Let me just say one quick thing - spinning wheels are damn complicated! They've got these moving parts and all these tension lines and different speed settings you have to adjust and oh my gosh. But it's really cool to see in motion.
Chapter 3: Hamelin
It would never have occurred to Rumplestiltskin until this moment - when he told Baelfire to take a seat at their splintering kitchen table - that anything could be more terrifying than facing down a full-grown ogre. Granted, ogres still ranked very high on his list of things worth being terrified of. But this moment set Rumplestiltskin's heart racing and his ears pounding. He started to doubt himself.
"What's wrong, Papa?" the ten-year-old asked. "Am I in trouble?"
Somehow, Rumplestiltskin's smile found him again. His gut was still wound up like a clockwork toy. He would have to force himself through it. "No, of course not." He took his time sinking down on the chair across from his son. He propped his staff against the table in such a way so that he knew, from practice, it wouldn't fall. "But we do need to talk about something before we do anything else today."
They'd already had breakfast. Bae had been ready to follow through with routine by heading out to let the few sheep they owned into the pasture. Today was warmer, so the curtain over the hut's doorway was drawn back. Till, their shaggy sheepdog, had trotted inside and settled between Rumple and Bae's feet under the table. The dog was waiting to go out, albeit with wise patience. His tail thumped against Rumplestiltskin's good leg, which helped distract him from the heartbeat in his head and chest.
At his father's words, Baelfire put his hands on the table and started twiddling his thumbs. He bowed his head while looking up to meet Rumplestiltskin's eyes. He still thought he'd done something to warrant this "talk".
It's not you, Bae, Rumple wanted to tell him. Instead he said, "You remember that I went to Longbourn yesterday. And came back with that beggar."
With a little scowl, Baelfire nodded.
"Well," he continued after a short sigh, "I went to Longbourn because I wanted to sell something. Something other than wool."
The boy perked up like an alarmed rabbit. He didn't speak. He was barely patient enough to keep still.
"I did well at the market. But then, on my way back, I, uh, lost my things. Had an accident. I'm all right, but . . . well, that's how I met the beggar. He helped me. On the way home, he told me about a place where I could . . . sell this other thing without worrying about . . . having accidents."
This lie wasn't serving as the best explanation, he realized too late. Bae's confounded expression said as much. Rumplestiltskin scratched the back of his neck. He would have to try the other approach he'd considered. The one he was much more loathed to use. "Son - you've heard about magic-users, right? Sorcerers, wizards, witches."
"Yes," Baelfire said slowly.
"What've you heard about them?"
The boy shrugged. His eyes never strayed from Rumplestiltskin's face. "They have magic powers. Some are born with them, I think. Or they're cursed with them. Or they sold their soul for them. I've heard different things."
Rumplestiltskin nodded. "And how are they described? Are they scary? Kind? Untrustworthy?"
"I-I don't know. They're powerful, so I guess they're a bit scary. Why are you asking?"
Of course it would take Bae hardly any time to arrive at that question. Rumplestiltskin winced but found the will to move off his chair and, without his staff, walk to the spinning wheel. Both Baelfire and Till watched him. When Rumple sat down, Till got up. Sniffing as he went, he walked around his master and squatted to the right of the spinning stool. Rumple petted the dog, then reluctantly gazed at Baelfire again.
"I don't want you to be afraid, my boy. Maybe this will scare you, which is fine, but you know that I wouldn't do anything to hurt you. Ever."
"Papa, it's just a spinning wheel." Bae stood, eyes widened. They hungered to know what his father was getting at, and anticipated something terrible at the same time. Rumplestiltskin wanted Bae to stay seated so he wouldn't be afraid from being too close, as well as from the phenomenon itself. His son approached him, though. So Rumplestiltksin followed his instincts and encouraged him to come near. Bae did, stopping only to give Rumplestiltskin the usual room needed to spin.
He smiled and nodded to his boy. "Watch closely."
One end of the wool strand was already hooked to the bow-shaped flyer and wound a few times around the bobbin. He took the shapeless, unspun clump in his left hand, then with the fingers of his right fed the stretched strand through the spindle while his foot tapped on the treacle and set the wheel and flyer in motion. It was how he'd always spun, and how every spinner before him and every spinner after him would perform his trade. Only Rumplestiltskin paid attention to more than the twisting fibers, the tension bands and the rotation speed. He paid attention to the fluttering sensations in his body from toes to fingers. That spark usually frightened him as it danced along his nerve-endings with nothing to concentrate on. Now he had a point of focus. He had the wool, the wheel, the hypnotic rattling of pegs and axles. Inhaling through his nose, Rumplestiltskin let the frenetic power rush into his hands. It was a subtler incarnation of the blast he'd released against Garth's entourage. A dizzying surge, and then calm. Another surge, calm again. The ebb and flow of the magic soon synchronized with the turning wheel.
"Look at the wool," he said.
He didn't look himself. He didn't want to see Baelfire's face right away, at the moment of discovery. The boy's gasp almost did him in and made it impossible to continue. He had to stamp out any doubt Bae might still have, though, so he kept spinning a little longer. Spinning like this, magic or no magic, felt more right than Rumplestiltskin wanted it to.
His foot stilled. The wheel kept turning on its own momentum. Rumplestiltskin rested his hands and, with great sluggishness, lifted his eyes.
Baelfire's mouth hinged open like a broken nutcracker. His eyes, dark yet shining like a lake at nighttime, stared at the gold thread now circling the bobbin, which caught the sunlight from the doorway. The boy's face filled with surprise, as expected. Shock, too. But as the seconds passed, an emotion Rumplestiltskin didn't let himself hope to see drowned out the sheer shock. It spread to his mouth and transformed the slack 'o' into a gaping smile.
"That's amazing! H-how do you do it? Have you always been able to do that? Can you teach me? How it does work?"
The cascade of questions would never have ended had Rumplestiltskin not crushed his son into a hug and ruffled his hair. He begged him to rest his tongue with a promise that he would tell all he could.
