe from its mooring and held it with both hands, keeping it steady as the hunter stirred for his last moments.
“God’s wrath…” Circe muttered, spite leaking into the autumn air around them. “Men like you have claimed to wield it for centuries.”
“And yet this is always the result,” she said before bringing down the rusted blade into the hunter’s back, forcing out an anguished grunt Circe silenced by planting her foot against his ribcage. Once she wrestled the axe out of the wound, she held the wooden handle with both hands and regained her footing.
“Don’t need to tramp with a devil just to deal with the likes of you,” Circe said with a chuckle, which covered the noise of the larger hunter waking behind her. Rumpelstiltskin had been shocked by the grisly act of self-defense, but he could not stop his reaction as he saw the man sit up and pull a knife from his own belt.
“Circe!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted without noise as he stepped forward, but he had forgotten he was stuck within the mystic tree. However, as the big toe of his left foot met one of the outer rings of the trunk, he noticed Circe look around in surprise. It seemed as if the witch had heard Rumpelstiltskin’s nonexistent cry, but the imp was torn from the scene and into a dark landscape covered in snow. The frigid air tore into Rumpelstiltskin and forced him to wrap his small arms around his frame, and he wondered just what he would see in this dismal winter.
There she was again, but Circe was not in control of her own steps. Covered in peasant’s rags, Circe’s wrists were shackled in iron and chains drooped toward the fist of an older man in heavy winter gear, who clearly did not regard her as a threat. Rumpelstiltskin watched the pair as they walked along the path in front of him, and he wondered just what had happened to cause Circe’s predicament.
“Do you even repent?” the man asked, turning his head so the wind would not steal his words. He wore a hat with a wide brim, and he was wearing twin cloaks that would keep him warm. Just seeing Circe’s thin dress was enough for Rumpelstiltskin to shiver, but he saw the defeat in those dull, green eyes.
“Bits and pieces, but not like you want from me. There were certain people I should not have crossed.”
“Certain people you should not have killed?” the man asked as he took another step into six inches of snow and turned back to face Circe. The witch huffed and looked off to her right, and Rumpelstiltskin could see the ghost of streetlights in the distance. When she turned back, it seemed like Circe had aged a decade.
“Not as many as you’d think.”
“That’s what they tell me…” Circe muttered as she looked back at the hidden city. After a moment, the man yanked on the chains, but Circe held her ground and turned back to look at him. Fortunately, he had only wanted her attention.
“Then what does a despicable creature regret in the winter of her life?” he asked, his eyes almost hidden beneath the wide brim of his hat. Rumpelstiltskin certainly couldn’t see them, but Circe looked up at the man and sighed before dropping her gaze and staring at her manacles.
“I didn’t… I didn’t have as much fun as I should have,” Circe claimed, earning a scoff from her captor.
“You must be joking.”
“I wish I was, but here I am being led to my death,” Circe replied, taking a few steps closer to the man. “I spent so much of my life being angry… hiding away—doing all the terrible things you’d expect from a witch.”
“And you wish you had more fun?” the man asked with obvious skepticism, but Circe shrugged at the notion.
“Essentially. You asked a woman in the… long winter of her life what she regrets,” Circe said, offering upturned palms in surrender. “She wishes she had enjoyed her summer vacation a bit more.”
“Consorting with devils, no doubt.”
“Maybe a reaper or two, a few demons, but I’ve never met a devil,” Circe flippantly replied, shaking her head at the inquisitor’s assumption. “Not sure why your type always obsesses over devils. Us witches rarely have the pleasure.”
“You tell me you’ve never danced with any devils in the pale moonlight?”
“No devils,” Circe said with a shrug, but then her expression broke into a smile. “Just an imp every once in a while, and never in the moonlight.”
“Hmm. The priests will still take you. Good enough for a stake, either way.”
“Not good enough for anything, I’m afraid,” Circe replied, forcing her captor to pause. After narrowing his eyes, the man turned with a grunt and continued up the slope to the left.
“That much we can agree on,” he murmured, but Circe did not feel compelled to speak. She merely trudged after the man, her bare feet sinking into the holes left after his boots. After a few seconds, the man started to descend from view, and tears rolled down Rumpelstiltskin’s face as he watched Circe climb the slope. She paused at the apex—the chain between captor and witch going taut as he walked further—but that did not stop her from turning and looking at Rumpelstiltskin’s magical tree.
