A/N: Of course. Of course I update the one fic nobody is waiting for. Except maybe one, so - this chapter/story is for Charlie's Dragon.
...Well, this is very different to the first attempt I made at Rumpelstiltskin.
You weep and weep, your tears and sorrows endless, for self-pity segues into fear and fear into despair.
The straw breaks.
The straw breaks.
The straw breaks.
What holds together cannot be twisted around a spindle.
You choke on dust, on straw, on helplessness. You are going to die.
"Why do you weep," someone says.
You open your eyes, blurry with tears, meet the strangest, brightest eyes you have ever seen. You could not describe their owner if you tried, though you see him so clear he turns the world into a half finished painting. (Is he supposed to be funny? Can you laugh? You don't feel like laughing.)
"The king is going to kill me," you say, simple with self-pity.
"Such a pretty thing, you would think a man would not waste such beauty."
"He wants gold more than he wants me," you say. You do not have the words for what this means to you; you do not know what to be more frightened of - death or the nameless look you do not comprehend. "He wants me to spin all this straw into gold, and it is impossible!"
Words crowd on your tongue, explanations such as: he has old blood, shining blood, somewhere far back, and diluted as it is, he thinks he can recognise something of it about me; he remembers that a pouch full of gold can be made from leaves, but not that they are leaves again the next morn. He looks at you and you forget them.
"What is your name, pretty thing?"
"E-Elise," you whisper. (Foolish girl, every tale tells you names are power.)
"Elise? Elise. I do not think it suits you. You need more strength from a name than that. Cease your weeping, my dear, the task before you is not so much."
"You can do it? You can spin straw into gold?" Your fingers itch, bloody with splintered straw.
"I can," he says, smiling, twisting your bane into odd shapes between his long fingers.
"I don't believe you," you say. Your voice trembles (with hope, with despair?) "You're lying."
"I never lie. I always tell the truth. One of those things is true."
Your eyes track his hands, his fine dextrous hands, watch the straw in them gleam gold in certain light. "He will kill me if there is no gold in the morning. I would give anything to live," you whisper.
"Anything?" He says, smiles. "My sweet, foolish girl, be careful of your words."
(Too late. In this moment you fear him more than any king.)
"Give me your locket (give me your favour) and I will spin gold from straw for you."
Your knees go weak with relief (is that all, is that it, all he wants?). You unclasp the locket, a gift from your father, back in better days, and give it to him.
(You are tied to him now - or he to you - as surely as if you'd eaten fruit from his hand.)
He touches it hungrily, as if it is worth a roomful of gold (when he hangs it around his neck you forget your father's face, your still living love for him that has survived all his boasting and all the trouble and pain he has brought upon you).
The wheel spins and spins and the thread gleams gold.
You curse the king and again you examine the room for an escape, your soft spinner's hands rendered bloody by stone, by straw.
Then you sit, and you wait, until you hear him, your name like cream on his tongue, "Elise, my Elise, why the tears?"
You say, red-eyed, face wet, voice shaking with fury and helplessness: "When will it be enough?"
He says, "Elise, innocent Elise, a man's heart is finite, greed overflows. It will never be enough."
You ask: "What shall I do?"
"Give me your ring (give me your favour) my sweet, sever your ties to your past and give the threads to me, and I will spin and weave and make you a future of glittering gold."
(You forget to ask yourself or him if you want such a thing.)
Your mother's ring, and your mother's mother's, a paltry little thing worth more for the memory attached to it than the silver with which it was wrought.
He takes your memory and puts it on his smallest finger - you feel your mother slip her ties of blood and walk away and suddenly cannot think why the loss of her ever wrung your heart.
"Remember, three is a magical number, and the blood of the Fair Folk runs weak too far from the source."
"Yes," you say.
"Do you understand? I will weave you a future, but you must give me the pattern to work with."
"I understand," you say. "I have only enough magic for three nights. He must come to that conclusion himself."
"Good girl," he says. (Your heart swells, fills your chest, uncomfortably large - easily bruised. How easy you are to please.)
"Then I'll be free?"
"Our definitions of freedom are not the same," he says, "for we are very different creatures, you and I."
(No. No, you will never be free.)
The wheel turns and turns and the thread gleams gold.
"I have nothing else to give you," you say on the last night, the third night, which is far from true. You have the same currency every woman has. There would be blood too, and the shedding of blood always increases the worth of something, or so it sometimes seems.
If you were wise, you would offer, rather than let him ask - but you are young, a child who has never been in love but believes in it nonetheless, and you cannot bring yourself to.
You imagine all the things one of his kind might ask for. You imagine: the heart of your first true love in wooden box. Your heart, its break or its blood. Your memory. Your youth. Your twilight years. Your voice. Your hearing. Your sight. Your body is the least he could ask for. Yet you give him the choice.
He looks at you, his lips curling. Your name is cream in his mouth, but in the right dosages, everything is poison.
He leans close. "Give me your child," he breathes. You feel his words on your skin. "Your firstborn, male or female, it matters not, all I ask is that you give me your child."