There were still things the spinner couldn't speak of about the history of his powers. He avoided his parents and Maxmillian, the boy-turned-snail. Thankfully Baelfire's questions rarely drifted into those waters. They preferred to grasp the mechanics of the magic. In that there was little Rumplestiltskin could explain except what sensations he felt. When his boy wondered if there were other things he could do with magic, he couldn't resist a modest demonstration. He was sorely out of practice. With extra concentration, however, he sent a breeze through the house that stirred the straw-covered floor and the bundles of leafy greens and dried herbs on dangling hooks. He also took a candle and with a burst of warmth in his chest ignited a flame. Baelfire's excitement was magnified with each act. It saddened Rumplestiltskin when he had nothing else to show.
"I feel I can do more, but I can't control it yet. I was never taught how to use it, even in desperate situations like . . . like protecting myself." He'd almost said "like during the Ogre Wars," but he hadn't told Bae anything about that. All the children knew about the wars, naturally, having been born into that time before the monsters retreated to their own lands for unknown reasons. Other families had probably told their little ones about the village coward, and why he bore that title. Bae might have known, too, but right now it was easier to pretend otherwise.
"Is there anyone who can teach you?" asked Baelfire.
Rumplestiltskin pulled in his hands. Tempted as he was to shrink away from the question, like he shrank away from anything that made him anxious or uncomfortable, he held his head up and locked his eyes on Bae's. "The beggar told me of a school where someone like me could learn how to harness magic. And I could learn other things. Become an educated man. Which means, my boy, we can have a new life."
The innocent excitement on Baelfire's face dimmed, as if the sun had ducked behind a cloud. "Where is the school?"
Rumplestiltskin hesitated. "In a city called Hamelin. It's a long way from here. To the east."
Baelfire was still just a lad. Not old enough to worry about the problems of the world. It broke Rumplestiltskin's heart to see the furrows in his forehead, and how much older they made him look. They were a sign that Baelfire was beginning to understand what his father hadn't the courage to say outright.
"Does this mean we have to leave?"
"I'm afraid so," said Rumplestiltskin. His voice quaked.
"So, all my friends . . . I'll never see them again."
"You don't have to think of it like that!" Rumple grasped Bae's little hands. Coarse fingertips and palms gently rubbed tamer callouses. Baelfire's hands weren't permanently misshapen yet. If he could help it, Rumplestiltskin would not let suffer any more hard labor. "Once we have enough money, you'll be able to visit."
"Do we have to go?"
The question took Rumplestiltskin by surprise. After letting it settle, he observed the pain and worry in Baelfire's face. It shamed him that he expected his son to jump on board with this plan when Rumple had resisted it for so many years.
"No, Bae. We don't have to go. But try to understand why this would be good for us. For so long I've kept my magic a secret. I could have used this gold to buy us a new house, and new clothes, and we wouldn't have to shear sheep and spin wool. But I didn't because I was afraid of how people would react. I thought we might be driven out, or worse."
Baelfire licked his lips. Rumplestiltskin slowed his breathing to stay collected. He could imagine what Bae was thinking about. The summer evenings with Cuddy and other boys hunting fireflies and snakes in the glen. The bright afternoons with Morraine playing knights or kicking around his favorite ball. Stolen moments between chores lounging or running in the fields, Till close on his heels. He might have been thinking about just his responsibilities with the sheep and the house and the satisfaction they gave him. What he would have to give up to embark on a new life in an utterly new place.
A small swell of panic swept through Rumplestiltskin. "Bae, we don't have to do this." It seemed the courage he mustered last night was all for not. "A new place, new people . . . it can be frightening."
"It's not that," Baelfire muttered. "I just wish I didn't have to leave my friends."
He would have known had he any left. Rumplestiltskin's boyhood had been a lonely one, with the exception of his aunts after losing both his parents. And they weren't so much friends as caretakers and disciplinarians. Maxmilian had become a friend of sorts, but that didn't count. A snail can't tell you what he really thinks of you. Sadly, that was the only kind of friend Rumplestiltskin could afford.
When it seemed they had nothing left to say, Baelfire softly asked if he could do his chores now. Rumplestiltskin let him, and assured the boy that they had time to think it over. Bae nodded and went outside.
Only they didn't have much time to think it over. The approaching semester and the last day to enroll were in a month, but a trek from the Frontlands to Loramaine would take at least a week by foot. Once they were out of the duchy, Rumplestiltskin could sell a gold strand or two to pay for a wagon, but his recent escapade at Longbourn made him wary. He'd rather leave sooner than later and give them time to find a new house, settle down and learn more about the university and what was required to get in.
Rumplestiltskin did not bring it up again with Baelfire for a few days. He did start taking note and jotting down lists of what they could bring with them, and what he would have to sell. One day, when Baelfire left to play, he hobbled to the village library looking for maps of the Frontlands, the kingdom of Loramaine, and the places in between. A handful of rough sketches later, Rumplestiltskin started plotting the best course through other regions of the West Duchies - the Midlands, the Marshlands - then the long leg across the kingdom of Flore before reaching the border of Loramaine. He found Hamelin on a more detailed map. At first he hoped they could head directly southeast, but the highways illustrated on Flore's map dodged around a large river that cut through the land and the thick patches of forest that pervaded not only Flore, but most of the Realms. After considering his options, he opted for one of the wide roads that moved through Flore and ended in Dem. Before reaching the city-state, he and Bae would make their exit from the highway a little ways north near the Loramaine border.
As Rumplestiltskin set himself on that plan, the librarian came round behind him and surveyed the map through small spectacles.
"Where are you traveling to?" the balding scholar asked.
"Loramaine," said Rumplestiltskin after overcoming his apprehensive surprise.
"Oh, don't go through Flore, lad. King George has raised the tariffs around his borders again. Doesn't take well to foreigners unless they have coin to give away."
The spinner, his eyes growing tired from squinting at the fine inked lines of the maps, hung his head and groaned. "What, then?"
"Take the southern highway into Galleo. The king there is a good deal more generous to his people. You won't have nearly as much trouble."
"But I need to get to here." Rumplestiltskin pointed to the southwestern corner of Loramaine. "It will take me two weeks if I go through Galleo!"
"Better through Galleo in two weeks with pockets full than through Flore in one with pockets empty. If you have enough to get across the borders at all." The librarian bent his head over Rumplestiltskin's shoulder. Rumple cringed under the scrutiny.