Before light swarmed the witch and she turned into a silhouette, Rumpelstiltskin thought he saw a hint of recognition.
Once Rumpelstiltskin blinked away the light, he saw the shadow of Circe’s face above him. Although it was disconcerting—it had rotated ninety degrees from when he had last seen it—Rumpelstiltskin was relieved to see concern turn to surprise and then joy. Sitting up far quicker than either had anticipated, Rumpelstiltskin accidentally head-butted the witch and sent her back to her knees. While he massaged his leathery forehead, Rumpelstiltskin considered telling Circe all he had seen, but then he saw completely foreign surroundings.
Although he was in a clearing like he had expected, Rumpelstiltskin saw barren ground between him and the tree line. After craning his neck from side to side, Rumpelstiltskin realized that there was not even a blade of grass between him and the circular perimeter of trees growth starting twenty feet away. Then—just to make sure—Rumpelstiltskin sprung to his feet and looked underneath him for the stump that had carried him throughout Circe’s timeline.
However, there was no trace of a stump. No tree, no roots, not even a chip of bark.
“It was just…”
“What was just, Rumpelstiltskin?” Circe asked, and the imp looked back at his kneeling friend to see relief and curiosity blended together on her face.
“Was there a stump here before I left?”
“Before you left where?” Circe asked, tilting her head and raising an eyebrow. “You ran off the path and into this circle where you… well, you dove headfirst into the center.”
“So… nothing happened?”
“Not unless you count a ten-minute coma,” Circe replied with a laugh, but her eyes narrowed and she set her hands on her knees and leaned into them. “Just what did you see, little imp?”
“I…” Rumpelstiltskin paused, but he realized that he didn’t know what he had seen. Every version of Circe in those visions was different from the one he had grown to love, and whatever magic this place held, he could not trust it any more than the woman in front of him. What he did know—what was certain—was that Rumpelstiltskin was not in any of those visions, and that may have meant all the difference. Remembering their earlier conversation, Rumpelstiltskin decided there was a better path than the one he had seen.
“I realized that the best way to understand those little white rabbits was to jump around more. I think I just jumped the wrong way.”
“That… doesn’t make sense, Rumpelstiltskin.”
“Circe!” Rumpelstiltskin said as he puffed up his chest and set his hands on his hips. “Since when do I have to make sense?”
“I…” Circe started, but then a smile broke onto her face and she slapped her knees before climbing to her feet. “You have me there, little imp.”
“And you have me always, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin said, beaming up at his companion just as he reached her full height and looked down at him. His earnestness shocked Circe, and she could only stare for a moment before the smile returned and flowed through her vibrant, emerald eyes.
“That sounds like a nice promise. But tell me, Rumpelstiltskin, where did you really go? You clearly experienced something…” Circe asked, settling her weight onto her right leg and setting a hand on her hip. Rumpelstiltskin could tell the question was loaded with a fate he did not desire, so he ignored the entire ordeal and shook his head, instead grabbing hold of the witch’s hands and spinning her around in the afternoon heat.
“Never mind that!” he said before letting go and running around the barren ground, jumping every three or four steps. After losing sufficient steam, Rumpelstiltskin turned back to his stunned companion. “Why focus on that when we have this nice tramping ground to dance in?”
“Rumpelstiltskin…” Circe grumbled as she turned and crossed her arms in front of her. “You’re gonna tell me what you saw.”
“Nuh-uh!” he claimed, but Circe uncrossed her arms and advanced on him, her fingers splayed as if she was about to pounce on him.
“And what if I tickle it out of you?” Circe said with a smile, and Rumpelstiltskin realized she meant it. It forced a gasp out of the imp, and he turned and bounded away as she playfully chased him around the barren circle. Although it seemed high-stakes at the time—Rumpelstiltskin dreaded a thorough tickling—Circe’s intentions were not so devious. The imp was in a playful mood, and there were few things the witch enjoyed more than indulging her childish companion.
All in all, it seemed a nice way to spend an afternoon in the summer.