"I - Yes," you say, soft and weak as a new kitten. "But - what if I have no child," you whisper, eyes on his throat to avoid his alien emerald eyes.
He holds your head in his hands, his palms soft (of course, he works with wool as you do) tilts your face to his. His eyes meet yours and devour you. They are glittering, gleaming, hungry in a way you do not know. (You think he wants you, and know it is half true.) "You will," he tells you, matter of fact.
(Your mother laboured and laboured to bring you forth; you were her third child as well as her first. But he says you will and there is no room for doubt.)
You suspect you have misunderstood (you hope you have misunderstood). "Will you make sure of that?" You ask, meaning to be arch and instead sounding only curious.
He laughs. You feel it in your bones. You think, wistfully: (If I had the choice) I would know you first. You think, sensibly: I have no choice. You think, wisely: there is much to fear from you.
"Your child," he repeats.
(You care more for your life than for a hypothetical child. Anybody would.) "Yes," you say, your voice a little stronger (live, you are going to live, and all it will take is something that may never come).
"Again," he says. "A third time I ask of you - will you give me your child in exchange for this night's work? Will you swear it?"
"I swear it," you say.
"Thrice asked, thrice agreed," he says, sits himself down and begins to spin.
You always were a fool.
You marry with gold straw woven into your dark hair, a harvest crown. Your hands smell of wood smoke from dragging your fingers through the cold ashes of your spinning wheel.
Your new husband calls you things like dear and darling and love, he calls you wife as if to remind himself.
You think he does not know your name. Even if he does, he will never caress the syllables, they will not flow from him like silk, like the mere existence of them is water to a parched throat.
(But in the dark of your wedding night - and it is your bridal bed you lie upon, though the candles make odd shadows and render everything even more alien than before - your name drips like honey from his tongue.
It does not hurt as much as you thought it would, as much as Greta said it would, bitter Greta who grew up so fast and sudden, yet you bite your lip and fill your mouth with blood, to have your name passed to you, cream mixing with copper.
The next night is different, but isn't that always the way?)
You wake to your husband snoring beside you, brow furrowed as if trying to remember something while trapped in dreams. You leave him there and seek the chambers set aside for you, neat and new, smelling of beeswax. You wash yourself with vinegar and watch a lonely dawn.
(Give me your child. The Fair Folk, the Shining Folk do not breed easily or well.) Nothing grows in vinegar, the old wives say.
They hang the bloodstained sheet from the battlements like a trophy.
Your body betrays you, quickens and grows. You curse your fertility and wonder what holds your babe tight when you brothers and sisters could not stay within your mother long enough for more than tentative names.
(Your firstborn, male or female, it matters not, all I ask is that you give me your child.)
You hate the crown you do not wear but can still feel upon your head. You hate the dresses, the way the velvet and brocade overwhelms you, you hate the maids and the way they watch your waist, you hate the sneers of the nobles, you hate that however much you bend and bow you know it is not good enough - your deportment is wrong, the way you eat, the way you talk, the way you walk, nothing you do is good enough - they are waiting for you to break.
You will not give them the satisfaction. You straighten your back, hold your name tight and stand alone, as you always have - always save for three nights.
You hate that you are learning cruelty.
(You love that you are learning cruelty.)
"Pretty thing," your husband calls you (but he does not say it quite right - give me your favour, my dear, my precious sweet thing.) "She's a pretty thing but like a hawk is pretty. Vicious when she wants to be, and deadly with the hood off. Lucky," he jokes, "that she is always hooded."
He prizes your cruelty; he calls it majesty - he thinks it means you match him, that he has found a born queen, all unknowing. He thinks other men envy him your lack of simpering, and maybe they do, but they find your cool regard far more unsettling.
You smile thinly (if you saw yourself in a polished glass you might recognise it) and let him think that you are blind, because you are, but you are learning to see more every day.
You do not hate your husband (you do not care enough to waste such emotion on him). This is good, is useful. If you hated, it would be so much harder to make him love you, and you are determined to make him love you, or at least see that you are useful. (You will keep his ledgers, his books, you can keep him rich instead of making him rich. It is a good deal. You ask for so little in return, after all, only his heart, his unused heart that will not know the difference between love and necessary affection).
"You are cruel, my pretty bird," he says, teasing, for he does not know the truth of his words. He thinks you are learning to love him (it does not occur to him that you are teaching him). He thinks the child in your belly makes you soft, makes your heart tender (the easier to divide into pieces and give away) when in fact it is the opposite. A faint heart serves no one - wins no maid, protects no babe.
You lower your lashes, murmur, "I am only what you have made of me."
Under your hand, the child you have already lost kicks and turns.
"Motherhood suits you," he says. "It becomes you."
You cradle your child, soft and warm and vulnerable, your child with her bright eyes. (How you laughed when first you saw her - a girl-child, he will not mind the loss of a girl-child so much - you did not know the weight of her in your arms, the pull of her at your breast would turn your stone-heart soft as the finest gold.)
"You owe me life," he says gently, reading your thoughts.
"Yes, hers," he says. "You promised her to me. Thrice over you promised her to me."