"Did you just make these copies?"
Rumple swallowed. "Y-yes."
"You have a good eye, and a good hand!" The old man peered into his face. He had a kind look, but the light from the library windows hid his eyes behind the glass lenses. "I don't think I caught your name."
Sucking in a breath, Rumplestiltskin gathered his sheets and the charcoal stylus. "Forgive me, I forgot the time! Thank you for your help." He clutched his things to his chest with one hand. The other wrapped around his staff. He averted his eyes from the librarian as he staggered out.
"Wait!" called the librarian. "I didn't mean any offense. I only-"
By trying to avoid the old man now following after him, Rumplestiltskin made the mistake of keeping his head and gaze down. It was a matter of seconds before he walked into someone. He managed to keep a grip on the map sketches in his arm. The other person, a woman in the company of a friend, lost her books. She cried out as paper and leather covers rained on the floor. "Gods! Mind where you're going!"
Rumplestiltskin profusely apologized and scooped up the books for her. He met the eye of someone who appeared to be about Milah's age, and carried the same wrinkles of a housewife near the end of her prime. He recognized her face the way one recognizes a spouse's friend. Her companion also matched that description. It took a few seconds to remember their names. The two women were sisters.
"Good day, Drizella," he said, expecting a blow at any moment. "Good day, Anastasia."
Drizella, primly accepting her books from him, slipped them under her arm and flared her nostrils. "Look who decided to crawl out of his hole. You have some nerve, Rumple."
"Don't bother with him," said Anastasia, gripping her sister's arm.
"It was an accident," Rumplestiltskin said weakly. He tried to step by with some grace, but his staff and Drizella's merciless glare made him feel even clumsier than usual.
"Yes, I'm sure it was. How's the leg, by the way?"
Rumplestiltskin lowered his eyes. He let the cold question hit him square on the head. There was no use trying to dodge it.
"Mind where you walk next time, Rumplestiltskin," Drizella snarled. She walked away arm-in-arm with Anastasia to some more favorable corner of the library. Before they went too far she glanced back. "We wouldn't want you hurting the other leg, would we?"
He squeezed his eyes shut. Even Milah hadn't stooped to such low mockeries when she was in that mood. None he could remember, anyway. He chewed on the inside of his lip. He wanted to leave, but the humiliation robbed him of much willpower. Some came back as he remembered why he had this limp everyone else regarded as the mark of a coward. He'd had his reason, which was now out driving the scant group of sheep he owned into the field, his fit young form and muss of brown hair a paragon of innocent beauty. Baelfire was still worth it all, and he'd done right by him. He had meant to do the right thing by him. Intent had to mean something.
The same named man opened his eyes and turned around. The librarian kept his distance this time. Droopy but lucid eyes stared out through the spectacles, looking as though they'd made an unwanted discovery.
The spinner gulped. "Yes."
"I figured you left the village long ago." The scholar spoke flatly yet still with civility.
Rumple wished he had left. Even when he was not being spat on or insulted, he could feel cold resentment creeping into the librarian's demeanor. As much as he could justify why he injured himself and ran from the battlefield, he couldn't entirely blame people for hating him. So many had lost husbands, fathers and sons. Many still carried the pain of that loss. In their eyes, they'd died bravely. They'd died with honor and grace. And so he lived in shame.
"I guess it's about time I did," Rumplestiltskin quietly replied.
The librarian frowned more sadly than bitterly. "Perhaps it is."
Rumplestiltskin returned home with redoubled certainty. But he still waited another day for Baelfire to consider it. Worried yet decided, he brought up the subject the next evening over supper.
"What do you think, then, Bae? About the move?"
Blackish-brown eyes rounded. Baelfire set down the plate of stale bread he was passing to his father. "Oh. I thought I'd have more time."
Rumplestiltskin tapped his fingers on the table and gave a nervous, breathy laugh. "I know I said that. But actually, if I'm going to get into the school, we have to be there before the last day of enrollment."
"It means there's a certain day by which everyone who wants to go to the school has to sign up. We have about two weeks to get there. Which doesn't give us much time."
This news drove Baelfire into a deeper state of consternation. He kept up a struggling, serious look throughout the rest of the meal and said little when pried with questions. Rumplestiltskin didn't know what to do. It was of course wrong to place so much pressure on his son. But time was running short. Feeling helpless, he retreated to the wheel after they cleaned up dinner, and once again practiced his magic. Before going to bed, Baelfire came up to him, crouched down and examined the gold with eyes and fingers.
"It really is gold," he said, lighting up with wonder.
For a glowing moment, his son's words filled Rumplestiltskin with pride.
Bae looked up at him while still holding the end of the gold strand. He thoughtfully stared at his father. "Papa, I'm not unhappy here. A bigger house and more food would be nice, but I don't mind being where we are."
Rumplestiltskin shivered. He paused his spinning and stared back. Of course Baelfire would think like that. His boy was good and strong. Uncomplaining, willing to take on anything. "I just want what's best for you," he whispered. He brushed Bae's bangs out of his face. His throat closed shut from a sob waiting to come.
"I would be happy anywhere as long as I have my family," said Baelfire. "So if leaving means you can make this gold without getting in trouble, then let's go."
Rumplestiltskin forgot about his leg. He forgot about the idea of manly dignity his people upheld - the importance of stoicism and the weakness in sentimentality. It had never meant much to him for one reason or another. The spinner swept all concerns aside, dropped to his knees, hugged his boy and cried.
They could take only what they could carry. Thankfully, being as poor as they were, there wasn't much. It was still hard for Rumplestiltskin to sell his wheel. It had been his Aunt Camryn's, who had properly mentored him in spinning, while Aunt Finola taught him how to weave and Aunt Horatia taught him to sew. For all the teasing and disadvantages he faced being raised by his mother's sisters - or had they been cousins? - he was grateful for their lessons and the gifts they'd bequeathed. It was unnerving letting go of this part of his past. Yet there was liberation, too. He and Baelfire needed a fresh start.
The hardest parting wasn't with any object they owned, or even the house or sheep. Given the house's meager size and shabby state, he was lucky the dairy farmer was willing to take it off him for a handful of coppers. The worst bit came when Rumplestiltskin realized Till couldn't come with them. Bae nearly backed out of the whole thing when he learned that.
"No! He has to come with us! He's family!"
"But he needs the country's open spaces, Bae. We'll be living in a city. That's no place for a sheepdog. He'll be miserable if he comes."
Baelfire would consent only if he picked the new owner. They kept Till with them until they were ready to leave. Morraine came to say goodbye and take the dog home with her. Rumplestiltskin, bundled to the hilt with clothes, basic cookware and food, most of which he was able to stuff into a patched-up knapsack, watched his son cling to the shaggy beast while the girl knelt beside him and rubbed his back. Till's tongue lolled out, happily hanging and wagging with his pants. A few times he looked over at Rumple with half-questioning eyes. When Baelfire sniffled and pressed a kiss to his head, the dog closed his jowls and whined affectionately at him. Or maybe anxiously. Rumplestiltskin was a little glad he didn't know which.
"Please take good care of him," Bae said to Morraine.
"I will. We'll put him to good use, too. Mama likes the idea of having a watchful guardian."
"Just be sure to guard against your pantry," said Rumplestiltskin. "He loves sticking his mouth where it doesn't belong."
After Baelfire quickly hugged Morraine, Rumplestiltskin offered his hand for her to shake.
"Good luck, sir," said Morraine, accepting his hand.
"You, too, dear. Take care of yourself." Rumplestiltskin could not have been more grateful to Morraine. She and Baelfire were much alike. He knew her solely through his son. He was on as good terms with her parents as with everyone else, but she'd always shown courtesy and kindness. If they had chosen to stay, maybe one day Morraine and Baelfire would have moved on from friendship, and perhaps married. Rumplestiltskin didn't think about it too seriously - it was a father's innocent fantasy of what his boy would be like as a grown man, impressing his friends and making girls swoon. Bae was only ten, of course, and Morraine just a little older. But if Baelfire was set on returning to the village someday, there was still hope for a future between them.
Till started to look a bit startled as father and son walked down the road away from him. He was held back by Morraine's unexpectedly strong arms while he gave a few barks that nearly broke Baelfire's resolve. Rumplestiltskin held his shoulder to both comfort and propel him. Baelfire held out until they were almost out of the village, Till and Morraine well beyond sight. Then he started to cry. Sniffling sobs punctuated each step. His face was turned away from Rumplestiltskin. Only occasionally did he wipe his eyes and nose with a lightning-quick stroke. Rumplestiltskin combed his fingers through his son's thick hair. He made a point to not say anything except, in a whisper, "It'll be all right, my boy."
The spinner ignored the glares and stares from the locals as he and Baelfire exited the village they'd called home for much of their respective lives. No one said farewell. No one looked upset. But there were no whooping cheers, either, which Rumplestiltskin had thought well within the realm of possibility. He imagined everyone throwing a party, knocking mugs together over the cowardly spinner's overdue departure. He realized that in his fantasy he was at least remembered by his neighbors and fellow tradesmen. Even though they despised him, his leaving still meant something to them. The truth crashed down on him: they'd sweep away all their memories of him within a week. A month at most. An insignificant coward unworthy of mention, a name unworthy of remembrance.
Rumplestiltskin maintained a steady, slightly hurried march, even with his limp.
They didn't have to worry about meeting anyone from Longbourn; they were headed southeast, whereas Longbourn lay northward. That thought helped boost Rumplestiltskin's courage, although he still felt the usual tremors of leaving his village. Baelfire's presence helped him mind his nerves. He had to be brave for his boy now.
They traveled during the day and slept in whatever abode they could find by the twilight hour. Rumplestiltskin kept his maps on hand and frequently referenced them. He usually checked them when they stopped to rest (that is, when his leg began throbbing unbearably). Not every village in the realm was marked, so he had to perform some guesswork based on natural features like lakes and rivers and what looked like cultivated land. He also dared to ask random travelers where the nearest village was. Baelfire preferred to push on even when night descended if the next settlement was only a few miles off. Rumplestiltskin tended to agree with him, if only so that they could avoid sleeping in the woods and risk being sniffed out by wolves or other dangerous creatures.
There was always forest of some kind wherever they went, but there were places where certain aspects of the terrain changed dramatically. The Frontlands were generally flatter except for some areas that sloped like the lumps of a fluffy quilt. The Midlands, in contrast, rose and fell in picturesque peaks not big enough to be mountains, but tall and rocky enough to be more than hills. The region was also more densely populated, which made the matter of sleeping arrangements less hairy. Rumplestiltskin worked up the nerve to sell a few strands of gold to a goldsmith, which earned him twice as much as he got from the jewelry seller or the tailor in Longbourn. He immediately bought Baelfire and himself a new set of clothes and paid wagon fare that took them almost all the way to the southern border of the duchy. The fear of raising suspicion still followed Rumplestiltskin, but with their new clothes it could not have seemed nearly as impossible for them to be carrying something valuable to sell. He couldn't regret the risk while feeling his sleeping son's head on his shoulder, against the new red cloak that was warmer and softer than anything Rumple had owned in a very long time.
The Marshlands were something else. The land grew more mountainous in some parts while the rest collapsed into bogs. The roads had been carefully built to weave through the half-drowned terrain. Rumplestiltskin had seen such sights only in book illustrations. Baelfire had no frame of reference. On foot again, the pair got a bit sidetracked by Bae's curiosity and a near accident when he, stepping too far into the squishy mess of mud and cattails, got his foot stuck. Rumplestiltskin pulled him out at the price of the boy's boot. This minor crisis was enough for Rumple to hurry his son along, boot or no boot. It was harder for the spinner to hide his shaky hands.
Given how grim the Marshlands looked, it shocked Rumplestiltskin to encounter as many travelers as he did - mostly merchants from other duchies or kingdoms. They met one nomadic toy maker who happened to have a few pairs of children's boots on hand sold one set in Baelfire's size. He was also selling colorfully painted bandalores that caught Bae's interest. While the boy ogled the toys, the merchant explained to Rumplestiltskin that the ruling noble of the region, Sir Maurice, encouraged trade and even hosted festivals and fairs for innovative minds to showcase their wares. Nothing like them could be found outside of the city-state of Dem. Bae asked if he could have a the bandalore with the large bird on each side. Rumplestiltskin looked it over and noticed the delicate gold inlay in the carved and painted design.