"You asked that I give you a child." (I have, you do not say, cannot acknowledge what is as plain as the eyes in your daughter's face.)
"Tricky girl," he says, amused. "Don't try and play games of words with me, my dear."
Were his teeth always so sharp, so long?
"Please," you say, remember the avid way he watched your tears as if he would lick them from your face to taste your pain. You let them fall (weak, let him mistake your tears for weakness the way men do).
"Do you renege on our bargain," he says, voice turning cold, sharp, a dagger of ice in what was a summer day.
"No -" you say (yes, you say), thinking of your baby's eyes, bright and full of light. (You hate her, you love her - but she is yours and that is all that matters.)
"Elise." Silk in his mouth. "Where is your courage, your strength? Do your dresses of velvet drown all that you were? What do you fear from me, I who helped you for nothing but a ring, a locket and your word?"
"I will give you -"
"Anything? My sweet, foolish girl, those are the words that brought us here."
"Straw?" He laughs.
"Please, ask again, anything, anything but my child,"
"My child," he corrects. "Mine, for you promised, you swore, and a bargain thrice made is not to be broken."
"You take from me the only thing that is mine."
"There will be other children."
"But I will know the loss of her. I do not want to replace her with other children! She cannot be replaced!"
"Shsh. Why do you fight so?"
"I want to keep my babe."
"Not for fear of what your husband will do when he finds the cradle empty? Have you learned to love him, Elise, do you fear his disappointment?"
You spit on the floor, peasant girl once more. "This child," you say. "This child is mine. I love her, I fight for her, for no reason other than she is mine."
"Good girl," he says, but your heart does not swell this time, can no longer be touched save by the restless daughter in your arms. "I will make you a deal."
"Name it," you say, helplessly. (Things circle, back to beginning the wheel has taken you.)
"Ah, but you just have. If you can call me by my true name in three nights time, you can keep the child."
(The Fair Folk do not have human names.)
Is he small? You think he is small, but perhaps he has shrunk in your memory to try and diminish his threat. You divide him into pieces, describe each as thoroughly as you can and hope they add up to a coherent whole. His eyes are bright, so bright. You would never mistake his eyes for human. His hair is black as a night, glossy as a raven's wing and fine as thistledown, his features sharp and wild.
Your messengers and spies look at you with uneasy indulgent smiles. The ones of common stock (your stock) look at you with pity, think your stumbling recollections are those of a girl in love, that memory and loss has crafted something ordinary into something extraordinary (they remember you had a life before this). You do not know what the noble born ones think (what your husband thinks when they tell him). You do not care.
"Find me his name," you say. "I will reward you."
Every single one of them remembers you have shining blood, that you can spin from straw gold that does not turn to chaff in the light of day (remember the spinning wheel is burnt but are wise enough to believe that the magic does not lie in the instrument).
Away they go, to every corner of the kingdom, bring back names that do not feel like anything but words in your mouth.
"That is not my name."
"That is not my name."
"That is not my name."
"My Queen, I found, I think, the man you seek."
"His name? Tell me his name!"
"My Queen, he sang while I watched, but in a language I did not know, though I am versed in a dozen or more tongues. My Queen, if his name was among those words I could not say it."
"What is your name," you say, your hand on his wrist, your voice a pleading whisper.
He laughs. Kisses you, his teeth sharp against your soft lips, and you do not flinch. "I applaud your cunning, but do not think you can win it from me with your body, however delightful. So let go, child, and keep your dignity."
"I have sent messengers to scour the length and breadth of the land. I have called upon wizards and witches and the simple ones who have dealings with your kind. I have learnt to read to know the census back and forth. I have told you all the names available to me, from ancient to modern, well-worn favourites and names I have made up. To each you have said, 'that is not my name'."
He holds your daughter in his arms, rocks her gently. She reaches for him with her tiny hands, the best of you, and the loss of her waits, like a chasm beneath your feet. "Take her if you must, then," you say, the words like poison.
"A child needs a mother," he says idly.
Your heart like a wizened peach pit in your hollow chest drops, faults, struggles to beat once more.
"Have you learned to love him, your husband, the man who would have killed you if you could not spin gold from straw?"
"He loves me," you say simply. Not proudly, though you have worked hard to make it so.
"You think that will keep you safe, peasant girl who can no longer spin?"
"Perhaps," you whisper, but your eyes are on your daughter's face.
"What ties you here?"
"I have no ties," you tell him. "None but my daughter. Don't you remember? I gave you the ties to my past and you cut them, but you did not give me the threads of my future to replace them. Just wove something out of them for me to tread on."
Your locket around his neck, your ring upon his hand, your child in his arms. (You think he wants you, and know it to be true.)
"Then Elise, my sweet Elise, do you remember what you asked me on the second night? I told you our definitions of freedom were very different, but they are not so different as that. Let me give you freedom now, the chance to choose as you will. In your tongue you might say my name is Rumpelstiltskin. Now that you may keep your daughter whatever your choice, come with me or stay as you please - but do as you please."
"Let me give you freedom from our bargain also," you say. "My name is Elfriede."
(Behind you, a kingdom of straw.)