"What is that?" he asked after paying. "A swan?"
"No, no, a phoenix," said the toy maker. "See? The edges of its wings are on fire."
Unable to help himself, Rumplestiltskin offered him one of his gold strands. The toy maker's expression spread open like the bird's wings and regarded him with excited astonishment. He asked if Rumple had more to sell. He took six strands.
The clanking coins in his purse reminded Rumplestiltskin of what he'd lost that day coming home from Longbourn. He was wary of being delighted at his success. He'd been just as excited then, and look what happened. But he couldn't stop smiling as Baelfire looped the thread of the phoenix-faced bandalore around his finger, snapped it down to the ground, and caught it when it rolled up the string. How Bae knew how to play with a bandalore was a curious thing. He must have spent quite a bit of time watching other children use them and envying such a simple pleasure.
Tempting as it was to learn more about these fairs and this noble, Rumplestiltskin pressed them on. They hitched another ride on a passing flour cart headed for the Southland. This region had the most dramatic landscape of all the duchies they'd passed through. White mountains rose in the distance and the forest grew thicker and darker than ever. During their passage a fog rolled into the tree cover and gave, as Baelfire put it, the impression that they were swimming through a bowl of soup. The ominous atmosphere rattled something inside Rumplestiltskin that made him both frightened and intrigued. Even the Marshlands, sloppy and wet and rather ugly, seemed pleasant in comparison. The people were more standoffish than anyone they'd thus far met. Some of the grimness in the expressions of laborers tilling the fields and hauling their carts of hay and manure were familiar to Rumplestiltskin. The townspeople back in the Frontlands shared these looks when the Duke levied another tax or decreed another draft.
The nights in this duchy felt the deepest. Owls screamed like children and, even in the snug cocoon of a tavern room, startled Rumplestiltskin awake. They gave him passing dreams of young girls and boys being dragged off to war by soldiers. He checked that Baelfire was still in the bed next to him, oblivious in sleep. Even after he did, the spinner lay awake for a long time and saw the first purple-pink tints of morning seep into the horizon.
A week passed before Rumplestiltskin and Baelfire left the West Duchies at last, crossing the border from the Southland into Galleo. The change was not instantaneous. The forest was dense as ever and carried some of the weightiness of the Southland's climate. Gradually, though, the tree cover opened up and let sunshine in. The air warmed, and more frequently the pair sloughed their cloaks, both of which Rumple offered to carry. During the this longer portion of their journey, they lily-hopped from town to down in day-long treks, and at each stop Rumplestiltskin investigated which might be the shortest route to Loramaine. Many gave the same advice as the librarian: the shortest way would be to go back northward into Flore, but the border guards would not treat them gently. He could chance taking a boat upriver. Along with going against the current, though, a person would have to navigate stretches of rapids and waterfalls. Rumplestiltskin, after further reviewing his maps and weighing the dangers against the time saved, proposed that they follow the river for a while and chance the rougher woodland paths. Baelfire agreed, but not before expressing his concern for his father's increasingly aching leg. Rumplestiltskin begged him not to worry. As he said so, he unconsciously massaged his bad knee.
He intended that they follow the river for three days. The first two days somehow felt longer than any others while traveling through the duchies. The less trodden paths along the river slowed their progress. Rumplestiltskin had to be careful going up and down the sudden slopes. One especially steep ascent beside a waterfall that gushed and sprayed them with mist almost sent father and son tumbling backward a few times. Neither of them dared to stop for rest until they were safely at the top of the fall. Once they did, amazingly in one piece, Rumplestiltskin found a boulder to sit. He straightened his burning leg and caught his breath. This was the morning of the second day.
"Is there anything I can do?" asked Baelfire.
"It's fine." Rumplestiltskin waved one hand. The other gripped his staff so hard his knuckles bleached white. He played off his gasping as chuckles. "We can rest for a bit."
Bae bit his lip. "We just did, Papa."
The winded spinner shut his eyes. He didn't even have the strength to groan or reprimand.
"It's okay, boy. Why don't you scout a little ways ahead and see what it's like further along?"
The boy took off. His leaving gave Rumple a moment to indulge in a whimper and some lip-biting while he tried to situated his pained appendage. It'll all be worth it, he kept chanting in his mind.
He lazily dropped the pack of supplies to the ground, then took off his cloak and laid it down on the ground. Yellow and brown leaves had started dropping and were peppering the river bank. Another reminder than autumn was imminent. So was the scholastic semester. Rumpelstiltskin must have been mad to think he could do this in his condition in two weeks.
Kicking that thought away, he lay down on the cloak. His muscles hurt everywhere, not just in his leg. He hadn't exerted himself this much in a long while. Even before his injury. Before the war. Rumplestiltskin stretched out flat on his back so his limbs could splay around him and let every part of him relax. He stared up into the overcast sky and wondered if his luck was running out quicker than he realized. It would probably start raining soon, and with the next village at least ten miles off, they'd never find shelter in time.
Rumplestiltskin shut his eyes and rested. His arms didn't hurt so much, so he folded them over his chest. At least the mist from the falls salved his face in refreshing coolness. Every part of him became too heavy to move. The most he could manage now was rolling his head toward the river and watching it run by, a glass body in constant motion. Clear and free and fluid. Everything he wasn't. He was a solid, klutzy thing, painfully limited and killable.
Awareness of his mortality suddenly gripped him around the throat. He forced himself to breath and keep his head clear. No, no more fits. No more panicky episodes. He couldn't let his son see him like that. He really shouldn't let Bae see him on his back like this, either. But it felt so nice. He could tell him he was just taking a nap.
In fact, he was sincerely considering the idea, but a noise changed his mind. He wanted it to be the rumble of the falls. So very badly. But the sound came from the wrong direction. It was on his right side, toward the forest. When he heard it again, it was closer, and it belonged to something big, alive, and probably hungry.
Self-preservation instincts kicked him into action. Rumplestiltskin rolled back over and sat up. He came face to face with a bear. About his size with teeth and claws cleverly hidden away at the moment. Its head was lowered. Black eyes were on Rumplestiltskin. Then they were on his knapsack. Rumplestiltskin felt as if his stomach would fall out of him. The bear stalked closer, its fur rippling over a hearty bulk of fat and muscle.
He was a dead man if he tried to fight it off. It was either him or the food the bear must have smelt from the sack. Rumplestiltskin grabbed his walking stick and poked the bag toward the beast. The bear came closer. It occurred to Rumplestiltskin that he was a dead man either way. Even if he wasn't so tired, his leg would've made flight impossible. He was entirely at the animal's mercy.
The bear bent down to sniff at the bag, then plunged its nose inside and latched its jaw around a wad of garments that was hiding a wrapped up bread loaf, a bushel of carrots, and some jerky. The animal pulled the food out, sniffed again. Rumplestiltskin waited for the bear to dig in.
All at once it seemed to lose interest. The beast looked at Rumplestiltskin again and moved in. Rumplestiltskin scrambled back a little toward the water. Suddenly he was aware of a pulse of something deep in him. He recognized it. It came when those brutes from Longbourn first attacked him. Still gripping his staff, Rumplestiltskin focused on the pulse and the bear at the same time. As the bear got closer, the pulse's strength increased. He felt it expand at a slow rate.
I can do this. He panted through his teeth and hoped the force in him would go off before his head or neck was between the bear's teeth.
A roar broke out across the river and the woods. It didn't come from the bear. In fact, when the bear heard the roar, it whipped its blocky head around. Rumplestiltskin looked in the same direction. He gasped. Another bear about the same size as his assailant was charging them. Full speed, teeth flashing, another roar bounding out of its huge mouth. The first bear bolted into the woods, up the river. Rumplestiltskin went into a panic. Bae had gone that way! Panic for his own life lowered for a second when he watched the second bear chase after the first. But then it came back to him looking even more determined than its predecessor. He tried to crawl to his feet with his staff for help, but the bear was almost on him by the time he stood.
"Are you all right?" asked the bear in a feminine voice.
Rumplestiltskin froze up. He stared and wondered if he was already dead. And if in the afterlife bears could talk.
"I said are you all right?" the bear repeated in a more frustrated tone.
He didn't say or do anything for a minute. Then he looked at his hands. Wiggled his fingers. Slapped his wrists. He looked at the bear again. "Did you just . . . speak?"
The bear grunted. "What do you think?"
Rumplestiltskin, holding onto his staff for dear life, circled around the bear. "I-I-I have to find my son."
"You mean the boy? He's fine. I told him to climb up a tree until I dealt with that fella there." She nodded where the first bear had run off.
"Why should I believe you?" Speech did not make a bear trustworthy any more than it made an ordinary man trustworthy. Rumplestiltskin was still inclined to believe this was an illusion.
"I'll bring him back over." The bear sprinted away as quickly as a bear can. Rumple watched her go, feeling numb in the fingers and toes. His eyes never left the spot where she disappeared into the trees. Sure enough, she came back with Baelfire behind. Beautiful Baelfire, unhurt and waving to his papa. Rumplestiltskin ran to his son like his life depended on it.
"Thank gods you're okay!" he cried while squeezing the child against his chest.
"Papa! Can't breathe!"
He set Bae down and regarded the bear in disbelief and gratitude. "So, you're not going to eat us?"
The bear shook her head. "Don't you think I would have by now if I were?"
Rumplestiltskin helplessly tossed his hand. "It's not everyday you meet a talking bear."
"It wasn't always like that." His rescuer's mood grew melancholy. "Are you lost?"
Rumplestiltskin assured her they weren't - they were just making poor time. They needed a shortcut through the kingdom to reach Loramaine before the week was up.
"I'd be happy to help if you have food to share," said the bear.
"Yes, of course." Not sure how exactly one was supposed to introduce himself to a bear, Rumplestiltskin attempted a bow. He said his name.
"Ayla," said the bear with her own bow. "And you, young one?"
"Baelfire." The boy was beaming, not the least bit afraid.
With introductions out of the way, and once Rumplestiltskin retrieved his cloak, the knapsack and its contents, Ayla wasted no time leading them to their destination. The group followed the river for the rest of the morning, but after breaking for lunch she explained they would need to turn northward now and skim the border into the kingdom of Flore.
"What about the border guards?" queried Rumple. "And the tariffs?"
"There are spots less guarded by the king's men because the forest frightens them away." Ayla chuckled at that. "They have a right to be afraid, but it seems strange that men who wear so much thick covering and carry weapons should not have more courage."
Ayla was used to coming and going through the kingdoms without worrying about guards or tariffs. Understanding this, Rumplestiltskin reconciled himself to the idea of sneaking into Flore and making all haste to Loramaine.
"What if we get caught?" asked Bae, more curious than worried.
"Don't worry," Ayla said. "They won't keep you if I'm around."
The next four days were a combination of hard treking through tangled underbrush, finding alternative food sources when supplies ran low, and sharing stories about their respective lives. The human paired learned that there used to be many more talking Beasts throughout the land, but over the last four decades, for some reason, there were fewer and fewer of them. Most of the mute animals who came from Beasts were simply born without the ability and went to live with other animals. Both of Ayla's parents were dead and half her siblings had no speech. It'd been some time since she'd met another Beast.
"But now I'm hearing other rumors," she continued. Her voice was shrinking to a whisper even though no one could possibly be eavesdropping on them. "Word is there are Beasts who could speak at one time but have also lost the power."
"Why?" asked Baelfire.
"No one can say. It may not even be true. I've yet to see it myself."
During their conversation, a part of Rumplestiltskin's mind drifted to the question of magic - if magic was what gave these Beasts speech, or if that was what had began taking it away from them. "Is there magic that affects that sort of thing?"
"Magic?" Ayla raised her furry brow. "I have no idea. We Beasts have good instincts about magic. If there were some mischief going on, somebody would have noticed."
Rumplestiltskin nodded and let it go. Consciously, at least. After they slipped over the border into Flore, having dodged a few sighted soldiers, he and Baelfire said their goodbyes to Ayla. He felt a tug toward the Bear as he gave her head an appreciative pat.
"Thank you for everything, Ayla."
"Good health to you," she answered. "And I hope one of us finds out more about that problem."
He remembered what she'd told him and felt that tug again. There was probably nothing he could do, but he flashed Ayla a reassuring smile, anyway.
It was another three days before they reached Hamelin. Three days of crossing a strip of the land that belonged to the notorious King George, then getting into Loramaine and approaching their goal. The border patrol into the northern kingdom accosted them (much to Rumplestiltskin's initial terror - he thought they were King George's men), asked briefly about their origins and destination, then let them continue on. Once that was over with, the spinner was infinitely more at ease. He felt comfortable traveling on the roads again. While the forests of Flore and Loramaine weren't very different from those of Galleo, the terrain did seem kinder. There were fewer rises and drops Rumplestiltskin had to struggle over. They also met a woodcutter on his lumber wagon and paid him a few silvers for a ride. The woodcutter agreed to take them to a village only ten miles from Hamelin. Rumplestiltskin and Baelfire, almost equally bone-tired, agreed to stay a night in the village and finish the journey to the city tomorrow.
Coming into Hamelin was unlike anything either of them had experienced. Quite done with walking, Rumplestiltskin talked to the owner of the inn they sojourned at about transportation. He learned that a wagon coach came through at certain times to and from Hamelin. The pair took the morning coach. The land became hillier as they traveled further into the kingdom, but the hills made their first view of the metropolis all the more incredible. The coach took a high road that surmounted a crest overlooking the city. What Rumplestiltskin and Baelfire saw was a banquet for the eyes. White buildings topped with brick-red roofs numbered in the hundreds and speckled the vale. The snowy white houses and shops gave the impression of cleanliness and prosperity. They varied in size, some two stories tall, some larger and longer. A fewer particularly impressive buildings could be picked out from the cluster. A golden-brown one towered above most. It was nestled close to a wide river that cut the city down the middle. Hamelin was larger than any village or town either of them had seen.
It bore some similarities to Longbourn, except Longbourn was smaller and had dirt streets and hardy gray buildings. Hamelin's buildings up-close had a more delicate but still resilient affectation. The white walls seemed to be cast from plaster, and were supported with long beams that were as decorative as they were necessary. Whereas some of Longbourn's buildings were only a story or two, every single edifice loomed tall in Rumplestiltskin's eyes. The coach jolted over the cobblestone roads that snaked through the city.
Rumplestiltskin inhaled deeply to stop his head spinning. He asked for directions to the nearest inn.
Once they were settled and resting at the inn, Rumplestiltskin turned his thoughts to the next crucial step. Finding a place to live in a city for the first time was like making one's way through a forest blindfolded. As he worked on the matter, his anxiety spiked at frequent intervals. When it did, he fought to squelch or hide it in front of Baelfire. On the first day after their arrival, he was terrified of losing his son in the crowd both at the inn and in the teaming streets. He kept him close and made an extra effort to give the impression he had some idea what he was doing.
The innkeeper offered some instructions and advice on how to seek housing. From there Rumplestiltskin spent the first two days studying the city map and making lists of landlords and locations based on his limited resources. He also found Hamelin University and noted how far the campus was from the available flats. It was hard to concentrate sometimes. He needed time to wrap his head around living in a flat instead of a house. The innkeeper explained what living in a flat would entail: neighbors who lived above or below you, or mere feet away from your front door; not having an outdoor space except the front stoop and the street; the landlord would provide a key to their rooms, and it would be wise to lock their door at night and whenever they were out. It'd been some time since Rumplestiltskin lived in a place that had a door at all.
On the third day, Baelfire insisted he accompany his father on the flat search. "I have to know there will be enough space for my things."
"And what things would those be?" asked Rumplestiltskin with a teasing grin.
"I don't know yet. I just want to make sure there will be room when I do get them."
While Rumplestiltskin got a laugh out of that, it was a reasonable request. And he still didn't like leaving his boy on his own yet, even in their room at the inn. Walking from one landlord office to another became an opportunity to explore the city, to memorize its geography and places of interest like the library, the laundry house, the money-changers, shops whose owners and craftsmen might be interested in his gold threads, and the grocer. Some time was spent waiting in line or in a room with other people looking for residences. Baelfire had only his new bandalore to amuse himself with during these boring waits. He tried to teach himself a trick called "walking the dog". He's seen one of the boys back in the village perform it. The user had to maneuver the toy so that when he threw it down, it would stay down and keep spinning on its axis, and then he could roll it across the floor as if the bandalore were an animal. Unfortunately Bae couldn't get it. His annoyance mounted with every attempt. At one point he threw the toy so hard the string slipped off his finger and it went flying. It hit a woman across from them square in the chest. Rumplestiltskin begged his apologies to the angry and injured woman and confiscated the bandalore. He sternly told Bae he'd get it back later when it wasn't a safety hazard.
This left Baelfire a bit grumpy for the rest of the proceedings. He scuffed his boots on the floor while Rumplestiltskin, on his turn, talked out his situation and the affordable options available to him with several landlords.
"You're going to enroll at the university?" the last landlord they saw asked, a dark-skinned man in his prime whose relative youth gave him a more compassionate demeanor than Rumplestiltskin excepted of someone with the title.
"How will you afford it?"
Rumplestiltskin's muscles tightened in his neck. "I'm sorry?"
The young man smiled amiably. "I only want an idea of your situation. The university can be expensive from what I hear. Are you paying full tuition, or are you being sponsored?"
"Oh. I . . . I'm afraid there's a lot I don't know about it. I'm going there as soon as possible to find out. Before enrollment ends."
"You'd better be quick about it," said the landlord in a well-meaning way. "Although you could wait to enroll next spring, if you think your financial situation will be more stable then."
Rumplestiltskin couldn't commit to an answer yet. But he made it clear that the flat in the north end held his interest, and he'd be able to pay the security deposit. In his mind he frantically wondered where he could get his hands on a spinning wheel.
"Where are we going now?" Baelfire asked as they left the landlord's office.
"To look at his flat. Just to be sure it's not in the middle of a manure heap."
"Ah." The boy's mood was better, but he stared up at his father with begging eyes.
Rumplestiltskin smiled and took out the bandalore. "Mind if I give it a try first?"
Baelfire's eyebrows jumped up. "You know how to use it?"
"Give me some credit, son! I'm a spinner." With that he snapped the toy up and down a few times before throwing it down and making it stay down while it spun so quickly the phoenix was just a golden blur. He lowered it to the ground and began walking away from Baelfire. The wooden plaything bounced against the cobblestones. The boy gaped indignantly and chased after him.
"You're cheating! You're using magic, aren't you?"
"Depends on what kind of magic you mean," his father said. The long walk to the flat became a lecture in bandalore physics and mastery.
When they reached the block of flats owned by the young swarthy landlord, an elderly woman poked her head out a window by the entrance when she noticed father and son loitering. She turned out to be the doorkeeper, and possibly the landlord's mother going by their similar complexion and eye color. Rumplestiltskin explained his interest in looking at the available room. What the concierge showed them was far from the dramatic change in lifestyle he'd fantasized about. It surprised him a little that the building, while just as pristine-looking on the outside as any other, became a sad, cramped thing on the inside. It was livable, though. Not very different from the meager hut they'd left behind. And it wouldn't be a permanent situation. Rumplestiltskin kept his hopes high with the promise of the new skill set and knowledge he'd earn at school, and how using them would make his and Baelfire's life what it should be. Baelfire closely examined the storage spaces - cabinets, closets, and a musty chipped dresser a former tenant left behind. He eventually gave it his restrained approval.
On their way back to the inn, the pair crossed in front of a shop that had Rumplestiltskin stopping and doubling back. A sign hung over it that read The Fox & Cat in curling gold letters. In its front window there were displays of clocks, kitchen spoons and rolling pins, marionettes, and little figurines of birds, bears, dogs, horses and deer. It was a woodcarver's shop. Rumplestiltskin knew a carpenter might be more promising, but he took a look inside anyway, which revealed pieces of furniture among the merchandise, too. A little bell rang as he and Baelfire entered the shop. No one was present. It gave them a chance to poke around and admire the meticulous work that went into each piece. Rumplestiltskin noticed Bae linger by the display of dogs, and how longingly he pet one that had the same shape and black-and-white pattern as Till.
"Would you like that?" he asked his son.
Baelfire sharply withdrew his hand. "No. It's all right."
The boy nodded and moved on to a nearby group of engravings on the wall between two sets of shelves. Some portrayed scenes of pastoral life like farmers collecting grain and children dancing at a harvest festival. Others were of the city. Most also featured children at play. Some kids ran in the streets with hoops and pets. Baelfire didn't much notice how many of the carved pictures were populated with children. Rumplestiltskin did, and felt both sympathy and puzzlement.
"Sorry to keep you waiting!" said a man who came in from another room with a curtain over the doorway. He was tall and bald. He owned a gray beard and kind old eyes. His face was wrinkled and lightly pock-marked. A brown apron covered his humble clothes, suggesting he had been busying on a project when they came in. Rumplestiltskin didn't recognize his sing-song accent.
"Not at all," said Rumplestiltskin. He made his inquiry about a spinning wheel.
"I don't make spinning wheels myself, but my old neighbor who just closed up shop was a carpenter and asked me if I could sell off some of his wares. I'm quite sure there are a few in the back. Come, come!"
The spinner and his son followed him through the curtained doorway into the workshop. Rumplestiltskin jumped at the sight of half-finished marionettes dangling from the walls. He suffered an abrupt memory from his childhood - the day the clerics and village leaders hung Madame Holda and a few other people convicted of witchcraft. He and his mother had been caught in the crowd and pulled in by the spectacle. He didn't remember where his father had been that day - maybe at home sleeping to recover from a hard morning of poor fishing, or at the tavern doing the same thing. His mother tried to cover his eyes when the lever was thrown and the bodies were dropped. Just before that, he swore that Madame Holda, whose eyes swept over the crowd, had stopped on him. And he swore that her little smile before the executioner pulled the trapdoor switch was meant for him.
"Here they are," said the woodcutter, directing Rumplestiltskin's attention to one corner where a few spinning wheels were stored. Relief helped Rumplestiltskin breathe more freely as he looked them over. Although there was a castle style wheel that would save them space in their new tiny flat, he preferred the other two that more closely resembled his old wheel. He chose the pine specimen over the mahogany one. The second was beautiful with its shine-polish and red-brown wood, but more expensive. While money would hopefully not remain an issue for long, he erred on the safe side. The pine wheel was stable and functional, so he was satisfied with the purchase.
"I started to worry I would be stuck with these," said the woodcarver as he carried the wheel to the shop's front room. "Not many city folk make their own yarn."
"We've only just moved from the countryside," said Rumplestiltskin.
"Looking for opportunity?"
"I'm hoping to enroll at the university."
"Ah, excellent! I have a friend who is a professor there. Very good place. What will you study?"
"Still deciding." Rumplestiltskin quickly took out his money pouch to pay and go.
"Well, I wish you luck, sir. My friend is Dr. Hopper. Tell him Geppetto told you about him. He's a very smart fellow."
Rumplestiltskin thanked him, slipped his arm under the wheel's base board and hoisted it up. He turned to go but saw Bae holding a bear figurine. "Could we get this, too, Papa? It looks like Ayla, doesn't it?"
It did. There was something in the soft eyes and the curve of the lumpy neck as the bear glanced back that was reminiscent of how Ayla led them through feral wilderness and, he was sure, protected them from hungry predators with her presence. Rumplestiltskin smiled. A minute later they both said goodbye to Geppetto again, each carrying their respective purchases. Baelfire tucked the bear into one of his pockets and helped his father carry the spinning wheel back to the inn. Although there were still ten or so yard-long strands left in the knapsack to sell over the next few weeks, Rumplestiltskin stayed up half the night spinning more gold. It calmed him like nothing else.
A/N: bandalore - historical name for the yo-yo